And Then


And it was like it was before.  Before the divorce.  Long before.  Before her heart went on the extended holiday she’d never agreed upon.  But it was never her decision: it was his.  She’d given her heart to him for eternity, or so she thought.  He’d treated it well: with love in its darkest moments, scorn at its most arrogant, and laughter at its most self-pitying.  The problem was he started ignoring her heart; not treating it badly, just letting it sit on the shelf, watching him, as he zombied ‘round the house.  Her heart was happy – well not happy, but accepting – to sit on the shelf, ignored, until he paid attention once more, never again treating it well.  The change was inexplicable: he’d not started drinking, hadn’t been fired; there was no ostensible reason for it, but there it was, regardless.  She enjoyed the first true twilight hours of her life on that day.  She didn’t realise, at the time, she’d look back and hold memories of those hours as fiercely as she did her children when they came home from school, three-hours before him.  She mirrored their bright, innocent smiles as they showed her paintings, craftwork, and illegibly scrawled short-stories; she held that smile like it was carved in granite, as she watched them devour fairy-bread and orange juice for afternoon tea; she burst the granite open in blissful, jawbone pained laughter as they chased each other ‘round the backyard.  The TV sitting useless in her peripheral vision.  Her smile, that particular granite-smile, shattered forever one day when the kids were washing their hands, she was fixing a cup of tea, and he came home.

‘How was your day, sweet’art?’ she enquired.

‘Fucked,’ he said, dumped his bag on the bench, grabbed a beer and headed for the couch.  He’d never sworn at her before.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked, following his journey with her eyes, but standing still.  ‘What happened?’

Her reply was the sports-report of the evening news; the deafening roar of his silence.

The kids entered the kitchen, gave their father a kiss on the cheek each—without reaction—then dutifully set the table.  She withdrew the plates and glasses from the cupboards, threw him a glance which saw only the bottle in one hand and remote in the other, started dishing up the food, threw him another glance which saw only the motionless back of his head, placed the laden plates on the table, and threw him one final glance before releasing them.  She had trouble explaining how, but he didn’t even seem to be watching the TV.  It was like the beer, remote, and deathly glow of the box had sent his mind to another place – where things weren’t ‘fucked’.

‘Honey, dinner’s ready,’ she sing-songed, hoping  residues of her mood that afternoon would lure him back to the world he used to love.  He didn’t stir.  She padded over to him, leaving the children with the relative safety of the dining-table.  ‘Honey!’ her voice rose just beneath yelling, and he looked up at her with double-glazed window eyes.  ‘Dinner’s ready.’  With the silence of hail-stones falling from a vindictive Heaven, he put down the beer, turned off the TV, put down the remote, rose from the chair and looked not through her, not into her, but at the surface of her eye-balls between their lids, as if he no longer wanted to delve deeper into his wife’s being.  He really had gone.  She couldn’t see him.  She could still feel him.  Her heart wept at his blows.  But her eyes drained of all moisture.

 

Her eyes wept the next morning, at her mother’s, while brushing her teeth.  Salty tears mingled with fluoride and mint, upsetting her further.  Her heart had finished weeping, it was numb.  She’d left the breakfast-table in haste.  She couldn’t hide what the children had seen last night, it was too late.  She could hide her heartbreak.  It was too early for them to learn of it.  They hopefully wouldn’t understand the emotion tied to their father’s absence.  They were upset, too, if not fully aware, yet grandma kept them focused on shortbread, bacon ‘n’ eggs, OJ, and the early morning kid’s television on pay-tv.  From her age, she kept them in theirs.  The rope between the hands of grandparents and grandchildren stretched across the Pacific, though seemed much shorter.  The power of unconditional love.  Her daughter, on the other hand, had aged 10 years in one night and felt, for now, like the rope in her hands was limp.  The sleep deprivation and heartbreak induced bags under her eyes transitioned into the hateful violence induced dark pockets stretching further.  The windows to her soul were treading water in the midst of a deep dark lake; the soul itself deeply submerged, and the sun-penetrated shallows and the happy white sands within sight, yet beyond reach.  It was all she could do to keep afloat, see how long she could hold her breath, not let her soul witness the cold depths of unknown fathoms.  She composed herself as the kids bounded in to the bathroom, sent up by grandma to brush their innocent grins.

‘Mum, mum!’ said Francis.  ‘We just watched the Ninja Turtles!’

‘Yeah!’ said Stephanie.  ‘Splinter was captured but Donatello saved him all by himself.’

She had no idea what they were talking about, but smiled at them, envied them, loved them.  Felt the rope tighten.

‘Ok, ok,’ she said in her serious, ‘mother’ tone-of-voice, ‘brush your teeth and grandma will drop you off at school.’  They deflated, and obediently started to brush.  She visited her lawyer as soon as they were gone, knowing she wasn’t divorcing them, just him.

 

She sat outside the school-gates, in the car he’d graciously lent her and would hopefully relinquish in the settlement, sucking on a cigarette for the first time since the kids were born.  She watched other children dance and play their way out of their six-hour-daily prison, on bikes or into the arms of waiting parents, and feared for them; feared for their futures, any possible unhappy present, and any unhappy past.  Feared that some of them, perhaps even her own, would experience pain and suffering she could not prevent any easier than she could stem the flow of a waterfall.  Her fears were allayed however, when Francis and Stephanie’s smiling faces appeared at the gates and she flicked the cigarette from the car.  The meeting with her lawyer had gone well: her estranged husband had not entered into a prenuptial agreement, and rightfully owed her half their worldly possessions.  She’d never worked after the kids were born, yet she’d emptied her heart and soul into a beautiful house, bright, healthy offspring and a husband whose declining happiness had less to do with her, and more to do with the turmoil within his mind.  His violence toward her which he readily admitted, and showed remorse for, only strengthened her case.  It most likely would not even go to court, to the especial benefit of the children.  He was a bastard, not a monster, yet he’d see them only on weekends if he was lucky.

 

She stayed with her mother, in a house full of love and security.  The kids were happy, despite mentions of their father; she was not, but she would be.  She was lonely.  Sleeping by herself after seven-years felt like walking alone at night through a dimly lit park: empowering at best, and terrifying at worst.  But the kids would burst into her room on a stormy night and she would only occasionally turn them away for their own good.  Other nights, they’d ride out the storm in a matriarchal ship of genuine love.  They were her sails, her mother her ship, her world a violent but abating sea of turmoil.  She needed a job.  ‘Those are such lovely flowers mum,’ she said over a late breakfast one day.  ‘Where do you get them?’

‘Oh, them?’ replied her mother before another sip of tea, glancing at the collection of roses, lilies and snapdragons playing in the window breeze above the sink.  ‘Just a place down the road.  You like them?’

‘They’re beautiful.  Flowers make every moment more precious; it’s just such a shame they have to die.’

‘Flowers can teach us a lot about life m’dear: it is indeed beautiful with the proper care, but inevitably ends.  Y’know they’re looking for someone down there.  I mentioned your situation.’

‘Oh mum!’

‘It’s ok, I didn’t go into detail, though I bloody-well wanted to.  If I was younger and stronger, I’d throttle him myself!’

‘Forget it, it’s in the past, he never touched the kids, and I’m no weakling.’

‘Even so, Jasmine,’ her mother rose while speaking and began rearranging the flowers, ‘it’s not the most glamorous job, but you’re still quite young and you’ve plenty to offer the world.  How that brute could lay a hand on your devastating beauty is beyond me.’

Jasmine began to reprimand her mother for mentioning him again, then caught her image in the reflective steel of the toaster.  She had to agree.  The bruising had healed, and her fair-skin radiated from under brunette waves, broken by green eyes at once fierce and calming.  He certainly was a fool.

‘How do I apply?’

‘Well, for a start, these have just about had it,’ her mother lifted the flowers from the pale-pink vase, planted her foot on the pedal-bin and dropped them into its depths.  ‘So how ‘bout you go down there and pick up some more?  Just tell them who you are.  Ask to speak to Jenny.’

Jasmine smiled at her mother from the kitchen-table, as she stood there, hands-on-hips, a self-assured smile hanging on her handsome, yet past-their-prime features similar to her own.  She could see cyclonic swells battering her mother, yet knew even the ocean’s power could never budge her.  Her mother could cry away an entire movie, then chase a burglar from the house with a fry pan, then resume filling the couch with tears.

‘Just let me finish my coffee.’

 

I remember when first I saw the florist.  It screamed ‘bohemian epicentre’.  Don’t know why exactly.  It may have been its position on a n inner-city corner; it may have been the disordered rainbow paintwork; it may have been the ridiculous, and unneeded, smell of floral incense; it may have been the regular patrons, sitting on pillows, smoking, sipping chai lattes and reading poetry; it may have been all of those things.  I couldn’t avoid it, upon seeing it, if I’d tried.  Like the whole bloody thing was a Venus flytrap, and me a fly hungry for its nectar, I buzzed lazily over and entered a place that would significantly change my life.  I didn’t even like flowers, unless they were getting me laid.  The place was full of flowers.  Which might sound like stating the obvious, but I mean FULL.  In every colour, every size, every imaginable breed – the florist was as stuffed full of flowers as virgin rainforest with trees.  Lots of dead flowers too.  The owners wouldn’t remove the dead and dying ones, just let them fall to the floor and eventually – not often, as there was persistently a brown, dead flower carpet – sweep up the carnage.  It was hard to see how they turned a profit, as they killed more flowers than they sold, the poetry reading patrons would bring their own chai lattes and hardly ever buy flowers, and there were always way too many staff.  Two full-timers, six-part-timers and an endless stream of casuals, some of whom wouldn’t be seen for months, then would return and work 30-hour-weeks, then disappear again inexplicably.  Regardless, most of the staff, and even the owners during their rare visits, would spend more time with the pillow-sitting, chai sippers than with the intermittent customers.  Except for Jenny.  Jenny lived her job; didn’t have a lot to do most of the time, but did it so slowly, carefully and lovingly she always seemed to be working.  If she was angry that the other staff simply sat on pillows for entire shifts, she didn’t show it, preferring to move dreamily among the floral jungle, arranging, pruning and cleaning.  Jenny was one of the full-timers and Sophie was the other, though the latter had recently been fired.  Sophie’d decided the business sense of the owners was a little off-the-mark, and tried to show the old husband and wife the figures, and where they were poor.  The old man chased her out with a broom, which barely raised an eyebrow among the chais; they simply watched lazily, then turned back and kept listening to a recital of what sounded something like:

‘And the can,

Said to the man,

“Hey hey Dan,

I’m not your fan”.’

The shop needed a new full-timer.  Well, it didn’t really, but it was going to get one.  That’s when I first saw her, on one of my routine, morning visits, and finally realised the florist wasn’t a Venus flytrap, it was part of my destiny.

 

Jasmine also remembered when she first saw the florist.  She fell in love.  It was a struggle for a heart as dead and broken as the brown, floral carpet.  With each sweep of those that didn’t make it, and water-bottle-spray of those that hopefully would, she could feel something coming back to life within her.  Jenny gave her the job straight away, and she noticed the chais began to include her in their rubbish, yet heartfelt poetry.  ‘Welcome aboard,’ said Jenny, before resuming her dreamy wanderings.

‘What are my hours, my pay, my conditions?’ Jasmine asked after her.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the old man, Mr Gilfillan, on his way out of the shop, ‘you won’t be able to reach her again until she wanders back to the counter.  You’ll work nine ‘til five every day, we’ll pay you a casual rate of twenty-one dollars per-hour, if you feel like working weekends we’ll pay you, and the rest we can make up as we go along.’

She smiled at him.  He had the air and appearance of everybody’s favourite grandfather, or perhaps santa claus, though he was skinny.

‘Oh!’ he loudly interrupted himself on the way out the door, ‘you can take a bunch of whatever you like home with you every day too.  Better off with you, than on the floor,’ he winked and departed.

She was like nothing the florist, Perfect Arrangement, had ever seen.  She worked as hard as Jenny, though Jenny didn’t mind, nor notice.  She found ways to improve business using surplus flowers, by wandering the local area handing out bouquets and business cards.  She even found time to sit with the casuals and the chais, listening to the banal, amateurish, yet charming poetry recitals.  The poetry spoke volumes of the improvement to the atmosphere Jasmine had brought, and the improvement to her soul which was returned in kind.  Jasmine leapt out of bed each morning, sometimes forgetting to bathe and eat, and her mother stood marvelling at each new selection of flowers on the window-sill, tears of joy falling into the sink with a pleasant, metallic ‘ping’.  Jasmine met Mrs Gilfillan on the last-day of her first week.

‘Don’t call me “Mrs Gilfillan”, Jasmine,’ said the elderly woman, carrying an armful of flowers from the back of the truck.  ‘My name’s Maude, but don’t call me that either; I hate it.’

‘What should I call you then?’ said Jasmine, following her with another armful, through the toxic exhaust of the departing vehicle.

‘I usually go by the last-name McDougal,’ she replied, placing the flowers on the front-desk.  ‘That was my ex-husband’s name.  He was a bastard before he died, and I love Bob – Mr Gilfillan – immeasurably more.  I just hate the name “Gilfillan”.’

Doesn’t seem to be much of a difference to me, Jasmine thought, putting her own armful beside Mrs McDougal’s.  ‘No problem,’ she smiled.

‘Well, that’s it for me for the day.  I’m going home for a beer and to see if the old fella’s feelin’ frisky.’  Jasmine giggled.  ‘Do you want to work tomorrow?’

‘Well, I usually hang out with my kids on a Saturday.’

‘Bring ‘em in.  You don’t have to work the full day, and just write down your hours on the roster.  The kids might get a kick out of the chais, there’s even more of ‘em on weekends.  Just remind ‘em to keep the “poetry”,’ she mockingly made inverted commas out of her fingers, ‘tasteful.’

‘Will do, Mrs Mac.’

‘McDougal, Jasmine.’

She nodded, ‘Mrs McDougal.’

The better-half of the shop’s eccentric leadership gave Jasmine the same wink her husband had on Monday, then bustled out the door.  Jasmine smiled at the woman’s disappearing back, at Jenny wandering ‘round looking at flowers as if one of them held the meaning of life, and at the chais, who’d invented a new poem:

‘A dreamy girl,

A heartbroken swirl.

The river cries,

The flower flies.

Upon its bank,

Her white shank.

A fresh start,

For her poor heart.’

Awful, Jasmine thought, yet a single tear betrayed her appreciation.

 

That Saturday shift was mostly uneventful, yet – perhaps for that very reason – enjoyable.  The kids had the time of their lives playing hide-and-go-seek among the stock, pretending they were frolicking among an endless field of wildflowers which, in a sense, they were.  They’d plant themselves among a pair of chais, look left and right at the dishevelled appearances before them, bemused by the strange rhymes exiting their mouths, and liquids entering.  Jasmine went about her business during the four-hours she decided to ‘work’, telling the kids things from the script such as ‘be careful’, ‘don’t touch’ and ‘stop running!’; secretly delighting in their innocent adventures and no longer envying but joining them.  The florist was an air-conditioned greenhouse in the most isolated location of the world, perhaps another universe.  I’d visited the shop during the week, no more, or less, than I’d done before Jasmine arrived.  I’d sat with the chais, asked Jenny for important floral advice when I managed to pin her behind the desk, basked in the bohemian detachedness of the place.  The routine was not quite the same, however.  She’d always be in my gaze, in its corner, in full-sight, in its other corner, always.  I’d follow her hands while they snipped with secateurs, watch her smile as it analysed a single gerbera, notice a stubborn hint of sadness in her gaze as its attention left something; that momentary eye-drop to the floor.  When I learned she was working on Saturday, through a sly smile from Mrs McDougal, I didn’t bother thinking too much about it.  Too much thought about these things has the same effect as a sandcastle too close to the incoming tide.  Didn’t help me sleep any better though.

 

I burst straight through the doors on the Saturday morn’ and up to the front-desk where, thankfully, Jasmine was standing.  The counter between us was simultaneously frustrating and soothing.

‘I’d like your most beautiful bunch of flowers,’ I declared.

‘What’s the occasion?’ she replied sharply.

‘Hard to describe,’  I answered, while already starting to sweat despite the air-con.

‘Well,’ she smiled, and just about killed me, ‘who’re they for?’

‘They’re for the most beautiful woman I’ve laid eyes on.’

Her smile disappeared, her lips transferred to one side, and her eyes hit the ceiling in thought.  She chuckled softly.  A bad sign.  Perhaps she’d not experienced this in a while; was I being too corny?

‘Come with me,’ she ordered, and I followed her to the front of the shop.  She stopped in front of the most expensive arrangement the florist had at the time.  It held one each of the most popular flowers, a veritable top-shelf collection of floral delights.  ‘This will do nicely,’ she thrust the bouquet into my hands, not giving me a choice.  ‘It says: “excellent taste, generosity, romance and, most importantly, obedience”,’ she grinned, ‘everything a woman needs in a man.’

‘Sounds perfect,’ I managed to grin back.

‘Shall we complete the transaction?’

‘Certainly,’ and I followed her, mind racing, back to the desk.

‘That’ll be one-hundred and eighty dollars,’ I gulped, ‘and here’s the card.’

I handed over my Visa, scrawled quickly on the cardboard and stuck it to the bouquet’s plastic girding.

‘Mind if I read it?’ she asked.  I had no idea how to handle the question, as she’d completely altered my plan.  Without waiting for a reply, she read the card, smelled the flowers with a tiny smile, and continued with a small poem the chais would’ve admired, ‘Ok, but here’s the deal: the flowers are free if you pay for the meal.’

‘Agreed.’

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