‘I won’t be long,’ I called out to Molly as I carefully flicked the door open with the heel of my foot and picked up the mountain of boxes that had been filled with freshly baked cakes. One of our regular customers, Clare Turner, was throwing a surprise sixteenth birthday party for her daughter Lauren that afternoon and they had to be there before she got home from school.
As soon as I started walking down the hill I began to regret offering to walk the order round on my own rather than asking for it to be collected. The boxes were cumbersome and heavy. I could barely see over the top of them and my arms ached from how I’d positioned my hands underneath. Having worked at the shop for a couple of years already, Molly’s generous nature had definitely rubbed off, and I was used to going out of my way for others. Nothing felt like too much effort for our customers – even if that did leave me carrying a heavy load through the village in the sweltering July heat.
At that moment my shoe clipped a raised paving stone that I hadn’t been able to see, causing me to almost trip over and the tower of boxes in my hands to wobble precariously. ‘Oh flip,’ I muttered under my breath as I struggled to regain my balance.
‘Need a hand?’ a male voice asked while simultaneously lifting the top three boxes off my pile. I looked up and noticed that his face was as soft as his voice. Round and kind, with shiny green eyes looking back at me expectantly from under a mop of sandy hair.
‘Thanks,’ I smiled with relief, grateful that I wasn’t going to have to explain to Molly that I’d dropped and ruined a morning’s worth of work. Not that she’d have been angry with me if I had. She’d have laughed her head off and come up with some cunning plan to remedy the whole thing. She never flapped or faltered, that’s why so many of us relied on her.
‘I’m Shane,’ he offered with a shrug, looking bashful in his burgundy sweater and matching jogging bottoms.
I’d seen him around the village before and knew his name. Of course I did. Everyone always knew everything there was to know about everyone in Rosefont Hill. I knew he lived on the High Street above the newsagents with his mum and little sister, Joanna. I knew their dad had disappeared when Shane was young, apparently running off with a lady he’d met on the train into the city.
I knew his life was just as fractured as my own.
‘Sophie,’ I replied, finding something about his vulnerability and awkwardness endearing. He wasn’t loud and brash like the boys I used to go to school with.
In many ways it felt like he wanted to say or do more, but there was also a cautious edge, as though he was afraid to open up. It was a feeling I could relate to.
‘Where are you taking these?’ he asked, directing his question to the ground by my feet.
‘Just around the corner to Pocket Lane,’ I told him, gesturing down the hill with my elbow.
‘Want me to walk with you?’ He raised his eyebrows at me, his eyes smiling.
Usually I’d have declined, but moving the order had proved troublesome. It would’ve been silly of me to struggle on without him. Plus, he was so unobtrusive that I found I didn’t mind.
‘Thank you,’ I said, accepting his offer while starting off down the hill.
We walked in silence for a few hundred yards with him trailing ever so slightly behind me.
‘These smell delicious,’ he called, sniffing the side of the top box.
‘Did you make them?’
‘I helped,’ I said, as I glanced at him with a smile.
‘Cool . . .’ he said. His eyes dropped back to the ground as the corner of his mouth pulled upwards. It was rare for me to meet someone shyer than I was.
We turned right on to Clare Turner’s road and immediately walked through her gate and up her front path.
‘Oh, well done!’ she squealed as she opened the door, giddily clapping her hands before moving aside to make way for us. ‘Could you just pop them on the side in the kitchen?’
We did as she asked, then watched as she hungrily opened the lids and cooed over each box’s contents. I was thrilled to see none of them had been damaged along the way.
‘They’re perfect,’ she declared.
‘Look as good as they smell,’ Shane nodded in agreement.
The usual swell of pride rose within me. There was nothing I loved more than a baking session with Molly and then for our food to be admired.
‘Thanks for helping me,’ I said to Shane once we were ushered back out by Clare who’d turned her attention to the flower arrangements that had also arrived.
‘It was nothing. Couldn’t let you struggle . . . I was wondering . . . if, maybe, if you wanted to that is, if you fancy coffee and a cake or something?’ he finished in a rush.
‘What, now?’ I asked.
Instead of looking down at our feet I was surprised to find his eyes were on mine, intently waiting for a reply.
‘Molly will be waiting for me to get back,’ I told him, taking in the eager look on his friendly face. There was something about him that I liked and trusted. I found myself not wanting to say goodbye just yet. ‘But it wasn’t too busy when I left . . . and I’m due a break.’
‘Wonderful,’ he sighed, his face splitting in two as a huge grin cracked its way across it.
Molly’s face was a picture when I walked into the shop ten minutes later with Shane by my side. I explained how he’d helped me and didn’t even need to ask if I could have a quick break, she practically shoved us towards an empty table and swiftly plied us with hot drinks and a selection of cakes. Obviously it was incredibly embarrassing, but Shane was so gentle and unobtrusive in his manner that I felt drawn to him. I didn’t want to run back to work behind the counter.
I wanted to stay in his company . . . which is good because he came back at the end of my shift and offered to walk me home. He’d returned to see if I wanted to go on a date with him that weekend. He hadn’t figured out what that date would actually consist of, he’d just decided that he wanted to see more of me. That was enough to make my insides feel giddy and light – a feeling I’d certainly never experienced before.
I bashfully accepted and felt my face turn pink.
We’d just got to the end of the park closest to my house when I felt Shane’s hand gently slide into mine, our fingers gradually interlacing with an innocent seduction. We slowed the pace of our walk until we were standing still, nervously shuffling on the spot as our bodies turned to face each other.
My insides flipped over themselves each time I glanced up and our eyes locked, allowing me to catch glimpses of the sparkle in his kind eyes.
With a sudden movement, Shane leaned forward and kissed me. It was as though an impulse had taken over and propelled him into action.
I was glad it had.
I was happy to be kissed and, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the first kiss of many. I’ll never forget that moment or the way he made me feel.
Because Shane made me feel normal. And right then, normal was exactly what I wanted.