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The Flower Seller

When can we meet?

She studied the message one more time, snapped the phone shut, stood and walked over to the sink, turned on the tap.

She thought to herself, I remember the first time I ever went for a run. I was twenty-eight; after I’d had the girls but before I fell pregnant with Ben. Michael was working hard to become a partner and I decided to try and get fit. She paused on this thought as she wrung out the cloth that she was rinsing under the tap. I ran for eleven minutes. Eleven minutes! And when I got home I was exhausted.

She twisted the cloth tight, draining it, then flicked the droplets of water from her fingers and spread out still-damp cloth on the drainer. My lungs were bursting, she thought, and my legs were shaking so hard I thought I’d fall over, and my throat was raw from breathing, and my heart was beating so fast I felt like the blood was almost bursting from my veins. She dried her hands on a paper towel, turned back to the table, sat down and picked up the coffee mug.

And I felt like this, she told herself quietly.

Breathless.

But without the pain, she thought, smiling to herself. Without the aches and the rawness and the racing heart. Then she smiled again, sipped at her coffee, er no, actually, with the pain and the aching and the racing heart.

I felt just like this.

She pushed her hair behind her ears. I’m lucky, she thought. I can still fit in my wedding dress after all these years. I haven’t lost my figure. My husband loves me; he’d die for me. She pictured him in her mind, his big presence all about her, all about the house, his generosity, his warmth, his powerful moods that had mellowed but not disappeared over the years.

She traced the skin of her face with her fingertips, knowing her faults, knowing how age had changed her. And yet after all this time, he still wants me, she thought. He’d lain in bed this morning, watching her dress, and said, ‘You know, we’ve never made love, with you on top, facing away from me.’

‘Haven’t we?’ She was fastening her bra.

He always watched her dressing. No matter how tired he was, or how late he’d arrived home, he always woke to watch her dress, or undress. ‘No.’

‘Yes we have,’ she’d replied.

‘Have we?’

She nodded, ‘Back when we were living in the flat. I remember; on the old bed we had back then, I was facing the fire. I remember.’

He grinned, ‘God. That must have been back in the 80’s.’

The memory stirred her for a moment, and she smiled at him in the mirror, then she pulled on her top, straightened it. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it was,’ pulling back her hair to fasten it.

I must count my blessings, she thought. Two daughters grown up; a son at university; an adoring, successful husband. I love them so much. And my home. My creation. Every colour, every door, every cushion. I did it all. It’s mine.

She picked up her phone to check her messages, knowing what was there.

When can we meet?

She closed it again, stood, went back to the sink and rinsed her cup. And I feel like this, she thought. It’s the last thing I thought I wanted, or thought I needed. It’s the strangest thing.

*

‘Morning T!’

Tia looked up from her magazine as the door chimed. ‘Hey Helen,’ she replied.

The shop looked perfect, like a little girl’s idea of what a flower shop should look like, and she thought; why can’t Tia leave just a little bit for me to, do but all she said was, ‘Sorry I’m late. Had to wait in for a delivery.’

‘Did it arrive?’ Tia asked.

Helen shook her head, ‘No. When it didn’t come by eleven, I called them and they said they’d deliver it on Monday instead.’

‘Typical,’ Tia said.

She nodded. ‘Been busy?’

‘Ticking over.’

She looked back out through the window. It was raining, and the footfall in the high street was always light in when it rained; ticking over would be as good as it got today, she thought. Maybe a good day to catch up on all the odd jobs that needed doing. Some light book-keeping, even.

She took off her coat, went into the back room and filled the kettle, returning five minutes later with two mugs of tea: milk and two sugars for Tia, milk only for herself.

‘Thanks, Helen,’ Tia said, taking her blue and white striped mug.

She sat down, scanning the shop, the rain pattering on the windows. What should I do first, she asked herself.

‘You got your busy head on?’ Tia asked.

Helen smiled, ‘Is it that obvious?’

‘Yes.’ A pause, then, ‘You ok?’

‘I think so, yes. Why?’

Tia shrugged, ‘You get your busy head on when you’ve got stuff on your mind, or when you’re a bit stressed, that’s all.’

Helen sipped her tea, sighed appreciatively, watched Tia, who’d begun rearranging the display by the door. She said, ‘You know, I think this is the only place I feel totally calm. Totally at home. Even when I’m stressed, or busy or harassed. You know?’

Tia raised an eyebrow, straightened a basket, went to the back and picked up a small watering can and sprinkled a little moisture onto the ferns.

Helen smiled, a tad embarrassed. ‘I think I’m gushing.’

‘You’re hardly a gusher, H. Anyway, it’s a nice thought to have.’

She gave a short laugh, ‘Well, it’s true. Here I am and this is where I like to be.’

‘Even when it’s raining?’

‘Especially when it’s raining. And even when my car won’t start and I have to hop on a bus to get to work.’

‘Drink your tea,’ Tia said, and then the doorbell rang to announce a customer, so the tea was forgotten.

The lunchtime rush followed close on the heels of Helen’s first customer of the day; birthday bouquets, forgotten anniversaries, spontaneous gifts and guilty apologies, weddings, confirmations, even a funeral, all dressed up in cellophane and pink spiral ribbon and accompanied by messages.

A little after two, it had quietened again, and Tia went for lunch. When she returned, Helen took the opportunity to go into the back-shop and start on the book-keeping. She pulled the battered wooden chair from beneath the workbench, picked the box-file containing this month’s receipts from the shelf, and sat down.

She checked her phone: no new messages. Sighing, she got on with her accounts, compiling receipts in one pile, bills in another, printouts, quotes and miscellany in a third. In the front shop Tia had the radio on and Helen smiled to herself, momentarily happy with her lot. She got on with the task, focused on the piles of receipts, and by four she had the accounts in a semblance of order – at least the tax man wouldn’t send her directly to jail, she thought, before he sequestered all her goods and chattels.

Tia came in to make them both a coffee.

‘You know,’ Helen said, ‘I think this whole business is a front.’

‘Really?’ Tia said, as she spooned coffee into a pot. ‘A front for what?’

‘I think I do all this,’ and she spread her arms wide to encompass the whole shop in a single gesture, ‘and you too,’ she acknowledged, ‘I think all this, and everything we do, exists just so that I am able to give the tax inspectors enough money to subsidise the banks.’

‘The same banks that won’t give you a loan to expand your business?’

‘The very same.’

Tia had had a plan that they should buy the empty shop next door and join both properties together to turn the florists into a miniature garden centre-cum café. It was a good plan, Tia was a business graduate after all, but despite an immaculate and detailed business plan they’d presented to every high street bank in town, no one was interested in loaning them the funds they needed to make it a reality.

‘I like that,’ Tia said, ‘It’s kafka-esque. It could even be true. Like that theory about cats.’

‘Cats?’ Helen asked.

‘The Cat Theory. You must have heard of it.’

‘No.’ She smiled, ‘What’s The Cat Theory?’

‘Well, it’s like this,’ Tia explained, ‘We all think that cats exist as pets, don’t we?’

Helen nodded.

‘We think of cats as these adorable little furry creatures that we feed, and who’s litter trays we empty, because they’re our pets.’

Helen nodded again.

‘But no, they’re not our pets at all. Because, from the cat’s point of view, the whole world is designed precisely to keep them in the luxurious lifestyle they’ve accustomed to. We are the pets. In fact, we’re just slaves. Mindless drones in some alternative Cat-Universe. ’ She gave Helen a piercing look, ‘And who’s to say they aren’t correct?’

Helen shrugged and gave a wry smile, ‘So my tax-inspector conspiracy isn’t quite to loony then.’

‘Nope. Not loony at all.’ Tia sat down on the bench beside her, ‘To be honest, between the taxman and my two cats I don’t have much time or money left for myself.’ She watched Helen for a few moments. ‘Still doing the books?’

She sighed, ‘Always doing the books.’

Tia watched her for a few moments longer, then said, ‘Oh, yeah, I meant to tell you earlier, Peter called in this morning.’

‘Peter?’

But before she could give any more information, and before Helen’s heart could leap from her chest, the doorbell rang and Tia stood up and went into the front shop to serve.

Peter, she told herself. He came into the shop.

Flustered now, the skin of her throat flushing, she put down the receipts and picked up her phone:

2 new messages: it read.

Both from Peter.

She read the first, slowly, savouring his words: I really need to see you, Helen.

The second: Can we meet tomorrow?

Her heart was thumping as she hurriedly texted back and somehow, meaning to say No, instead she wrote Where? And then, intending to say, I can’t, I’m Busy, I’m Married, she wrote When? Then she placed the phone onto the workbench, gently, like it was a living thing, a sleeping baby she didn’t want to wake. Then she went to make a fresh pot of coffee and think about the fact that Peter had called.

And Tia almost forgot to tell her.

Tia was a godsend for her, that was true enough; bright, educated, slightly off-the-wall, and young enough to be her daughter, but she was pure hell for forgetting messages. Deliveries went astray, customers who’d called to cancel ended up getting their flowers and bouquets and wreaths anyway. Even messages from potential lovers, stupidly inappropriate potential lovers, she corrected herself, who would no doubt be turned down and sent clattering back to that trendy web-design place where they worked, just as soon as she had five minutes to clear her mind and do the right thing.

But had he said anything? Had he left a note? Had he arranged to come back later?

Coffee cups in hand, she paused at the door, listening to Tia chatting to the customer in the front shop and thought, just for a moment, that she would make a good wife for Ben, in a few years’ time. But, she realized, Ben might not make a good husband for her. He was too laid back, not to mention three years younger than her which, at that age, wasn’t so much a gap as an unbridgeable chasm. No, she chuckled to herself, that’s a non-starter. Turning to push the door open with her bum she backed into the shop trying not to spill either mug of coffee, to see Tia selling a huge bunch of flowers to a handsome young customer.

‘If I got these from you,’ Tia was saying, in the husky voice she used on men of a certain age and income group, ‘I’d just think, you know, …wow,’ and her body language left little doubt as to the results of her, or indeed, any woman, receiving such a gift. She turned to see Helen, ‘Wouldn’t you, H?’

‘Who’s the lucky lady?’ Helen asked him with a broad smile, handing Tia her coffee.

The young man flushed a little, ‘My wife, Janine.’

‘I didn’t think people got married nowadays,’ Helen said, with a cheeky grin, ‘I can’t get any of mine to even shack-up.’

She smiled, ‘Janine must be a lovely girl.’

‘She is,’ he said.

She watched as Tia finished wrapping them, watched as she took his Visa card for payment, then gave him a business card and ushered him to the door, smiling all the way. I’m impressed, Helen thought, watching Tia as she tidied away the ribbon and cellophane, she really is a good saleswoman. She has talent. Idly, her fingertips stroked the phone in her pocket. Maybe we can keep this business afloat, Tia turned to give her a broad smile, so long as I can keep this young lady on my staff.

*

‘You look nice,’ he said, leaning forward and kissing the back of her neck.

‘Mm, thanks. You smell nice too, Michael.’

She was struggling to fasten a chain and paused to let him do it for her, his calm, gentle presence so reassuring. ‘How was work?’ he asked.

‘So so.’

‘Think you’ll stay afloat?’

‘If I can keep Tia on my staff.’

‘Make her a partner.’

‘What?’

‘You heard. Make her a partner. You said she makes about eighty percent of your profits.’

‘Easy for you to say. It’s not your business.’

‘True,’ he said, with a grin. ‘But if it was, I’d make her a partner.’

Helen stepped into her dress, and Michael stayed just long enough to zip her up, then left the room to let her get on with dressing. After so long together, their getting ready to go out was like a well-choreographed dance; he knew when to pause, when to help, when to pour her a glass of wine, when to disappear for a long fifteen minutes. Like now; ‘I’ll be downstairs,’ he whispered, kissing her neck again. ’Taxi’s due in about half an hour. Take your time.’

She knew that part of his withdrawal was to allow her to ponder his suggestion about her business, while she put the finishing touches to her outfit. Always the businessman, she thought, always looking for the more profitable angle. She enjoyed their nights out together, even the company meals they attended, the ones where so many of the partners and ‘plus ones’ complained about to each other about having to attend. She found them fun. A keen student of human nature, she tended to enjoy the preening and peacocking and jockeying for position that took place at these events, seeing it all like some sort of real-time anthropology study.

Fascinating, she thought.

She put her fingertips beneath her chin, studying herself in the mirror. I’m getting old, she thought: older, at least. She smiled to herself. My children are grown, have fled the nest, and now Michael and I, we have so much time together. We can eat, sleep, make love, whenever we want. Maybe we’ll sell up, move to the country, like we always planned. Maybe we’ll tour Europe in a camper van. Maybe I’ll take up still-life painting. Hill-walking. Playing the bass trombone. She giggled. Anything is possible.

Earlier, she’d checked her messages Come to my place tomorrow he’d written.

Her reply: What time?

Early. Spend the whole day with me.

Alright. Yes.

She flicked through her wardrobe, deciding what to wear for her non-date tomorrow. Daywear? She had no intention of going. Outdoor wear? What did he have planned for their clandestine day together? Their absolute, non-negotiable, never going to happen, non-date. She opened her underwear drawer, eyes scanning for suitable attire. Bedwear?

While Michael was taking a shower, she’d texted him again: What should I wear?

To which his reply had been a single word: silk.

She checked her image in the mirror again. What does he see in me, she wondered. Then she thought, what do I see in him? Then, what’s wrong with me?

Michael’s voice drifted up from downstairs, ‘Want a glass of wine?’

‘Mmm. Please!’ she shouted back down.

She finished dressing, picked up her phone, checked the message again; that word: silk.

Everything is possible, she thought.

Even this.

She texted him: black silk?

Then she deleted all her messages, put her phone in her clutch bag, sat on the bed to put on her shoes, dabbed on a little more scent and then went downstairs to where Michael was waiting.

‘You look lovely,’ he said, handing her a glass of wine.

‘Thankyou,’ she said, ‘and you look very handsome too.’

He smiled.

She felt butterflies in her tummy, and she straightened her skirt, sat down.

They sat together, waiting for the taxi to arrive.