A short story about flowers, the Vietnam War, the lost and the found and things in between…

Dendrochilum latifolium

By Pete Shmigel

Barry sat in his 1988 white Commodore SS outside the Benson Hills Community Centre waiting for the others to turn up and the meeting to begin.  Under the light of the lone street lamp in the car park, the black POW/MIA sticker on his bumper bar stood out like a full stop.

He liked getting to the meetings early – whether it was on the Central Coast, the Central West or closer to home in western Sydney. Summer or winter – winter like it was now and dark by 5pm.  Contrary to popular misconception – or as popular as a misconception about flower hobbyists could be – not all the members of the Orchid Society were as yet retired. Some still needed meetings at night. And, it was like AA – you had to have meetings.

Barry pushed the button with the pinkie on which he wore the big silver skull ring he’d picked up cheap in Bali, and the old electric window screeched and groaned down. He took out his papers and gears from the Souths bum bag he wore around his waist, and rolled a rollie in his lap, always proud that not a single piece of tobacco remained on his jeans. No more of the whacky tobaccy, but it was still good to roll. He took a deep hit on the fag and then pressed play on the CD.

Barry put the seat of the Commodore back, lay back and ran his hands up and down the leather, breathing in and out with each stroke, counting back from a 25 and then took another puff on the rollie.

This was all a bit like stretching before running out onto the footy paddock – even though in the old days they said stretching was bad as racehorses certainly didn’t do any. Earlier that day, walking around the Coles and throwing baked beans in the cart, he’d already gone through the night’s slides in his head – which specimens he wanted to show, what he wanted to say about new strains, what message he really wanted to leave Society members.

Now, it was Barry’s chance to just get still. To not see the slow motion replays of that hour of that day in Long Tan; to not worry about whether his daughter, Tricia, could afford to have her lesbian girlfriend and her kid move in with her; to not scheme and plan about which plant he’d be showing this year to again defend his Australian Orchid Grower’s Title. To basically not.

“Do nothing.” He’d thought Lorraine was a pretty dumb mole when she’d first started bringing the self-helps home from Angus and Roberts and sprouting stuff about the “now” and “letting go”.

“Too many mung beans, Lorraine,” he’d tell her and go back to the nursery in the garden where there was always another graft to get into, as well as the medicinal bottle of Jim Beam.

When she’d been in the hospital the last time, the cancer making her arms like pool cues with purple blotches, he’d seen stuff that didn’t make sense. There she was, alive only for the colour-coded tubes, hair gone, but smiling out at him and Tricia. Peaceful. She’d reached out her bony hand to his big paw, and scratched its rough palm with the specially manicured, death-bed nails that Tricia had shouted her. He wanted to pick her up that instant.

“Barry? Excuse me, Barry. You alright?” said the male voice from the car park.

Barry rolled his belly left and right, and got up on his elbows.

“Crikey, Cecil.”

“Sorry, Barry, thought you might be in some strife there so thought I’d do the right thing,” said Cecil Mariner.

Cecil’s light brown frame glasses went out beyond the sides of his head. The spectacles were catching the light from the street lamp. Man seemed to buzz around like the bees that would come into Barry’s orchids. His stretchable waistband chino’s made it easier for him to squat down by Barry’s driver’s side door.

Barry worked the seat back up because there was just something wrong about another man talking to your crotch through your car window in an empty car park.

“Jesus, Cecil.”

“Say, what’s that you’re playing there, Barry. No, let me guess. I’m not really into that sort of thing, but I remember something like that from younger years. We’re about the same age, I think. My guess’d be Deep Purple,” Cecil said.

Barry remembered a not too long ago when he might have just rolled the window up, but calmly he answered and hoped it would be enough.

“Cecil, what you are now listening to is not Deep Purple. Nor is it Led Zeppelin. What you are listening to is the music of the greatest rock’n’roll band to have ever graced our small planet. Black Sabbath.”

“Black Sabbath, huh? That’s pretty ominous sounding, Barry. Not sure everybody in the Society would get that. Is it in the talk tonight, Barry,” Cecil said and laughed.

“Sure, Cec, sure.”

“Hey, Barry. I’ve always meant to ask and I hope you don’t mind me doing so. Couldn’t help but notice that sticker on the car. What was it like over there? Lose any buddies?” Cecil said.

Barry remembered a not too long ago when he might have just swung a little jab out the window into Cecil’s nose. Not too big, just a tweak, not enough to knock off his glasses but just set him back on his butt. Then, he’d watch the hair-smoothing and pants-brushing shock of a 60 something man smacked for the first time since some recess at grade school probably.

But he answered calmly and hoped it would be enough. He saw that somebody’d opened up the hall and it gave him the wormhole out you sometimes got lucky with in ambush.

“It was a long time ago, Cecil. We’re all better off sticking to orchids. I’ll see you inside,” Barry said while he cut the stereo and made to get out of the car.

As he opened the Commodore’s heavy door, Barry watched Cecil back-waddle on his haunches – like a spastic duck going in reverse. He kept his head down, got the laptop and data projector out of the boot, and headed into the hall.

The hall had a wooden floor and wooden panelling, almost a precursor to the boxes its elderly inhabitants would soon find themselves in. At the back of the small stage at one end, there was a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. At the other end of the hall, near the kitchen with yellow cupboards, there was that other mandatory feature – a foldaway table with a water urn, Styrofoam cups, and Arnott’s assorted biscuits. About 20 plastic bucket chairs had been put out – someone taking care to make the alternating rows aqua and orange.

“Symmetry,” Barry thought to himself as he set up his gear for his slides, “every flower fanatic’s creed.”

And indeed that’s what talked about around the State, the country and once even America. Sante Fe where Lorraine had gone behind his back and booked them into a bed and breakfast. 500 year old adobe walls and 10 old rich lesbians on a motorbike tour as fellow guests. He’d excused himself as he went to the kitchen in the morning and cut across their viewing of the gridiron Rose Bowl on the flat screen telly. When he told Lorraine, she’d said: “And you think the probability of them checking you out Barry had been exactly what factor of zero?”

The Yanks had liked the talk; most did. What flasks were hot or not; how to’s on stem propagation to get precise spatial patterns, exact blooms, and greater numbers of blooms per stem. He had a lot of plastic trophies in a cupboard polished with Mr Sheen once a week to back it up after all. In fact, that’s what they most wanted: the ‘Trophy Winning Tips’ he threw in the back of the presso.

Though lately it seemed pretty lame to him, Barry knew how to get inside the judges’ heads, how to do a magic dance on the score sheets attached to their clipboards as they went about rating his entries at various meets and shows. And, the Society members wanted that magic to rub off.

But for Maureen Hildicott who wanted something else, it seemed. She saw him from the back of the hall, and put down her Styrofoam tea with lipstick marks, as well as the conversation she was having with Dolly Doyle, whose hanging spectacles always bounced on her chest when she laughed. Which brought particular attention to the orchid insider T-shirts she always wore to meetings. “I may look innocent but I always carry a flask”, today’s version said.

Maureen wore her tan nylon slacks high and tight, and smoothed her pink button-up jumper tight down on her hips.

“Well, Lone Ranger, I’m angry with you,” she said and wagged a finger. On another one, she had a now redundant, 40-year diamond engagement ring. “Have you had a chance to think about it?”

He didn’t make eye contact with the recent widow, not cougar but saber tooth tiger some said, and fumbled with the cable from the laptop to the projector. Barry could never remember if it had a male or female plug.

“You don’t want me to think about it, Maureen, cos the more I do the less likely it becomes. But I do want you to succeed in getting elected and leave it with me,” Barry said and hoped it was enough.

“Barry, you’ve got so much to contribute to the Committee. Not just flitting around the edges like you do now, dipping in and out of shows and what not. If you get on the ticket with me, you can make a real mark in the standards for the future, a personal mark. I was really looking forward to having you over to talk about it, about how we can team up on this one,” Maureen said and leaned forward with both hands on the green felt card table he’d put the laptop on.

Barry didn’t know if he was doing more flitting or more dipping or whether the card table was about to fold.

He started to tape the power cable to the floor – Council safety regulations – with the silver duct tape and said: “Maureen, I do want you to succeed in getting elected and leave it with me.” Committed but non-committal.

After a time, the minutes that seemed like an eternity got read, and they talked about the next show and the merits of carpooling or not to it if somebody or other wasn’t showing and needing to haul pots. Then, they asked him to do his thing.

“A little song, a little dance and a little champagne down the pants,” he thought to himself as he flicked through the slides and rattled off his Dendrobium victorias and his Emersoni syn hangianums.

The Latin names gave him the edge, set him apart, and blinded them with science. He felt powerful when he did the presentations and then flat as the road from Cobar to Broken Hill afterwards. And flat led to medicinal and medicinal led to more flat.

He got to a slide he’d only just put in the PowerPoint deck, almost absentmindedly. It was of new stem he’d been mucking around with. The orchid was like a long braid interwoven with small yellow blooms, tight like embroidery on a hippy shirt. Blonde braids and hippy shirts. He’d first met Lorraine at her nephew’s school fete where she was working the chocolate wheel, and he’d won the prize and gave it back to her to impress. One of his first days out of uniform after getting back, hair still too short and neck still too thick.

He’d called the plant on the slide: “Lorraine’s Gift”.

The slide went up on the screen on the little stage. He was turned with his back to them. “Stunning”, someone, probably Maureen, said from the back. “Name, Barry, why that name?” Cec said.

Barry held the clicker in his hand to go forwards or to review. He breathed deep and felt his Blundstones strong and solid on the floor. He didn’t know what to say next. But, he felt right. Exactly right.

“Ditch the tips,” he thought to himself. He turned back to look at the members of the Society, his boots making a soft, slow scrape.

He made eye contact around the room, took in the white heads and the lop-sided dentures, and then started to tenderly talk about what gives orchids their beauty.

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