Wild Winter Rose

Ben and Theo found Eliška’s name funny at first. “Delicious Elisshhhhhka” Ben sang, with a pop diva-style vibrato, using a lightbulb as a microphone. His brother laughed. Eliška did too.

For a while after that, the boys called her Deli. But their mother, Mrs Trevalyn, told them not to. She said the name was undignified. “Our maid is not to be treated as a pet.”

Eliška was certainly not treated as a pet. Nobody stared slantwise at a pet, the way Mrs Trevalyn did at her, with a sort of guilty disdain. She told the boys to call her Eli, which Eliška hated.

One morning, Mr Trevalyn looked at Eliška, arms crossed, as she made coffee.

“My wife thinks you’re looking peaky, Eli. Are you okay?”

Eliška did not know what ‘peaky’ meant. She’d learned some English at school, but not enough to follow fast conversations and certainly not enough to understand words and phrases that stood at a distance from their meanings.

“I do not feel too bad. It is hard for me to sleep, that’s all.”

But she had caught a few glimpses of herself in the huge windows she spent so much of her time polishing. And what Mr Trevalyn said was true. There were smudges beneath her eyes, like the dark underwings of a moth. And she often felt nauseous.

Her life, however, was not without pleasures. Theo, the quieter and younger of the two boys, had decided to appoint himself her English teacher. He had even created a special classroom corner in his bedroom, with a blackboard and chalk. Eliška sat alongside his cuddly toys, cross-legged.

He read her stories, and got her to write up little rhymes on the blackboard. Fee-fi-fo-fum I smell the blood of an Englishman. He giggled as she got off the floor and chased him round the landing, stomping like a giant.

Theo found a picture of a skeleton in a magazine and they took it out and labelled every part. Eliška particularly liked the names of the bones in the foot: tarsals, metatarsals, phalanges.

Mr Trevalyn discovered them doing this and smiled. “Eli isn’t going to need to talk about foot bones, Theo. She’d be better off learning about things in the supermarket.”

Theo shrugged. “I don’t talk about Egyptians or bar graphs much, but I’m still learning about them at school.”

Mr Trevalyn laughed and ruffled his hair. “Very true, little man. You’re an old soul.”

Eliška took Ben and Theo to school each day, jogging along behind them as they zig-zagged on their scooters.

At the school gate one day, she overheard two of the mothers, who were from Czechia, talking about her. The way they talked was different from hers, but she could make out what they were saying.

“Is Eli okay, do you think? She hardly talks. I suppose it’s just lack of English.”

“She’s got a learning disability. Selective mutism, I think they call it. Christ, wish my kids had a bit of that . . . .”

They both laughed. But then one shook her head. “I’m bad. Shouldn’t be talking like that. I don’t like the way she’s treated, to be honest. Exploitative.”

The other shrugged. “She’s treated no worse than any other au pair, I reckon. We see her twice a day, every day, with those two boys. If she’s really unhappy, she could run off any time she likes.”

Alone in her room later, Eliška pondered this. What the woman had said was true, of course. She could run away. But where would she go?

One morning, she caught Mr Trevalyn looking hard at her again when she was at the breakfast table, pouring orange juice into the glasses. Eliška did not normally mind a steady gaze, but there was something about Mr Trevalyn’s watery blue eyes that unsettled her.

“I meant what I said about looking unwell, Eli. You need fresh air,” he said eventually. “We’ll have you out in the garden for a change. The beds need trimming and prepping for Spring, anyway.”

Mr Trevalyn was proud of the family garden. It had a swimming pool in the shape of a cartoon speech bubble. Beyond that, a lawn stretched out, dotted with islands of flowerbeds. Some of them were tilted on slopes, in a way she’d only seen in parks before or at funereal floral displays.

The lawn was nearly as large as the park her dad had been responsible for as a warden back home in Slovakia.

Just like her father, Mr Trevalyn mowed the lawn. Dad hated mowing, though. He used to make fun of her aunt Monika’s manicured lawn.

“If there is a God, Eliška, I can tell you now that this unfathomably complex being does not love tidy gardens. They will smite the shit out of any astroturf. Trimming borders of various kinds will not constrain those demons of your mind, or the silken voices whispering to you that there is more to life than spraying things and cutting in straight lines.”

Mr Trevalyn loved his lawnmower. It was one of those you rode rather than pushed. He looked as if he was tempted to giddy it up like a horse with a knock of his heels.

He gave Eliška a swift tour of the garden and of the beds he expected weeded.

Mr Trevalyn put his hands in his pockets. “I’ll show you the wildflower bed. It’s rather tucked away and a bit unsightly. But it’s important to let nature have free rein somewhere.”

Free rain? Surely the rain was always free, pondered Eliška. Back in Slovakia, she could never resist the urge to go out when it rained, stretch her arms out and let the drops spank her tongue.

People were longing for rain in London. It had been months since it fell. Although the lawn in this garden was green, constantly watered by sprinklers, most were parched and yellow.

Mr Trevalyn took her right to the back of the garden, behind the topiary.

This bed was quite unlike the others. It had lots of dead stems and dried thistle heads.

She gasped and pointed. “Look. Beautiful.”

Amid the dead stems was a rose: deep scarlet, petals still fresh. Eliška lifted it to her face. The cool petals brushed her skin. The scent wasn’t full and blowsy. It reminded her of the fragrance of bluebells—so fragile, you just caught a hint of it, but it seemed to elude your senses if you tried to breathe it in deep.

Mr Trevalyn grasped Eliška’s upper arm, below her t-shirt sleeve. “Off your knees. You should have some gardening gloves on—you can get nasty things from soil. You’ll end up dragging half the garden into the house.”

Eliška quickly scrambled to her feet, but Mr Trevalyn did not remove his hand. He pulled her backwards. He was gentle enough, but she did not like the heat of his palm on her skin.

Finally, his eyes dropped from her to the rose. He shook his head. “Ridiculous, flowering at this time of year. Global warming, of course. You’d have to be stupid not to believe in it.” He made a clucking noise with his tongue against the back of his teeth. “It’s over-population. People having too many babies.”

Eliška looked down at the grass beneath her feet. “You have had two babies.”

Mr Trevalyn raised an eyebrow. “I don’t mean in countries like ours. Anyway, no need to do any weeding here. The weeds are kind of the point. Just trim round the bed. Get rid of that rose, would you? Clearly seeded from another bed. It’s not wild.”

But Mr Trevalyn was wrong about the rose. It had broken through frosty soil and had a headstrong wildness in it that Eliška recognised and revered.

Eliška’s dad used to tend the rosebeds at his park. When the blooms were about to wither, he would cut a few and take them back home to put in a vase. He always put them next to the same photo of him and Eliška’s mother, from when they were on honeymoon in Venice all those years ago.

Eliška’s boyfriend Ladislav would sometimes lean over to look at that picture.

“She was so much like you.”

Eliška shrugged. She knew she should feel some kind of connection to that stranger in the photograph, smiling and leaning on a column, the hollows under her cheekbones deep as the fluted stone.

Eliška took Ladislav’s face in both her hands, rubbed her thumbs against his skin as if it was fabric she was testing for quality in a shop. He flinched a bit and laughed. Taking her hands, he led her to the sofa.

The carriage clock in the glass cabinet above them ticked with its irritated urgency. But Dad was out at the park, and he would not be back home for hours.

After she’d dropped Ben and Theo off the following day, Eliška went out and weeded the two patches nearest the house first. Soon, the borders were neat little brown cliffs against the clipped green. Then she went to the wildflower bed.

The rose was now fully open.

Eliška would not tear it out of the ground. Nor would she take it to one of the regimented rose beds for re-planting.

She carefully dug it up, nestling its roots in the centre of her palm, and took it to a sunny patch of ground near the fence.

When she came back, she found herself focusing on an odd mound, about 3 feet tall, just next to the wildflower bed. Idly, she pulled away the weeds and scrubbed at the moss until she discovered what looked like the top of a column, with three slits still wedged full of soil. After five minutes more of scrubbing, it became clear it was, in fact, a birdbath. The bath was held up by a cherub, moss filling the dimples of its elbows and the belly button of its round stomach.

Later in the afternoon, Mr Trevalyn came out to find her. He laughed when he saw the bird bath.

“Oh, crikey. You didn’t need to clean that up, Eli. I meant to throw it in the skip. It’s a bit of a Gothic nightmare.”

“Please don’t take it away.”

The words spilled out before Eliška could stop them. Her lips went dry. “It—it makes me think of the statues in the park where my father worked. There was one exactly like this.”

Mr Trevalyn’s face softened. “You can keep it there, if you really want.”

Numb with relief, Eliška nodded.

Mr Trevalyn wiped his hands down on his jeans. “I hope you feel content, Eli. It’s terrible the way some people treat their domestic help. We feed you well, don’t we? You don’t go without.”

Eliška knew what was expected of her—nodding enthusiasm. She managed a wan smile.

Once she had finished her gardening for the day, she went indoors to the downstairs toilet. She pulled down her gardening trousers, breathed out hard. Still no blood. She was at least three weeks late now.

She’d always been irregular, but there was a tiny thorn in the back of her mind, and it would not stop needling her.

The week after Ladislav visited her, the Danube had burst its banks. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it was certainly the worst flooding Eliška had ever seen.

For a while, cars kept driving on the road, ploughing through the water that sprayed out around them like white angel wings. But then the cars started to float. The water was murky grey and moving terrifyingly fast.

Mrs Hudec in the block opposite theirs started waving some clothes out of her window, trying to attract attention. When she caught sight of Eliška and her father, she beckoned for them to open their own window. They could only just hear her shout over the sound of the rushing water.

“Jan, my little boy, he’s running a fever. His skin is clammy and he’s going floppy. I need to get him to hospital. I’ve been on the phone now for half an hour, but I can’t get through to the operator. Please.”

Eliška knew, immediately, that her father would help this family. There was no point trying to stop him. The odd thing was he was not what you’d call a tender-hearted man. His gruffness did not have a soft centre. But he always had to help in an emergency. It was part of his nature.

He had a two-seater kayak, which they took out to the countryside when they went camping. Mrs Hudec was in a ground floor flat. If Dad could find a way to tie up the kayak, they would lower the child out from the window into the seat. The hospital was not far away.

Dad pulled on his boots and waterproof clothing.

“Never go into flood water unprotected, Eliška. You don’t know what’s in there.”

Eliška could make a pretty good guess from the smell. Still, none of this worried her too much. Dad had always been good in water. Whenever they visited a lake, he always swam right to the centre, his strokes long and assured.

Still, she did not want to watch. She stayed in the kitchen as he made his way downstairs.

Just as she was about to turn on the kettle, she heard screaming outside—lots of people all at the same time.

By the time she got to the window, all she could see was her dad’s blue kayak upturned on the grey water, spinning down what had once been their street.

Garden. Zahrada in Slovak—a word she had always loved. Its long exhalation made her think of a foamless wave breaking upon rocks.

Ben and Theo were out in the garden. It was March, but the thrumming heat made it feel like summer.

The boys splashed in the pool, diving off inflatables that now permanently bobbed amidst its turquoise ripples.

That was when Eliška could retreat to the wildflower bed by herself.

The birdbath, which she regularly topped up with water, had been a success. She sometimes left little balls of fat on the edge of the bowl. She knew not to leave nuts—Dad had told her that was dangerous and could make the baby birds choke.


She thought about writing a letter to Ladislav.

He’d come to visit her a few days before Dad’s funeral. He’d held her hands between his, massaged the thumb, and told her he was so sorry. But he could not look her in the eyes. And when she brought his hand to her breast, he flinched and got up from the sofa.

He had told her that she could call or write any time she wanted.


The wild winter rose had long since withered. But Eliška was glad it had had time to unfurl and feel the light on its petals. She had carefully picked it, taken it upstairs to her room and pressed its dried petals into her scrapbook, arranging them in in an arc, bloody footprints on the clear white paper.

If she’d had his address, she would have sent it to Ladislav.

After her father’s funeral, Uncle Jan took her back to the big house he and Aunt Monika owned, up on the hill near the old TV tower.

Jan told her to wait outside for a moment, because he needed to make a call.

Eliška leaned against one of the columns, as her uncle’s voice drifted out from the hallway.

“No, there’s no possibility of her taking the flat over. Study’s out of the question. Look, I know it might sound callous, but we don’t want to be saddled with her. I know she’s a sweetheart in her own way, but there’s a danger she may never become independent because of her slowness. It’s best for her to strike out on her own.”

Eliška quickly pushed herself away from the column.

She had often been called ‘slow’, especially at school. Her reading books were never the same grade as everyone else’s. She was not allowed to take exams before graduation like the other students. But in all honesty, she was glad of the exemption. There was no way she would have been able to sit at a desk with a pen twitching in her hand as she filled out line after line of writing and the clock ticked away inexorably.

Her uncle emerged from his study. He grasped her hands.

“Eliška, I am sorry. I know you must think Monika and I are very fortunate, but things are not great for us either. The floods have meant that two sites we were working on are now basically uninsurable.”

She did not resist, but her hands lay limp in his, and she stared at him. He told her that London was still a brilliant place for a young person looking to strike out on their own. He had friends there—good people. A family. The husband was a councillor and businessman, his wife a conservator. They had two charming little boys and needed an au pair. It would be perfect for Eliška.

Eliška simply stared out at the great stretch of mown lawn.

Jan sighed. “What are we going to do, hmm?” he asked.

Eliška still said nothing, but she knew ‘we’ was not the correct word, not the correct word at all.

Mr Trevalyn asked her to dig a new bed next to the fence, because he wanted to put up some trellises and plant vines. It was a very dry patch of soil, so Eliška struggled to get the shovel down deep enough.

Mr Trevalyn watched her with that strange, unblinking attention she found so uncomfortable. “You’ve got the movement wrong—you need to get it in at a different angle . . . .”

Without warning, he came up from behind and put his arms round her to grasp the shovel. He smelled of mint and just a hint of old sweat under a heady layer of deodorant. His hands shelled over hers, but Eliška let go of the shovel and wriggled free of him.

For a moment, they stared at one another. She ensured her gaze did not slip, as she stroked her knuckles.

“I’m sorry, Eli, did I press down too hard?”

“You can do this bed yourself,” she said simply.

“I was only trying to . . . .”

“Carry on trying without me.”

She turned and walked away, straight into the kitchen where Mrs Trevalyn was putting icing on a birthday cake. It was for Ben for next week.

“Eli, could you switch the oven on for me, please?” she asked.

“Not Eli. My name is Eliška.”

Mrs Trevalyn looked up quite sharply.

“I don’t know why you’re taking that tone with me.”

“I don’t know why you’re not paying me.”

Mrs Trevalyn crossed her arms, breathed out in a whistle through closed lips.

“Eliška, that’s really not fair. We are keeping the money to one side for you in an account. People like you are easily exploited. Your uncle was very keen to impress that on me. It would probably be best to send your wages on to him.”

“Why would you do that? The money is mine.” Eliška was shocked by the speed and force of her own words. “I think I am pregnant. I need the money to stop it.”

Mrs Trevalyn opened her eyes wide. “Pregnant?” She sat down next to Eliška, actually took her hand in hers. “Your uncle did not tell us.”

She shrugged. “He did not know. Neither did I. But I need to deal with it, now.”

Mrs Trevalyn’s lips tightened. “It?”


“Eliška, abortion is no longer possible in this country.”

“Then I must go somewhere it is possible.”

Mrs Trevalyn shook her head. She put her hands on top of Eliška’s. “You are so good with Ben and Theo. You would make a wonderful mother, you know. I mean, I’m sorry that a man has taken advantage of you . . . .”

Eliška removed her hand from under Mrs Trevalyn’s. “He did not take advantage of me. Not the way your husband is trying to.”

Mrs Trevalyn smacked a glass bowl down hard on the table, so much so that it spun, making a terrible racket.

“This is not fair, Eliška. I know you must be in distress, but this is inexcusable, lying like that. Do you not understand the weight of false accusations, where they could lead? My husband is standing for political office. I’d have thought you would at least think of Ben and Theo.”

Eliška had heard enough. She stood up, letting the chair scrape on the floor behind her.

“Believe what you want of him.”

Mrs Trevalyn did not say anything more about her pregnancy, but Eliška found vitamin pills on her dresser—folic acid. She immediately flushed them down the toilet.

“We are going on holiday soon, Eli,” Mr Trevalyn said, over the dinner table.

“Eli’s coming with us?” Ben bounced up and down on his seat in excitement, but slowed down when the three adults at the table looked down.

Mrs Trevalyn coughed. ”It would be a bit too expensive for Eli to come with us, Ben.”

Theo slammed his fork down hard on his plate. Enough to make them all jump. “That’s not fair.”

“She will have a holiday of sorts—Eli, we would like you to take a break. No need to do any cleaning while we’re away. There will be a labourer coming in, to do a mosaic at the bottom of the swimming pool. We only ask you let him in at 8am and let him out again at 11am. We won’t expect him to work through the midday sun, because that’s inhuman in these conditions. After he’s gone, you’re very welcome to go and take a few trips out in London. You should get to see more of this city.”

“I do not want to see more of this city,” Eliška said.

Mrs Trevalyn swallowed. “Well, you are welcome to stay in the garden and relax, in that case. As it happens, Jeremy is going to have a party when he comes back, to launch his candidacy for the election. You see all those potted roses we’ve bought?”


“Well, if you’re feeling well enough, it would be good if you could plant them on the sloping bed nearest the pool, in this design . . . .”

She showed Eliška a leaflet, which she knew was one from Mr Trevalyn’s campaign. In the corner was a small, open red rose.

“Roses in the form of a rose,” Mrs Trevalyn said softly. “Quite eye-catching, I think. And we know you have such green fingers.”

A fortnight later, just a few hours after the Trevalyns had left for the airport, Eliška was about to go out into the garden early to fill up the birdbath when the doorbell rang.

She answered to find a young man outside, who introduced himself as Haroon. He had large, gentle dark eyes and a nervous shuffle of the feet. He pointed at a van parked behind him, the trunk open.

“I’ll need to carry few things to the back,” he told her.

She opened the gate to the back garden and let him carry all the tiles though. Soon, he was on his knees, taking up the old tiles at the bottom of the pool, which had been drained.

Eliška made him some tea, then went off to do some weeding around the bird bath. As she was leaning over, she felt nausea lurch again in her stomach. She clung to the cherub’s shoulder as she vomited, a hand on the stomach that was just starting to swell. Tears sprung to her eyes.

By the time she’d got back, Haroon had pulled up all the old tiles. They were in a pile at the poolside.

“You’re a maid? An au pair?” he asked.

“I also clean, cook, do the gardening.”

He whistled. “More like a housekeeper then. Hope they pay you well.”

“I am not paid at all.”

Haroon tilted his head backwards and blinked. “What do you mean? That would make you a slave.”

The word ‘slave’ shocked Eliška like a slap.

Confused, she walked quickly to the bottom of the garden, to the wild flower bed.

“Eliška, I’m sorry. Please come back.” Haroon sounded genuinely anguished, but she did not respond.

The next day, when she opened the door to him, Haroon immediately started to apologise. But she lifted her palms and shook her head.

“No. You were right. It’s just that I was shocked. To hear myself described that way. But I should thank you. You told the truth.”

His shoulders sank a little—perhaps in relief, but there was also pain. “In honesty, my situation is not much better.”

“They are not paying you for this work?” Eliška was genuinely shocked.

“They pay, but nothing like what the work is worth.”

“Then, why don’t you leave?”

He sighed. “Come. I’ll explain.”

As she helped him carry a pile of tiles into the garden, Haroon told her that really, he was not meant to be here in England. If he was caught by the government, he would be sent back to his country.

“Don’t you want to go back home?” she asked.

“Not as it is. There are people who would kill me.”

“Because of your beliefs?”

“Because of who I am.”

Eliška was not sure she understood this, but she nodded.

“It is strange,” she said. “You are desperate to stay, and I to leave.”

“To escape this family?”

“Because I have a problem which I cannot solve. Not here, in this country.”

She brought a hand to her belly, and left it there, keeping her eyes on Haroon. His forehead creased, but then he nodded slowly.

“You need to get back to your parents.”

She shook her head. “They are gone. My father, recently. My mother, when I was born. She died of a haemorrhage.”

“That’s dreadful. But it doesn’t mean you will go the same way.”

“Perhaps not. But I still do not want to be a mother.”

Haroon nodded. “Then the Trevalyns should get that sorted for you.”

“It’s against the law here.”

Haroon laughed at that—a short, bitter laugh. He brushed a hand against the tiles he was working on. “You honestly think that people who can afford this—this house, bright green grass year round, ceramic for the bottom of their swimming pool—cannot find a way? Do you think Mrs Trevalyn would carry a child she did not want?”

Eliska did not know what to say to that at all. She started to mark out the rose logo with tape on the sloping bed.

Once he had finished his tiling, Haroon came and watched her for a while.

“Why are you doing it in that pattern?”

She explained about the logo and the election.

Haroon smiled. “There are other patterns you could make. Come, let me show you.”

Two weeks later, Eliška watched from the upper floor of the house as the Trevalyns’ guests filtered through the back door into the garden. The Trevalyns had come in late last night from their holiday, and had not thought to check her handiwork. Hers and Haroon’s, that is.

The guests, with their glasses of sparkling wine, were soon gathered round it.

Instead of the shape of a rose, the roses spelled out some words in a rainbow arc.




There was soon a steady hiss of muttering in the garden. Guests took out their phones and started taking photographs. Mr Trevalyn and a few very stressed caterers were soon ushering them back towards the back gate.

Eliška turned away from the window and waited.

It did not take long for her to hear Mrs Trevalyn’s breathing behind her. It was, as she expected, rapid and angry. But there was no screaming, no throwing of possessions around.

“You will have what you want. There is a doctor I know, a good one. I have got you booked in and it will cost you all the wages we were saving up for you and more. And after that I want you gone. I don’t want to hear from you again.”

Eliška looked up at her for the first time. She was quite surprised to see the other woman’s eyes were reddened.

“Tell me where to go and when.”

Mrs Trevalyn pulled out a piece of paper. There was a time and date printed out, and an address.

Eliška knew she would go to Haroon’s house first. He had left his address. And he said she could stay for a while, if she needed to. She’d probably need a few days after the procedure.

She had no idea what she would do after that. No point thinking about it now, she just had to pack.

She had, of course, already said goodbye to her beloved wildflower bed, even blowing a kiss to the bird bath cherub, which regarded her with its usual blank, mossy stare.

Just one last thing to do.

She took her scrapbook, with the pressed flowers, into Theo’s room and laid it on his bed. She opened it on the page of the wild winter rose and wrote To the best of teachers.

She ran a finger over the dried rose one last time.

It too had been transported to a place it didn’t want to be, but still flourished for a while.

Perhaps another rose would spring from the wildflower bed, its stubborn little cluster of truncated roots like a fist beneath the soil.


Author: Anna Orridge

Anna Orridge was born in Birmingham and worked for 15 years as an EFL teacher in Spain, Bolivia and Slovakia. She now lives in Croydon with her family, and works for an educational charity, leading on sustainability.

Anna’s work most often falls into the horror and clifi genres, and she had stories published in Retreat West’s ‘Nothing Is As It Was’ anthology and Mslexia’s ‘Weather’ issue. Her speculative fiction tends more to the dystopian end of the spectrum, and ‘Backdrop’, a nightmare vision of a deluged London escaping into nostalgic AR fantasy, was adapted as an audiodrama by Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. She has, however, also strayed into solarpunk, and ‘A Reconciliation’ was the winner of the Urban category of the Climaginaries short story contest. She won the #micropoem21 and ‘Hot Poet’ competitions.

Her essay for the Off Limits Press collection ‘Divergent Terror: The Crossroads Of Queerness and Horror’ is due to come out in 2023. Go to @orridge_anna on Twitter to discover more about her climate activism, writing and love of all things corvid.

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