Because I needed to say, "Sorry," and, "Thank you," and, "Chin up!" to three different people this week I have been speaking to several florists in London and New York. Florists' hearts sink when they hear my voice. My first question, always, is, "What do you have in today that's especially lovely?"
"We have everything," they almost always crisply say. This is hardly ever true.
"Do you have Dolce Vita roses? Do you have Hollywood? Do you have Avalanche? Do you have those white anemones with colour bleeding through at the edge of the petals?" I ask.
They do not.
Sometimes I wish I had never visited Covent Garden flower market because once you have seen what's possible flower-wise, almost any florist-made bunch just won't do. The excitement involved in a dawn raid on Covent Garden is almost more than I can take. You stuff your pockets with cash, you set your alarm to a punishing hour (there's no point arriving much after half past six) and in the dark and the cold you zoom through traffic-free streets, pay your fee at the gate, park, shoulder your way through heavy double doors into an enormous, unpromising-looking warehouse that is always freezing cold, and then, suddenly - you're in Oz!
The colour and scent that greet you never fail to dazzle. Although you ought to be asleep you feel more alive than is possibly wise, and your conscious and unconscious marvel at this dream-like space. I like to linger at Austen's next to the banks of long-stemmed roses. Just situating myself among 2,000 or 3,000 of them makes me feel like a ballerina, relaxing back-stage after the 17th curtain call or emerging from some sylvan Tchaikovsky setting on stage. Choosing is hard. There's always a dim sense of crisis involved, for you want to see everything before you decide, but the longer you leave it the less choice there is. You always spend more than you intend because, well, you have come all that way.
Afterwards, in the cafés, reviving fare awaits. There's the refined coffeehouse upstairs with pink tablecloths and saucers, or the slightly prefabricated diner outside the main building where the clientele varies wildly: there are florists, some huffy and imperious; lorry drivers who happen to be passing through Vauxhall and need sustenance; and hard-core revellers from the neighbouring gay clubs who pop in to refuel, still jerking to the music that hasn't stopped drumming in their ears. All these different tastes are reflected in the menu, which serves everything from dainty fruit salads and patisserie to black pudding. The smells are extraordinary: the aroma of grease and coffee somehow underwritten by the odour of hyacinths, the Turkish delight sweetness of pink roses.
These scents, these visions, stay with me so that ordering flowers to send always fills me with disappointment. Before I have even begun I feel I have failed. "You should have got up early and gone to the market yourself!" I scold harshly. Never mind the baby, who can de-head a posy faster than a power mower.
"What is the point of sending quite nice flowers when there are breathtakingly beautiful ones you're passing over?" the stern voice continues. "Standards are slipping wildly, round here. It'll be garage forecourt blooms next, and packet cake-mix if you're not careful. Velour lounge wear. Flatties!"
I defend myself robustly, remembering the pride I felt when a friend of mine happened upon me glancing at Easy Living magazine and was genuinely startled. "What are you reading that for?" she exclaimed. "You like difficult living."
I was delighted then this morning to receive a telephone call from one of the florists I had employed.
"Just wanted to check something," the efficient voice announced.
"When you said you wanted to have written on your message, 'Tons of love, Susie,' did you want metric ones or imperial?" I give a little squeak of pleasure. This sort of attention to detail makes me really glad to be alive.
"Which is larger, do you know?"
"Funny you should say that. I have actually asked around and, can you believe, no one seems to know! Mad, isn't it? But anyway, I wrote out your card both ways just to see how it looked in black and white for you and 'tonnes' does look fussy. So my feeling is we should go with 'tons' but I thought I ought to check with you first. I know how much these things can matter."
"Thank you," I say. "THANK YOU."Update: Thank you everyone for lavishing such generous praise on this piece. But I am not its writer. As the first paragraph above mentions, it is Susie Boyt of the FT. Kindly direct your appreciation to her.