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Carl Linnaeus’s floral clock

Sarah Lewis-Hammond

Note: This is an extract from a novel, a love story about geeks, assisted suicide and the enduring power of daydreaming.


It was the first day of the summer holiday when the secrets of the new garden were finally revealed. Liv was lying in bed. At some point during the night she had pulled the duvet out of its cover and got  inside the thin sheeting. She heard the wood pigeon coo again and guessed it was about five in the morning. She never let on that she barely slept, or at least that she thought she never slept, often unable to tell between dreams and the long, meandering stories she told herself in the dark.

Faith opened the door slowly. It creaked, as always, between the ten and eleven o’clock positions. Liv never made it creak, always slipping in and out through the smallest of gaps.

Faith was surprised to find her daughter’s eyes already open, staring at the ceiling.

She whispered, ‘What are you doing awake?’

Liv faked a yawn. ‘I heard you get up,’ she lied.

‘Get up then sleepy, we’ve got something to show you outside.’

It had been six months since everything changed, since the yellow digger moved into the patch of land out the back of the house and ate everything in its sight. Liv had watched from the window of her parents’ room. She had pushed her sweating palms on to the cold glass. After the garden was levelled and muddied a truck arrived and unloaded a mountain of turf, a stack of little grassy rolls. Liv wanted to know what was happening but didn’t ask. She humphed quietly: her parents should just tell her.

A week after the new lawn was laid she finally gave in. Her parents had dug a circular flower bed around the whole garden, planted an apple sapling in the middle, driven twelve bamboo canes into the ground, at one o’clock, two o’clock, all the way round to noon-and-midnight.

When they came back in the house, pulling off thick gardening gloves, stamping mud off boots, wiping brows with forearm sleeves, Liv said, ‘So are you going to tell me what you’re doing or what?’

‘Or what,’ Arthur replied.

‘Yep,’ agreed Faith. ‘What.’

‘Tell me,’ Liv whined.

‘OK,’ said Arthur. ‘We’re building a giant moat. Every time you drive us mad we’re going to put you on the island in the middle.’

‘Oh don’t wind her up,’ Faith said, hitting Arthur in the chest with her gloves. ‘It’s for a go-kart track.’

Liv chewed the inside of her cheek. They did this all the time.

Normally she laughed but recently she had wanted to join in and had taken to imagining conversations with them just so she could think of witty things to say. She jumped up on to her toes, eyes open wide.

‘You’re making me a giant birthday cake. Twelve canes, twelve candles.’ She swooned then, a hand on her forehead, feigning melodrama. ‘And if you’re not I’ll know you don’t love me.’

Arthur laughed and ruffled her hair, leaving dark red locks flipped the wrong way across her head and strands of outgrowing fringe scratching her eyes, before wandering off to his study.

Faith said, ‘Come on, I’m going to the garden centre to get some shrubs, come with me.’

‘What are the shrubs for?’

‘Feng shui,’ Faith replied. ‘To round off the corners.’

Liv, quietly sulking, declined the offer. Over the next few weeks she began reading her mother’s back collection of bad crime novels and built a model house from an old shoebox. Her twelfth birthday came and went with no giant outdoor cake and she barely noticed as the already sprouting bulbs went in, the little plants with tight green leaves or the ones that looked like dead twigs. It escaped her as in that hot summer of 1989 they grew huge and bright and strong.

Now, at five in the morning on the first day of the summer holidays with the last day ever of junior school behind her and with the invisible wood pigeon cooing gently, repetitively, insistently, her parents were preparing to tell all.

Outside the flowers were ready to bloom. Arthur sat on a fuzzy tartan blanket under the apple tree in the middle of the vast circular flower bed.

He turned around when he heard the back door open and smiled widely at her. He was unshaven, wearing slippers and tracksuit trousers and an old T-shirt.

‘Morning,’ he said. ‘Sleep well? Circadian rhythms all present and correct?’

She thought, again, about explaining her sleeping problems to him and decided not to. He might drag her to his lab at the university and study her brain like he did his plants. Liv’s mother ushered her out the back door and they joined him on the rug. The sun was just rising, the colour of the sky matching the colours in the garden and Arthur pointed to the five o’clock position of the flower bed.

‘Watch,’ he said. Liv watched.

Slowly, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the petals of a patch of purple morning glory began to unwind, unfurling from each other like drying butterfly wings. The movement was so gradual Liv could only see it when she blinked, or when she looked away and looked back to see that now the trumpets were open in a small o, now they were wide open, yawning, showing cheeky snatches of white around their stamens, flirty flecks of black along their petals. A sleepless bee came to browse a while, ambling from one blossom to the next.

Arthur was talking, ‘The way they flower, we call them a dense cluster of inflorescence. Or as I like to say, a clense duster. They’ll always open by five in the morning and over the day their colour fades.’ Faith said, ‘This kind is pretty useless for bouquets, they flop so soon  after picking. I had one bride who absolutely insisted that’s what she wanted so I gave her a live plant in a pot and poked the other flowers in the soil around it. Wrapped the pot in ribbon and she carried it all day. Crazy!’

In the section of bed at the six o’clock position, a group of green milk thistle buds were beginning to stretch, thin finger-like petals of yellow bursting out the top. ‘Most thistles will be open by six, some by seven,’ said Arthur. ‘The bees and insects know this. Any minute now they’ll all be here waiting for the best pickings, like queuing outside the supermarket before it’s opened.’

‘Or the pub!’ laughed Faith, before going into the kitchen coming out a few minutes later with tea and toast and marmalade. At seven o’clock the St Bernard’s lilies opened, the gossamer white star-like flowers and flashy yellow stamens. There were more bees now, humming from one plant to the next, following the bed around as each flower opened and the sun arched overhead.

They watched the scarlet pimpernel open at eight in the morning and Faith said, ‘You know, ov course, zee storee of ze French Revolu-see-on.’

And for a while, as her mother talked, Liv was no longer in the garden; instead she was a starving peasant, brother lost to the American Revolution, husband unable to pay his feudal dues because of failing crops. ‘Man is born free,’ Faith said. ‘No man has any natural authority over others.’ She watched the Estates General as King Louis XVI lost control and the National Assembly formed. She stormed the Bastille, surrounded by gunfire, cannon fire, smoke, voices, bodies. She marched on Versailles. She was the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, creeping into castles and prisons and mansions and rescuing revolutionaries from the hacking silver stroke of the guillotine.

The wood pigeon brought her back to the garden and at nine the smooth cat’s-ear showed its petals. The insects rushed like a pointillism cloud from one patch to the next.

Arthur said, ‘This is all the work of Carolus Linnaeus. Carl to his friends. He was an eighteenth-century botanist, the first person to talk about the significance of the natural world in relation to people. The work he did is the cornerstone of everything I do now.’

And then Liv was in Sweden, digging in a garden at the age of seven, finishing school at fifteen, at Lund University studying physiology, at Uppsala University studying medicine and botany, going on expeditions searching for new and exciting plants, at last publishing the Philosophia Botanica, with the proposal for the floral clock, the entire reclassification of nature, a taxonomy, a nomenclature, putting humans in their place with the other animals, rejecting the insane elevation of man.

Arthur said, ‘He was the first one that understood – and I still think he saw it more clearly than anyone else alive or dead – the interplay between man and nature, the cycling of life, the changing of state from animate to inanimate and why that matters.’

Liv said, ‘Why does it matter?’

Arthur shrugged. ‘He knew. I don’t. Wish I did. We can always know how, but we can rarely know why.’

Ten o’clock, the ice-plants opened, all the shades of purple, sheen like glass, petals like shredded metal, centres like eyelashes in the snow.

Eleven and the Hawk’s Beard began, a tiny sunburst burnt orange around the edges. Twelve and the sow thistle, pure yellow, spindly. One, two, three. Proliferous Pink, sand spurrey, pot marigold. Four, five, calendula pluvialis, hypochaeris glabra. The whole time stories of adventurers and discoverers and blossoms worn as clothes, used as medicine.

By seven the Iceland poppies showed their dusty stamen, tissuepaper leaves rustling gently in the breeze. And then, just before the sun set, the daylily split apart and each bright orange petal, like an outstretched tongue, seemed to lick up the last of the attention from the overexcited and overfed bees.

Liv spent most of that summer sitting in the middle of the floral clock, flicking through books and magazines with one eye on the flowering wave, resting in the shade of the growing apple sapling whenever it offered such a luxury.

Often Arthur would come and sit down next to her and tell stories about the flowers, about the countries they came from, about the intrepid adventurers who fought back tropical jungles and terrifying wild animals to bring back the fragile plants, about Harold Arthur Harper who fought in the war and came back with no eyes but a keen sense of smell and began gardening herbs and could tell you what time of day it was by the fragrance drifting through the air. Faith would bustle in and out on her way to deliver wedding flowers or set up the decorations for a party, always laughing, always with a new story from the shop.

At the end of the summer the flowers browned and faded and Liv started secondary school. She looked forward to the clock starting again the following year, but before the little green shoots had a chance to push away the crumbling earth, Arthur died.

Standing in the middle of the wilting floral clock, surveying the work to be done for the coming seasons, a tiny speck of pollen drifted on the breeze and flew up Arthur’s nose. He sneezed. A swollen vein in his brain burst. Hot red blood flooded his skull, his eyes, his ears. He dropped on to the soft peaty grass and was gone.

After that the floral clock was left to go wild. Seeds from the thistles blew all over the garden. Anything that grew was sharp and spiky.

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