A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Man with the Flowers

stjoseph-2A Story by Michelle O’Neill

I was four when it happened.  I was woken from sleep one night by something crashing against a wall. My baby brother George started crying and then I heard my mother’s voice screaming “No, No, No!”  My father shouted “Are you crazy?  You nearly hit me.  You’re frightening the baby.  You’ve probably woken Suzie.  At least think of the children!”  My mother was sobbing, “Me!  Me, think of the children!”  I had never heard their voices like this before.  I began to scream, “Mum, Dad”.  Dad came and told me to go back to sleep.  “I want Mummy,” I wept.  I tried to get out of bed but he pushed me down roughly, “Stay there.’’  Then in a quiet voice, “I’m sorry Suze.  Mum isn’t well.  You stay in bed.  Nana will be here soon.”

Finally I heard a car arrive and the front door open.  I cried out as loudly as I could, “Nana”.  Nana rushed in scooping me up into her arms and rocking me against her warm comforting body. “It’s alright love.  Nana’s here.  Nana’s here.”

The next morning I realised Dad wasn’t there anymore.  No-one answered my question about where he was.  Nana said, “Don’t worry love, he’ll come and see you in a few days.”  What did she mean in a few days?  Daddy lived here.  Nana put the TV on in the morning;  I was never allowed TV in the morning.  Later she told me I was going to come and stay at her place for the night.

At Nana’s, things felt a bit better.  After tea she said, “I tell you what Suzie, tonight you can sleep with me in my big bed”. After story time, she sat up beside me reading her book. I slept then awoke again. She was still sitting up, her eyes closed, slipping her rosary beads between her fingers, her lips moving silently.  Then it was morning.

After breakfast we went to Mass at Nana’s church.  After Mass I asked, “Who’s that?”  Nana looked around, “Who?”  “The man with the flowers,” I said, pointing at a statue of a man holding a long green stalk with white flowers coming out of it.  I looked up at him.  His face was serious but he looked kind.  “Don’t you recognize him?” she asked.  “No.”  “It’s St Joseph - Jesus’ daddy.”   “But why is he holding those flowers?”   “Well,” she said slowly, “it’s to show that he loved Jesus and Mary very much and that he always would.”  “Does Daddy still love me and George and Mummy, Nana?”  It was a long time before she answered, and her voice sounded cracked.  “Your Daddy will always love you Suzie, always.  And yes I think he loves Mummy.  But sometimes things can be complicated with adults.  Daddy has gone away for a while.”  It didn’t make sense.  “Did St Joseph go away from Jesus and Mary?”  Nana’s voice was very sad, “No love.”  We stood in silence.  Then, “You know Susie, there was once when St Joseph did nearly leave them.  He almost made a terrible mistake.  He had decided that he didn’t want Mary and Jesus to live with him.”  “What happened Nana?”  “He had a dream.  An angel came from God and told him not to leave them.  When he woke up he knew he would look after Mary and Jesus forever.”  “Maybe daddy will have a dream.”  “I hope so Suzie.”  She rubbed her eyes.  “I tell you what.  I have an idea.”  Now she sounded excited, almost happy.  “In the Church different saints are given their own special jobs to do.  Do you know what St Joseph’s special job is?”  She didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s to help husbands and fathers.  We could pray to him for Dad.  It’s really easy.  When you wake up every morning and before you go to sleep every night you just say – ‘Dear St Joseph please help my Dad’.  What do you think?  It could be our little secret.  I’ll do it too”.  I looked up at him.  I liked his eyes.  “Okay,” I said.

Life at home took on a new rhythm.  Nana came round a lot.  Dad came on Saturdays and took George and me to the park.  One week Dad asked if I would like to come and stay at his place for the night next Saturday.  He sounded nervous.  I hesitated.  “Mum says it’s alright if you want to,” he added.  I wondered how Mum had told him that because Nana was always the one who answered the door to him on Saturdays.  “OK” I said. harbour

Next Saturday we drove towards the city and went into the basement car park of a skyscraper. “This is my apartment,” he said, unlocking a door off a long corridor.  “You’ve got your own room, but the best bit is the balcony”, he said, leading me through the lounge.  He lifted me up to see beyond the parapet.  “See over there Suze.  You can see the sea and the yachts.  We’ll go for a walk to the viaduct later.”  I was a little frightened of the height but I happy to feel his arms around me. I hugged him tighter and wrapped my legs around his waist.  “Ooh that feels nice,” he said kissing me on the top of my head and seeming happy to let his lips rest there.

A few weeks later I noticed something strange in his bathroom. “Dad,” I called, “come here.”  “What is it?”. “Why have you got Mum’s perfume here?”  He looked confused, searching the room with his gaze till he spotted the bottle on the open shelves.  “Oh yes. It is the same as Mum’s, isn’t it.  Funny, I never realized that.”  He sounded like he was talking to himself.  “But whose is it?”  He cleared his throat, “It belongs to a lady called Mandy.  She works with me.”  “But why is it here?”  A pause, “Well, sometimes she stays here.”  “But where is her stuff?  There’s nothing in my room.”  “Well, she keeps a few of her things in my room.”  Then he added quickly, “I was thinking maybe you could meet her next week.  What do you think?”  I didn’t really want anyone else spoiling my time with Dad, but I didn’t want to hurt him.  “OK,” I said.

Next Saturday when he came to get me he seemed excited.  Mandy arrived late in the afternoon. She was pretty.  She had soft, long brown hair pulled into a high pony tail which bounced as she clicked into the apartment on her high heels.  She laughed when Dad kissed her on the cheek, then looked at me and said, “Hi Suze”.

She threw herself down on the sofa and curled her long legs up.  I didn’t like her calling me Suze.  Only Dad called me that.

Later we went to a restaurant, but it made me feel sad.  The only other time I had been to a restaurant was for Mum’s birthday.  But now Mum was not here.  When I woke in the morning, only Dad was in the apartment.  But on other Saturday nights, after I was in bed, I heard the doorbell ring and then I would recognise her voice.  And sometimes she was there with Dad in the morning and there were empty bottles in the lounge.

On my fifth birthday Dad came in the morning to drive Mum and me to my first day of school.  “I can’t believe she is 5,” Dad said looking at Mum.  She just looked out the window.

Now when I came on Saturdays, Mandy’s things were all round the apartment.  One day she was sitting on the sofa reading a magazine when we arrived.  She looked up, “Hi Suze”.  She was using that name again.  Not even Mum called me that.  I remembered what my teacher at school told us - if something upsets you, use your words.  “Mandy,” I said.  “Yes Suze.”  “Please don’t call me Suze.  Only Dad is allowed to call me that.  I’m Suzie.”  She looked at me for a moment.  “OK,” she said.  She got up and went into Dad’s bedroom slamming the door behind her.  Dad followed.  “What’s the matter?” I heard him say angrily.  “You could try being nice.  She’s only a little girl.”   “I told you.  I can’t do all this happy family stuff!”  “You could try.”  “My Dad had a special name for me too you know.  He was the only one who called me Amanda.  He said it when he came into my bedroom late at night when everyone else was asleep.  ‘Now just keep quiet Amanda.  This is our secret.  You mustn’t wake Mum or she will be mad at you’.”  There was a long silence.

Then Dad’s voice, “Oh my God Mandy, I’m sorry.”  “Yeah well don’t be.” She laughed, but it didn’t sound funny.  It made me want to cry.  “He taught me how to please Daddies, didn’t he?  I haven’t heard you complaining!”  Dad rushed out of the room and thrust the sliding door open.  He leant over the balcony taking big breaths.   “What’s wrong with Mandy Dad?” I asked frightened.  “I’m sorry.  I just didn’t like her calling me Suze.  But it doesn’t matter.  She can if she wants to.”  Dad turned towards me.  It seemed like he’d forgotten I was there.  “What?  Oh Suze it’s not your fault.  Come on, let’s go for a walk.  I need some air.”

When I woke up the next morning Dad was asleep on the couch.  Mandy came out of the bedroom a lot later.  She had sunglasses on.  She said, “Hi Suzie” then sat down on the sofa and flicked the TV on.  The next time I came to Dad’s, her stuff wasn’t around anymore and nor was she.  “Mandy has found another place to live,” said Dad.

One Saturday night after Dad had turned the light out I whispered my prayer as I did every night.  Dad was standing in the doorway;  I hadn’t realised he was still there.  “What did you say, Suze? I didn’t hear you.”  “I wasn’t talking to you,” I answered.  “Who were you talking to?” He sounded like he was smiling.  Before I realised what I was saying it was out, “It’s a secret – with Nana.  About the man with the flowers.  I’m not ‘sposed to say.”   “A man with flowers?” he sounded puzzled.  Then there was an in-drawing of breath.  “Is it a secret about me and Mum and the man?” he asked.  “Yes,” I replied. “Don’t ask me anymore.  Please don’t tell Nana,” I said in a panic.  He sighed,  “No.  It’s alright Suze, I won’t.” Then very quietly, “Serves me right I suppose”.  After a while he asked.  “Do you like him Suze?  Is he good and kind?”  “Oh yes, Dad.”  “Good,” he said.  But he didn’t sound happy.

On my 6th birthday Dad came to dinner.  Nana was there too.  Sometimes Mum and Dad even talked to each other, but it was always about me or school or George.  Sometime after that something new happened.  Every Wednesday Nana would come over and put us to bed while Mum went out. No-one would answer my questions about where Mum went.

On my 7’th birthday Dad came for dinner again. This time it was really fun.  Everyone talked and seemed happy.  At the end of the meal I blew out my candles and made a wish.  It was the same wish I always made.  “Please God, let my Dad come home.”  And then it happened!  Mum said,  “Suzie, George, we have something to tell you.”  Mum and Dad and Nana were all smiling.  “Dad is coming home on Saturday.”  I screamed and threw myself at Dad, wrapping myself around him. “Don’t I get a hug?” complained Mum, but she was laughing.  Nana spoke, “On Friday night I am taking you to my place for the night Suzie.  Mum will be helping Dad shift his things back in.”  For once in my life I didn’t want to go to Nanas!

On Saturday morning we went to Mass. When we went into the church I saw St Joseph was surrounded by vases of flowers.  “It’s his feast day,” said Nana.  “Let’s go and say thank you.”  We stood together holding hands looking at him.  All of a sudden I had a thought.  “Nana I am so happy.  But I feel sad when I think of Mandy.”  Nana looked bewildered.  “Mandy?”  “Dad’s friend from work who lived in his apartment for a while.”  Nana’s lips formed into a hard line and her usually kind face looked stern.  I was afraid for a moment, but went on.  “She was sad and I don’t think she had a good Daddy.”  Nana’s face changed again.  Now she looked old and sad and tired.  She nodded slowly and almost whispered, “That’s right, I heard that.  I’d forgotten.  What a good girl you are!” She was stroking my hair now.  “You’re right.  As well as saying thank you and praying for Mum and Dad, we’ll pray for her too.  And I promise you I’ll pray for her every night.  Thank you Suzie.”    happy family


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