A Taster for The Flower Seller
THE FLOWER SELLER
William poured himself a glass of scotch and went to stand by the open doors in the
kitchen. The garden was golden in the evening sunshine. He could see a flash of white
on the upper lawn. Jessie was watering the roses.
He stood the scotch on the kitchen table and strode purposefully onto the terrace.
Two steps. Three. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his khaki trousers and
stopped. He couldn’t tell her while she was doing the watering. It seemed too casual,
He went back to the kitchen, pulled out a chair and sat. Tonight or tomorrow morning?
He pinched the bridge of his nose. It had to be tonight. He couldn’t live like this for
another 12 hours.
He heard the door of the utility room open, the splash of water as Jessie washed her
hands. He grabbed the scotch and drank.
‘You should take a look at the agapanthus,’ Jessie said as she came into the kitchen.
‘They’re stunning. Have you eaten?’
‘I’m not hungry,’ William said gruffly. ‘Come and sit down, will you?’ He held out one
of the chairs. ‘I need to talk to you.’
THE FLOWER SELLER
Sitting on the padded seat, Jessie was hardly able to contain her excitement. William had been so sweet on her birthday, whisking her from the office to a hotel in Oxfordshire. There had been roses and romantic dinners, early nights and late mornings. How was he going to top that for their anniversary? She watched as he pulled his chair up to hers.
‘Jess,’ he began, looking pensive, ‘I don’t know how to say this. I know it’s our anniversary next week. This is rotten timing. But there isn’t a good time. And I can’t stand the thought of pretending that everything’s okay when it’s not.’ He threw back almost all of the scotch.
In his eagerness to get the words out he was speaking so quickly Jessie had to strain to keep up with him, but his general demeanour was enough to set her nerves jangling. She’d read so many dreadful things about men in their prime falling ill and his was such a stressful job.
‘I think it’s better I come right out with it rather than try to dress it up with excuses,’ he continued, his gaze fixed on the glass in his hands.
‘What’s wrong?’ Alarmed, Jessie waited for him to continue. When his gaze finally met hers, she was struck by the aching sadness in his eyes.
He tossed back the rest of his scotch. ‘I’ve met someone else,’ he said quietly, bowing his head. ‘I’m sorry.’
She had been waiting for him to reveal tearing chest pains and clandestine trips to the doctor. The reality of the situation took several seconds to bite.
William stood, massaging his neck. ‘I never meant for this to happen.’ His tone was defensive. ‘I thought I could handle the situation. I thought we’d be okay.’
Jessie looked at him in wonder. This is not my husband. ‘Just what are you saying?’ she asked, bewildered.
His arms fell loosely to his sides as he looked at her, a helpless expression on his face. The empty glass, forgotten now, was still in his hand. ‘I’ve fallen in love with her, Jess. I want to be with her.’
Jessie was certain her heart had stopped beating. The evening air blowing through the doors was fresh now and her bare feet on the slate floor felt suddenly cold. This was still her kitchen with its Welsh dresser, pretty crockery, country-style units and island. Nothing had changed and yet everything had changed.
‘Our weekend away.’ Her voice was a whisper.
‘I know.’ William’s eyes were awash with sympathy. ‘I wanted it to be special, to make it up to you. I’d decided to tell her it was over. Then, as I was driving home, God forgive me, Jess, but she was all I could think of. I’m sorry.’ He stood the glass down on the table and backed away from her.
The suite had been spectacular. They’d made love in the Jacuzzi and again, after dinner, across the four-poster bed. He’d wanted her quite desperately at times, the intensity of his passion reminding her of their early days. Did guilt do that or had he been thinking of this tart as he’d held her?
A thought occurred. The waiter’s look of recognition. The glance at her. A smile for William. ‘You took her there, didn’t you?’ Jessie’s voice was harsh.
Wincing, William nodded.
Jessie focused on the table. None of this can hurt me because he’s not my husband. This is not my life. She traced her fingertip round a knot in the wood.
Then, feeling sick, she went to stand at the sink. Outside, ivy covered the sectional fence that separated the garden from Abbey Wood. Jessie watched the waxy leaves lift in the evening breeze.
‘It’s Marie, isn’t it?’ Following his father’s death in April, William had insisted the firm hire a junior lawyer to assist him. The lovely Marie Metcalfe had started work three weeks later. She turned to face him. ‘Every time I go into your office, the two of you are giggling like children.’
William snorted with derision. ‘It’s not Marie. Do you really think I’d shit on my own doorstep?’
Slapping her palms down on the table, Jessie said, ‘I didn’t think you’d shit on anyone’s doorstep but that was half an hour ago.’ She saw him flinch. ‘Do I know her?’
‘I don’t think so. Her name’s Chelsea Palmer. She’s a hairdresser in town.’
‘A hairdresser? What happened? Did you go in for a haircut and end up with a blow job?’
‘I met her in Spike’s Bar.’
‘Let me guess: blonde hair, short skirt, stilettos.’ William’s silence reinforced the mental picture Jessie was painting. ‘What are you? Nineteen again?’ she asked disparagingly, remembering the cheap-looking blonde William had dated before her. ‘It sounds like case study number one in the midlife crisis handbook.’ Jessie gave him a withering look. ‘How long’s it been going on?’
‘Since June.’ His face was full of remorse. ‘I didn’t mean for this –’
‘When in June?’ Jessie demanded.
William’s gaze raked the ceiling. ‘It was the first Friday. I’d won that rape trial in Stebbingsford Crown Court.’
Jessie cast her mind back. The client had been acquitted on the fourth day and William had returned to the office, elated and bragging about his victory.
‘The barrister said he’d never had a better prepared case.’
‘What’s the matter with you?’
‘I’ve just been given my billing target for the next quarter,’ she’d said, handing it to him. ‘I’ve got more chance of winning the lottery.’
William had studied the memo. ‘That’s not so bad.’
Tears had pricked the back of Jessie’s eyes. There she was debating how much sleep she could do without to cram in more time at the office and his reaction was ‘Not so bad’.
‘When they gave the verdict the girl burst into tears. Her father came after us. He had to be restrained.’
‘There was no real danger. The police –’
‘I meant how awful for the girl. She must have been through hell.’
‘She lied. My client’s the one who’s been through hell. Come on, Jess, lighten up! I’ve just had my biggest win of the year. Let’s celebrate.’
‘Is he innocent?’
‘The jury thought so.’
‘Did you think so?’
‘That’s a cheap shot. You know it doesn’t matter what I think. My client told me they had consensual sex. It’s my job to believe what my client tells me and convince everyone else and today I did my job. Brilliantly.’
‘What if your client lied to you?’ she’d snapped, William’s nonchalance over her billing target continuing to grate.
‘I still did a brilliant job. Now, are you coming for that drink?’
‘I can’t. I’ve got a client first thing and I need to finish this tonight.’
‘Damn it, Jessica! Let the clients wait for once.’
‘I can’t. I’m too busy.’
‘You’re always too busy.’ With a sigh of irritation, William had swept his briefcase from her desk, scattering her deeds in the process. ‘I remember when you used to be as thrilled as me when I won a case. What happened?’
Now, Jessie found herself wondering: If I’d gone for that drink with him, would we be having this conversation tonight?
Both strong personalities, they had fought frequently in the early years of their marriage, compromise not a word that came easily to either one of them. But as they’d grown older, and closer, they had learned when to be confrontational and when to back off, realising that giving way was often a sign of strength not weakness.
In the last few months, however, they had fallen once more to squabbling. Undoubtedly, it had been a difficult time, what with the death of William’s father, Michael, and Jessie’s increasing workload. But that was no excuse for what he’d done. There was no excuse and her previously unshakeable belief in her husband’s integrity only made the truth harder to bear.
‘You bastard!’ Launching herself at him, Jessie slapped his face. ‘How could you?’
‘Don’t tell me you’re sorry,’ she said scornfully, shoving him hard in the chest. ‘Who made the first move?’
‘Don’t do this, Jess,’ William said. ‘What do you want to know that for?’
‘Because I do.’
For a moment they faced one another: she defiant, he sorrowful. Then, William clasped his hands behind his head and walked away. ‘It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d seen her the week before in Spike’s, when Jack and I were having a drink. She flirted. Jack made a joke about it.’ William turned to face her. Red marks had risen on his cheek where she’d hit him. ‘The following Friday I went back to Spike’s on my own. She flirted with me again and this time I flirted back.’
He made it all sound so easy. Perhaps it had been. Jessie’s heart shrivelled and she turned away so he couldn’t see her tears. It all came back to her then. The calls he’d taken in the study with the door closed, the overnighters in London to attend courses, his happy acquiescence to her ten-day holiday in Florence with Anne.
He’d been irritable too. Like the time when the Jag had been off the road and he had received a call from the police station saying a client was asking for him. He’d blown up at her for the tiny amount of petrol in the Clio. Later, he had returned with a bunch of flowers from the service station, even though it had been three in the morning by the time he had finished with the police. Jessie had filled the basin in the en-suite, too sleepy to hunt out a vase, and he’d kissed her neck and said he was sorry. Now she wondered if he’d even been with the police.
Her husband had been having an affair. She watched him as he began to pace the kitchen. The same breeze that had ruffled the ivy now teased his hair.
‘How old is she?’
William paused by the island unit. ‘Twenty-four.’ His gaze fell to the floor.
‘My God! She’s a child. Only six years older than our daughter. Does Hannah know?’
William shook his head. ‘No one knows.’ He appeared to be ageing as rapidly as the light was draining from the kitchen.
‘You’ve been having an affair with a child. . .’ She hated him so much at that moment that she had to look away.
‘She’s not a child,’ he protested hotly.
Heartsick, Jessie asked, ‘Is this the first time?’
‘Christ, yes. I don’t make a habit of it.’
‘Then why now?’
‘Because I got tired of being treated like a client you didn’t have time for,’ he said disdainfully.
Jessie recoiled. ‘That’s not fair! You know how hard I’ve been working.’
‘Christ yes! Because you never miss an opportunity to tell me.’ His tone was contemptuous. ‘Head down, work, work, work, no time for anything else. We used to be everything to one another,’ he said sadly. ‘Now, I don’t know what’s going on in your head from one day to the next and you certainly don’t know what’s going on in mine. As for our sex life, well, that’s a joke! We hardly ever touch each other. Our kisses are perfunctory and on Friday nights we have sex. We never make love any more.
‘I remember one Friday in May. I came out of the en-suite. You were working. You finished dictating the letter you were doing, put your files on the floor and we had sex. Then, afterwards, as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard you start dictating again. At first I thought it was funny; you know, what if you’d left the recording running? Susan would get more than she bargained for when she transcribed it. But then I got angry.’ He grabbed Jessie’s shoulders. ‘You made me feel like I was just another thing on your stuff-to-do list. A tick in a ruddy box. Dictated on completions, yes. Prepared files for Monday, yes. Fucked husband, yes.’ He thrust her away from him.
Jessie gasped. ‘All I wanted was a bit of support,’ she said angrily. ‘Going for the partnership is the only thing I have ever done for myself. I needed you to understand. To be patient with me.’
‘Patience has never been one of my virtues.’
Stunned, Jessie shook her head. ‘You selfish bastard.’ She thumped his shoulder. ‘You owed me that. All our married life I’ve had to put up with broken nights, ruined Christmases, spoilt birthdays. You’d get a call from the police station telling you some drunk had been arrested and was asking for you and, at that moment, that drunk was more important to you than me, than Hannah, than anything.’
William put his face close to hers, his fingers squeezing her upper arms. ‘That drunk, and the hundreds like him, put food on the table, clothes on your back, sent Hannah to school. You call me selfish?’ he shouted. ‘I did all that for you, for her. But after Dad died and I needed you, you weren’t there for me.’ He released her and she staggered slightly.
Stung by the accusation, Jessie reached for him. ‘I was.’
William shrugged her off, his face hardening. ‘No, Jess. You weren’t. After losing Mum a couple of years ago, he was all I had left from the past and he died just like that.’ William snapped his fingers. ‘No warning, nothing. Living life at a hundred miles an hour one minute, dead from a massive heart attack the next. And do you know what I saw when I looked in the mirror? Him. Chelsea understood. Chelsea listened.’
‘Was this before or after you had sex?’ Jessie spat.
William’s hands twitched into fists and he sent one of the chairs flying. ‘You’re not going to make me feel guilty,’ he roared. ‘A few weeks after the funeral, when I booked us a holiday you threw it back in my face. You were too busy, you said. A blind man could see how desperate I was for a break, but not you. You were too busy.’
William had taken the holiday, Jessie recalled. Hannah had gone with him.
Emotionally drained, Jessie sat. ‘That’s no excuse for what you’ve done,’ she said weakly.
‘My world was falling apart and you didn’t even notice, or worse you didn’t care. There was no excuse for that,’ William snapped.
‘So you decided to punish me by sleeping with someone else?’
‘It wasn’t about punishing you. I just wanted you to listen to me. But every time I tried to talk to you there was a call or a meeting or a file that couldn’t wait. But it was all right for me to wait. I always had to wait.’ William’s voice was choked with emotion. ‘I ended up hating you for it.’
His face was half in shadow but Jessie could see the tears glistening in his eyes.
‘It broke my heart to feel like that, Jess. I wanted to tear down the barriers you kept putting up but I couldn’t get through to you.’ He cupped her face. ‘No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get through.’
‘If it was that important to you, you should have made me listen.’ Tears spilled down Jessie’s cheeks.
‘In the end, it was easier to talk to Chelsea,’ William said, withdrawing his hand.
William shrugged. ‘Maybe I am.’
Standing, Jessie said, ‘I’m here now.’ She pushed him. ‘You have my undivided attention now.’ She pushed him again. ‘Talk to me.’
‘And say what? That I was sick with fear that history was going to repeat itself and I was going to end up like him?’ William thrust his hands through his hair. ‘That I wanted us both to cut back at work, buy a place in Devon and spend our weekends there?’ His voice hardened. ‘It’s too late.’
‘It can’t be too late,’ Jessie whispered.
‘It is. You see, I’ve fallen in love with her, Jess. I shouldn’t have and I wish it didn’t mean hurting you. But I can’t change the way I feel. I don’t want to. I’m glad I’ve met Chelsea.’
Jessie felt the ground shift beneath her feet as everything she had believed in crumbled.
‘What does she have that I don’t?’ she asked, bewildered.
‘Time for me, time for a life. She’s fun.’ William fell silent. ‘I should have waited for you to become a partner and talked to you then,’ he admitted. ‘But I needed someone now, not in six months or a year and I wasn’t strong enough to wait. God knows if what I’m doing is the right thing. All I know for sure is that, right now, I need her.’
Each word was a fresh blow. Jessie bent her head. She’d spent her time worrying about interest rates and the housing market. She’d worried about petty office politics and William’s chances of becoming senior partner. She’d worried about how Hannah was going to cope in student digs in Exeter. She’d never worried about her husband’s fidelity. Her marriage was rock solid, a thing envied by others, but apparently not for much longer.
Anger rising, Jessie exploded. ‘Go and have your fun then. If our life together means so little to you, go and be with your whore. I wouldn’t want you anywhere near me again, anyway. Who knows what horrible diseases that bitch might have?’ She watched with satisfaction as William’s face darkened. The muscle in his cheek began to twitch. ‘I bet you’re not the first married man she’s slept with.’
‘You know nothing about her,’ he snapped.
‘I know enough. How many times did you get out of her bed and come to mine?’ Jessie covered her face. ‘You would still have been warm from being inside her and you would have let me. . .’
‘You’d have been too tired,’ William said cuttingly.
‘But it happened sometimes, you can’t deny that,’ Jessie shouted. ‘How could you do that to me?’ She raised her hand to hit him again but William caught hold of her wrist. ‘You were supposed to be mine,’ she sobbed.
‘You didn’t want me. Our bed saw more action when I was –’ He stopped abruptly and let go of her wrist.
‘When you were what?’
William looked contrite. ‘Nothing I. . .’
Horror seeped into Jessie’s eyes. ‘No!’ she wailed. ‘Please tell me you didn’t bring her here.’ She gathered his shirt in her hands, tears blinding her as she grappled with him. ‘Was nothing sacred to you, you bastard? You had that whore in my home?’ Jessie swallowed hard. ‘You let her into my bed?’
‘It was my bed, too.’
THE FLOWER SELLER
Leaning against the brick wall, Owen tilted his head back, enjoying the last of the evening sun.
‘Are you waiting for someone?’
He opened his eyes to find a young blonde, clutching a bottle of champagne, standing in front of him.
He nodded. ‘The lettings agent. You’re not…’
She smiled. ‘No. I’m a hairdresser. I live a few doors down. We’ll be neighbours if you take it. Chelsea Palmer.’ She held out her hand.
Owen shook it firmly. His eyes hidden by reflective shades, he studied the woman. Her blonde hair had been pulled into a scruffy top knot and she was wearing a strappy floral dress which showed off the rise of her breasts and her long sun-kissed legs. She wasn’t leaving much to the imagination but when you looked like that who could blame her?
‘Are you celebrating something?’ he asked, indicating the bottle of champagne.
She smiled. ‘My boyfriend’s moving in with me tonight.’
They watched as a sporty black Jag reversed neatly into a nearby parking space.
‘That’s him,’ she said lightly. ‘Got to go.’
Owen watched her walk away, the hem of her dress swinging enticingly. Something told him drinking champagne would not be the first thing on that couple’s agenda.
She stopped and turned around, the jewels on her flip flops shining in the sun. ‘You didn’t tell me your name or what you do.’
‘I’m Owen Phillips,’ he replied. ‘I’m the flower seller.’
©2015 by Ellie Holmes