The Damask Rose

In the run-up to Valentine’s Day, Lucy would spend countless hours in her tiny shop making up bouquets of roses for unthinking male customers. Then, just before the big day, a man appeared with an unusual request...

As Lucy gathered the long stems of the roses she felt a sharp pain in her fingertip. She looked down to see a thorn embedded in her skin. As she pulled it out a tiny bead of blood appeared, as red and glossy as the roses; a scarlet sphere reflecting the lights of her tiny florist’s shop.

‘Damn,’ Lucy muttered, as she sucked the blood away and searched for an Elastoplast in the chaotic shop-counter drawer.

Finding one, she wrapped it tightly around her finger before starting to work on the roses again; snipping the stems with her shears, wrapping the dozen flowers in fuchsia tissue, then brown paper, and tying the whole bouquet with bright red ribbon in a bow.

The bow was difficult with the plaster on her finger, but eventually she succeeded and added the bouquet to several others in a galvanised metal bucket. In the morning she’d put it outside on the cobbled alleyway with the other buckets of red roses. At this time of year it was hardly worth selling anything else. No one seemed to want the bright bunches of daffodils and tulips that heralded the start of spring, or the pots of primroses that looked so pretty on the vintage wire-work stand Lucy had found at a car-boot sale.

Lucy hated the roses. If they didn’t make her such a good profit she’d have made Petals the only rose-free florist in London. She imagined writing it on the chalkboard by the door: ‘Valentine’s Day emissions-free zone - no romance pollution here!’

Lucy smiled at the thought of the sign: the baffled expressions on all the faces of the men - and it was mostly men - who rushed in to buy their clichéd tokens of love to go with their clichéd cards and obligatory reservations for a table for two with champagne on ice.

It wasn’t that Lucy didn’t know about love. She had been in a relationship with Archie for five years. But Archie was not the rose-giving, card-writing, tablefor- two-with-champagne kind of man. He expressed his affection in other ways. Lucy kept the heart-shaped piece of sea glass he had found on their weekend in Dungeness in the front pocket of her rucksack, and the walking socks he’d bought her for Christmas were just what she needed to warm her feet in bed on the nights Archie didn’t stay at her house.

For her last birthday he had given her a cactus. He said he didn’t see the point of giving flowers - they were futile gifts and only reminded him of funerals. Lucy had learned not to respond to his anti-flower rants or to some of the adverts Archie thought up, especially the one for the honey-coated breakfast cereal with the ridiculous song.

As Lucy tied up another bouquet of red roses she thought for the thousandth time that she and Archie didn’t need to appreciate each other’s chosen careers to enjoy one another’s company. What did it matter if Archie didn’t take much interest in the business Lucy had spent the last six years creating;

graduating from a Saturday morning farmers’ market to the tiny shop in a railway arch just below Waterloo Station. A recent Sunday supplement article entitled Flower Power: The UK’s Top 10 Independent Florists was already framed and hanging on the wall by the counter. The accompanying photograph showed Lucy standing outside the big arched window of her shop, the wicker basket of her bicycle filled with bouquets of flaming chrysanthemums that matched the colour of her long auburn curls. Archie had made a comment about the photograph looking naff, which Lucy had ignored.

Above the shop a train rumbled into the station, making the metal buckets clink against each other. Lucy set about selecting twelve more roses for the next bouquet. Across the river Big Ben chimed nine. Lucy knew she should be going home to her flat in Battersea, but it was one of Archie nights at his own flat, so she didn’t need to cook a meal or watch one of the obscure 1960s sci-fi films that he liked so much. If she stayed late to make up the bouquets she wouldn’t have to come in so early in the morning, and she quite enjoyed being alone in the shop, with her favourite music playing through the speaker. No one was around to hear her sing along.

Lucy turned the sound up and cut the stems to the exact length she wanted. It was then that she realised she had miscounted - there were thirteen roses on the counter, not twelve. She plucked the extra rose from the bunch, placing it between her teeth as she swayed her shoulders in time to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies. She wrapped up the flowers, tied the red bow and did a celebratory shimmy with her arms above her head.

The shop bell jangled. Lucy looked up with a start, the rose still between her teeth.

A tall man stood in front of her in a long tweed coat and pushed back his dark hair with one hand. He had the most piercing blue eyes Lucy had ever seen and his high cheekbones were flushed - he looked as though he might have been running.

‘Roses,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Do you have roses?’ He asked the question even though he was staring at buckets overflowing with them.

Lucy thought of shaking her head, just to see what he would say, but instead she took the rose stem from her mouth and turned Beyoncé down to just a murmur.

‘I’m closed. Can you come back in the morning?’

‘I really wanted them this evening.’

‘I’ve shut the till, I can’t take payments.’

The man was already searching through the pocket of his coat and bringing out a wallet.

‘I have cash,’ he said. ‘I’ll pay double.’

Before Lucy could speak he added: ‘I’ll pay triple, or anything you ask. I just really need roses, for my...’

He stopped, his bright eyes suddenly sad. Lucy couldn’t see a wedding ring on the hand that held the wallet. She imagined an argument with a girlfriend. In her mind’s eye she saw a beautiful woman stalking out of a restaurant after a misunderstanding. Perhaps he had been late? Perhaps they had squabbled over a sharing platter or there had been a disagreement about puddings?

‘You see, roses mean so much to her,’ he said so quietly that Lucy could hardly hear him.

Lucy handed him the bouquet she had just finished making. ‘You really don’t need to pay double,’ she said.

The man hurriedly passed her a bundle of notes and turned to leave.

‘This is far too much,’ she said, staring at the money in her hand. But when Lucy looked up the man had vanished, leaving only the jangling bell in his wake.

The next day, as Lucy cycled through the misty London morning, she thought about the man. She wondered if he had managed to placate his girlfriend. Had they made up? Were they starting the day entangled in each other’s arms, lying on crumpled white sheets, the roses cast aside in the heat of desire? Lucy came to a junction and turned on to The Embankment, imagining the man’s blue eyes gazing into the woman’s, as her hands caressed his thick dark hair.

The blaring of a horn alerted Lucy to the bus looming in front of her. She wobbled, just about managing to pull over without falling off her bike. ‘You need to look out!’ the bus driver shouted from his window as he passed. ‘I nearly drove right into you.’

Lucy stopped at the kerb. Her heart was beating fast, her breath coming out in little puffs in the chilly air. She decided to walk the rest of the way to the shop, pushing her bike beside the murky water of the Thames, trying not to think about the near miss with the bus or the man with the blue eyes. Instead, she started planning what she might cook that night for Archie.

Their joint commitment to Veganuary had carried on into February at Archie’s insistence, but Lucy was finding it increasingly hard to ignore the call of the cheese aisle at Waitrose, and she kept loitering beside the rotisserie chicken. As she walked, Lucy tried to concentrate on lentils until she reached her shop. It was frantically busy from the moment Lucy turned the wooden sign on the door to ‘open’, even though there were still three days to go until Valentine’s Day.

By six o’clock there was only one bouquet of roses left. Lucy hoped that Archie wouldn’t want to watch a long film after dinner, as she knew she’d have to get up very early in the morning to prepare more bouquets. Wearily, she collected the empty buckets from outside the shop, pouring the water they contained into the gutter, making a babbling stream over the cobbles.

She went back inside and turned the sign on the door to ‘closed’. That was when she saw a face on the other side of the window. It was the dark-haired man with the blue eyes. He was trying to mime something with his hands but she couldn’t understand.

She opened the door a few inches.

‘I’m...’ She began.

‘I know, closed,’ he finished for her. ‘But please could I buy another bouquet of roses?’

‘I have to get home,’ she said. ‘I have dinner to make for my...’ her voice trailed off, as his startling eyes stared into hers.

‘I only need one bunch,’ he said, pointing at the last bouquet. ‘It’s really important.’

Lucy couldn’t help but let out a sigh. Had there been another argument? After all, didn’t they make up with a wild night of passion on the huge bed with the luxurious sheets? She felt herself blush as she realised that had only been in her imagination. She hastily handed over the roses at the door, and once again he thrust notes at her and hurried away.

‘I can give you change,’ she called after him.

He raised a hand without turning back, his tweed coat flowing behind him as he turned on to the main street. Lucy thought she heard him shout something, but his words were drowned out by an incoming train. It made the floor shake under Lucy’s feet and the shop bell jangle. She stood for several minutes, staring down the empty alleyway, where the neon sign of the tattoo parlour next door winked shades of pink across the glistening cobbles.

The next day Lucy arrived at the shop at 5am, in time for the delivery van. By eight o’clock she had prepared eighty red-rose bouquets. She had also made up ten mixed bunches of tulips, in the hope there might be at least one customer who didn’t have Valentine’s Day on their mind.

She was arranging terracotta pots of hyacinths on the counter and dreaming of a bacon sandwich when the shop bell started its excited jingling. Turning, she was surprised to see it was the blue-eyed man.

Lucy opened her mouth to say she wasn’t open yet, but stopped as she took in his bloodshot eyes and the rumpled clothes under his long coat.

‘You look terrible,’ she couldn’t help exclaiming.

‘Thanks,’ he said, running one hand through his hair and leaning against the doorway. ‘It’s been a long night.’

Lucy tried to calm her imagination, with its inappropriate thoughts of what he might have been doing.

‘Roses?’ she asked indicating the sea of blooms.

He nodded. ‘But this time I have a special request.’

Lucy thought he looked as though he might collapse.

‘Listen,’ she said, reaching for her jacket. ‘I was just going out to get a coffee, would you like to come with me? There’s a place around the corner, their coffee is the strongest in town.’

The man nodded. ‘Sounds great. I’ve had nothing but watery vending-machine stuff for days.’

Ten minutes later they were sitting across from each other at a Formica table, each with their own bacon sandwich and mug of steaming coffee. Lucy watched him devour his sandwich in what seemed like seconds. He looked up from his plate, wiping his mouth with a napkin. ‘That was just what I needed,’ he said, smiling. Lucy found herself smiling back.

‘What’s this special request you have?’ she asked.

‘Could you source a particular rose for me?’

‘Please don’t ask me to do it by Valentine’s Day.’

‘Is it Valentine’s Day?’

Lucy laughed.

‘Nearly. Why do you think my shop is full of roses? I don’t even like them!’

‘You don’t like roses?’ the man looked incredulous. ‘Why not?’ Lucy thought for a few seconds. Why didn’t she like them?

‘I think it’s just at this time of year - when men are frantically buying them and every girl in the world is being given them...’ Lucy stopped and stared down into her coffee.

‘Do you not have anyone to give you roses?’ the man asked. Lucy looked up and met his gaze.

‘Well, yes I do. I mean I do have someone, but he won’t buy roses. The last gift he gave me was a cactus.’

The man gave a small smile. ‘I’ve never heard of saying it with spikes.’ Lucy tried to think of something witty to say and failed. ‘Tell me about this special rose you want,’ she asked.

The man’s face looked serious again as he reached for his phone and started scrolling through images. ‘Rosa damascena,’ he said. ‘It’s Persian. One of the oldest roses in the world.’ He showed Lucy a picture of a beautiful deep-pink bloom. ‘For thousands of years its oil has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes.’ He paused, looking intensely at her across the table. ‘It’s the rose of true love. Its scent is said to arouse desire.’

Lucy found herself taking in a breath. She had to try very hard not to meet the man’s gaze.

‘I’ve never seen it for sale as a cut flower,’ she said, attempting a professional tone. ‘But I can look for you.’

‘It would mean so much to me if you could. Even one single flower.’ The man reached across the table and lightly touched her hand. ‘I just can’t bear to lose her, this is my last hope.’

Lucy wanted to ask more about the woman he seemed so besotted with, but suddenly the man’s phone began to ring. He answered, and Lucy could hear a voice speaking urgently but couldn’t make out the words.

‘I have to go.’ The man was already standing, shrugging on his long tweed coat. ‘Wait,’ Lucy exclaimed. ‘How can I tell you if I find the rose?’ But he had gone, leaving Lucy alone in the café, her hand still tingling where his fingers had touched her skin.
◆ Part two in next issue, in shops on 1st March 2024.