Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Talking Flowers

The following is excerpted from Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals. I always found the idea of flowers talking to each other delightful and to be able to hear them...well....

It was not long before I received the unwelcome news that yet another tutor had been found for me. This time it was a certain individual named Kralefsky, a person descended from an intricate tangle of nationalities but predominantly English. The family informed me that he was a very nice man and one who was, moreover, interested in birds, so we should get on together. I was not, however, the least impressed by this last bit of information; I had met a number of people who professed to be interested in birds, and who had turned out (after careful questioning) to be charlatans who did not know what a hoopoe looked like, or could not tell the difference between a black redstart and an ordinary one. I felt certain that the family had invented this bird-loving tutor simply in an effort to make me feel happier about having to start work once again. I was sure that his reputation as an ornithologist would turn out to have grown from the fact that he once kept a canary when he was fourteen. Therefore I set off for town to my first lesson in the gloomiest possible frame of mind.

Kralefsky lived in the top two storeys of a square, mildewed old mansion that stood on the outskirts of the town. I climbed the wide staircase and, with disdainful bravado, rapped a sharp tattoo on the knocker that decorated the front door. I waited, glowering to myself and digging the heel of my shoe into the wine-red carpet with considerable violence; presently, just as I was about to knock again, there came the soft pad of footsteps, and the front door was flung wide to reveal my new tutor.

I decided immediately that Kralefsky was not a human being at all, but a gnome who had disguised himself as one by donning an antiquated but very dapper suit. He had a large, egg-shaped head with flattened sides that were tilted back against a smoothly rounded hump-back. This gave him the curious appearance of being permanently in the middle of shrugging his shoulders and peering up into the sky. A long, fine-bridged nose with widely flared nostrils curved out of his face, and his extremely large eyes were liquid and of a pale sherry colour. They had a fixed, faraway look in them, as though their owner were just waking up out of a trance. His wide, thin mouth managed to combine primness with humour, and now it was stretched across his face in a smile of welcome, showing even but discoloured teeth.

"Gerry Durrell?" he asked, bobbing like a courting sparrow, and flapping his large, bony hands at me. "Gerry Durrell, is it not? Come in, my dear boy, do come in."

He beckoned me with a long forefinger, and I walked past him into the dark hall, the floorboards creaking protestingly under their mangy skin of carpet. "Through here; this is the room we shall work in," fluted Kralefsky, throwing open a door and ushering me into a small, sparsely furnished room. I put my books on the table and sat down in the chair he indicated. He leaned over the table, balancing on the tips of his beautifully manicured fingers, and smiled at me in a vague way. I smiled back, not knowing quite what he expected.

"Friends!" he exclaimed rapturously. "It is most important that we are friends. I am quite, quite certain we will become friends, aren't you?"

I nodded seriously, biting the inside of my cheeks to prevent myself from smiling.

"Friendship," he murmured, shutting his eyes in ecstasy at the thought, "friendship! That's the ticket!"

His lips moved silently, and I wondered if he was praying, and if so whether it was for me, himself, or both of us. A fly circled his head and then settled confidently on his nose. Kralefsky started, brushed it away, opened his eyes, and blinked at me.

"Yes, yes, that's it,» he said firmly; «I'm sure we shall be friends. Your mother tells me that you have a great love of natural history. This, you see, gives us something in common straight away... a bond, as it were, eh?"

He inserted a forefinger and thumb into his waistcoat pocket, drew out a large gold watch, and regarded it reproachfully. He sighed, replaced the watch, and then smoothed the bald patch on his head that gleamed like a brown pebble through his licheny hair.

"I am by way of being an aviculturist, albeit an amateur," he volunteered modestly. "I thought perhaps you might care to see my collection. Half an hour or so with the feathered creatures will, I venture to think, do us no harm before we start work. Besides, I was a little late this morning, and one or two of them need fresh water."

He led the way up a creaking staircase to the top of the house, and paused in front of a green baize door. He produced an immense bunch of keys that jangled musically as he searched for the right one; he inserted it, twisted it round, and drew open the heavy door. A dazzle of sunlight poured out of the room, blinding me, and with it came a deafening chorus of bird song; it was as though Kralefsky had opened the gates of Paradise in the grubby corridor at the top of his house. The attic was vast, stretching away across almost the whole top of the house. It was uncarpeted, and the only piece of furniture was a large deal table in the centre of the room. But the walls were linked, from floor to ceiling, with row upon row of big, airy cages containing dozens of fluttering, chirruping birds. The floor of the room was covered with a fine layer of bird seed, so that as you walked your feet scrunched pleasantly, as though you were on a shingle beach. Fascinated by this mass of birds I edged slowly round the room, pausing to gaze into each cage, while Kralefsky (who appeared to have forgotten my existence) seized a large watering-can from the table and danced nimbly from cage to cage, filling water-pots.

My first impression, that the birds were all canaries, was quite wrong; to my delight I found there were goldfinches painted like clowns in vivid scarlet, yellow, and black; greenfinches as green and yellow as lemon leaves in midsummer; linnets in their neat chocolate-and-white tweed suiting; bullfinches with bulging, rose-pink breasts, and a host of other birds. In one corner of the room I found small french windows that led me out on to a balcony. At each end a large aviary had been built, and in one lived a cock blackbird, black and velvety with a flaunting, banana-yellow beak; while in the other aviary opposite was a thrush-like bird which was clad in the most gorgeous blue feathering, a celestial combination of shades from navy to opal.

"Rock-thrush," announced Kralefsky, poking his head round the door suddenly and pointing at this beautiful bird; "I had it sent over as a nestling last year... from Albania, you know. Unfortunately I have not, as yet, been able to obtain a lady for him."

He waved the watering-can amiably at the thrush, and disappeared inside again. The thrush regarded me with a roguish eye, fluffed his breast out, and gave a series of little clucks that sounded like an amused chuckle. Having gazed long and greedily at him, I went back into the attic, where I found Kralefsky still filling water-pots.

"I wonder if you would care to assist?" he asked, staring at me with vacant eyes, the can drooping in his hand so that a fine stream of water dribbled on to the highly polished toe of one shoe. "A task like this is so much easier if two pairs of hands work at it, I always think. Now, if you hold the watering- can... so... I will hold out the pots to be filled... excellent! That's the ticket! We shall accomplish this in no time at all."

So, while I filled the little earthenware pots with water, Kralefsky took them carefully between finger and thumb and inserted them deftly through the cage doors, as though he were popping sweets into a child's mouth. As he worked he talked to both me and the birds with complete impartiality, but as he did not vary his tone at all I was sometimes at a loss to know whether the remark was addressed to me or to some occupant of the cages.

"Yes, they're in fine fettle today; it's the sunshine, you know... as soon as it gets to this side of the house they start to sing, don't you? You must lay more next time... only two, my dear, only two. You couldn't call that a clutch, with all the goodwill in the world. Do you like this new seed? Do you keep any yourself, eh? There are a number of most interesting seed-eaters found here.... Don't do that in your clean water... Breeding some of them is, of course, a task, but a most rewarding one, I find, especially the crosses. I have generally had great success with crosses... except when you only lay two, of course... rascal, rascal!"

Eventually the watering was done, and Kralefsky stood surveying his birds for a moment or so, smiling to himself and wiping his hands carefully on a small towel. Then he led me round the room, pausing before each cage to give me an account of the bird's history, its ancestors, and what he hoped to do with it. We were examining – in a satisfied silence – a fat, flushed, bullfinch, when suddenly a loud, tremulous ringing sound rose above the clamour of bird song. To my astonishment the noise appeared to emanate from somewhere inside Kralefsky's stomach.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed in horror, turning agonized eyes on me, "by Jove!"

He inserted finger and thumb into his waistcoat and drew out his watch. He depressed a tiny lever and the ringing sound ceased. I was a little disappointed that the noise should have such a commonplace source; to have a tutor whose inside chimed at intervals would, I felt, have added greatly to the charm of the lessons. Kralefsky peered eagerly at the watch and then screwed up his face in disgust.

"By Jove!" he repeated faintly, "twelve o'clock already... winged time indeed... Dear me, and you leave at half past, don't you?"

He slipped the watch back into its pocket and smoothed his bald patch.

"Well," he said at last, "we cannot, I feel, achieve any scholastic advancement in half an hour. Therefore, if it would pass the time pleasantly for you, I suggest we go into the garden below and pick some groundsel for the birds. It's so good for them, you know, especially when they're laying."

So we went into the garden and picked groundsel until Spiro's car honked its way down the street like a wounded duck.

"Your car, I believe," observed Kralefsky politely. "We have certainly managed to gather a good supply of green stuff in the time. Your assistance was invaluable. Now, tomorrow you will be here at nine o'clock sharp, won't you? That's the ticket! We may consider this morning was not wasted; it was a form of introduction, a measuring up of each other. And I hope a chord of friendship has been struck. By Jove, yes, that's very important! Well, au revoir until tomorrow, then."

As I closed the creaking, wrought-iron gates he waved at me courteously and then wandered back towards the house, leaving a trail of golden-flowered groundsel behind him, his hump back bobbing among the rose-bushes.

When I got home the family asked me how I liked my new tutor. Without going into details, I said that I found him very nice, and that I was sure we should become firm friends. To the query as to what we had studied during our first morning I replied, with a certain amount of honesty, that the morning had been devoted to ornithology and botany. The family seemed satisfied. But I very soon found, that Mr Kralefsky was a stickler for work, and he had made up his mind to educate me in spite of any ideas I might have on the subject. The lessons were boring to a degree, for he employed a method of teaching that must have been in fashion round about the middle of the eighteenth century. History was served in great, indigestible chunks, and the dates were learnt by heart. We would sit and repeat them in a monotonous, sing-song chorus, until they became like some incantation that we chanted automatically, our minds busy with other things. For geography I was confined, to my annoyance, to the British Isles, and innumerable maps had to be traced and filled in with the bevies of counties and the county towns. Then the counties and the towns had to be learnt by heart, together with the names of the important rivers, the main produce of places, the populations, and much other dreary and completely useless information.

"Somerset?" he would trill, pointing at me accusingly.

I would frown in a desperate attempt to remember something about that county. Kralefsky's eyes would grow large with anxiety as he watched my mental struggle.

"Well," he would say at length, when it became obvious that my knowledge of Somerset was non-existent – "well, let us leave Somerset and try Warwickshire. Now then, Warwickshire: county town? Warwick! That's the ticket! Now, what do they produce in Warwick, eh?"

As far as I was concerned they did not produce anything in Warwick, but I would hazard a wild guess at coal. I had discovered that if one went on naming a product relentlessly (regardless of the county or town under discussion), sooner or later you would find the answer to be correct. Kralefsky's anguish at my mistakes was very real; the day I informed him that Essex produced stainless steel there were tears in his eyes. But these long periods of depression were more than made up for by his extreme pleasure and delight when, by some strange chance, I answered a question correctly.

Once a week we tortured ourselves by devoting a morning to French. Kralefsky spoke French beautifully, and to hear me massacring the language was almost more than he could bear. He very soon found that it was quite useless to try to teach me from the normal text-books, so these were set aside in favour of a three-volume set of bird books; but even with these it was up-hill going. Occasionally, when we were reading the description of the robin's plumage for the twentieth time, a look of grim determination would settle on Kralefsky's face. He would slam the book shut, rush out into the hall, to reappear a minute later wearing a jaunty panama.

"I think it would freshen us up a little... blow the cobwebs away... if we went for a short walk» he would announce, giving a distasteful glance at Les Petits Oiseaux de I'Europe. «I think we will make our way through the town and come back along the esplanade, eh? Excellent I Now, we must not waste time, must we? It will be a good opportunity for us to practise our conversational French, won't it? So no English, please – everything to be said in French. It is in this way that we become familiar with a language."

So, in almost complete silence, we would wend our way through the town. The beauty of these walks was that, no matter which direction we set out in, we invariably found ourselves, somehow or other, in the bird market. We were rather like Alice in the Looking-glass garden: no matter how determinedly we strode off in the opposite direction, in no time at all we found ourselves in the little square where the stalls were piled high with wicker cages and the air rang with the song of birds. Here French would be forgotten; it would fade away into the limbo to join algebra, geometry, history dates, county towns, and similar subjects. Our eyes sparkling, our faces flushed, we would move from stall to stall, examining the birds carefully and bargaining fiercely with the vendors, and gradually our arms would become laden with cages.

Then we would be brought suddenly back to earth by the watch in Kralefsky's waistcoat pocket, chiming daintily, and he would almost drop his tottering burden of cages in his efforts to extract the watch and stop it.

"By Jove! Twelve o'clock! Who would have thought it, eh? Just hold this linnet for me, will you, while I stop the watch... Thank you... We will have to be quick, eh? I doubt whether we can make it on foot, laden as we are. Dear me! I think we had better have a cab. An extravagance, of course, but needs must where the devil drives, eh?"

So we would hurry across the square, pile our twittering, fluttering purchases into a cab, and be driven back to Kralefsky's house, the jingle of the harness and the thud of hooves mingling pleasantly with the cries of our bird cargo.

I had worked for some weeks with Kralefsky before I discovered that he did not live alone. At intervals during the morning he would pause suddenly, in the middle of a sum or a recitation of county towns, and cock his head on one side, as if listening.
«Excuse me a moment,» he would say. «I must go and see Mother.»

At first this rather puzzled me, for I was convinced that Kralefsky was far too old to have a mother still living. After considerable thought, I came to the conclusion that this was merely his polite way of saying that he wished to retire to the lavatory, for I realized that not everyone shared my family's lack of embarrassment when discussing this topic. It never occurred to me that, if this was so, Kralefsky closeted himself more often than any other human being I had met. One morning I had consumed for breakfast a large quantity of loquats, and they had distressing effects on me when we were in the middle of a history lesson. Since Kralefsky was so finicky about the subject of lavatories I decided that I would have to phrase my request politely, so I thought it best to adopt his own curious term. I looked him firmly in the eye and said that I would like to pay a visit to his mother.

"My mother?" he repeated in astonishment. "Visit my mother? Now?"

I could not see what the fuss was about, so I merely nodded.

"Well," he said doubtfully, "I'm sure she'll be delighted to see you, of course, but I'd better just go and see if it's convenient."

He left the room, still looking a trifle puzzled, and returned after a few minutes. "Mother would be delighted to see you," he announced, "but she says will you please excuse her being a little untidy?"

I thought it was carrying politeness to an extreme to talk about the lavatory as if it were a human being, but, since Kralefsky was obviously a bit eccentric on the subject, I felt I had better humour him. I said I did not mind a bit if his mother was in a mess, as ours frequently was as well.

"Ah... er... yes, yes, I expect so," he murmured, giving me rather a startled glance.

He led me down the corridor, opened a door, and, to my complete surprise, ushered me into a large shadowy bedroom. The room was a forest of flowers; vases, bowls, and pots were perched everywhere, and each contained a mass of beautiful blooms that shone in the gloom, like walls of jewels in a green-shadowed cave. At one end of the room was an enormous bed, and in it, propped up on a heap of pillows, lay a tiny figure not much bigger than a child. She must have been very old, I decided as we drew nearer, for her fine, delicate features were covered with a network of wrinkles that grooved a skin as soft and velvety-looking as a baby mushroom's. But the astonishing thing about her was her hair. It fell over her shoulders in a thick cascade, and then spread halfway down the bed. It was the richest and most beautiful auburn colour imaginable, glinting and shining as though on fire, making me think of autumn leaves and the brilliant winter coat of a fox.

"Mother dear," Kralefsky called softly, bobbing across the room and seating himself on a chair by the bed, "Mother dear, here's Gerry come to see you."

The minute figure on the bed lifted thin, pale lids and looked at me with great tawny eyes that were as bright and intelligent as a bird's. She lifted a slender, beautifully shaped hand, weighed down with rings, from the depths of the auburn tresses and held it out to me, smiling mischievously.

"I am so very flattered that you asked to see me," she said in a soft, husky voice. "So many people nowadays consider a person of my age a bore."

Embarrassed, I muttered something, and the bright eyes looked at me, twinkling, and she gave a fluting blackbird laugh, and patted the bed with her hand.

"Do sit down," she invited; "do sit down and talk for a minute."

Gingerly I picked up the mass of auburn hair and moved it to one side so that I could sit on the bed. The hair was soft, silky, and heavy, like a flame- coloured wave swishing through my fingers. Mrs Kralefsky smiled at me, and lifted a strand of it in her fingers, twisting it gently so that it sparkled.

"My one remaining vanity," she said; "all that is left of my beauty."

She gazed down at the flood of hair as though it were a pet, or some other creature that had nothing to do with her, and patted it affectionately.

"It's strange," she said, "very strange. I have a theory, you know, that some beautiful things fall in love with themselves, as Narcissus did. When they do that, they need no help in order to live; they become so absorbed in their own beauty that they live for that alone, feeding on themselves, as it were. Thus, the more beautiful they become, the stronger they become; they live in a circle. That's what my hair has done. It is self-sufficient, it grows only for itself, and the fact that my old body has fallen to ruin does not affect it a bit. When I die they will be able to pack my coffin deep with it, and it will probably go on growing after my body is dust."

"Now, now, Mother, you shouldn't talk like that," Kralefsky chided her gently. "I don't like these morbid thoughts of yours."

She turned her- head and regarded him affectionately, chuckling softly.

"But it's not morbid, John; it's only a theory I have," she explained. "Besides, think what a beautiful shroud it will make."

She gazed down at her hair, smiling happily. In the silence Kralefsky's watch chimed eagerly, and he started, pulled it out of his pocket, and stared at it.

"By Jove!" he said, jumping to his feet, "those eggs should have hatched. Excuse me a minute, will you, Mother? I really must go and see."

"Run along, run along," she said. "Gerry and I will chat until you come back... don't worry about us."

"That's the ticket!" exclaimed Kralefsky, and bobbed rapidly across the room between the banks of flowers, like a mole burrowing through a rainbow. The door sighed shut behind him, and Mrs Kralefsky turned her head and smiled at me.

"They say," she announced – "they say that when you get old, as I am, your body slows down. I don't believe it. No, I think that is quite wrong. I have a theory that you do not slow down at all, but that life slows down for you. You understand me? Everything becomes languid, as it were, and you can notice so much more when things are in slow motion. The things you see! The extraordinary things that happen all around you, that you never even suspected before I It is really a delightful adventure, quite delightful!"

She sighed with satisfaction, and glanced round the room.

"Take flowers," she said, pointing at the blooms that filled the room. "Have you heard flowers talking?"

Greatly intrigued, I shook my head; the idea of flowers talking was quite new to me.

"Well, I can assure you that they do talk," she said. "They hold long conversations with each other... at least I presume them to be conversations, for I don't understand what they're saying, naturally. When you're as old as I am you'll probably be able to hear them as well; that is, if you retain an open mind about such matters. Most people say that as one gets older one believes nothing and is surprised at nothing, so that one becomes more receptive to ideas. Nonsense! All the old people I know have had their minds locked up like grey, scaly oysters since they were in their teens."

She glanced at me sharply.

"D'you think I'm queer? Touched, eh? Talking about flowers holding conversations?"

Hastily and truthfully I denied this. I said that I thought it was more than likely that flowers conversed with each other. I pointed out that bats produced minute squeaks which I was able to hear, but which would be inaudible to an elderly person, since the sound was too high-pitched.

"That's it, that's it!" she exclaimed delightedly. "It's a question of wave- length. I put it all down to this slowing-up process. Another thing that you don't notice when you're young is that flowers have personality. They are different from each other, just as people are. Look, I'll show you. D'you see that rose over there, in the bowl by itself?"

On a small table in the corner, enshrined in a small silver bowl, was a magnificent velvety rose, so deep a garnet red that it was almost black. It was a gorgeous flower, the petals curled to perfection, the bloom on them as soft and unblemished as the down on a newly-hatched butterfly's wing.

"Isn't he a beauty?" inquired Mrs Kralefsky. "Isn't he wonderful? Now, I've had him two weeks. You'd hardly believe it, would you? And he was not a bud when he came. No, no, he was fully open. But, do you know, he was so sick that I did not think he would live? The person who plucked him was careless enough to put him in with a bunch of Michaelmas daisies. Fatal, absolutely fatal! You have no idea how cruel the daisy family is, on the whole. They are very rough-and-ready sort of flowers, very down to earth, and, of course, to put such an aristocrat as a rose amongst them is just asking for trouble. By the time he got here he had drooped and faded to such an extent that I did not even notice him among the daisies. But, luckily, I heard them at it. I was dozing here when they started, particularly, it seemed to me, the yellow ones, who always seem so belligerent. Well, of course, I didn't know what they were saying, but it sounded horrible. I couldn't think who they were talking to at first; I thought they were quarrelling among themselves. Then I got out of bed to have a look and I found that poor rose, crushed in the middle of them, being harried to death. I got him out and put him by himself and gave him half an aspirin. Aspirin is so good for roses. Drachma pieces for the chrysanthemums, aspirin for roses, brandy for sweet peas, and a squeeze of lemon-juice for the fleshy flowers, like begonias. Well, removed from the company of the daisies and given that pick-me-up, he revived in no time, and he seems so grateful; he's obviously making an effort to remain beautiful for as long as possible in order to thank me."

She gazed at the rose affectionately, as it glowed in its silver bowl.

"Yes, there's a lot I have learnt about flowers. They're just like people. Put too many together and they get on each other's nerves and start to wilt. Mix some kinds and you get what appears to be a dreadful form of class distinction. And, of course, the water is so important. Do you know that some people think it's kind to change the water every day? Dreadful! You can hear the flowers dying if you do that. I change the water once a week, put a handful of earth in it, and they thrive."

The door opened and Kralefsky came bobbing in, smiling triumphantly.

"They've all hatched!" he announced, "all four of them. I'm so glad. I was quite worried, as it's her first clutch."

"Good, dear; I'm so glad," said Mrs Kralefsky delightedly. "That is nice for you. Well, Gerry and I have been having a most interesting conversation. At least, I found it interesting, anyway."

Getting to my feet, I said that I had found it most interesting as well.

"You must come and see me again, if it would not bore you," she said. "You will find my ideas a little eccentric, I think, but they are worth listening to."

She smiled up at me, lying on the bed under her great cloak of hair, and lifted a hand in a courteous gesture of dismissal. I followed Kralefsky across the room, and at the door I looked back and smiled. She was lying quite still, submissive under the weight of her hair. She lifted her hand again and waved. It seemed to me, in the gloom, that the flowers had moved closer to her, had crowded eagerly about her bed, as though waiting for her to tell them something. A ravaged old queen, lying in state, surrounded by her whispering court of flowers.

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