HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

House Of Flowers

Josie Turner lives in Kent, and works in London. Her short fiction has been published in journals including Luna Station Quarterly, Mslexia, The Frogmore Papers and Words with Jam. In 2015 she was a joint winner of the Plough short story competition, and in 2016 she won the Brighton Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Josie has received the Emrys Foundation’s Sue Lile Inman award for fiction.

HOUSE OF FLOWERS

Orchids for The Widow: that was the rule. She was believed to favour white. A row of white plants had duly appeared at the long window overlooking her carriage drive, and each week an officer of the Ministry would bring her another potted orchid from the city
‘Ma’am,’ the officer would say as he presented her with the tribute, nodding his head, but refraining from a full bow
‘How beautiful,’ she would reply, taking the pot in both hands and turning it to admire the petals, the stalks, and the lolling bottle green leaf.
'At least she’s just a person,’ shrugs Tomas, driving an armoured limousine through the forest. ‘Just like your mother, or the butcher’s wife. Nothing special. Forget the stupid plant, can’t you?’
‘It’s a gesture,’ replies Leo, tucking the pot alongside the passenger door. ‘To foster harmonious relations.’
Tomas’s thick red hand leaves the wheel to club the air over Leo’s lap, searching for the orchid, ready to grasp it and hurl it from the driver’s side window. He gives a filthy snort, and claps his hand back on the wheel.
‘You’re not courting the old bitch.’ He says. ‘And if you were, she’d find money more persuasive.’
‘So I’ve heard,’ smiles Leo, remembering the stories told in the barracks.

‘The General’s sent me someone new,’ says The Widow, as Leo trembles in her drawing room. ‘I don’t meet many new people. You’re very young, aren’t you? To come all the way out here for me.’
‘The General sends his compliments, Ma’am.’
‘And an orchid as well, apparently. How unexpected. Shall I take it frLeo’s hands seem to have fused around the plant pot. The First Lady, he thinks, as her fingers touch his – she is real, she breathes and speaks: The Widow, in the flesh. She is tiny in a stiff black tweed skirt suit. Her hair is sparse and grey, but set in a firm halo around her head. All her women have been sent away, and her clothes and jewels confiscated, so The Widow creates her regal effects alone. The lapels of her jacket are looped and torn, and Leo remembers the legend of how The General himself had wrenched off her diamond brooches, and thrown them from the palace windows to the mob below.
Just a person – like your mother, or the butcher’s wife,’ he thinks, steadying himself. Tomas is pacing the grounds outside, slashing at rose bushes with his cane right in front of the long window, so that ‘Does The General send any other message?’ she asks, turning away from the window with a grimace that resolves itself into a smile. ‘Long Live the Revolution, Ma’am.’ ‘Oh yes. Very much so. Long Live It. Would you like to sit down?’ ‘Thank you,’ says Leo, remaining upright. His legs are sending confused messages to his spine: he fears that if he moves towards a brocaded chair he might lose all mastery over his body and fall to the rug like a bolt of fabric cut from the roll. He is smiling crazily, like a relative fawning over a toddler. Ylena, used to making people feel awkward, sits on the edge of a seat and crosses her ankles, then folds her hands over her knees. A ragged tear runs up the side of one stocking.

It is Leo’s task to hand The Widow her correspondence, which has been opened and largely blacked out by the Ministry. He will receive any letters she wishes to send on her own behalf; although these are sealed when she hands them over, he is expected to rip open the envelopes in front of her and give the pages a cursory read – ideally with sorrowful shakes of the head, implying that her words will sadden The General – before a thorough censorship begins back in the city. He is at liberty to destroy any of her letters that seem especially counter-revolutionary, as theatrically as possible – burning them, if she happens to have lit a fire in the drawing-room grate. Then he is supposed to interview her security detail, and take back a copy of the security log-book.
‘To ensure your safety,’ he is to say. ‘So that no harm should reach you.’ He has rehearsed the sentences many times, in his narrow bunk, and then over and over again during the drive through the forest, while Tomas boBut now that the time has come, he takes her envelopes and tucks them into his inner jacket pocket, whisking them out of sight as though they’re indecent. He wonders who she writes to – Presidents, Emperors, Duchesses? He feels a sudden fear, as the letters press against his chest, that all their pages will be blank. No-one intervened at the old woman’s trial, and no-one is coming to rescue her now. Her husband Ferdinand is said to lie unburied somewhere out in the forest, with two bullet holes in his forehead. The car passed a commotion of crows on its winding journey towards the villa. ‘If you’d be so kind,’ she says. ‘It’s important to stay connected. When one’s in retirement.’

All killed, she is thinking. Ferdinand would have them all killed. She imagines refinements of torture meted out to that brute on the driveway, lopping the heads from her roses.
Ylena stares at Leo’s pallid face above the uniform – the face of some peasant woman’s son. That fortunate woman might be wearing the imperial diamonds now: perhaps she’d been among the stamping, hooting mob when the tanks rolled onto the palace forecourt; one of those who screamed in ecstasy as jewels, furs and Meissen porcelain were hurled from the windows; one of the vandals who smashed and trampled everything they saw and coveted and did not understand.
But I can’t hate this one, she thinks. He’s only a boy. And he isn’t going to shoot me.
But it occurs to Ylena that yes, he might very well shoot her. This sweating untried boy might be the very person The General would send to dispatch her. She wonders if there is a weapon in the other pocket of his jacket, and if perhaps that is why he took her letters so promptly, and tucked them away with shaking hands.
‘I can offer you tea,’ she says, rubbing her knuckles with her thin gold wedding band, the one adornment she retains. ‘You can make me a cup of tea. If you’d be so kind.’
He’ll tell his girl about the black tweed suit, and the rip in The Widow’s stocking. He will be able to boast of sitting in the presence of the former First Lady, sipping tea from a cracked cup as she chattered on about friends and cousins and dynastic connections Leo knew to be dead, or under house arrest.
‘… Natasha won’t be able to wear the Balenciaga, perhaps,’ says The Widow, her eyes travelling across the room towards the portrait of her husband that hangs above the mantelpiece. ‘Not in the current climate.’ Ferdinand had been pained standing contraposto, in full military garb, a sheathed sword resting against one thigh. ‘Have you come far?’ she asks Leo, tilting her head suddenly.
‘From the city,’ he stutters. But he has come further than that – he’s a country boy, garrisoned in the city but always more at home among the upland’s frozen plains. He could teach The Widow to track through the forest, if she likes; to orient herself using the sun and the stars, and dig for drinking water.
‘How is the city, these days?’ she asks.
He brings the empty cup back to his lips. Its rim clips his teeth. His barracks are cold and full of fleas; he has a girl, the daughter of a tailor – when he visits her, the whole family cram together on wooden chairs in the small parlour, to act as chaperones. There is never enough bread. The other day, he picked up a coin wedged between two cobbles. He is saving for a new leather belt.
He suspects that his city, and The Widow’s city, are two very different places. ‘It is good,’ he replies. ‘The fountains are working again.’
‘The fountains,’ she nods. ‘How beautiful. My husband had to switch them off, you see, to conserve water.’
‘Yes.’‘Ferdinand had to be a father; sometimes a strict one. For everyone’s good. You understand?’
‘Of course.’
‘Oh – naturally we understand. Naturally we obey,’ sneers Tomas, and Leo twists around to see the older man filling the doorway. ‘Papa starved his children for their own good.’
The Widow rises to her feet, to see off her guests.
‘Do come and visit me again,’ she says to Leo as he writhes in his seat, looking for somewhere to put his teacup. Eventually he places it on the worn carpet, far away from his boots.
He is aware of Tomas walking into the room, and as he straightens up he sees that Tomas has extended one red finger towards The Widow’s lapel, and worked it through a rip in the fabric. He pulls, quite gently, and then as though The Widow is a stone statue she begins to rock on the fulcrum of her high patent shoes. She sways for a moment, and her eyes – the only moving part of her – fix themselves upon Leo. Tomas hooks his finger and pulls harder, so that she topples forwards, and then Leo takes a single stride and turns his back upon The Widow. His face is so close to Tomas’s that he can see the dark avidity of the man’s expression, and Leo realises that he himself is laughing, as though he and Tomas share a joke. Gradually the man’s face relaxes, and he seems about to laugh as well. He yanks his finger at last from the lapel.
The Widow has fallen against Leo’s spine, and she balances there, breathing hard beneath his shoulder blades.
\ There are wolves in the forest – Ylena hears them howling at night, along with the rasp and cackle of feasting crows, raising their leathery wings.
Well, someone must feast, she thinks, recalling her two fat visitors – the man and the boy. So excited about their precious fountains! Give the peasants a few pissing cherubs in the town square; then they’ll swear their loyalty…
The boy had slapped the man on the arm as they left, and they’d both laughed and jostled one another – but the boy had glanced back in fear. He still had his natural grace; his feudal deference. Perhaps it survives in pockets across the population; perhaps even now there are factions working for her liberation.
Too late, she thinks. The wolves and crows have finished their work upon Ferdinand. Her degenerate son has fled to Europe. What does heredity matter, anyway?
Within herself, Ylena gives up. Let the factions plot away, she thinks, worrying her worn stocking with a dry finger. She has learned to dress and undress herself, but not to darn, and the wretched cycling cook from the village refuses to help.
When her liberators arrive they might find Ylena alongside Ferdinand in the forest, underneath a blanket of crows. But they will certainly read the declaration of surrender the wise General has constructed for her, piece by piece, in the white array across the long window overlooking her carriage drive.

End