by Adam William Inglis
He held the front door handle with the finesse of a safe-cracker, but as it turned, it let out its customary squeak, the exact sound he’d tried to avoid.
“You going out, Steve?” Emily called from the kitchen.
“I won’t be too long, just popping into town.”
“Don’t forget your coat. The telly says it’s bitter out.”
“Nah, I’m ok.”
The metallic clink of a saucepan that followed rang like audible punctuation. Whatever she’d been doing in the kitchen was over. Emily hustled past him, and up the stairs, flashing her finest ‘I know best‘ smile.
“You won’t be able to—”
After Emily disappeared, there came a low, loud noise, not unlike a trumpet when blown out of tune. And then again, before she reappeared on the stairs holding the grey woollen overcoat she’d found in the local charity shop.
“Did you drag the chair?” He chuckled.
“Don’t make fun of me,” she pointed. “I’m short.”
“You’re not short of anything; you just have little legs.” He smiled at that, knowing that five foot three was a perfectly average height for a woman.
“Never mind that, why are you dressed so smart? Do you have a job interview you’ve not told me about?”
“No, I just fancied a change from the usual hoody and jeans combo.” The whiteness of the lie spread across his face. He never lied to her.
She didn’t seem to notice.
“Well, you look lovely!” She looked him over, watching him tug the overcoat over his slim shoulders. “Any chance my handsome fella could grab some food and bits while he’s out?”
Before he could answer, she retrieved a folded list from the kitchen. It had a noticeable dark scribble beneath the page, the original word still visible through the back.
“Change your mind about the Nutella?”
“Too many calories, we need to eat better food.”
He heard cheaper food, but before he could dwell any further, she prodded his stomach, finding nothing but his belly, and giggled.
“Besides, you never know when someone may want to sweep me off my feet,” she continued, before tiptoeing to plant a delicate kiss on his bearded cheek.
“Who am I to say ‘no’ to one so small, and so beautiful,” he grinned. ‘I’ll be a little longer in that case.”
Just what I need.
* * *
His arms and feet ached, the shopping list had been longer than it looked. His pockets were in juxtaposition to the four Tesco carrier bags digging into his palms. He’d saved a little money by walking into town today, and it was a trip he’d become used to since avoiding the bus to work.
Just after noon, with the sunshine attempting to highlight precious things in a variety of differently named, boutique-style shop windows, Steve found the shop he’d pictured as he put on his smart trousers, shirt, and belt, some hours earlier.
The door buzzed twice. Once as Steve lumbered in with his shopping, and again—longer this time—as the door closed behind him.
“Good afternoon, my boy,” came the cheerful voice of an aged shopkeeper. “What can I help you with today?”
As Steve looked over the cabinets and the items tagged within, his heart began to wilt. Not unlike the handpicked rose poking from his inside jacket pocket
“Are you ok, you’ve gone a touch pale?”
“Y—yes, sorry, I just need to catch my breath.” He shrugged as if to show the shopkeeper the weight he carried.
“Here, sit down a moment.” The shopkeeper offered a fold-out seat, placing it beside the counter.
After regaining some of his composure, and feeling somewhat daft with his bags of budget shopping, smartest clothes, dying rose, and too little money, he stood up to leave.
“Thank you; I’m ok. I’ll be out of your way.”
“Oh now I see,” said the shopkeeper, tilting his head as he looked at the rose. “Don’t you worry about that, wait there just a moment longer.”
Ashamed, Steve remained still, like a faithful dog brought to heel. The anxiety only increased when the shopkeeper returned.
“Here we are,” he said with a flourish, exactly the type one might expect from a magician, as he lay a little tray upon the glass counter. “These aren’t new, but believe me, when they’ve been through my hands, in my workshop; they’re better than new.”
The grandfatherly tenderness of the shopkeeper did little to lift his spirits, but rather than excuse himself and seem ruder than he already felt, Steve looked in the tray.
His mouth fell open, utterly dazzled. Inside the tray was one item. A small, silver-coloured ring, with a bright–albeit–small, twinkling stone.
“It’s perfect,” he said, surprised to find that his words were true.
“Thank you, it’s quite special, this one. You see, it’s been waiting for someone for quite some time.”
“There’s no tag, how much is it?” His stomach tensed.
“No need to worry about that,” he smiled. “How much can you afford?”
Steve told the jeweler the exact amount left in his bank. To the penny, as his wallet seemed to heat his trouser pocket, empty but for a single debit card.
“I will accept no more than one-third of that, if you promise to pop next door and buy her flowers, too.”
So with four bags of shopping and a bouquet of fresh roses tucked under one arm, he walked home thinking of the ring, his words, and her answer. Carried on the wind, he heard the shopkeepers parting words as if he walked beside him.
“You needn’t fret about that, my boy, how can one say ‘no’ to something so small, and so beautiful.”