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I’d forgotten that wallflowers can be harmful. We think of them as passive, innocuous, we even pity them for being so pathetically uninteresting, but we should remember that they are quite toxic.

The wallflower genus, Erysimum, includes about a hundred-eighty species, both popular garden plants and many wild forms, characterized by narrow leaves, sometimes arranged in a sort of star around the stem, with yellow, orange, purplish or even brown flowers, and multi-seeded fruit capsules. But that is by the by. The point about wallflowers is that they are very common, more so than we think, and they grow well in poor conditions, even in loose wall mortar, hence the vernacular name.  I have cultivated several species in my own garden quite successfully.

The wallflower I am referring to, however, is my niece. Her mother christened her with the unlikely name of Erissa. I ought to have known. Until yesterday, she had been living with us as our lodger, as a favor to my hapless sister who had failed to instill in her children much independence, financial or otherwise. To everyone’s surprise, Erissa had found herself a job miles away from home, here in Philadelphia, no less, and so it was perhaps natural that she and her plastic suitcase should land on our doorstep. “Can I stay a few days while I find my feet?” That had been a reasonable request, two years ago.

I must recognize that in two ways in particular she epitomized the ideal lodger, being noiseless and practically invisible. By the time I awoke in the morning, she was away to work—market research, you can imagine—and she was back asleep in her room by the time Douglas and I returned from the theater or seeing friends or attending a benefit. We’ve been very active in philanthropy.

On the rare occasions that she was at home, she blended in with the wallpaper. Literally. There’s a dear dark gold William Morris pattern in my sitting room. The strawberry thief I think it’s called. It contrasts very well with the rich blue paisley on the chairs. On several occasions, I failed to notice Erissa’s presence against this backdrop, and she made me jump each and every time her disembodied voice uttered its toneless “Hello.”

Most wallflowers know that they belong in the background. That is their place. That is the way we maintain balance in our garden. Yesterday, however, this balance was upset.

Douglas and I had just returned from our animal-freedom march at Fairmount Park. We’ve done this with our friends annually since 1982, meeting outside the zoo gates to protest the detestable practices of the so-called healthcare industry. We’ve always worn animal-themed masks to this event, my idea many years back, aimed at unifying our little group, and also to remind us of our kinship with our animal sisterhood.

In the serenity of my sitting room, crosslegged on my sofa—thankfully without her shoes on—Erissa commented on the masks hanging around our necks. Mine a lioness, naturally, and Douglas’s a snake, which now I find singularly apt.

“Have you been to a fancy dress party?” she asked, picking at the cuticle around her thumbnail.

Now that I know her, I realize that my assessment of her had been incomplete. What I had assumed to be stupidity inherited from her mother was, in fact, a bleak ironic streak. My mistake.

“No, dear,” I replied. “We’ve just returned from our freedom march. You must come next time. You might meet someone interesting.” I suppose I had meant that coming with us might actually lend her some interest, like the time I had paired wallflowers, just two stems of a variegated yellow variety, with one bird of paradise and a fabulous Australian waratah bloom, placed at different heights of course. It has always irritated me that she should be complacent about being so dull. And why would someone so young choose always to wear brown?

She repositioned her feet under herself, and picked up my red china Foo dog off the coffee table, turning it around in her hands pensively. I should have asked her to put it down, it was very rare. I don’t like it when people interfere with my things.

“Whose freedom have you been marching for?” That was her first question. Seemingly innocuous.

“The animals of course. The masks, see! The masks!” I pointed perhaps a little too gleefully at the cardboard cut out under my chin.

“Oh” was all she said, stroking the Foo dog as if it were a real creature, as if it were hers. I remember the garden through the picture window behind her looking pretty, with the last of the apple blossom framing the bench by the pond.

In the face of her apparent confusion, I felt a need to explain, to educate her. I should have known better, she never became a vegetarian.

I sat down next to her. “My dear Erissa,” I remember beginning. I meant that in the kindest way. “My dear, Erissa. It’s very simple. You see, even with all the advances in chemistry and computers and things, these awful so-called scientists are still experimenting on animals to create drugs and things that are really quite unnecessary.”

Erissa raised an eyebrow. “It was an anti-vivisection rally then?”

I took great pains to explain that it was much more than that. It isn’t just vivisection but the whole animal experimentation thing that’s abhorrent, as well as completely redundant. If we all followed a vegetarian diet and practiced yoga daily, there would be no need for medicines or doctors. I’m a firm believer in that.

Her head tilted to the side and she turned toward Douglas for her next question.  He had sat down in his armchair at the side of the fireplace, behind his paper. “But don’t the regulatory authorities actually require studies of the effects of new medicines in animals, before the drugs can be tested in humans?”

Douglas lowered his paper. “Well, with the advent of biotechnology, there’ll be no need for drugs.” He smiled—he can be condescending— and then added, “In future we’ll just have our genes fixed.”

Biotechnology.  That’s Douglas’s line of business. He’s CEO of a prominent biotechnology company. I didn’t really understand much of what he does but I know more now.

Douglas continued reading while Erissa and I chatted, or rather, I replied to her questions. Now that I think about it, rarely has she volunteered any information of her own.

“Don’t biotechnology products also need to be approved by regulatory authorities?” Erissa was looking at no-one in particular, and her voice was quiet, but she was still picking at her cuticles.

Douglas’s head dipped out from behind the paper. “Yes, of course they do. The company has just filed the dossiers for approval of our first compounds.”  Compounds, that’s what he called what his company made.

“That’s good news. Congratulations.” Erissa gave him a rare grin and, in one lizard-like movement, placed the Foo dog back down on the coffee table and slid off the sofa. As she left the room, she muttered perfectly clearly, “…although I thought that biotechnology compound approval also was contigent on animal studies.”

Douglas stayed behind his damned paper but I could tell that he’d heard because his knuckles went white. I don’t remember what I did after that precisely. I must have thrown the damned Foo dog at him because next it was there on the floor, in millions of blood red fragments encircling his slumped body.

I should go and see him in hospital but I can’t bring myself to. The bastard.

She and her tacky plastic suitcase left last night. I won’t even think about Douglas until I’ve ripped all the wallflowers out of my garden. The whole damned lot of them.


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