As she parked the van, Joan was looking forward to being in the shop alone for a few hours. She still enjoyed the run up to Covent Garden, the colours and scents of thousands of flowers never failed to cheer her, and after fifteen years she knew just where to buy the best varieties. After she unloaded, she made coffee and watched the sun peek through the window in the back room, its rays catching the last droplets of water on the roses. By the time it was fully daylight she had untied the wraps, decanted the trays, trimmed the longer stems and the black pails were lined up, flowers upright, like a group of soldiers on parade. Finally, she switched on the computer. She wondered if it had arrived yet but before she could type in the password, someone banged on the window.
‘Morning Joanie, you’ve been busy I see,’ said Sarah, barging past her, ‘sorry I’m late.’
She was dressed in her usual t-shirt, combat trousers and boots, hair pulled back into a tight ponytail and Joan still found it hard to believe that this young woman, who could barely point out a tulip when she first started, was now rather a good florist.
‘I need coffee bad. Want one? God, you must be knackered,’ she said, sliding her backpack to the floor.
‘Morning Sarah, no, I’m fine and yes I’d love one,’ said Joan.
‘Any milk out back?’ said Sarah, not waiting for the answer.
As Joan typed, she wished Sarah wouldn’t call her Joanie, it sounded so common, but she would likely never mention it; Joan rarely did what she knew she ought. She watched the screen and there it was, prepaid through Interflora, just like before.
FAO: Bouquets and Blooms Order: 8 white roses, 8 white carnations, 8 white lilies, 1 orange lily To: Mr Jonathon Langstone, Flat 5, Park Mansions, Mount Street. Delivery date: 7th June. Message to read: It’s time you visited him. Sue
‘Wow. Sue strikes again,’ said Sarah, plonking down the mugs, ‘that’s like the third one isn’t it?’
‘Fourth. The same flowers too, quite a peculiar selection,’ said Joan half to herself.
‘Yeah and old Langstone never opens the door, he’s right creepy if you ask me.’
‘You know he could be agoraphobic,’ said Joan, peering at white blobs floating in her coffee, ‘and you don’t actually know if he’s old as you’ve never seen him.’
‘Agra-what? Well he like just sounds old you know, how old people sound.’
‘Agoraphobic, and how do old people sound exactly? Oh never mind. We do this every year and it’s so pointless and none of our business, so let’s just get on with today’s orders,’ said Joan.
‘Spoil-sport! Well I still think that Sue’s some sort of crazy stalker and …’
Sarah prattled on and soon Joan joined in, unable to resist putting forward her own theories. They worked steadily and by eleven o’clock most of the bouquets were done.
‘I think I’ll do the deliveries today. Can you manage on your own for a couple of hours?’ said Joan.
‘Really? Awesome! Errr… you sure you remember your way around Joanie, it’s like been a while?’ said Sarah.
‘I was delivering flowers long before you arrived, you cheeky devil,’ said Joan over her shoulder. ‘And try not to accidentally lock the till again. And don’t use the phone.’
‘You need to watch those new flats by the park Joanie as the entrance is like real steep and that roundabout on June Lane is dead busy so you should …’
Joan decided to leave the Langstone delivery until last. She stood looking up at Park Mansions before finally walking up to the front door. When there was no answer, she looked down at the flowers and determinedly pressed the entry-phone pad. When a woman’s voice suddenly boomed, ‘Robert, do come up darling, we’re on the third floor’ Joan pressed a hand against her startled chest and stifled a laugh. The door buzzed seconds later and she grabbed the handle. You’re only delivering flowers, she told herself, feeling slightly guilty.
Joan leaned over the bannister. The stairs coiled up loosely towards a domed skylight and particles of dust drifted in the weak light. Half way up, she heard a door open above her and a woman barked ‘Robert?’ into the void. Joan held her breath until it went silent and feeling a bit like a criminal, she hurried up the last two flights. Suddenly there it was: Flat 5.
Joan smoothed down her hair, fixed a smile on her face and pressed the bell. It only occurred to her then that Langstone might have moved. A man spoke through the door.
‘What do you want?’
‘Mr Langstone? Bouquets and Blooms, I have a delivery for you,’ said Joan, pointlessly lifting up the flowers in front of the peephole.
‘Leave them outside.’
It was him. Joan pressed on.
‘I’m sorry Mr Langstone, but I really do need you to sign for them. Someone might take them and we need to be sure that you actually received them. We’ve had quite a few problems in apartment buildings lately,’ she said with conviction.
‘Can you just leave them outside?’
Joan stayed silent and eventually she heard the clicking of a key and the door opened. Sarah was wrong, Joan thought, as an attractive middle-aged man in a rugby shirt, jeans and flip flops came into view.
‘Yes. Where do you want me to sign?’ he said.
Joan fixed another smile on her face. She stared at him, her mind a blank, no more lies bubbling up to the surface to save her: she had nothing with her that he could sign. Her neck grew hot and she felt the familiar humiliation.
‘Well?’ he said, eyes narrowed behind black glasses.
Joan leaned back slightly.
‘Actually Mr Langstone I wanted to see you in person to tell you about the flowers and I apologise for not telling you the truth just now but you see it’s not often that we get such an unusual order and well the bouquet, your flowers, these flowers are so, they’re so ….’
‘Who are you again?’ he snapped.
‘Joan Peabody. Errr, I’m the owner. Bouquets and Blooms?’
He stared at her for a while then breathed heavily through his nose.
‘Oh, I see. Well, you’d better come in then Joan Peabody and tell me all about these lovely flowers. I do hope you drink tea,’ he said, his eyes sweeping over her before he turned his back.
Joan was a little taken aback by his tone but followed him over the threshold, pushing aside the voice in her head. The hallway was narrow, lit only by a central light bulb. Along one side the wallpaper had been stripped to expose old pock marked plaster and a pile of newspapers had been stacked in a single column, almost to the ceiling, like some sort of bizarre offering. Joan shrugged off a shiver and headed for the open door.
When she walked in, Joan wondered if she had somehow taken a wrong turn. The room in front of her was a bright open-plan space with exposed brick work on one wall, the others painted white and covered with paintings. In the centre of the room was an assortment of armchairs facing a long leather sofa and behind it, four floor lamps were lined up by height, each one a different colour. At the far end under the window was a wooden desk, on top of which a large computer screen rhythmically blinked a different image. Joan didn’t move as she tried to fit what she was seeing with the Jonathan Langstone of her imagination. Then she noticed the flowers.
‘Do you take milk Joan?’
She started and turned towards his voice. He was slouched across a white counter in a white kitchen at the other end of the room. He had clearly been watching her.
‘Sorry. Yes and one sugar if you have it,’ she replied.
He handed her a mug and indicated that she should sit on the sofa as he folded himself into an armchair and stared at her expectantly. As they sipped tea in silence, Joan glanced at the flowers.
‘I see you’ve spotted your previous deliveries Joan,’ he said ‘do you like my choice of vase?’
Joan looked closely and realised that each dried bouquet was standing in a funeral urn. She took a deep gulp of tea.
‘You wanted to tell me about the flowers Joan, so do tell,’ he said.
At that moment, Joan knew. He already understood. He had kept the flowers like that because he knew what they meant. Joan gulped down some more tea, she’d come too far to give up now.
‘Well Mr Langstone. The white carnations, roses and lilies generally signify purity and innocence, that’s why they’re most often used in wedding bouquets…..’
‘But not in this case Joan, isn’t that right?’ he said, with a tight smile.
‘Well yes. No. I’m sorry to say that these particular flowers can also be used for funerals, to symbolise the purity of the soul, so I think they might be to do with death, not marriage,’ she said, avoiding his stare.
‘And the orange lily, don’t forget about that Joan,’ he said.
‘Yes, well the orange lily is usually associated with hatred which is certainly an odd flower to include in a funeral bouquet,’ she said, ‘well at least I think so.’
‘Well done Joan. Quite right, death and hatred, a wonderful combination don’t you think,’ he said.
He put the mug down on the coffee table and picking up a pack of Marlboro, shook out a cigarette. He sucked hard to light it and as he blew smoke upwards, Joan saw that his hand was shaking.
‘But that’s not why you’re really here Joan, is it? You want to know about Sue,’ he said, ‘you’re here because you’re a nosy bitch, isn’t that right?’
Joan flinched and started to get up but he was already on his feet and moving towards her. She pressed her body into the sofa.
‘Oh don’t be silly Joan, I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said.
In the quiet that followed, Joan waited, still shaken.. When she finally opened her eyes he was sitting next to her, head thrown back, eyes closed and as she watched the cigarette between his fingers become a curve of ash, Joan’s fear slipped away. The man before her looked broken and somehow shrunken: his legs thin and angular through the jeans, the rugby shirt over-sized and baggy. When he spoke, his voice was ordinary, powerless.
‘I hope you’re ready for this Joan because it isn’t a pretty tale. Let’s start with my wife, sorry, ex-wife; I’m sure you can guess her name? Well, about thirteen years ago I left her. I walked out late one night, got in my car and went to Jane’s, a woman I’d been screwing for about a year. Well of course Sue was angry Joan, she was really angry and she eventually found out who Jane was and managed to get her number from some stupid twat in my office. She started first with text messages but soon moved on to phone calls. Well as you can imagine, Jane got pretty angry too and after three or four months of constant aggravation she kicked me out, said she couldn’t take it anymore. And then I’m angry Joan. I’m enraged. And I get into my car and I drive over to my house and I’m going to give her a piece of my mind. I’m so angry Joan that I don’t see my eight year old son in the drive; don’t hear the thud when I hit him with the car, because I’m so angry Joan, so pissed off with how shitty my life is.’
The sudden silence hung heavy in the room and Joan watched helplessly as his trembling fingers tried to light another cigarette. When he finally looked up, his face was pale and empty.
‘Of course even though it was a tragic accident, I had to go to prison. Involuntary manslaughter they called it. Oh the policemen were so kind to me Joan you have no idea. They had kids of their own you see and could just imagine. The judge was sympathetic too, he said that I had probably suffered enough and only gave me six years. That was lucky Joan wasn’t it, only six years for killing my eight year old son.’
He dragged deeply on the cigarette and then stubbed it out, half-finished, in the overflowing ashtray.
‘I really should give these up,’ he said, with a tiny smile.
As the smoke wafted into her eyes, Joan blinked and turned her head. She could feel his anguish rolling over her in waves.
‘I really ought to go. I… I have to get back to the shop. S.Sarah’s on her own,’ she said.
Langstone pulled off his glasses and roughly wiped his hands across his face.
‘But we haven’t talked about the message Joan, which is why you’re here after all,’ he said.
The devastation on his face was terrible to see and Joan got up. She couldn’t speak, could only mouth I’m sorry, as she headed for the door.
‘Oh it’s too late to be coy now Joan, don’t you think? Surely you have some idea. No? I’m disappointed Joan, very disappointed. But thanks so much for visiting it’s been fun hasn’t it? Now fuck off and don’t bring those damn flowers here again.’
As the front door of the building banged behind her, Joan put her hands on her thighs, sweat visible through her blouse, and leaned over to catch her breath. When she walked towards the car park, she lifted her face to the sun, its heat burning away some of her shame, and when the Bouquets and Blooms sign came into view, she smiled with relief. As she opened the door the smell of hot vinyl made her retch and she backed away, open mouth gulping in air, but the nausea engulfed her and she vomited into a nearby flower bed, leaving a dark stain on the dry soil and a spatter of milky liquid on the red roses.
Joan drove the long way back and stopped to buy cakes. Her mouth still felt furry and sour and she checked herself in the mirror, wiping away the mascara runs and the remnants of sick in her hair. She rubbed on some lip salve and smiled, willing her face to resume its normal expression. Then, smoothing down her hair, Joan walked back into the shop.
‘Hi Joanie, how was it, you’ve been gone ages?’ said Sarah.
‘Fine, it was fine. All done,’ she replied.
‘Are you sure you’re okay, you look like really tired, positively peeky actually. Fancy a cuppa?’
‘Yes please. Lovely. I bought cake,’ she said, holding up the bag.
Sarah shouted something about Langstone from the back, but Joan pretended not to hear.
‘Oh and you were right by the way. That roundabout on June Lane is a bit of a pain,’ Joan said.
Categories: Just Stories