My grandpa would give flowers to the sky. It was just something he did. I was an ordinary girl in a family of eccentrics. Aunt Floribell was famous for making sculptures out of dried seaweed; my older brother used to keep a pet cockroach in an empty jar that once held liquorice twists. I didn’t do anything like that. But when I was little I would tramp with my grandpa through the high grasses, past the brambles thick with oozing sweet fruit. My little brown fingers were always stained purple and black by the time we reached the bluebells, the snowdrops and the daffs. He would inspect the flowers and carefully pick them. I would just stand and watch, trying to hold down a sneeze from the pollen that flew wild around me.
Ma never said a word when we would come home with mud on our shoes, and blooms in our hands. Ma was teaching herself Esperanto; she said it was the true language of love as it was international. Love was being able to truly understand another person, she always told me. That’s why Ma and my dad weren’t together.
“He was a complete mystery. I’m not sure we were ever dating. He bought me dairy-free chocolates and a dictionary once, so he’s not a bad man,” Ma said.
Ma would tie the flowers in a strip of ribbon, or sometimes a length of rough brown string. For years I would tie my hair the same way Ma would prepare our offering. But that was before I cut my hair off. That was before everything changed.
Grandpa always presented the flowers to the sky on his own; it was a private thing for him. But I would watch from the kitchen window as he stood in the middle of the paved-over garden. The brick-dust scent of the city was overpowering, but I imagined the fragrance these flowers held. He would hold up the bouquet to the sky as if presenting it to his long-ago lover, standing still for countless moments until his arms would suddenly lower. Grandpa would smile as he turned around and caught me peeking, my head bobbing over the low frame. He would put the flowers on the cold hard ground. They would lay there until they dried up and were whisked away into the nearest bin.
“Why don’t you tear out all this concrete?” Grandpa would always say to Ma.
“The landlord wouldn’t like it, dad. You know that.”
Grandpa would mutter to himself at that, but he would ask the same question the next time we brought flowers home.
Grandpa and I had a falling out. There was a young man. Of course there was. Leroy’s clothes were held together by safety pins. He was in a Gospel-Funk band, but he was training to become a youth leader. He was particularly down with the teenagers, or so he would always tell me. He also said that love was a solid bass line, one that rattled your ribs and moved your soul. I was very much in love with him.
Grandpa was not taken however. Grandpa did not like the way Leroy drank his cola straight from the bottle. He would shake his head if he as much as caught sight of Leroy’s fake gold chains. He forbid Leroy to play any Gospel-Funk in our home.
“When did you get so boring, Grandpa?” I asked him once.
“That man is every stereotype that’s going. There’s nothing original about him.” Grandpa folded his arms.
“He makes me happy.”
Grandpa gave me a sad look. “Yes, I suppose he would.”
The words stung like I’d been slapped. I suddenly felt too hurt to listen to Grandpa anymore. I went to Leroy’s home, and let him cut my hair in a style of his choosing. I sported a pink buzz cut for several months. I was determined to be eccentric, just like the rest of my family. It didn’t go down well. Grandpa still spoke to me; he didn’t turn his back on me. But from that point on, there was little in the way of warmth and affection between us. The next time I saw flowers spread out on the patio, I knew my presence was no longer wanted.
Leroy and I lasted until he got head-hunted to recruit youngsters to the Royal Navy. The generous salary made him forget about solid bass lines, but he remained down with the teenagers all the same I guessed. I couldn’t quite believe that I’d lost my relationship with my grandpa because of Leroy. But if it hadn’t been him, there would have been another boy with another set of annoying traits. It might have been a girl instead, but I wasn’t brave enough to try back then.
If I thought I was ordinary beforehand, then after Leroy my life went into full, average swing. I got a job at an insurance company; I wore grey and black every day for almost two decades. I never shared my family history with my colleagues. I never did anything strange. And when I said my final goodbye to Grandpa, the sky was blank and hard and grey, just like my work clothes; just like the patio where I grew up.
I don’t give flowers to the sky like Grandpa did, but I remain an admirer of sorts. I’m middle-aged now, so I can do as I please even though I am usually serious. I can stamp across floorboards in the dark, make some nettle tea and sit by the windows. I live in London still, in a part where there are no fields or woods, save for the patch of green behind the supermarket where I shop once a week like clockwork. I’m not usually an early morning person, but today I am up long before my alarm is due to sound. I have my charcoal suit ready, hanging crisp and pressed on a hanger in my bedroom. I have my lunch waiting, wrapped in cling film in the fridge. I know the meetings I will attend today and tomorrow and next week without even looking at my diary. But none of that is in my head as I wait for the dawn like I’m waiting for a blind date to make an appearance. I gaze up, strain my eyes and picture the sky in the way I imagine Grandpa used to. I feel small and furry, wrapped as I am in my nightie and old dressing gown. I suddenly appreciate the comfort and reassurance.
At first the sky is an inky blue with only the slightest sparkle. It looks the way an empty box of chocolates smells. It makes me think of orchids and the squish of Grandpa’s boots in the mud as we made our way to the spot where the flowers grew in bursts of living colour.
There is a sort of orange background glow as I continue to look out of the window at the horizon above the tall houses opposite. The last of the streetlamps are winking out of existence, one at a time. Light pollution has not diminished the affection that runs through my body. But as the minutes tick by and the radio plays softly behind me, the streaks of the approaching sun turn the dark into shades of violet and pink. The day begins. And in the place where Grandpa was born, on the edge of the warm Caribbean Sea, I know it is just gone midnight. I know that there are no sources of blinding light to compete with the dark.
In London, the sky starts to reflect duck-egg blue on my brown face, on my dark brown eyes. My pupils may contract at such vibrant sights but I do not shrink back as the sun creeps higher. The tea goes cold in my grasp, the radio is only a murmur, but the clouds that scud through my vision make my world spin.
I know why Grandpa made offerings now. It comes as a quiet revelation. I think back to my childhood and I can almost see the circles he drew from the earth to the sky, from the dark to the light whenever he offered up his flowers. It was proof that he was still alive, still tramping around in the dirt instead of being silent beneath it. I feel a connection to Grandpa though he’s been gone more than ten years.
My eyes fall from the sky for just a moment; I see a ragged plant sitting in a flower-pot by the kitchen sink. The little identification label has long gone, so I have no idea what the plant is. It is just a pathetic little thing that I forgot to water before I went away on a business trip to Liverpool. From my view by the window, most of the colour has been washed out of its limp leaves. But it is all that I have, and suddenly it feels important that I do something with it. I go over to the sink, and then I lift the grubby plant up to the window. It is not enough of course, so I push down the frame, letting cold London air wash over me. I hold up my plant to the sky.
A square of yellow light appears just as my arms are totally extended. A neighbour across the way comes into focus. I’ve seen her just once before, looking beautiful and poised as we both waited for the 678 bus. Now I see her watch me as I do my strange thing. She doesn’t know about Grandpa or the other eccentric members of my family. She doesn’t know of how my sister would always put a pinch of salt in her black coffee, or how Uncle Les would watch Welsh-language programmes even though he didn’t understand a word of it. I know I must look like one of them; I must look like a weirdo.
But before embarrassment seizes me completely, I see how the rich, buttery sun picks up the muted colour of the plant. It comes to life in my hands as we both soak up the rays. My neighbour lifts a hand in my direction. I angle the plant toward her, careful to not drop the thing three storeys down to the ground.
My neighbour disappears for a moment. I can only imagine her running to the nearest computer or mobile phone. I imagine her telling the whole world, via social media, that her neighbour is offering a mouldy old pot plant up to the sun like some strange Aztec sacrifice. My arm wavers as I realise I am still quite visible in my dressing gown that has honestly seen better days. What if I bump into my neighbour on the bus again on the way to work? What if she is a client, visiting the office looking for a quote? Why did she have to be so gorgeous?
All of my fears vanish however when my beautiful neighbour returns with a huge yucca plant in her arms. She holds it up to the sun, though she is more in the shadows than I. She somehow manages to balance the plant against her chest as she waves at me. We are two eccentric souls, united for that moment. I feel a connection to this woman that is solid and real. I wave back at her as the sun dazzles my eyes. I am smiling before I know it.