Posted on

Chapter 1 of my festive romcom ‘A Christmas Hamster’

It’s ironic. For years my sister claimed I’d ruined her life by being born. Eight years as an only child meant she’d rather got used to being the centre of attention and having her own room, so suddenly having to share her parents and space with me didn’t go down very well. In reality I didn’t pose any sort of threat to her as she was the bright, pretty, high-achieving one, but she stuck resolutely to her assertion until she left to go to university. For whatever reason, that resulted in a softening of her attitude towards me and we became very close.

And then she ruined my life.

Well, totally derailed it and turned it upside down, at the very least. Her momentary lapse of attention when she stepped in front of that bus, nose buried in her phone, had dramatic consequences. Not only were Mum, Dad and I devastated at the death of a wonderful human being and the untimely shattering of our little family, but I became the guardian of three-year-old Rowan.

The only slip-up, until that fatal one, that my sister ever made was a one-night stand with a fellow delegate at a banking conference in New York. Rowan was the charming outcome nine months later. I doted on him, and regularly house- and baby-sat during my university holidays so that my sister could jet off to this important meeting and that crucial seminar, and give the live-in nanny some time off.

Then, after completing my Master’s degree in Conservation of Fine Art, I landed my dream job as a junior conservator at a small but prestigious art museum in The Netherlands. I loved every minute of it. My fledgling career, however, came to a crashing halt at Zinnia’s death when I had to return to the UK to bring up Rowan. Zin’s will named me as guardian and trustee until Rowan turned eighteen. She’d never breathed a whisper of this to me, not that I’d have refused her request, of course. I’d never have expected I’d actually have to take up the reins. I’d just have been flattered at her considering me capable of bringing up her beloved son. Mum and Dad might have been a more obvious choice, but possibly Zinnia had detected a few warning signs of the early-onset dementia that was spitefully beginning to sink its claws into dear old Dad. Mum had her hands increasingly full coping with him.

So there I was, a full-time aunt-slash-mum. Initially I’d devoted myself entirely to the orphaned toddler. The interest from the trust that I was given access to was enough to support the pair of us, but only if we lived frugally and it certainly didn’t stretch to covering hired help too. But anyway, the nanny had handed her notice in the day after the funeral. I guessed she’d foreseen an abrupt end to the cushy conditions she’d enjoyed up to that point.

I’d begun fretting at being housebound, even in our pleasant home on the edge of a small, bustling market town. Not that I was, really, since Rowan and I were out and about as much as we could be, either on our trailer bike, or on foot with Goliath the Chihuahua in tow. (More about him presently.) And thank goodness for there being so many toddler groups in Westeringfield. I think I enjoyed those even more than Rowan and they helped me keep a grip on my sanity.

Zin had only recently bought the house. She’d lived in London for years but, country girl that she was at heart, never really enjoyed being cooped up in a flat, however elegant, with noise all day and all night long. I know I couldn’t have stood it if I’d have had to have lived there with little Rowan. So she’d decided to move out to the sticks and cope with a twice-weekly commute to the city. Her job and the internet allowed her to work from home the other three. She’d chosen Westeringfield as it was on a direct rail line to London, and was only ten miles from our family home in Much Dowdon. Not too far, but far enough.

When Rowan started school, I touted around for a part-time job locally. A bit of extra money would always come in handy, and besides, I needed to start putting some aside for the day when my nephew reached his majority and neither needed nor wanted me under his roof any longer. I landed a part-time position at Nailed It!, a hardware store, as you probably guessed. I’m convinced the manager must have thought I said, during my begging phone call to him, that I had experience in “painting conservatories” rather than “painting conservation” because he offered me a job on the spot.

I was at work now, daydreaming during a lull in activity in the paint and varnish department, to which I’d been assigned. I was glad of the temporary respite as I’d been stacking pots of paint most of the morning so far. The smaller ones are no problem, but a ten-litre pot is a hefty item, especially for someone on the small side, like me. I’ve honed a fine set of biceps during my two years of doing this job, but I still find lugging the large, glugging containers around a tiring business.

I became of aware of someone studying the colour cards displaying the bewildering array of hues my paint-mixing machine could allegedly produce. I’d been standing at my station, gazing out into the middle distance in the direction of the tiles and shower section and had not originally noticed this potential client sidle up to the display board behind me.

My sales training, all half an hour of it, cut in.

“Hi there!” I said in a cheery voice from where I stood. “Can I help at all?”

The man swung round to face me. He was average height and build, thankfully with hair longer than what seemed to be the obligatory scalp stubble for men these days, and an intelligent, kind, good-looking face. He pushed his glasses up his nose a couple of millimetres then returned my smile, revealing a matching pair of dimples just visible beneath his neatly trimmed beard.

“I hope so. What would be good for covering grey?” he asked.

“What shade of grey are we talking about?” I enquired, coming over to join him at the board. “Something like any of these?”

I indicated the colour card that carried seven sample shades of pale grey, each varying by only a few degrees in darkness.

“No,” he shook his head, “much darker than that. You don’t have anything close,” he added, scanning the display. He turned to me. “The grey I’m talking about is somewhere between elephant and gunmetal.”

“Seriously?” I was so surprised I couldn’t stop myself blurting that out. Who on earth would use something that grim to decorate a room with? Aware I’d probably insulted the guy, I quickly added, by way of damage limitation, “Goodness, how very… unusual.”

“How very ghastly, more like.” He pulled a face. “My girlfriend – ex-girlfriend – moved in, redecorated my flat to resemble a coalmine, sucked my soul dry, and then left to do the same to some other poor sap.”

It was funny what confidences customers would share with the harmless-looking paint department girl. I used to be a bit shocked, but by now I was well used to tales of marital or relationship woe, or other personal hardships being nobly but vociferously borne. I could run a lucrative side-line in blackmail should I ever feel inclined.

“Oh dear, I’m very sorry to hear that,” I sympathised.

I was. My own love-life, which had never been the stuff of romance novels, had taken a turn for the worst after I assumed the responsibility of bringing up a little human being. No, more than that: it had nose-dived, crashed and burned. The merest mention that I was guardian to my nephew sent men, interested until that point, scuttling away. I couldn’t quite get my head round it: I mean, divorcees and single mums with children seemed to form new relationships with ease. Now, I admit I’m no oil-painting, but neither do I cause horses to rear nor babies to cry. I’m told I have a nice smile and a cute, freckly nose. By myself, true, but I’m not being biased, honestly. I’m petite, have slightly wild, copper-coloured hair, dress fashionably (within reason and budget) and have an upbeat personality. I enjoying chatting, and since I take an interest in more than just celeb gossip I like to think I make for an informed and stimulating companion.

But, maybe I don’t.

“Only be sorry about the paint,” the man suddenly chuckled, his face brightening. “I’m well over her now.”

I brightened too. “So, the soul is fully rehydrated?” I enquired.

“Mainly by alcohol at first,” he admitted ruefully, “but these days by a nice cup of tea and restored contentment with the world.”

Ah, so he probably had a lovely, new girlfriend. Shame. I was finding him more attractive by the minute.

“Whatever colour you go for, you’d be best off applying a few layers of white undercoat first,” I advised. “And go for Lakepool paint as the mixing base for your topcoat, rather than our own brand. It’s more expensive but it’s much better quality. Despite its name, the company hasn’t nailed it as far as their paint is concerned.”

He smiled, repeating the charming dimple display.

“And are these,” he gestured at the sheets of colour cards, “accurate?”

I trotted out the official line. “Minor colour differences between the printed colour sample and your final selected paint product may result.”

“How minor exactly?” he probed.

“Barely noticeable… in some cases. In others, the differences are a tad more major,” I confessed.

He raised an eyebrow. “And what cases would those be?”

“All of the blues and pinks,” I admitted with a sigh. “And the greens and yellows. Oh yes, and the beiges.”

I saw a shadow of a smile as he digested this information.

“The secret is to choose the colour you like, but order it at least two shades lighter.” I didn’t add that I would then go two shades lighter still when I set up the machine. Both Maggie and Ahmed, the other part-timers in the paint section, did the same thing. We’d all asked many times for the machine to be recalibrated or, preferably, replaced as there was definitely something off in its settings, but nothing had been done as yet, and, we knew full well, most likely never would.

“So would I be fairly safe with this magnolia?” He indicated a pale, insipid version of the colour.

“Yes,” I confirmed. “You can’t go too far wrong with magnolia.”

I couldn’t help feeling rather disappointed. I’d hoped he might be a little more adventurous. He gave off a livelier vibe. But maybe he was thinking of his new girlfriend.

He stared at the square centimetre of insipidness for a moment then shook his head. “Nah, need more oomph.”

Thank goodness for that.

“And maybe a different colour for every room?” he mused. He then immediately answered his own question with, “Yes, why not.”

“Excellent,” I beamed. “How many rooms?”

“Kitchen, bathroom, lounge, bedroom, spare bedroom – five.”

“Any hallway?” I prompted, knowing that many people tended to overlook this essential part of the house.

“Oh yes, that too. Six.” He smiled gratefully.

Should I push home the total sale now and send him home staggering under a pile of paint pots? Or should I encourage him to return as often as possible? It would be nice to see him again, but darn, there was that girlfriend – probably. Almost certainly. But not absolutely definitely…

I came up with a cunning plan.

“So,” I suggested with a smile, “how about you take that undercoat for now to get busy with, and a selection of these colour cards to talk over with any co-habitees.” There, how subtle was that? “Now, what square meterage of wall are we talking about?”

Most clients never had a clue so it made for a very refreshing, impressive change when this particular one informed me, “A total of two hundred and twenty-six square metres. Plus the hall, which I’d say will need, oh, thirty square metres maybe? But,” he added, interrupting my mental arithmetic process which was cranking into action to work out how many litres of undercoat he’d need, “there’s no need for consultation over colours. I’m confident that Fionnuala will be more than happy with my choices.”

My heart sank. Fionnuala. An Irish girlfriend, all luscious red hair, green eyes, seductive, lilting accent and perfect skin from all that rain. I hated her. Then, realising that this handsome man was also rather arrogant in assuming his beloved from the Emerald Isle would approve whole-heartedly of his selections, my heart sank a little further. I’d had a couple of boyfriends who’d been way too full of themselves like that. Not a nice feature.

“You see,” he went on, those dimples still issuing a silent siren call to me, “now that she’s fourteen, which is approximately seventy-two in cat years, she sleeps a lot of the time. And besides, cats don’t see colours like we do. They perceive a much more muted version on the whole.”

My heart leapt back up to its proper place. No girlfriend but a cat. And he was a knowledgeable guy. I liked smart, animal-loving men. Especially when they had dimples.

“I didn’t know that,” I admitted. “Which is shameful, since I have a cat too.”

And also a dog, a guinea-pig, two rats, a rabbit, a budgie, a tortoise, four turtles and three goldfish, but I thought I’d hold on to that other information for now. I didn’t want to come over as a frustrated zookeeper.

The reason I had these creatures was because Dolores, who worked at the customer services desk where she exuded calming charm over irate customers, was a volunteer at the town’s animal shelter. She’d quickly assessed me as a soft touch when I began work at Nailed It! and thus I’d rapidly accumulated these formerly abandoned, and in some cases abused, animals. I frequently fostered kittens or puppies too for a week or so if space was running short at the shelter.

“Lovely animals, aren’t they. Very companionable,” he summarised.

That wasn’t the word I’d use for poor dear Fluffles. My one-eared, half-tailed cat had suffered horribly at someone’s hands and was still extremely nervous, even after two years with me. She lurked in corners most of the time, but every now and again my one-sided devotion was rewarded by a purring presence materialising on my lap. Whenever that rare event happened I hardly dared move, apart from to gently stroke her head. A cough or sudden movement on my part would send her skittering away in an instant. It might be one week or several before she got her confidence back.

Goliath, the Chihuahua, was missing an eye and any sort of beauty but was the most loving pet you could wish for, despite enduring total neglect for years. Lettie, the tortoise, had a misshapen shell as evidence of brutal treatment that had left it badly cracked, but all my other waifs and strays were intact physically, just discarded.

“I’m very fond of my cat,” I eventually answered evasively. “She’s a dear.”

“And so’s your blooming varnish,” muttered an old guy stomping past. He’d been browsing the shelves of varnish while we’d been chatting. I admired his wit but not his judgement: Nailed It!’s own-brand varnish was the cheapest on the market. Also the worst, but that was beside the point.

His crabby interruption broke our sharing moment and got me back into business mode. I returned to that mental arithmetic.

“You’ll need twenty-five litres of undercoat for two nice, thick layers. And will you take any topcoat today as well?”

“I’ll take everything,” he replied decisively.

“Everything?” I echoed, a little plaintively. That would mean he wouldn’t need to come back and that would be a shame.

He evidently, and probably fortunately, misinterpreted my disappointment as mild surprise. “Well, if I buy it all in, then I’ll have to get on with the job. There’s a danger my enthusiasm might run out otherwise. I’ll need brushes too, or are rollers better, in your professional opinion?”

“Professional, yes, but personal no,” I replied, with honesty and resignation. “Rollers give an even spread but they tend to splatter paint everywhere, especially on the painter. And you need paint trays and they’re a pain to clean afterwards. Painting takes longer with a brush but it’s more rewarding, I find, and muchless messy.”

“Hmm.” He graciously digested my not very helpful comments. “Thank you. I’ll go with brushes. But presumably not your own-brand ones?”

“You presume correctly,” I smiled.

And so did he.

I would have to keep the quips coming. If I wasn’t going to see him again, then I’d have to extract maximum dimplage from him here and now. Who I was kidding? It wasn’t just the dimples, it was all of him which was alluring: his looks, his gentle humour, his shy-but-confident air.

“So, what shall we—” I began, but was rudely interrupted by the loud thudding of a ten-litre pot of paint crashing onto the counter behind me.

I swung round to see a short, round, red-faced woman glaring at me. I correctly surmised that she was red-faced from lugging the paint all the way through the shop to my department as well as from anger. Behind her was a breathless Dolores, running an agitated hand over her cornrow plaits. She threw me an apologetic eye-roll.

“I tried to explain to this customer that we deal with problems at the reception desk,” she said out loud, “but she insisted on seeing you herself.”

Great. I plastered on a sickly, insincere smile. “Now what seems to be—”

“The problem is that I sent my husband in for a tin of duck egg blue and he comes home with this!” the woman shrieked and shoved the paint can towards me, rather more energetically than necessary. I only just caught it in time to stop it sailing off the edge of the counter and onto the floor. “I marked the colour I wanted on the card but you gave me the wrong one.”

She meant ‘you’ as in any one of the massed ranks of Nailed It!’s employees. I certainly hadn’t seen her before.

“Do you have your—”

“Receipt? Yes.” She slammed that on the counter too.

I reached over and picked it up. The paint purchase had been made at 4.51 pm last Friday. I frowned. That was Ahmed’s shift. He knew how to handle our temperamental paint-mixing machine. Then my frown lifted as I recalled that he’d told me, when we’d overlapped briefly at one o’clock, that he’d had to make an urgent dentist’s appointment for later that day due to a chunk of molar breaking off during supper the previous night and leaving him with raging toothache. Mr Lawson, the assistant manager, stepped in to fill the breach at times of absent staff. He had always refused to believe our claims that the paint machine was off-kilter. So if someone asked for shade A10239 then that’s what he programmed into the machine when what it needed was actually A10235.

I could see from a few splotches on the outside of the tin that it contained paint of a pleasant shade of pale turquoise. Until about a year ago, we’d used lids that incorporated a circle of see-through plastic in the middle so that clients could see what shade of paint they’d purchased. These lids were fractionally more expensive than the ordinary all-metal, opaque ones and it was this same Mr Lawson who’d deemed them unnecessary. He’d instituted a slough of similar cost-cutting practices that were either client- or staff-unfriendly across the shop. None of us failed to notice that this had taken place just before he got his latest company car, an even more upmarket BMW than the previous one, which was only a couple of years old.

The woman kept up a grumbling monologue that I switched off to as I located the department’s stout screw-driver that served to prise paint pots open. I worked my way around the lid, loosening its tight clasp, and finally eased it off to reveal a glistening small sea of a really quite exquisite colour. A lone paintbrush bristle sat on the surface as witness to the fact that a cursory blob of this renegade shade had been smeared on the wall to prove just how wrong it was.

“What a lovely colour!” came a voice.

I’d temporarily forgotten about Mr Dimples.

“It is rather nice, isn’t it?” I agreed, temporarily forgetting about Mrs Red-Face.

“Nice? It’s hideous! Have you ever seen duck’s eggs this colour?”

I hadn’t knowingly ever seen a duck’s egg at all. However, I didn’t get the time to admit this.

“I want my money back,” she went on.

“How much was the paint?” asked Mr Dimples.

“Sixty-four quid,” snapped Mrs Red-Face. “Daylight robbery.”

“I’ll buy it off you,” offered Mr Dimple.

I stared at him. “But what about a different colour for every room?” I reminded him.

“I have to handle the transaction through my till,” chimed in Dolores, who was still lurking.

“Nonsense,” said Mrs Red-Face, seeing Mr Dimples extracting his wallet. “I’m quite happy to let this nice young man buy my paint from me.”

Dolores and I looked at each other. She shrugged.

“Okay, just this once,” she conceded.

Dolores was normally a stickler for the rules. I could only imagine she’d had more shirty customers to deal with than usual today and so her trademark feisty robustness had been ground down to a shadow of its usual self.

“Great.” My handsome, cat-owning client had already laid three twenties on the counter and was delving in his jeans pocket – his snugly-fitting jeans pocket – for the balance in coins.

“Excellent,” beamed his new best friend.

“Would you like me to mix you ten litres of the correct shade?” I offered Mrs Red-Face, although I already knew what the answer would be.

Sure enough I got a haughty snort in response and something along the lines of “I’ll never set foot in this dump again,” although both Dolores and I knew she’d be back. Nailed It! was so very cheap compared with other hardware stores, and people generally were so very tight-fisted.

Stuffing the money into her handbag, Mrs Red-Face flounced off. Dolores trailed back to her desk and a growing queue of grieved and now even grumpier customers. I turned to my turquoise-loving client.

“Sorry for the rude interruption,” I smiled. “Now, I’d better get you that undercoat. And brushes. And you’ll need another twelve and a half litres of topcoat in total. The same shade or some different colours?”

“Actually,” he began. Oh no, that little incident had put him off buying any more of our tinted paints. “Actually, I’ll just take the undercoat and a brush or two. Thinking about it, it would be a bit much to buy it all now.”

He had a slightly devious look as he said that. Was he coming round to my way of thinking that it would be a shame if our paths were never to cross again?

“Yes, it would,” I said firmly, in reply to his voiced observation and my own silent one. “And each time you call in, you can give me progress reports and let me know what Fionnuala thinks of it all.”

“Maybe,” he hesitated, then seemed to pluck up courage, “maybe you could even come round and see the finished result?”

“Maybe I could.” My smile morphed into a cheesy grin.

He cheesed back at me.

We chatted some more as I bustled around, making the brush selection procedure last as long as possible since he did smell so beautifully of manly shower gel and deo. I felt more than a slight pang of disappointment when my most gorgeous client ever eventually staggered off with a ten-litre pot of paint in each hand and brushes tucked under one arm. I’d written a quick note for whoever was on checkout to not charge for the turquoise paint, and if they wanted more details to go to Dolores about it. I knew that whoever it was wouldn’t.

I hoped I’d see Fionnuala’s owner again. I really did.

Interlude

“I’m home!” he calls coming into the hallway, as if I haven’t already heard the car draw up, a door and then the boot open and slam shut, him crunching up the gravel drive and opening the front door. “Did you miss me?”

Not really, truth be told. Still, I do my thing and go and greet him, winding round his legs and liberally coating his jeans with long white and ginger hairs. He tickles my head. That really is rather nice. I can’t help purring.

Then I notice he’s grinning like an idiot. Uh-oh, I’ve seen that look before. He’s in love.

“I’m in love,” he announces.

Told you so.

I’d have thought the awful, evil Tamara was enough to put him off women for life. But evidently not. The man’s a fool.

I stalk off, tail ramrod straight in the air, to show my disapproval. But despite myself, I can’t help stopping and sniffing the two big container-things he brought in with him and dumped, loudly, on the floor.

“It’s paint,” he tells me. “I’m going to brighten this place up.”

Thank goodness. It’s like living in a cave in here.

“And then I shall ask the most beautiful girl in the world to come and admire it,” he calls after me.

Ugh.

I trot off to wipe that silly smile off his face by doing something nasty, and not necessarily in my litter tray.