From All the Shining People
“The secret with orchids … is to keep them in darkness.” That bit of horticultural advice is offered by Rob Moss, a secondary character in Kathy Friedman’s subtly genre-bending story “An Orchid, Blooming.” The “running joke” shared between Rob and Evelyn, the mother of his former girlfriend, Aimee, refers to a plant that refuses to bloom. Rob takes the orchid and places it in the semidarkness of Evelyn’s fireplace where, in time, it sprouts “an impressive spray of pink-and-white blossoms.” “I was surprised that anything could survive half in the dark like that,” comments Jacob, Evelyn’s husband, who also serves as the story’s anxious, guilt-ridden first-person narrator.
The title of Friedman’s story, which has nothing to do with flowers, is indicative of her canny and subtle approach. “An Orchid, Blooming” is about family secrets, particularly those harboured by the patriarch. An incident from Jacob’s past comes back to haunt him when the “arrogant schmuck” Jeremy Katz attempts to blackmail him into helping him close a lucrative real estate deal. As with orchids, Jacob discovers, secrets also grow in the dark: they blossom and produce fruit, which of course turns out to be poisonous.
Like her characters, Friedman is a South African transplant to Toronto. Jacob, a doctor, and Katz inhabit this milieu; Jacob professes to dislike Katz and only hangs out with him at his wife’s behest, because she thinks “it’s good to see faces from back home.” He grudgingly admits that Katz, a lawyer, has been “generous” in extending assistance to a fellow expat and so when Katz asks for a favour, Jacob feels obligated to comply.
“An Orchid, Blooming” exists at the confluence of family drama and crime story. In a similar fashion to the villains of hardboiled detective yarns, Katz has incriminating information about Jacob that he threatens to make public should he not get what he wants from Jacob’s family. What he wants is for Aimee to intercede with her erstwhile boyfriend to convince his mother to sell her house so that it can be razed and redeveloped. But Jacob is reluctant to involve Aimee in Katz’s scheme because she has a history of mental illness and her relationship with Rob ended badly.
The two are not mutually exclusive. Aimee’s first psychotic episode occurred following her breakup, when Jacob discovered her in her room paranoid, convinced that Rob has been “reading her thoughts, stealing her brainwaves.” Jacob’s brother Mark also suffers from clinical depression; consumed by his guilty conscience, Jacob wonders whether Mark “had somehow infected” Aimee and whether Jacob himself “was the vector.” As it is, Jacob admits that ever since she was seven or eight, he had “no idea how to talk to [his] daughter.”
This distance is exacerbated by the nature of the secret Jacob is keeping from his family: back home in Cape Town, he was photographed in flagrante with a Black prostitute. Here Friedman plays off against one another various elements of prejudice and social stratification. Jacob initially accompanies his colleague, a doctor named Brady, to the Black neighbourhood of Mitchells Plain because although he ran “with the top dogs” in South Africa, “dining with judges and business leaders,” he had yet to feel as though he belonged in the rarefied world of the upper-class goyim. He determines that partnering with Brady on an excursion to visit a Black prostitute was “the last border” he needed to cross. Of course, in apartheid-era South Africa, two white men entering a Black enclave is enough, in Jacob’s conception, to get them “arrested or killed.”
Though Jacob’s status as a Jew makes him subject to antisemitism both conscious and otherwise, his status as a white man trumps his religious affiliation in the racist mindset of much of his home country. And his status as a rich white man inoculates him even further, something the more worldly Brady understands. Jacob’s colleague enlists the help of a Black hospital cleaner to ferry them across the border into the “Coloured” part of town.
Jacob’s sensitivity to the racial divide in his home country remains acute even long after emigrating to Canada. When Aimee asks whether he’d ever tried dagga (marijuana) as a younger man, he replies caustically, “Only the Blacks smoked that stuff.”
“And you never thought to ask them for a puff?”
“You couldn’t go putting your lips where a Black’s lips had been!”
Aimee shook her head.
“Those were the times,” I said stiffly.
“Didn’t you want to know more about them? Learn about their culture?”
“I suppose when we thought of culture we thought about Europe.”
Jacob’s racism is informed by his home country’s officially sanctioned policies; when he is first threatened with the photos being released (yes, poor Jacob is blackmailed twice), he is as concerned about the fact that he is in the arms of a Black woman as he is with the fact that she is not his wife. He subsequently asks his Black servant, whom he calls Elizabeth “because her real name was too long and difficult to remember” whether she has access to poisons. He assumes she must, or must know “a witch doctor” who could supply what he needs. Looking back on this incident in the narrative present, Jacob “can’t help but feel ashamed.” Friedman handles the multiple levels of irony here with great finesse.
The succession of evils Jacob finds himself heir to – infidelity, racism, blackmail, even assault causing grievous bodily harm – are all things that blossom in the dark. The orchid in the title can at once stand as a metaphor for Jacob himself or for the secrets he has worked so hard for so long to suppress. But in Friedman’s story, the past is never past – and there is always a price to pay.