Jill McIntyre is the self-proclaimed ‘matriarch’ of the Melbourne flower industry. At 75, she has been selling flowers for 40 years.
She first opened a small shop in Richmond in 1976 that sold toys and cards – “until a local fruiterer took a fancy to me and started dropping flowers off every day,” she says.
His deliveries arrived “with the same regularity that kids from the housing commission flats came over to tell me how many toys and things they’d stolen from me that day.
“Then people starting stopping in on the way to the hospital and would ask me how much my flowers were. One of the mothers in the high-rises suggested I might do better selling flowers.”
Two years later, McIntyre opened a florist “at the arse-end of Bridge Road retail”. She was there for a decade before moving to her current premises: Richmond’s Bridge Road Florist. It is one of only three 24-hour florists in Melbourne.
“First date?” – A young man has been appraising the roses on offer for a minute, but he shakes his head.
“Last date. Can I buy a single rose?”
The florist apologises; they only sell roses by the bouquet.
“I was going to buy a bouquet,” he confides, “before I saw the price. I thought a single rose would be more romantic, too, but anyway...”
Seth*, 22, says the reason for the last date is because he lives in Brisbane. He will fly home the next day after a week-long holiday visiting friends.
“I met a guy at a bar in Carlton on my third night here, and we had some drinks together but the bar closed early. So we kissed good night and I went home. I’d just got through the front door when he texted me saying ‘I wish I’d taken you somewhere else’ and would I meet him in the city for another drink.”
Seth called a taxi but his phone ran out of battery halfway to the city. Being unfamiliar with the city, he had to turn the cab around to go back and charge his phone.
“It was after midnight when I found him again, and we talked all night, mostly about Europe - because I’m getting ready to move there in four months and he’d just been living over there,” he says.
The two men have spent “pretty much all of the last two days together” after Seth decided to change his flight home, extending his holiday for as long as possible before having to return to work. “I’m sad to say goodbye, because I feel like I’ve finally met somebody that I really like and click with, but he lives in the wrong city.”
A tall man is standing uncertainly in front of a tower of bouquets.
“I’ve just found out my wife is pregnant,” he says, in a strong Irish accent. “I’m a bit overwhelmed,” he admits, and cracks a wide grin.
It is 8.40pm and Niall, 33, is on his way from the airport to see his wife, Marie, for the first time since she called him a week ago with the news. “I work Fly In Fly Out and I’ve been away for a month, but I guess she couldn’t hold it in any longer,” he says.
Niall selects a huge bunch of oriental lilies, and while the florist wraps them in brown paper he explains that he and Marie are “more or less childhood sweethearts”.
Having met in high school, the first flowers he ever bought her was a corsage. They’ve always planned to have children, and he guesses Marie is only around six weeks pregnant. “We’ve not been trying that long, only since Christmas.” He smiles nervously.
“I was talking to a guy today, it’s my last day actually, who’s been doing Fly In Fly Out for 27 years, and he said that one year he was only at home, in his own bed, for 11 days out of a year.” Niall shakes his head.
“He said he’s not very wealthy himself but all his ex-wives are.”
“It’s pretty intense, being away all the time. I’m not going away any more. Lots of fathers do, but I don’t know how they could do it. For me it’d be a bit selfish, and nothing is going to beat what I’m going to see at home over the next little while.”
After Niall leaves, the florist on duty smiles and tells me about the other new fathers-to-be she’s served over the years.
“Another Irish guy had found out the sex of the child, because they had a blood test and his wife said he could be the point of contact. They both desperately wanted a girl, so he came in and bought a pink bouquet but had me wrap the whole thing up in brown paper for her as a surprise.”
"You sort of desperately want to give them discounts, but when that’s every second customer it’s not really feasible.”
“Other stories aren’t as nice though,” she says, and she describes a wreath she once made around a Buzz Lightyear drawing for a seven-year-old boy’s funeral. The Toy Story character stretching up to the sky saying ‘To infinity, and beyond!’.
“It’s going from that, to somebody who’s buying for their wedding within two seconds, that’s the hardest thing about floristry,” she says.
“People come in for flowers for everything, whether it’s just because, or to celebrate an anniversary. Once a month or so somebody will order flowers for a funeral, and they’ll cry, and it’s always quite intense because I don’t know what the boundary is for trying to make somebody feel better. And we’re taking money from them! You sort of desperately want to give them discounts, but when that’s every second customer it’s not really feasible.”
Scott*, 27, stops into the florist just after 7pm to buy a bunch of oriental lilies for his girlfriend. They are going to Castlemaine for a weekend away.
“We had been together for four years, but then we had a break for a year and a bit. We’ve just got back together a month ago, so it’s all fresh again,” he says.
Scott says the couple broke up because he’d started a new business as a fitness instructor and as obligations piled up, his spare time completely disappeared. “I was totally preoccupied, so we ended things. She went overseas for six months and we kept in contact occasionally.” He pauses, then says why he wanted to get back together. “It was more a realisation of what I had, and what I may have thought that I wanted, and then once I had it - a successful business - I realised what was missing.”
It’s close to midnight when a smartly dressed 80-something-year-old woman picks a pot plant of coloured flowers from the sidewalk display and carefully places it on the counter.
“You can ask me anything,” she says, “as long as you don’t photograph me or record me.”
Harriet* buys a pot plant every couple of weeks, although this isn’t her usual florist. “I miss my garden,” she says. “And now I only have a small balcony, and I live near the sea, and the saltwater kills all my flowers.”
Harriet tended her garden for over 50 years, and it contained, she says, “Everything.” Fruit trees, roses, “every herb you could think of", gardenias, carnations, violets, lilies, agapanthas, tulips, junipers and, later, when it was harder for her to keep up with the weeding, wild flowers. The garden is gone now, replaced with collection of delicate impatiens, neatly arranged in a pot on their way to a little salt-dusted garden balcony.
Around 4.30am Eve, 27, buys an armload of red and orange flowers to decorate the set of a television commercial. Eve is a freelance production designer and decorates sets for film and television. In a few hours she’ll be dressing the scene of an Indian restaurant.
“The script is fairly loose, there’s no human interaction or anything, it’s just a static room, so it’s more than anything about the colour palette. I’ll be using a lot of orange flowers that are quite full,” she says.
Eve has been “testing the waters of art department” since she was a teenager. She started early, doing drawings of horses for The Saddle Club. “That fruitful job where I got like $80 for 80 drawings came about randomly, because the friend of a family friend was doing prop sourcing and heard I liked horses, so wanted to take pictures of my bedroom which was, at the time, like any other horse-obsessed girl, filled with drawings and My Little Ponies,” she says.
The prop department commissioned Eve “because they figured my drawings were the right skill level, and rather than getting an adult to do a drawing with their left hand - which I now do all the time - they hired me instead.”
At 7am, just after the sun has come up, Jill arrives with a vanload of flowers from the Footscray markets. As she and two staff unload the bouquets into buckets of water, she explains why she’s stayed in the floristry industry for so long.
“It’s the diversity of the products and the endless keeping up with what’s new. You’ve got to stay absolutely on top of the trends, otherwise your marketplace loses interest.”
According to Jill, the biggest trend for 2016 has been imported Malaysian-grown dyed chrysanthemums. “They’re doing the same thing with roses,” she says, “that have five or six colours in each flower.” She points to the garish, rainbow-hued bunches and shakes her head. “It won’t last for very long.”
The idea that flowers are subject to trends is not surprising. For Jill, the fact that flowers are fleeting is part of what makes them special. It is part of their romance. A gift of flowers lasts just a day, a week, before it is gone.