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Vulgar Yellow Flowers

Author's note: 'Vulgar Yellow Flowers' is a story about a person healing themself through creativity after a relationship that diminished them. It's about the beauty of wild nature, the way apparently small matters can have a significant impact on a person's wellbeing – in positive ways as well as negative ones – and how feeling 'seen' for who we are can enable us to blossom. This is its first publication.

Alone in her alimony apartment, she’s adrift. She doesn’t know who to be, or where to go. She looks in the mirror at this person, and wonders who she is, now she’s no longer who she was. She sits. Drinks endless cups of tea. Watches out of the window.


‘You’re so refreshing, Chloe. Such a breath of fresh air.’ Ben’s kindness made the difference at that job. Temps are always a fish out of water, or overlooked, or both.  She was out of her depth in Ben’s office. Everything so understated, yet so competitive. So meticulous. It had to be. On the floor they made fortunes. Figures came first. It was a long time before she knew they ran a book on who could bed the temps, and by then she was under his spell.


He whirled her off her feet. Champagne after work. Cocaine and cocktails. Complimentary tickets for Bruce Springsteen. What a first date. Then Glastonbury. A yurt. Hampers. Edinburgh, for the Festival, guestlisted for comedy shows that started in the middle of the night. He bought her a dress from a vintage shop, soft cotton, covered in yellow roses. They were new then. She thought that was who they were. She told him, quietly, that she hoped she could write poetry. He didn’t laugh at her. ‘Clever, quirky, Chloe,’ he said.


She wore the dress the first time he asked her out with his work friends. His female colleagues were swans, as sleek and chic as a photoshoot. She was the ugly duckling in her Edinburgh dress, that had been so perfect at the festival. ‘You looked sweet,’ said Ben. ‘You looked like a poet.’ He took her to Harvey Nicholls at the weekend. She put on the pieces he picked out and looked at her reflection in the glass. The elegant woman who looked back at her was a stranger. ‘Beautiful’. It was the first time Ben said that. He bought the clothes, and she learned to wear the reflection’s mask.


After they were married, it took all her effort, being that woman. The person who wanted to write poems couldn’t find any words. She put her notebook in a bag in the back of the wardrobe, with the dress covered in roses.


Through lockdown, she’s on her own. No bubble, just her. She watches the leaves fall. Watches the rain. Sees her reflection in the window. This insubstantial face, this ghost woman, floating in glass. One day she notices two squirrels in a tree. Smiles at the sight of their funny little bodies, reckless, hurling themselves from twig to twig, suspended in the air, landing so deftly, so fearlessly. Two furry trapeze artists. The face in the glass smiles back at her. Who is that woman? she thinks. What does she like?


She likes the squirrels. The tree. She likes the green shoots of the first flowers poking their way through the cold winter soil. Snowdrops, then crocuses, then daffodils. Yellow flowers, the colour of the sun. The colour of happiness. Sunflowers, turning their faces to the sun. She picks up a notebook, and a pen. Watches the woman in the glass make notes. She likes writing words, she thinks.


 ‘We’re going to make a fantastic team.’ That’s what Ben said in his wedding speech. ‘We’re going to achieve so much together.’ He was going places. His ambition was exciting. Later it was exacting. ‘It’s not quite… is it?’ each time she didn’t measure up. He was always kind, but she could tell how disappointed he was.


It was easier to be what he wanted. Diamonds at her neck. On her fingers and in her ears. Platinum, of course. Stealth wealth, minimal elegance. No obvious status symbols. Those who know, knew. She wrapped herself in cream and grey and beige, wondering as she wore them that clothes could cost so much, and offer so little comfort.


Their house was like her clothes. Muted. Expensive. Every shade of grey and nothing out of place. Black granite and white marble. Polished chrome. shining appliances. Ivory lilies on the central island. They reminded her of death. Once, she bought sunflowers. ‘I don’t like yellow flowers,’ said Ben. ‘They’re vulgar.’


She looks at the garden she hasn’t planted and notices dandelions and buttercups. Wandering buttercups, spreading joy. Bright yellow dandy lions, swashbuckling marauder of genteel lawns. Dandelion clocks. What time is it, Mr Wolf? She writes the words in her notebook.


It was Ben’s house. He filled it. His ideas. His ambitions. His clients. They sat at the granite table and talked about commodities. She entertained them, and understood why entertainers got paid, because it was all such a performance. She put on the show he wanted and wondered if he could still see her.


To stop herself becoming invisible she tried a lipstick called Strawberry Fair but her reflection in the bathroom mirror looked back at her with a clown’s mouth. Ben wouldn’t like it, said the voice in her head that always knew exactly what he wanted. She picked up the nude shade he liked and watched herself disappear in the mirror.


It’s an act of courage, going to the poetry group. It’s just after lockdown, when people are starting to do things. She hovers outside. Nearly doesn’t go in. She thinks it will come off her in waves – that she’s empty and sad. Cast aside, with nothing to say for herself. Nothing worth saying, anyway, and no one to say it to. But she thinks of the squirrels. They fling themselves from tree to tree, never thinking they might fall. She takes a deep breath. Pushes open the door. Stands, for just one moment. Makes the leap.


Doesn’t fall.


She made an effort to match the clothes. The shining surfaces. The thick cream lily perfection. But she had so many shortcomings. Her body was unruly. Her hair was unruly. Her thoughts were unruly. She was unruly, and Ben was disappointed. Never unkind. Just, disappointed. Everything was hard edges, smooth surfaces. The perfect backdrop for the high achiever and his corporate wife. Sleek, and glossy. Except for her. Once she thought he liked that about her.


There were to be no hard feelings. The settlement was more than generous. Ivana was what he needed, Ben said. At this stage of his life. She had the polish, the shine. ‘We wouldn’t want to hold each other back,’ he said.’ We’ll be friends’, he said. ‘We wanted different things,’ he said. But she didn’t know what she wanted.


‘Ah! A new writer,’ The voice has a welcoming burr but she can’t make out who it belongs to in the circle of new faces because her head’s swimming. ‘Hello. Please, find a seat. There are biscuits, somewhere.’ New lives don’t need to start with fireworks. Sometimes, a biscuit will do.


She holds her biscuit in her hand, not daring to nibble it, listening to each person as they introduce themselves. Their name. What they write. When it gets to her, she shakes her head. ‘I’m new,’ she says. ‘I stopped writing for a long time. But I…’


‘The words will come. And we’re glad you’ve come here to make a start.’ The warm voice comes from a woman in a saffron dress. ‘I’m Afsiyeh. This evening we’re going to think about what makes the start of something new.’


Afsiyeh’s a good teacher. For every person that reads out their fledgling lines, there’s a kind word, and a gentle suggestion. Something to amplify, something to take care of. Such attention to detail.


She doesn’t read anything that first week, or the second, or the third. ‘When you’re ready,’ says Afsiyeh. ‘You can’t hurry something. Let it take its time. Be what it needs to be.’ She writes words in her notebook and wonders if she dares to read them out loud. Wonders about Afsiyeh, too. She’s open enough about who she is. Used to be a busker, then wrote lyrics. Then poems. A widow. ‘Finding my way through the fire. The only way though is through.’ She thinks about that, too. You can’t go back, she tells herself. Everything hurts but you’ve got to get to the other side.


She’s alone, but as she writes in her notebook and watches the squirrels and drinks tea, it comes to her that she’s not lonely. Or not as lonely. She’s becoming, she thinks, and writes it down. She wonders if Afsiyeh is lonely.


The next week, she reads a poem about becoming. The group all clap when she finishes and she feels absurdly happy, as if she’s won something. They aren’t just a group now. They’re Doreen, Andrea, Simon, Marcus, Imani, Ralph, Walter, Tom, Anni and Gaia. And Afsiyeh. When Walter suggests they go to the pub after their session, like he does every week, this time she doesn’t feel like a spare part. A tagalong.


She could never handle her drinks. More than two and she starts to melt. A giddy puddle. ‘I’m such a weed’, she says. ‘I’ve got a fondness for weeds,’ says Afsiyeh. ‘They’re resilient. Survivors, even when they’re not wanted. Come on, you’re not staggering home on your own like that. Back with me.’ She hauls her to her feet. ‘Anyway, who gets to decide what’s a weed? They’re flowers with a mind of their own, that don’t want to do what they’re told.’


A vulgar yellow flower, that won’t do what it’s told. She thinks she says it out loud. The laughter ripples up from her in waves.


‘Come along, little weed.’ Afsiyeh holds out her coat. ‘Let’s get you safely bedded before you wilt. You need a good pair of boots.’ She points to her own well-worn Docs. ‘Hold you down to earth.’


Afsiyeh leads her behind the houses, off the beaten path. ‘Down the cut, and home. Nearly there.’ Down to the canal. A world of dark water. They walk past narrow boats with twinkling lights. Afsiyeh pulls a torch from her pocket to light the gangplank, and carefully hands her off the land onto her floating home. ‘This is me.’


She’s never been on a houseboat before. Afsiyeh lights lamps and a log in the burner. Puts the kettle to boil. They sit with their hands round mugs of hot tea in the lamplight. Two women, telling stories.


‘I came here five years ago.’ Afsiyeh points to a picture of herself, a young version in a bright print frock, with a man with wild, curly hair. ‘Thirty years. We were in the band together – that’s how we met. We never had any money but he gave me the greatest treasure. He made me believe in my words.’


The lamps in their holders frame Afsiyeh with light. She’s never met anyone so full of grace. Afsiyeh’s smile is full of crooked teeth that glint with gold. ‘It took a while for a different life to shape itself around me, but it did.’ In the lamp glow Afsiyeh’s weathered face takes on a goddess serenity. ‘I was so adrift after Rico died but on the water I’ve made myself a home. I didn’t think I’d be OK, but I was. You will be too.’


Such kindness, to a stranger. She’s still drunk enough to say her thoughts out loud. ‘But you’re not a stranger.’ Afsiyeh laughs. ‘You’re a friend I’ve only just met. And perhaps a sunflower. Who knows what little weeds might turn into.’


The next morning, she wakes on the bench, folded in blankets. Though it’s early, there’s no sign of Afsiyeh. She wraps one of the blankets round herself and heads onto the deck. Watches the sun make its way above the water, and the birds, and the canal people coming to life.


That’s where Afsiyeh finds her.


Afsiyeh has a canvas bag, and draws up a rickety table in front of her. ‘You unpack that. I’ll go below and get the kettle on.’


She lays out what Afsiyeh has brought.


On the top, a bunch of buttercups and daisies and dandelions.


Below, what treasures. Afsiyeh gives me butter, she thinks. She gives me honey. Ripe, crumbling cheddar. Fresh eggs. Afsiyeh gives me every golden thing.


She writes down words, in a notebook. A poem perhaps? Or at least, a beginning. A weed, beginning to flower.


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