Published in The Sheepshead Review May 2018, this piece was originally written in response to the painting ‘Sunflowers’ by Anselm Kiefer, on display in the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
The first time they met Evelyn was holding sunflowers, and it was their wedding day. Her jangling silver bicycle brought her in crushed silk, her fist crushing stolen stems against the handlebar. She did not look the way James had expected, and she was beautiful.
His lips formed hello but did not utter the word. Evelyn took his hand and smiled, and he smiled back at her. The granite registry office gleamed at them in the wake of a passing sunbeam, and the sunflowers were yellow in her hand. They went in together in silence, and the first words they said to each other were their wedding vows. They meant every word.
Afterwards they went to a pub. They sat in a corner of a dimly lit room, disregarding afternoon alcoholics at the bar. Evelyn drank a gin and tonic and James drank a Guinness, soft creamy head sticking to his moustache. The sunflowers between them were tied with twine and their hands entwined next to them on the sticky table top. Do you want to come home? asked Evelyn. James did.
In Evelyn’s house, that was to become their house, the silver bike was laid against a wall. The sunflowers were settled in a blue china jug. Evelyn took James to the bedroom and their lovemaking came in strokes and whispers.
In the morning everything seemed bright, and loud. James clanged through the kitchen banging cabinets as he looked for the cafetiere. Evelyn did not bother to dress before joining him, and this time their love was loud too.
They lived together in their loud, bright house drinking fizzy wine and making love. For the first three days they did not work, they did not dress. They lay together on rumpled sheets. They spoke about their lives and what would come. I thought I knew who I was, said Evelyn, on the third day. I thought my life was fine. But now I’m someone else, I’m better and new. Now I know that life was grey. James agreed, and told her he felt the same way. He slipped a finger inside her and promised to be with her always.
On the fourth day they left the bed. They sat in the kitchen, across from each other. Evelyn wrote poems on creamy white paper, James wrote code on his computer, and the sunflowers in their blue china vase were cheerful.
On the fifth day, they had run out of food. They dressed, marvelling at the strangeness of seeing each other covered. They linked fingers and walked into town. In the supermarket they collected bread and champagne and milk and kissed in the freezer aisle. They stopped at a shop with bicycles in the window and James bought Evelyn a wicker basket. Now you’ll have somewhere to carry your flowers, he told her.
On the seventh day Evelyn took James with her to meet some friends. They threw their arms around her and shot curious looks at the man behind her. Are you going to introduce us to your friend? they cooed. This is my husband, she answered. James gave a shy wave. Her friends were stunned, but recovered quickly. What do you mean, ‘your husband’? Seriously? Evelyn beamed at them and drew James to her, and Evelyn’s friends, who were good people, threw their arms around James too.
You must tell us everything, they screeched. When did this happen, how did this happen? Evelyn told them their story, most of their story. Some parts of it were just for her and James, but most of it could be shared.
It’s just like any other story, she told them. We met, we fell in love, we got married. It’s the oldest story there is.
But how come we’ve never met him before? Where have you been hiding him?
We met online. We’ve messaged each other for ages. I told you I’d met someone.
Evelyn could not remember what first brought them together, and she could not remember a time that James had not been known to her. When she thought happy thoughts, she thought of him. He wrote to her and it was like he knew her. They wrote emails and IMs and eventually they wrote letters to each other too. They sent each other postcards from holiday destinations, each card ending with wish you were here. James lived for her letters. They wrote back and forth, paragraphs, pages, sometimes just a word. Years gathered like dust until neither of them could breathe.
James sent Evelyn a postcard. Vivid yellow sunflowers, waving merrily in a field; on the back the words they both needed. The postman rang the bell when he delivered the mail to Evelyn, calling her to the door, beaming when he handed her the card. He waited while she flew through the house, tearing a scrap of thick soft paper from her work notebook. She wrote just one word, stuffed it in an envelope. She did not have a stamp, but the postman didn’t mind. He shook his head and told her it’s my pleasure.
Evelyn sat next to her computer for two days until an email arrived from James. It gave a time and an address. It said I can’t wait to see you, and Evelyn pinched herself, the way she’d read girls did.
On the day she swung her leg over the bike and bright yellow flashed in the corner of her eye. Sunflowers in her neighbour’s garden, yellow like the yellow on the card that changed her life. She took a handful, barely thinking, and breathed them in and felt their warmth. They were right.
She did not tell her friends everything, only most. She told them about the letters and the postcard. The sunflowers were just for her and James. Her friends looked puzzled, but smiled big bright smiles and ordered champagne. They toasted the newlyweds and whether they crossed their fingers or met each other’s eyes did not matter to James and Evelyn.
By the tenth day they had settled into a routine. James woke first and made the breakfast; pancakes, French toast, croissants. He was an accomplished cook. His letters hadn’t told her that their life would smell like freshly roasted coffee and sweet syrup. Evelyn taught James how to clean the windows with vinegar and screwed up newspapers, taking sour, used up parts to clear the grease and let in light. They sat in their fragrant house, seeing each other clearly.
On the twelfth day, Evelyn had an appointment in town. She wore her smart wool suit and put a folder in the new wicker basket on her bicycle. She kissed James and told him she would be back soon. The petals on the sunflowers had dried and started to fall onto the table.
Evelyn met her agent in a restaurant. You look different, said the agent. You look younger. Evelyn told the agent in three quick words how her life had changed, and then put the folder on the table. She had selected twelve poems to bring to show her agent, twelve new poems to match the twelve days she had spent with her new husband. The agent read one, and then another. She stared at Evelyn. These are different, she told her. These are like nothing you’ve written before.
Evelyn cycled home slowly, enjoying the journey. Her poems would be published as a pamphlet and she would dedicate them to her husband. She called to James as she wheeled the bicycle into its place in the hall.
James didn’t answer.
Evelyn kicked her shoes off at the door and tip-toed to the bedroom expecting to find James burrowed warm under the covers, hoping to slip in beside him, but the bed lay cool and empty. Frowning, she swept through the house, shouting James?
She found him on the kitchen floor, face down. She cut her feet on the smashed blue china and slipped on her own blood when she reached for the telephone. She started CPR, counting beats per minute as she pressed on his chest, and she only stopped when the paramedics pulled her gently away.
When they had gone, she tidied up. She carefully picked up the stems of the dead sunflowers and gathered each dried petal. She swept up the broken jug and tossed the remains into the fireplace. Her tears washed the blood from the tiles.
At the funeral James’s widow met James’s family for the first time. His mother looked through her. She was not invited to the wake. Instead, Evelyn went home to the house she had shared with the man she loved.
In the garden she knelt on the damp ground and used her fingers to make holes in the middle of the garden. Into each of the holes she placed a sunflower head from the bouquet she’d held on her wedding day. She tore up the new poems and stuffed in the scraps, then covered them loosely with clods of earth. Her nails broke raggedly and dirt clogged the whorls of her fingers for weeks.
When the twelve sunflowers grew, they were strong, and tall, and bright.