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shade cast by the veranda. The lane up to the house was surrounded by fields of sunflowers. At this time of day the reflected light was dazzling. Even with sunglasses he felt his eyes being seared. There was a fog across his vision when he looked away. While letting the fog fade, William fixed his eyes on the wooden plaque above the door. For the first time, he realised that it did not portray the disc of the sun. No, it was a sunflower head. It was obvious, really – those were petals, not rays, and the smiling face was made of seeds. But now he was studying it more closely, and able to see more clearly, that smile looked less and less welcoming. He turned the key in the latch, pondering. That was an old carving, but how long had they been growing sunflowers here? Tournesol, that would be the French, though it sounded like the sun was being turned. What would the Occitan be? Spanish was, let’s see, something like the French. Giresol sounded right, dredged up from some other, distant, holiday. Staying in an apartment in a seaside town, not in a villa like this, with the Pyrennees in sight on a good day, the lights of Toulouse on a clear night. Good to have a friend at the University there who was happy to have his villa occupied over the summer. He opened the door and walked into the lounge. As always, the cat bestirred herself as he came in, and rose gracefully from a chair. But she checked her usual walk towards him, which normally culminated in a rubbing of her head on his legs, and a plaintive mew to indicate the eons that had passed since the last meal. Instead, she stopped, arched her back, hissed, and disappeared through the cat flap. William looked at the flap swinging shut with a clatter, in surprise. Who can understand cats? He laid the flowers on the table, beside the laptop computer, which he turned on. While it was getting itself going, he went into the kitchen. He half-filled a vase with water, and set the coffee maker going. He brought the vase to the table. He flowers were lying on the surface so that the remarkable blue flower appeared to be looking up at him imploringly. It was certainly outstanding among the little collection of flowers. He arranged the bunch in the vase so that the blue flower was catching the light. He could admire it as he worked. He opened up the diary he was working on. Previous days’ entries had contained notes about the countryside, speculations about the Cathar heresy and what it had meant for the evolution of Christianity and occult traditions, a description of the other diners at a restaurant in Toulouse. He scrolled down to the bottom of the document, and keyed in the day’s date on the laptop: 20 August, St Em. After a moment’s reflection, he began to work the keyboard
rapidly, a proficient writer. But the incident was still troubling him, and he kept pausing and reflecting on his account. I was driving back from St Lys when a flask of colour in the hedgerow caught my eye. It was too rich to be a discarded plastic bag or piece of twine, so I pulled over and walked back to it. The fields of sunflowers shone golden around me, all trace of last night’s thunderstorm gone. He thought, then added: perhaps the storm had promoted new growth. I’ll look for mushrooms later. There were red berries hanging from what looked like dead creepers wrapped around the trees. Elderberries from one tree. Otherwise the shrubbery was a profusion of different greens against the yellow fields and grey road. Except for some yellowing teasels and a host of small flowers, poppies, some of the small blue flowers that seem so common. And this specimen, unique among the rest, like a lily or even an orchid. A trumpet of blues, tapering to a tall stalk. A flower that must have called irresistibly to insects, though strangely there were none evident. He paused. Should he leave that bit in? Truly, he’d been too preoccupied to examine whether there were any insects around. Though it had seemed silent, he thought, silent enough to make him jump when the old woman had addressed him. Would it make a better account if he made it an old man? No, he could describe the old lady faithfully and that would be telling enough. Hmm, he could add in a stick for her to be waving around. And she could have interrupted him before he’d picked the flower instead of after… I stooped to admire the flower, pulling the stem closer to see if I could catch a fragrance. Only the faintest hint, I might have been imagining I could distinguish it from among the smells of a scorching summer. With a shock I realised I was not alone. A woman, bent and weathered like the peasant she probably was, had shuffled unheard up to me. When our eyes met she began talking in a thick country accent. I’m not sure she was even speaking standard French – it must have been overlaid by, or thoroughly mixed with, the Occitan patois that centuries of French rule had been unable to stamp out. I could only make out a few words, unsure even of these. Something about the king of flowers, the return of pastel. She was mumbling and gesturing, urgently, but I wasn’t sure whether she was warning me, asking me something, telling me to do or not to do something.
He thought for a moment, came to a snap decision and inserted before the last paragraph: She was dressed in nondescript, rather shabby clothes. But there was no doubt they were modern, this was no ghost of an ancient peasant come to haunt me in broad daylight. I realised my penknife was already open in my hand, and put it in my pocket so as to reassure her. Did that ring true? Should he say that he’d already reached out to cut the flower? That his intention was clear? That he’d already cut it and it was part of a posy in his hand? And how was he going to write about how he’d left the scene? How to present the events so that his anxiety was captured, without seeming weak and childish? How to describe driving off while the woman was still shouting and gesticulating? But while one part of him was his normal writing self, rational and calculating, there was another part of him that was reliving the sinister intensity of that encounter. A sense of dread had come over him, almost like being spaced out and paranoid on some heavy dope. His heart was beating fast right now. Push it out of my mind, write it out. She made as if to simulate drawing a knife across her throat, rolling her eyes and gurgling. There were gurgling noises from the kitchen. The coffee must be ready. He looked up. The flowers must have been poorly balanced in the vase. They’d slipped round, so that the face of the blue flower was turned his way. It was as if it was looking at him, even more imploringly than before. The smaller flowers, too, were mostly facing him. Little, expressionless visages sans yeux. He stood up, rearranged the flowers so that they were distributed in the vase in a pleasant way, catching the light, counterbalancing the clutter of paper on the table. He went behind the kitchen counter, heated some milk, poured himself a large and strong cup of café au lait. Amazing how much more delicious coffee was here. He glanced over at the table, and felt a physical shock run through his body. The flower was facing him again, having turned almost 180O from the position he’d left it in. The sense that it was staring, beseechingly, was almost palpable. He slammed his coffee cup down on the counter, with a crash that jarred his nerves. He was thoroughly spooked, as he never was in waking life – but was in
occasional nightmares. Indeed, he had awoken that morning from a particularly smothering one, had meant to write about it but instead had managed to forget it until now. That feeling of suffocation was coming back right now. He just had to get out of the house, to breathe some fresh air. As he came out through the front door, he glimpsed the cat leaping off the garden wall and making away hurriedly. The car door was hot to his touch, as was the seat when he lowered himself onto it. Without thinking, he started the car and drove out of the drive, down the lane. Through field after field, blazing gold sunflowers and occasionally a patch of slightly more muted maize. He concentrated on the road ahead, ignoring the roadside flowers. When he was a couple of minutes into the nearest wood, he spotted a path leading off into the trees. He pulled the car over onto the grass verge. The air was warm, the shade refreshing. Shafts of light penetrated the foliage, making odd patches of bark, fern and moss livid. He realised he’d left his mushroom knife and guidebook back at the house. No bother, he could do some scouting around now, maybe find some unmistakable mushrooms that could be easily picked. A few nice ceps would be just what the doctor ordered. Making a tasty meal would be a perfect way to get his mind off the crazy track it had lurched onto. That’s the trouble with living on your own. No one to tell you how erratic you’re being. The path was pleasant, and wound its way up a gentle slope. The woods were very quiet, perhaps the animals and birds were torpid in the heat. Once he disturbed a bird, which flew off clucking in panic. There was not a mushroom to be seen. Just the occasional poisonous-looking red berry, hanging from a vinelike plant that clung onto the trees. It seemed to be getting brighter ahead. William realised he was reaching the edge of the wood. He steps out of the trees, abruptly entering a field of gold. Sunflowers. Hundreds, thousands of tall plants, faces all turned in his direction. He’s filled with dread. Ok, no need to get freaked, the flowers are facing the sun, and the sun is behind me. These are the original sun-worshippers, blindly following it as if their lives depended on it. He continues to follow the path up the hill, through the field. He has to show himself that he can overcome these irrational fears. He can vividly recall the old woman’s face. How did I let her get to me like that? He pushes on, in a hurry, panting. Up the hill. On the narrowing path, pushing sunflowers aside. Their rough heads brush against him. He stops, breathless, turns to see how far he’s got.
He turns, and the first shock is to find that instead of a footpath, all he can see is masses and masses of densely-packed flowers, almost as if they have been caught in the act of jostling to crowd around him, and have frozen. The second shock is upon him immediately. The sunflowers are all facing him. He feels mobbed. The golden light is like a furnace. Whichever way he turns, the faces of the sunflowers are directed at him. Thousands of blind circles, crowding in. There is an overwhelming intensity in their appeal. Or their threat.
August/September 2004. Mones/Manchester.
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