Albie O’Grady never expected to be smacked in the chest with love in the middle of a shopping centre but smacked he was.
The impact was so profound Albie ground to a halt. Normally not a problem in small-town Levenham’s Marketown, but this was the week leading up to Christmas and the centre was jammed with harassed shoppers, overexcited children, and a roaming choir lustily la-la-la-ing “Deck the Halls” and leaving multiple pile-ups in its wake.
Albie’s abrupt stop caused the woman driving the trolley behind him to plough into his rear. Only a quick recovery prevented him from falling into its basket. An event he was exceedingly grateful for, given the trolley was loaded with savagely spiked silver wire Christmas trees. A fall into that would have seen him picking tinsel from his bum cheeks for a week.
The cause of Albie’s lovestruckness wouldn’t normally have caught his attention. When it came to shopping, especially for the work shed’s all-important afternoon tea, he was a get in, get out kind of guy but today some god-driven pull, some force of nature, some heralding angel, prompted him to look sideways.
And there she was, the future Mrs O’Grady, beaming like the brightest of Christmas stars. Mouth wide, eyes shiny. Dazzling Albie to reindeer-in-the-headlights immobility.
With perfect timing, the choir went silent.
Albie stared, his heart racing. Disbelief and excitement surging through his veins.
‘Excuse me,’ said a testy voice.
He blinked and glanced behind, and quickly stepped aside for trolley lady. ‘Sorry.’
She zoomed off, tutting. Albie refocussed on the girl.
She was perched behind the desk of one of those pop-up shops that, well, popped up in Marketown’s centre atrium at peak gifting periods, like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, and sold themed products that were handy for an on-the-run offering.
To Albie’s disappointment, the moment – as magical as it was – wasn’t some rom-com, eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-room fantasy. The recipient of pop-up girl’s smile was a fussy looking grey-haired woman in a flowery dress and lots of bangles. The woman was gesticulating at the two lurid green Christmas trees sprouting like horns from the top of pop-up girl’s bright red headband.
Pop-up girl laughed and tugged off the headband, releasing a cascade of light brown corkscrew curls, and set it in front of fussy-lady. Then she leaned across the counter to gently twirl a rack teeming with sparkly baubles. The bib of her apron gaped along with her V-necked t-shirt, giving Albie a view of delicious, creamy cleavage and causing what was left of his brain to plummet south.
Oh, she was lovely.
He sighed. Cupid had scored all right. The problem now was what to do about it. He was on work time and the shed staff would be impatient for their milk and biscuits. But how could he walk away when his heart’s future, his life, was at stake?
He swallowed, twitched his fingers, and rocked back and forth on his heels. The choir broke into “All I Want for Christmas”.
‘Is you,’ Albie whispered. Then he sucked in a deep breath and strode for the store.
Flowery dress was taking her time, humming and haa-ing over different Christmas tree baubles, and scouring the rack for alternatives. Albie didn’t mind. It gave him a chance to study the pop-up girl in more detail while he waited.
She wore glasses with big round frames and thick arms the colour of tortoiseshell, and now he was close Albie could see her eyes were a muddy sort of green, not quite olive and not quite brown. A fine sprinkle of pale freckles trailed cutely across the top of her nose and over her cheeks. He imagined lying in a patch of sunshine with her, kissing every one of them before working his way to her lips. Pretty lips too, plump and pale pink, with a sexy bow in the centre that made him think of…
Things he should not be thinking about standing in line mid-afternoon at a pop-up shop in Levenham Marketown.
Albie dropped his gaze to her hands. Both bore smudges of glittery paint. Her fingernails were painted red and each was topped with a tiny green tree. Best of all, not a ring in sight.
She reached again for the rack and Albie caught the silver embroidery on the top left corner of her apron: The Christmas Tree Candy Shop. Below, in a finer script, was a name.
A Christmassy name for his Christmassy girl. It had to be a sign.
He rolled her name over a few times, testing it out. Holly O’Grady. Now that was a name with a ring. Which he’d have to buy. Emeralds and diamonds would work. Green was definitely her colour.
But Albie was getting ahead of himself.
‘These are really sweet,’ said Holly to flowery dress, dangling a bauble of a tan teddy-bear wearing a Santa hat. ‘They come in white and pink too.’
‘Oh!’ said flowery, ignoring Holly and bending to a low hook and lifting a white unicorn sporting a multicoloured horn. ‘This is perfect.’
‘Must be your lucky day. I thought we’d sold out of unicorns. They’re hugely popular.’
Flowery set the unicorn gently on the counter. ‘Can I have her name done in pink?’
‘Of course.’ Holly dragged over her clipboard, picked up a pen and tapped it on the unicorn’s flank. ‘You sure about this one?’
‘Definitely,’ said flowery with a nod, her voice smug.
‘Great. I’ll just take a few details.’ Holly ducked her head to look around flowery and smiled at Albie. ‘I won’t be a moment.’
Startled, Albie gave a goofy sort of wave. ‘No worries.’
Albie’s face burned. A limp wave? Really? That was the best he could do? He narrowed his eyes at the choir as they harmonised the chorus of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, rattling the charity collection tins they carried in time. It was like they’d been watching. The way it felt, his face was probably as crimson as Rudolph’s nose.
‘When would you like to pick it up?’ Holly asked flowery.
‘Any chance you can do it now?’ The woman indicated the supermarket with a jangle of bangles. ‘While I shop? It’s just that we live a fair way out of town.’
Holly glanced at the clipboard and scraped her bottom lip with her top teeth, then she beamed another of those lighthouse-wattage smiles. ‘I’m sure I can manage that for you. Better make it a long shop though.’
Flowery laughed. ‘With this crowd, how can it be anything else?’
With a hoist of her bag, flowery was gone and suddenly Albie was facing his dream.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Sorry to keep you waiting. I guess you’re after a bauble too.’
‘Mmm,’ replied Albie. Up close Holly was even lovelier. His kind of girl. Not fat, not skinny. Sort of squishy-soft, like a toy you never wanted to stop cuddling. Soft body, soft greeny eyes, soft springy hair. He wanted to soppy sigh. And then did.
Holly’s brow furrowed. ‘Are you okay there?’
‘You’re looking a bit funny.’
‘Oh.’ Albie blinked and cleared his throat. ‘Sorry. I’m fine. Bit dazzled.’
She gave an unsure half-smile. ‘Dazzled?’ Then the smile became full and she nodded a few times. ‘It’s the baubles. They can have that effect. Are you looking for something in particular?’
Only her, but Albie couldn’t say that. Yet.
Besides, he needed to pull himself together.
‘Something for my mum?’
‘Too easy. Personalised baubles make great presents. As you can see, we have a big range.’
Albie regarded the overloaded rack. Glittery, shiny, big, small. Elves, Santas, trees, spheres, gingerbread men, stars. Even something that looked like a koala. So many of the damn things. He scratched the back of his neck, trying not to feel panicked, as a man in a baseball cap lined up behind him. His mum would love anything he chose but which would impress Holly?
Nothing jumped out.
‘Sorry,’ he said to Holly.
‘Don’t be. Lots of people find it hard to choose.’
Albie turned the rack, praying for inspiration. She had Christmas trees on her headband. Maybe one of those would do. Or a laughing Santa, to show he had a sense of humour.
‘For God’s sake,’ muttered baseball cap.
Albie clenched his jaw and spun the rack another quarter turn.
A heavily pregnant woman joined the queue behind baseball cap. The choir began warbling “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. Yet another person joined the line. Albie felt every one of them eyeballing him. Sweat prickled his brow.
‘Want some advice?’ asked Holly. ‘If it’s for your mum, go big. Show her how special she is.’ Then she added a wink and Albie’s insides flipped like an Olympic gymnast. The reindeer-in-the-headlights dazzle returned. He dug his nails into his palms before it rendered him completely stupid.
She reached for a red bauble the size of his fist and decorated with a snowy village scene. Albie swallowed as her apron and T-shirt gaped again. He needed to stop perving and get his brain in order.
‘This one’s nice.’ She twisted it around. ‘This is where her name goes. Or the date. Or whatever message you want. Up to you. Just don’t make it too long or it’ll look crowded.’
‘Just her name.’ He considered a bit. ‘And “Love Albie”.’
‘Aww, that’s sweet. So you’re happy with this colour? It comes in blue as well.’
‘No, that’s fine. She likes red.’
‘Great.’ Holly dragged across her clipboard. ‘I’ll just write down the details.’
Albie spelled out his mum’s name, recited his contact number and tapped his credit card, his stomach sinking all the while. He’d behaved like a dill and she’d acted no differently toward him than she had to flowery dress. Friendly, polite. Doing her job with patience and cheer.
‘Thanks, Albie. When would you like it ready by?’
‘I’ll just wait if that’s okay.’ It’d give him time to figure out how to redeem himself.
Holly shook her head. ‘I’m swamped, sorry. And I promised the other lady I’d do her bauble while she shopped and…’ She tipped her head toward the queue, now three-deep, and made a pained face. ‘How about this time tomorrow?’
Albie checked his watch. He was meant to be on deliveries tomorrow afternoon, not a job he could easily fob off. His hesitation lasted all of three seconds. It’d no doubt cost him, but he’d work something out. This was too important.
He gave Holly his best I’m-a-great-bloke-really smile. ‘It’s a date.’
Albie arrived in the Marketown carpark with two minutes to spare. He used his sleeve to wipe sweat from his brow and stepped out into the heat. Checking the carpark for anyone watching, he surreptitiously lifted his work shirt away from his chest and gave himself a quick sniff.
Strawberries. Always bloody strawberries.
He sighed. What was a bloke to do though? They had forty thousand plants that needed to be picked, the produce washed and packed and delivered to local retailers, restaurants and pubs. His sister was doing the delivery run today. It had cost him dearly too – supervising picking on Boxing Day – but Holly was worth it. He could feel it in his heart, and Albie was a man who believed in his heart.
He strode across the parking lot, his step bouncy, his head loaded with all the cool lines he’d been practising.
Holly was carefully painting an inscription on the belly of a Santa when Albie arrived at the desk. The tip of her pink tongue was pressed over the left corner of her bottom lip, her face scrunched cutely, and her glasses sliding down her nose. The choir, still wandering around causing human traffic chaos, was trilling “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. As far as Albie was concerned, the faithful, along with everyone else in the place, could go jump. He wanted time alone with Holly.
She glanced up, smiling broadly as she pushed her glasses back in place. ‘Albie, hi. Can you give me a sec? I just want to finish this.’
Albie’s chest ballooned. She’d remembered his name!
No worries at all. Not when it came to the future Mrs O’Grady, who was looking even more adorable than yesterday.
Her hair was up today. The corkscrew curls piled into a messy bun and secured with a sparkly green scrunchy. Nested in the centre of the bun was a green felt elf carrying a red-and-white striped candy cane. The sight of it made Albie want to dance her around the shopping centre. Holly was not only squishy-cuddly gorgeous, she was clearly a girl who didn’t take herself seriously.
‘Has anyone ever told you that you smell of strawberries?’ she said, not looking up.
He chuckled then suddenly sobered. ‘You don’t like it?’
‘No. It’s nice. Unusual, that’s all. It’s not often a girl comes across a man smelling of strawberries.’ She regarded him from under her lashes, mouth tilting in a teasing smile. ‘Body wash?’
‘What? No!’ Albie shook his head so hard his cheeks wobbled. ‘No, no. Strawberry farmer. The smell’s an occupational hazard. Not that there’s anything wrong with a man using strawberry body wash, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I’m not.’ He cleared his throat and considered adding that he used plain old Imperial Leather and decided that was probably a bit much.
She set down her brush and regarded him for a long moment with sparkling eyes. Albie did his best to look handsome and non-strawberry bodywash using.
‘A strawberry farmer, huh? Let me guess. You hate strawberries. Can’t stand the smell, sight or taste.’
‘Nope. I love them. Well, I love ours. As for other producers’…’ He sucked air between his teeth and gave a sad shake of his head.
Her mouth dropped. ‘Really?’
She thrust a hand to her chest and swooned. ‘Albie, you’re a man after my own heart. I love strawberries too.’
The gesture was so gorgeous and funny it was on the tip of Albie’s tongue to reply ‘I love you’ when a woman with a baby on her hip and a small child clinging to her free hand bumped into him from behind. ‘Sorry,’ she said, not sounding sorry at all.
Albie speared a look at the choir, still belting out “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, calling customers to Holly’s pop-up stand like a bunch of romance-ruining Pied Pipers.
By the time he refocused on Holly, she was bent below the counter, retrieving his bauble. She opened the lid and lifted it out for him to inspect. The back of the bauble had Belinda spelled out in fancy gold letters with Love Albie in smaller script beneath.
‘Perfect. Thanks. Mum will love it.’
‘Make sure to gift wrap it properly.’ She set the bauble back in its box and passed it over with another of her stomach tumbling winks. ‘Us girls like pretty things.’
Albie tapped the top of the box and tried to remember all the chat up lines he’d practised, but she’d put his wink-dazzled brain on the blink and all he could do was stare. Holly was so lovely with her freckles and glasses and pink cheeks and squishiness and elf in her hair, he ached with want.
The baby behind began to howl. The small child started up with a ‘Muuuuuuum’.
‘Anything else?’ asked Holly.
Albie blew out a breath. ‘Er, yeah. Sorry. Bit dazzled again. By the…’ Face heating horribly, he gestured at the rack.
‘Baubles. I know. It happens.’ A twinkle appeared in her eye. ‘Perhaps you’re after another one? For your grandmother? Sister?’ She paused. ‘Girlfriend?’
‘No girlfriend.’ Albie caught his tongue before it added ‘yet’. ‘One for my gran.’
‘Not a problem. Something different or the same design?’
The last thing Albie wanted was to embarrass himself with bauble indecision again. ‘Better get the same.’
‘Smart idea. Saves arguments over who scored the bigger bauble. Different colour though, of course. So it looks like you gave it some thought.’
Holly leaned across the bench and plucked a blue bauble. No scoop-necked T-shirt today, sadly. Just a standard fitting red-and-white-striped tee to match her candy cane carrying hair elf. A good thing. Cleavage would leave him a gibbering mess.
She checked the bauble for defects, put it in a box and began filling in her clipboard. ‘Same thing? Your gran’s name and Love Albie?’
‘Excuse me?’ said the woman behind. The baby’s howls had reduced to snivels, the child’s ‘Muuuuuuum’ more a one-note whine. ‘Will you be much longer?’
‘About thirty seconds,’ said Holly.
The words made Albie want to snivel worse than the baby. Thirty seconds wasn’t enough time for him to impress her and there was no point waiting, not with the queue as it was. It’d be ages before Holly was free again and hanging around would only make him look even more dorkish.
With a suppressed sigh he reached for his wallet and tried not to feel hard done by. At least by buying a second bauble he had an excuse to come back.
Albie spelled out his gran’s same and tapped his card.
‘Same time tomorrow?’ Holly asked and for a moment Albie thought he heard hope in her voice. It was hard to tell though. The rotten choir was nearing and booming out “Deck the Halls”. Albie wished they’d deck off.
‘Would a bit later be okay?’ With a bit of luck, by then the choir would have gone home. Along with all the bauble hunters.
‘Of course. Whatever suits.’ Holly flicked a wry look at the queue. ‘I won’t be going anywhere.’
‘Good to hear.’ Albie turned to leave, then stopped and nodded at her hair. ‘I like your elf. It’s cute.’
He strode off, his heart galloping in anticipation that she’d understand he meant the cuteness was all hers.
Albie stepped out of the flow of human traffic and stared at the chaos. Yeah, it was hot outside but that didn’t mean everyone in Levenham had to find sanctuary in Marketown’s air-conditioning. The library had air-con, so did the town’s second supermarket, not to mention most of the other shops.
And it certainly didn’t bloody mean that rotten choir couldn’t find somewhere else to panhandle. Didn’t they have homes to go to?
Keeping careful hold of his gift, he used his sleeve to rub sweat from his forehead and mentally cursed his stupid belief that a later arrival would give him more time with Holly. The line-up for her little stand was four-deep already. Who knows what it’d be if the choir began casting its “O Come, All Ye Faithful” sorcery.
Trouble was mornings were out for Albie, especially with the weather so hot and the fruit maturing fast and demand at its peak. Picking started at sunrise. Any later and the heat made the berries too prone to bruising. Then there was washing and sorting and packing, and a bazillion other tasks around the farm. O’Gradys didn’t just grow berries. There was also a two-thousand tree apple orchard and beef cattle to look after.
Any other day he’d be able to stick around until closing, but tonight was his brother Scott’s birthday and the family always made a fuss because having a birthday two days before Christmas sucked. Albie had to be washed, dressed and back at the farm by six at the latest or there’d be trouble. Big trouble. Family came first in the O’Grady household.
He regarded his present. A half-kilo punnet of strawberries, each berry painstakingly selected by him, every fruit pristine and perfectly ripe, and washed and ready to eat. The finest of O’Grady produce. So much for his fantasy of watching one pass Holly’s sweet lips, for watching her smile in delight at the flavour. The rate her queue was building, Albie would be lucky to get served.
But standing around wasn’t getting him anywhere either. With a breath, he plunged into the throng.
The queue was down by one when Albie arrived. He eyed the people in front. A middle-aged man in stained fluoro work clothes and lace-up work boots was at the counter. Nothing to worry about there. If fluoro dude was anything like Albie, he’d be straight in and out. Second in line might be trouble. She was older, a large tote resting at her feet, the sort that’d settle in for a chat and clog things up.
The girl directly in front Albie wasn’t sure about. She was younger, early twenties perhaps, with sleek brown hair and tight-fitting lower bum-cheek exposing shorts. As if sensing his scrutiny, she glanced behind, her nose screwed up. At first, her gaze was dismissive – pegging him as just another worker – then her eyes widened and she subjected Albie a deliberate up and down, her mouth lifting into a smile.
Albie twitched a polite one back and feigned interest the pharmacy’s gift table display. The girl was pretty but not a scrap on his squishy lovely Holly. Shorty-shorts twirled a lock of hair, before finally getting the hint and facing forward.
As predicted, fluoro dude was served in moments. Albie caught a good look at Holly before large tote blocked his view. She was as cute as ever in her red apron with a green T-shirt beneath, and glittery paint staining her fingers. A bit more pink-cheeked than the previous two days but still gorgeous.
He smiled at her hair, wound up on the crown of her head, then broke into an enormous grin as he spotted not one elf but two snuggled next to each other in the bun’s centre.
Two elves. A secret message?
Large tote rotated the bauble stand with irritating slowness as she chatted to Holly. Albie shifted his weight from foot to foot, willing her to hurry up. Shorty-shorts had her phone raised and was taking a selfie. Catching himself in the corner of her screen, Albie looked aside to avoid being snapped and scowled when he spotted the choir heading his way, their voices lifting and collection tins rattling as they came to the end of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.
His brows furrowed further. If those date-sabotaging yodellers dared…
They dared. Within moments, Albie’s ears were assaulted with the opening lyrics of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”.
He dragged his free hand down his cheek and slumped his shoulders, resigned to his fate. Sure enough, just as the choir reached O come, let us adore him another woman joined the queue.
A woman he recognised.
‘Albie O’Grady!’ Unconcerned by his dirty work clothes, she hugged him heartily. ‘How splendid! It’s been, what? Five years?’
‘Something like that.’
‘How are you?’ She gave him a once-over, expression approving. ‘I have to say you’ve grown up well. Very much the handsome man now. Must be all that outdoor work. You did go back to the farm like Scott, didn’t you?’ At Albie’s nod, she continued. ‘Speaking of which, how is the little mischief-maker? Behaving himself, I hope. And Lisette? Such a clever girl.’
She rattled on, Albie squashing in answers when he could. Mrs Montanari had been one of his favourite teachers at Levenham High and normally he’d be happy to chin-wag, but how was Albie meant to flirt with composure with her watching over his shoulder?
Large tote finally made her choice and wandered off, giving Albie a clear view of Holly and Holly of the waiting line. For a moment, her shoulders drooped, then she locked eyes with Albie and her Christmas star beam shone out. Oh, she was lovely!
Mrs Montanari continued merrily with her student update. ‘You know Harry Argyle, don’t you, Albie? Oh, perhaps not.’ She tapped her finger against her chin. ‘It was his brother Eddie who was in your year, wasn’t it?’
For a moment, Albie was too dazzled to register the words, then he caught Mrs Montanari’s expectant expression. ‘No, Scott was with Eddie.’
‘Ah, that’s right. Of course. You were more Dylan Smith’s era.’
Albie did his best to listen and nod in the right places, but his gaze kept sliding to Holly. She was so adorable with her elves and apron and dangly Christmas earrings – today, a pair of goofy, red-nosed reindeers. Her good humour amazed him. Dealing with indecisive customers all day would test anyone’s patience, but somehow Holly kept her cheer.
Suddenly, Mrs Montanari leaned close. ‘Would you like me to put in a good word for you?’
Albie blinked. ‘Pardon?’
She nodded toward the counter. ‘With Holly. The girl you can’t stop staring at.’
‘You know her?’
‘Not well, but I was on the interview panel for her new job.’
Albie’s heart began to gallop. ‘New job?’
‘Indeed.’ The Milky Way had nothing on the gleam in Mrs Montanari’s expression. ‘Holly’s going to be our new art teacher.’
‘Oh,’ said Albie, with embarrassing breathlessness before his insides damn-near exploded with delight. Not knowing whether Holly was in Levenham temporarily or for good had been a nagging worry. The pop-up shop would likely close Christmas Eve or a few days after, and having never spotted Holly around town before, there was a chance she wasn’t local.
Instead, she’d be working at Levenham High. A teacher!
Albie’s mouth split wide. Mrs Montanari laughed and patted his shoulder. ‘You always were a darling boy.’ Then with a low ‘good luck’, she pushed him toward the counter.
Holly was free.
‘Hi,’ said Albie, punnet clutched to his chest and still grinning like the lovesick fool he was.
‘Hi, Albie. Sorry about the wait. It’s been mad.’ She made a show of looking past him and shook her head. ‘I don’t think it’s going to get any better either. But that’s Christmas for you. Now…’ She reached under the counter and placed a box in front of him. ‘All done.’
‘Don’t you want to check it?’
‘It’ll be fine.’ He lowered the punnet to the counter and used his fingertips to nudge it toward her. ‘I bought you a present.’
‘Oh, aren’t you a sweetheart!’ Her cheeks pinkening even more than they already were, she popped the plastic lid. The scent of perfectly ripe strawberries wafted between them. Holly closed her eyes and inhaled. ‘Beautiful.’ She beamed at Albie. ‘Thank you.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s nothing.’ He waited. ‘Aren’t you going to try one?’
Biting her bottom lip, she checked the queue again. The lines appearing between her brow prompted Albie to check too. Two more people had joined the wait. Mrs Montanari was feigning disinterest in their conversation and waggling her finger to the chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.
‘I really shouldn’t…’ Then she giggled like a naughty child. ‘Maybe just quickly.’
Holly selected a strawberry, bit into it, and moaned in a way that had Albie’s skin puckering. ‘Oh!’ She swallowed and sucked on her lips. The choir broke into “Joy To The World”. ‘Oh, that was divine!’
‘Really?’ said Albie, his head spinning.
‘The best strawberry I’ve ever tasted.’ She gazed longingly at the berries and sighed. ‘I could eat the whole punnet.’ She breathed another extended sigh and looked up. ‘Sadly, a girl has to work. Thank you, Albie. That was really kind.’
‘Plenty more where that came from.’
‘I’m sure, but I think these will do me for a while.’ She closed the lid and set the punnet beneath the counter.
Albie continued to stare and grin, vaguely aware he should be saying something but unable to remember what. A tiny drop of strawberry juice was pinking the corner of Holly’s lips and all he could think of was licking it off.
Mrs Montanari uttered a low groan.
Albie gave a start. Quickly, he opened his mouth, but Holly got in first.
‘Was there anything else?’ She winced, her next words gushing out. ‘Sorry. I don’t mean to rush you and I’d love to chat and learn more about your beautiful strawberries but I’m really busy. I don’t think Levenham has ever had a personalised Christmas bauble shop before. Everyone wants one.’ Colour flooded her cheeks. She pressed her fingertips to them. ‘Listen to me complaining! It’s all good.’ She spread her hands wide. ‘And it’s Christmas!’
Albie was torn between panic at his lack of progress and wanting to hug her. He hadn’t achieved anything he’d planned, and he was setting poor Holly back by holding her up. He looked left, right, then at Mrs Montanari. His former teacher raised a single eyebrow. The mum with a pram at the end of the line regarded him with purse-mouthed irritation.
The only thing for it was to come back tomorrow, and for that he needed a reason. He tapped the top of his bauble box. ‘I’d better get one for my other gran.’
‘Wonderful idea,’ said Holly, giving a little clap. ‘Can’t have one being jealous of the other. What colour?’
They went through the process again. Holly adding his order to her list and Albie tapping his card.
‘I’ll put you down for pick-up the same time tomorrow?’
Albie scanned the shopping centre. It was an ant’s nest of activity. People zooming all over the place. Except for the hoodoo choir. They were just getting in the way and annoying everyone with their mischievous carolling. If it was like this today, Christmas Eve was bound to be worse.
But what else could he do?
‘Sure. See you then.’ It was Albie’s turn to wink. ‘I might even bring another present.’
Feral. Completely feral, that’s what Marketown was like. And from the warbling over the other side of the atrium, that rotten jinxing choir was still at it.
It was six-thirty Christmas Eve and Albie’s belly was churning. He should have been here hours ago, but Sod’s Law dictated that on the one day he needed an easy run, everything had gone wrong.
First, the packing shed’s refrigeration room developed a fault, which was annoying but nothing on the drama that hit after picking ended and the farm’s expensive computerised precision irrigation system packed up. Strawberries were shallow-rooted plants, sensitive to water stress. Even a small change in moisture uniformity could affect production, and more heat was forecast for the next few days.
Albie’s sister was usually a gun when it came to troubleshooting computers but even a call to the irrigation firm’s technical hotline couldn’t save the day. With the district technician four hundred kilometres away, on his way to family for Christmas, they were alone. Albie’s dad had regarded the system with his hands on his hips for several seconds then shaken his head and got to work. They’d spent the late afternoon hauling out hoses and setting up the old sprinklers, praying it’d be enough to get them through the next few days without too much loss.
By the time he’d finished, Albie was covered in sweat and dust, certain his every step released a trail sickly-sweet compost heap stink and body odour, and in no fit state to visit anyone let alone the future Mrs O‘Grady.
On a positive note, the smell would deter anyone from waylaying him for a chat.
He peered across the heads of shoppers toward Holly’s pop-up store. His jaw dropped.
‘You’re shitting me?’ he said loud enough for the woman hustling past to hear. She cast him a filthy look. ‘Sorry,’ Albie muttered, pulling off his broad hat. He held it to his belly, unable to believe his eyes.
The queue for Holly’s little stand was at least ten-deep, with another couple of shoppers hovering nearby. He pushed his way closer, angling in from the side so he could observe Holly behind her counter.
She was smiling but even Albie could see it was fragile. She was still gorgeous though, outsparkling any bauble and Christmas light. The sight of her alone made him feel brighter, happier, as if the troubles of the day had never been.
Elves again decorated her bun, but the style was unravelling and only a tangle of hair was keeping one elf from plummeting to its death. Boxes covered her counter, her paint-stained hands whipping over them as she hunted for orders. Two water bottles stood empty at the end along with a half-eaten apple, it’s flesh long gone brown.
Albie scanned the bench. No spare water, no lollies or muesli bar or other treat to keep her going. His jaw clenched. His lovely girl probably hadn’t had a break all day. Not good enough. Not good enough at all. He strode for the supermarket. Two bottles of water and a packet of Gummy Bears later Albie was out, focus only on Holly as he dodged his way to her side.
He waited until her latest customer had finished before ducking around the counter. ‘Drink,’ he ordered, shoving an open water bottle at her.
‘Albie,’ she breathed, hand going to her chest. A hulking, bald man stepped impatiently forward, his piggy eyes narrowing. Holly uttered a quick ‘excuse me for a tick’ and faced Albie properly. ‘What are you doing back here?’
‘Helping you survive Christmas.’ He wiggled the bottle, water splashing his hand.
For a moment she regarded it without understanding, then blinked hard and bit her lip. ‘You brought me water?’
‘You looked like you needed it.’ Smiling, Albie gently took her hand and wrapped it around the bottle. ‘Drink.’ She did so thirstily. He set the spare down, tore open the Gummy Bear packet and held it out.
She laughed and wiped her mouth, the look on her face more precious than Christmas, and burrowed her hand into the pack. She popped a couple of bears and closed her eyes for a second. ‘How did you know I liked Gummy Bears?’
Albie shrugged. ‘Lucky guess.’
Baldy drummed a forefinger. Albie shot him a death stare. Baldy slid his hand off the counter and shoved it behind his back.
Holly rushed to the rescue. ‘Sorry, sorry. Mr…?’
‘Reynolds,’ said baldy tightly, casting a wary look at Albie, who returned fire with a bland smile.
She checked her list and danced her fingers over her piles of boxes. ‘That’s right. Three angels for three angelic little girls.’ She set the boxes in front of him. ‘If you’d like to check them over?’ She left the man to it and beamed at Albie. All real and all full wattage. ‘Thank you. Again.’
‘You’re welcome. Again.’ He lifted his hands. ‘No strawberries though.’
‘That’s okay. Another time, perhaps.’
Albie opened his mouth to set a date for that other time date, but baldy was acting restless.
‘All fine?’ Holly asked.
Baldy mumbled a ‘yes’ and ‘thanks’ and hurried off. The next person stepped up, and Albie took that as his cue to get out of Holly’s space. Hands thrust in his pockets and resisting the urge to whistle, he made his way to the end of the line. It had been a bugger of a day, yet his mood was flying sky-high like Santa’s sleigh.
Another time, his beautiful squishy soft girl with her lighthouse beam had said. A promise. It had to be.
There was no stopping Albie’s soppy sigh, so loud the bloke in front of him eyed Albie as though he was the world’s biggest weirdo and took an unsubtle step closer to the person in front.
Albie grinned and gazed around the shopping centre. Suddenly, instead of looking feral, it rang with festive cheer. A few people were on a mission but there were plenty throwing waves and calling out hellos and merry Christmases or stopping to chat with friends. There were silly Santa hats and novelty jewellery, trolleys loaded with festive food and drink, kids bouncing and laughing. The centre buzzed with excitement and community.
And music. Choir music, growing louder as the singers slowly approached Holly’s little stand. They paused not far away, their voices softening as their carol ended. A few people clapped. A little girl darted forward to throw some coins into a charity tin.
Their lead lifted an arm and counted them into the next carol. Albie braced himself.
O come, all ye faithful.
Of course it bloody was. Albie breathed in, breathed out. He could damn-near feel the hex of it circling the stand. It was only a matter of time before someone stood behind him, lengthening the queue and poor Holly’s day, and scuppering his chance of time alone with her.
The line moved forward. Albie followed, telling himself it would be okay, determined to hang on to his sinking mood. No matter how many turned up, this time he would ask her out. No messing about, no brain-fried descent into dopey dazzled land. He’d ask and if anyone dared to complain about him taking up time they could just deck off with that rotten choir.
Albie was a man on a Christmas mission.
To his surprise, by the time he reached Holly only two people had lined up behind him. Two people too many but breathing space all the same.
‘Here you go,’ she said, setting two boxes in front him, one with a round green sticker on top, the other plain. She patted the former. ‘That’s your gran’s. This,’ she traced a circle around the top of the latter, ‘is yours. But you’re not to open it until Christmas.’
Holly had made him a present. A present!
He stared at her stupidly, as soggy with love as a muddy puddle.
She laughed. ‘Stop looking at me like that. You don’t know what’s in the box yet.’ She leaned close. She smelled of Gummy Bears and sweetness and hope. ‘It could be total trash.’
‘It won’t be.’ Nothing to do with Holly could be trashy.
The centre’s loudspeaker ping-pong-pinged, announcing an alert. A little boy who’d lost his mum. The disturbance reset Albie’s addled brain. Holly was still close. This was as private as they were going to get.
‘Look, Holly, I was wondering—’
She pressed a finger to his lips and shook her head. ‘Not now.’
Not now? This was his last chance. Who knows when he’d get to see her again?
She leaned back. ‘Merry Christmas, Albie. And thank you for the water and Gummy Bears. That was really sweet of you.’
‘No worries, but can I at least—’
‘Another time, hey?’
Albie’s head was about to explode. ‘There might not be another time and I want to—’
‘Albie,’ she said in a tone that was pure schoolmarm. ‘People are waiting.’ She softened. ‘It’ll be okay, I promise.’ At his hesitation, she smiled and winked. ‘Remember, Christmas comes to those who wait.’ Then she tipped her head to the side and called up the next in line.
Christmas Day brought a mocking blue sky and a sun that was too bright for Albie’s tired eyes. After a fractured night’s sleep, he was convinced Holly’s gift was a consolation prize. A boxed message meaning “You’re a nice bloke but not for me”.
He’d done so much wrong. Stared like a dill. Dithered over his bauble choice. Talked like the village idiot. Stank like a compost heap. No wonder Holly had ordered him to leave. She was probably embarrassed to be seen with him.
Yet hope was a persistent beast and as the morning moved on, Albie began to itch. What if he was wrong? What if Holly’s gift meant something else? At the first signal from his mum, he began to sheepdog his noisy family toward the lounge for the Great Unwrapping.
They sauntered in, yacking and ribbing each other, his Aunt Deborah swaying her hips and singing along with Kylie Minogue to “Santa Baby” on the stereo. His Uncle Evan patted her bum before leaning down to whisper something in her ear and kissing her neck. Grandpa O’Grady had donned a set of felt antlers and was pretending to charge Albie’s gran. The littlies were waving arms and bouncing against one another. Even Albie’s mum and dad were holding hands.
Piles of presents surrounded the Christmas tree, as they did every year. Albie’s gifts were stacked in a corner, clumsily wrapped and labelled with festive stickers. There was only one he cared about, the plain little box he’d reluctantly placed there the night before, gritting his teeth at the urge to snatch it back and rip open the lid. But Holly had said no opening until Christmas, and Albie had complied, scared that disobedience would somehow jinx her promise that it’d be okay, and he’d had enough of jinxing for this festive season.
It had to be okay. It was Christmas. And at Christmas wishes were meant to come true.
His mum distributed the gifts, a job she’d done for years and adored and refused to give up. The room filled with the sound of ripping paper and oohs and ahs, calls of thanks and blown kisses, and squealing, hyperexcited children.
‘Is this yours, Albie?’ she asked, waggling Holly’s gift. ‘It was with your pile but I can’t see a label.’
‘Yeah,’ said Albie, trying to sound casual when his insides were squirming. He took the box and squatted back on his pouffe. With the oldies taking up all the recliners and sofa, the younger ones had to make do with ancient footstools, chairs dragged in from the kitchen or the floor.
One at a time, he rubbed his sweaty palms on his shorts then levered open the lid. A layer of tissue paper covered the contents. So far, no surprise. He glanced around the room, at his happy family buoyant with celebration and the love they shared so easily. No one was looking at him. He pushed the tissue aside. His body slumped.
Yep, a consolation prize red bauble. Still, it was nice that she’d given him something and there was still a chance of an inscription. A merry Christmas or the like.
One thing he was certain, there’d be no Love Holly.
Gently, Albie extracted the bauble. Gold figures glittered its surface. For a moment he was so discombobulated they blurred, then with two blinks the inscription cleared.
Albie read and read again, disbelief morphing into joy. Then he jerked upright, the empty box tumbling to the floor, and punched an arm in the air. ‘Yes!’
Silence fell. His bemused family stared.
He grinned at them. ‘Sorry.’ He tossed the bauble and caught it. ‘Special present.’
From a very special girl.
He eyed the door to the kitchen. ‘I just…’ He pointed. ‘Back in a minute.’
Albie was reaching into his rear pocket before he’d left the room, and dialling before he’d made it outside.
‘Merry Christmas, this is Holly,’ answered a cheerful voice.
‘Merry Christmas, Holly.’
‘Ah, Albie.’ She laughed. ‘You opened your present.’
‘I did. You know, you could have just written down your number yesterday.’
‘True, but where would be the fun in that? And I was busy.’ Her voice softened, the tone almost shy. ‘Was it worth it? The wait?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, waltzing himself in a circle under the perfect blue dome of the sky, the family’s motley crew of canines chasing his legs. ‘Yeah, it was. Couldn’t have wished for a better present.’
‘Well, that’s good to hear. Now, Albie O’Grady who smells deliciously of my favourite fruit, don’t you have something to ask me?’
© Cathryn Hein 2020