It had been a long night. Darkness was descending ever earlier these days, these final days of a soon to be remembered heatwave. At the edge of the city’s main traffic intersection the heat conserved by the concrete surroundings of Robert’s flower stall wrapped itself around the last of the day’s blooms. An evading sickly sweet smell quickened their fading beauty and limp notes of colour. It had been a busy night too. A night full of promises and lost love for his customers. Men. It was always men who bought from him. They would stop by in their cars, needing perfumed ammunition in order to carry out their various quests. On their way to make up. Or to give up. He had a few regulars too. He knew that these men, like him, had come to think of flowers as a stabiliser, a constant factor in their complicated lives. To them, flowers had a language. They spoke “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, and just maybe “It’s been a good day and I want to share it with you”. It all depends on who’s translating. Robert’s quiet demeanour seemed to encourage his late night customers to confide. He didn’t question, comment or advise. He just listened. They respected his priestly silence.
This humid night had brought a new customer. A short, overweight man in his fifties, his face damp with twin tributaries of sweat and tears, had appeared in the new gloom, stumbling, almost falling into the flower seller’s scent laden arms. A few hours before his arrival, when the evening was just beginning to fade, Robert had spotted him in the distance and had watched him. The man had parked his car at an obtuse angle, and looked to be in some agitated state, pacing up and down the pavement. He couldn’t be heard but he clearly seemed to be talking to himself, imploring with himself, his stubby arms up in the air. At one point he had got back into his car but remained stationary, immersed in his indecision.
Roses of all shades and tones were the offerings that night, their velvet petals having absorbed the last of the natural light were now switched on again, glowing under the sulphurous street lights.
The new customer had taken Robert by surprise. He’d been clearing the discarded stems and leaves from the pavement. His next job would be to select any decent remaining flowers to keep for the following day. There weren’t really any contenders tonight though. His stock was almost gone. Then this fumbling, crumbling man appeared at his side. He needed flowers. That’s what he said. He needed them, his voice quietly resigned. Anything would do, he said. Robert just looked at him and shook his head. But the man thrust his hands into his pockets withdrawing several notes, and, almost falling over, he waved them in Robert’s face. Demanding. Pleading. Anything. Please.
It’s too late. You can tell that. His last chance has gone. Flowers won’t help now. Whatever he’s apologising for, my few stems won’t make any difference. It’s too late. You can see that. Whatever has happened, it’s too late. But I’m glad I had a few left for him. And I couldn’t take his money, could I?
But now I don’t know. There’ll be nothing left to eat by now. He was so insistent. And then his tears. It’s good to be able to cry. I wish I could still cry. But that’s all gone.
But he could see I was about to bin them. They were way past it. Wilting all over the place. But it was dark. He couldn’t see properly. He just had a determination. Flowers. Flowers were all he could see. He was in a bad way, and of course flowers mean sorry. And roses mean love. Sorry love. But it’s not always enough. I know that.
It’s not ever enough. I’m sorry, love.
This humid night had edged out an arid day. In the dry, midday heat, Mike had been stood in the squat shadows of his office building, smoking a cigarette. He’d got through quite a lot of cigarettes this week. It didn’t do him any good. He knew that. It was a chance and time to think though. That was a good thing, he thought. But he only felt uncomfortable standing there in his ill-fitting attire. A pastel coloured flowery shirt was too tight for this particular summer. His wife had thrown it out into the yard this morning along with a dysfunctional family of clothes. Every piece was a solitary vagrant; they didn’t live harmoniously together, had seen better days and were now homeless. And moreover, nothing was comfortable or suitable for this weather.
He stood in the welcome shade, his arm leaning against the wall, the relatively short extension providing a buffer to the heat radiating from the bricks. The shirt felt looser that way too, although the sweat was sprinting down his body. He wondered why, of all the shirts she could have thrown, why this one? He felt sure it had never been so tight. It was quite a few years old. He thought it must be five, six, even seven years ago now, remembering a happier, slimmer time by a southern coast. Yes, must be getting on for seven, he thought. It must be. Seven years. An itch crept down his outstretched arm.
The floral discomfort set off memory cogs. He’d been wearing this shirt that night at Joe and Stella’s, one night two summers ago it would have been. It had been an impromptu get together, the summer sun inviting goodwill to come and play amongst friends. That night hadn’t panned out as they had had anticipated. As he remembered, they had decided at the last minute to get together for a drink before deciding where to go out to dinner. They’d thought of trying out a new place, Italian it was, just down the road. That’s the kind of thing they used to do.
He remembered now, how that night Joe had been talking. Holding forth he was, which was odd, considering he was usually the quiet guy. The four of them - Joe, Stella, Mike and Lisa, his wife – had sat round the kitchen table. A half bottle of wine plonked in an ice bucket was placed in the middle and, for Mike at least, had turned into a focal point during the unusual monologue. As Joe’s words were floating by, he had watched as newly formed drops of water ran slowly down its metal exterior, tiny rivulets tracing an unknown route. That night was when their friendship started to melt too. He understood that now. At the time though, he had thought they were all happy, enjoying the spontaneity, the drinking. Enjoying each other. And he had never stopped to think why Lisa was so quiet that night.
Joe was a doctor, but a reluctant talker about all things medical. Usually. But that night he talked relentlessly about his job, about one of his patients that day. It had felt like none of them could contribute, to question or probe, to turn the monologue into a dialogue. It felt okay to let him spout off, get whatever it was he was trying to say off his chest. Mike had just poured more wine.
There was an intensity about Joe that night. But Mike had enjoyed seeing him like that. Animated for a change, instead of watching like he usually did, as if analysing every scrutinised detail. So that night, it was as if everyone was letting Joe have his moment, and left him to continue with his recounting. Well, that’s what Mike had thought at the time. That no one actually had anything to add. That like him, the women were happy enough to let the wine flow. Now though, now he could see that the signs were there. He wondered why he hadn’t picked up on them. But I was blind, he thought. Or blinkered. Maybe he had been aware of some stirrings, some stray glances, but he just hadn’t wanted to confront them. He’d always been a head in the sand man. Always the one to shy away from conflict. This was why he was finding it hard now. I’ve left it all too late, he thought.
His mind travelling, he realised now that Joe had been attempting to tell him. Or warn him? But I was blind, he convinced himself. Life was good then. Or so he had thought.
God this shirt is tight.
I must try and breathe.
It’s too late though.
I know that much.