Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. She said it — as she said it every day — to an empty room, just a little after nine o’clock in the morning, and appeared satisfied with the answer. She spent a moment arranging herself. Shoes had become more difficult since the war — which war she wasn’t quite sure of at the moment, for some reason — so she finally gave up on putting them on. “I will buy the flowers myself,” she said, and then she went out.
The street was a very pleasant haze. It was harder to see, since the war, and people were always stopping her to ask if she needed help getting where she was going, or if she was lost, which she thought somewhat presumptuous of them. “No,” she always said. Best to be firm with them. “No, I’m quite all right; it’s just that the birds are still singing in Greek. Perhaps that’s what’s troubling you.” That usually shut them up, and she could return to the task at hand.
Sometimes the streets shifted, on her way to buying the flowers. That happened now. The streets would move and rearrange themselves just slightly out of order if she didn’t pay a great deal of attention. They were tricky that way. Days did that too; just when you were certain that Thursday would follow Wednesday, as it had done for weeks immemorial and give every impression of doing so again, suddenly one woke up to find it was Tuesday for no reason at all. There was never any reason for Tuesday.
This concerned the girl to no end — Elizabeth, she called herself, but also sometimes Sally and Mother, just to throw Mrs. Dalloway. The girl was always barging in (very rudely too, Mrs. Dalloway thought to herself and to the birds, as if she owned the place; Mrs. Dalloway ought never to have lent her the key. One must set boundaries with such people) and asking questions about what day it was and why Tuesday should have suddenly followed Wednesday, as if Mrs. Dalloway was somehow responsible for what day it was or why the traditional order of the week had suddenly destabilized. “I’ll change the locks tomorrow,” she said to the street, and a woman walking in front of her jumped slightly. “After the party.” The woman fixed Mrs. Dalloway with a strange look. “It’s rude to eavesdrop,” Mrs. Dalloway told her, hurrying her pace slightly. “And you’re not invited.”
It was very dangerous to live even one day. Sometimes, if one was not careful, the world around one burst into flames without warning. But if one was going to live, one might as well buy flowers.
The flower stand was a pinwheel of darkness. One had to be very careful at the flower stand. Some mornings it was full of ordinary flowers, and other days full of pinching, jabbing lead circles that expanded and burst if you touched them. One’s clothes became absolutely soaked with lead, and it was nearly impossible to walk home, weighed down like that. “The girl hates that,” Mrs. Dalloway explained to the man who owned the flower stand, who was in a different body than the one he used to wear. He was chattering distantly about something, face dissolving and reforming with the rise and fall of his voice. He had the sound of the grave to him. There was no beauty to him. Mrs. Dalloway pressed the coins into his hand and took her flowers. The day was thinning; it was dangerous to be out walking at this hour. Her feet slapped cold against the pavement. Flowers, then home, then the party. She could not be sure who was coming tonight. So many of them were dead, or had not yet been born. But there would be a party either way. There was always a party, as long as one could find one’s way home. If the traitor streets didn’t shift under the thin noon sky.
She knew something was wrong at the door. Someone had been here, moving inside of her house, burying herself in the accumulated time that Mrs. Dalloway had already stored in the rooms and halls for her own self. The house was already full of flowers. Some of them were fresh and sprightly, bursting out of clean ceramic jars; others were wilting in damp ashtrays and mouldering in coffee cups and nailed, dry and brittle, to the doorframe. There was no room for her flowers here, not with every available surface covered with the dead and dying flowers of her interloper. Mrs. Dalloway stood very quietly in the middle of the room, holding her own flowers, waiting for the trespasser to reveal herself. The party would have to wait. She could wait for a very long time; Mrs. Dalloway knew how to wait.
The air was full of the thick, muttering smell of freshness turning to rot.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.