My fair lady
In the mid 80s June Simmonds was an apparition left over from the 70s. Visualise her for a moment. Long black straight hair in a heavy fringe. White cowboy leather boots with fringes so typical of the 70s, wearing a baggy white shirt over tight black pants. Short and busty with a heart of gold. Loud and brash with a heavy gold charm bracelet and a multitude of rings. That was June, mother of the child TV star Ricky Simmonds known in 1978 for his performance in 'Grange Hill.'
Martin and I met June and Phil Simmonds at a stage hypnosis evening given by a friend of Martin's. I forget the Goan magician's name but we all had a fun evening and in the mid 80s became firm friends with us always going to their house for lunch or dinner. They liked to stay at home especially on Sundays when the flower shop was shut.
June and Phil lived in a small house in an award wining community near Hampstead Common and if they went out, it was to New York where one of their sons was a partner in a trendy restaurant in Manhattan called NW3 (the postal code for Hampstead), or Fort Lauderdale, Florida to visit close friends.
June, like myself, was a cat lover and despite working with her hands cutting flowers, she had claws. They were not false nails but real claws like the Thai dancing ladies, painted shocking pink to match her lipstick!
My fair lady was a flower seller and Professor Higgins would have had his hands full teaching her to correctly pronounce a word or two. June, originally from Birmingham, actually had a good clear speaking voice with the Jewish lilt and intonation that was unmistakeable, indicating her heritage. Her hobby was calligraphy and every Xmas or birthday, I would receive a wonderfully penned card written carefully in black ink.
They were happily married with, I think 3 boys and very close to their children. It was the family first through thick and thin. June was the boss and Phil was hen pecked but with a wonderful sense of humour with a repertoire of Jewish jokes that had us in stitches every time we got together.
So how did June end up owning the constantly busy flower shop to the left of the entrance inside the Royal Free Hospital when it was rebuilt in 1974?
I lived at 2 Warwick Mansions across the road above the famous Prompt Corner cafe where Bernard Shaw wrote books and my old friend the artist Maurice Sumray played chess on the clock almost daily with his cronies. I watched the hospital being built and recall the dust that would creep in to my intimate room full of Polish textile wall hangings, Brazilian naïf paintings and trays made out of rare blue iridescent extinct butterfly wings behind glass from Brazil hanging on my love nest walls. Those were the days of life with Philippe, my fiancé.
I never ventured into the hospital and so never saw the formidable June at the helm in her tiny well stocked flower shop. She later confessed she had, like an East Ender, been selling flowers from a barrow in all weathers outside in the street and had to be 'removed' when the building works began in 1974. Thus popular cheerful June was invited inside and given premises by the management. There always has to be a flower shop in a hospital with a direct link to the undertakers. June filled that gap perfectly!
And so that was June's routine life, selling, buying and doing her style of floral arrangements that Constance Spry would not have approved of!
One day her life changed. It was just before she closed her shop around 6.00 pm when a dark swarthy unusual looking man rushed in. He quickly took stock of her red and yellow Dutch roses and announced he would take every one! June had never had it so good. He also asked for three vases but all she had were rather vulgar plastic yellow ones. Red and yellow, the colours of Spain, looked good to June's eye. She prepared the roses to match the vases, adding all her red and yellow roses. She was pleased with her big profit even though she was puzzled as to who this man could be. Not one of her boring regulars for sure.
The following week he was back for more and wanted three flower displays of mixed roses and other colourful flowers. This time he confessed he was the personal secretary of the Sultan of Brunei who had a house in St John's wood for his three wives, each one loving beautiful flowers. Yet again the order was hurried as they were arriving at short notice that night and the flowers had to be there to welcome the wives! For good money June was on the ball and quickly did her displays and off the man went into the night with his booty leaving an exhausted June with another pile of hard earned undeclared cash.
Then he was back again the following week. The wives loved her bold vulgar colours and now wanted only June to supply their flowers. No boring Constance Spry floral arrangements from Mayfair for them. Sometimes at short notice, June would be up most of the night spreading her flowers out on the empty reception floor to get the job speedily finished. The Sultan, always hush hush for security, reasons, would never announce in advance his travel plans. This was a 24/7 speedy service but she was well paid for working overtime.
Phil would be her chauffeur and drive the displays to the back entrance of the prestigious NW8 house to deliver her masterpieces. She never once met the wives or the 6th Sultan who had been in charge of his Kingdom since 1967 and continues to rule today. Brunei gained independence from the U.K.in 1984 and no doubt this was the period when he was coming regularly for political discussions.
Soon it was clear he was her number one client and she had to be at his beck and call 24/7 until the day she nearly collapsed and was so ill from exhaustion that she had to refuse a delivery for the first time in 10 years.
She was dropped like a hot potato at once. No 'thanks June for years of good prompt service.' Just dismissed! 'Just like that' as Tommy Cooper would have said! At least she bought a holiday home in Fort Lauderdale with the cash and still has it to my knowledge even keeping it after her beloved husband's death from cancer. Today, in 2017, she has retired and stays in the same house in Hampstead, surrounded by her cats and visiting children and grandchildren.
There will never be another character and old friend like June, my fair lady, with apologies to George Shaw's Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.
Written in the breakfast room of Casa de los Bates, Motril, Spain on 4/2/17.
Wikipedia - The Royal Free Hospital
Wikipedia - The Sultan of Brunei
Wikipedia - Ricky Simmonds