A Perfect Fit

I looked down from my stepladder and saw a dark shape silhouetted in the open doorway of my shop. Paul couldn’t see me from where he stood, but I could see him – tall, handsome and looking so lost that my heart clenched.

He’d come to say goodbye, for good this time. This time I was the one who had spectacularly messed up.

I was taken back to the day he turned up out of the blue, two summers ago.

It was a roaring hot day like today. I’d propped the shop door open to let in the smallest of breezes along with a shaft of sunshine and suddenly he was there, filling the doorway.

I carried on serving my customer, Judy, who had brought in an anniversary cross-stitch for framing. As I went through a range of colours for the mount, I was too scared to look again in case I was seeing things.

“Are you OK, Debbie?” Judy asked. “You’re shaking.”

“Am I?” I tried to laugh it off, changing the subject. “How about this pale green?”

While Judy went through the different colours I lost myself in the past.

I’d been with Paul since we were fourteen. Then, when we were twenty-one, he upped and left with no explanation except to say he was no good for me, whatever that meant.

His best friend, Max, was hurt by his sudden departure, too, and for a while Max and I went out, but there was no romance.

I knew I’d never love anyone like I loved Paul and Max was only looking for company.

Paul grew up in a children’s home and he always said I gave him the roots he lacked. Some roots!

“I can’t make up my mind and you have someone waiting.” Judy stepped back from the counter. “Serve this young man first.”

“It’s all right,” Paul said. “I’m in no hurry, but for what it’s worth, I think you should go with the pale green. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and the green will set it off perfectly.”

His eyes twinkled at Judy and she blushed. He’d always been charm on a stick. Shame it had never meant anything.

Paul was bigger than I remembered. His shoulders were broader and he looked strong and powerful. I’d never seen him with a beard before, but with it he was even more attractive, and his hair was darker and slightly longer on top.

“Pale green it is, then,” Judy said. “When will it be ready, Debbie?”

“This time next week.”


I worked out the cost and she paid me, but before leaving she beamed up at Paul.

“Thank you.”

He was always being thanked because he just couldn’t help being nice. He gathered up lost pets and injured wild animals.

It was only me he was capable of hurting.

“Hi, Debbie,” he said when Judy had left. “You look great.”

“What do you want?”

I sounded cold, but it was nothing to how brittle I felt inside.

“To see you,” he replied. “I was hoping we could have a coffee or lunch. I’m sure Carol would let you have some time off.”

“It isn’t up to Carol. The shop is my responsibility now. I took over the lease when she retired and I live in the flat above.”

“Really?” He looked genuinely delighted. “And you run craft workshops here, too? That’s amazing, Debbie.”

The cold feeling inside me intensified. Love, longing and regret had morphed into bitterness and suspicion.

“So, lunch?”

“No, thank you.”

“Coffee, then?”

“You don’t get it, do you, Paul? I’d like you to leave.”

He looked hurt and as he turned to walk away I realised I had never stopped loving him, however much I told myself otherwise. Even more reason to keep my distance.

An hour later, the shop was quiet. I was leaning on the counter flicking through a supplier’s brochure when I heard footsteps.

I looked up with a smile which vanished as I saw him, a paper bag in one hand and a cappuccino in a take-away cup in the other.

“Oh, it’s you.”

“I’m not looking for forgiveness,” he said. “I haven’t come back expecting you to fall in my arms.”

“Good, because you’d be disappointed.”

“Everything’s changed round here.”

“It’s been three years. Maybe you just don’t belong here any more.”

“I don’t belong anywhere.” He sounded so sad that I felt the tiniest crack in my resolve. “This was the only place that ever felt like home, but I blew that, didn’t I?”

“Get to the point, Paul,” I said to stem the sudden rush of sympathy.

“I came back to see Max, but I wanted to see you, too.”

“Well, you’ve seen me,” I said. “Mission accomplished. Thanks for the coffee and cake.”

I could see my words stung him. They certainly stung me. I had had no idea I was capable of being so harsh.

After that he popped into the shop every now and then, sometimes with coffee, sometimes with an ice-cream. It took ages before I started to thaw and we were into autumn before he began to tell me what he’d been up to.

“I’ve been moving about the country working as a casual gardener, but it’s time I settled down and started my own business properly. I can’t live in a beaten-up campervan for ever.”

He looked at me and the ice inside me threatened to melt.

“Leaving you was the biggest mistake of my life, Debbie.”

How do you make a mistake like that? How do you think you don’t love someone if you do?

“I don’t want to go over all that again,” I warned him.

“You’re the only one for me, Debbie,” he said. “No-one else measures up.”

* * * *

I didn’t make the next year easy for him, but last summer, in a moment of weakness, I gave in and agreed to go out on a date with him.

I insisted that we didn’t talk about the past, so he talked about the garden behind the shop and asked if he could sort it out for me.

“It’ll be good practice,” he said. “And maybe you could put a card up in your window for me.”

It wasn’t long before instead of opening my bedroom curtains on to a tangle of brambles and weeds, I looked down on swirling flower-beds and a lawn.

“He’s really settled, isn’t he?” my mother said as she watched him toiling in the garden. “I know it sounds corny, but he went away a boy and came home a man.”

“Who’s to say he’s home?” I said. “Who’s to say he won’t take off again when he goes off me?”

“Oh, darling. He didn’t go off you. You were both so young and he was too immature to cope with his feelings. Look at him out there. Digging, planting, making it pretty.

“People who are about to flit don’t plant shrubs. He’s even got a vegetable patch, for goodness’ sake.”

I wasn’t convinced. Even the van he bought with his name on the side didn’t convince me he was back to stay. He’d rented a flat, but I knew he could up and leave when the fancy took him.

Every week brought more colour to the garden and my life and I realised how drab my days had been without Paul.

He turned up at my flat for breakfast one morning with hot pastries and take-away coffee from the bakery. I was still in my dressing-gown, yawning and rubbing my eyes.

“How can you be so cheerful and awake?” I said, faintly disgusted that anyone could be so chirpy so early.

“Because I have a lot to be cheerful about,” he said. “Today’s the day.”

A cold sliver of fear went through me.

“You’re moving on?”

“No. Never again. I know you don’t want to talk about the past, but we have to. Because until we do, we can’t move on.”

He put his coffee down and reached into his pocket, taking out a tiny box.

“No,” I said. “Don’t say it.”

He looked so crestfallen.

“But I love you, Debbie.”

I closed his fingers round the box.

“No,” I repeated. “I’m sorry, Paul. I think you should go.”

It didn’t matter what Mum said; he’d let me down once, so what was to stop him doing it again?

He pushed the box back in his pocket and left, thus proving me right, and my heart broke all over again.

I missed him coming round and I struggled to keep the garden looking nice. I still saw his van driving round and I knew he worked for some of my customers.

* * * *

And now he was back. I stepped down from the ladder and as he turned round I saw his face light up briefly before sadness fell again like a curtain over his beautiful eyes.

“You’ve come to say goodbye.”

“Would it make life easier for you if I did?”

It was the last thing I wanted, but I couldn’t tell him that.

“You must do what you want, like you always have.”

He winced.

“Let me explain why I left when I did,” he said. “Then, if you still want me to go away, I will.”

“OK. I’ll lock up the shop. We can sit in the garden for a few minutes.”

Outside, he couldn’t resist threading the honeysuckle through the trellis and pulling up some weeds.

“You need a gardener,” he said with a sad laugh as he sat beside me on the bench.

He hesitated for a moment, then began.

“For seven years you were the one steady thing in my life, the only person I loved. I was happier than I’d ever been. Then my father contacted me.”

“He did? You didn’t say!”

“I was so excited.”

He let out a small laugh.

“I wanted to surprise you. I’d always believed I’d been put in care because my father couldn’t cope after my mum died, but I was wrong. He rejected me, Debbie. He wanted a new life and I wasn’t part of it.”

I reached across the table and clasped his hand. How could anyone reject their own flesh and blood?

“He told you this?”

He nodded.

“His advice to me was to forget about getting married and have a life instead. I’ve never been one for self-pity, but when I looked at him all I saw was a frightened, grieving five-year-old sent to live with strangers.” He broke off and rubbed at his eyes. “I thought, what if I turn out like him?”

“But you’re not like him!”

“I know. I wasn’t thinking straight after I saw him. I thought it was better to leave you than hurt you later on. It was only afterwards, when I’d had time to calm down and think about it, that I realised what a stupid mistake I’d made.”

I wanted to believe him, but . . .

“It took you three years to realise that?”

“No, it took me a few weeks,” he said. “I came back, but as I walked down your road I saw you with Max.”

The words hung between us. There was nothing I could say. How must he have felt, that I’d jumped so quickly into another relationship, and with his best friend of all people?

Not that I had, but it must have seemed that way to him.

“I knew you’d be better off with him, so I walked away.”

“Why did you come back two years ago? What changed?”

“Finding Max on Facebook, seeing the photos of his wife and baby, I realised I’d got it wrong. I will love you for ever, Debbie,” he said and he took the ring from his pocket. “Will you marry me?”

My heart felt warm and full for the first time in years and I flung my arms around him, almost knocking him over. When he kissed me I knew we were meant to be together.

“I love you, too, Paul. I always have,” I said as he slid the ring on to my finger.

It was a perfect fit. Just like us.