Winter Pink Skies - excerpt



One


Contentment is said to be a pearl of great price, but contentment is something Lee is far from feeling on a Saturday morning in hot July.


Hurling up the shutters I unlocked the shop door, disabled the alarm and stepped thankfully into the cool interior. It was only eight in the morning, but already the sun was giving out a generous amount of heat, as was my backside, both sources of heat seeming to lend credence to the pessimists’ proclamations about global warming. The cause of my own particular global warming beeped the horn of his car as he prepared to drive home. I refused to turn around and raise a hand in farewell. The only thing I felt like raising was a middle finger. I knew it would not be well received, just as my announcement at breakfast had not been well received.

Firmly closing the door behind me I made my way to the rear of my florist shop to begin work on the day’s orders. Four weddings, two funerals, several birthdays, a lone anniversary, plus a few miscellaneous were on the agenda for this July Saturday. Summer was popular for weddings, though I had never understood why. What sane person would voluntarily opt to drag through a hot day in heavy restrictive layers of silk, velvet and voile, or their synthetic equivalents, according to the budget of the couple in question? Still, I plugged in the kettle to make tea. It was my job to produce the floral trimmings, not meditate on the wisdom of getting hitched in the height of summer.

As I waited for the kettle to boil I meditated instead on the discipline that Tony had meted out not an hour since. It had been harsh, or maybe the fact it was the first time in a while made it seem so. I was right off Tony if truth were told. I really didn’t see why he should have disciplined me so severely for doing something that was entirely my business and nobody else’s. Likewise I didn’t see why he’d taken away my car keys the previous week, making me necessarily more dependent on him. To my mind he was being dictatorial for the sake of it. I was sick of it, and sick of him.

The kettle boiled with a rush of steam. I poured the water onto the bags and put the teapot lid back on. Reaching my hands back I massaged my sore buttocks while I waited for the tea to brew. Thanks to Housemaster Tony I’d be in discomfort for much of the day. I was damn well going to put that wicked wooden hairbrush in the very next charity bag that landed on the doormat.

Making a deliberate effort I turned my mind from personal woes to work. My first job was to finish the large coffin cross I’d begun working on the evening before. I’d prepared the frame and pleated and pinned the ribbon edging in place. I now needed to soak the foam and cut and insert the flowers. It was not my favourite form of floral tribute, but it always looked most impressive. In this case the main flowers were white chrysanthemums with a cluster of deep red roses and rich green ivy in the centre. I gave a small smile as I read the card the deceased’s husband had written to accompany the tribute: ‘see you up there in the great celestial Pally, girl, save the last dance for me. All my love, John x.’ I gently tucked the card into the centrepiece of roses. There was a sad day ahead for John and family.

Janet, my counter assistant, arrived just as I stirred a spoon around the contents of the teapot for the second brew of the morning. She had an unerring knack for sensing when a cup of tea was imminent. I reached for another mug. The day got properly underway.

Joe the van driver clattered in and made a cheeky remark to Janet regarding the colourful blouse she was wearing. She majestically ignored him. He had a mug of over-sweet over-stewed tea and then loaded the cross into the van to take it to the funeral directors. There were also two wreaths from other family members, but these would go straight to the family home to be admired by the assembled mourners. The hearse carrying the deceased’s coffin adorned with the floral cross would then arrive to collect the tributes and the bereaved for the final stage in the ritual.

No doubt several of my colleagues, or rivals, depending on how you viewed it, would also be at work this morning, preparing sprays and wreaths to be delivered to this same address from various friends and well wishers.

During the course of a normal working day florists touch base with a full spectrum of human experiences from births and marriages to funerals.

Standing in the cool, stone flagged workroom amidst snippings of fern, coloured polypropylene ribbon and other florist paraphernalia, I deftly fashioned a bridal bouquet. It was a favourite design with brides. I could create it with my eyes closed, working and wiring baby pink roses into an intricate design along with trails of silver leaf ivy and frosted spear grass. It needed to be ready for Joe to deliver at ten-thirty sharp that morning. The bridesmaid posies to accompany the order, along with a dozen assorted buttonholes were already done. I’d prepared them the evening before.

I was well ahead with my work schedule, but getting anxious about the non-appearance of the gardenias I needed for the next wedding order. I was also low on French fern and the ubiquitous gypsophila, or baby’s breath, as I preferred not to call it because of its disturbing connotations. It found its way into a fair proportion of arrangements.

My business partner Cathy was collecting the flowers from the wholesalers and was no doubt bartering with them over price, quantity and quality while taking no note of time and my needs. She was better at that aspect of the business than I could ever be, so I’d give her a few more minutes and then call her for a quiet nag.

Turning on the radio, music always helped me concentrate better, I consulted the order book and began to put together a funeral spray in requested tones of orange and yellow.

In the front shop the phone rang. Janet picked it up and I half listened, noting with amusement her slow, breathy tones as she spoke into the receiver. Cathy reckoned she had previously worked on a phone sex chat line, hoarsely taking callers through a myriad of sexual fantasies. As Janet was sixty and built like a small cuddly Ewok this seemed unlikely to me, but you never know. Fact can be stranger than fiction and she was coy about her work history.

“I didn’t say you would.” Janet clattered into the workroom, her high heels clicking a defensive note on the stone floor. “I didn’t promise anything. I told him you were busy, and you might not be able to oblige. He was a bit pushy for my tastes to be honest. I could barely get a word in edgeways.”

I gave her a small wink. “Who was pushy, and why, and what didn’t you promise?”

She plonked a slip of paper down on the workbench in front of me. “Rush job. Bloke wants an arrangement pronto, done and delivered to his boyfriend ASAP. He was very specific about what he wants.”

Such requests were not unusual. It was one of the ways we set ourselves apart from our competitors, openly advertising ourselves as specialists in serving the gay community. Everyone assumes that male florists are gay anyway. In my case I actively confirmed it and also strove to take advantage of it. The value of the pink pound was not to be underestimated.

I picked up the slip of paper on which she’d scribbled the request. It was precise. A dozen long stemmed white roses, arranged with blue irises and white lilies, hand tied with satin ribbon to match the colour of the irises. I raised an eyebrow at Janet. “Elegant, and expensive. Yum, just my kind of order.”

I frowned, mentally going through the stock we had in the shop and in the cooler. Irises I had in plenty, including some rather beautiful azure ones. I had Madonna Lilies too, in anticipation for both funeral and wedding orders. They suit all clerical attended events do white lilies. However, I didn’t have any white roses, every other colour, but not white. I spoke the colours aloud: “red, pink, coral, yellow, those lilac specimens, but no white.”

“Shall I call him back, Lee, say you can’t manage it, or ask if he’ll change his mind on the colour of the roses?”

I shook my head thoughtfully. “Hold your horses a min, Jan. There’s no point letting a good order go if we can help it. If we do a good job for him he’ll come back to us again.”

I picked up my mobile. “Let me see if I can track Cathy down at the wholesalers. Knowing her she’s still loitering there. She’s got her eye on that cactus specialist. I’ll see if she can lay hands on some white roses.”

The shop doorbell jangled and a hub of voices indicated that several potential customers had entered. Janet hurried off to attend to them. 

I was in luck. Cathy was still at the wholesalers, albeit in the car park stacking boxes into her van. She happily agreed to pick up some white roses, adding that she’d managed to pick up the cactus specialist at last. She had a date with him that very evening. I was much relieved. Maybe now she’d stop bulk-buying cacti in order to have an excuse to talk with him. Cacti did not sell particularly well, but fortunately they have a long shelf life.

I put my phone down giving a sigh of satisfaction about the roses. I got a genuine kick from thinking I was going to help make someone’s day brighter.

A song called ‘Dry Your Eyes’ suddenly sang forth from the workroom radio. I turned the dial up a touch higher. The quirky yet poignant lyrics, partially spoken, partially sung, by a heavily accented lone bloke who called himself ‘The Streets’ held a certain appeal, though I wasn’t normally a fan of hip hop style music.

Singing along to the song I scanned the slip of paper that Janet had left, looking for a name and phone number to call the customer back and confirm we could do the order. I flipped it over and there it was.

I stared at it, my heart jumping. The Streets sang on without me, telling a tale about a man trying to convince himself to walk away after being dumped by his girlfriend.

I knew the phone number, even without the name written beside it. I knew it by heart, every damn digit, area code and all. Of all the florists in the world why did he have to phone an order into mine? Seven years, it had been seven years since last I saw him or heard his voice.



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