The tiny bell attached to the door at the end of a thin twine jingled merrily as he entered.
The early morning sunrays filtered into the small shop through the glass display window and refracted across millions of dew-like water droplets perched happily on varied flora around the room. He loved this very coruscating ambience of a flower shop.
A girl hurried out from a back room. Wiping her damp hands on flannel, she directed her biggest smile towards him.
“How can I help you, sir?”
“Good morning! Hope I am not disturbing you?” the man enquired with concern, noticing a couple of rose petals stuck adventurously in her up-do.
“No, no, sir, we’re open. I was just working on some bouquets.”
“Ah, okay.” The man nodded and turned his head towards the shop’s display section, admiring the collection lined up there.
“Would you like a bouquet? I’ve a catalogue for arrangements you could choose from. Here, sir.”
“No, I actually want just one flower. By the way, I don’t remember seeing the shop here last week.”
“Oh, yes, we opened just yesterday.”
“Aha, that’s so much easier for me now. I had to walk two blocks down every week. Ah, this is definitely better.”
“I’m glad to know that. So, this makes you our first customer and that too, a regular. We should get to know each other in that case,” she commented with a cheeky giggle.
“I like that attitude. Trying and getting to know people- that’s such a lost art now. Anyway, I like talking, so that’s plus for you.”
“Definitely. But, can I know which flower you would like?”
“Well, the name eludes me. Actually, I’ve never bothered to retain its name in my memory.”
“Oh, then, can you describe it to me?”
“It’s like a round, dense flower with lots of tiny petals…” The man gesticulated expressively in vain hopes for understanding to dawn upon her.
“Sorry, sir, all flowers fit that description. Okay, for whom you are buying? Younger or older? Any special occasion? I can suggest, and perhaps that will jog your memory.”
“Younger than me. It’s for our date.”
The girl’s eyebrows shot up before she could rein in her surprise. Recovering immediately, she asked with a polite smile, “Ah, then, wouldn’t a rose be better? Nothing impresses a lady as a red rose in her man’s hand.”
“Rose would be better, except she is allergic to them. Not making that mistake again.”
“Oh! Ummm..Then how about orchids?”
“No, too fancy. I could call my wife and ask. She is expert in flowers but I’m worried, she wouldn’t let this episode go, ever.”
“Have a look around the shop, may be it will help.”
“Okay, wait, I recently learnt this exciting thing from my son. I think I remember how to do it still.”
He took out his reading glasses from his shirt’s top pocket and gingerly placed them over the tip of his nose. He still squinted his eyes out of habit to decipher the letterings on his smartphone.
Swiping it open carefully, he pressed the mic icon on the screen and spoke, “Ok Google, I request you to find, white flower with lots of small petals.”
He scrolled through the displayed results slowly.
“Ah! This one!!”
He triumphantly turned the mobile phone towards the young girl.
“Oh! That’s chrysanthemum!!”
“I told you, it’s not an easy name to remember, especially at my age. Why would someone give such a complicated name to this sweet-looking flower? If only I knew what it was called when I gave it to her on our first date.”
The girl giggled at his tirade and said, “I have the flowers. Do you want just one? A bunch of different-hued chrysanthemums would be beautiful.”
“Nope, one. That’s how it’s been for 45 years now.”
With a twinkle in her eyes and a happy bounce to her steps, the girl brought the flower to the counter and commented, “45 years! I’m sure it must have been an exciting journey.”
“You said it, young girl. To someone outside our lives, it might look like a regular setup but we have been on our joy-ride with few sporadic hiccups and bumps on the way for almost forever.” The man guffawed.
A call on his phone interrupted their conversation.
Once again, swiping the phone cautiously as if a slight wrong move would disintegrate it, he clicked the speaker and said, “Hello, Em! Are you done?”
“Honey, it will take another 20 minutes or so. I kept the toaster on for too long. Damn these gadgets!”
“Haha! So, essentially, you burnt a set of toasts to crisp.”
“Mister, there is a difference. The toaster didn’t pop them out when it dinged and I merely forgot.”
“Of course, of course.”
Covering the mouthpiece, he whispered to the girl, “You know you are toeing the line when she uses ‘mister’.”
“Come home and we can start together this time.”
“No, no, take your time. I found a new flower shop, just few metres from our house; chatting with the …”
“Owner, Jane,” the young girl supplied.
“…with the owner, Jane. A sweetheart.”
“Please do her a favor and don’t start your storytelling sessions. Okay, I’ll call you once I start.”
As soon as the call ended, the man started laughing. Wiping tears of mirth from the corners of his eyes and noticing a befuddled look on Jane, he said, “She always burns the toasts in that toaster but still uses it just because our son gifted it. She doesn’t know but every Saturday, I leave the house for this very reason, else I would have to listen to her endless, colourful curses in ode to that darned toaster.”
“She is so sweet. Is this her favourite flower?”
“Oh, no. Hers is daffodil but this was the one I could afford in those days for our first date. So every Saturday, we go on our picnic dates if the weather is nice and I get her this flower.”
“Awwww! That’s so romantic. How did you guys meet? I mean, if you don’t mind sharing.”
“Are you sure you want to hear this? As Em said, I like my stories and love telling them too.”
“If you notice, there is hardly any traffic here and I like listening to stories.”
“Great. Here we go. About 45 years ago…”
We used to own a coffee shop– well, I call it ‘coffee shop’ now based on this generation’s lingo, but back then, it used to be a simple eatery, which served breakfast and early dinner.
It was the kind of place where almost the entire working section of the town’s population flocked to, to have their meals. Along with the workers, there would be an occasional spattering of poets, writers and artists too, but my father had a strict rule to never let them have their own single table. Once their supplies got out of their bags, they remained glued to their seats. You lost business that way.
There was never a second of peace in that shop during opening hours. As soon as the shutters went up, we would be running around nonstop and rested our legs only after closing time. So it was pretty shocking even to me that I had noticed her across the street one day.
Despite all the chaos in our shop, suddenly, one day, I saw her- strolling leisurely on the opposite pavement with a book in her hand. There was a quaint little bookstore across from our store. I always wondered how anyone got any reading done there with all the hullabaloo that our place had to offer. I had never ventured inside that shop. For me, reading what my classes had prescribed was more than enough. Our eatery was going to be mine anyway.
This girl (almost my age) would visit the bookstore every other day or so during our dinner hours. She would walk with her nose buried in a book and she always bore that angry look- you know, forehead all scrunched up, creases pooling in between the eyebrows, like she had the responsibility to solve all of the world’s problems.
In those times, it wasn’t easy to approach a fellow-aged someone of opposite gender without getting suspicious looks from everyone in the neighborhood. And it was even worse for me since my father would be watching my every move as I had to wait on the tables along with other two helpers. That was his way of ‘breaking’ me into family business.
So, I didn’t know anything about her except that she liked to read books, a lot of them. Her eyes were always glued to the pages, oblivious to the outside world. I had never seen her smile or heard her laugh or speak; made me wonder if she might be mute and thus, spent all her time reading. Whatever the case, I just wanted to greet her once and find out the reason behind her ennui-stricken face.
“Ohoh! Love at first sight!”
“Love? I’m not sure. In that moment, it was just curiosity.”
“Oh pish-posh!! Potatoes, pohtatoes! That’s just a nuance.”
“You kids these days know everything, don’t you? Can I continue?”
A month later, an opportunity presented itself.
My father had to rush home when he received a missive from my mother about how my younger brother had broken someone’s tooth in a playground scuffle. He instructed me to be in-charge while he raced to save his other son from jail.
You know, we all had made up our minds that he would end up being incarcerated sooner or later but look, how tables have turned. He became such a prolific archaeologist.
Judging a book from its cover was a no-no even in those days but assessing from its first few pages apparently also shouldn’t be allowed.
You know, he had once…
“You are digressing.”
“Thank you. Moving on.”
Adding to my luck, that day the crowd in our shop wasn’t that bad. It was like everything in the universe was signalling for me to go over to the other side and I did, as soon as she appeared at the bend of our street, cradling her book in her arms.
As she walked past me, a whiff of lilac gently brushed my senses, intoxicating me. Before she could enter the bookstore, I put my plan into motion.
“Hello, miss. Did you drop this handkerchief?”
“Oh my god! That’s the most clichéd pick-up line!” Jane exclaimed and slapped a palm to her face.
“It hadn’t become a cliché then. In fact, I feel it caught on after I used it. Alas, there are no records.”
“Of course not. I don’t carry one.”
That was not how I had expected it to go down. I knew I looked like a deer caught in headlights at that moment with nowhere to run or hide but face this collision head-on.
“Oh. Then I wonder who..”
“You can give it to the owner of this shop.”
Saying that, she stretched her hands to push the door of the bookstore open.
Trying to think on my feet, I asked loudly, “I love reading books! Which book is that? Looks interesting!”
“Umm..Catch-22 by Joseph Heller,” she answered and looked a bit flustered.
“Oh that’s interesting. Okay then, goodbye.”
Taking my cue, I turned on my heels and ambled towards my shop, crestfallen.
“Hello! Excuse me!”
I was shocked to see her waving at me from the other side of the road.
“Do you want to read it? You said it’s interesting.”
“Sure, but right now, I need to tend to the shop.”
“Yes, I know. How about after school?”
“Meet me here tomorrow and I’ll tell you.”
With that, she walked into the bookstore while I stood transfixed, her parting smile deeply imprinted in my heart.
“That’s it? Where did you meet? What happened? How did you fall in love?”
“I fell in love the instant I saw her smile that day. It was a smile that transcended beyond her lips and reached her eyes, and even her forehead; melted my heart only to be moulded back with her name engraved on it, in it, all around it.”
“But, I want more details!” Jane cried out.
“Ha ha , okay! I’ll tell you about our first date.”
The next day, she appeared near the bookstore after school. I had gobbled up my lunch so I could rush to meet her (girls’ school ended little earlier than ours). Our shop stayed closed during lunch hours. I just had to give some excuse to my buddies, with whom I used to goof around.
She passed me without any acknowledgement. My heart sunk in despair, thinking that perhaps, I had dreamt yesterday’s exchange.
Before she entered the store, something fluttered away from her and got caught in the wind. I retrieved a white handkerchief, where a location was jotted down.
While making my way to the orchard, I bought a single white chrysanthemum. It was the season for them and it was all I could afford. This continued for four years till we got hitched.
“Do you know the park at the end of this lane? Towards west of it, our restaurant used to be located. Now it’s a shopping mall but we start our date by meeting there every Saturday.”
“Awwww! This is so beautiful! I would love to meet her.”
“Sure, but not today. I see she is calling. I have to rush. You know, she knows everything about flowers. She will herself find her way to you.”
Jane smiled broadly at the sexagenarian as he made his way out of her shop and whispered to herself, “Indeed, chrysanthemums are for loyalty and devoted love.”
Emma walked slowly towards the bookstore with her nose literally touching the book which she held in her hand, but her eyes did not register a single word. It wasn’t easy to catch a glimpse of the boy running around inside the restaurant across the street without giving herself away; the angle was tough to maintain and she had to scrunch up her forehead to focus.
The first time she had seen him a week ago, she knew she had fallen in love with him. It had been instantaneous. One second she was listlessly sitting with her father at a table for breakfast, the next second she noticed him slipping a loaf of bread to a homeless person before his father could notice and dropped a few coins on the counter from his own pocket.
The feeling that swept over her that day had carved a permanent home, though for a few seconds, she did consider abandoning it when he threw that handkerchief pickup line at her.
Alas, the heart which once has tasted love would always come back for more.
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