Before her first day of school her mother sat her down and meticulously plaited her hair, and so it was that Daisy arrived at her first class all imperious and self-important, a crown of braids on her head. She had only a few classmates and she easily outstripped them when it came to intelligence. She became their natural leader, proudly pronouncing her certainties as she busied herself at the easel or the sandpit, and the other children followed her unquestioningly. Her reading and numeracy were consistently advanced for her age and, as she progressed through the years, she took her teachers’ praise in stride. The world unfolded before her and she stepped forwards without fear of falling.
When she was seven, at the beginning of her third year at school, a new child entered her class. He was a boisterous, bulbous-bodied boy who smelt faintly of tomato ketchup, and Daisy took an instant dislike to him. He had a wild smile perpetually dancing around his lips, as if manic laughter were ceaselessly trying to burst from his bosom. He was chaos and Daisy quickly decided that he had no place in her ordered world of absolute facts. She lurked at the rear of the classroom when he was introduced to her on the first day of the school year.
“This is Henry everyone,” the teacher announced to the class. No sooner had his name left the teacher’s lips than Henry bound forward, cutting through the other children, right up to Daisy. Perhaps he’d noticed her shying away.
“What’s your name?” he asked. His smile put Daisy’s soul on edge.
“Daisy…” Her answer came thin and uncertain. A rich stream of laughter burst from his mouth and he began to sing:
Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do,
I’m half crazy all from the love of you!
His words were full of mirth and the other children, infected with his enthusiasm, took up his laughter and the song.
It won’t a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
The teacher stood at the front of the classroom beaming, no doubt delighted at how quickly the class had admitted a new member into their ranks, and all the children sang together and laughed. All except Daisy. She stood amidst the noise and felt the tears well up in her chest. They were making fun of her. They were all making fun of her and laughing and in that instant Daisy felt her whole world crumble away before her. She was no longer the centre of the universe. Before they finished their song Daisy ran out of the room, her eyelashes moist, leaving the torrent of laughter behind her.
Her fall from grace was complete within a month. Though she tried to go on as if nothing had happened, pronouncing her truths as ever, all it took was a few lines of Daisy Bell from one of her classmates and she’d grow quiet. Before long she stopped offering up opinions of her own volition and she was quickly transformed into a quiet and shy little girl. She spent less and less time in the thick of classroom action and began instead to drag a book into a corner, or under a table, and peruse it with a furious zeal. Nothing changed as the years went by. Though the other children soon grew tired of the song its melody echoed in Daisy’s mind every time she saw her classmates. She drew away from others and kept herself to herself, spurning any advances to friendship, terrified of the teasing she’d once endured. Only once, but she was quite certain that, for her, once was enough.
Instead of friends she had books. She slid through their pages like a duck through water, living a thousand other lives through their words. All the money she got she spent on new books, often second-hand, and by the age of sixteen she had amassed an impressive library, the books winding their way round and round her bedroom on the bookshelves she’d convinced her parents to install. When it came time for to go off to university she naturally applied to study English Literature, and she promptly received an offer from a London university which she accepted without hesitation. The thrill of going away to university shuddered through her bones. The allure of London was excitement enough all by itself, but what really got her adrenaline running was the thought of what she’d be leaving behind. She loved her parents dearly, but the winding roads of Upper Lambourn had become chains around her soul, threaded through with the words to Daisy Bell.
University life suited Daisy. Her love for literature was easily satiated by the work she was set and, though she remained introverted, she started to reach out to others. For the first time in more than ten years she began, tentatively at first, to make friends. Her fellow university students were more mature and more sensitive to the feelings of others. They had nothing of that cruel instinct for bullying that seemed to thrive amongst schoolchildren, and Daisy Bell had been left behind, along with most of Daisy’s books. She wasn’t the proud, self-confident person she’d been in her early years, but neither was she the recluse that she’d later become. In London she found a balance in her being, both quiet and conversational, always a little wary but never unfriendly. Most of all, though, she was happy.
She soon became involved in activities outside of her studies. She was quickly infected by the sense of revolutionary optimism that suffused the university’s studentship and an ardent interest in radical politics blazed into being inside of her. She found others who were possessed of the same ardour and they formed a little group by themselves. They weren’t an official Student Union society; they had no presidents or committees or AGMs or anything like that. It was just the five of them. Trevor Watts and Mimiru Sonoda and Alice Fétique and Bill Bitherway. And Daisy herself, of course. They would sit up long nights passionately discoursing on the limitations of society and the oppressive nature of governments and the absurdity of human objectivity, and the next day picket embassies and banks and government buildings with no regard for the heavy hand of the law. Other times they would write long polemics and sometimes manifestoes which they would share with each other and whose virtues they would extol whilst murmuring wistfully over the utopia that they were one day bound to create. They even talked about making some kind of regular publication which would be the vehicle for their aspirations, but nothing ever came of that. Their friendship was forged in this fiery passion and Daisy found that she cared for no one more than she cared for those four others with her.
But for all this, the song that had haunted her childhood never completely left Daisy’s mind. It would sometimes creep up on her unawares, like a snake rearing its head up from the tall grass. One wintry Saturday afternoon she and Bill sat alone together in a café near their university. They sat at adjacent sides of a small table by the window and the weak winter sun rebelliously poured its light all over them. Daisy sat curled up with her mug of coffee cupped in her hands and resting on her lap, and a warm silence had just blown over the table. In that moment Daisy Bell crept upon her from somewhere deep in her mind and she found herself absentmindedly humming the first line. Bill picked up the melody.
“I’m half crazy all from the love of you,” he continued, his cheeks bursting with smiling. Cold fury filled Daisy’s pockets. She stared baleful thunder at Bill and his smile faltered. Wordlessly she emptied the last of her coffee into her mouth, dropped the empty cup onto the table, got up from her chair and stalked out of the café. Bill remained where he was sitting, completely stunned and clueless as to what had brought about her sudden change in mood. Daisy knew it and didn’t care. Senseless rage filled her veins. She spoke to the others. She didn’t tell them anything specific – Daisy Bell was something she’d locked away inside herself and shared with no one, and they wouldn’t have understood if she’d told them the truth. But she poured out her fury into their hearts and let their imaginations do the rest. They each arrived at their own conclusions but didn’t share them with each other or even speak them out loud – their eyes were too bright with righteous indignation. They abounded with that fierce, zealous loyalty that is so often a feature of youthful friendship and wasted no time in giving Bill the cold shoulder. So it was that Bill awoke the next day to find himself in Coventry, summerly ejected from the group, and so their quintet became a foursome.
The terms trundled on by and all too soon it was time for them all to leave university. They each tramped the dusky planks, cloaked and a little nervous, to shake hands with the dean of the college and the principal of the university. They had their pictures taken together, all leaning into the camera and smiling with the excitement of new beginnings in their lives. They didn’t see Bill. A couple of days later the four of them met up for a celebratory dinner. Alice suggested the venue, a small Korean restaurant in Bloomsbury where the tables each had a circular grill for barbecuing meat. They spent the evening reminiscing and watching their meat sizzle on the table, laughing and pledging undying friendship to each other. Daisy gazed at her three friends and all at once she realised that this would be the last time she’d ever see them. It had been the university that had brought them together and now that that was over it seemed all too clear that they would fall apart. A deep despair stole over her as, in that instant, she felt the full force of the impending loneliness open up ahead. These three people just meant so much to her. Watching them laugh and smile filled her soul with joy like nothing else. She didn’t know if she could bear being disconnected from them.
“Are you OK?” Daisy looked up from her introspection. It had been Mimiru who’d spoken. Alice and Trevor hadn’t noticed – they were too busy talking to each other. Daisy turned to look Mimiru in the face.
“What? Yes, why?”
“You look... pensive,” said Mimiru slowly, searching for the right word.
“No, yeah, I’m fine.” Daisy fumbled for her glass and raised it before her. “To friendship,” she declared, stealing the others’ attention. They took up her toast.
“Friendship!” Their voices boomed in the small confines of the restaurant and they all laughed.
Just as Daisy had feared that was the last time the four of them met up. Mimiru, with her rapacious intelligence and bilingualism, was very quickly abducted into a graduate scheme with the Foreign Office. Alice and Trevor remained jobless and directionless, wondering what it was they were supposed to do with their lives. As for Daisy, she soon got herself a job as an assistant copywriter in a small marketing firm in Central London. She tried to keep in contact with the others, over Facebook and through text messages and phone calls, but as time went by their replies became more and more inconsistent and sporadic. Before long she’d stopped trying. She was alone once again. The only people she ever really saw were her colleagues at work, and she could never really connect with them. They weren’t the same as her. They laughed and bantered and threw friendly jokes across the office, but to Daisy they just seemed vain and insincere. She couldn’t see anything beyond their faces. So she remained distant and apart from them, and whenever they uproariously decided to go to the pub after work she quietly stole away and made her way cycling to the small studio flat that she now rented. She hadn’t cycled since leaving Upper Lambourn – during her university years she’d always lived near enough by that should could just walk to her lectures and seminars – but now she took it up again, preferring to get to and from work under her own steam rather than rely on public transport. And out of the dead past Daisy Bell returned.
It came from without, not from within, but it wasn’t the people at work who took up the song. They hadn’t the depth or the recklessness to make fun of her so. It was just people in the street. Strangers. As she cycled past the words would rise up from little groups of youths:
Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do
Or from a lone walker resting on a bollard:
I’m half crazy all from the love of you.
Or from a whole host of other people, from builders or children or mothers pushing prams. No demographic was excluded. She felt paranoia descend on her like a black cloak. How did they know? These weren’t people who knew her; at least, she certainly didn’t know them. But somehow they knew her name and knew to make fun of her by singing that song. She bitterly mulled it over as she made her way to work, bursts of Daisy Bell and jarring laughter assaulting her from the pavements every now and then. But she could make neither head nor tail of it. Was all her life a joke? Was there a vast conspiracy afoot, that everyone was in on apart from herself? It seemed that she didn’t belong in this world, that it was actively trying to expel her from its catacombs. She shook her head as she arrived at work, trying to expel the darkness from her mind. It didn’t work. She was an abject outsider once again, friendless and spurned from society. Hazily she leant forward. She would just continue being, she decided. Continue being and cling onto that faint light beneath all the sludge and despair, the little bit of hope that remained in her heart. Maybe, someday, far, far away from now, her world would become a brighter place once again. Yes, that was it. All she could do was wait. Wait and hope.
She nodded to herself and clipped the lock to the front wheel of her tandem.