Ella had been through this before. Once in a while Luce would fall in love. More often than not, it'd be with the wrong person. "Wrong" meaning already taken, meaning hetero, meaning wrong.
And then she'd spend some evenings crying, Kleenexes all around the sofa, then good Edie would come over, sleep over, take her out, help her out. Sometimes she'd take a short holiday. And then back where we started.
Between those bouts, Ella would have to keep shop. Not that she minded. She'd inherited "Flowered-Up" from her mother – it had then another name, more romantic – worked there almost thirty-eight years, not counting the ones as a child and a teen when she just helped, and then, having taught Luce the job, she handed it over. In fact, she'd taught her more than that, she told her the secret meanings and messages flowers carried, how to cater for all people's tastes and, mainly, how to do all this all alone. Ella would know, her husband had left her long ago. Flowers can't mend a broken heart, but, thank God, it does itself!
It wasn't, then, much of a surprise that Luce called her mother quite early in the morning. The evening before Ella had dinner with a handsome man, a widower, not your "recently-lost-my-wife-and-am-looking-for-some-consolation" guy, not a loser, but a lively, witty man, who'd made that evening special. Only the evening, mind you. Ella smiled. It might take some waiting before he'd also brighten her nights! Last evening was a good omen, but when she heard her daughter's broken voice on the phone, saying she'd like to visit Aunt Brenda, she knew. A sobby voice accompanied by wet sniffing, the fact that Brenda lives in Scotland, yesterday afternoon's tearful confession and ambiguous answers, it all added up: the wrong person. What about the counterweight, love being all that matters?
She knows the drill: a taxi to get to the shop, which would next take Luce to King's Cross, the ticket already telephonically booked. A call to her sister to expect Luce late in the evening. Last but not least: her bravest smile, a mother's smile, the smile of one who's suffered alike.
Ella goes to the phone and rings the radio-taxi company. The operator – a young man – tells her she'll be picked up in four minutes. "I'm not that easy!" she is tempted to answer but, perhaps, the joke will be lost on him. She goes down and stands at the kerb waiting.
The taxi does arrive in four minutes. The cabbie stops and grumbles something resembling a "hi, there!". He is a rotund, gruff fellow. A name-tag pinned askew on his driver-vest identifies him as Trevor. Has a strange habit of talking to himself. This is what Ella thinks, before she sees the blue-tooth headset mounted on his left ear. The blue LED is constantly blinking, he talks incessantly, albeit in few-syllabled installments.
Ella gets inside and sits. She had to open the door herself since Trevor didn't deign to get off and open it for her. He seems entirely given to his phone-call. Bits of his conversation spring to Ella's ears. Between his expletives he raises his eyebrows meaningfully, he kneads his lips together lasciviously, he almost licks them. "Sweet shit, is he on a sex-chat line?". She knits her eyebrows in a frown, looking demurely out of the window, hoping her mute criticism will reach him via the rear-view mirror. But Trev doesn't seem to give a whit. "Wankers! All of them!" Ella thunders inside. "Lard tunderin' Jaysus" Brenda's Canadian husband, Donald, would say.
During the three-minute ride Ella is in position to know that Trevor's collocutor wears a flame-red lacey thong, black garters and not much more. She (or could it have been he?) had earlier, apparently on Trev's request, removed her (or his…) bra. Ella's still fuming. "Really!" she thinks "does phone-sex substitute the need for real touch? And what when he gets worked up, gonna set his mobile on "vibration" and then shove it up his…"
"'Ere we are, ma'am!" Trevor booms gutturally. Ella keeps on looking out for a few more seconds, wanting her non-verbal criticism to sink in. Finally she turns to him, looks at him through the mirror. "Stay put, you'll be driving my daughter to King's Cross station. She has some luggage" she says curtly and gets out. Luce is standing inside the shop, her stuff lying nearby. Her cheeks are flushed. She's been crying. Back where we started…
Words are superfluous. She goes up to her and hugs her fondly. Not because of their broken loves, but because Luce is the one person in the whole world whom she cares for. "I won't close my eyes until I see her happy" she thinks and she smiles at her daughter: her bravest smile, a mother's smile. She improvises words of comfort, "you take care, I'm going to enjoy myself" she tells her cheerfully.
They've been through this before. And, frankly, Luce had been at it before. One couldn't argue, but Ella goes into the offensive, mother's right. "You did nothing wrong" he calls after her, her hands almost clasped as in prayer, forefingers joined, a token of solidarity.
Luce's reflection is short, the resolution already made, the pain already receding. "Thank you, mum dearest, thank you very much for being there for me, for loving me no matter what, but…"
"I did" she admits. A girlish pout, a stiffing of the lip, a bitter smile. "Truth is, I'd do it again". Turns away so that tears won't flow, puts on a carefree gait, enters the taxi hopping. Ella watches, her heart in her eyes. Trev has put Luce's gear in, puts the car in gear and they leave, his mouth constantly moving, the blue LED constantly blinking.
"Wanker!" thinks Ella.
Now, to business!
On the counter there are a couple of orders, easy ones. Ella's still nimble fingers start performing. She smiles to herself bitterly. "Work-therapy, is right. I almost forgot, I'll have to concoct an excuse for Luce's absence. Lots of odd eggs around!"
Seven minutes later Evelyn, a piano-teacher living on the opposite block, enters the shop with a cordial "Hello, Mrs Parker, how are you?"
"Hello, Eve, very well, thank you. How about you?" answers Ella, all businesslike.
"All's well, thank you. Luce here?"
"No… but how may I help you?" Ella counters.
"Well, send two dozen red-roses to the music school by two o'clock. Redecoration day, you see".
"Will do, dear. Anything else?".
"That's all. Give Luce my love" says the teacher with a fond smile and leaves.
"All of it, dearest" says Ella a bit peevishly. "Damn, it must be this damned taxi-driver, that set my teeth on edge. Oh, yesterday evening, mmh…"
A bit of day-dreaming, a short respite. And then, who'd appear at the threshold? None other but Mrs Edwards. Of course, she buys here, but, my, what an ability this woman has to smell trouble and to come to gloat!
"A very pleasant morning, Mrs Parker" says Mrs Edwards in her best Queen's English. "How are you today?"
"One of these days I'm going to tell you exactly how I feel… towards you!" Ella thinks, but has no alternative than to go through the motions.
"Very well, Mrs Edwards, thank you. And you?". Queen's English.
"I'm fine, thank you. Now, the weather has been a bit unstable during the last fortnight, wouldn't you say? One wouldn't know what to wear or if one should carry one's umbrella" she expands.
"Quite right, Mrs Edwards, one wouldn't" Ella apes her. "What could I do for you?"
"You know, I'm going to a visit, to Mrs Kenworth, the wood-importer's wife. She's been abroad and has just returned. She thought we would have a chat and a tea. Would you be so kind as to arrange a composition? Red carnations and white gerberas, I'd think".
"A connoisseur's choice" Ella exclaims, lying, fearing she'd sound unnatural, but unrelenting. "And a bit of fern for foliage, would that be to your liking?"
"Yes, thank you" Mrs Edwards grins.
"My, did I manage to un-purse her lips?" Ella wonders and gets to work.
Mrs Edwards looks a bit around, taking in most of the little shop's merchandise in a few seconds. Looks pleased… or she's gloating! "And" Ella predicts "next thing she's going to say is…".
"And how is your… daughter?" asks Mrs Edwards, masterfully inserting the briefest pause before the last word in order to speak volumes.
Ella doesn't even flinch, her fingers equally masterfully working the shears, clipping the flower-stems' excess length. Now, I'd gladly clip your nosey nose, but it's only going to grow back again.
"Oh, she's fine, thank you for asking. She's been working a lot lately and she thought she would take a… short vacation in Scotland, that's where my sister lives… as you probably know".
The first pause is the result of a sudden pang she feels. ("It mends again"). The second is just retaliation. Mrs Edwards is bound to know everything that goes on in the neighbourhood. She might also have correspondents scattered all over London, for all Ella knows.
"Oh, yes, I can recall now, Inverness, or thereabouts, isn't it?" drawls Mrs Edwards. Damn, she's a regular, thinks Ella, or else I'd punch her.
Ella displays the gerberas-carnations mix to her customer for her approval, before she ties them up. "Would this do, Mrs Edwards?" she asks in a most professional tone.
"Oh, they're wonderful, absolutely delightful. Mrs Kenworth is just going to adore them. Thank you, Mrs Parker, how much do I owe you?" she asks. She then slowly opens her purse, removes her glove and takes out a credit card. She holds it delicately between two fingers.
Ella's attention is focused on finishing the flower-bunch but does watch with the corner of her eye. Body language! Oh, what an arsenal this woman has! Innuendos, meaningful glances, half-whispers, gestures. Every detail of her posture speaks her disapproval. "I won't take her challenge", thinks Ella. "If she has… opinions, well, let her voice them, I won't be shaken or goaded into base conduct". Starts making a mental calculation. Six carnations plus…
Suddenly the door bangs open, the door-chime tinkling urgency.
Thank God, another customer, I couldn't stand her any longer…
"Where's Luce? Is she here?" blurts the newcomer, a young brunette with wavy hair.
"Golly," thinks Mrs Edwards "what manners! Some people!"
Ella's reprieve is very short-lived. Indeed! Customers enter, this was more of an onslaught! She'd give this insolent young lady a piece of her mind. And in the bargain, she'd show Mrs Edwards she too could be as prim as they get. She ties the ribbon hard and noisily enough to make her point.
"Would you like to try that entrance again?" she says, perfectly achieving the intended intonation. Oh, Mrs Edwards, I'm good too. I can match you whim for whim, pit my tartness against yours, any day of the week.
Or rather, in retrospect, fuck you, Mrs Edwards, I'm not ashamed that my daughter has not your sexual orientation, or mine for that matter. She's a lovely girl, hard-working, always trying to please and to help. Have you seen her cry over a lost love? No, you haven't. Have you seen her gone to pieces after an affair that didn't work out? Have you looked into her soul or do you only try to carefully step around her being homosexual? Well, she is "so", been "so" since her teens, been this way forever, hasn't changed, won't change, won't change for your or anyone else's sake. She's a wonderful human being, she's my daughter, I stand by her, fuck you, Mrs Edwards.
"Hello. Please, I'm looking for Luce" rephrases the stranger, all polite and proper.
Ella now stares. Suddenly she knows. It can be nothing else, this driving force, this aura. It's written all over the brown-haired woman's face. It's called "love". She remembers yesterday. Nods.
"You're her" she states. "You're the girl". The woman acknowledges. Oh, it would be much easier without the presence of Mrs Edwards, but the words must be spoken.
"You have a husband" Ella tells her, her shoulders slumping the tiniest bit, almost admonishing her to resignation. I too had a husband once, for all the good it's done me. Edwards makes a face. A long one, a shocked, or else appalled one. Damnation, she must be having a ball.
"I left him" the other answers. "He left me" she corrects. "It's over" she concludes.
For the briefest moment does Ella mourn the broken romance. He'll find his way, they all do, we all do. But the driving force that hurled this girl here is bound to lead her further, no doubt. She feels relieved, elated. She has the words ready.
"So, you're free? And you… love my daughter?"
No, Mrs Edwards, this pause wasn't for your benefit. Do you know, can you imagine how many people pronounce the word "love" in vain? How many millions of times has this word been uttered in every language of the world and, respectively, how many times has it been proved a lie? You're human, too, I don't doubt that you do have feelings, but if you could get off your high horse, only then could you see, love is for the common people, understand?
"Golly!" is all Mrs Edwards has to say. That, and to rearrange her jowls disapprovingly, almost leering at the younger woman, her scarlet woollen hat suddenly looking like a inquisitioner's zucchetto on her proud head.
Sorry, Mrs Edwards, I can't attend to you any longer. I've got a much more pressing business. My daughter's heart can be mended, her true love is here, desperately looking for her, and you'll have me standing here tying up your bunch? One you'll probably present to another self-righteous prude like you, while discussing, gossiping, that is, "the aspects of a cataclysmically degenerating society", as you're sipping through your permanently pursed and long-since, I'll wager, unkissed lips on your cuppa? You can have your bunch, it's on the house, you can have all flowers available at the shop, also on the house, in fact you can… never mind!
Ella unfastens her waist purse and her apron, her fingers working very quickly, no time to waste. Looks for a safe place to leave them, but her eyes meet with Mrs Edwards'. A flash of frolicsome inspiration! She pushes both objects firmly into the other's arms.
"Um… have you ever sold flowers before?" she asks of her rhetorically, before following the girl who's already been dashing out of the shop and without sparing another look at her flabbergasted customer.
Choke on this, thinks Ella. I don't know where this all will lead, but I think I trust this girl. I think it was her entrance, her distraught look, her worried brow. I believe she really loves Luce and I believe this time Luce will be happy and you can choke on this, Mrs Edwards.
Or wash it down with a cuppa!