Flowers of Men
by Anna Clabburn

Birds, bees and grandmothers sing the same song: Beware the gift of flowers for they sow the seeds of what is to come in your own bed.

You can tell a lot about a man from the flowers he picks. Not so much the ones he points out in the Botanical Gardens while you picnic, or the blooms and herbs he plants in his window boxes. It's more those he chooses to give to you. Wrapped flowers in a man's hand are like hieroglyphic messages, their petals spell out the root of his intentions with you.

As far back as I can remember, both my grandmothers cultivated flowerbeds. They wandered in ragged broad-rimmed hats, secateurs in gloved hands, swishing away buzzing insects and dreaming up fresh floral ways of passage. Their Rose-walks of cream and deep red, sweet dew-tipped Daphne, ebullient pots of Geraniums and mad clambering Clematis held secret wisdom, carefully camouflaged in petals with succulent hearts.

Whispering Cornflowers and Snapping Dragons tell tales as old as their rootstock. As witnesses to so many tiny moments of human exchange, their sense of relationships is finely honed, acute and polish clear. Had I not been so blind to the messages of these fugitive blooms, I might have learnt at a younger age about the stories flowers shared as the sun ambled around its familiar horizon. I might have learnt the lesson of flowers before it was too late not to make mistakes.

But floral appreciation comes later in life for some.

Bed One: Soursops
When full of youth and rampant hormones, men (or boys as they should more correctly be termed) have little inclination to give the ordered gift of cut flowers. More often, their feelings at an early age are revealed in the places they invite a girl to lie down. Nature offers many soft-cushioned earth beds for those lacking places of their own to play out the wilderness of youth's fleshy fluids.

Take for instance the rough boy with tousled locks, face sprouting fruit-fluff hair, who took a girl in too-tight jeans and too-dark eye shadow down a steep riverbank one late spring. As they stumbled to the water, mats of tiny flowers at the river's edge, slippery with moisture, confused their already awkward steps. When they finally fell together it was on a pale yellow bed of Soursops – those pretty dancer blooms on deep green watery stems that force saliva flushing into the mouth when bitten or sucked.

Movements and limbs constrained by resilient Chinese stitching, the young pair roll and clutch, oblivious of the flowers crushed beneath them. Green stalks mush to pulp, staining white cotton and pink elbows. From their first touch, she sensed something sour in him. The flowers told her what her body chose to overlook, if just for an hour or so – or was it a week? Behind the pungent waft of bent sops lay a young man's story of disappointment, a life disadvantaged by distance from where real things happened. When she visits his plain home she is struck by its men's smells, its kitchen pungent with short snacks and an absent mother.

Away from this brown and beige place he seemed colourful, his dull character embroidered by the existence of a wayward brother whose suburban street crimes seemed exotic and close to a dangerous edge. He always spoke of his deviant sibling with respect, as if being 'bad' were somehow redemption for being ordinary.
He's disappeared again”, he'd say with pride.

Her nose remembered the soursops and her hand shied away. She noticed how her mother seemed to also dislike his smell, how the top lip curled and eyes darkened deeper every time her daughter turned up home at 3.00am, or later.
You can't help someone like that honey; it's too hard
Too sour”, she thinks and finally stepped back, away.

Although the bee came and buzzed at the flower who taunted him with her primary colours and hint of succulent depths, no pollination occurred that riverbank day, though it first looked so promising. Perhaps it was the onion weed that held back her desire even more than the humble Soursop. Weed with pretty pretend snowbells and kitchen stink aroma as the day heats up.
I have to go”, she says
But he went first anyway because Soursops aren't renowned for longevity and are a poor foundation for passion.

Bed Two - Tuzzi-Muzzy on the Front Door
As a child conceived by parents in the flush of a New Year, her memories of love are always of springtime when buds swell and the air is rich with olfactory pleasures. The flush of light and warmth in someone wanting to hold her is like a flood of sunlight, soaking life back into solitude's winter caves.

Actually, it wasn't spring at all when she met this bumble-thighed man. He just made her feel it was. For once, suddenly, the space between friendships and intimacy seemed less a hungry crevice than a light footbridge.

Giggling breathlessly on a bus-stop, bottle of underage-acquired creamy liquor clutched in chilly hands, laughing so hard and talking like mad drunks, each nearly oblivious of the other's presence. A night so cold, their exhalations hung in the air like floating chimeras of their carelessly mapped conversation.
Where are we going?”, she stammers uncontrolled
“I'm not sure“”, he breathes through laughter, dizzy and hot with chili-pepper lust.
Do buses stop here at this time of night?
The Trades Hall building loomed greyly behind them with a grandeur that had as much to do with the golden street light as any architectural nobility. It was a quiet corner and at 3.00am, most likely and probably, buses would not come.
They hailed a taxi.

Long before she took him on a holiday with her family, even long before she laughed her way naked in between those solid thighs for the first time, she knew he held her sense of humour. Days with him felt healthy, like weekends in a field of fresh Lucerne. Breathing was an easy affair and she could fill her lungs in his company, sharing oxygen instead of competing for space as she had so often felt the need to do before. Recognising humour was to her a re-acquaintance with something put aside in childhood and very nearly lost.

This man left posies, jumbles of coloured flowers, showy rather than deeply perfumed but full of good will and bright spirit. One birthday afternoon she returned home to find her front door covered with buxom bunches, dozens of tuzzi-muzzies bursting in corners amid paper streamers dancing from the brass mouth of the lions-head door knocker. Pruney balloons - blown up in haste early before school - were stuck to the fugitive paint. Some had fallen off and wandered jolly roly-poly down the gravel path, tempting fate.

But this story is ages old and perfumed with a blind fondness. I've heard the man with strong thighs now teaches people how to stay stable and glide on snow with boards strapped to their feet. She remembers it was she who showed him the mountains in winter, just as he helped her find the spring inside with its buds of absurd beauty and tricky little ways of hiding inevitable mortality. When they parted it was with the same air as a daffodil wilting down its stem, perfectly natural and with infinite grace.

Bed Three - Salt Bush and Banksia Boy
This one surfed like spume on the wave-tops, a skinny pale splash of flesh sailing and tumbling with the salty water. Looking at him from a distance through squinted eyes, she imagined she could see the ripple of his belly muscles, the same ones that stretched and sang when he mapped her own tides, alone and quiet in his half-lit room.

She associates him with the ocean, imagining its teaming life beneath his body as she feels the invisible sand-mites bite microscopic chunks out of her pale white meat. Watching his acrobat's grace as he dances onto the crunchy shoreline, she anticipates the fish and potato chips, bars of sweet milk chocolate consumed after hours of eating nothing but sea breezes and salt water. Swimming light-limbed in swelling rockpools, she could last all day on a soft drink and his smile. They are always too busy playing slippery eels to bother with hunger until it becomes a carnal urge.

Even very white skin can soften to a pale-almond tone if left long and slow enough over a tertiary summer. One moment, no longer than the next, and yet it seems to last all day. For weeks, all summer, the same sun, the same bleached blue sky, the same blissful saturation of effortless physical agility.

There are no flowers to remember in this dreamtime, only the stretching shoreline. Saltbushes, with their grey-green silver sharp leaves, remind her of his beard with its recurrent stubble and softness where the hairs grew longer, out of control. Running between bushes, chasing feet through scalding sand, they ignored the moon as it continued to rise and fall. She called him Banksia Boy because of the island they visited close to the end of their long summer- camping in an old canvas tent, shaking stray ants out of their hair and trying to sleep while the sun's scars tickled with a hot tentacle burn.

Saltbush leaves no scars but is easily remembered as a tingling on the skin surface, a little like salt itself when it dries and becomes itchy.

Every now and then she itches to see him. She knows she can't. It's the same with old flower water: never very good for recycling.

Bed Four - The Rose of Many Petals
She can recall once not liking or understanding roses. Their beauty seemed too tenuous, too easily bruised or unbalanced, and their velvet petals too quickly lost. Beneath their lush greenery, pointed thorns waited to draw blood and hot tears. Although this was something she knew well, she often chose to forget, just to pretend for awhile that things were other than what they were.

Men of roses come in many colours, like the flowers. She met this ruby-red harlequin too early, his lips sweet and generous, eyes offering a dew that seemed to well from deep within a rich heart.

It was difficult to forget the magnetism of this man with his bunches of soft-petal stories, each new shade a harbinger of another chameleon change and a new adventure. Ocean, desert, bitumen. They strolled and ran; shrieking with the pure pleasure of discovering how irresponsible life can be when sensuous thrill drowns out all semblance of sanity and purpose.

One hot night, numbing and languorous, the heat swelled arms and legs and other parts, and he is shouting. His thorns are visible and sharp, tearing at her mistakes, driving needle accusations in to draw red pain. When she runs away in the wet night, humid eyes, blood trails out behind her on the road like a stained veil, dragging with it their fleshy 'newly-wed' tin hearts.

Roses are an intoxicating bloom. Their botany is redolent with the history of lovers and a classic exuberance. Yet, they promise much more than they give. Exquisite passion, enduring ardour, deep lust. It is an unfortunate problem with roses that men hide behind their myths and women use their intoxicating odour to blindfold good sense. Impossible liar blooms. It's common knowledge too that roses can be made to last longer by hammering on their lower stem. This enables more water to penetrate their stalks to the flower head, keeping the appearance of life at least for awhile. However, eventually they die and when they do they leave an ugly triffid eye, the spikey stalk with bald top and withered flesh. It's always surprising to find this sad and shriveled heart buried beneath the velvet sheath of glamour.

Despite their fate, she believes it is worth conserving rose petals as they dry. Unlike the hard stem, these modest memories of the living plant can be contained in a scented box. A potpourri in a favourite underwear drawer (sealed of course) or in a canister on the vanity table is a great joy, especially when one needs the comfort of recalling deep but problematic love.

Bed Five - Alstroemerias and good Stock:
It took many years for someone to give her flowers with real longevity. Rare are the blooms that improve and sweeten with age, especially once they've been separated from the plant.

When they first met, he sold flowers without his sense of smell. A bad fall and knock on the back to the head stole his nose and made coffee taste like pond-water. Women's odours often went sour after only a short time. He said he liked to peel women's clothing as he would peel an orange, taking care to notice the intricacies of his discovery and savour the scented pith. He said this after she threw her garments aside and plunged naked into his arms too fast.

As a flower vendor, he knew the world of cut things and the reality of transient prettiness. The first bunch he gave her were Gerberas, kooky and colourful
“I chose them because they're bright and a little awkward”
She blushed at his initial impression of her, trying from then on to seem a little more sophisticated, dew-tipped in bud rather than already brashly in bloom.

One afternoon she alighted from a plane to find her front door obscured by a forest of flowers, cooling themselves quietly in buckets. Their circus colours and smooth shapes offered multitudes of promises. So she shared her bed and helped him till the soil of a practical vegetable while their perfumed Daphne bush grew strong and vigorous.
It's some time, a great deal of time in fact, from the first bunch. They now plant seedlings in paddocks, till rich compost and sew seeds to sprout more arbours. He brings her many different kinds of flowers, taking joy in their delicate structures and teaching her how to appreciate the processes by which they grow. His gift of flowers today is more often than not one of two blooms. She has learnt to read this as an encouraging sign of progress.

Infinitely subtle and unassuming, Alstroemerias invariably grow to full beauty as they sit by a bedside. Lush in a skirt of green leaves, their soft pink, red and yellow tints are often missed in the florists' crowd, but not by those who understand and know the true present of flowers. Patient blooms, Alstroemerias have been known to last up to twenty days without losing a petal. And even when they droop, their decline is conscious and never a messy affair.

Stocks must be considered the other flowers of loving longevity. Some call them Greek Violets because of their mysterious dewy-glade perfume. Never a dominant bloom, their gentle pink, mauve and white bring out the individual personality of their surroundings, like a shared creeper on a neighbouring fence. He brings her these flowers when their pillows of conversation need fluffing with fresh oxygen. They make excellent companion plants.

Bed Six: Remembrance
Although neither of them enjoyed handling the awkward turf between women and men, I feel sure both my grandmother's dug pounds of wise observation into their garden beds. Their sowing, pruning and arranging cultivated acres good sense and sowed a forest of tall legacies for me to walk among. Today I am able to build my own architectures of love from these timbers, knowing only too well the preciousness of their rich but fragile resource.