The red smudge in the road wasn’t blood – and too flat to be a cat or a hedgehog. It was definitely, however, something run over, that had once been alive. I could still make out the outline of a leaf or two and the squashed head of a flower – maybe the remains of rose or a tulip, it was hard to tell. A St Valentine’s Day casualty, perhaps, torn from an unwanted bouquet, then thrown from a car during a row….I started to look round for supporting evidence – but a van was approaching and I didn’t want to share the flower’s fate.
An unromantic truth – any flower in human hands is already dying. Left untouched, the flower growing in the wild or forgotten somewhere in a garden, will follow its natural cycle and only die in part, its seeds sown into the wind, its roots still alive. Like the bluebell in an ancient wood or a poppy in a field – but once taken from the ground, away from the plant and the insect, the flower’s short life is cut shorter still and no longer just itself. Still lovely and fragrant for a while, the flower enters a world of our creation, with many parts to play and subject to a basic instinct of our own – to beautify and decorate the body, home and – sweet irony – the grave.
No one knows what the first flowers looked like, but fossilised specimens prove they were here millions of years before early man arrived and a special relationship began. They said it with flowers when words did not yet exist. Pollen found in a Neanderthal cave was all that was left of an offering to the dead – and much later, in Ancient Egypt, a garland was arranged around the mummified neck of the teenage Tutankhamun. In a tomb full of golden riches, botanical treasure. Waterlilies, cornflowers and olive leaves, for the passage into eternity. The modern wreath is more for show and sympathy, for those who mourn…
Flowers too for other times of high emotion, in their other great ritual role, for those who celebrate. Formal arrangements for the happy occasion, to add beauty to the scene and offer an alternative focus of attention. Something else to look at and admire, away from the bride or birthday boy…
And yet it’s often the unexpected encounter with a single flower, on an unrecorded date, that will stay with you the longest. It’s as if something lovely, fragile and short-lived is granted a compensating power – to create a memory that will last a lifetime.
I don’t remember exactly where or when my toddler son found a daisy in the grass and presented it to me as solemnly as only a small child can. I’m sure no existential thoughts about the fate of flowers entered my head; I just knew it was a gift of love from the pure of heart, so accepted it gravely and let him put it in my hair.
Twenty-three years later, I was offered another token of love, that was much harder to receive.
Belgrade, Serbia, September, 2009
A gypsy – or a woman dressed as one – came into the restaurant, carrying a basket of single-stem roses, which she offered to the men in our party, to buy for the ladies at the table. They all resisted, except for my partner, who chose one and gave it to me. The other men – let off the romantic hook – applauded with enthusiasm. It was all a bit embarrassing, but I accepted the rose with as good a grace as I could muster.
I didn’t want to keep it or press it between the pages of a book, but it wasn’t the flower’s fault that – like the relationship – it was past its best. So I put it in a toothbrush glass, to show some respect. We were on a river cruise, in a cabin with a French balcony, and a day or so later, when he was in the bar, I slid open the glass door and cast the rose upon the waters of the Danube and watched it float downstream.
For someone who much prefers the primrose, the pansy or the daffodil, the rose has made a surprising number of appearances in my landscape. Of all the flowers that are in the world, the poor rose droops the heaviest with all the symbolism hung upon it – competing with the cross and the star – but to me its only abiding appeal is something unique to itself: its structure.
It’s not the only one with a magically repeating pattern. The sunflower’s golden sequence of seeds is a mathematical marvel, but there’s something about the rose’s tight enfoldment of petals – the bud that becomes full bloom – that hints at a hidden possibility, that within a small story might be a much larger one….
The year after the cruise, I encountered another rose in Central Europe. This one was white, and starting to wilt in the heat. It was not in a vase, but in a clean tin with a little water inside – the kind of tin that had once held fruit in syrup. Someone had stooped by a railway line and set the tin beside it.
Kracow, Poland, August, 2010
The coach collected me and several others from different hotels and drove us about forty miles to the country’s top tourist destination. A guide met us at the gate and rushed us round the brick barracks of the main camp before the coach appeared again and deposited us in the much vaster space of the second camp: Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was a hot day and I was glad of the bottled water in my bag. It was a relief to be free of the guide and I wandered round the barbed-wire perimeter, past the huts, watchtowers and piles of rubble and twisted metal – the ruins of what were once gas chambers and crematoria, then returned to the area in front of the archway, where the trains came in – and where I saw the white rose in the tin. A touch of beauty in a place of utter desolation.
I’ll never know who left it or why or whether there was an ancestral story there or not, though the washing out of the tin suggests that there was. The Jewish tradition, I knew, was to leave pebbles or rocks to commemorate the dead, not flowers, but there were so many stones there already, by and between the tracks.
The coach was waiting, so I topped up the water in the tin from the bottle in my bag, then turned away.
One more flower to add to this mixed bouquet, seen only in a famous photograph, taken in America in 1967, outside the Pentagon. We love investing different kinds of flowers with meaning, but sometimes it doesn’t matter what family a flower belongs to – when its power is not personal, but political.
The photograph shows a girl in a summer dress, protesting against the war in Vietnam. She’s confronting a line of National Guard bayonets and holding out a chrysanthemum. The flower is the message, the ultimate non-violent object.
Back in the everyday world, most cut flowers lead less heroic lives. They’re the bunches in a bucket, last-minute additions to the shopping trolley. Once trimmed and tidy in a vase, they’ll serve their simple purpose – to add colour and charm to the home.
Pleasing people is what flowers do best, and a florist friend of mine has made a lot of money merchandising them. She specialises in aspirational arrangements, using soft string, scissors and green foam, bending even twigs and blossom to her will. These are not just flowers, but ‘lifestyle accessories,’ she says, that can ‘instantly transform a room.’
I heard her give a talk once, about how fresh flowers can naturalise the artificial environment, like an office with rows of computers on identical desks. Gentle outlines in a hard-edged world. A little like the flower and the gun, in sharp and perfect contrast. Two opposing but equal forces that look so right together in the photograph… A visual version of ‘opposites attract’ and a twist on the same old human story of love and war, lost and won – that a flower can illuminate, but never tell.