‘Two bunches of roses, wrapped separately’: A St Valentine’s Day story by Kathleen MacMahon

Hannah worked in a florists but she was no romantic, especially not on February 14th

Hannah was born with no sense of smell. At first nobody noticed this, least of all Hannah, who knew no different. She heard people talking about smells – good ones, bad ones – but they existed outside of the place that was her world. Hannah had been born prematurely, with consequent sensory defects.

‘Hang on,’ said her mum. ‘You couldn’t hear, so we got you grommets. You couldn’t see the blackboard, so we got you glasses. Now you’re telling me you can’t smell?’

Everyone seemed to find this implausible.

‘Smell that,’ her mum would say, holding out a freshly opened tin of coffee to her.


‘I can’t smell,’ Hannah would say.

‘Of course, you can smell,’ said her mum. ‘Everyone can smell.’

‘Okay. Whatever you say.’

Many years later, Hannah would read on Wikipedia that the first challenge facing people with no sense of smell is a difficulty being believed. In her case, this difficulty was overcome only gradually, through specific episodes that would later be recounted as fragments of family history. There was the night the dog farted, and everyone ran out of the living room, while Hannah stayed where she was on the couch, wondering what had happened. When her brother came home from a freshers’ night out and vomited up six pints of Carlsberg and a spice bag – the green peppers were barely digested – it was Hannah who cleaned it up, because her mother couldn’t do it without gagging. Most heroically of all, Hannah once went into the space under the stairs and removed the rat that had crawled in there to die and slowly decompose.

In the florist’s shop where she’d worked part-time since jacking in the desk-job she so despised, Hannah was considered lucky to be spared the headaches the others suffered from breathing in the sickly smell of lilies all day.

‘Lilies smell of hospital,’ Donna explained, and Hannah took her word for it, even though she wondered. Surely it was the hospitals that smelled of lilies?

‘Roses smell of betrayal,’ added Katya.

There wasn’t a romantic among them, so when a man came in and bought his wife one hundred euros’ worth of massive, mauve roses, they all wondered what wrong he’d done her. The more they spend, the worse the sin, they surmised.

‘He’s probably riding her best friend.’

‘Or her sister.’

Hannah’s parents had separated when she was nine, so marriage was never a rosy institution in her eyes. She’d been engaged herself, briefly, when she was 27, but she broke off the engagement when she discovered he didn’t want children. It was an over-reaction, according to Hannah’s mum.

‘He’d have come around,’ she said. ‘They all do. And if they don’t, there are ways and means.’

At the time, such trickery seemed contemptible to Hannah, but she thought of it ruefully 10 years later, when she saw him out jogging with a three-wheeled buggy. Hannah was back living at home by then. Still single, still childless. If anyone had been tricked it was her.

‘But how will you survive?’ asked her mum, when Hannah announced she was leaving her job. ‘It’s not like you’ve a husband to fall back on.’

‘I thought I’d move back in with you,’ said Hannah. ‘Seeing as we neither of us have husbands.’

The plan was to give up her flat, dump her stuff at her mum’s and go travelling. Then the pandemic arrived, and there was no going anywhere. Hannah took on the job at the florists after the first lockdown, just to keep herself sane.

‘A florist’s, as in a flower shop?’ asked her mum. ‘That’s the last place in the world I would have pictured you!’

‘Oh?’ said Hannah. ‘And why do you say that?’

‘Well. No offence now, but you’re not very flowery.’

It just so happened that none of the staff in the florist’s was very flowery. They were all quite thorny, in fact. Hannah fitted in perfectly.

‘Are these a good choice for someone’s birthday?’ a customer might ask, pointing to the display of freesias near the counter.

‘Oh yeah,’ Hannah would answer. ‘Freesias are a great choice. If you enjoy watching something shrivel up and die.’

‘You’re never going to meet someone, if you insist on being so aggressive,’ her mum had said to her, more than once.

‘Well, what do you suggest?’ asked Hannah. ‘It’s not like they’re queuing up at the door to ask me out.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said her mum. Every syllable she uttered was a long, weary sigh. ‘It seems like it was different. In my day.’

Nowadays there was Tinder. All Hannah’s single friends were on it, so she’d tried it a few times. There was one guy she’d met in town for dinner. She made an effort, dressing up in a silk blouse and leather skirt and her best high-heeled ankle boots. The guy seemed nice – he had good table manners – but then he leaned over the table before their starters had even arrived.

‘Before we go any further,’ he whispered. ‘I have to know. Are you open to a bit of gentle sodomy?’

‘So, how was the date?’ asked her mum, afterwards.

‘Marvellous,’ said Hannah. ‘He was a real gent.’

‘That’s the thing with you,’ said her mum. ‘I never know if you’re being sarcastic.’

‘Tell me the table wasn’t too wide for a knee job,’ said Donna, when Hannah told her that story.

Donna had a F*CK OFF necklace that she wore on nights out. She had a can of mace in her handbag and was only waiting for an excuse to use it. Come Valentine’s Day, she had a little ritual that she liked to enact. She’d walk home along Merrion Row, scanning restaurant windows for a suitably smug looking couple. When she’d identified one, she’d stop all of a sudden and rap angrily on the glass.

‘How could you?’ she’d wail at the guy, through the window. Then she’d cover her face and rush away, howling.

‘You do not do that,’ said Hannah.

‘Oh, I do,’ said Donna. ‘Don’t blame me. Blame Hallmark. They created the monster.’

It was the longest day of the year. Starting at 5am, when they arrived to a tower of small cardboard coffins out the back, filled with vicious, long-stemmed roses. They wore gloves to protect their fingers as they unpacked them, but their arms were ripped to shreds. When the shop opened at eight, Hannah drew the short straw – or in this case, the short piece of florist’s twine – and ended up working front of house. Donna counted out the roses by the dozen in the back room and tied them up with some Baby’s Breath. Katya folded sheets of red tissue with cellophane, in readiness for wrapping them.

‘I’ll take two bunches,’ said their first customer, a man in a navy Crombie who’d double parked his Mercedes in the loading bay outside. The Crombie had a black collar.

‘Never trust a man with a contrasting collar,’ Hannah’s dad always said. ‘It’s the sure sign of a spiv.’

‘Do you want them wrapped separately or together?’ asked Hannah, drawing a fold of paper and cellophane towards her.

‘Separately,’ said the man, jangling his keys.

Best case scenario, the flowers were for his wife and his mother. Or the wife and daughter? Wife and secretary? Wife and mistress, most likely.

‘I’ll only be a minute,’ said Hannah.

She took her time rolling up the roses. She was hoping the clampers would come along and nab him while he waited. She cut two lengths of wide red ribbon from the dispenser and, painstakingly slowly, bow-tied one bunch and then the next. Eventually, reluctantly, she handed them over and rang up the sale.

‘Thanks darling,’ said the man, waving his credit card.

‘Oh, I’m nobody’s darling,’ said Hannah, as she flipped the credit card machine around to face him.

‘Well, I’m sorry to hear that,’ said the man, transferring the roses to his left hand and tucking them awkwardly under his arm while he keyed in his pin number. ‘I sincerely hope that someday you will be.’

Hannah registered a little puncture, air hissing out of her, as she watched him leave. She barely had time to think about it before the next man was at the counter. She reached for another dozen roses. Rang up another 50 quid on the till. Poor bastards, she thought. They’re being mugged.

The next man to approach the counter was ancient. He must have been 90 if he was a day. Dapper, despite his age. He was wearing a tartan flannel shirt and a homemade yellow knitted tie. His gaberdine raincoat had a greasy shine to it.

‘I’ll take a dozen of your finest roses,’ he said, brandishing a battered tenner. He had it folded lengthways, as if he was offering it as a tip to a porter in a fancy hotel. His hand was bruised the various livid colours of a hydrangea.

‘Oh,’ said Hannah, aware of the queue shifting impatiently behind him. It was already out the door.

The old man blinked. He had yellow ooze in the corner of his eye. The skin of his cheek was scabbed and flaking in places. His nose was dripping, but he didn’t seem to notice. He stood with his feet planted far apart on the ground, in the manner of a sailor standing on the deck of a ship in a high wind.

‘I’m really sorry, but the roses are 50 euro.’

Hannah felt awful saying it, but what could she do?

‘Red roses,’ said the old man, repeating himself, as if it was Hannah who hadn’t heard properly. ‘I’ll take a dozen, please.’

‘Look,’ said Hannah. She had raised her voice, in the hope that he’d hear her this time. The rest of the queue would hear her too, but what did she care?

‘I’m going to let you in on a secret. The roses are a complete rip-off.’

The old man blinked at her.

‘It’s a scam,’ Hannah was saying. ‘You could buy her a scented candle instead. Or some chocolates. Personally, I think that would be more romantic.’

‘Excuse me,’ said a very tall, bald guy, who was next in line. He’d extended himself over the old man’s shoulder, like an Anglepoise lamp.

‘Sir,’ said Hannah, ‘would you mind waiting? I’m already dealing with a customer.’

The guy tossed a credit card neatly on the counter in front of her.

‘Take the gentleman’s money,’ he said, speaking very slowly and deliberately, like a bank robber holding up a teller at gunpoint. ‘And give him his bloody roses.’

The old man stood patiently, unblinking, with the tenner held out in front of him still. Hannah reached out and took it from him, aware that the Anglepoise man was watching her closely from above. She rolled a dozen roses in the tissue paper and cellophane, then tied them up brusquely with a length of red ribbon and handed them to the old man. Still, he didn’t move. Could it be that he was waiting for change?

‘Hang on,’ said Hannah, and reached into the pocket of her apron where she kept her coffee money.

‘Here you go,’ she said, handing him a two-euro coin.

She turned to face the Anglepoise man, feeling raw and tender and angry and sad, all at the same time. She blew out her cheeks, closed her eyes, exhaled.

‘F**king Valentine’s Day,’ she said. Kathleen MacMahon’s latest novel is Nothing But Blue Sky