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The little flower shop, squeezed between two elegant boutiques, was empty save for a girl in a cupboard-like space at its back, making up a bouquet. It was a charming bouquet, of rose-buds, forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley, suitable for the littlest bridesmaid for whom it was destined, the last of six which she had been left to fashion while the owner of the shop had gone off on some mission of her own. She was tying a pale pink ribbon around it when the shop door was thrust open and a customer came in. A giant of a man, elegantly dressed, no longer young, and wearing a look of impatient annoyance upon his handsome features.
He came to a stop in the middle of the floral arrangements and said curtly, 'I want a couple of dozen roses sent to this address.'
'Certainly not. Yellow—pink, it really doesn't matter.'
He stared at her, and really she was worth being stared at: a big girl with generous curves, short dark curly hair, large grey eyes and a pretty face.
He said abruptly, 'What is your name?'
'Eulalia Warburton,' she replied promptly. 'What is yours?'
He smiled thinly. 'The roses are to be sent to this address.' He handed her a card. 'How much?'
'Fifteen pounds and two pounds for delivery.' She glanced at the card. 'This afternoon—this evening? Tomorrow?'
'This evening, before six o'clock. Make sure that they are fresh '
She gave him an outraged stare. 'All the flowers in this shop are fresh.'
She took the money and thumped the cash register with some force. Thoroughly put out, she said snap-pily, 'If you doubt it, have your money back and go somewhere else.'
'Dear, dear.' He spoke with infuriating blandness. 'Are you having a bad day?'
'It was a perfectly good day before you came in,' she told him. A good thing Mrs Pearce wasn't here—she would have been given the sack on the spot. She handed him an ornate little card. 'You will wish to write a message?'
She took it back when he had written on it, handed him his change and bade him a coldly civil good day. She got a grunt in reply.
She watched his broad back disappear up the street and took a look at the card. It was to a Miss Ursula Kendall and, after a careful scrutiny of his scrawled message, she gathered that he was sending his apologies. Well, thought Eulalia, if he was as rude to her as he had been here, a nice piece of jewellery would be more in order.
She finished her bouquet and began to arrange the yellow roses in their Cellophane sheath; somehow pink didn't go well with a name like Ursula.
Mrs Pearce came back presently, approved of the bouquets and, since it was almost time to close, told Eulalia to deliver the roses. 'I know it's out of your way, so take a taxi—the money's in the till.' She bustled around, rearranging this and that. 'You'll have to take the bouquets round in the morning. Half-past nine—another taxi, I suppose—but it's a good order.'
It had been a pleasantly warm June day, but now that the afternoon was slipping into early evening there was a cool breeze. Eulalia donned a navy blue jacket over her navy and cream patterned dress, gathered up the roses and left the shop, taking a breath of air as she waited for a taxi. Even there, in London, from time to time one had a faint whiff of really fresh air.
The roses were to be delivered to an address close to Eaton Square. She paid the driver and mounted the steps to the front door of a Georgian terraced house. The girlfriend, if it was a girlfriend, lived in some style, thought Eulalia, and pressed the bell. The door was flung open at the same moment and a young woman stood frowning at her.
'I'm just going out.'
She was a handsome girl. Her features were too strong to be called pretty but she had beautifully dressed fair hair and large blue eyes, which for the moment held no warmth; moreover, she was dressed in the very height of fashion.
'Miss Kendall?' asked Eulalia sweetly. 'I was asked to deliver these to this address before six o'clock.'
Miss Kendall's perfectly made-up mouth thinned. She snatched the flowers and tore open the little envelope attached to them, glanced at the note and pushed the flowers back into Eulalia's arms. 'Throw them with the rubbish,' she demanded angrily. 'If he thinks he can—' She stopped. 'And don't just stand there—take the beastly things and go!'
'I simply cannot throw them in the bin,' said Eulalia firmly. 'They're fresh and beautiful.'
'Then take them home with you—eat them for your supper for all I care.' Miss Kendall turned suddenly and went into the house and banged the door.
They deserved each other, decided Eulalia, walking briskly to the nearest bus-stop. She hadn't liked her ill-tempered customer; she didn't like Miss Kendall either. A well-matched couple. She dismissed them from her mind and boarded a bus to take her home.
Home was a basement flat in Cromwell Road—not the best end by any means, but it was on the edge of respectability and the flats in the rest of the house were occupied by quiet people. It was dark and poky but it had a narrow strip of garden at the back and she had been lucky to get it. It was a worrying thought that the five-year agreement she had would run out before the autumn, but she had been a good tenant and she hoped that the landlord would renew it and not put the rent up. She tried not to think what she would do if he did that
She went down the steps and opened the narrow door. The room beyond was fair-sized, with a window at the back as well as the barred one beside the door, and it was nicely furnished with chairs and tables and a heavy sideboard which must have come from a larger house. The curtains were chintz, drawn back from the net-curtained windows, and the floor was covered with a rather fine if shabby Turkish carpet. There were two doors along the inner wall, and one of them opened now to reveal a boy of eight or so, who came through followed by an elderly woman with rosy cheeks and a round face crowned by grey hair strained back into a bun.
Eulalia put down the roses and hugged the boy.
'Hello, Peter, have you had a good day at school? Tell me about it presently. Trottie, dear, I'm sorry I'm a bit late. I had to deliver these but they weren't wanted, so I brought them home.' She laid the roses down on a table, one arm round the boy. 'Did that man come about the leak in the bathroom?'
'That he did, Miss Lally, and a fine mess he left behind him too. Said he'd send the bill. Supper's ready when you are.'
'Two ticks,' said Eulalia, and went through the door to a narrow lobby with three doors. She opened one of them and, with Peter still with her, went into her room. It was very small, with one window, barred like all the others, but there was a colourful spread on the narrow bed, and cushions and a pretty bedside lamp. She hung her jacket in the corner cupboard, peered at her face in the old-fashioned looking-glass and said cheerfully, 'Let's have supper. I'm famished, and Trottie will have something delicious.'
Trottie had laid the table under the back window, and Eulalia went through the second door into the narrow kitchen and helped carry through the toad-in-the-hole and jacket potatoes, while Peter filled their glasses with water. It was a simple meal but eaten off old and beautiful china salvaged from her old home, as were the knives and forks and spoons, rat-tailed eighteenth-century heavy silver. Trottie wrapped them up carefully each evening and put them in a felt bag and hid them under her mattress. The discomfort was worth it, she had observed, for if they should be burgled even the worst of villains would hesitate to get an elderly lady out of her bed. Eulalia wasn't sure about that but she forbore to say so.
She found it a cheerful meal, listening to Peter's comments on his day at school, exchanging gentle gossip with Trottie, telling, with a wealth of detail, of the customer who had bought the yellow roses and how they had been rejected.
'They must have cost a pretty penny,' observed Trottie, and when Eulalia told her she said, 'My goodness gracious, we could eat like fighting cocks for a week on that.'
'What's fighting cocks?' said Peter, which led inevitably to the vexed question as to whether it would be unkind to have a rabbit in a hutch in the garden. They had decided against a dog long since, for there was no one to take him for walks. Eulalia was out all day, Trottie had the house to see to and Peter was at school. Even a cat would be risky, with so much traffic along the busy road.
'As soon as I've made my fortune,' said Eulalia, 'we'll move to a very quiet road with trees and big gardens and we'll have a cat and a dog and a rabbit too.'
'I suppose we couldn't go to the country?' asked Peter wistfully.
A wish she silently echoed. Oh, to be back in her old home in the Cotswold village where she had been born, in the nice old house to which her grandmother had whisked her when her parents had died in a car crash. She had been eight years old then and had spent the rest of her childhood there, and later, when her grandmother had grown frail, she had taken over the housekeeping with Miss Trott's aid. It was only on the old lady's death that she had discovered that the house was mortgaged and that there were debts.
She had paid them off and then, with Miss Trott's staunch company, had set off for London with the small amount of money she had salvaged and the promise of a job in the flower shop run by a sister of one of her grandmother's old friends.
She had laid out most of her money on the flat, its rent low because of the recession, signed a lease for five years and, with her wages and Miss Trott's pension, they had carved a life for themselves. It wasn't much of a life but neither of them complained; they had a roof over their heads and enough to eat. It had been towards the end of the third year that she had had a letter from her grandmother's solicitor. A cousin—one she had never known that she had—and her husband had been killed in a plane disaster, leaving a small boy. There were no members of the family save herself, and was she prepared to give the boy a home?
She had gone to see the solicitor and was assured that the facts set out in his letter had been true; the child, unless she was prepared to give him a home, would have to go to an orphanage. There was a little money, she had been told, enough to send him to prep school and, provided he could win a scholarship, pay for his further education. Of course she had agreed to have him, her kind heart wrung by the thought of the lonely little boy, and she had never regretted it. Between them, she and Trottie had helped him with his grief, found a decent school not too far away from the flat, and turned themselves into a family.
They finished their early supper, discussing quite seriously where it would be nice to live, the puppy they would have, a kitten or two and a rabbit—because of course the garden would be large enough to house all three It was a kind of game they all played from time to time, Peter firmly of the opinion that one day it would all come true, while Eulalia and Trottie hoped for the best. Miracles did happen, after all.
Eulalia helped Peter with his homework presently, while Trottie cleared away the supper things, and when that was done they read a chapter from The Wind in the Willows together before a noisy bath-time in the minute bathroom leading off the kitchen. Peter went to bed, and once he was asleep Eulalia sat down at the table to do her anxious sums and count the money in the house. They managed, the pair of them, to keep their heads above water but there was never any money over. Peter was growing fast, the children's allowance was barely enough to keep him adequately clothed, and as for shoes.
She sat chewing the top of her ballpoint, ways and means for the moment forgotten, while she admired the roses displayed in a vase on the sideboard. Which, naturally enough, led her to think of the man who had bought them. He might, even at that very moment, be with his Ursula, apologising abjectly No, he wouldn't! she corrected herself. He wouldn't know how to be abject Then, neither would his Ursula. They would stare coldly at each other, concealing bad tempers in a well-bred manner. 'And good luck to them,' said Eulalia, so loudly that Trottie jumped and dropped a stitch of her knitting.
Eulalia had to explain about the rejected roses when she got to the shop in the morning. 'It was too late to bring them back, and besides, Miss Kendall tore the wrapping.'
'Can't be helped,' observed Mrs Pearce. 'No point in bringing them back—he paid for them, didn't he?' She added, 'Men do such silly things when they're in love.'
Eulalia agreed, although she didn't think that he had behaved like a man in love. Very tight-lipped. He wouldn't do for me, she reflected, preparing to gather up the wedding bouquets and convey them in a taxi.
Her destination was a palatial mansion in Belgravia, the home of the bride and, judging by the coming and going, the wedding was going to be a day to remember. She was admitted at the side door, bidden to wait, and then led through a bleak passage into a kitchen and out again through a baize door to the entrance hall—a gloomy place with a lot of marble about and a very large chandelier hanging from its lofty ceiling. Here the bouquets were taken from her by a vinegar-faced lady in a black dress and borne away up the wide staircase. 'Wait here,' she was told sourly, and since there were no seats she wandered around, studying the large paintings on the walls. They were as gloomy as the hall, depicting scenes of battle, dying ladies in white robes, and dead ducks lying in a most unlikely fashion beside bowls of fruit and bunches of flowers.
'Absolutely awful,' said Eulalia in her clear voice, and turned round to see if there was anything better on the other wall.
The man who had bought the roses was standing at the foot of the staircase watching her. He looked rather splendid, in a morning coat with a carnation in his buttonhole, and she felt an unexpected pang at the thought of him marrying his Ursula, who most certainly didn't love him. He would be hard to love, of course, with that air of knowing best all the time.
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