These could be the good old days.

The day of the red feathers

We were walking down to the shops one early evening at the start of May. We were on the street two down from ours, a quiet, broad street where there’s a school and some flats and a closed-down shop and a beautiful old building that used to be a church, when we saw the red feathers.

There were many, many of them everywhere – they’d been blown all along the pavements, sticking in the bushes and trees and weeds and cracks, in the ivy and in the gutter, bright, scarlet feathers between about 3 and 10cm long. They were the same kind you get in feather boas – it was as though someone had got one (or even two, the number of feathers there still were, maybe two had had a fight) and ripped it to shreds, floating, bright red, fluffy carnage in the middle of the street. That was something I noticed, there didn’t seem to be more on one side or at one end of the street; they were so spread out that you couldn’t tell where they’d started from, there didn’t seem to be an epicentre. Like rain.

I kept seeing the red feathers, fewer and farther between, whenever I was walking around our area for the next few weeks, it felt like whenever I’d look down I’d see one. The winds took them and scattered them, and the sun and rain bleached them – I think they must have been white and had been dyed to be so bright in the first place, and gradually they become more pink and pale, fading like bruises, until you wouldn’t realise they were the same ones unless you’d seen them all that day. The stems or stalks in the middle, the harder parts, the spines of the feathers, they stayed redder for longer but mostly they got broken.

It’s been three weeks now, or thereabouts, and I still see one or two around the place. The only ones left now are caught up in something, mostly wrapped around weeds or tangled into fences. I saw one today, straggly and faint, sadly clinging to a little clump of alyssum that was growing at the bottom of a doorstep. That made me realise that I hadn’t thought about alyssum in a long, long time; I remember a big carpet of it around the edges of flowerbeds and pots in the garden of my maternal grandparents, who, I realised when reading something Sarah had written yesterday, I don’t speak or write to enough. I have a lot of good memories of being a child in their garden; I told my grandmother this – I bought her a card with a botanical illustration of a passion flower on it because it reminded me of her and there – and, my mother told me, made her cry, but in a good way.

Alyssum, then – it’s simple and understated and I used to like the smallness of it and the scent, but mostly the name, I think. They called it sweet alyssum, or maybe that was the variety, and made a thing of how it sounded like ‘sweet Alice’. Perhaps that was what I thought it was or should be called, how I’d have spelled it if I didn’t know: alice-um. But I was always good at reading, and I always used to like reading seed packets and catalogues, so on the other hand perhaps I knew how to spell it before I knew what it was. That’s how I can spell all the flowers: helianthus, delphinium, hydrangea, even fuchsia, which I remember was one of the hardest but one I liked a lot so I had to learn. Mr Fothergill’s seed packets and Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies; between the two of them my horticultural literacy was assured.

Those long sunny days that I remember in their garden being small, the school holidays, I would be with my brother and sometimes my cousins. Or on weekends in London, in the magnificent garden of my dad’s great-grandmother, a warm and tiny woman. She died when I was thirteen and she was ninety-seven. Her garden was tidy, almost formal, but if you knew where to look, which of course we did, it was bursting with life and more importantly fruit; apples, plums, gooseberries, redcurrants, and most wonderfully a mulberry tree. Me and my brother and my other cousins this time, my London Jewish ones. We’d stuff ourselves with mulberries, plump, dark and intense, and she’d warn us that we’d get tummy aches but mostly we just got sticky purple juice everywhere. It was before I ever had a sister; a sister with a flower name or otherwise. I wonder if there was a time when I would think about flowers, or leaves, and not feel even just a tiny bit sad. A time before loss, I suppose. I wonder if anybody does, or can.

At times like these I think it’s strange how symbolism doesn’t work on things outside of your head; it’s strange the difference in accountability between the imaginary and the real. If I’d dreamed all this, the story of the red feathers and the spring alyssum, you’d say that everything meant something; perhaps the feathers were some metaphor for… K, or time, and the red was because of my phobia that I’d been thinking and worrying about, and the fading was because of me worrying about being trapped in my job, and so on and so forth. Everything would have its place, everything its reason. But I didn’t dream it, it just happened one day in the street, and so it doesn’t have all that neat translation or explanation, it doesn’t have to be reasonable or reasoned with.

I didn’t mean this to be sad.

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