Rose Phillips stands in front of the full-length mirror and stares: cheeks stained salmon-pink and skin glowing like it’s been spritzed with dew, her hair artfully curled and worryingly flammable with the amount of hairspray holding it in place. She doesn’t look anything like herself, which is fitting in some way – this is, after all, the day Rose Phillips dies.
She scowls at herself for thinking so macabrely, but the thought won’t leave her head. It’s true, really. A part of her brain insists as it had done for the past year. After today, Rose Phillips won’t exist anymore, and Rose Wilson will take her place. She will become someone else entirely after saying a few words and signing a piece of paper, a simultaneous death and birthday wrapped up in a pretty white dress.
She really needs to stop thinking like this.
It’s funny that today, of all days, everything that made Rose Phillips Rose Phillips seems to be demanding to be acknowledged. It’s as if returning to Cumbria has prompted her to pull back all the layers of her life that she had built up over the years since she left. In the week leading up to now, she had shown George around all the places that held the moments that shaped her, a whistle-stop tour of her life before him. Naturally, there were some places she couldn’t bring herself to take him to, like Penny’s. It would have just been rude, intrusive in some abstract, unexplainable way that she wouldn’t let herself contemplate.
It had been strange, taking these pitstops around her old life with someone who was to be her future. But she was glad for it – relieved, in fact, to be getting married here rather than in London or even somewhere else. It’s like the closing of a chapter, a cyclical release that she didn’t perhaps even know she needed.
It’s good to be here again. She has never grown to love living in the London as much as George does – although Rose supposes that’s to be expected, seeing as though he’s lived there his whole life. Rather, she tolerates the city: the grey streets peppered with spits of chewing gum and pigeon shit, the dirty air, the hard water. The nightmare that was the tube at rush hour. The rats. The rent. The rude people. Sure, there were theatres and quirky bars and their entire bloody professional lives, so they stayed and were mostly happy. Rose had to admit that the rush of it all could be sweetly addictive, and returning to the lumbering lanes of Cumbria only seemed to slow her down; over time, her visits home grew less and less frequent until they finally stopped completely.
So it’s been seven years since she was last here, and she’s happy to be back on what is to be one of the most special and pivotal points of her life. It’s funny how it all works.
Rose has always been told that she has her head screwed on straight. And it holds truth – after all, her life is on track. Here she is, in step three of her life plan (move to London – done; get a career in journalism at someplace that’s not The Sun – done; get married – imminent; have kids – pending; dream of buying a house – eternally pending.) Rose thinks that if little Rosie Phillips could see how her life was turning out, she’d be pretty satisfied, especially in this very moment standing in front of this mirror in her nauseatingly expensive (but totally worth it!) white gown. Growing up, Rose had always dreamed about her wedding day – the floating down the aisle, the fairy lights, the fanfare – but had never really given much thought as to who it was that she would end up marrying. Every time she had pictured her wedding, for all her planning and dreaming, only a faceless smudge of a shadow would be hovering at the end of the aisle.
And then she met George. A good man, kind and patient, who listens to her and all of her eccentricities. Steady as an ox, unflappable. Someone she can build a life with, someone she loves enough to sacrifice her name on the altar of their marriage and create a whole new sense of self. She has her head screwed on straight, and it told her that he’s the right one for her.
Her reflection looks at her, expressionless from behind the mask of makeup.
It’s inexplicable, the human mind. It likes to remind you of things you truly thought you had forgotten or would rather not remember at all. Rose doesn’t know if it’s back her hometown or her impending last minutes as the person she has spent close to three decades being, but in this moment, the past has woken up and is fully wrapping itself around her, hungry to be acknowledged, a serpent waiting to devour her in memories.
And who is she, as sentimental and self-flagellating as she is, to deny that great snake of times gone by?
“It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine.”
She lived down a winding country lane that you would miss completely if you didn’t know to look out for it, in a small cottage laced with honeysuckle that sat squatly in front of a cluster of trees that led out to the woods. They met in the summer before Rose went to university, both working at a local boho-esque café with large, leafy plants in the windowsills, chalkboard menus, and an eclectic mix of tables and chairs.
Rose could tell that she didn’t like her at first. Perhaps, with all her chattiness and naïveté, Rose came off as annoying and too eager to be liked, or maybe she just liked to be judgemental about new starters. Whatever it was, Ophelia Deane did not rate Rose very highly at all in those early weeks at Penny’s. Ophelia barely spoke to her beyond asking her to check on a table or fill up the sugar bowls, no matter how much Rose persisted in trying to draw her into a conversation.
Ophelia was one of those girls who was so comfortable in her own skin that Rose almost wanted to peel it off and wear it herself. Rose was mesmerized by her. She exuded a quiet confidence, watching the world from behind the café counter and giving no indication of the thoughts forming behind her dark, unforgiving eyes. Ophelia dressed in a way that Rose wished she could pull off but knew she never could – the ends of her long black hair were dyed a loud magenta, and she wore Doc Martens with floral skirts that would sometimes hike up a bit and show her thick, hairy legs. She wore statement earrings that she had made herself out of clay, and a fuzz of hair grew underneath each of her arms, which Rose noticed one day when Ophelia was restocking the shelves. Ophelia was content to say as little as possible to her and to anyone, scribbling poems on the back of her notepad instead of talking. Rose spent hours wondering what she was thinking, what she could maybe say to end this coolness that seemed to exist between them despite the heat of the summer sun.
But it wasn’t as if she was entirely unapproachable either. Ophelia was warm and genuine to customers, and sometimes some of this would even extend to Rose herself if she happened to be nearby. It was moments like these that threw Rose’s brain into a scramble, frantically ticking through the right thing to say to make the conversation last longer, to find a way to peer behind the thick curtain that always, inevitably, descended back over Ophelia again as she would go quiet, back into herself. Rose found herself hoping that there would be more and more moments behind that curtain as time went on.
Two weeks after Rose started at the café, Dan from the kitchen had a birthday picnic gathering on the banks of the River Eden, and he invited everyone from Penny’s. Rose was surprised to see Ophelia there, lounging on a tartan blanket with her legs stretched out in front of her and a small, almost knowing smile on her face as she saw Rose arrive. Rose ended up sitting next to her as they all clustered on the blanket, passing fruit punnets and sipping tinnies and soaking in the sunlight. Though she laughed openly and smiled at the others with what she hoped was a carefree look, Rose could feel her heart thrumming in her chest like the bumblebees that drifted by them, the heat of Ophelia’s knee as it pressed casually against her thigh. Her skin was so warm, warmer than the sun.
The next shift they had together, Ophelia greeted her with a crooked smile and an actual hello. Rose blinked, surprised and strangely relieved that she seemed to finally be making progress, although also unable to figure out why it mattered so much.
‘I take a while to warm up to people,’ Ophelia said out of the blue a few days later. Rain pattered softly against the windows; thick clouds blocked out the sun, so they had the lamps on. A classic British summer. It was cozy inside and slow. They both nursed cups of tea in clasped hands.
‘I can tell,’ Rose said to her, flashing her a smile that she hoped wasn’t too much. ‘I know I can be a lot to start off with, so I guess I’m used to it.’
‘You shouldn’t think like that, Rose,’ Ophelia said soberly, her fathomless eyes not leaving Rose’s face. Rose suddenly found a brochure on the counter advertising local produce very engaging and started to leaf through it. Ophelia set her tea down on the counter and went to clear a table, and nothing more was said. Rose chewed over the words she should have spoken for hours after.
It came as a pleasant surprise one afternoon when Ophelia invited her to the cottage where she lived. Rose felt her heart fall into her stomach and leap back up again as she accepted, only managing a wordless nod and another overly-excited smile that she proceeded to agonize over for another length of time. She couldn’t explain these feelings – all she wanted, somehow, was to impress Ophelia, for Ophelia to like her, but she couldn’t help but dissolve into nerves at the thought of being alone – really alone, no customers – with her. She was effervescently anxious but couldn’t dream of saying no.
It was one of the hottest days of the year when Rose went to the honeysuckle-draped cottage for the first time; grateful Ophelia had met her at the café to guide her else she would have never found it. Inside, the cottage was refreshingly cool and light, with low ceilings and exposed wooden beams. Flowers sprouted from ceramic vases on almost every available surface.
‘My parents travel a lot for work, so it’s just me here a lot of the time,’ Ophelia told her, offering Rose a glass of water freshly poured from the Brita filter. ‘I’m staying here until I find my own place.’
‘Are you going to live on your own?’
Ophelia shrugged. ‘Maybe with someone from work, I don’t know. When do you leave for Goldsmiths?’
It suddenly struck Rose that she didn’t know much about Ophelia, but she herself was such an open book. Rose often felt that everything she was sat plainly on the surface, ready for anyone to know with a glance. It was this way, no matter how hard she tried to be elusive and enigmatic, like how Ophelia was.
‘Mid-September,’ she responded.
‘A month away,’ Ophelia said. Rose couldn’t tell if she was stating a fact or expressing disappointment.
‘Didn’t you want to go study somewhere?’ Rose asked, leaning against the kitchen counter with what she hoped was an easy air.
Ophelia shrugged. ‘There’s time for that whenever. Maybe I’ll travel. I don’t know. We’re so young, you know? We don’t have to have everything planned out. There’s no rush.’
‘I’ve always been told that I have a good head on my shoulders because I know what I want to do.’
‘Who says that?’
‘My dad. Everyone.’
Ophelia scratched the tip of her nose. ‘What’s your plan then?’
‘Ah, go to uni. Work hard. Get a good job. Get married. House. Kids.’
‘I’ll be honest, it sounds pretty vague. Basic even.’
Ophelia laughed, a deep belly laugh that made Rose giggle too, feeling heat rush to her face.
‘Hey, if that’s the best you’ve got. I’m happy you’ve managed to squeeze me into your schedule.’
‘Yeah, don’t make me regret it.’
Ophelia smiled at her, the corners of her eyes crinkling. ‘Let’s go foraging,’ she said suddenly, and she took Rose’s hand in her own and wheeled her in the direction of the back door. She paused a moment, briefly letting go of Rose’s hand to throw a bag over her shoulder, before clasping her hand in hers once more and pulling her out into the garden that spilled out to the woods.
The sun was bright and hot in the sky, beaming down on them as Ophelia and Rose half-ran, half-skipped, exuberant, down a small trail into the trees. Rose had no idea where they were going but couldn’t care less. She could sense their sweat mingling on the palm of her hands and felt nothing but free as the light summer breeze on their backs seemed to propel them forward.
‘What are we looking for?’ Rose asked, her voice breathless in the wind.
‘Whatever we find,’ Ophelia called over her shoulder.
Soon, the trail began to wind its way along the river. Ophelia let go of Rose’s hand, and they slowed down to an ambling walk, the birdsong and gentle bubbling of the stream over the rocks filling the comfortable wordlessness between them. Sometimes, Ophelia would pause to gather dandelion stems or nettles, wrapping the folds of her long skirt around her hands to protect herself, lips tightly pressed together as she concentrated on not getting stung. Once safely stored in her bag, she wiped her hands on her skirt and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
‘You have the strangest look on your face, Rose,’ Ophelia said, turning back to her. ‘And usually, I can tell what you’re thinking.’
‘Am I so easy to read?’
‘You know you are.’ Suddenly Ophelia was taking her shoes off and treading across the grass to the river, her sandals held aloft in her hands. She plonked herself on the riverbed and dropped her feet in the water, leaning back to rest on her palms. Rose followed, sitting down beside her and folding her legs over themselves.
‘Aren’t you going to put your feet in?’
‘Maybe in a sec.’
‘So go on then. Tell me what you’re thinking.’
‘I hardly think that’s fair.’
‘I never know what you’re thinking.’
Ophelia laughed, throwing her head back to the sky. ‘Ahh, Rose. You really do make me smile. I should show it more.’
Rose twiddled some blades of grass between her fingertips. ‘I just really enjoy being out in the sun with you, that’s all,’ she said, regretting it almost instantly, looking straight down at the water in front of her.
But Ophelia’s smile widened, and she said, ‘Me too, with you,’ so calmly, kicking her feet gently in the river. The words fell from her mouth as if it really were nothing at all.
It was getting uncomfortably hot. They shifted downriver slightly so they could sit underneath the shade of a river birch tree, but after only a few minutes, Ophelia announced that she was too warm and stood up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m cooling off. You can too if you want. No pressure though,’ and she pulled her vest top over her head, tossed it on the grass and shimmied out of her skirt so that she was standing only her knickers, pubic hair peeking out the edges. Rose watched at the way Ophelia moved, the way she held herself, completely at ease in her own body and almost nakedness in a way that Rose herself had never felt before. Ophelia turned to the river, the skin on the backs of her thighs kissed with dimples, and lowered herself slowly in, breathing deeply, floating, the water gently lapping at her breasts. Rose had never seen anyone quite so content to be themselves, anyone quite so beautiful.
‘Are you coming in?’ Ophelia asked her. ‘It’s really refreshing, I promise. It’s quiet here, too, you don’t have to worry. Come on, be Shakespearean with me.’
‘Oh, God. Please don’t drown.’
‘I guess I should probably read the damn thing. I really have no idea what I’m talking about.’
‘I can tell. Spoiler: Ophelias and rivers don’t mix well.’
‘Well, this time, they do,’ she said, tracing patterns on the water’s surface with her fingers.
‘It’s on at the RSC soon, I think. We could go. Or there’s a Kenneth Branagh movie. It’s four hours long, though.’
‘Is he in it? God, I can’t stand him sometimes,’ she splashed water in Rose’s direction.
‘Hurry up and get in. Live a little. Or is that not in your grand-and-super-important-yet-also-kind-of-vague life plan?’ Ophelia grinned before leaning to float on her back.
Rose took a moment. She saw the dappled patterns of sunlight on the grass, how the water glimmered like it was surfaced with diamonds. The fresh air, hot sun, the scents of summer caught in the breeze. She saw Ophelia floating, her eyes closed, completely at peace in the river like her Shakespearean namesake. Birdsong floated around them, a soundscape of melodies and wings fluttering across leaves. And there, in that moment, it all started to feel a little bit magic.
Rose wriggled out of her shorts and top, pulled off of her shoes, and marched herself to the river.
‘It’s cold!’ she said as she dipped a toe in.
Ophelia opened her eyes and pulled herself up, so she was resting her feet on the riverbed once more. ‘You know you’ll get used to it, just have to get in.’
Rose put one foot in front of the other and lowered herself down into the water. It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine. Rose submerged herself completely underwater once, the water rushing over her ears, coming up smiling so hard she thought her face muscles might spasm. It was like something had loosened in her belly, something that she hadn’t realized was wound so incredibly tight.
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They listened to the sounds of the wind in the trees. After a while, Rose said, ‘I wish I could be more like you.’
‘You’re just so… you.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Ophelia asked, frowning.
‘I’m too much. Annoying. You even found me too
much, to start off with.’
Ophelia’s frown deepened, but she said nothing.
Clouds drifted across the sun, casting shadows over them and hasting their decision to get out. They pulled their clothes back over themselves and sat beneath the tree. They made daisy chains and draped them across each other. Ophelia, resting against the tree trunk, scribbled in a notebook she pulled out of her bag. Rose lay on her back and watched the clouds journey across the crystal-blue sky.
After a while, Ophelia gently closed her book and let it rest on the ground and came over to lie down next to Rose.
‘About what you said earlier,’ Ophelia said. ‘About you being too much.’ Her voice was low, serious, filled with an intensity that Rose hadn’t heard before.
‘I don’t think you’re too much,’
‘You don’t have to say that,’ Rose said.
‘I’m not. I think it’s a beautiful thing for you to be so open. To have your heart dripping on your sleeve like you do. Don’t let my standoffishness be the reason you want to change yourself; I’d hate that.’
‘So you didn’t find me annoying to start off with?’
‘You see? It’s fine, don’t worry.’ Rose sat up, drawing her knees to her chest. Ophelia did the same, lightly moving her wet hair over her shoulder.
She spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. ‘I didn’t find you annoying,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t you. I just – I’m closed off, I guess. Maybe I knew how much I would like you, and I was afraid.’
‘You’re not going to be around, and you’re going off to uni. Which will be so great for you, a whole new life, the next step forward in your grand plan. I guess I didn’t see the point in us becoming friends because we wouldn’t have much time to enjoy it.’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
Ophelia fidgeted on the grass. ‘I know. But sometimes it’s easier for me.’
‘Okay,’ Rose said, not knowing what else to say. Then: ‘Do you regret it then? Getting to know me?’
‘No,’ Ophelia said softly. ‘No, I’m having a great time.’
‘It’s not like I’m going to disappear, you know,’ Rose said. ‘I’ll come and visit. Keep in contact. It’s not too far, in the grand scheme of things.’
Ophelia smiled a small smile that didn’t warm her eyes like it usually did.
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘I think you’re wonderful,’ Rose said. ‘I’m really glad I know you.’
Ophelia stared at her for a lingering, charged moment before shifting a little closer to Rose. Rose could count the freckles across her nose now, see her wet eyelashes clinging to each other.
‘And I’m glad that I wasn’t too much for you,’ Rose said softly.
‘You couldn’t be too much,’ Ophelia murmured. She was so close. Rose’s heart pulsed electricity through her veins, and she was tremoring ever so slightly.
‘And I think that you’re wonderful too, Rose Phillips,’ Ophelia breathed, her eyes wide, spilling open. And then slowly, she leaned in so close that their noses were almost touching, waiting, watching for Rose’s reaction.
Rose kept very still as if waiting for a butterfly to settle on her mouth, her gaze never leaving the dark pools of Ophelia’s eyes.
Slowly, Ophelia brushed her lips against hers. It was a light touch, barely there, and she pulled back after only a few heartbeats.
The corner of Rose’s mouth lifted.
‘What?’ Ophelia asked an eyebrow arching.
‘You look so serious,’ Rose laughed, and she kissed her again.
The world seemed to shrink and hold only them. All Rose could sense was Ophelia: the heat of her body through her damp clothes, her breath hot and falling on her face as their lips parted. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, and they were cast in dappled shadows as they pulled each other close underneath the tree.
And the rest of the summer days passed much in the same way: when they weren’t working, they were foraging, swimming, falling into one another and their sun-kissed skin. Some days, they lay in the grass under the sun in Ophelia’s garden and paint with watercolours. When it grew dark, they would retreat inside and dance to Dolly Parton or ABBA, drink red wine and make nettle soup. Occasionally they would curl together under a blanket and sit beneath the stars, and count as many as they could before they drifted off to sleep.
It was a dream, another life, a pause. Rose had never been so happy or so afraid. While she had no reservations about keeping in touch and visiting when she went off to university, as the day slowly approached for her to leave, she could sense Ophelia pull away from her, as if she was slowly and gently starting to untangle herself. The thought of losing Ophelia because of something as small as university filled Rose with concern, but she didn’t know what to say.
Time moved inexorably onwards, and too soon, it was the last night before Rose was due to leave. They were sat in the garden, on the grass, Rose in Ophelia’s arms as the sun started to go down. She tickled the palm of Ophelia’s hand with her fingertips, the atmosphere between them sombre, heavy as if waiting for a weight to fall.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ Rose murmured.
‘I’m going to miss you too,’ Ophelia said, and she sighed.
‘You’ll come visit?’
‘If you want me too,’
‘Of course, I will,’
‘You don’t think I will? Want you to visit?’
Ophelia sighed again. Rose sat up and held Ophelia’s hands in her own. ‘Talk to me,’ she said. ‘Please.’
‘I don’t – I don’t fit into your plan, Rose,’
‘Are you joking?’
‘You and your screwed-on head. You’ve got it all figured out. Uni. Marriage. House. Kids. I’m not like you. I don’t know if I want all that. I don’t know what I want.’
‘As if we have to know all that now! You said it yourself – it’s all vague. It can all change. You’re worried about nothing, nothing at all. I want you in my life; that’s all I know right now for sure.’
‘You’ve got a whole new chapter starting. You don’t need one month with me to shape so much of it.’
‘But I want it to.’
Ophelia let out a huff of surrender. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I will suspend my disbelief.’
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘I don’t not believe you. I just – I know how things go, you know? Sometimes worlds are just too different. All I’m saying. Some things have to get left behind.’
‘As if you’re calling yourself “something,” Ophelia. You will never be that to me.’
Ophelia chewed her bottom lip and looked down. Rose hadn’t seen her look this unsure of herself before.
‘I actually can’t wait for the day, years from now, when I’ll get a chance to say that I told you so,’ Rose said teasingly, trying to draw Ophelia out of herself.
A small smile twisted her lips as Ophelia stared somewhere beyond their conversation. ‘I’m sure you can’t.’
Rose cupped her palm on Ophelia’s cheek, lifting her face, so their eyes meet.
‘I love you,’ Rose said for the first time.
Ophelia kissed her softly on the mouth, an echo of their first embrace, and they didn’t need to say anything more.
“She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if didn’t.”
It won’t take too long, Rose thinks. The ceremony will be over quickly, and then it will be a fun party, and she won’t have to spend long thinking about the fact that she has just killed/replaced Rose Phillips with a brand-spanking-new and completely unknown edition. She’s erasing her whole history, her whole life, in a way. Isn’t she? She imagines what George would say to her if he were in the room right now, and she let her mind spool out to him: he would kiss her forehead sweetly and tell her it was her silly little brain that he loves so much running away with nerves. But she doesn’t feel nervous, not really. If anything, she feels kind of numb.
This is everything she has always planned for. Everything is falling into place. Another life milestone to check off the list. This is where she has always been heading to, the path she’s been walking since she left Cumbria behind.
And George is a good man. A wonderful man. She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if she didn’t.
Someone calls for her outside the door. The car’s here. It’s time for her to go.
Her reflection stares back at her blankly as the seconds tick on, rushing her to the future she has always thought she wanted. Rose holds herself in her beautiful white dress, unmoving, and dreams of the honeysuckle cottage at the end of a country lane.
Maxine Meixner (she/her) is a UK-based writer, poet and floral print enthusiast obsessed with the moon. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and her work has previously appeared in small leaf press, Second Chance Lit, and Analogies and Allegories Literary Magazine. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.