An account by Professor Fia McCauley, as told to Maureen Bowden
Art by Luke Spooner
My namesake, Saint Fiacra, is the patron saint of gardeners, so I was destined to be a botanist. I specialised in lilies, the loveliest of flowers, but their beauty has too brief a life before it suffers, in Shakespeare’s words, “The wrackful siege of battering days.”
My life’s work was to produce a hybrid lily possessing longevity. Obtaining seeds from the most long-lived species, I cross-pollinated again and again. The lilies didn’t like it. Virginal by inclination, they prefer to reproduce asexually, by splitting their bulbs, allowing each segment to grow into a new plant. It was necessary, however, for me to subject them to the indignity of seeding, in order to achieve my goal.
I had friends in those early post-war days: former students from university, clinging to bizarre nicknames, hanging on to old relationships, before making their way in the world to find their niches, and leave me to mine. They visited me from time to time.
“What’s the plan, Fi?” Jinks said. “Propagating man-eating plants to protect us against the next potential invader?”
“Don’t be an ass,” Bunty said, helping herself from my dish of assorted nuts and berries. “If Fi was doing that, the government wouldn’t let her tell us. Do you want to be hanged as a spy?”
Corky picked up my mandolin. “Give us a burst on your banjo, Fi.”
I forced myself to smile as I took it from him. “It’s a mandolin, not a banjo.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A mandolin’s more feminine.”
I led them into the garden, where they were less intrusive, and I laughed at their lunacies until they left.
In time, the visits grew less frequent, then they stopped. I was happier without the distraction.
The last crop of lilies I’d grown from seed showed promising results. They were past their normal life span and still in full bloom. With each passing week, my optimism grew, but after six months, all but one started to fade. The survivor, with her pure white petals and crimson-tipped stigma, stood solitary and graceful: a perfect lily, surrounded by her wilted sisters.
I planted nothing more in the flowerbed. It was hers alone.
A compulsion to link our lives prompted me to dust her stamens for a sample of pollen. “My apologies, Lily,” I said. “You’ll not have to endure this again.” I poured boiling water onto the sample, allowed it to cool, and drank it.
Forty years later, I still looked no older than twenty-five, and my Lily remained in bloom. She was my closest companion.
The college administrators had long forgotten me, but the current students still visited me for advice and encouragement. Kimberly, Cynthia, and Troy replaced Jinks, Bunty, and Corky.
“What do you think of Mrs Thatcher, Prof?” Kimberly asked.
“I don’t understand, politics, Kim,” I said. “Flowers are complicated enough for me.”
“You like music, don’t you, Prof?” Cynthia said. “I’ll lend you the new Paul Simon album, Graceland. It’s well crucial.”
“You’re very kind, Cyn, but I don’t have anything to play it on. I make my own music.”
Troy looked up from his copy of the Radio Times. “Have you seen the new Doctor Who, Prof? Sylvester McCoy. How gruesome is that?”
“Just for you, Troy, I’ll set my man-eating plants on him.”
They amused me, and I daresay I amused them, but I discouraged them from overstaying their welcome. I preferred to spend my time with Lily.
In the evening, I sat beside her flowerbed, playing my mandolin. I sang songs of my younger days: Bing Crosby’s “When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” I imagined Lily and I were harmonising with Bing and the Andrews Sisters as I sang, “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” and, most fitting, “Magic is the Moonlight.” She was at her loveliest by moonlight. It bathed her in a soft satin sheen. Before the need for sleep called me indoors, I sang “Goodnight Sweetheart,” the late-night benediction that long ago, Al Bowley had crooned in London ballrooms while death’s shadow stalked the land and the Luftwaffe did their worst overhead.
England in the latter half of the twentieth-century was a good time to be alive, and Lily and I were content. It was relatively peaceful, although, not so in other parts of the world, and nowhere can we long remain in isolation from the rest of humanity.
The twenty-first century brought a colder, more hostile dawn.
“The dogs of war are straining at the leash, my girl,” I said. “Shadows are gathering again, but maybe you and I won’t see them fall.” We were long-lived, but not immortal.
I found a grey hair on my pillow when I awoke, one morning, and in the mirror I saw the signs of age around my eyes. My body’s increasing frailty indicated that my decline would be swift, and I was not sorry.
Lily’s head drooped a little lower these days, and her stigma’s vibrancy was fading to pink. She was still beautiful, but she had mellowed. My instinct told me that it was time for her bulb to split. She would wilt, and her babies would blossom.
I visited the solicitors, Prys-Jones, Tudor-Jones, Parry-Jones and Assoc., to draw up my will.
Mr Tegwin Parry-Jones showed me into his office, “Coffee or tea, is it, Professor?”
“Tidy.” He pressed a button on his handset. “Bronwen, two coffees please. Quick as you like, isn’t it?” He turned back to me. “She’s my daughter. Helping out in the school holidays, see?”
I nodded, realising how much I’d stepped back from the human world, and I felt a momentary regret that I’d never had a daughter to help out in the school holidays. It soon passed. I’d made my choice, and I’d given Lily life. She would have daughters. For me, that was enough.
Mr Parry-Jones and I drank Bronwen’s coffee and I gave him his instructions. “I want to leave all my property to the horticultural college,” I said, “on condition that they maintain my gardens. I’m naming you as my executor and trustee, and I expect you to make sure that they do.”
“What’s occurrin’ as to your funeral, Professor?” This Welshman didn’t mince his words.
“I wish to be cremated and my ashes raked into my empty flower bed. There will already be bulbs in the soil. Nothing else is to be planted.”
My bones would nourish the earth where Lily’s babies would grow.
At moonrise, I took my mandolin and a garden chair to Lily’s flowerbed, and I sat beside her. “You’re looking good, Lil,” I said.
“So are you, Fi.”
I didn’t hear her say that, of course. I may be eccentric, but I’m not barking mad, yet the tilt of her head in the night breeze told me that she would have said it if she could. I sang to her, one last time: words I’d set to “Lily Marlene,” a wartime favourite.
“Together in the garden, we greet the midnight hour,
age-old companions, a woman and a flower.
Time comes upon us, as it must,
soon we’ll crumble into dust:
my Lily in the moonlight,
my Lily and my life.”
“The wrackful siege of battering days” (William Shakespeare, Sonnet no.65, Line 6.)
Professor Fia McCauley was born in 1920. She studied at the Northern England University College of Horticulture, making a valuable contribution to the development of farming practices and food production throughout World War II. She obtained a PhD, and when the war ended, she purchased a smallholding from university land and turned her attention to botany. She died in 2016, bequeathing her estate back to the university. The students still tend her flowers.
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had eighty-four stories and poems accepted for publication by paying markets. Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in Folk clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Lily in the Moonlight” is © 2017 Maureen Bowden
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Luke Spooner