Forever Beautiful (excerpt)

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Alina arranged a halo of baby’s breath around a dozen red roses and wrapped them in pink paper. Then she fashioned a bow out of bands of thin gold ribbon and feathered the ends with her scissors, and as a final touch, she gave the bouquet a careful trim as if she were giving it a fine haircut. Her customer smiled as he left, obviously pleased with his purchase.

With a few moments to herself, she went inside the cold room and closed the door. She tried to calm herself, to stop herself from crying, but the tears came all the same. It was a difficult day for Alina. It was the first anniversary of her mother’s death.

Alina worked as a florist on the concourse of Lightmere Station. She enjoyed her work. It was not particularly glamorous or well paid, but it suited her. It required imagination, an artist’s eye, precision and prudence, and it connected her to complex souls like her own, souls who were in the throes and complexities of love and sorrow. Whether she was asked to design a wreath, a basket, a bouquet or a simple corsage, she tried her best to provide something both fitting and affordable. She enjoyed the language of floristry; the lore of color and intention fascinated her. She saw each design as a palette upon which to paint meaning—a single red rose meant one thing, while a spray of pink carnations inspired quite another. And whether it was a single stem for a buttonhole or a complex garland to celebrate a turning point in a person’s life, she arranged each canvas with care and exacting love.

Alina was one of the world’s thinkers, a careful mind amid so much carelessness. Her mother had said her daughter was born thinking, but Alina had learnt very early on in life to keep her thoughts to herself. Her questions often troubled the people around her, especially the big, difficult, weighty ones, but they were the lifeblood of Alina’s world. They sat on her shoulder like hungry hawks waiting to be fed.

Alina was never one for gatherings or the attention of her peers, not even as a child. She was always the shy, quiet girl in the background, but she preferred it that way—it gave her space to arrange her thoughts while the others polluted the world with noise and endless banality. She enjoyed taking it all in from behind the scenes, noticing what others thought unimportant. Her eyes and mind continually studied the world, analyzing everything within their field. She was in a constant state of curiosity, and spent just as much time untangling what she saw behind her eyes as she did seeing through them. Some complained that she lived upon a cloud, but Alina thought their opinions unimportant. She enjoyed floating off to other places, even if it made it difficult to connect with the everyday world. There had been days in which she’d felt vulnerable and divided, but Elsa, her mother, had always been nearby to offer the blessings of a maternal smile. Now she was gone, and Alina missed her terribly.

Like most people, Alina didn’t know how to process her grief or resolve the thousands of questions that had amassed during the year that followed. She’d reached out to a few people for help—those kind friends and colleagues, a priest, an aunt who had offered to listen—but none had given her answers, at least not answers that provided any real understanding of where her mother had gone, and why, when she had so much living left to do.

How Alina missed her mother! She missed every little thing about her: her cooking, her laughter; her eccentric hats, her dry humor, her perfume, her bright scarves, her sunny smile, the little stories she used to share about her younger days when she was courting Alina’s father, and she especially loved the way her mother made her father laugh. Indeed, they both loved making Nigel laugh—a significant feat, considering what a stern, demanding and practical man he was.

Whenever Elsa had talked to her daughter about angels, her father would tell her to be careful of such nonsense, to use her head and avoid dreaming her life away. Though she respected her father, Alina thought her parents such an odd couple. They were so different, even exact opposites, and yet they were so much in need of each other.

And then there was her mother’s love of flowers, a passion Alina had inherited. Elsa loved flowers, just as she loved her garden. Right up until her last days, Elsa would pat the ground with her palm and beckon Alina to sit at her side and read to her as she tilled the soil and planted fresh bulbs. She occasionally asked her mother the name of a certain bloom, knowing she would never get a straight answer. Her mother had ideas of her own and would give the same disapproving reply.

“It doesn’t need a name, Ali dear, except the one you give it,” Elsa would say.

“But if we all use different names for the same flower, how will we ever know what flower the other person is talking about?” Alina would protest.

“But doesn’t that make life more interesting?”