War Against the Daisies
A short story
Let me hypnotise you. No, seriously, this will be fun. It’s the summer of last year, so what are you doing? Okay, so you want me to go first? We don’t have a pocket watch, so you’ll have to light up your phone screen and swing it if you want this to happen. Yes, that seems to be working. Really, you want to go back to 2012? Couldn’t you pick a less traumatic year? I’m falling into…
I’m me but different. Tell me about myself (trying to sort out the syntax). That’s not a command, just being objective — and then there’s only one conscious version of me. It wins, sounds opinionated and then I slip into the way I was then and weird becomes normal. Listen.
A rare skill is required for a teenager to be aware of increasingly unstable parents, during the years when you live under the illusion that everyone is raised the same way as you. Perhaps it isn’t difficult for everyone else reading this, but in my family a literary editor hardly ever gets carried away and a journalist exaggerates tears of one type or another all of the time, so I’ve learned to edit-out everything that sounds like their established pattern. How was I supposed to calibrate difference? They both ask me at least twice a week “How do you feel?” — but then don’t listen to the answer. I wonder what would happen if I said ‘pregnant’.
Dad is concerned about daisies today and wants to get rid of some from the lawn. They appear to irritate him, with their insolent yellow/white blossoms poking up like anarchists within a mile of Piccadilly. I remember when he used to sit in his deckchair contented and raise a book instead, but that time is away and now he always has to be doing something.
For display purposes, our front garden is at the back and our back garden is at the front and anyone whosever does not comprehend that doesn’t know England or the secrets of composting (see leaf mould, uric acid and keeping what you do with them out of sight).
Plants weren’t my thing, so Dad made me read Love on a Branch Line, by John Hadfield, as it is a romance and he calculated that that would interest a girl, which might indirectly drag me into the hobby of plucking away ineffectually at gardens. Anticipating the far future of this, I would then be in line for all the heavy digging when his back was pooped.
“Is the soil calciferous?”, the hero asks. “No, not a drop of lime”, the matriarch replies, impressed enough to draw this wonderful man to the bosom of the family.
Dad always tries to steer my interests by giving me a book from one of our blocks of shelves, sometimes even buying new ones, but in this volume of romance he’d forgotten that it was a guy and three girls, which would appeal to his fantasies a lot better than it would mine. Still, I liked it and became acutely aware of flower beds existing. “Is the soil calciferous?”, the hero asks. “No, not a drop of lime”, the matriarch replies, impressed enough to draw this wonderful man to the bosom of the family. “Then let’s have dahlias and banks of gladioli!” The twist is he knows nothing about gardening and has been ill, confined to his room for a week with the Thompson & Morgan seed catalogue. “Oh, you are perfect”, she thinks, and indirectly “which of my unattached daughters would you like to hop on?” I read to the end of the chapter and try not to think about being one of his try-outs, somewhat unsuccessfully, well not until university anyway when I suppose I’ll do some trying out of my own. I picture hydrangeas instead, the bulbous complexity of the most un-sexy plant ever, then slip downstairs for a refill of tea. Mum has completely stopped drinking tea since coming back. I guess there isn’t room for everything. I would ask her if she wants a coffee but she isn’t around. There was something she said about a squash court membership, so she could have a shower there and come back late.
There’s a family in our village who got into one of the earliest editions of the Guinness Book of Records by stringing together what was, at the time, the world’s longest daisy chain. Long since surpassed but, even so, they did their bit in the inter-species struggle down the ages. I like to think that the kinship with lawns began with the arrival of St Francis of Assisi, who stood for the very first time on a field of fresh-cut grass and said aloud to his congregation “Oooh, spongey. Yes, I do like the feel of this. Ha-ha, boing-boing, who needs sandals?”, so they made more of the stuff and soon every house had one and lawns have been trouble ever since. Beginners began, as they do, with rye grass because it is hard wearing; then, special gardens led the trend as they diverged into bluegrass or experimented with moss and camomile. Our lawn was perfect, except for the imperfections and that apparently meant daisies. What is he up to? Go see.
Young ladies are expected to move slowly in Sussex, but I am at home and suspect the aliens who police this sort of etiquette are not watching.
An interruption of bees is causing Dad to perform semaphore at the bottom of the garden. I run down to see what’s happening, then apply the brakes. Young ladies are expected to move slowly in Sussex, but I am at home and suspect the aliens who police this sort of etiquette are not watching. I don’t want to get a bee in my hair though. That would suck.
“They’ve come for the daisies. There weren’t any here before, not in this area.” Daisies and bees are in cahoots!
“Should I pick them?”, I ask, “but not all today. It’s going to take ages.”
He shakes his head and tells me you have to go for the roots or they only pop up again. They are flagrant, absolutely flagrant in this regard. It occurs to me they just want to live and feel the warmth of the sun, but I’m quiet as that’s testing the controversial.
It’s still the summer holidays and Dad’s daisy fixation is getting worse. It rains in the later afternoon and there’s lightning over distant hills, but he stays out on the lawn and I worry about him. King Lear is the character he reminds me of at this moment, with the only lines I could remember at this age being: “Blow wind blow and crack your cheeks, you cataracts and hurricanoes spout ‘till you have drenched our steeples”. Poor steeples, designed steep and never bothered by rain I think, which is the point at which my memory dries up in the stiffening wind. A misquote anyway, but what do you expect? Come on. I’m not an actor and the rest of the line is really rude. On reflection, my memory is built out of misquotes, some of which I like to think are an improvement. He’s coming in, with a bag of pickings. I put the tea on.
The next day dawns. It means we have puddles on the lawn and I’ll get welly burns. Mum’s an investigative journalist, so doesn’t quote the classics and, anyway, she’s off out, even though she’s been back from Africa for the whole of spring term and now it’s summer. I don’t know what she’s investigating in England that keeps her this busy but she’s got no time for me, except pulling my curtains in the morning. In the evening she drinks, has phone calls and hardly talks to Dad. When it rings, she always answers because it is never for him. We used to have dinner parties where I met journalists you see on the TV and they told me about far away places like Palestine and Santiago, but not lately, nothing lately. I usually have toast for dinner when Mum’s out.
When she’s gone, again, Dad tries to buy sodium chlorate weedkiller but finds out that’s banned because you can add sugar to this chemical to make amateur bombs. It seems that the only weedkillers that are still licensed for sale to the public are products that don’t do the job because the active ingredient is mixed with a fire suppressant, just turning spots in the grass a light brown colour and letting it all grow back in a couple of weeks. Bleach, he says, is better and cheaper.
This always happens when he goes in the shed. I stand back but still close enough to observe, like a good documentary maker.
He has an idea, explores and empties granddad’s industrial-age tool shed, then emerges for a while to put Germolene on a cut from a rusty saw. This always happens when he goes in the shed. I stand back but still close enough to observe, like a good documentary maker.
The draw to solve this bio-threat once and for all is too strong, so he’s back in there and crumply ferreting noises follow. “You can sharpen knives with this”, he says, offering me a thing made of metal and stone that’s shaped like Princess Leia’s haircut. “The safety guards are missing but I don’t think you need them.” No, of course not Dad. I don’t need them because I won’t be using this, or anything else that runs on humpback whale oil.
The dirty, badly rusted jerry can he pulls out next seems to excite him. He tells me he’s found proper weedkiller and didn’t know we still had it. I can see the label is falling off, perhaps from all that expanding in the summer and contracting in the winter, so he’s probably right that whatever is inside is now internationally banned and therefore must be one hundred percent effective. It’s too late in the evening to deploy it now, or at least to see what he’s doing with a substance that may potentially eat through his canvas shoes, so he retreats inside to watch the snooker. I go to my room to look something up because (can’t remember who) mentioned Dadaism and I don’t know what that means because I’m fifteen. I won’t be caught out again.
Mother wants me to meet some people from work, so we go to tea. How quaint. “You’re not old enough to drink”, she adds, which isn’t all bad news because when she has a glass of wine, she sips it and then doesn’t stop this side of midnight.
The ‘people from work’ turn out to be a fashion-conscious man and his common daughter. The conversation is unbearably pointless and I want to go home to look more things up. Is there something they’re not saying? Who cares, not me.
Dad’s war against the daisies is going badly. The insidious beasts are trying to annexe the far end of our territory, probably with the intention to declare independence and be aligned with the really big fields behind them, where they do the collective agriculture. In grown-up farming, daisies get squashed, but perhaps they don’t know that. Battalions of frightful buttercups have moved up to join them from the east. We see no nettles or goose-grass, which is the stuff with green hairballs that stick to your jumper, but they could be poised and waiting. I find cuckoo-spit, which isn’t spit and doesn’t really come from cuckoos.
I watch Dad the champion tackling these daisy intruders like Hector sallying forth from the City of Horses, just missing bright plumes streaming in the wind. I think there should be a famous statue called ‘Dad and the Daisies’. I could practice carving that from a potato and send it to someone who works with bronze.
Back inside at 6pm, mother is back, swimmy-eyed and she’s soon heading back out again. I hope she won’t take the car but it’s okay, she’s got a lift from the gate. Dad doesn’t look up because he’s still engrossed in Phase II of the struggle, so I go to look up the word internecine.
I haven’t told them but I’m stressed about Biology class because I can’t make mandibles fit together. The teacher thinks this might affect my employment prospects, so I head back in and spot the weedkiller can on the ground next to the bins. It is light and empty but wet down the sides, so I smother it inside a supermarket bag and drop the lot inside the dustbin. After collection day, I would never have to explain in the police station why we were hoarding dual-use armaments prohibited by conventional weapons treaties. Sigh, moving on.
A few weeks have gone and I find I’ve been left alone again to play with the daughter of that man I had to go to tea with. She doesn’t seem thrilled to spend her day with me either, so we get along grudgingly. She admits she’s been asked to make an effort with me. I don’t see the need because it’s not as if we’ll be pen pals or anything like that.
I explain about the daisies when she notices the state of the lawn. There are brown holes in what is supposed to be a velvety carpet, in the middle of which you can find a saucer of bare, dead clay. It’s to get the roots, I say. A tricky business. She doesn’t think daisies matter. Possibly not an issue in the grand scheme of things, I say, but if you want a perfect lawn you have to dig out the roots. She takes in the perfect lawn, with its pock-marks, trenches and voids that will never grow back. Again, there’s something she’s not saying.
“Will you stay here?”, she asks me.
“Yes, of course. It isn’t that bad. I could try putting new soil in the holes or asking Dad to stop it.”
“No, I mean after.”
“After?” — she’d lost me.
“You do know about my dad and your mum?” I didn’t know that.
“You mean like…?” The world is suddenly a very unsteady place to stand.
“They’re, you know, shagging.” Thanks, you didn’t need to say it. So the pieces are fitting together.
“You’re lucky my Dad’s serious. She was with someone else in Nairobi — and he’s really trying, like, to do the right thing and include you. He offered you some cake that time.” She rests her case as I’m thinking: A slice of cake in exchange for my mother?
“What a deal”, says my Dad, at the turn of the gutted month. “They’ve started making it again.”
He means the ‘good’ chemicals, which he’s ordered especially from the garden centre outside town. All his conversation circulates around the daisy problem now, how we must KILL them all because my Dad has lost control.
There was a row last night, an editor’s row which means one that is very quiet. Mum has moved out before I woke up this morning and for the first time my curtains didn’t happen, so I’m leaving them closed all day in protest.
If I tapped him right now it would make a hollow sound.
I can see Dad is destroyed and can’t even look up at me. If I tapped him right now it would make a hollow sound. I don’t want to go anywhere, you can’t make me, thinking what a cry of rage I could fuel if the refuse men hadn’t collected that can of poison. I allow myself to be collected and seat-belted and kidnapped by a strange tribe. Life ends and a new, sadder life begins, as I grow an inch taller or possibly an inch down.
My future, enforced, step-sister is not immune to chemicals either and thinks she’s being cool when she offers me something from her pathetic pocket-money drugs stash. Not for me, thanks. Not adding to my problems with that — or making friends with you. She tells me she wants to get involved with a footballer. She’s about seventeen and I have never heard of this person to whom she refers, who I can’t help thinking wouldn’t respect her or bother to remember her name. It occurs to me I have something in common with the footballer.
“Can I use the phone?” — permission. This is not my father’s house ergo it is not my home.
I call to my real home and Dad is in his chair, not moving. I can’t find any words and we both know the daisies have won.
Did you enjoy this as much as I did? Check out another short story by Faith Jones. (Elisabeth Khan, editor)