Tuesday 14 February 2012

Short Story: Roses Are Pink

The toaster popped, followed a millisecond later by the rattle of the letterbox. Grace hesitated for a second, butter knife in hand, as her head bobbed from the golden toast peeping out from the top of the toaster to the open kitchen door. Her eyes quickly returned to the toast. The bills could wait another minute. Her grumbling stomach was not so patient.
            She carried the plate of buttered toast through to the sitting room and settled herself on the sofa to watch a few minutes of breakfast television while she ate. Grace became so engrossed in the story of a man proposing to his girlfriend live from his sitting room that she didn’t notice the minutes ticking by. The girlfriend burst into tears as her boyfriend dropped to one knee and produced a tiny box. Grace found herself smiling as the girlfriend accepted and threw her arms around her new fiancĂ©. Despite her divorce finalising a matter of weeks ago and the hurt and misery that had been her marriage in its final few years, Grace could still feel the warmth in her chest at the romance of it all.
            The crying, hugging couple disappeared as the camera returned to the studio and Grace noticed the time in the bottom right hand corner. With a yelp, she scurried into the kitchen to dump her plate in the sink before throwing her arms into her coat sleeves. She would be late for work if she didn’t hurry.
            Without bothering to button her coat, she scuttled to the front door but had to stop to pick up the post from the mat. She would have tossed the envelopes onto the side table in the hall had the baby pink envelope not caught her eye. Grace’s brow furrowed as she abandoned the rest of the post on the table before running a finger under the flap of the pink envelope. It hadn’t dawned on her what the date was – even the live proposal hadn’t given it away – until she pulled the Valentine’s Day card out of the envelope. On the front was a little brown bear holding a bouquet of flowers at least five times his size. Grace was convinced it had been sent to the wrong address until she saw her name inside. Unfortunately it didn’t say who it was from. 
Was somebody taking the piss?
            Grace hadn’t received a Valentine’s card for years. She’d been married to Kev for twelve years and he hadn’t bothered with cards since their third or fourth year of marriage. Or romance of any description.
            Intrigued, but still running late, Grace shoved the card into her handbag and flew out of the house, half power walking, half jogging to the newsagents on the corner. She popped into the shop every morning before work and usually stopped for a chat but that morning she only had time to grab her bag of Maltesers before she half jogged, half ran like hell for the bus that was approaching her stop. Once settled on the bus, Grace slipped the card out of her handbag and felt her cheeks burn as she reread it. Did the other passengers know she had been given the card as a joke? She shoved it back into her handbag and tried to figure out who had sent it.
            Her mother? She’d sent Grace an unsigned card before, years ago, back when Grace was a teenager. Too chubby and introverted for the boys to fancy, her mother had sent the card to make Grace feel better about herself. It hadn’t worked. Grace had recognised the handwriting immediately and promptly burst into tears, feeling like the fattest loser on the planet.      
            No, it couldn’t have been her mum. Grace didn’t recognise the handwriting and her mother had promised to never, ever do it again.
            Maybe it was one of her friends trying to cheer her up after the divorce. And Grace could have done with a bit of cheering up. At thirty two, Grace was divorced from the only boyfriend she had ever had, still working in the clothes shop she had worked in since leaving school and she was still chubby.
            It had to be one of her friends. But which one? Grace discounted a couple straight away. Leah, her best friend, knew the story of her mother’s Valentine’s disaster and had witnessed the devastation for herself. Leah wouldn’t have risked upsetting her like that.  One of her other friends was on holiday in Cyprus so it couldn’t have been her as the post mark was local. Which left Annie, her neighbour, or Jade from work.
            The bus hissed into the station and its passengers spilled out. Grace hurried through the ghostly town centre, deserted apart from a couple of delivery vans. The shutters were still down on most of the shops, including the one where Grace worked. She shrugged off her coat in the staff room before racing out to the shop floor with only minutes to spare. She spotted Jade in the footwear department, dusting the shelves and ensuring the shoes were paired. When she glanced around and spotted Grace, she gave a cheery wave and tossed the duster onto one of the shelves before wandering over.
            “He didn’t get me a card,” she said as she reached Grace, folding her arms across her chest. “Can you believe it? I thought he was only pretending to have forgotten at first. I thought he must have got me something really special to go through all that ‘oops I forgot’ nonsense but he really had forgotten.” Jade paused to take a breath before continuing her rant. “Eighteen months we’ve been together. Eighteen months and he’s already forgetting Valentine’s Day. Doesn’t say much for the future, does it? What next, forgetting my birthday and our anniversary?”
            Grace waited for Jade to ask if she’d received a card while trying to keep the smirk off her face but she didn’t and the conversation moved on to last night’s telly until their supervisor barked orders at them, sending them to opposite ends of the shop. With Jade on the tills and Grace stuck supervising the changing rooms, the shop opened and Grace started to forget about the card tucked inside her handbag.
            “Any luck?” Grace asked as the curtain on one of the changing rooms swished open and a customer wandered towards her. She shook her head as she handed Grace the pair of jeans. Grace knew that look. The look when the zip had refused to move even a millimetre on the largest size the shop stocked. Grace’s heart sank almost as much as the customer’s.
            “Excuse me, Grace?”
            Grace placed the jeans on the rail behind her as her supervisor approached. She wondered what she had done to offend Lisa this time but when she turned around, her supervisor was smiling at her. Smiling. Grace had worked there for sixteen years and she couldn’t recall ever seeing Lisa’s lips upturned. It was an eerie sight.
            “This gentleman would like to see you,” Lisa said. She stepped aside with a flourish, revealing the biggest bouquet of flowers Grace had ever seen in real life. The bouquet was made up of mainly roses but there were lilies, gerberas and tulips interspersed too and each flower was pink, Grace’s favourite colour.
            Wow. They must have cost a fortune. Could it really have been one of her friends winding her up?
            Grace held her breath as the bouquet shifted to reveal a man’s face. Her stomach fizzled with the excitement of coming face to face with her secret admirer, to see who had gone to so much trouble for her. But her smile faded as a clipboard was thrust at her. It was just the delivery man.
            “Sign here, love.” His voice was gruff and he couldn’t have sounded less interested if he’d tried. He saw romance every day and had grown accustomed to it.
            Grace took the clipboard and scribbled her name. “Who are they from?”
            The delivery guy shrugged his shoulders. “It’s probably on the card.”
            Grace handed the clipboard back, exchanging it for the oversized bouquet. As soon as the delivery guy had turned his back, she snatched the little card nestled among the blooms.
            Your favourite colour
            Scent with love x
            So the pink hadn’t been a fluke. The flowers and the card had been sent by somebody who knew her well enough to know her favourite colour. She looked across the shop at Jade but her friend’s jaw had dropped to the counter as she stared at the bouquet. She was as shocked as Grace was.
            “Well? Who are they from?” Grace hadn’t realised Lisa was still hovering by the changing rooms.
            Grace shrugged her shoulders. “It doesn’t say.”
            “Oh.” Lisa’s interest visibly deflated. She wanted gossip, not a mystery. “Put them away in the staff room and hurry. I’ll supervise the changing rooms until you get back.”
            Grace filled the sink in the little kitchen area of the staff room and placed the bouquet inside with such care they could have been a new born baby having its first bath. The little card had been tucked away safely in her handbag.
            The staff room door creaked open and Grace assumed it would be Lisa, hurrying her along because she was bored of being on changing room duty already but it was Jade’s face peeking back at her.
            “Chocolate break?” she suggested.
            Grace and Jade had both given up smoking six weeks ago and had replaced their cigarette break with a chocolate one. Grace doubted substituting cigarettes with chocolate was doing their health much good but who was she to argue? They weren’t supposed to take their breaks at the same time but they usually got away with it. Grabbing the bag of Maltesers from her handbag, Grace followed Jade out onto the fire escape. It was chilly outside but not enough to drive them back indoors.
            Grace crunched the Malteser in her mouth as slowly as possible before looking her friend in the eye. “What?”
            “What?” Jade spluttered. “What? The flowers, that’s what. Who are they from?”
            “I don’t know. It didn’t say.”
            Jade gasped. The action caused her to choke on her chocolate but she recovered quickly. “Ooh, a secret admirer. You lucky girl. Whoever it is must like you a lot.”
            “Do you think?”
            Jade popped the final piece of her Galaxy Caramel into her mouth as she nodded. “You only have to look at the size of the bouquet to know that. They’re no four quid bunch from the supermarket. You know what they say. Size matters.”
            “Isn’t it size doesn’t matter?” That’s what Grace had always assured Kev, as though she’d know the difference.
            “I’m pretty sure it’s size does matter.” Jade winked. “It does to me, anyway.” She wrapped her goose-pimpled arms around herself. “Who do you think it could be?”
            “No idea.” Grace didn’t tell Jade she’d suspected it was one of her friends and that she had been on the list.
            “You don’t think they’re from Kev, do you?”
            Grace wrinkled her nose. “I hope not.” She shook her head. “Nah, he wouldn’t do something so thoughtful.”
            “Even if he wanted you back?”
            Grace shuddered at the thought. “Kev does not want me back.”
            “Maybe he’s run out of clean socks,” Jade suggested and they both laughed. “Seriously though. Have you been flirting with anyone recently?”
            Grace popped her last Malteser in her mouth, scrunching up the empty bag while she raised her eyebrows at Jade. “No. I have not been flirting with anyone.”
            “Are you sure? Because men don’t send flowers like that for no reason.” Jade pulled a face. “Some men don’t even bother with flowers when they’re in a relationship.”
            “I’m sure,” Grace said. “I’m useless at flirting so I don’t bother. I’d only make a tit of myself.” She shivered with the cold of being out on the fire escape in a thin blouse. The cold wasn’t worth it now the chocolate had gone. “Let’s go inside and have a quick cup of tea.”
            The day dragged by but in all the time she was at the shop, Grace couldn’t figure out who had sent her the card and flowers. She was now certain Jade wasn’t the culprit (unless she had been taking acting lessons on the sly) but that only left Annie but Grace couldn’t imagine her forking out so much money on flowers. A card was one thing but Annie was a single mum with three kids to feed.
            Grace felt all eyes were on her as she dragged the huge bouquet onto the bus. It was so big it needed a seat all to itself. She didn’t have a vase big enough to the house the bouquet so she had to split them into two vases and an empty plastic bottle with the top portion cut off. After cleaning up the snipped off stems and cellophane, she filled the kettle and popped a tea bag into a cup. Typically, it was after she had poured the boiling water into the cup that she discovered she had run out of milk. Grabbing her coat and purse, she headed to the newsagents on the corner to pick up a bottle.
            “We don’t usually see you in at this time,” the bloke behind the counter said as she headed for the fridge. Grace would pop into the shop every morning before work to pick up her break-time chocolate, stopping to chat to Joel or his niece, Olivia, when she had the time.
            “I ran out of milk and I’m desperate for a cuppa,” she told Joel.
            “Hectic day?” he asked as he scanned the pint of milk.
            “Weird day,” Grace said but she didn’t tell him about the flowers, fearing Joel would think she’d made the whole thing up. Because girls like her didn’t receive mysterious bouquets.
            She handed over the money and said goodbye before turning towards the door but Joel spoke before she had the chance to leave the shop.
            “Did you like your flowers?”
            Grace froze. Had he spotted her lugging them home from the bus stop? She assumed he must have but when she turned around, Joel’s cheeks were as pink as her own.
            “Did you send them to me?” Her cheeks burned brighter as the words left her mouth. Of course Joel hadn’t sent her the sodding flowers. Joel was gorgeous with dark, curling brown hair, navy blue eyes and a wide smile that made him look like he was constantly up to mischief. The deep lines in the corners of his eyes only added to his cheekiness and charm. Grace had developed a bit of a crush on Joel when he’d taken over the newsagents four years ago but she’d been married at the time. Besides, Joel was gorgeous and she was, well, Grace. Men didn’t fancy her, which was why she had always felt so incredibly grateful when Kev had taken her off the shelf.
            “I hope you don’t mind,” Joel said instead of laughing her out of the shop. For once, the cheeky grin had been wiped off his face. He looked nervous, almost scared.
            Mind? Why would she mind?” But why?”
            Joel’s nervous look transformed to one of confusion. “Because I like you, Grace.”
            Oh. Was he being serious? Surely not. “Really?”
            Joel gave a laugh but it wasn’t of the malicious or piss-taking variety. “Yes, really. I’ve liked you for ages but you were with Kev and then it was all a bit messy with the divorce and everything. It didn’t feel right to go wading in with romantic declarations and flowers. Until now.” His cheeky grin put in a brief appearance before Joel dropped his eyes to the piles of newspapers before him on the counter. “I thought you might like me too.”
            Wow. What to do? Should she leap across the counter and snog the life out of the gorgeous man or play it cool? Grace had never been in a situation like this before and she wondered if it would look odd if she whipped out her mobile to text Jade for advice. Yes, she concluded. It would seem very odd, especially as Joel was now watching her, waiting for some sort of response.
            “Erm, yes. I like you too.”
            The smile was back on Joel’s face but it wasn’t cheeky this time. It was… stunning, Grace thought. Could it really be true that he fancied her? Her? Grace Portman?
            “Really?” Joel asked and they both burst out laughing, breaking the tension in the room. The nerves were still bouncing around Grace’s stomach but there was also excitement and possibility thrown in there too.
            “Would you like to go out? Tonight? We could go for a drink,” Joel suggested. “I finish here in half an hour.”
            “I’d like that,” Grace replied, her stomach a cauldron of anticipation. She’d known Joel for years but she’d barely seen him on her side of the counter and never out of the shop. After agreeing that Joel would pick her up in an hour, Grace hurried home and the first thing she saw as she opened the front door, sat on the little side table in the hall amongst the junk mail and bills, was one third of the pink bouquet, which she now knew had come from Joel. She didn’t have time to text Jade to let her know her secret admirer’s identity or to ask for advice. She didn't really have time to allow her nerves to get the better of her. She had a date to get ready for.

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