He always bought her roses for her birthday. She wouldn’t have tolerated it from anyone else. It was the sort of cheesy wordplay that had gone out of fashion generations ago – if it had ever been in fashion to begin with; she had her doubts. When she asked where he got them, he cheekily told her that any overstocked florist with half a brain would have them marked down the day after Valentine’s Day. She smacked his shoulder and told him that wasn’t what she meant. He pretended not to understand.
For the first few years, they had been relatively normal. White, pink, yellow. He got red ones once and his cheeks flushed to match them when she teased him. The next year he handed her a bouquet of vibrantly orange blooms. She was surprised and delighted with them. It seemed that he liked finding colors she didn’t know existed. Blue, orange-and-red, purple so deep it was nearly black. It became less of a joke and more of a game, a challenge.
Roses for Rose. It should have been trite, but she loved it.
“No, seriously, where? And how?” she said, tracing a fingertip around a delicate white and silver speckled petal.
“Maybe it’s alien,” he said, leaning forward to whisper to her over the rickety chippy table, then settled back and failed at looking nonchalant when she laughed. His jokes were hit or miss – and usually miss – though you’d never know it by his ego.
“You’re full of it.”
“You love it.”
“Good thing you’ve kept my standards low. What sort of birthday dinner do you call this?” she said, gesturing around at the greasy tables and dubious lighting. Her flowers looked elegant and out of place next to the battered napkin holder against a backdrop of vaguely green wall.
“The kind you specifically requested last week when I asked you, and don’t even pretend to say otherwise,” he said.
“Last week?” she said and paused with a chip held halfway to her mouth.
“Might’ve been a bit earlier,” he conceded.
“When you phoned to ask if the dulcimer had been invented before the lute?”
“No, no. In person.”
“I don’t remember that conversation at all,” she said, grinning, and popped the chip in her mouth.
“Well, you should have. It was important,” he said, jabbing his own chip sternly in her direction. “As was the dulcimer question. I was counting on you and you let me down.”
“Isn’t obscure historical trivia supposed to be your field?”
“Music, Rose Tyler!” he said, gesturing expansively with both hands. She rescued his cup before he could knock it off the table. “You are my foremost authority on music. And it was a tricky bit of translation, anyway. The word was actually closer to ‘monkshood’ as luck would have it. You’re off the hook.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” she said. “But that still doesn’t tell me when we had the chippy-on-my-birthday conversation.”
“Surely you do.” He closed his eyes, apparently to help him concentrate, and she resisted the urge to steal some of his chips. “With Craig,” he said after a moment, eyes still closed. “Pizza-Booze-Telly Night. Sophie couldn’t make it and he was moping. We were talking about our utter inability to plan ahead. He seemed to think it was a bad thing.” His eyes popped open.
“Pizza-Booze-Telly Night,” she reiterated, snatching a chip out from under his nose to make him squawk. “I will not be held accountable for anything I agree to when alcohol is involved. Also, the last time we did that was a month ago, at least. How do you even remember that?” Now that he mentioned it, she did have some dim recollection of a conversation. It had taken place shortly before midnight and shortly after her third glass of wine, so the details were hazy.
“It was exactly a month ago,” he said, sliding his basket away from her, “because Craig was dithering about getting something for Sophie for Valentine’s.”
“Chickened out. Again.”
“God, those two. Next time, I swear, I’m just gonna lock them in a cupboard.”
“Absolutely not. I live there, too. The cupboard’s mine – or at least half mine. It’s shared space. Anyway, no.”
“He’s got a closet, hasn’t he?”
“So you remember, then?” he said, redirecting the conversation with all the finesse of a cat falling into a box of packing peanuts.
“I sort of remember talking about it. Didn’t agree to anything,” she said.
“Oh, come on. I said life was no fun without the spontaneity – oh, that’s a great word, need to use it more often – and he said ‘yeah, but, you’ve got to plan for some things.’” His imitation of how their friend’s voice got high and a bit breathy when one or both of them refused to act like normal human beings was so spot-on that she had to clamp a napkin to her mouth to keep from laughing. “And I asked him what and – pay attention, Rose, this is what you wanted to know, isn’t it? – and he said ‘I dunno, birthdays and anniversaries; important things!’ So, then, someone chimed in that her birthday was in a month and we should plan for it. And we, being gentlemen, asked m’lady what you would like to do for your birthday and you said –”
“I said that chips and chocolate was all it took to keep a simple girl like me happy,” she finished for him.
“And here we are,” he said, spreading his hands with a broad smile.
She pulled her flowers out of harm’s way. “Alright, alright. Though how you managed to remember that, I have no idea.”
“Like a steel trap,” he said, tapping his temple with one forefinger. “And an excellent sense of time.” There was the smug face again.
“You’ve forgotten the chocolate,” she said.
“Craig has it. He’ll give it to you Friday.”
She shook her head. “Can’t do Friday. Mum and Dad are bringing Tony up and they’re staying the weekend.”
He wrinkled his nose. “What for?”
“My birthday, you looney!” she said, swatting his hand.
“You mean I have to share you?” He looked properly offended.
“Just for a few days,” she said, patting the hand that she had playfully struck.
He grinned at her. “Got you tonight, though, on your actual birthday. That counts for more, I think.”
“Awfully possessive, you are. No wonder I can’t keep a proper boyfriend.”
And there, finally, she got him to blush. He pulled his hand away and ducked his head, trying to hide it.
“Is it alright, though, really?” he said. “We could’ve gone somewhere else if you wanted.” He made a show of checking his watch. “Could still go somewhere else, but best make up your mind. We’ve both got eight o’clocks in the morning.”
“Sydney might be pushing it a bit, but we’ll never know unless we try.”
“No,” she said. “This is fine. I love it and you know it.”
“What if we could, though? Go anywhere and be back in time for breakfast?”
With that, he was off again. They spent the rest of the meal talking about everything from the Orient Express and the New Republic of Czechoslovenia to the expansion of the sun and what had really happened to Queen Victoria.
He paid for their meal with his own money from his own wallet and everything. She was duly impressed. He even walked her home, though the streets of Cardiff were hardly dangerous enough to warrant it. Not in their neighborhood at half eight on a Monday night, at least. Actually, he offered to get a cab, but the weather was no cooler or damper than usual and she liked the peoplewatching. He liked the walking, though he sometimes got impatient. She had given up wondering where he got that boundless energy. She had also learned that the best way to keep it in check was to hold onto his hand. Otherwise, he was likely to dart off when he spotted something interesting (his idea of what constituted an interesting thing was far-reaching and unpredictable) or run into a parking meter.
And she had resigned herself to the assumption that they were a couple. Given the willingness with which he returned her grasp, so had he (if the thought had ever occurred to him in the first place, which was questionable). They were friends, the very best of friends, comfortable and devoted and honest. Their easy camaraderie and, yes, occasional teasing that might very well be classified as flirting, had made most people assume, many people question, and more than one boyfriend jealous. Eventually they had stopped bothering to correct the assumptions, shrugged off the questions, and given up on the jealousy altogether.
That last one had been the hardest. It’d reared its ugly head for the final time just a few years ago. Her current boyfriend of several months had been informed that no, she wasn’t playing coy; she really didn’t want roses. At all. Ever. Anything but that. It all would have been well and good if he hadn’t pointed out the pressed ones in shadowboxes on the wall in her living room. Those were different, she’d told him – which, in hindsight, was probably the worst thing she could have said. His response had been snide, her reply had been scathing, and before long there were old grievances and loud voices and she had been slamming the door behind him.
Less than a week later had been her birthday, the year of roses with orange fading into red like a sunset sky. Her poor friend didn’t understand why she’d burst out crying. He had fumbled and apologized and twisted his handkerchief nearly in two before offering it to her. With apologies and reassurances, she took it, dabbed her eyes and runny nose, and teased him weakly about having a handkerchief of all things. He pointed out that it had come in handy, after all. She hiccupped a laugh, he slung his arm around her shoulders, and they were on their way to being okay again.
“Who’s put that wistful twinkle in your eye, eh?” he said, startling her back into the present. “Bad form to go off daydreaming about somebody else when I’m right here, you know.”
“It was you, actually,” she said without thinking and then had to elbow his ribs to drive that haughtily intrigued look off his face. “Remember the year before last or so, when I’d just broke up with Henrik?”
His face went closed and sharp. “Yeah, what of it?” He had never been shy of expressing his dislike for the man, a matter which had certainly come up in that final argument.
She nudged him with her arm, gently this time. “It’s just the flowers, the roses. They’re sort of our thing, yeah?”
The tight corners of his eyes relaxed into an almost-smile. “Yeah.”
“And I know it’s a bit of a joke, but they really are lovely.”
“Glad you think so.”
They had reached her stoop. It was a quiet little flat on a quiet little street. He waited with his hands in his pockets until she found her keys. Then he kissed each of her cheeks and her forehead before drawing back with a crooked grin.
“Happy birthday, Rose.”
“Thank you. G’night, Johnny.”
Still smiling, she let herself inside.