The 771: Manchester and the North – Part One.

By Jay St John Knight.

Part one in a series of posts from my third year creative writing portfolio produced for my dissertation. This portfolio was comprised of a series of short stories from a variety of narrative points of view leading up to, and surrounding, a fixed event to provide a puzzle-like fragmented narrative on an ill-fated coach journey upcountry.

The Man on the Bridge – 1

He parked his Porsche up in an industrial estate on the outskirts. The noise of his phone vibrating in the glove box hadn’t stopped since he’d ran out of the back doors of the office two hours ago and it bored through his mind like a drill. As he turned the engine off the roar of the nearby motorway soothed him, like the cathartic cascade of an isolated moorland river…

Julia Vlinderstorm.

A white-faced clock silently clicked forwards a minute as it hung stoic above the exit of the station. People slipped and slid passed as Julia made her towards the escalator, faces downcast and preoccupied and faces staring out confused and frantic, with everyone trying to carve their way through the chaotic flow. She was running early somehow, twelve minutes to be precise, despite the reputation of Britain’s railway system. She didn’t have much luggage, just a well-made rucksack filled with her bare essentials: some clothes and toiletries, a few notepads and sketch books, some pencils, charcoals, brushes, water colours and an extremely well read copy of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems that looked like it had served time in the French Foreign Legion. It was a short walk from the station to where her coach was departing, so she decided to stroll down the street at a gentle pace and take in the surroundings. Cars hurried passed and flocks of small birds flew about in the distance so far away that they looked like tiny insects crawling across the sky. Across the street, between two gnarled oak trees that were set in the pavement sat a little florist’s shop with a multitude of different flowers layered up in shiny metallic buckets. A hand painted sign above the door had the name Flora’s Flowers in a vibrant indigo and, around the very edges, the paint had begun to crack and blister. Julia crossed the road, she had plenty of time and the quaintness of the little florist persuaded her to buy some flowers for Michelle and her husband.

A tiny bell rang as Julia pushed the door of the shop open and a sweet scented deluge wafted passed her as she stepped in. There was such a spectrum of smells that Julia could hardly differentiate between them, every time she almost grasped onto one scent it shifted and twisted into another. Inside, the shop was a floral sanctuary to the world outside. It was as if she’d just stepped into a meadow in the height of summer. The room was rectangular in shape; with flowers filling the entire shop from floor to ceiling all the way back to a counter where a woman in a black apron stood carefully trimming the stems of some tulips. The woman looked up over the brim of her narrow glasses and smiled, before wrapping up a dozen tulips and setting them aside.

“Good morning madam. Anything I can help you with?” The florist’s eyes were pebbles of jade in the spring sun as she spoke.

“Hello, yes, I’d like to get some flowers for a friend I’m visiting.” She looked around, “So, are you Flora?”

The florist chuckled. “No, my name is Hannah, Flora was my grandmother. She set this shop up nearly a hundred years ago. Her name was actually Mathilda but she thought Flora would sell more flowers so my mother decided to keep the name as a kind of running joke. Do you have any ideas as to what flowers you would like?”

Julia laughed. “Well your secret’s safe with me. Hmm, I know she loves red spider lilies, they remind her of her time in Japan.”

“I do believe we’ve got some in the back room if you give me one second.”

The florist disappeared behind a doorway of hanging beads and Julia had a look about the shop. There were flowers everywhere and in containers of all shapes and sizes. Some in pots on the floor, some in pails on shelves, others in wellies and there was even a ceramic hedgehog sat in the corner of the room with daffodils coming out of its back instead of spines.

The florist’s voice drifted through the beads from the backroom. “How big a bunch would you like? I can do half a dozen for thirty?”

Julia walked back towards the counter. “That sounds perfect.”

Hannah emerged again through the wall of beads and began preparing the flowers for her. They were long and thin flowers, with spindly stems and crimson coloured petals that looked like exotic and dangerous spiders. Julia’s eyes trailed over the bouquets of flowers already made for special occasions: there were roses and irises for mother’s day, lilacs for weddings, and tulips for new born babies; a plethora of different hues and combinations, each with their own specific meaning. She found herself contemplating the Victorian portraits she studied all those years ago at art school with their rigid rules concerning flowers and their symbolism.

“Do red spider lilies symbolise anything? You know, in our language of flowers?”

“Well these flowers are typically from places like China and Japan but the Japanese have a language of flowers like we do. They call it Hanakotoba.” She explained, while still preparing and wrapping the flowers.

“Do they have a meaning in Japanese then?”

The florist looked up and caught her gaze. Momentarily, a sorrowful look crept across her face before she looked down again and resumed her work. “Yes.”

Julia stared at the florist expectantly as she tore off a length of tape and secured the light pink paper that the flowers were wrapped in before, finally, looking back up at Julia.

“The Japanese believe this flower means that two people will never meet again. It’s a common flower for funerals and is often found growing near graveyards.” Julia stared at the florist. Her eyes were glinting in the sunshine that crept through the front window and the lines of middle age that had set in on her face sunk into a disparaging look of compassion. “How would you like to pay for these, madam?”

Something about the florist’s expression unsettled Julia so she pulled her purse out of her rucksack and paid for the flowers, before politely thanking her and leaving for the coach. The sunshine crept behind grey clouds as Julia walked down the street towards the coach bays, her red spider lilies in one hand and her coach ticket in the other: 771 Manchester and North Bound.

The Man on the Bridge – 2

…He left the car unlocked. It was of no use to him now anyway, not where he was going. Thirty-six voicemails, some from concerned co-workers and friends but most were angry tirades from the executive partners and members of the Financial Crimes Investigation Unit wanting to talk to him. It had taken three years and one point two million pounds carefully siphoned from the company’s accounts for them to finally catch him out. He knew this day would come eventually…

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