Pens of the Earth: A Year of Lily’s Sunflowers

By Annie Kirby

On her sixteenth birthday, Lily Shah opens her front door and stands at the top of the steps leading down to the street. She can’t remember the last time she felt brave enough to face the outside world. In one hand, she holds a trowel; in the other, a budding sunflower in a blue pot. A ribbon of sunshine curls across her face. Behind Lily, Josh is carrying a bucket of compost, harvested from the heap in their concrete postage stamp of a back garden, and a brimming watering can. He nudges the back of her legs with the bucket.

‘Hurry up, Lil. It’s heavy.’

Lily grew the sunflower herself from a seed, her seedlings protected from the chance of a late frost in the plastic lean-to that abuts their ground floor flat. Lily counts the steps as she descends: One, two, three, four. If she counts the outside world, then it doesn’t seem so frightening. The pavement, the kerb lined with glittering cars, is the farthest Lily has been from the flat in a year. To the south, the road leads down to Southsea Common, the esplanade, and the grey flatness of the Solent. The thought of all that space makes Lily feel sick. In every other direction, the city sprouts up, rows of bricks and concrete unfurling like her carefully nurtured seedlings. Somehow, all the buildings, the endless droning vehicles scurrying back and forth between them, is even more alarming to Lily than the empty expanses of the common and the beach. She focuses only on her sunflower.

‘Which one, Lil?’

Josh says, breathless from hefting the bucket and the watering can down the steps.

Lily assesses the potholes scattered across the road, the result of a high tide converging with a winter storm the week after Christmas. The Solent had raged across the beach and the esplanade, devouring the common. The streets became rivers, a fury of saltwater plucking cars from their parking spaces. Lily had watched from her bedroom window, counting the cars as they floated past. They were lucky, but Mrs Miller in the basement flat lost nearly everything and only moved back in last week.

Lily is struck by how everything is almost back to normal. The flood, as much as it had been a terrible time for Mrs Miller and hundreds of others, had felt to Lily like the beginning of some momentous change. But people had cried, cleaned up, claimed on their insurance policies, got new cars and normality crept back to fill in the cracks. The only thing left was the potholes.

Lily chooses a pothole halfway between the kerb and the white line. They wait as a BMW zig-zags past, avoiding the worst of the holes. Josh watches for more traffic, but it’s Sunday and people are eating their roast dinners or shopping or drinking in the pub. Lily empties the bucket of compost into the hole. She kneels, tapping the base of the pot, the sunflower, its roots and the compacted earth sliding out. She plants it in the pothole, pressing down the compost with her trowel. Josh gives it a good soaking with the watering can. Lily has almost forgotten her fear of the world. Something inside her has lifted, brightened.

‘Let’s do some more,’ she says. ‘Before Mum gets home.’

By late afternoon, when their mum is due back from her shift at the hospital, Lily and Josh have planted eight more sunflowers, their hands sore from lugging the compost and the watering can up and down the steps. Caroline from the flat opposite comes outside and asks if they would like a cold drink. A few cars have come past. One tooted impatiently until they moved out the way, but the others waited, manoeuvring around the newly planted sunflowers as best they could.

They’re planting their last sunflower when the man from three doors down comes crashing outside waving a glass of red wine.

‘You can’t do this,’ he slurs. ‘It’s vandalism.’

‘Rubbish,’ says Caroline, appearing with a jug of homemade lemonade. ‘They’re improving things. Good job, guys.’

‘Well, if you think I’m going to drive round your poxy flowers you’ve another…’

The man stumbles back inside his flat, slamming the door behind him.

‘He’s right,’ says Josh, as Lily flattens the compost around the last sunflower. ‘People are gonna drive all over them.’

Lily brushes dirt off her hands and takes a gulp of lemonade.

‘Let’s wait and see. Look, here’s Mum.’

Mrs Shah meanders her bicycle around freshly planted sunflowers, her face caught halfway between a frown and a smile at seeing Lily outside.

‘Whatever have you two been up to?’

‘Oh,’ says Lily. ‘Just a bit of planting.’

In the morning, Lily peers out her bedroom window, expecting all the sunflowers to have been crushed overnight, but they’re still standing, fringes of yellow petals peeping out from the buds. They’ll be gone by the end of Monday morning rush hour, she thinks, and gets on with her schoolwork, hardly daring to look. When Josh gets home from school, he barrels through the front door bubbling with excitement.

‘They’ve lasted, Lil. Let’s plant some more.’

They ferry the last of Lily’s seedlings down the steps to the street.

Caroline comes outside and plants a red geranium in a pothole by the kerb.

‘Sorry,’ says Caroline. ‘I didn’t have any sunflowers.’

‘This is amazing,’ says Lily.

‘Lily, you’re the amazing one.’

By the end of the week, every pothole in the street has a sunflower or a geranium, or one of Mrs Miller’s Busy Lizzies. One even has a pink floribunda rose donated by Mr Bains from the house on the corner. It becomes harder for car drivers to avoid the flowers. To Lily’s surprise, they don’t run the flowers over, but one by one stop bringing their cars into the road. Caroline’s husband abandons his car altogether and starts riding his bicycle to work. Instead of disappearing inside their houses after school, children, some of whom Lily has never met, start coming outside to play and adults stand around chatting and drinking cups of tea.

A man with a clipboard comes from the council and scribbles some notes.

‘What’s going to happen?’ says Lily. ‘Are you going to tear it all down?’

The man from the council laughs. ‘Tear it down? It’s bloomin’ marvellous. What do you think about doing some more?’

The last holdout is Mr Red Wine, but when Caroline brings home an apple tree from the garden centre and plants it at the entrance to their street with a chalk sign saying Lily and Josh’s Sunflower Garden, even he gives up and starts parking his car around the corner.

People start to plant flowers in the surrounding streets, filling the roads with sunflowers, begonias, roses and dahlias, pushing the cars farther away. The sound of children playing replaces the thrum of traffic; the air smells sweeter. Lily’s sunflowers grow tall, tracking the sun. Each day, she becomes braver, travelling a little farther from the flat, following the trail of sunflowers though the streets.

A television news team comes, and the report goes out on the six o’clock news. Lily receives an email, from a girl in Maidstone planting petunias in her road, and one from a boy in Aberdeen who’s chosen sunflowers in honour of Lily and Josh. More emails flood in, from people who are blocking off their streets and creating gardens in potholes, terracotta pots, wicker planters, planting sweet-peas, peonies, butterfly bushes, lavender. A few emails are mean, but Lily pays no attention. A letter comes from Sweden, from a girl a bit like Lily, who once started a revolution. Lily’s mum sticks it on the fridge.

By autumn, Lily’s sunflowers are fading. She feels sad at first, but in Sydney, Wellington and Buenos Aires, it’s spring and children are planting their own sunflowers, reclaiming their own streets. A pink-faced man goes on television and says unkind things about Lily’s social phobia. It makes Lily’s mum cry, but Lily doesn’t care. She goes outside and plants a winter-flowering jasmine in the pothole where her first sunflower had grown.

On her seventeenth birthday, Lily Shah stands in a rose garden on another continent, beside the most powerful woman in the world. Lily still has the tang of salt in her hair and is unsteady on her feet, after days of standing on the deck of the cargo ship, staring out at the shifting, grey Atlantic. She has left the ocean behind, replaced by a sea of people and cameras stretching out across the White House lawn.

Josh pokes her in the ribs. ‘Get on with it, Lil. Everyone’s waiting.’

Lily tries to remember her speech, willing the words in her head to unjumble themselves. The President squeezes Lily’s hand.

‘Just speak from the heart, Lily,’ she whispers, so Lily does.

‘One year ago, I stood outside my front door, afraid of the world, armed with an idea and a sunflower and accidentally started a revolution. If I can make a change beginning with a tiny seed, then so can you.’

The crowd cheers as Lily, Josh and the President plant sunflowers in the rose garden. Afterwards they hand out packets of seeds to the throng of guests and photographers and Lily feels happy, knowing there will be more sunflowers, more streets free of cars, and more places where she can face the world, unafraid.

Annie’s Inspiration: ‘I have long been fascinated by the phenomenon of people planting flowers in potholes to draw attention to the state of disrepair of roads. But there’s a tension between the wish to have roads repaired, and the need for us all to reduce our carbon footprint by driving less. This tension is particularly significant if a road has been damaged due to weather conditions linked to climate change. I wondered what might happen if instead of repairing the potholes and constantly adapting our spaces to accommodate ever increasing numbers of cars, a community fought back by simply planting more and more flowers.’

Picture credit: original painting by local artist Scott Alexander.

Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.

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