A Study of Tulips

Sep 25  |  Katja Sass

She and I used to sit for hours looking at the tulips, the way they contorted once they started dying, acting like they were only just coming alive.
We lacked grace, mother and daughter on a run-down 80’s council estate, but we made up for it with that extraordinary way we carried ourselves, sending out our bright, fulsome colour to splash against the grey of the empty car parks and coat the full black bin bags.

When I came round one Sunday, my cheeks raw from the sleeve of my jacket, and broke down in the sitting room, it felt like there might be a little delight in her uncommitted consolation, relieved I was struggling, like her. She was my age again, clutching my small hand in front of the out-of-date reductions in the supermarket, swaying and smiling, as though we were dancing in a vase, not drowning in the dirty water.

Later, when I told her I’d started medication and was getting better now, she nodded, looked past me to the empty windowsill.

Get me some tulips next time you come, she said.

I came every weekend with flowers. She loved pink best, for their anaemic beauty, but she never enjoyed any of them until they started dying. And, when tulips were out of season, so was she, not straight, nor bending, just absent.

When we left the hospital the day they said her chemotherapy wasn’t working, I tried to talk about it, but we went to Marks and Spencer’s instead and stood in the flower section. She moved her hands over the petals with her eyes closed. They were her confidantes, I just paid for them.

The night she died, the tulips on her bedside table were casting shadows around the hospice room. The small light above her was weak and couldn’t fully capture their fluid beauty, so instead it somehow straightened their stalks, casting a lie onto the wall.

She closed her eyes in refusal.
I imagine her watching the veins inside her eyelids, the pinkish pulse of blood rising, wild colour shooting, magical, unwieldy, out into the heavens, as her cracked lips mouthed back on Earth, no, I was never ordinary.

Now that she’s gone, my husband brings home tulips to remind me of her.

At first he claims he’s unimpressed with their catwalk-superficial beauty, their velvety clothes and long, straight legs, stretched out into clear, fresh water.

After a few days, when they wilt, despairing, drowning, distorted, he lies, Don’t they look beautiful?

I feel those same unnatural angles in my hips, shoulders, neck, when he goes to kiss me.

At night time, he locks up the back door, leaves me alone with the small light on. I watch their shadows on the wall, stems dark and silent, drawing erratic, unrecognisable lines that only she and I would understand.

Tonight the tulips will turn the water brown, draw the dirt up through their tired stalks, act like they’re only just coming alive.