Flowers for Grace

Silently the rain fell the other side of the windows. She looked out at the epileptic trees, the swirling greens of grass, the twisting world of different streets, all the houses smudged with cream and lipstick, and she knew then. She had arrived.

“Gordon,” she said, “I am in Europe. Really in Europe. Mainland Europe.”

Through her eyes, visibly bifocal, steamed at one edge, and heavy, like her eyes, she saw France whizzing past, hour after hour after triumphant hour. She was sweeping through the land like Napoleon in his One Hundred Days, devouring the earth and the people and the towns as only despots know how, Empress Maggie, Queen Margaret, La Reine Margot. She wore a fresh new hat of flowers like a crown on her head, and as her son drove their battered VW with care on the awkward right side, she poured cold tea from a flask into a plastic cup, and pretended it was champagne in crystal.

This place was everything she had dreamed of, and it would be more, but still her hope hung heavy in the sky, poised to disintegrate like storm clouds should she discover it was all unreal. The sun flung down its somnolent rays and she imagined running through the viridian fields and catching the heat in her hands, and being splashed by warm rain, and then she saw the sign Monaco 62 and she knew that she would get there.

“Sixty-two miles and I see her!” she exclaimed, holding her left hand to the place she mistook to be her heart, heaving out a big heavy chunk of nothing. “I see my Grace!”

“Kilometres, mother. Sixty-two kilometres. Sixty-one now.” Gordon grew dark over the fussing problems of metric conversion, currency conversion, culture conversion. He was bored with life in England, but he knew his boredom well, and wrapped it around himself like a comfort blanket: the nine pot-holed roads to work filled with rain; the four walls of the office he shared with the younger and senior Mrs Simmons; the four walls of the bedroom with a poster of a young, unassuming black and white girl proffering a red, red rose; the four walls of the little glowing box chewing up his life’s time. France was strange, he thought, and the French spoke unnaturally fast and did not understand enough English, and there his mother sat, looking around like a child in her pram, gurgling with excitement, and he hated her excitement.

“You know Gordon,” she said wistfully, “I’d been married to your father for a year, and was expecting you, and all three of us went to the cinema and saw her in ‘High Society’ at the musical matinee. 1965 it was. She was beautiful- even your Dad said so. She glowed with energy, possessed the whole screen. It was as if- as if she only lived then and there, she was too powerful to live a normal life. And of course she didn’t. Princess Grace. That was the role she waited all her life for.” Tears filled in her eyes and Gordon shoved the car into fourth gear and sighed again.
“Such a waste of life. Having the whole world in your hands and then- bang!” She struck the dashboard. “All gone. Severed from life, from the palaces, from the people you love. She deserved better.”

Gordon has wondered as a child if his mother had gone to school with Grace Kelly. Never was there talk of aunts or uncles or friends or grandparents, just recollections of Grace’s childhood, or dismal affairs, or salvation by the Monaco prince. Even when Gordon’s father died, raking the leaves at the park where he worked, Grace remained the one mourned, the one remembered. ‘A year to the day she died and he goes and does the same thing,’ she had sighed. ‘All of them gone. The Princess over the cliff, the beautiful princess and mother.’

His mother had not cried at the second loss. Instead she had become more addicted to the therapy of ‘True Love,’ watching Grace’s films again and again until she could say every word in perfect accent by memory. To this day she still growled ‘Semi-skimmed today!’ in an uncanny Louis Armstrong vibrato to the milkman. Next she had styled her hair like Grace circa 1961, analysed the Princess’s Hollywood wardrobe and started running up her own replicas, hanging them up in her Kelly-covered closet, to look at, not to wear. And now there was the pilgrimage. She sat, holding her cheeks, examining the outskirts of Grace’s world, waiting for the miracle.

I have seen her in my bedroom, she had wanted to tell her son, she remembered. She was lying in bed reading the fourth unauthorised biography when the Princess stepped out through the mirror and said, ‘Margaret, I am alive because of you. Can I call you Margaret?’ Oh how she wanted to wade through the sheets and kiss her princess! But no, she had remained, lying there, just nodding her head and smiling sweetly.

The next time it happened she was prepared. ‘Yes, you can call me Margaret, Princess,’ she had said. They talked all night, Grace sitting on the dresser, radiant and real, baffling her companion with talk of the horrors of Hollywood. She is just tired, Margaret had thought to herself, her life was perfect. But she forgets. It is gone and so she forgets.

‘You must go and see my country,’ the princess had said, feeling the crown in her hands and offering it to Margaret with a cool ‘try it on.’

‘Oh, I couldn’t!’

‘Please!”

Giggling girls. Margaret had touched it with quaking, virginal hands, and Grace had crowned her with a smile and a ‘there- it’s good,’ and then she was gone, and not returned since, leaving the symbol of her regal life with the woman in Chester, breathless and beautiful.

She had placed the crown on the model of Grace she’d bought from an auction of damaged ‘Hollwood Stars’ stock, and then she’d ran downstairs to tell her son over his sausage and fried bread that she’d been bequeathed the princess’s precious metal by the smiling ghost.

‘Gordon,’ she had started, ‘I was visited last night.’ It all seemed so silly now, expecting him to understand. Before she had even had the opportunity to explain he had refused to listen. ‘No more Grace at the table!’ he had screamed. ‘No more- please!’

He had cried on to his plate, she recalled, and she had been so angry. From that moment it was her secret. The dead princess remained hers, alive. Monaco 24, and dazzling sunshine. Time to bring out the music.

How he wished she’d go to sleep, sitting there, wetting herself with excitement, fumbling with the surprise box and the cassette cases he now saw it contained. On and on she warbled, guardian angels and bollocks, knowing all the time how he needed to concentrate. It was bad enough the sickly smell of the five fresh bouquets of flowers that filled the backseat made him sneeze and his eyes run.

“We have our own Grace soundtrack!” she screamed in his ear. “That’s the surprise, Gordon! When we see Monaco we will hear it like it should be heard. Just like in the movies.”

She smiled so joyfully, so like a child, that for a moment he had the urge to smile back, and lose himself in her mad, wide-screen world, but he was stuck in the car, in South France, thinking of petrol and the office he had left behind, and again he resented her crazy rantings.

“We’re passing right by Cannes,” she remarked. “European Cinema City. City of the Stars. Glamour and scandal and wealth and sex, off and on the silver screen.”

He had left two unfiled reports on Lesley Simmons’s desk. He hoped she hadn’t misplaced them. Three full days he’d worked on them, considering the figures, the facts, the pros, the cons. And these married women were not reliable. He never knew what to say. Each and every morning she would come in differently; angry at her husband Geoff’s refusal to cancel his night-out with the lads; delighted with the success of her Anne Summer’s Naughty Nightie party; frustrated at baby Jamie’s refusal to eat strained good. ‘Good morning,’ he would say, and it wasn’t; ‘Cold outside’ he would venture and ‘Oh but it’s still such a beautiful day!’ he would get in return; ‘You are looking good this morning,’ he would tentatively offer, and what thanks did he get?

‘Thank you, Gordon,’ she would rail. ‘I know you were here a good time before me, and that you feel this job is by right yours, but there is no need for sniping and sarcasm. I know I look dreadful but frankly if you had to stay awake all night trying to comfort a screaming child.. then.. oh, oh, why won’t he eat the minced beef and carrots?’

Gordon had given up on women in his last year at school. His headmistress had tried to unbutton his trousers, telling him his Latin pronunciation was the best she’d heard since her time at Newnham. She was middle-aged and saggy but quite a pin-up for the boys at St Joseph’s, with her dresses too high and her tops too low, but he’d got scared by her long, painted fingernails and broke off from Virgil, brushing her off in polite schoolboy style, running from her study to vomit in the quad. His last report read ‘He needs to apply more effort.’

No, he had never had a girlfriend. Twenty-nine and still a bachelor. ‘Perhaps you’re gay,’ his mother often said. ‘Nothing to be ashamed of. Take Rock Hudson- he looked normal enough.’ But he didn’t think he was gay, just uninterested in women, and he didn’t think he was straight, he was just bored by men.

He always remembered the stories his mother told him as a child. That’s the problem, he thought to himself. He was no Richard Burton and, in all honesty, nobody resembled Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra in the ugly streets of Chester. No matter when he looked, there could be found no trace of the flickering world of legends and true loves his mother had fed him as the fodder of the real world.

If you plant a seed in the wrong soil, he thought, it will grow into a frail sapling that will wither and die.

“Dix-neuf francs,” the man in the toll-booth scowled.

“Doesn’t he look like Alain Delon!” Margaret whispered.

“There’s no need to talk quietly, mother- he’s hardly likely to understand you.”

“We are going to Monaco,” Margaret shouted. “To see Princess Grace! All these flowers are for her.”

The man in the toll-booth nodded and smiled. He took the coins from her then sang, off-key but seductively, “I give to you and you give to me, true love, true love…”

Margaret beamed. “Oh monsieur! Do you-“ But before she had chance to finish Gordon was off, and the car was off, and she was off, thinking of the depth of the brown of the toll-man’s eyes.

“Really, mother! Don’t get familiar with these French… people. They’re not like us!”

“Rubbish, Gordon! They’ve got two legs and two arms and the rest, just as we have. And from what Grace has told me, they’re blessed with a bit more besides.”

Oh, the shame, the shame. During his time at school all he had ever wanted was a normal mother, one who would cook nice cakes and biscuits and sow his name into his gym shorts. Instead she had sang with the local ABBA tribute band, dressed in a long silver New Age wig and little else. How many times had he been called the Dancing Queen at school? How often had he wanted to suffocate her with her wig?

And now, now it was worse. She sat in her bedroom some nights talking to herself, or to the Grace dummy that posed there, misshapen by floods, reciting whole scripts of films or discussing the life of the film-star turned princess.
‘You are special,’ he had heard her say. ‘You are Audrey Hepburn and Tippi Hedren and Snow White all rolled into one. Oh thank you, you are so sweet, Margaret- you are special yourself. Oh you make me want to blush, Princess. I tell you call me Grace. Grace.’

“Grace had a beautiful place to live,” she said now, surveying the last fields of France before the tunnel, and then it went dark, and Margaret fiddled with the box, and found a tape marked ‘The Entry Scene’ and hurriedly forced it into the stereo.
They were returned into the light, and drove through the checkpoint. Margaret waved at the customs officer and thrust a rose from a bouquet through the window at him.

“Mother!” Gordon yelled. “For all he knows it could be a bomb!”

“She won’t miss one rose,” Margaret said. “She’ll understand.”

On came the music as up came the hills. The checkpoint faded into the blur of all that they had seen.

The music is dramatic, he admitted to himself. It fits the scene. But then he shook his head and closed his eyes and his mother was screaming, and he had swerved onto the left side of the road.

“I could die after I’ve seen Monaco, after I’ve given her the flowers,” Margaret said, patting her chest. “I could die and be at peace.” She took off her glasses and cleaned them on the fronds of her dress. Gordon yawned.

“I need a coffee,” he said. “I’m getting tired.”

“Please just hang on, love,” she said. “Don’t spoil the moment.”

If I crash the car into a lorry it will ruin the moment, he thought. Or perhaps that’s what she wants. She’d be closer to her precious Grace. Not the fairytale life but the horrific ending.

“There! There!” Margaret shrieked. “The sea around Monaco! The blue, blue sea! And look at those roads! Twisting like cooked spaghetti. No wonder it happened. They should be straighter. They should cut through more of the mountains. This can’t be right in the twentieth century.”

Gordon did look, and he saw how high up they were, and the jagged cliffs that cut the edge of the bending roads, and seemed to make them crumble. Then he noticed how blue the sky was, and he smiled at the thought of Mrs Simmons and her traumatic life, with no-one to bite in the office.

“It had to be somewhere around here! I know it. It happened here,” Margaret gasped. “Stop the car! Stop the car!”

“I can’t stop here, Mother! It’s a narrow road- d’you want to end up going over?”
Margaret sighed, and fumbled in the box, pulling out a cassette upon which was scribbled ‘the sad goodbye.’ Through the speakers came fast violins, and the knell of a trombone, and then the heavy thrust of the full orchestra…

“Oh my Grace,” she said.

…and then there was silence but for the tinkling of a lonely piano.

Everything stopped. Margaret could not feel her heartbeat, could not see a thing. All she could hear was the sound of her own body stopping. They pulled over at a gas station. While Gordon went out for a coffee she walked solemnly to the side of the road, looking out, below, at the deathly drop. In the distance Monte Carlo displayed chateaux, sheened by the blue glittering sea.

“I am here, Grace,” she whispered into the wind. “I’ve lived your life and now I’ll see your death.”

Gordon rested his elbow on the counter and breathed deeply. He had got her here. It was hell, but he had done it. He examined her, standing there in the distance, and was filled with an emotion he could not understand, one that ached with conflict. Just then a man approached the counter by his side, resting an elbow there, as if they were in a mirror.

The man smiled. “You are English?”

“Yes,” Gordon stammered.

“You are very beautiful English man.”

Gordon was stunned. Repulsed. Happy. It was the nicest compliment he had ever received. All this way from home. “Thank you- er. Merci.”

The man’s dark eyes smiled. He stared into Gordon’s greys, leant over and gave him a kiss on his cheek, a gentle peck that was the kiss of freedom. Gordon looked back into his eyes, trying to make out the message, but all they conveyed was an absence of light. He didn’t know what to do. The stranger waited, smiling and looking; Gordon could see him admiring his milk skin and pale eyes, but still he could not move or speak. He could just see the man smiling. Suddenly the strangeness of Europe and the reassurance of home disappeared. He looked around and out the window, and he liked the differences of sky and streets and faces.

The man smiled once more and, with a quiet ‘au revoir,’ walked out and got into his car. Gordon’s eyes followed him. As the car drove away he saw his mother. A little piece of England, his baffled, crazed mother. He slammed his hand down on the counter.

At the cliff edge Margaret held the bouquets of flowers, feeling the thorns nip her hands.

“These flowers are for you, Grace,” she said. “Rest in peace, my princess.”
She heard footsteps behind her, Gordon walking, stopping at the other side of the road.

“Let’s go home, Mom."

She nodded and smiled. He held out his hand for her, smiling back, and looked at the world, this place where there was hope, the chance of a new life under a warm, singing sky.

But really for him it was hopeless. Suddenly he was running at her, straight at her, not wanting to stop.

“Gordon!” she screamed.

Over the edge and into the wind flew the flowers, the petals breaking from the stems, exploding like fireworks, and then drifting like a slow, gentle spring rain. Drops of cochineal, citrus, albion, jaundice, lilac. For a moment the blue skies were filled with colour. She wanted to step off the cliff and catch them, and fall with them.

“It’s like a wedding,” she whispered. “The happiest day of your life.” And then she turned, and walked away, and got into the car.

Flowers for Grace

James Barker

Joined July 2010

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Artist's Description

I’ve just found six short stories I wrote between 93 -96. I’d searched for them in every conceivable box, nook and cranny.. then they just suddenly appeared, on a shelf of all places. This is the first I’ve re-typed, it’s more whimsical than the usual shade of dark.

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