"HANG ON," SOPH SAID, "you're telling me, the corpse had an erection?"
Abby transferred her mobile to the other ear and with her free hand began setting the shop's burglar alarm for the night. "No, it was the dove."
"The dove had an erection?"
"Duh. Of course the dove didn't have an erection. It flew into the open coffin, found its way into the old man's trouser pocket and made it look like he had an erection."
"But why on earth were there doves flying around the house?"
Abby explained that the dead man, who had been lying in state in the front room of his Croydon semi-detached house, used to make his living as a children's party entertainer. "The doves were part of his magic act. Anyway, just before everybody was due to set off for the cemetery, his wife had the dotty idea of letting the birds out of their cages to say good-bye to their master. My guess is that when he was performing, he hid them in his trouser pocket. Right on cue, one of them headed straight for the clown suit."
"The corpse was wearing a clown suit?"
"Yeah. Red-and-white stripes with gold pom-poms down the front."
Abby stepped onto the pavement and closed the shop door behind her. It was thick plate glass with a stainless-steel handle shaped like a rose in full bloom. Abby was particularly proud of the handle. She'd designed it herself, taking great pains to get every fold, twist and angle of every petal exactly as she wanted it. If you looked carefully--not that anyone ever did, apart from Abby--there was even a tiny metal dewdrop on one of the petals. At first, the design had been meant purely as a business logo. Then she'd had the idea of e-mailing it to one of the cutlery firms in Sheffield and asking if there was any way they could fashion a rose door handle.
Earnshaw & Sons (By Royal Appointment) assured her the commission was well within their capabilities. Six weeks later, the exquisitely crafted tea-rose handle arrived by courier, along with Earnshaw's jaw-dropping bill for three thousand pounds.
In the middle of the door, in opaque lowercase letters, was the name of the shop: "fabulous flowers." Sometimes, when there weren't many people about, Abby would stand with her nose pressed against the window and gaze at the outsize glass vases full of flowers, still not quite able to believe that the shop belonged to her.
"So, how come you were at this funeral in the first place?"
Another question. Soph was forever asking questions. How much did you pay for it? Why did your father need a colonoscopy? How come your uncle went bankrupt? Soph said all Jews were the same. They were genetically programmed to interrogate. They liked to take an interest in other people's lives. It was their way of showing that they cared. Soph's parents were the same. They even bickered in question marks.
"Sammy, do you have the time?"
"Tell me something, Faye. Do I look like a clock?"
Abby turned the key in the lock. "I wasn't at the funeral exactly." She explained that Smarty Arty, the deceased children's entertainer, had lived across the street from her parents. "Mum had a soft spot for Smarty Arty and his wife. The feeling was pretty mutual, and when Mrs. Smarty Arty found out that Mum and Dad weren't going to be able to make the funeral, she was really upset. Mum was desperate to make it up to her, and since the Smarty Arties were pretty hard up and there was no way Mrs. Smarty Arty could afford more than a cheap wreath to go on top of the coffin, Mum insisted on paying for a really beautiful arrangement, which I put together. When I arrived to deliver it, the old lady invited me in for a cup of tea." A smile formed on Abby's face as she wondered whether her explanation would satisfy Soph or whether her friend would feel the need to come back with a couple of supplementary questions or raise points that, to her mind, still required clarification. In the end, all Soph said by way of reply was: "Oh, right."
"Three years I've been running this business," Abby went on, her tone becoming wistful, "and it's only the second time I've had to do funeral flowers."
"And do you remember the first time?"
Even now, two years later, Abby blushed. "As if I could forget."
Two orders had come in on the same day. One was from a woman wanting to wish friends good luck with their house move. The other was for funeral flowers. Somehow Abby managed to get the orders mixed up, and the dead person received a bunch of sunflowers containing a card that read: Congratulations on your new home.
Her monumental cock-up aside, Abby wasn't surprised that she received so few orders for funeral flowers. After all, Fabulous Flowers was in Islington, an area inhabited almost exclusively by hip, health-conscious and very much alive young professionals. Their floral requirements tended less toward funeral wreaths and more toward hand-tied calla lily bouquets, amaryllis centerpieces and giant zinc containers full of contorted willow to set off their edgy loft spaces.
As Abby carried on chatting to Soph, she pushed on the shop door to check that it was secure. Satisfied that it was, she set off toward the tube station, turning up her jacket collar as she went. The heavens had opened a few hours earlier, and the pavement was full of puddles reflecting light from the streetlamps. She couldn't help noticing the weary irritation on the faces of the commuters as they struggled to dodge the puddles as well as one another.
"Oh, for God's sake," she exclaimed at one point.
"What?" Soph said.
"Bloody car just went by and splashed my stockings." She stopped and began rubbing at her shins, which until now had been encased in grime-free, fresh-out-of-the-packet, nude satin stockings. The rubbing seemed to spread the dirt rather than remove it. Then, to her horror, she noticed there were more splashes on the hem of her brand-new three-hundred-quid Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. She decided that as soon as she got to the restaurant she would make a quick dash to the ladies' room and have another go with a wet paper towel.
As she set off again, she glanced at her watch. It was after seven. She was cutting it fine if she was going to make it to the restaurant by half past. She couldn't be late. Not tonight of all nights. She attempted to pick up her pace, but it wasn't easy, what with the commuters and the puddles.
If it hadn't been for a mother and her daughter debating until after six about whether a bouquet that contained trailing stephanotis as well as longiflorum lilies might eclipse the daughter's wedding dress, she would have been ready on time. Abby, who had been provided with a photograph of the dress, was tempted to say that nothing short of a bunch of hand-tied asteroids could eclipse the meringue Gone with the Wind-inspired creation before her--but she bit her lip.
In the end, she had been left with only three quarters of an hour to get home and get changed. On the plus side, her flat was over the shop, which meant her traveling time was roughly fifteen seconds.
"So, your mum and dad enjoying their cruise?" Soph inquired.
"Er, less of the c word, please. This is an expedition, remember?" Abby's parents, Jean and Hugh, were on their way to the South Pole. They were going to visit the penguins--on one of those cruises designed to make the middle-aged feel better about being on a cruise by cutting back on cabin size, entertainment and rations and pretending it was really an expedition. A few days ago, they had flown to Buenos Aires, where they had boarded an Irish-owned ship called the Bantry. The following day they had set sail for Antarctica.
"Dad phoned and left a message the other night to say things are really looking up. The captain had assured them that he is looking into why the loo in their cabin is shooting waste into the sink and that he'll have it sorted in a couple of days. Meanwhile, every time one of them uses the bathroom, Mum has to give the sink a good going over with her spare face cloth and some Dettol."
"Omigod. But don't they realize they could catch typhoid or cholera from something like this? You need to warn them."
"I'm not sure it's quite that bad--at least not yet--but I texted back to ask them why they hadn't insisted on changing cabins and Dad said they didn't want to make a fuss."
"Only the goyim!"
Abby gave a soft laugh. "What does that mean?"
"It means that only gentiles would rather die than risk making a nuisance of themselves. By now my parents would be radioing air-sea rescue, demanding they send out a helicopter to lift them off the ship. At the same time, they would be preparing to sue their travel agent, the cruise line, the captain and all the ship's staff. They would also have faxed my cousin at the BBC and his brother who works on the Guardian."
"Yes, and they would also have had strokes from all the shouting and screaming."
"OK, I admit that is a possibility," Soph said with a chuckle. She paused. "So, getting back to this funeral--what were you doing schlepping wreaths all the way from Islington to Croydon? It must have been a twenty-five-mile round trip. Couldn't you have sent them by courier?"
"I could, but I had to go over to Mum's anyway to water the plants and pick up my dress for tonight. I splurged on this fabulous jade-green Diane von Furstenberg."
"What was it doing at your mother's?"
"A friend of hers was shortening it for me."
"It needed shortening?"
"The store couldn't do it?"
"Not in time, no." A smile was forming on Abby's face. "Anything else you'd like to know?"
"Oops, sorry, I forgot the eleventh commandment: honor thy gentiles and probe ye not, for lo it is written that they are a private people who liketh to keep themselves to themselves... . God forbid a person should show an interest."
Abby had known Sophia Weintraub since their high school days. By the time she was fourteen, Soph was the star of the school debating society. She read the newspaper op-ed columns every day and absorbed political arguments as if they were no more complicated than plots in a daytime soap.
Debates took place in the school hall. Soph was so short that she could barely see over the podium, but this little girl with her tight black curls, puppy fat and braces took on all comers and argued the case for antivivisection, the legalization of drugs or the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories with the energy of a terrier with a rat, not to mention a wisdom and eloquence that confounded her teachers. The head of English, who wanted Soph to try for Oxbridge, nicknamed her Portia after the lawyer heroine in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
Everybody thought she would go into the law or politics.
In the end she decided not to apply to Oxbridge, on the grounds that it was too elitist. She went to Leeds instead, where she studied politics. After graduating summa cum laude, she was taken on by one of the broadsheet newspapers. She spent a year as a junior reporter before being promoted to parliamentary lobby correspondent. She stuck it out for another eighteen months before confessing she was finding the job distinctly lackluster. And Soph was one of those people who craved luster. In the end she abandoned political journalism and went to work for a major West End PR company. After a couple of years she decided she'd learned all she needed to and left to set up her own company.
Some people didn't take to Soph's interrogatory style and the way she came out and said precisely what was on her mind.
Her outspokenness had never offended Abby, though. If anything it made her jealous.
Chez Crompton, straight talking was unheard of. It led to confrontation. Even the prospect of confrontation made Jean and Hugh anxious. It created waves, which in turn caused arguments and bad feeling. Since Abby's parents didn't have the foggiest idea how to deal with bad feelings--their own or anybody else's--they buried them. The upshot was that they were always jolly, optimistic and looking on the bright side--even when the sink in their cabin kept filling with sewage.
On the rare occasions that a negative emotion overtook her father, he would withdraw to the garden shed to tidy his tools. When Jean felt "a bit miffed," she went in for a spot of vigorous weeding. Or, if it was the right time of year, she would give the Christmas pudding a "good old stir."
By contrast, in the Weintraub household, people were constantly emoting. And what extreme emotions they were. Nobody--in particular Soph's mother, Faye--could grasp the idea that an emotional response should fit the event. It didn't matter if the baker had sold the last marble cake before Faye could get to it or if there had been an earthquake in Pakistan that had killed tens of thousands--she was equally "devastated."
On top of that, everybody was permanently on everybody else's case. "Sammy! How can you put all that saturated fat inside you? Don't come running to me if you drop dead of a heart attack!"
"Mum! For Chrissake, can't you just stop nagging Dad for five minutes?"
"Stop yelling at me! I've got a brisket in the oven!"
"Anyway," Soph said, "the reason I was ringing was to wish you luck for tonight. How you feeling?"
"Bit nervous," Abby replied by way of understatement.
"Abs, listen to me. It's going to be fine. You're a beautiful, intelligent, successful woman. You have absolutely nothing to worry about. Come on--who just came in at number twelve in the Sunday Times's 'Style' section's 'Hundred Hottest Shops'?"
"I did," Abby mumbled.
"Er, didn't quite catch that. Louder, please."
Abby could practically see Soph standing with her hands on her hips. She gave a soft snort. "I did."
"And what did the blurb say about you?"
Abby's face was turning crimson. "C'mon, you know what it said."
"Yes, but maybe you need reminding. It said: Abby Crompton, the inspiration behind Fabulous Flowers, isn't so much a florist as a supremely gifted floral artist who is capable of turning a simple bunch of flowers into a design statement. Have I got that right?"
"OK. And was the Sunday Times accolade followed by the London Evening Standard naming you London Boutique Retailer of the Year?"
"Yes, and that's all fabulous and wonderful, but as far as tonight is concerned, it's irrelevant. Tonight isn't about my creative and business skills. It's all about me as a person and whether I'll measure up."
"Please. How could you possibly not measure up?"
"By coming from Croydon, for a start." By now Abby was heading down the steps into the tube station. "Look, I've got to go. I'm about to lose my phone signal. Thanks for ringing, though. I really appreciate it. I'll let you know how it goes."
"Make sure you do. Now stop worrying. I promise you, tonight is going to go brilliantly."
From the Trade Paperback edition.