The first time I saw her, she was working in a florist’s shop. I had been an administrator in an insurance company, trying to earn some cash while I wrote my novel. It all appeared so straightforward back then: I figured it would take me a year to write – perhaps with a few visits to Paris, where it was set – and then it would be goodbye soul-destroying job and hello writing, as the world’s great publishing houses fought each other to get their hands on my masterpiece.
I had finished for the day and was walking across the green to the station, dreaming about my book as the thrushes hopped around. I had once again passed the white art deco apartment block that overlooked the small roundabout, thinking how the palm trees in the centre gave the scene a faintly Mediterranean air. I don’t know what it was: maybe it was the lovely sunny day, maybe it was the sight of the brightly coloured flowers stacked in rows, but soon I found myself further down the green, away from the apartment block, and standing outside that little wooden hut with its tiled roof and green slatted walls. I stood mesmerised: large star-shaped pink and mauve flowers, small dabs of white and yellow, strange blobs of blue sitting atop long, thin stems and, of course, the obligatory deep red roses; it was like a real-life Monet painting! And then, as I stood back, I saw her. She was serving a customer, laughing easily as she handed him a bouquet, her dark brown hair pulled back in a bun. What a beautiful smile! I stood transfixed, but, before I could get away, she had turned to me.
“Good afternoon,” she said in a delicate French accent. “How can I help?”
I gulped. I couldn’t think of any reason for being there and, embarrassingly, I didn’t even like flowers. I looked at her dark brown eyes. Oh god. What could I say?
“I was… errr… looking at the bouquets… I was wondering which I should buy.”
She smiled at me. Goodness, her whole eyes seemed to light up.
“For someone special?”
I said nothing, trying to play it cool. She smiled at me again.
“These are very nice,” I said, looking at some round, fluffy-looking flowers. “What are they?”
“Carnations,” she smiled, picking up a bunch of pink, red and white flowers. “They’re pretty, aren’t they?”
I nodded and pointed to a riot of purple, mauve, white and yellow.
“What are those ones?”
“They’re chrysanthemums,” She smiled again. “In France, Italy and Spain they’re associated with funerals, but they’re also associated with joy and romance. In Victorian England the yellow chrysanthemum symbolised slighted love, the white chrysanthemum devoted love and the red chrysan-themum…”
She picked one up.
I looked up, shocked by an enormous basket of metallic cyan, yellow and magenta flowers whose outrageous col-ours seemed to leap off the shelf.
“What the hell are they?”
“Rainbow roses,” she said, pulling a face. “They’re dyed. Do you like them?”
I screwed up my face, not quite sure what I thought.
“I think they look artificial,” she continued. “I don’t know how they can do that to something so beautiful. What do you think about these?” She picked up a bunch of white and yellow bell-shaped flowers from the window. “Lilies are always popular… does she like them?”
She looked at me, holding them as if I had presented them to her.
“They’re beautiful,” I said, trying to sound confident. “I’ll take them.”
There was a long silence. I could feel my heart picking up the pace.
“You work round here, don’t you?” she said. “I see you walking to the station every evening.”
“Yes,” I said. “I work for the insurance company around the corner… in between working on my novel.”
“A novel.” she smiled. “What about?”
“It’s… it’s nothing really. It’s set in Paris. I call it Picasso in the Latin Quarter. I liked the idea of being a Left Bank intellectual.”
“Oh, how lovely,” she said. “I’m from the Left Bank.”
“No, of course not!” She laughed. “I’m from Brittany.”
I tried to hide my embarrassment. Her eyes were mocking me playfully.
“So, you’re a fellow artist. I’m studying to become a fashion designer.” She sighed. “Oh, if only I could escape this. I’m Hélène, by the way.”
She held out her hand and I clasped it, my heart pounding harder and harder as I felt her soft skin.
“You dress very smartly,” she said. “That’s a very nice suit: the lilac shirt suits you. English men usually wear diff-erent colours, but you contrast lighter and darker tones in the European style.”
She looked me in the eye, still holding my hand, her voice full of enthusiasm.
“We should meet up some-time: you’ll have to bring your writing; I’d love to see it – I absolutely adore literature. I have an idea for a project we could work on together.”
She grinned such an effervescent grin it was if her eyes were bubbling.
“Awesome,” I said, trying to sound cool as she handed me the flowers. “I know a great place near Tower Bridge.”
“Fantastic! Are you free next week?”
I barely had time to squeak out a “yes” when the next customer bustled in, shattering the moment. Hélène attended to her, leaving me standing uselessly to one side, clutching a bunch of flowers I had no need for. I stood like a spare part, unsure what to do, feebly attempting to say goodbye, but the woman was asking lots of questions, demanding all of her attention. Damn it! Why is hesitation so attractive when it comes from Hugh Grant? Cursing my English reserve, I sidled out and dreamed of our rendezvous next week. What could her joint project be? I imagined the possibilities as I boarded the train, feeling happier than I had in a long time – and wondering what the hell I was going to do with the lilies!
It was another blistering hot summer’s day and I crossed the Hungerford Bridge, feeling as though the world had come to life. There was an indescribable good cheer in the air, which was augmented by the pair of buskers – a trumpeter and a man banging an old plastic jerry-can – serenading the people to a medley of jazzy tunes with odd Middle Eastern riffs. I chucked them some loose change and waited near the Festival Pier, overlooking the small scrubby patch of beach. How forlorn it looked, fenced off and unloved. In the years I had been there, I had only ever seen a woman with her dog using it. In weather like this, I thought, you could stick deck chairs out there and people would come flocking.
The image faded and I watched the people sitting beneath the brightly coloured parasols with the Royal Festival Hall behind, the buskers playing in the background. I could see us both there, like characters from my novel. The image fizzled out the moment I thought it. I had been working on the novel for two years now, more if you count the ideas that had fed into it, and it was as lifeless as ever. While I was proud of my beautifully clipped prose style, my Picasso absolutely refused to come to life. Picasso! How did I manage to make him so dull? In my hands, he resembled nothing so much as a petulant corporate exec, not so very different from my company’s Finance Director. Perhaps I needed to do more research. No, it wasn’t that. My writing was excellent: all it needed was the magic of inspiration. Perhaps Hélène could help. I looked at my watch and felt the folded papers in my jacket pocket. The time seemed to float by and I wondered if she would come. Of course she would, I told myself; this is your English worry running up against her Latin timekeeping. I smiled. She was standing right beside me, her long dark hair tied back, her eyes concealed behind a pair of dark glasses, worn Audrey Hepburn style.
“Good to see you,” she said, kissing me on both cheeks.
“Good to see you, too,” I said, kissing me on both cheeks, too. “Is there anywhere you’d like to go?”
“You’re the local,” she said. “I’ll let you choose.”
I presented her with a fresh bunch of lilies.
“These are for you – I’m afraid I had to go to a competitor. I hope you’re not cross.”
She took them and laughed.
“Thank you, Andy. They’re beautiful.”
She looked me deep in the eye and smiled. Mocking, yet playful.
We went to a café in one of the railway arches, where the brickwork had been restored, giving it an oddly convincing rustic feel. Hélène sat down opposite and checked herself in her mirror, making sure her make-up and hair were just right.
“Good choice,” she smiled, putting away the mirror. “You have good taste in places as well as suits.”
“Glad you approve.”
I paused, remembering her work contact details she had given me.
“Hélène, why does your work email only include your first name?”
She rolled her eyes, then giggled.
“The owner set up the email. He put it down as ‘Hélène the beauty’ and I was like, ‘No way, you can’t do that!!!’ So, he chopped it down to ‘Hélène’.”
She stroked her hair and smiled.
“I mean, he is such a creep.”
A broad grin formed across her face and she let out a laugh.
“The old pervert, he just wants to get into my knickers!”
“You don’t like it at the florist’s, do you?”
She shook her head.
“No, it’s so boring. I thought it’d be fun, but it’s like a counselling service for men who’ve forgotten their wives’ birthdays. The boss gets me to write them little handwritten messages… I mean, it’s not supposed to come from me!”
She laughed and gave a wicked grin.
“My parents want me to be a businesswoman, busting balls and closing deals, but I’m like ‘No way.’ I don’t want to do that! This is art, baby, this is life! I tell this to them at the florist’s, but they’re all old, they don’t get it. I mean, you get it. We have to follow our passion.”
She looked at me, her manner serious.
“The moment I can, I will leave.”
She adjusted her hair, briefly allowing me a glimpse of her profile. I looked at her dark eyes sparkling in the soft light. What a beautiful silence. I knew exactly what she meant: day jobs were never meant to be more than means to ends, the end being to live life the way we wanted to. There was a reason why people never wrote novels or painted landscapes to pay for dreams of becoming a middle manager. I felt the whole weight of frustration bubble up in that one moment.
“Ah, Hélène, you have no idea how I hate working in insurance. It’s like my whole life is ebbing away under a mound of paperwork. What’s the point? Even if I climbed to the top of the corporate ladder, what would I be? What is a Chief Executive other than a highly paid administrator? They sit at a bigger desk and draw a fatter payslip, but their work is the same. An artist is altogether different. When you listen to music, you feel your emotions raging inside. When you read a book, you feel yourself transported to another world. When I go to places like Paris, Florence, Bruges, I’m alive, I’m a writer, I’m anything I want to be. When I sit in that bloody office, I’m nobody. Some-day, the dream’s going to be reality.”
She let out a laugh.
“Come on, baby! It will be! Look at him.”
She glanced towards a fat middle-aged man with thin-ning grey hair. Next to him was a beautiful girl – surely a model – her golden hair tumbling onto her shoulders and her long legs stretching from one table to the next.
“How do you think he ended up with her?”
I looked at the young woman’s bored expression.
“Certainly not through sparkling conversation.”
Hélène laughed. “No. But he must have something. I mean, okay, so maybe he has a fast car, maybe even a yacht, but he has something else: success. Look at his suit.”
I looked. A sharp single-breasted light grey jacket with a light pink shirt worn open necked; he might not have been anyone’s idea of handsome, but he had good dress sense.
“The car, the yacht, the suit, they’re only symbols of success,” she continued. “His success is making his dreams happen. He has had his vision and he is living the dream he has made. This is our time, Andy. We have something profound in common: your writing and my fashion.”
She looked at me intently and I felt my heart thud. Her project. What sort of project could a florist-turned-fashion-designer and an administrator-turned-writer work on? Oh, who cared! We’d be working on something together. My imagination still struggling to conjure up anything, I looked to her for an answer. She smiled, her eyes still sparkling across the soft light.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go to that place you were telling me about.”
As we left, I got a better look at her. I had never seen her except in the florist’s. There, she had been hidden behind the overcoat, tip toeing around the small wooden hut. Now, in the summer sun, she seemed to blossom like the flowers she sold. I’d been thinking how dapper I looked in my light grey summer suit, with its thin lapels, and my rectangular sunglasses, but I was nothing compared to her. She seemed to sashay past the parasols with a poise as though she had stepped off a magazine cover. How elegant she looked in that white dress with dark blue diagonal stripes… I stopped. It was her trademark look! How often had I seen it beneath that overcoat as I had walked past?
“You like diagonal stripes, don’t you?” I said.
She put her arm in mine and we walked along the Thames.
“I love them!” She laughed. “I mean, I like polka dots, I love them, too, but they make me look uhhh – I’m not like that model, Andy – they make my hips look big.”
“Come on, stop exaggerating, you look perfect.”
She gave me a little pout of mock displeasure, then burst out laughing.
We arrived at The Harrow and sat down in the compact, square beer garden as the sun began to set. It was a bit of a gamble. In the evening light, it had its own picturesque charm, with its old enamel adverts from long-defunct breweries and bottles of craft beers, with their wacky names and gaudy labels, stacked higgledy-piggledy. A good place for the lads, certainly, but something told me she’d like it… something about the expensive beers, something about the expansive flavours. This was a place for the connoisseur. She sat down and I sauntered over to the bar, returning with a dark IPA for myself and a Belgian cherry beer for her.
“See what you think of that,” I said.
She took a sip and grinned.
“I like it.”
She took another sip and her grin grew even broader.
“I really like it. I like this place. It’s got character. It’s very English.”
Feeling a sense of pride, I took my novel – all ten sides of A4 – out of my pocket and put it on the table.
“What is it you do in insurance?”
“Administrator,” I said. “Grunt work. But it leaves me with the time to write and that’s the main thing. Once my novel’s complete, I will bid all this adieu.”
“Yeah,” she said, leaving the word lingering in the air. “You haven’t told me about your other dreams. What about your dreams of romance? Are you seeing anyone?”
“Not really,” I said.
She looked at me with a knowing half-smile.
“You’re looking for your beautiful girl to come along.” She smiled, then began giggling. “You may be a writer, Andy, but you’re open like a book. Come on, tell me.”
She leant forward and looked me in the eye again, as if trying to tease the information out of me, but I said nothing. She let out a little laugh and flicked her hair, looking at me all the time. Just as in the café, there were couples everywhere, sitting across the tables and gazing into each other’s eyes, smiling and laughing. How naturally we seemed to fit in. How happy. I lay back in my seat with a dry smile, feeling my English reserve disappear.
She breathed in, momentarily looking awkward.
“Errr, no… well, sort of. Not really.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve sort of been with someone for six years, but it’s not serious. Adam. He’s English, he plays guitar in a band, but he’s no artist. No, he’s going nowhere. I keep saying to myself, I should finish it, but ahhh…” She waved her hand. “You know how it is, you end up somewhere just by being there.”
“What happened to making dreams into reality?” I said, trying to sound to playful, but the conversation petered out.
We sat silently for a moment, Hélène looking distracted. I felt a momentary awkwardness return. She looked at me resignedly and gave a Gallic shrug.
“I don’t love him, Andy.”
We left The Harrow and wandered through the back streets to Tower Bridge. The evening air was cool with a gentle warmth lingering from the warm day. Hélène had recovered her poise and was laughing, occasionally taking my arm, occasionally resting her head against my shoulder. I thought about Adam, my writing, then Adam again. You don’t “sort of” go out with someone for six years. Did she once upon a time think he was going somewhere? Was she ready to switch from guitarist to writer? As we looked at Tower Bridge lit up at night and watched its reflection dappled in the water, conversation faded into silence. The evening had come to an end. We walked to the station, weaving our way through the ceaseless traffic, and stood outside the entrance amidst people rushing this way and that. She hugged me close and kissed me on the lips.
“Thank you for a fab evening,” she said, smiling brill-iantly. “I loved The Harrow.”
“We should do this again,” I said, feeling a twitch of reserve. “Hélène, would you like to do this properly… you know, like a date.”
My voice came out thin, almost pleading, and she gave me a look of deepest sympathy.
“Oh, I’m really sorry. No, I wasn’t thinking of a date. I’d love to meet up again, there’s a really nice place I know. You have my number… I’ll call you next week!”
She hugged me again, this time not quite so tight, and gave me a peck on the cheek. I looked at her in the evening light, so beautiful in her dress and dark glasses. She waved me goodbye with both hands, smiling like she’d had the best evening ever, then, with one last wave, she disappeared into the station.
I suppose it goes without saying, the call never came. I waited and waited. And waited. As I slipped back into the grind of insurance claims, punctuated with trying to find the spark that would bring Picasso to life, her memory would never quite leave my mind. Her dark glasses. That blue and white dress. The brief flicker of her perfume as we parted. I didn’t want to face up to the idea she had gone. Not being one to let go easily, I texted a friendly hello.
“Who’s this?” the text came back.
“Andy,” I wrote.
“The writer… we went to The Harrow.”
“Oh Andy,” she replied. “How are you!!! So nice to hear from you! We must meet up again!!! Hélène xxxx”
I texted back excitedly and waited. And waited. And waited. This time, though, the hope had died: the absence of a message was a message in itself.
Over the next few years, I completely reworked my novel, moving it to the 19th century, like Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, and retitling it Scenes from the Garret. As with Murger and Barrière’s theatre adaptation, I combined the two leading female characters and my writing was as finely crafted as ever, but I was still having real problems with my lifeless protagonist: a clerk at a discount house, who somehow seemed to have become a wannabe boho whose middle-class conventionality kept bursting out from beneath his overblown anguish and artistic pretension. I sighed. Publishing seemed a ludicrous fantasy. Something within me must have died, for I no longer felt the same passion towards it I once had. Had I given up? I don’t know, but naïve optimism had given way to the realisation that writing was not the romantic idyll I had imagined. Putting pen to paper was one thing, getting published quite another – and I no longer felt I had it in me. It pained me to say this, but insurance had won: I had been promoted. I was now a manager – a junior manager – and I at least no longer had to worry about my income. I might not have been a famous author, but I was no longer struggling for my art. Small mercies, indeed. Every silver lining has a cloud, I suppose.
Ah, writing, eh? It’s funny how you remember some things. For me, it was that rich fat man in the expensive suit with his glamorous wife / girlfriend. I suppose you could say writing had always been a means to an end. And what was climbing the corporate hierarchy, if not another means to that same end? Everyone else seemed so pleased I had compromised with reality, and I myself could now see the difference that even this small increase in social status had brought, yet the old dream would never quite vanish. Dear god, the pain never dies, it just finds its way deeper down.
I thought about Hélène, the most bitter realisation of all. I thought about the way she never asked to see my novel, her casual admission she had a boyfriend and, most of all, her “project.” What an earth was it? Did it ever exist? Now older, I could see she was only checking me out to see how successful I was. If I had been the famous author she thought I was or the fat rich man, it would have all been so very different. So glamorous, so flamboyant; to listen to her, you’d believe anything in the world was possible, yet now I felt foolish for investing such hopes in her. The feeling of having been found wanting jabbed in my ribs. Fashion design? It was nothing more than a dream and would forever remain so – along with the rich man she thought would sweep her off her feet. I laughed, thinking of her checking her make-up in public and admiring herself in the mirror. She was beautiful, but not that beautiful; not the way that model had been. And the truth was I loved her.
Management left little time for writing and it was in one of those moments that I found myself, laptop in hand, heading into London. I hadn’t much of a plan for the day: a stroll along the Thames, perhaps the quiet section by the old Lots Road power station to get the inspiration flowing, then find a café and grapple with the finer points of characterisation. I had got up late, so I abandoned my initial plan and elected to work on the novel first. I hopped off the bus, finding myself in a picturesque corner of Kensington. I wandered around in the blazing sun, then saw a charming little café called Le Bateau Jaune. Perfect! I peered inside at the sturdy wooden tables, exposed brick walls and the artisanal menu chalked up on an old school blackboard. I opened the door and enjoyed the aroma of freshly baked bread as it drifted out.
The smell proved irresistible and I found myself standing in the queue, listening to the gentle patter of conversation and admiring the old rakes and hoes hanging on the wall. This was how writing was supposed to be, flitting from café to café, mingling yet remaining aloof. Maybe I could include something similar in my story: a café on a street corner, habituated by my artist, never quite having enough money to pay—
A familiar voice snapped me from my reverie. There she was! Hélène smiling, waving at me, as if we had last seen each other only five minutes ago!
She hurriedly finished with the customers in front of me and ran up to me, kissing me on both cheeks.
“How are you?” she said. “I haven’t seen you in ages. Have you finished your novel? We have so much to catch up on!”
She hugged me again and gave me another kiss.
“I’m so pleased to see you. I thought you had forgotten about me. What are you doing now?”
“Climbing the career ladder, Hélène; I’m in management now. How about you? What happened to the florist?”
“That was a long time ago, Andy. This is so much nicer. I like the customers and we have such a lovely team. Ahhh, this is wonderful.”
I couldn’t help it: the sound of her laughter, the sight of her smile; I felt a fire inside that I thought had long since expired.
“Come with me,” she smiled, leading me to a table by the window.
“What about the customers,” I said.
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I’ve decided I’m taking a break.”
She grinned and sat with me, looking into my eyes and probing me with that playful yet mocking look I could never forget.
“So, how’s the writing?”
She smiled as the sunlight streamed in.
“Coming along,” I said. “I was just going to do some work today, then a little stroll along the Thames.”
“Oh, how nice,” she laughed. “I’d love to come along.”
“And the fashion design?”
“It’s fantastic, I am designing all the time, I have so many ideas now. I can feel it coming together.”
She leant in, smiling at me confidentially.
“So, come on, Andy, tell me: are you seeing anyone?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You know. Nothing serious.”
She smiled, probing no further.
She laughed, knowing the question was coming.
“You finally ditched Adam?”
She laughed, then smiled at me, tipping her head coquettishly.
“You know how it is.”
Her laughter turned into giggles, which faded into the hubbub of the café. We sat for several minutes smiling at each other in contented silence, neither of us noticing that a customer had entered and was tapping his fingers against the counter. The moment had gone. Hélène got up, then gave me a kiss.
“We must meet up again,” she said, clasping my hand. “We must. Give me a call.”
She hurried back, leaving me to wrestle with my novel and ponder what to do with my day.
I sat for several minutes, not touching my espresso or my croissant. So many thoughts: hopes, anxieties, memories. And then it came to me! I finally realised what was wrong with my novel: the focus should be on the lead female, not the male protagonist: he was merely the foil for her, the medium through which her story would be told. I could now see it. My novel was complete. I opened my laptop and, with a smile, changed the name to The Flower Girl.
Thank you, inspiration! Thank you, Hélène! Feeling a huge release, I got up, ready to walk along the Thames. Then I stopped. There was a brief lull in the queue and, through the gap between the tables, I could see Hélène staring wistfully out of the window. No, she would never be a fashion designer, nor would any rich man come and sweep her off her feet. I smiled, wondering what had flitted through her mind when she had suggested her project. I had no idea what it might have been and perhaps that was the beauty of it. I thought about saying goodbye, then decided against it – some things are best left a mystery. I took one last glance and left her there, still dreaming of being a fashion designer, still waiting for her rich man.