There is a flower called, I believe, the Black-Eyed Susan. It is a vine, and the flowers themselves are orange with an ultraviolet black circle in the centre. It has perhaps five or six large petals surrounding this centre, which falls away into the trumpet of the flower, as opposed to the stamen being extruded like a dome into the sun like Sunflower or Daisy. It is this flower, along with Jasmine, that I now most associate with my childhood.

I first remember it from a trip to Katikati, a small town in the Western Bay of Plenty. My grandmother, as obsessed with birds and gardening as she was (despite spending a suspiciously small amout of time doing the latter), had decided to take my brothers and I to “the Bird Gardens”, a tourist attraction just off the main highway and out among the kiwifruit orchards. Trips like these, for example to Rotorua to see The Trout, were a way for my grandparents to spend time with us and were something my brothers and I loved. It broadened our horizons a little, and was akin to an actual holiday, with actual treats.

The Black-Eyed Susan I’ve always associated in my mind with brown trellis for some reason. I’ve always pictured it winding its way between the diamonds of heavily-painted wood, beneath bright, crystal blue skies, the orange of the petals radiant and punctuating the red hues of the frame. I remember it in contrast to the dappled light of Willows along a walkway by a stream, and exotic finches flitting to and fro, and peacocks strutting about.

So why the Black-Eyed Susan? An uncle and his family were caring for us while my mother was away, and I had recently developed a paralysing stutter. Merely attempting to utter a word beginning with “T”, or worse, “Th” was agony, my throat locked in spasm or mouth a gaping rictus, the embarrassment of being unable to do something as simple as speak flushing my cheeks. I still stammer on occasion to this day when stressed in a particular way, and I still flush unexpectedly if thought to be caught in a lie (it is always the perception of being thought a liar that does it, even when telling God’s Own Truth).

I remember the trip out to the Bird Gardens, and my grandmother encouraging me through the stutter, chirping away to me that singing was the best way to free up my words. If I could sing something out, then the words would come, and I, all sweetness and light, would get over it. This, along with constant admonition to hold my shoulders back, was some of the more useless advice of my childhood.

Truth be told, the centre black of the Susan is the true significance of the sorry tale of my paralysis. The central trumpet of the flower captured me, representing as it did something all consuming within an otherwise happy, starkly-contrasting thing. This is because, like the Black-Eyed Susan I too had an dark centre, a cancer spreading from the inside.

So to conquer the embarrassment, to share it a little, I too pushed out darkness, and, in my indomitable, lilting, pre-pubescent way, began to swear like a sailor.

It worked a treat, though endeared me to no one, especially not  the old ladies serving Devonshire Teas.

F,FLP

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