“Come here,” Nanny said, and deposited a fistful of wild oleanders in my tensed palm. I just stared at them. The breeze tickled my neck, whisked my loose red hair around my shoulders. Beside me, my little sister, Lacey, giggled, and snuck her tiny feet into the ripe soil, soft white hands flailing in the air.
But Nanny was patient – she didn’t toss the flowers to the ground and carry me back inside the house to the raging voices and slamming doors and the cowering servants in the shadowy corridors. No, she waited. She wanted me to focus on the flowers; on whatever they were supposed to mean for a seven year old like me.
I sniffed them. They didn’t smell like much of anything, only freshly cut grass and stale rain.
“You’re lucky,” Nanny said. “You have a whole field of flowers around your house. You can pick bunches of them whenever you want.”
But I don’t. Only when father comes home and mother rushes downstairs in her billowing skirts and they start screaming - that’s when Nanny snatches Lacey and I by the hands and pulls us outside. That’s when we go to the fields. We go beyond the courtyard and the estate. We keep going, as long as Nanny pulls us.
The voices in my head start to fade. I press the oleander flowers against my skin. There is so much detail to every curved white petal and narrow peppermint-coloured stem.
“They’re beautiful, but poisonous,” Nanny said, kneeling beside me in the grass, her voice as soothing as the breeze across my bare arms. “They look beautiful, they grow in such a beautiful place, but they are dangerous and dark.”
I didn’t know. I didn’t know something so beautiful could be deadly. I took in what Nanny said, and I sat with the flowers clustered around me and dotting my palm, the rest of the world slipping away and allowing me to take a breath.
* * *
That night, over dinner, I set the flowers in a vase on the table. Amber light flickered from the lamps in the wall and cast sporadic colour over the surface of the table.
Father sat at one end. Mother sat at the other end. Lacey sat opposite me, and a servant was feeding her. I sat alone on one side of the table and stared at the flowers, silhouetted in shadow.
Nanny had taken us further into the hills and we’d gathered tulips and roses, too. Pinks, reds, whites, and yellows – all mingled together. I could stare at them for hours.
“Pass the salt,” my mother asked my father.
He kept digging into his roast lamb with his gleaming silver fork and it clanged shrilly against the plate every time.
“I’m asking you.”
“And I’m saying, ask Felicity. I’m eating.”
“You’re closer to the salt,” my mother said. Her voice was tight, a wire stretched too tight.
They kept chirping at each other, back and forth, back and forth. I stared at the flowers. I thought of the fields and Nanny. I took everything I had within me and tossed it into the flaming pinks and whites and reds and let the world fall away, until the writhing bees in my chest disintegrated.
* * *
My father got sick when I was ten years old. His coughing racked the household, and for weeks he didn’t leave the guest bedroom, which was where my mother and the doctor holed him up.
The house became quieter, too. Haunted and still, and yet at the same time buzzing with an invisible frenzy. My mother’s skirts swished through the empty corridors on her way to and from the guest bedroom. Nanny dragged Lacey and I outside more regularly – mornings and afternoons, and sometimes even the evenings after dinner, when the oleanders were ignited with the dying sunshine and we could lie in the fields and they would surround us.
One evening, I took father a bunch of flowers I’d picked with Nanny. I chose three white tulips and two red roses from the courtyard garden. I set them in a jug and placed it on his bedside table, my hands shaking. He didn’t acknowledge them. I tried not to stare at his sunken cheeks or the enflamed red skin around his nose and eyes, or the way his right arm twitched against the dark grey sheets.
I waited until the roses’ scent permeated the room and wrung it of its sweat and sickness, and then I retreated quietly. The last thing I let myself see before I shut the door was the vase of flowers.
* * *
I was twelve when my father died. Every day for two years I’d placed fresh flowers in his room, automatically bathing the space in warmth and comfort. It didn’t help, though. Nothing did. He died violently in the middle of the night, and Nanny kept Lacey and I away from the room while he writhed and shouted and my mother paced back and forth in the upstairs corridor.
The funeral was brief. It was only when Nanny took me outside to pick fresh flowers for the gathering afterwards that I sobbed, and in her arms, too. I looked to Nanny, and I looked to the flowers clustering around our feet. It was all I needed. It was all I had.
Two days after the funeral, my mother insisted we move to the city. My sister and I did not even try to complain, and I swallowed the ache thudding through my chest.
The very next day, I stood in the courtyard and watched the servants pile our furniture and trunks of clothes into carriages. The breeze was sharp and cool, and it caressed my naked neck as I stood exposed in the open space. When the last of our belongings was packed and sent off, I walked back inside. Pebbles crunched under my feet.
My little sister was waiting in the doorway.
“Come inside Lacey,” I said.
She didn’t get the chance to respond before my mother’s voice stung through the air with a wail of commands. She swept into the foyer, her hair loose on her shoulders, her cheeks flushed and her eyes empty, so tangled in panic she didn’t even comprehend our presence.
“Everything’s gone now,” she said. Not to us, not to anyone – just to the foyer and the deserted space we’d once called home. “Everything’s gone.”
I took Lacey’s hand and pulled her outside. We broke into a run, and I dragged her with me through the courtyard to the fields. We stayed there. We stayed for hours. We didn’t go back to the house until Nanny called us.
* * *
Our first day in the city, mother sent Lacey, Nanny, and I through the smoky, gritty streets to fetch some food for dinner. She’d dismissed all the servants. We had no idea where we were going, but we had to go because there was no one else.
Nanny asked for directions. We wound our way through the cobbled streets, voices ringing above us from crumbling houses and sloping windows. The air reeked of smoke and sweat and blood and it clung to my skin. I gripped Lacey’s hand tighter and hurried us along.
Before we even got to the food market, I saw them: the flowers. A whole bunch of them were in a store window, smooth wooden stems and papery fabric popping out the tops of them, forming petals. I didn’t even register the shouts around us, or the bustling hot bodies, or the stench of manure under our feet. I yanked Lacey after me and ran to the window.
“A copper,” said the woman behind the counter.
I paid, and she handed over the bunch of fake flowers. The stems were made of dark oak wood. There were scraps of coloured fabric popping out from the top of each stem, and each one was a different shade of red. The edges were lined with tiny blue beads. They were hard, and stiff, and unmoving, but they felt right in my hands.
We went home after Nanny fetched some food from the market. When we stepped through the door of the little wooden house, our trunks still scattered on the dark floor and a lamp glowing from the table in the corner, my mother met us.
And she fired Nanny. She said we couldn’t afford to keep her on. And all I remember is clutching the flowers against my chest, the wood grating against my thin fingers, panic blossoming in my head, and the swinging old door and flickering lamp casting shadows on Nanny’s back as she left the house without a word.
* * *
It was soon obvious that fake flowers weren’t the same. They didn’t even remind me of Nanny, and they did nothing to abate the wretched state of our home and the stink of the city and Lacey’s cries and my mother’s screams. I finally threw them out our window – watched as they hit a puddle of liquid on the bustling street, and brushed against a woman’s skirt as she hurried past.
Some afternoons, I’d get the chance toe scape. When mother fell asleep after drinking and I’d put Lacey down for a nap, I explored what I could of the city. It was also on one of those afternoons that I found a sprig of dandelions clustered in a deserted alleyway. I took them home. Put them in one of the soup bowls, filled it with soil I scourged from underneath the cobblestones behind our home, and placed it next to my bed.
They were all I took to Nanny when we received a letter from her, saying she was ill but would love to see me. I sat next to her bed in a dingy inn room, the ceiling sloping above us and the blankets on the bed so thin that I could see the dark brown of her dress. Her face was worn, but still kind.
I set the flowers down on the table. Told her I’d grown them myself. I didn’t know what else to say – I didn’t trust myself to process the scene. Was I going to cry? I hoped not. Why should I? And I didn’t. We just talked about the flowers and Lacey and small, insignificant things. It felt good, just us and the flowers. It felt right. It felt like we were miles away from this place and this situation, and I think that’s what Nanny had always intended.
* * *
Two years passed. We didn’t get the chance to see Nanny again. I knew she must be dead by now. The flowers had long since died and I hadn’t tried to plant more. It cost too much to buy real flowers, and we had no money for that sort of thing.
Mother came home one night, and she was drunk. It wasn’t unusual. But this time, Lacey was still up, sewing in the firelight. I was reading with the newspaper pressed so close to my face that it touched my noise. The fire offered the only light in the room. Mother stumbled inside, the door swinging open as she batted it aside with her hand. The shouts from the street slammed into us, rocking the little room and washing us in the stench of urine and sweat. What happened next I did not concentrate on at the time. My mother stumbled towards us. Lacey said something – something like “You should go to bed” - and mother staggered towards the fire and Lacey caught her before she could fall into it, and mother hit her, screamed at her. I grabbed her arms, tried to drag her away from my sister. My mother hit me until I tasted blood. Lacey was sobbing, and she stayed, although I told her to leave. My mother grabbed the newspaper from the table and lashed out with it, towards Lacey. I shoved her backwards, away from my sister. I shoved her forwards. She fell, her head clipping the stones of the fireplace, and she lay on the floor, blood pooling around her head, and Lacey was still sobbing, and I was still standing there, barely breathing, unable to think.
* * *
I used the rest of the money we had and Lacey and I got on a train. I didn’t think – didn’t let myself double-guess. We just got on that train and left the city behind. We did it all without speaking to each other. I didn’t know what to say.
We got off when the world turned green and blue around us. When trees whistled in the breeze, and fields spread out in every direction, sweeping towards the clear blue sky and shimmering with evening rain. We clambered down off the platform, pushed through the folk milling around, and ran. I grabbed Lacey’s hand and held on tight and we just ran.
I pulled my sister after me. We walked through the short grass, rain sprinkling over us. The air raised goose bumps on my arms and bit frost at my skin, but I didn’t care. Every sensation was proof that I was here. Really here.
I stopped just before the hills, flowers clustered around my feet, their scent breathing life into my lungs. I lay down slowly. Lacey just stood there. She watched me.
“Lie down,” I said, and the flowers blanketed my body as I sunk into them.
Still she hesitated. “The flowers aren’t going to protect us.”
“And yet everything feels better when they’re around,” I replied.
I closed my eyes. And just for a minute, for a sweet blinding minute, I was still and content and I was not afraid.
And then, just as suddenly, the illusion was shattered.
“There are people coming!” Lacey said, whirling around, her eyes scanning the fields.
I sat up in the sea of flowers. Flashes of white caught my eye as I turned to stare where Lacey was pointing. Indeed, there were men coming. Five, perhaps – it was hard to see, and my vision was blurry. Whether it was from the rain or unexplained tears I don’t know.
The men were closer than I thought. Lacey rushed forward.
“Please!” she sobbed.
“You are wanted for murder,” one of the men said. “Both of you.”
He was short, and carried a gun on his hip. His face was a patchwork of years – creased, tired, stern, and devoid of pity.
He said something else, and Lacey argued back. I couldn’t comprehend their words. They were fading, distant. I was somewhere else entirely.
Movement. Violence. A man grabbed my arm and Lacey screamed, she went wild, she went wild as if the years had crushed down on her all at once.
And blood. There was blood. On my hands, on my dress, and I fell, my sister crumpled against me, gunpowder assaulting my nostrils. We crashed to the ground. Drowned in the flowers. I didn’t speak. I didn’t know how. And my sister lay in my lap, crimson spooling from her chest and painting the white flowers red. No longer could I smell the sweet country air. I just smelled her – the sweat, the dirt, the tangy blood that had somehow gotten into my mouth. And there was the rain, too - pouring down on us, turning my sister’s dress to a river of cruel pink. I closed my eyes. I did not open them.
* * *
The space is tiny. The walls are flecked with dirt and mould and splashed with peeling grey paint. I sit in the dirt, straw tickling my bare feet. My dress is crimson, matted with tears I don’t remember crying, plastered with rain and mud and the hard smear of green grass.
I look at my hands. Turn them over. My skin is a faint pink, and it is punctuated with marks.
The door opens. Nanny steps inside, and the door shuts. I stare at my hands.
“Oh child,” she says, and I look at her.
“You didn’t bring any did you,” I say.
“Flowers. Real ones.”
Something moves in her face, crushes my soul before she even speaks a word.
“What place do have flowers here?”
“They never had a place. Not in my life. But they still belonged.”
“Why should they be here?” she asks.
I don’t know. I don’t know how to say that’s not the flowers I want. It’s everything they ever represented it, but the answer I’m looking for it empty and fruitless and pathetic.
“You should rest,” she murmurs, and doesn’t take a step towards me. “Promise me you’ll rest.”
I don’t respond – don’t see the need to. And she leaves, of course she does, because why would she stay.
* * *
That night, curled up in the straw, the moon blinking through the bars to my right, my hand strays under my skirts. Between my fingers, I catch an oleander flower, press its soft petals against my skin. I lift it to my lips. Swallow it. And I slip into sleep.