Rare Orchid, Late Flowering


Rare Orchid, Late Flowering

‘Where did that come from?’

‘Janet found it – in the back of Mum’s underwear drawer.’

The album was made of flecked, hand-made paper.  George had never seen it before, but recognised it as the kind of thing their mother had liked.  A murmur of voices in the next room reached the brothers: a librarian from the University and a man from Oxfam sorting through her books.  Janet had already boxed up Dora’s clothes and would drive them to a charity shop in Wells later that day.  She’d said that otherwise they might be seen on campus.  George didn’t know why his sister-in-law bothered; without his mother inhabiting them, those clothes would be unrecognisable.  He turned the pages of the album in appalled fascination, relieved that the photographs were at least in black and white.

‘We should burn it,’ his younger brother was saying.  ‘We shouldn’t even be looking at it.’

‘Wait, Patrick.  Why is her face never visible?’

‘Perhaps it’s not her at all.’

‘Who else would it be?’ said George.  ‘Ah – it’s her all right.  Those are her hands.’

Patrick peered at the page and pulled back as if scalded.  ‘What was she thinking of?  Couldn’t she have covered herself?’

George gazed at the photograph and felt his eyes fill.  His mother’s strong small hands were loosely linked across her stomach, the thumbs just below a navel elliptical as a half-closed eye, her little fingers touching above the dense patch of hair.  The skin on the backs of her hands looked older than the rest of her flesh.

‘She is covering herself.  Her Kerr incision.’

‘Her what?’

‘Lower segment Caesarian section.  They weren’t that common then; the usual procedure was that frightful vertical gash.  She’s hiding that scar, or rather what she described to Ursula once as her ‘shelf’; she said it was the only part of her body she disliked.  She couldn’t get rid of that little overhang of flesh.  You’ll remember how she used to say she’d given birth only once – to you – though of course we’re jointly responsible for the shape of that navel.  It meant everything to her that you came out normally, after she’d failed the first time.’

‘At least I did something better than you.’

‘You don’t still feel like that, do you?  She always referred to my birth as an operation; she even apologised to me for it once.  I was in trouble apparently; that’s why they opened her up.  I think sometimes she’s the reason I went in for Obs and Gynae.’

‘Who the hell is the photographer?’

‘I have no idea.’

George turned more pages, his mother’s body laid out before them as a gentle, rolling landscape of uplands and valleys: a curve of the shoulder, pure as marble, the dune-slope of a breast, the dark braiding of her labia.  He thought of the futile gougings that body had undergone over the last two years in an attempt to outwit the inevitable.

‘They start so innocently,’ said Patrick.  ‘That one of the crook of her arm – or here, where she’s holding her feet.’

‘Pretty feet.  Those bare toenails look as cared for as her fingernails.’

‘I wish Janet would stop varnishing hers – her toenails I mean.  But when I asked her not to she just looked at me and said she had no intention of letting herself go.  Janet’s a very good woman, George.  Loyal, supportive, worthy, unimaginative, narrow-minded.  I’m wretched.  Everybody else thinking I have a marvellous marriage makes me feel even worse.’

‘I never knew, Patrick.  I’m sorry.’

‘Well, you and I haven’t really spoken in ages.  It’s hardly the kind of thing to mention in a Christmas card – which she writes anyway – or over a hospital bed.  And I’m foolish enough to stick with it rather than be seen to have failed.’

‘Would twenty-five years or whatever it is really be a failure?’

‘Perhaps it’s not that.  Maybe I just don’t want to be seen as a bastard.  I’ve nothing to reproach Janet for – I’ve no alibi there.  She’s not responsible for my indifference.  I expect you and Ursula are all right, of course.’

‘We are – I think.  Now.’


‘There was an episode about fifteen years ago – the children were still at home and taking up all the airtime, as teenagers do.  I never got to the bottom of it and I don’t want to, even now.  The man was an anaesthetist, one of the best I’ve ever worked with.  It was her silences I noticed, and a look as though she was close to tears that wrung my heart even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t the cause of it  - then I’d say something and that gracious, smiling look would be turned back on.  I’d lie awake watching her sleeping, and vowed I’d get her back from wherever it was she’d gone.’

‘I wouldn’t have stood for it!’

‘No, perhaps you wouldn’t.  But I couldn’t be sure they’d even been intimate, and I hate scenes, as you know.  She might have loved him but not been loved back.  The only thing I was bloody sure of was that I was determined to keep her.  So I said nothing, but wooed her as though my life depended on it.  She came back eventually – those odd silences disappeared, I mean - without a shot being fired, and then my colleague accepted a promotion elsewhere.’

‘What if you’d found photographs like these - of Ursula?’

‘Oh God…I don’t know, apart from wishing I’d never seen them.  I do know that I’ve never wanted or needed anyone else but her.’

‘Then you’re an exceptionally fortunate man, George.  I’ve always envied you.  They are good photographs, though – technically competent, I mean.  Mightn’t this have been the work of a professional, someone Mum paid?  She might have had some funny idea about recording herself for posterity, before she got older, that kind of thing.’

‘You may be onto something there, that idea of making a record.  He could have been a professional photographer.  But whatever he did for a living, he was Mum’s lover.  These are taken in someone’s bedroom, not in a hotel or a studio.  Look at these paired ones.’

‘I really don’t want –‘

‘See this breast - the softness of that nipple – then in this next one -’

‘Oh God, yes I do see…’

‘His method is almost scientific.  He takes a preliminary photograph, then arouses her, then documents the change.’

‘This is grotesque, all of it!’

‘Is it?  These aren’t even the most intimate images.  In some he records a broken vein at the back of her knee, or stretch marks on the side of her breast.  She is still slender, still beautiful, but his tenderness shows in the way he records her imperfections too.  This man loved our mother.’  

‘There are piles of books in these two,’ Patrick said.  He put his hand over the surrendered knees, the pleading vulva, and peered between the dangling feet at the shadowy space under the bed.  ‘Schleiden…Somethingorother zur Phytogenesis…it can’t have been the milkman, then.’

‘Can’t milkmen read German?  Or go to bed with a Vice-Chancellor’s wife?’

‘No-one is allowed to fuck my mother!’ shouted Patrick.  The murmur of voices next door ceased.  Footsteps clicked across the tiled hall and Janet’s high-pitched, brittle-bright voice cried out to their visitors: ‘Are you sure you won’t have a coffee?’

‘Oh Christ…, ‘whispered Patrick, ‘There’s something written under this one, and it’s not her hand-writing: ‘”sarcochilus dilatatus – in a bed of peat moss.  Of the orchid there are probably nearly thirty thousand species - new variations may even be evolving more quickly than we can classify them – But this frail flower of yours – for me this is the most beautiful of them all.”  At least we know who we are looking for now,’ he went on.  ‘A German-speaking botanist.’

‘We’re not looking for anyone!  Can’t you leave them alone?’

‘Oh no!  Look at that!’, said Patrick, pointing to an image of his mother lying with her back to the camera, the upper leg raised up to expose a thigh where an unmistakeable snail track glistened.  ‘He had her, and straightaway reached for his camera!  It’s just like home-made porn!’

‘Is it, Patrick?’

‘Look, can’t we just get rid of the bloody thing?  I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been blackmailing her.’

‘No he wasn’t.  If he’d wanted to do that, he’d have taken her face.  Oh, I hope to God he gave her some joy.’

‘But Dad adored her!’

‘Did he?  I thought his muse was science, only to be thrown over for the University Council.  I don’t think there was much left over for her, or for us, even.’

‘Of course you’re used to it, George – looking at women’s bodies, I mean.’

‘This is as different as it could be.  You’re right, though, I do see hundreds of women’s bodies. 

I’ve learned what they like about themselves, and what they are inexplicably ashamed of.  On

Wednesday I’m going to see what I would sooner not; I’m on an FGM repair team –‘

‘You can repair that?’

‘It depends.  Sometimes they haven’t managed to excise the erectile tissue entirely.  Sometimes though the most we can do is make it easier for the poor woman to pee.  This week’s patient was mutilated when she was four or five years old.  That’s shocking – not photographs of a middle-aged woman taken by a man who loved her.  So Dad’s graceful, amiable wife cheated on him?  She took the chance to pass a little time in some man’s poky flat, not being our mother, not being the VC’s wife.  Those two drinking Janet’s instant, who will pretend even to each other that they didn’t hear you shouting, are picking over the books she loved – what happened to her academic promise?’  George turned to the last page.

‘He’s here too!’ exclaimed Patrick.

The photograph, rather less assuredly framed, showed a man’s naked body, from navel to thigh, in three-quarter view.  George took in the hand gently furled against the leg, the blaze of hair, the pale scape of the limp penis.  ‘Patrick, do you remember Florence?’ he said.  ‘The summer before I went up to Cambridge, I mean.’

‘Of course – why?’

‘I showed Mum a postcard of a detail of Michelangelo’s David – it was more or less this bit.  “Who would you send this to?”, I asked her, expecting her to laugh.  She looked at it for a moment, with an odd distracted smile, then handed it back to me without saying anything.  I thought I’d offended her.  I’d forgotten about it until now.’  George peered at the photograph more closely.

‘”The left should be larger and lower,”’ he murmured.

‘Must you?’

‘Sorry – an old medical school mantra.  He’s lean, but look at the softness of the abdomen, the texture of his skin.  It’s difficult to tell since these are all in black and white, but I’d swear there’s some grey in those pubes.  These two were perhaps not much younger than we are now when these were taken.’

‘If this had turned up earlier, I’d have taken a closer look at the funeral guests,’ said Patrick.

‘Then what would you have done?  Gone up to every harmless old buffer of a professor emeritus with “Excuse me, is this your prick?”  Whoever he is, he’s probably dead by now.’

‘I asked her once to promise me that if she and Dad ever separated, that she wouldn’t marry another man,’ said Patrick.

‘Good heavens!  When was that?’

‘It must have been about the time of that Florence trip.  I’d just done my O-levels.  She’d had one of those rather civilised rows with Dad – something about wall-paper, I think.  I was frightened – I hated the way he spoke so reasonably, as though her point of view counted for little.’

‘You’ve accused me of sounding like him before.’

‘Oh yes, I have, haven’t I?  Well, you do.  Actually, I imitate your manner sometimes – in court, I mean.  Sounding reasonable helps convince a jury.’

Moved, George asked: ‘What did she say?’

‘I remember her sadness.  But she smiled – and stroked my face.  She said: “We won’t separate.  I couldn’t leave you and George.”’

Having seen the two visitors out, Janet joined them.  She was stiff with indignation.

‘Imagine if it had been amongst her books,’ she said, ‘and those two had found it!’

‘Oh, shut up, Janet!’

George opened his eyes wide with surprise, realising that though he had formed the words in his head it was instead his brother who had spoken them.  Janet’s hand went to her face as though she had been struck.  She left the room without a word.  The front door crashed and they heard the rattling of car keys.

‘She’s as miserable as you are, Patrick.’

‘But you and Ursula are fine, aren’t you?’

‘Yes…yes, I think so,’ said George.  ‘We rub along all right.  She’d probably say were were contented.  But there’s something I hadn’t really thought about until today.  You remember how we did the whole C of E thing – to please Ursula’s parents – flint church in rural Suffolk and all that?  We repeated our lines in front of the parson like good children and thought how quaint it all was.  There was this bit about “with my body I thee worship”.  I wonder if I’ve ever worshipped Ursula properly, the way this man worshipped our mother.’

‘We’ve a new colleague in Chambers,’ said Patrick.  ‘A junior partner.  I’ve never said much to her, outside of work things, and I try not to look at her even.  She has a way of tucking her hair behind her ear and pushing her glasses back on her nose that melts my heart.  When I’m close enough to smell her scent I am convinced I’ll give myself away, I want her that much.  It’s absurd to feel this way – a fifty-four year-old man with grown-up children.’  Patrick leaned forward and covered his face with his hands.

George put his arm around his brother’s shoulders.

‘Packers,’ he said, ‘It’s all right.  You’re hardly the kind to paw at the poor woman, thank heavens.  Just be…gallant.  Tell her you admire her.’

Katherine Mezzacappa

I am an Irish writer of mainly historical fiction. My short stories have been published in The Copperfield Review, Asymmetry, Erotic Review Magazine, Ireland’s Own, Turnpike and in anthologies with The Bedford International Short Story Prize, Henshaw Press and Severance.

My début historical novel (writing as Katie Hutton), The Gypsy Bride, will be published by Bonnier Zaffre in June 2020 with a sequel to follow in 2021. I also publish commercial popular fiction under the name Kate Zarrelli with eXtasy books.


  1. this can be risqué but from a woman's perspective i gave myself some rope.

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