This month’s blog is an extract from my new novel, Geraniums, which will be released on 28th April. I have kindly been invited to speak on it at the Oxford Literary Festival on 2nd April. Please come along if you have space and time, and you happen to be in Oxford, England.
Geraniums, Chapter 27, page 162
One evening, while working on extra-credit for World History, trying to please M, who I thought might end her eternal litany of put-downs.
You are not bright because your mother… Your teeth are bad because your mother… Your manners are bad because your mother… She was a failure… your mother, and so are you… or will be… like your mother.
I read about Ancient Greece. The school text was thin and the junior edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica hardly more informative. However, the white, leather-bound, gold-embossed adult Encyclopedia Britannica, with added, full-plate transparencies, contained everything anyone could possibly want to know about Antiquity.
I loved it, the sound of it, the strangeness of it—Ancient Greece. Even more, I relished the additional entries: Religion, Maps, the River Styx. Placed neatly on a map, the River Styx inspired me, and so I drew my own. Placed just beyond the Parthenon, I coloured my river a midnight blue. Beside it, a three-headed dog welcomed the dead. His tail wagged. I imagined, as I read, the dead crossing the River Styx before coming back in another form.
This idea reassured me. It gave me hope for my mother, who might even now be occupying herself with actually being dead for real. But according to ancient beliefs I knew we would see each other again – if not in this lifetime, then the next. While I did not know how long a lifetime might be, I put the mathematics of it all out of my head, safe in the knowledge that even if Mom came back in a different shape and size, I would recognise her. I would know her by the geraniums she would grow, the fig bars she would bake and the Chanel No. 5 she would wear. By the smell of all three, possibly.
Yes, I would know her.
I was happy when M gave me a pass with only two spelling mistakes on the extra credit, and I started to pack my satchel with the report on Ancient Greece and my secret get-back-to-Mom plan.
“Lily, your work is acceptable, and I might even say I appreciate your attempt to write. You do a good job, considering who your mother was.”
I fiddled with the straps on my book bag, wondering what M wanted next, and then I remembered what I’d forgotten: Science.
“So where is the rest of your work?”
“I’m sorry, M, I forgot. May I do it tomorrow?”
“No. Now. Right now. Right here. In front of me.”
I just wanted to put my head down and think about Mom. I wanted to go back to the twilight, the River Styx, where I would meet her, recognise her whatever garb she might be in, but with M staring down at me from across the table above the thick book she pretended to read, I knew I had to get started.
Pulling the thin, mimeographed sheet with the Biology assignment from my notebook, I sat back, and read: Write or draw your understanding of the parts of a plant; this is called botany. Lining my coloured pencils all up in a row, in the colours of the rainbow – purples, reds, greens, blues – fanning them out into an arch, I had no idea what to do.
“Stop playing with your pencils, Lily.”
“I need the encyclopaedia,” I said, always a good escape tactic.
“Go and come straight back.”
In the sunroom, I loitered. I didn’t know which fat volume to choose. Plants. Biology. Botany.
In my mind I saw Nana’s back garden, recalled sitting on the stoop with Granddad, and Lauren Rose bringing home two little clay pots with tipsy geraniums from her first day of work. I remembered the small mound outside the stone house in Normandy, the window boxes, and Mom saying, “One white geranium will keep a snake away.” For a minute I saw the windowsills in M’s sunroom covered in pots of all sizes, with geraniums in all the colours of the rainbow. Some were old, and some were new, and like a mini snow globe someone turned M’s house upside down and the petals rained down, swirled all around.
“Lily, what are you doing in there? How long does it take to get the volume marked B for Botany?”
Sitting back at the table, I didn’t see anything, even with the book open in front of me. Instead I saw everything I needed in my head. I lined my paper into quarters, with the top left labelled shoot system and bottom left labelled root system. The bottom right would hold the feathery geranium roots, still clumped with dirt, fresh from the earth, and the top right the flowers, leaves and stems – fresh with the smell of lemony rose chocolatey pineapple – blowing in the wind.
M turned her pages heavily. The wall clock in the kitchen ticked noisily, but I felt safe in my thoughts, with my X-ray vision, seeing straight through every pot in the French kitchen windows where Mom used to say, “Watch out for the kerosene lanterns, children.”
I drew the stem, green and straight. Then the roots – primary and secondary – spreading out like a fisherman’s net. I shaded over my grey roots with a light brown earth-coloured pen. The scalloped leaves I drew up and out – eight of them in all different sizes, smallest at the bottom, balanced on their petiole, firmly attached at the forking node. I sat back as M hovered around.
“It’s getting late, Lily. Let’s go.”
I shaded leaves, the nodes, the internodes and the petioles as fast as I could, and labelled them with a sharp, black pen. Then, throwing caution to the wind, and I knew this was dangerous, I drew a grouping of eight flowers balanced at the top of the stalk with five petals each. Four small buds I drew underneath.
Finally M sat back down, returning to her endless book.
I took my brightest red pencil and coloured carefully every flower and every bud, then deeply outlined them with my fine-point black biro. I managed to shade the full image and create a sort of see-through clay pot. I imagined it in Mom’s hand, and her walking back to the garden shelf to collect her gloves and small trowel.
“Lily,” my grandmother said sharply, waking me up, “that’s enough.” She closed her book. “Could you not have thought of anything else?”
I put the cap back on the pen.
“It’s a geranium,” I said with a sense of triumph, bringing Mom back to life once again.
“I know what it is.” She sighed.