Rebecca Smith: Kick the Can and Rhododendron Perfume

First life lesson. When we were little we used to crush rhododendron flowers, add water and hey presto, rhody perfume. Roses worked better of course, but roses were precious. During the summer the gardens on the estate were open to the public so we would stand on a corner of the path and wait for the slow gait of old couples. They thought my brother and I were the sweetest things they had ever seen with our shorts, muddy white t-shirts and tiny perfume bottles. We sold them for a couple of pence, collecting the coins in an old jar. Mum laughed when we showed her our profits. But she said we couldn’t expand the business.  The flowers weren’t ours. Our shop floor didn’t belong to us. And, frankly, we were coercing people to buy. Running a business is tricky.

Second life lesson. A winding, hilly road circled the estate. One day Mum let me take my bike to visit my friend who lived at the farm at the bottom of the hill. I fled down the road like my wings had been unclipped, the wind cold on my legs. Then I saw the car coming. Terrified, I pulled my breaks on so hard my bike stopped dead and I somersaulted over the handle bars. My body skidded to a halt on the tarmac road, a few metres away from the bike. The car slowed and the driver wound its window down. My mum, always close by, heard the scream from the garden and was already half way down the road.  She carried me back to the house and called the doctor. I still have scars on my legs and my face. Always, always wear a helmet.

Life lesson number three. The rhododendron bushes that covered the gardens were old, gnarly and looked impenetrable from the outside, but once you’d pushed your way in, the most incredible caverns and dens opened up. We took ribbons and sparkly thread from Mum’s sewing box and decorated the thin arms of the bushes. We dragged in wooden stools, blankets, old tea pots, teddies, torches and flasks of hot chocolate. They were our discos. Our shops. Our kitchens. Our homes. Our place to be adults. Don’t leave food in an outside den. The mice will get it. Don’t use all of your Mums special sparkly thread that belonged to her Mum. It makes her a bit angry. And sad.  There is something magical about making someplace your own.

Lesson Four.  I remember every kind person who played a small part in my childhood. Mrs Brown, the primary school teacher whose hands were like tissue paper. We all loved her unquestioningly. She treated us with the greatest respect. Bert, the man who came to our door one night, hands dripping with blood, asking Dad to phone the fire brigade. His home, a caravan a few miles away, was burning. The fear in his voice and the pain in his hand didn’t stop him saying hiya kids to me and my brother, chasing away our fear of the dark night and the horrible acrid scent of burnt plastic. His blood stained the step, no matter how many times Mum scrubbed it.  Jonnie, the man who first stole my heart, who always asked me, how‘s your day going Missy and smiled so kindly.  Children remember adults. Always be kind. And perhaps don’t name a teddy after the man you have a crush on. Jonnie the gorilla. Mums aren’t stupid.

Life lesson number five. Everyone was the same. We met up when we felt like it and rode our bikes, fought with stick swords, imagined castles, princesses, played Kick the Can, 123, tig, chicken, swung on the tyre swings, swung on branches, fought, cried, fell over, got wet, got lost.  It didn’t matter which house you lived in (the big one, the lodge house, the farm, the stables), what your Dad did, what shoes you wore. They all got muddy.  But once, once, I was different. The girl from down the road said to me, I wish my mum was like yours.  We carried on walking underneath the trees. I didn’t ask why. By then, I knew. Mum didn’t shout when we fell over like her Mum did. She picked us up. She didn’t scream at our Dad. Or raise her hand to the dog. Or to us. She never told us to be one thing or another. She didn’t push us into a job, university, a degree in medicine. Or hold us back from travelling, or staying in the same place, or loving the wrong person. We were free to make our own mistakes. All mums should be like that.  That’s not so hard, is it?

Yesterday in the garden centre, there were two rhododendron bushes, one pink, one purple. I pushed them in the trolley to my car, the stretched skin of my bump touching the handle. I’ll plant them tomorrow, so my kids can crush up upside-down parasol flowers, add water, and sell rhody perfume on the school bus.



Rebecca Smith was brought up in the middle of nowhere in Cumbria and now lives in Central Scotland blending suburbia with urban necessities and country air.

She studied English and Media at Stirling University and then produced live radio for 10 years, almost purely living off adrenaline. She currently works in Radio Drama in Glasgow.

She is being mentored by Kirsty Logan after she was selected as part of the Womentoring Project.

She has stories published in various magazines (Freak Circus, Northwords Now, [Untitled])

She has one son, a silver-grey cat and penchant for biscuits.


  1. We blended my friends’ roses in Lenor bottles in the 80s; it was always a heady, bubbly mixture.

    We dried out the pulp to make pot pourri that soon smelt of mould…thank you for the memories, and the beautiful images from yours.

    Liked by 1 person

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