She communicates through flowers. Daffodils are for happiness, carnations for sadness, snowdrops mean hope and tulips stand for strength. She saves dahlias for saints’ days, even though she isn’t religious, and gladioli for the family visits she dreads. A red rose means enter, a white rose death.
This isn’t, you may have noticed, the traditional language of flowers; it’s her own system, her own invention, or her own garden, as she would say.
The day we met she gave me a tiger lily. She said it was a promise; of what she wasn’t saying. I teased her for clues, but her mouth, itself a perfect shade of amaryllis pink, remained as tight as a spring bud.
In frustration I decided to look up some common interpretations, taking to the task as if to an assignment. She hadn’t hinted as much, but I felt that to research the language of flowers, instead of guessing at a system of hers, might demonstrate initiative on my part and be suitably rewarded.
I found that a tiger lily signified pride and wealth, and I wondered if it was part of some sly scheme of hers to indict my financial status; the insinuation being that my abundant wealth had produced in me an air of superiority. Maybe she was playing an allusive game, a reference to Pride and Prejudice perhaps? It was an entertaining train of thought, and momentarily flattering to cast myself as Darcy, but I couldn’t help returning to the essential point: that her classifications were mostly in defiance of any convention, and to seek answers from established sources was as likely to mislead as to illuminate.
A week later she gave me a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the references to lilies all marked up. She told me to “consider the lilies” and instructed me to bring her a flower in return. I skimmed through the collection and found a poem – Through the Dark Sod – with the words ‘no fear’ and ‘ecstasy’ neatly underlined. In another – Here, Where the Daisies Fit My Head – she had run a thick, jagged pencil under ‘my flower’ and ‘a single bloom we constitute’.
Further research revealed that the subject of the first poem was the calla lily and, rummaging through various sources, I found two symbolic uses: at weddings, for purity and innocence; at funerals, for resurrection. This was, indeed, developing into a strange puzzle, a riddle even, of ambiguity and enticement. She had provided me with half the means to break the code, whilst withholding the remainder for a purpose I could only guess at.
And what flower was I to return? Whatever promise she was making – and some sense of that was emerging quite propitiously – required the right response, but since I was mystified by the semantics of her ‘garden’ it seemed impossible to be sure of choosing correctly.
I slept and dreamt of Emily Dickinson, or of someone in my dream who claimed the name. I saw words and dashes and lilies and her garden in Amherst and a tall man with a stovepipe hat that Emily told me was me. In my unconscious state some corner of my mind succeeded in turning the dream into an appeal for guidance: ‘what flower?’ I asked. ‘An orchid,’ said Emily.
Still sweating from the night’s excitements, I leapt from bed and consulted my references. Orchid: for refinement, beauty and love. Of course. Oh Emily, will you stray into my dreams more often?
I slept no more, waiting impatiently for morning, and hoping that somewhere amongst the flower shops and garden centres – and I mentally compiled a list of all the ones within range – was the orchid that would most eloquently speak for me and arrest the heart of the woman who had so emphatically seized mine.
My limbs may have been weary from lack of sleep, but I barely noticed as I set out at the dew-heavy hour of the morning to procure the magic flower; the work of nature that would exalt the woman whose standing in my scheme of things now eclipsed all else.
It was to prove an exacting quest, but one never more deserved by the person in whose honour it was made. I took to the task as a man transformed, which meant speaking to assistants whose attentions I would normally have gone out of my way to avoid. I learned that there were over twenty thousand species, the news of which dismayed me at first since the challenge of finding the absolute right and perfect one from a cast so diverse seemed daunting, but then I remembered my dream and Emily, who had spoken to me like an angel and set me to my goal. Serendipity was the answer. I convinced myself that the randomness of the dream would find symmetry in the accident of my encounter with The Orchid.
But, as the morning drifted into afternoon and my list of sellers dwindled to the last few, I felt my confidence pale, my sprightly sense of mission lose its zest and my vision of the enraptured woman of my dreams grow dim.
At mid-afternoon I entered a small shop beside a railway station, perched on stilts above the cutting. The interior was crowded with flowers, the proprietor apparently keen to cram the available space.
By now I was used to browsing my way past all the flowers I didn’t want, and not succumbing to the distraction of their competing claims for consideration on grounds of beauty and refinement. In truth these indecisions had been fleeting, since the certainty of my objective was never in doubt, but I was also building my mental catalogue, convinced as I was that a knowledge of flowers was a necessary pre-requisite to a successful rapport with the woman for whom the language of flowers formed the discourse of life.
On opening the door it was immediately apparent that the proprietor was absent. The double clang of the doorbell accompanying my entry seemed unnecessarily loud for a shop so small; it seemed to shout my presence, drawing more attention to myself than I was comfortable with. I naturally expected that the effect would be to summon assistance, but the corner desk and the doorway next to it, which I assumed was the route to the back office, remained vacant.
But the scent! Such a rich, sweet nectar, the perfume of nature’s greatest artifice. The blend was intoxicating, overpowering even, but still it was possible, as I moved through the air’s thick fragrance, to extract the scent of individual flowers. It induced an orgy of the sensual pleasures and I confess to an involuntary gasp as my nostrils picked up the sun-warmed vapour that hung as an invisible cloud behind the shop window.
After several hours on the trail, my eye was now well practised and, in spite of the narrow spaces filled with an unfeasibly large array of flowers, I quickly realised that an orchid was not among them; never mind The Orchid.
I’d zigzagged my way to the far end of the shop, and was resigned once more to disappointment. I turned in order to retrace my path to the door and, as I did so, a shock awaited: right behind me, far closer than courtesy would normally allow, was the proprietor; a person who appeared to be none other than my woman of flowers.
‘Hello,’ I said, and stepped back to allow more space to open between us. I said ‘hello’ with surprise but also, I felt, with a degree of warmth rare in a standard retail exchange. I smiled.
‘Let me know if I can help you,’ she said, without a trace of recognition on her face or in her voice.
I stuttered and looked closely. Her eyes, hair and complexion were all familiar. The faint downiness of her temples was present and correct, as were the lop-sided lips, the heavy eyebrows and narrow, ill-defined cheekbones. Did I mention that she wasn’t a conventional beauty? But don’t be misled; the lack of an orthodox structure to her face and features was, to my febrile mind, the very source of her beauty.
But was it her?
‘Come with me,’ she said and led me to the back office. Not that it was an office, rather a less ordered version of the shop itself: cooler, less intoxicating, the flowers recently sprayed, the perfume diluted, more citrus; a lightly chilled blanc rather than a velvet smooth claret.
‘There it is,’ she said, her smile skew-whiff, as I knew and loved so well.
And indeed it was: The Orchid. I knew immediately; a moment when the cogs of the cosmos align. Its shape was one thing: slender, sinewy; its leaves perfectly proportioned to the whole. And the flowers were perfection, the petals pure white and gossamer, whose delicacy forbade a touch in spite of the tactile thrill they promised, and in the centre a smudge of orange on its lips, at once innocent and sinful.
‘Water it only in the morning,’ she said, as she picked it up and presented it to me. A smile danced from her lips to her eyes. I paid her and we parted.
The next day I approached her house, The Orchid carefully held in front of me as I walked. It was another bright, dewy morning, fresh and breezy before the humid warmth to come. I saw the red rose in the window, as agreed, and I pushed at the front door. A small draught blew the perfume from within. But this wasn’t the perfume of flowers; this was hers, musky and glandular, sweet and sour, heavy and unambiguous.
The house was silent except for the intermittent rustle of a blind against an open window. I wondered if I should call out. Was that what was expected? Or was I to search the house until I found her? And where would she be? Stretched out on a sofa? Busy in the kitchen? Tending her garden?
I decided not to shout for her; she would want to be found, I was sure. I turned a handle to what I presumed was the lounge and opened the door gently, hoping it wouldn’t creak. I crept in but there was no sign of her. I relaxed, pushed the door wide and crossed the room. At the far end was another door and once again I opened it with extreme care. Once opened, it revealed the back end of the hall with the kitchen opposite, its door open.
On the kitchen table, I found a pair of secateurs and a bunch of neatly trimmed rose stems. A fragrance lingered, suggesting recent activity. Looking up, I saw that her back door was ajar and I stepped through into her garden.
It was small but immaculate. A perfect co-ordination of contour and colour, a place where shrubs and flowers buzzed with bees – a sound so busy, yet drowsy. I imagined the co-existence of her and the bees, creating and arranging, pollinating and planting. A cultivation of beauty where chaos met order and each worked tirelessly and in harmony. But of her, there was nothing.
I returned to the house with a developing premonition as to the purpose of her invitation. I went back through the kitchen, down the hall to the foot of the stairs. I paused and looked up and imagined what I would find there. I began climbing the stairs, her perfume strengthening in my nostrils, filling them, flaring them, becoming more fragrant and more alluring with each step.
At the landing I looked at the three closed doors. Which would lead to the bedroom? I turned a handle on a door to my left, slowly, with a desire to heighten the anticipation, sensing her presence behind, willing the moment when I am revealed, triumphant with The Orchid, ready to claim her.
But it was a study. Orderly, neat, not a file or a sheet of paper out of place.
As I opened the door to the next room, a tiny crack at first, then a little push, a breeze like an exhale escaped from inside. The perfume had changed: it was fresher, lighter, a spring day rather than a summer night. It would not be her I realised, and it wasn’t. Throwing the door wide I found the bathroom.
So, it was the final door. I touched the handle, light-headed now with the exquisite charge of arousal. The burst of air as this door cracked open, carried a rich, thick draught of her. As I pushed the door slowly, ever so slowly, I raised The Orchid ahead of me, as if bearing the standard. A gust of wind clattered the blinds and I saw the bed, covered with white rose petals.
I looked up and my heart stopped.
As had hers. She hung from the ceiling, her lop-sided face creased, pained but now at peace.
This story was awarded second place in The London Magazine’s Short Story Competition 2013 judged by Stephen May and Avril Joy.