Coming out of hibernation

It’s been a while since we spoke, and things have probably been just as busy for you in the last couple of weeks. But now that spring has truly sprung (in the northern hemisphere, at least), you’ll soon see and hear all sorts of things sprouting. And if you’re not inclined to look for the green shoots of economic recovery, may we suggest some blooming fiction of a slightly darker note?

The Florist
by Bilal Ghafoor

The bells draped above the old wooden door ringled-tingled beautifully, as they always did whenever someone came in. The old man pushed one last white and pink carnation in to the vase, wiped his ropy fingers on his apron and bent himself past the boxes to see who had come in. Normally, he would have gone up to the customer and showered him with smiles and avuncular advice; how to apologise to a spouse with just the right shade of blood-red roses or how to charm a friend€™s wife on her birthday without flirting using yellow roses. The customer who had just walked in seemed, however, to have no such needs; he was quietly bending over a spray of azaleas and starting to examine each bloom carefully.
Albert returned to his work, lovingly arranging each stem; he almost forgot about the young man, when he heard a gentle cough. Another wipe of the hands and he shuffled behind the cracked old wooden counter. He stared into the eyes of the young man. They were speckled green and blue, and yet they sucked in the light around him. They narrowed slightly as he tendered a ten pound note. Albert glanced down at the counter. Three flowers. Kerching, change and he was gone.The next day, before the sun had poured in through the dusty glass of the shop, the young man came in again. A friendly nod and he once more went silently to his task. The old man wondered what he was looking for. He picked out three different flowers, which did not match or complement each other. He seemed to have a hidden set of criteria. But he was content to let this man be. So different to the other youths, who rushed in and so casually bought roses by the dozen, with large banknotes.
And soon this became a daily event and stopped being remarkable. Every single day the young man would come in and buy his flowers. On some days, he would find what he was looking for in a few minutes, pay and leave, but on most days, he would spend far longer, frowning at this daffodil, then that carnation until he had found an orange tulip that he was happy with.
With that, the months quietly turned into years.
It was very dark now and Albert€™s back was hurting. His wife had told him to sit more; she had even gone to the trouble of buying him a special, contoured stool for his 70th birthday. How would she understand how much physical labour there was in a florist€™s day? Finally, after the rush from the bus stop had subsided and his customers had all placated those partners, mothers, girlfriends and wives that they had annoyed, he decided to pull the protesting metal grating down and walk the half mile back to his house. So much quicker than a bus these days.
He had almost secured the shop when he realised that the young man had not been in today. He frowned and tried to remember if it had happened before. No, never. Not in€¦ in God-only-knew how many years. His back protested and his feet started to shape their complaints. He thought it odd but he pulled the shutters down and went off home.
The next day, he came in a little early. Despite the October cold, he threw the doors open to the pale sun and started to unpile the flowers that his son delivered to the shop in the dead of night. He looked around the shop sadly, aware that it would be sold upon his death. His son wanted to be something else. His only concession was that he would go down to the Nine Elms flower market and buy the flowers every morning and drop them off at the shop. But he spent his days at a desk in the one of the high-street estate agents.
After he had unpacked the flowers, not arranging them with his usual care, Albert sat in the doorway and looked about for the young man. By noon, his neck felt leaden.  He had imposed the young man€™s face on every passer-by until they came into focus and disappointed him.
His neighbour, a fruit seller, came out, surprised to see the old man sitting around.
€œAlright, Al, how€™s yer back doing?€ he asked, assuming that his neighbour was resting due to lumbago.
The Albert pulled his pipe out of his mouth with a small suck and declared it to be fine. They both nodded.
€œStill not allowed tobacco?€ his neighbour asked.
€œNo, bloody doctors€¦ I just suck on this thing. Keith, you know that young boy that comes in to my shop every day?€ Another suck on the pipe.
Keith frowned and started to shake his head gently. He could not think of anyone that regular.
€œHe comes in a lot. Every day. Nice young man. Well, he was young. Oh you know who I mean.€
€œWhatsis his name?€
Albert was shocked by this question. He was sure that he had never asked. In fact, he strained his mind to try to recall a single instance of them speaking. Had they never spoken?
€œI€¦ I don€™t know€.
A customer came into the grocer€™s looking for something and Keith took the chance to get away. A regular customer, comes in everyday and the old man doesn€™t know his name? Losing his marbles.
€œAwright, Al, gotta get back€¦ morning, love, what will it be?€
Albert realised that he did not know anything about the young man. No, no, he was not young any more. He had been coming in for more than fifteen years. But the old man could not remove that fresh-face image from his mind.
That evening, he did not close up at time. All day, he had hardly proffered any advice to the broken-hearted. All day, he had sat and waited for the young man. His back ached from not having been moved, as it often did on a Sunday afternoon. It was nearly nine o€™clock when his wife called. After the relief of finding out that he had not been mugged on his way home, she shrilled at him for not being punctual, asked him if he wanted any dinner and put the phone down. It was nearly ten o€™clock when the Albert finally ordered a taxi to take him home.
He did not really sleep that night. Unusually, he tried to talk to his wife but she, like Keith, thought him confused.  He tried to think back. Which way did the young man turn when he left the shop? Where might he live?
In the early hours, he could not stand his wife€™s gentle snoring any longer and he forced himself out of bed. His back would not cooperate; it felt as it someone had stuck concrete pins into it. He clenched his teeth and was opening the shutters by six o€™clock. His son ran in, alarmed that the shop was open. When he realised that his dad had merely opened three hours early, he shrugged, went out to the van and started bringing in the white boxes that held the flowers.
All day, Albert did not even pretend to work. He sat and waited and worried. Every time the door opened, his heart fluttered but it was always someone else. He was exhausted and empty. That evening, his wife did not think to call. It was nearly midnight.
Then, just before Thursday became Friday, the bells tinkled gently. The young man walked in. But he was no longer young. His hair was streaked with grey, his cheeks had given way to tears. His clothes were unkempt and dishevelled.
He spent most of the night looking at flowers and with the first signs of dawn, tenderly laid an armful of flowers on the counter in front of the old man and spoke.
€œPlease make me a wreath€.

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