Hmm, guilty conscience, thought Hilary as she wrapped the six red carnations and gypsophila in the lime green wrapping paper and held it fast with a Bloomin Lovely gold sticker. Guilty as Hell, her thoughts continued. My money’s on the wife getting these. It’s not the lover, he’s not paying enough for the lover; she’d get roses, not carnations. Carnations say comfy, cosy, familiar; roses say sexy, exciting, risqué.
She moves to the screen to print out the card:
No special occasion – just because I love you.
Yep, definitely the wife, the cheating git.
Hilary returns to the counter with the bouquet and takes the twenty-pound note being proffered.
“They’re lovely”, he says. Hilary flashes her customer-service smile, rings up the sale and watches as he leaves the shop, the jaunty jingle of the door’s bell reverberating behind him.
Thinks he looks so cool in his black polo-neck and shades, trying to look younger than he is. He just looks slimy if you ask me. She sees him hit the remote on his car keys and a rapid bleep-bleep obediently replies from the sleek, black Audi parked mere metres away from the entrance.
Flash git, Hilary concludes.
It’s Wednesday. Hilary hates Wednesdays; ‘neither one thing nor t’other’ she would tell anyone interested enough to enquire as to the root of her prejudice. But no-one ever did. No-one was particularly interested in anything about Hilary, she knew that. Why would anyone be interested in a middle-aged woman with the sort of hairstyle her mother had? A middle-aged woman with mousey hair is invisible to most people and certainly to the entire male population.
“I love the smell of these, don’t you?” Hilary smiled at the young woman as she held the small bouquet of freesias to her nose and inhaled deeply before placing them on the wrapping paper. “I always think they make a room smell lovely when you walk into it.”
“Yes, they are nice; they’re Mum’s favourites”, the young woman replied. “But they’re expensive so she doesn’t get them very often.” The woman laughed and scanned her debit card.
“Still, nice to have something special once in a while,” Hilary said as she watched the young woman leave the shop and walk down the High Street in her black leather jacket and Doc Martens.
Hilary wrapped her cardigan tight across her chest and folded her arms.
I wish someone would buy me flowers, she thought. She looked down at her sensible shoes, plain plaid skirt to the knee, navy blouse and cardigan. You could tell it was winter because her blouse was navy; in summer it would be a nice pastel shade. She brushed the stray petals from the counter and put a new spool on the red ribbon dispenser before busying herself by changing the water in the containers that held the bunches of fresh flowers. Then she made up two bouquets for collection the next day.
At five o’clock sharp, she dropped the catch on the door, turned the sign to CLOSED and took her old grey coat that still had plenty of good wear in it yet, off the peg. Checking her hair in the mirror, she studied herself. She never wore a scrap of make-up, not even lipstick. She had no brooch, no earrings and no bracelet, no jewellery at all apart from her engagement and wedding rings which she now wore on her right hand. She sighed, picked up her handbag and shopping bag and left the shop. She wanted to stop at Tesco Express and pick up something for Sue’s tea. As she wandered up and down the aisles, she put the same few ingredients into the basket that she always did when Sue was coming round – a frozen pizza Margarita, a tin of creamed mushrooms and some Kraft cheese slices.
“What on earth do you get for someone who doesn’t eat meat?” She smiled at the cashier, a young lad who didn’t bother to smile back.
“The meat-free section’s at the back, next to the dairy,” he muttered.
“I don’t want any frozen nonsense,” Hilary snapped. “I prefer good, home cooking.”
The lad looked at the pizza, tinned mushrooms and Kraft slices and said nothing. Hilary scanned her card and left.
“I saw Dad yesterday.” Sue was sitting at the table and Hilary was taking the high-rise pizza out of the oven.
For eight years Sue had been a vegetarian and still, her mum was flummoxed when it came to cooking for her. Sue had suggested recipe after recipe, had commented pointedly on the burgeoning plant-based options now available in most supermarkets and had even given her mum articles she cut out from the broadsheets, extolling the virtues of removing meat from the diet. Unfortunately, seven years ago she had suggested to Hilary that a pizza for tea would be fine, and Hilary’s eyes had lit up. She latched onto the idea like a sticky burr to woollen socks and would not let go, serving it up every second Wednesday when Sue came straight from work for her tea and which, if it were simply a pizza, would not be a problem. But Hilary insisted on customising it to make a more substantial meal, topping it with blobs of mashed potatoes, dollops of creamed mushrooms and a topping of Kraft cheese slices. The result was a hotch-potch of childhood memories stacked onto a distant relative of an Italian classic. But Sue ate it anyway, or at least, as much as she could manage.
“Oh yes?” Hilary replied, placing the dish formerly known as pizza in front of Sue. “With The Bitch was he?”
“He was on his own actually,” said Sue, sidestepping the acrid sobriquet her mum had given Joyce on the day her dad walked out 12 years ago. “He’s not well.”
“Oh?” The sneer had left her mum’s face and been replaced with worry.
“He’s going into hospital tomorrow, for tests. They don’t know what it is but he’s been having terrible stomach pains apparently.”
“So why wasn’t she with him?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps he wanted to tell me on his own.”
“He is still with her, isn’t he? I mean, he hasn’t done the dirty on her too has he?”
Sue couldn’t make out if her mum’s expression was rising hope or self-satisfaction. “No, of course not! He’s still with her, he’s just ill, that’s all.”
A silent pause hung in the air between them.
Hilary softened her voice. “Is he going into Hale House?”
“No, he’s going private. He says the waiting list is too long on the NHS so he’s using his work medical insurance.”
“Oh, I see, to the BUPA hospital then. He should be looked after well enough there.”
“Yeh, he’ll have all the best treatment there.” She caught her mum’s hand and held onto it for a moment, the remains of the pizza tower between them.
They both drifted into silent thought as Sue ate. When it came time to leave, she hugged her mum as she always did.
“You will let me know how he is, won’t you, love?”
“Of course, Mum. I’ll ring you.”
“I ordered a bouquet, name of Fowler?” He was removing one leather glove as he spoke and smiled his professional smile at Hilary; his hand reaching into the inside pocket of his expensive camel coat for his wallet.
Hilary stepped into the small room at the back of the shop where bouquets were waiting. She didn’t remember the name and supposed it must have been made up by Mary on Hilary’s half day yesterday. She spotted the name attached to the largest and most expensive bouquet Bloomin’ Lovely offered. She read the inscription on the card:
I’m the luckiest man in the world. All my love, Gerald xx
I just bet you are, Gerald, she sneered under her breath and lifted the bouquet from the water, wrapping the dripping ends in tissue.
“Perfect. They really are glorious, aren’t they? Thank you.” He was smiling openly now as he cast his eyes over the display.
Hilary rang up the sale and the man departed, cradling the flowers in his arms.
You better not get lily pollen on that coat, Hilary mused. You’ll never get it off. The thought of a bright yellow stain on his lapel pleased her, as if the flowers were validating her opinion of him. She watched him get into his BMW and pull smoothly from the kerb, the engine barely audible.
Secretary perhaps? Hilary speculated. Could be one of his clients; he’s a solicitor I’d say, or a consultant. She checked herself abruptly as she thought of the BUPA hospital for the second time in as many days. “A patient!” She blurted to the empty shop, shock emanating from her in invisible, jagged waves. “My God! He should be struck off!” She left the counter and went into the back room to make up the orders, her hands deftly dividing blooms, trimming their leaves and stems and placing them into buckets, ready to be made up into bouquets. As she worked, her thoughts were on George, and she imagined him hooked up to intravenous feeds in his hospital bed. Sue had rung her last night to update her on his progress and had said that it didn’t look too good. Apparently they had done their tests and found a tumour. They didn’t know if it was benign or not but they scheduled an operation right away to do a biopsy. Sue said George had gone downhill fairly rapidly after that and she was worried about him.
Hilary hadn’t slept. She toyed with the idea of going to the hospital in the dead of night, to sit by George’s bed but she knew they wouldn’t let her, she wasn’t a relative anymore, she was nothing. Sue had said The Bitch was there every day from early to late, and Hilary didn’t want either she, or George, knowing that she still cared. So she didn’t go, she just fretted instead.
The shop bell rang, dragging her back from her thoughts.
“Hello. I ordered a bouquet yesterday. My name’s Turner.” The young man looked about 22 or 23 years old, and his face looked open, remarkably open, Hilary thought, as she smiled and went into the back room for the bouquet. The card simply said:
I love you
His face flushed as he saw the bouquet and card. “They’re for my girlfriend, we’ve just had a baby, a boy, yesterday.” He paused and laughed nervously. “Sorry!” He said, suddenly conscious of his verbal meandering. Hilary laughed, captivated by the smile that was cemented into the space it had created for itself sometime yesterday, probably when he’d first laid eyes on his new son.
“Congratulations!” She said, “That’s terrific.”
Hilary watched him fumbling with the door while holding the bouquet. She recognised that smile, it was the same one George had worn when he came into the room after Sue had been born. Back then, fathers waited outside, anxiously pacing the corridor like a movie cliché until they were called into the room. The moment he appeared and saw the tiny bundle in Hilary’s arms, his face lit up and his eyes filled with tears. He took hold of the baby, tutored by the nurse, and stared down at her, instantly besotted, his expression a beatific blend of incredulity and pure, unadulterated love. They had been happy then, her and George, living in the same village she had grown up in, George working at the steel works and her working part time at the corner shop while they raised Sue. Those were the happiest years of her life.
She suddenly felt very lonely, and empty. She could feel her throat constricting and had to breathe deeply and slowly to prevent tears from coming. She looked at her watch; it was 11:30am. She grabbed her coat and her handbag, turned the door sign to CLOSED, and left the shop, locking the door behind her.
It’s just an early lunch, she assured herself as she hurried to the 189 bus stop.
Hilary stood a little distance outside the room and peered through the open door. With nursing staff and visitors coming and going, no-one took any notice of her; she was after all, invisible. She watched as Joyce, sitting on the side of the bed, leaned forward and took George’s hands in hers, smiling and chatting inaudibly to him. George lay still, listening to her. The back of his hand had a needle inserted into it, connected to a tube which ran up to an inverted plastic bag hanging on a stand.
Hilary studied George’s face. It had been a decade or more since she last laid eyes on him and he looked a lot older now but still handsome. His hair was thinner at the front and very grey at the temples, but his eyes were the same steel blue that she remembered. The man who lay in the bed had been her husband for almost 20 years and yet, seeing him now, it was like she was looking at him for the first time. A wave of emotion surged through her; she felt her stomach lurch and, turning on her heels, she walked briskly down the corridor towards the exit. She had one hand clasped over her mouth and the other holding herself around her stomach, like she expected at any moment to retch a stream of vomit over the floor. Through teared eyes she frantically scoured the surroundings for the swing doors to the outside and escape, but all she saw was coffee tables, hot house plants and easy chairs. She spotted a door to the Ladies and almost ran inside.
A loud sob escaped as soon as she got through the door, and tears ran unchecked down her face and neck, the collar of her blouse absorbing them like blotting paper. She locked herself in a cubicle, held her handkerchief tight over her mouth to stem the sound and gently rocked forward and back as all the loss, resentment, loneliness and sadness poured out of her. She didn’t know how long she stayed like that but she heard multiple people coming in and out. She waited until she was certain her sobbing was under control and her breathing was steady. Then she left the cubicle and washed her face, patting it dry with one of the paper towels.
Hilary looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were swollen and red-rimmed, her face and neck were blotchy, and her blouse collar was sodden. Beyond the mess left by the deluge, she saw what everyone else saw every day, a woman older than her years; a woman who had long since given up on life’s expectations, consigning them to the preserve of those whose husbands had not left them or who had acquired someone else’s husband. Women like Joyce, with her smart trouser suit, her kitten heels, her stylishly cropped hair and her lipstick. How much younger than Hilary she looked yet they were the same age.
Hilary left the Ladies and returned to one of the waiting rooms where she bought a coffee from the vending machine and sat down on one of the easy chairs. She tried to understand what had happened to her and why she had felt a surge of emotion stronger than any she had ever felt before. She thought about Joyce and George in that room and realised that she had seen something she and George never had; the love between them was so palpable, it wouldn’t have mattered if she had stood in the room next to them, they wouldn’t have seen her, their eyes locked only on each other. She had never looked into George’s eyes like that, nor he into hers.
She had been happy enough, George was after all, a good catch as her mother had assured her. He was kind and gentle and he loved her in his own way but not like he loved Joyce. The only time she had seen that expression in his eyes was one evening when she caught him watching Sue asleep in her cot, the same smile of contentment, the same eyes that could barely believe that this precious thing he was looking at was his. All those years of anger and resentment because she felt George had betrayed her, were just a smoke screen for the truth; George and she had never really been in love. She could see that now. How could she not have seen that before?
Hilary stood up, straightened her skirt and tucked the still-sodden collar under her coat. Then she walked back down the corridor to George’s room. She knocked lightly on the open door and smiled as both Joyce and George turned to look at her.
“May I?” She asked.
“Of course,” Joyce said, looking nervously towards George and beginning to push herself up from the bed.
“No,” Hilary put her hand gently on Joyce’s shoulder. “Don’t get up. I just wanted to say how very sorry I was to hear that George is unwell and I hope everything will be all right.”
She walked around the far side of the bed and kissed George on the forehead. “Get well, Love,” she whispered, and smiled at him like she hadn’t done for as long as she could remember. Walking back around the bed she suddenly stopped.
“I can’t believe I didn’t bring flowers!” She said, raising her hand to her cheek. “I even work in a flower shop!” She laughed, and briefly touching Joyce’s shoulder again, she left.
Outside, a weak sun had broken through the dense blanket of clouds. Hilary squinted up at it, feeling the salty residue of her tears still taut around her eyes. She felt inexplicably tired, yet somehow optimistic, like for the first time in years, she could start to think about herself and her life.
“I might get myself a trouser suit,” she thought, as she sat down to wait for the bus.