The Thought of Florists

The street is one of many that point towards the sea, all of them running perpendicular, so that on maps they appear like teeth in some enormous skull. One can stand at the bottom of them, in the middle of the road, away from the bordering trees, and see the sea in the distance; and in the right kind of weather, the sea is indistinguishable from the sky and it seems like we are all floating in space. It is a street I often walk down, if the mood seizes me.

There are several small shops along the street: a hairdressers, named after a pop group from the mid-noughties; a pizzeria (delicioso!); a building surveyors, so inconspicuous I barely notice it is there; fish & chips (eat in or takeaway (neither)); a newsagents, vacant (unit for rent); a tiny butchers, where no less than five butchers are employed and can be found behind the counter any time of day, doing all manner of things with meat (PG-13); insurance broker (speciality: life insurance); somewhere to buy personalised gifts—toys—novelties—gadgets, such outlets are surely money laundering fronts for more unsavoury enterprises; dentist, all white, of course; and at the end, a florists.

The florists captures my attention. From its front – two large panels of glass, and then a door in the centre, set in, shaded, the ground worn into a dip – a most pleasant smell tumbles forth. Even through the passages of tobacco smoke that roll over my shoulder, the smell of flowers is unmissable. Wandering closer, perhaps to peer in or get a glance of the owner, one is struck by the difference in the air that leaves through the front door, not just its scent but its feeling, as though it were brand new or moist from the belly of vase, the lungs of leaf; a light sensation is detected on bare arms, or the soft skin of the neck. There is a flat above the florists. Does each room up there smell of flowers? Does the husband love it, the wife abhor it? Do they notice its change with the season, or with the stock? Are their nostrils so sensitive? What about their dog that sleeps under the work surface, where the dishwasher used to sit, does his nose quiver or does he wonder what all the human fuss is about?

These are my thoughts as I pass by the florists. And if I turn, the sky is so grey, the sea, too, that they blend and we are truly floating in space. The windows above the florist are closed.

In late January, when it was bitter and the weather threatened snow, the florist had arranged a most flamboyant display in each window. Behind the left window was a display for Valentine’s Day. Behind the right window was a display for Mothers’ Day. The former was a thousand shades of red, a splatter of heart-shaped decorations, ribbons, confetti, but it was red, so red that, for a loner such as myself, it conjured an unwanted sadness. I was forced to turn away to the Mothers’ Day window, which was as yellow as the Valentine’s Day window was red. Spring is yellow. It did not seem like spring, and yet the yellow of the flower arrangements in the window – false or otherwise – shone out over the uneven grey pavement. And it was uneven, the slabs at such angle from roots, that tiny greens sprouted, raised their skinny wrists like the florists’ window was a pop concert, and I had to keep an eye on my steps so as not to stumble.

And furthermore, as I passed the florists, I thought of job interviews. If, say, one was to apply to be a florist, would their handwriting be scrutinised? It is an important skill for a florist, I thought. As Ray Charles fingered wrists, so I study handwriting. At school I competed – in biology, art, English – with women who had beautiful handwriting. They were both named Rebecca and they both had beautiful handwriting. They could surely have worked at the florists. You would need someone with beautiful handwriting to write all the little notes that float on stark white paper in the middle of bouquets.

Her handwriting scrutinised with a quick exercise at the counter, where, pausing politely to serve customers, the owner must interview the interviewee. ‘There is even less space in the back room,’ the owner, Martha, assures this promising and affable individual, Madeline. ‘O, it’s no bother,’ says the interviewee, attempting to relax her trembling hand by bringing the pen up from the small stack of cards that have been placed before her. Although her flower arrangements are somewhat lacking – somewhat stiff, too few angles, minor attention to detail – Madeline’s handwriting is exquisite. She is offered the job there and then, bursts a guffaw, and gratefully accepts without so much as a stutter. And so it goes. She begins the following Monday. Martha teaches her the finer points of flower arranging, complimentary colours, structure and form, interspersing the instructions with botanical tidbits and memories she has associated over the years with the miscellany of flowers. Throughout the day orders are called in, with Martha taking the majority of calls, jotting down the message on a pad next to the phone, which are then plucked and handed to Madeline, who drops what she is doing and writes the note immediately. Martha, midway through planning a bouquet to the specification of she-likes-the-colour-orange, observes the new employee writing the quite uninspired—‘Dearest Bernadette, with love on our anniversary. Yours, Mark.’ It was so beautifully written! She stared and stared and almost gasped aloud, but indeed she did gasp when she saw her new employee crush the card into her fist. ‘What?! What was wrong with that? It was perfect!’ ‘It wasn’t!’ said Madeline, and she began again. She got to the word our, stopped, took a deep breath and wrote out anniversary in the most graceful and curling cursive you ever saw. The born-florist, Martha, gasped—‘I take it back, that is perfect!’ The new girl smiled, and continued—Yours, Mark.

Little by little, as time went on, Madeline learned about the village that surrounded the street on which the florists sat. She learned who was married to who and when their anniversaries were. She learned who was hoping to get well soon and how grateful that person was for their well-wishes. She learned who got better and who did not, and how many cared for them. She learned the name of the local priests – Baptist, Catholic, Church of England – and their most dedicated followers, who on a Saturday would come to collect numerous arrangements for the pews. She learned who was courting who, and then, after months of silence, she estimated that the relationships had fizzled out – or so she thought, until a year later another bouquet might be ordered. Most of the messages were uninteresting, and writing some of them out caused Madeline to wonder about the love that lived there. Others were laced with phrases or in-jokes that piqued her curiosity. Some of them made her laugh aloud – at which Martha would ask what was so funny, so that they might laugh together – others made her blush.

One particular Thursday, a young woman dressed very well and in a flustered hurry, dashed into the florists and asked both Martha and Madeline who had arranged the bouquet she had received two days previous. Martha, contemplating the sharpness of her rose clippers, as she did every morning, asked without looking away—‘What was the address?’ ‘183 Drayton Lane,’ said the woman from the doorway where the ground dipped, barely stepping inside. ‘O, that was me,’ said Martha; maybe she could get another week out of them before the stems would start to splinter. They were beautiful, said the woman, and made the house smell wonderful, just wonderful. ‘Thank you,’ said Martha, still not looking up – maybe four more days, actually – nor showing any apparent flattery at the compliment. ‘Your handwriting is something else,’ said the young woman. ‘O, that was Madeline,’ Martha finally looking up and nodding at Madeline, who, quite distracted, was thinking it almost time she went to get breakfast for the both of them. Jerking at her name, Madeline smiled her thanks, but was so wrapped up in the thought of breakfast that she had forgotten how to smile, and so it came across as a kind of a grimace, at which point the well-dressed young woman left the store without so much as a good-by. ‘I’ll have an almond croissant,’ said Martha without needing prompting.

That evening, after work, having locked up, Madeline went a few doors down to the pizzeria (delicioso!) and picked up her diavola from Rafael, who often, with a discount, apologised to his wife that he worked so much and promised to take her to Italy soon, very soon. She took the pizza home, not far, an eighteen-minute walk, where the cats would be shooed from the table at which she ate. Upon the table was one of many bouquets scattered about her flat and for an hour or so, no more, the smell of pizza overwhelmed the smell of flowers.