When the April winds blow, the first blossoms drift, like a wedding party has passed, carpeting the pavements of Cherry Tree Lane in confetti. The streets are so colourful you can easily feel like you’ve stepped from the pavements through the frame of a painting, and you’re sauntering through a shimmer of pastels along with everyone else, out for a Sunday morning stroll. The beautiful scent perfumes the air and passers-by are like bees, drawn to the heavy pink clusters swaying overhead. My aunt stops beside me and inhales deeply.
“Oh Lily, aren't they just heavenly!”
In the spring sun, my aunt’s face glows with happiness; she’s delighted to have my help for the day in her florist shop. And normally I would be just as delighted too, but for the last weeks I’ve felt so knotted up inside, a tangle of feelings- none pretty- that I can’t do more than stare sullenly at the tree. The blossoms move slightly in the breeze and it looks like they’re waving happily, asking with a smile: why the long face, Lily? I know it's crazy, but I feel like the blossoms rustling overhead are murmuring: we are lovely, as sweet and lovely as the new baby.
Rosa is my sister, the little bundle who nestles like a new rosebud, just one month old, nose peeking out from the pink crib blanket, in the nursery- my old bedroom. For ten years, the small room was crammed full of my toys and books; the walls covered in the stencils I’d made with Dad and painted on with Mum: stars and flamingos, my own wacky idea.
When Mum and Dad asked if I’d mind moving into the bigger room in the attic I was thrilled- at first. I got a new big desk, just right for all my school projects, and there was space for a few bean bags so I could chill out when friends came round. The day I moved out of my bedroom, I worked hard all morning, carting my things up the narrow flight of stairs, filling the shelves and drawers, staring out of the skylight when I needed a breather at the apple tree in our garden, budding to new life. Time passed quickly and when I went down to grab a bite to eat I was shocked to see my old room transformed, blooming like a garden with pale pinks and yellows, a solitary crib standing at the centre.
Mum was smiling as she surveyed the nursery, her baby bump curving into the space; she was all speckled with paint and Dad wiped a pink fleck from her nose. From the corridor, I stood and stared as they beamed with pride at their handiwork. Before they could turn and see me, transfixed with loss, I hurried off to get some lunch, turning my back gladly on what I suddenly saw crystal clear: my space, my old life, was gone in the stroke of a brush.
“Lily, are you alright?” I suddenly realise my Aunt Marigold is resting a hand on my shoulder; looking at me, not the wavering blossoms.
“Yeah. It’s just hay fever.” I rub my eyes, trying a half-hearted sneeze, which sounds far from believable.
“Hay fever? Since when have you had that?”
“Er, it’s just something I get sometimes. It’ll be over in a minute, you’ll see.” I busy myself with a tissue. “ Don’t worry, I’ll be fine!”
“Well that’s good- can’t have you all red-eyed on our special day.”
“I know, I might put your customers off!”
“That would be impossible, even with red-eyes you’re as lovely as a lily!”
I pocket the tissue and take Marigold’s arm. For the first time in ages, I feel a little green shoot of happiness tremble deep within me, like it wants to try pushing for the surface light. Marigold has reminded me how, like her, like my mum- her sister- we are all named after flowers: Mum is Poppy and I’m Lily. Dad often jokes about how he’s the luckiest man on the block: he doesn’t need to buy any flowers; he has the prettiest bouquet right at home. Two lovely flowers, three when Marigold calls round; except now we’re four.
The truth is, life was just great before Mum and Dad brought Rosa home from the hospital, all tiny toes and snuffling stubby nose. There had been such a thing as sleep; 8 hours, 9 hours; at the weekend, even 10 hours of uninterrupted bliss, my duvet pulled up making a warm cocoon. Then the alarm bell of Rosa was installed in the nursery; one which definitely comes with no snooze button. At night, feet pad the corridors: three, four times, whenever the siren sounds. Mum and Dad, drunk with fatigue, stumbling about in the dark, crashing into potted plants, forgetting to close the door: Hush Rosa. Hush little petal. But no hushing, instead, loud wails- surprisingly loud for such a small thing- piercing my dreams, popping them one by one like bubbles.
Then breakfast: Mum bleary-eyed, refusing any morning coffee just in case she might be able to grab an hour’s sleep, if Rosa naps. Dad, on autopilot, leaving for work, just to return a minute later as he’s forgotten his keys. I wait for the bus with rings under my eyes as dark as those laid down for years by an ancient oak. Yes, one month of tiredness makes me feel old, like a gnarled tree; and there’ll be more months like this…just the thought sends my little shoot of joy burrowing back into the dark.
“So, here we are!” My aunt's voice cuts through the haze of bitter exhaustion. I realise we’ve been walking the whole time and are now standing outside of her little shop: Blooming Marvellous, at the corner of Cherry Tree Lane.
“Hold this for me Lily,” she passes me her green bag, so she can slot a large key into the red door; opening it, a wave of colour and scent wash over me.
I love my aunt’s shop and whenever I come to visit, I’m reminded just how much. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside, dreary and grey, raining cats and dogs; it doesn’t matter what the season is, ice frosting the pavements and window panes; in Aunty Marigold’s florist shop, it’s always like stepping into a summer’s garden- into a paradise on earth.
Aunty bustles into the shop, throwing her keys on a counter at the back. I put her bag down carefully on the large central wooden table, which is still strewn with fragments of twig and leaf. Her pruning shears are lying ready, waiting to be picked up for a bit more trimming. But you can’t pay much attention to the cuttings when all about are cascades of flowers, tendrils of leaves, petals and blossoms, blooming in vases of every shape and size: long-stemmed sweet peas, all colours of the rainbow; delphiniums of the deepest blue; tight-budded roses as yellow as the summer sun and my favourite, of course, the lily. Aunty stocks lots of varieties, she says just for me, but the one I love the most is the stargazer, opening like a cosmic dazzle, a blast of pink that never fails to excite my imagination.
I pick one out of its vase and roll the stem gently between my thumb and forefinger so the lily spins, the stamens reaching out like they’re antennae, searching for something. The flower is so familiar with its crimson-speckled petals putting on their usual extravagant show, but I don’t feel like the same Lily at all. In my hand, the flower is lovely, but I feel like the offcuts littering the table, just ready to be swept up and thrown out on the compost.
“Good choice, Lily, ” says Aunty, “just the one? You know you can take more if you like.”
She’s talking about the bouquet, the one she said I could make for Mum and Dad as a gift.
Normally I would love this task, making a bouquet of my favourite flowers, mine and theirs: heady-scented lilacs complimenting delicate orchids and my stargazer lilies right in the posy’s heart. But today I’m so knotted with fatigue and the weed of envy- why have I been packed off on the first sunny Sunday of spring? So they could enjoy Rosa, without me…that even the beautiful flowers seem more a mass of thorn just waiting to prick a finger, or petals just about to wilt and fall, than anything to wonder at.
Aunty Marigold is standing at the large wooden cutting table and is checking the first order she needs to prepare. I wander over, more than willing to leave the task I have little enthusiasm for. Silently I help Aunty select white roses, sprays of lily-of-the-valley and peonies for the bridal bouquet, helping to arrange the flowers into a loose and tumbling form which she ties with a thick cream ribbon.
“For someone surviving on precious little sleep, you’ve done well!” she says, placing the bouquet in a vase of water, “Poppy told me there’s not been much shut eye recently for any of you.”
“Not much,” and the words trigger a huge yawn. ”But coming here will help; a change is as good as a rest, Dad always says.”
“Ha!” laughs Aunty, sweeping the trimmings into a basket, before picking up the second order form, “that sounds like the words of a man who’s forgotten what it’s like to have a newborn in the house. I bet he hasn’t been parroting that line for a while!”
“No, not really. As soon as he sits on the sofa it takes one minute max. before he’s sprawled out, snoring loud enough to wake Rosa!”
I laugh too and it feels lovely, like I’ve finally found a comrade who’ll help me to see the funny side. Aunty carries on.
“I remember having to tiptoe round the house when Poppy was a baby, constantly told to shhh or turn my music down. I spent the first months resenting her so much; rocked and well rested while I had to creep around like an exhausted mouse.”
My aunty is robust, like the trees that grow all along Cherry Tree Lane, as flamboyant in her dresses and scarves as the flowers she arranges; I would never, ever, have thought of her as a tired little mouse and the funny image makes me smile again.
“I know, it seems improbable now, but I was desperate to curl up and sleep; I'd have taken even a mouse hole!”
“But you and Mum seem so close,” I say, guiltily stowing away the envy I feel whenever I see Rosa cradled in arms, sung to sleep with lullabies.
“Well, yes- now we are. But seven years is a big age gap and takes some time to fill. As I said, the first months were far from a bed of roses.”
“It’s not exactly a bed of roses in our house either,” I add, “just beds everywhere for Rosa!” I try another laugh, but it is more half-hearted.
“Give it time,” says Aunty Marigold, “few flowers blossom overnight and between siblings, well believe me, it might take a while and there'll be a fair few thorns along the way. It took me years to grow into the role of big sister.” She pulls me in for a side hug, glancing up at the clock.
“Hey, why don’t you take a stroll outside for a bit. I can make up the next couple of orders. You enjoy the spring sun; afterall, I don’t want that hay fever coming back.” She gives me a playful wink.
Just behind Aunty’s florist is a meadow. The green sweep of grass is sprinkled with spring flowers: dandelions, buttercups, daisies, all the sweet and small everyday flowers of my childhood.
I step into the field and take off my shoes, scrunching my toes as the soft prickle of the grass chases the tiredness away. It’s like nature is giving me a little tickle, and I smile. I take off my cardigan and lay it on the grass and then stoop down, beginning to pick some of the little flowers. It’s like gathering all my childhood memories to me, holding them tight in my hand. I select the daisies with the longest and fattest stalks. When I’ve got about fifteen or so, I put them in a little heap on my cardigan, remembering how I’d sit with Dad, making our daisy chains, crowning each other with the silliest titles: Queen of the Messy Bedroom and King of the Farts. My smile grows wider.
I’m picking some buttercups, remembering how we decided long ago that Mum must be the biggest butter lover as the flowers glow the brightest on her skin, when the shining yellow light reminds me of the pastels in Rosa’s nursery. I picture the soft colours on the walls and Rosa in her little yellow romper with her brown fluff for hair. Looking at the flower glowing beautifully in my hand, the image of my sister in her crib gets stronger and I wonder if she’s awake, staring up at the mobile with its stars and moons.
I bend to pick a dandelion clock and as I straighten, blowing the seeds, I see two figures making their way towards me: Mum in a summer dress carrying a wicker hamper; Dad already in shorts, pushing the pram.
“Surprise Lily,” calls Mum, putting down the hamper and running the last bit to meet me, hugging me tight.
“Hi petal,” says Dad, planting a kiss on the top of my head, “seemed like a perfect day for a picnic!”
“Have you been planning this with Aunty Marigold?” I ask, suddenly cottoning on.
“There might have been a bit of scheming in the background,” he says, stretching out our old chequered picnic blanket under the boughs of a gorgeous cherry tree in full bloom.
“Just a bit,” laughs Mum, unpacking the sandwiches, slices of pie and bowls filled with the first strawberries, “your father planned this like a military operation, keeping all his tactics very close to his chest. I only knew today was the day when he told me Marigold was picking you up in half an hour!”
I remember my parents this last month, stumbling about, foregoing food to nap. “This is so amazing. You could have been having a Sunday lie-in.”
“With this one?” smiles Mum, gesturing to the pram where Rosa, unusually, is fast asleep. “Unlikely, and anyway, we wanted so much to have this picnic with you Lily; you’ve been just the best daughter these last weeks: putting up with us- boring and tired all the time. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
I beam with pride, so happy that I’ve been a good daughter, if not such a great big sister.
We tuck into the picnic as the blossoms quiver overhead, scenting us with their beautiful perfume. Every mouthful is perfect: my favourite egg and cress sandwiches with their creamy filling; the pie is crammed with sweet apples and the strawberries are like the first taste of summer. I’m popping the last one in my mouth when Dad leans over and places the daisy chain he’s just made on my head. Solemnly he declares:
“I crown you Lily, Queen of the Yawns.”
And we all burst out laughing.
“I think we could all be crowned that” says Mum, snuggling into Dad on the picnic blanket.
I leave them to rest, picking more dandelion clocks, blowing more happy memories far and wide, and soon their snores are drifting on the warm spring breeze too. A small noise from the pram disturbs me, and I look at Mum and Dad. They both look so peaceful, so deep in sleep for once, that I can’t bear to wake them. I make my way to the pram and peer in. Rosa is wide awake; not grouchy, like she often is, clamouring for a feed or a nappy change or just someone to help her find the sleep she’s fighting; but just watchful, like she’s all the time in the world to look at this place she’s suddenly a part of.
One little arm reaches out of the folds of the blanket, like Rosa might be reaching up to the cherry blossoms, dancing overhead. But as I reach out with my hand to stroke her soft brown fuzz, she grabs onto my little finger. Her tiny fingers, with their miniature crescent nails, like perfect moons, grasp me tight. Careful to make sure she stays snug in her cocoon of blankets, I lift her from her nest and we lock eyes; her clear baby blue ones focus on mine. There are no coos or babbles, just our gaze, held steady and strong, an invisible bond.
“Hi Rosa,” I say, feeling like I’m really seeing her for the first time, “ I’m Lily, your big sister. The one who walks around like a zombie and forgets her school bag most days because of you.”
“But you wait,” I laugh, “soon you’ll be the one not getting any shut eye, when I start having sleepovers again; my friends- they can be pretty loud!”
“Is that so?” asks Mum, waking with a yawn. “Then we better start sleeping in the basement!” She stretches against Dad’s chest and he hugs her, grinning.
“I’d say so, or pitch a tent right here, under the blossoms.”
I join them on the blanket, snuggling down with Rosa cradled in my arms; Mum and Dad hugging us tight. We all look up, and as the breeze blows, the cherry blossoms dance with joy.