For the first time in my life, I feel like Elton John. I have had nine conversations with a most sympathetic florist this morning and it’s only half past eight. I am agonising over the press night bouquets for the women and the men in the stage version of my memoir. The florist I am speaking to says ordinarily she only does weddings. This is a bit like a wedding, I tell her. Forty friends and family are coming up on the train, the East Midlands line. It will feel like an upbeat reimagining of a poem by Phillip Larkin. In fact, a bit of “The Whitsun Weddings” keeps chugging through my mind: “Just long enough to settle hats and say I nearly died.” Also the phrase “a religious wounding”.
Having parts of my life represented on stage has taken me right to the edge of what I can bear. It has been both one of the best and one of the most difficult things that has ever happened to me. It is a theme in the show and the book that good times and bad times are of equal value and importance, and I am now living that line, that life. Never have I felt so much pride and so much hurt pride. For in the play, the “Susie” character has fewer strings to her bow than I do, and the bow itself is often unfortunate. She’s had none of my marvellous adventures. If she could only ransack my wardrobe! Now and then, when I watch, I feel the play says something about me that I’ve always hoped wasn’t true. But at the same time I adore it, and could not be prouder. People I trust say it’s brilliant. You’d think these feelings would cancel each other down into a manageable, calm, low-key approval, but no … it’s all elation and small-hours despair in vivid layers. At this rate I will have had the entire year’s worth of feelings by the end of February.
I start with the flowers for the men. I want something swellegant for the musical director, who is Coward-ish (not Cowardly.) “Can you get white avalanche roses, 90cm? Might they have some that are 1m 20?” I am thinking of the roses in The Lady Eve with Barbara Stanwyck that are so tall they have to be plonked in an umbrella stand.
“One metre 20!” the florist says, as though I have tried to order a bunch of giraffes.
“Ninety centimetres then,” I say, “90 is plenty.” I remember some lines from Coward’s Present Indicative and smile: “The legend of my modesty grew and grew. I became extraordinarily unspoilt by my great success. As a matter of fact, I still am.”
For the women I want Dolce Vitas (vivid deep pink and cream-middled roses) and Avalanche Sorbet or Sweet Avalanche, which are the softest pink and open to the size of saucers. “I am not sure,” the florist says. She will telephone her man at the auction in Holland and come back to me right away. I imagine this fellow in a rain coat, belted, with a small coffee and some round Dutch frosted breakfast bun. He has hair like Tintin.
In Holland the Dolce Vitas are all gone. There are no Sweet Avalanche left and no more Avalanche Sorbet. “How about Pink Sudoku or Mentha? I can usually get Belles Roses; Aqua they always have – although they aren’t terribly special, they do last. Red Naomi? Could that work?”
Of course, I could have got the bunches in London, where I am a more confident flower shopper. I could have travelled to the theatre with armfuls of roses, a mobile bower, an instant romantic setting ready for hire. I would feel awfully Tchaikovsky-ish round the edges, on the train, as though I was in a roving production of Sleeping Beauty. Yet transporting roses in bulk means you risk arriving with what look like trackmarks up and down your arms, and – even worse – stale blooms.
I feel a bit stale myself, ravaged by show-business, my face too pale and powdery, my hair too bright, like a heart-sore chorus girl who isn’t getting any younger. There is an air of severity and clinging-on-for-dear-life to my features instead of the usual wry cheer. I think I have hardened a little.
In my experience, very often when you’re sent flowers they’re from the wrong person. A friend who is single was sent red roses on Valentine’s day, with no card, and her heart and mind leapt. Two days later it transpired they were from a PR drawing her attention to a new book that’s coming out. She rather wants to burn that book now, I expect. I hope my flowers don’t cause any disappointment of that ilk.
Finally, the florist and I work out the five bouquets and we’re pleased with ourselves. It feels as though hours have passed. “If you can just compose the messages now,” she says.
I had forgotten all about that. It is going to take weeks to get those right.
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