A man was looking at melamine boards. He checked their lengths for defects, then raised them it to eye height and held it straight ahead to see if it was straight. He was doing a terrible job of it, taking too long about it and picking a bunch of boards that even from five metres away, Gwen could see were sub-par.
The customer had probably never had to check boards before. He’d probably learned the technique out of a book or a YouTube video. Men who were just starting in on woodwork tended to be like that. There seemed to be a weird belief amongst men that woodworking is in the blood, and so asking for help was admitting something was wrong with them.
They seemed perfectly okay with asking about paint, though. Colours. Women’s stuff. A bloke could be forgiven for not knowing.
The man took his substandard timber and walked away with an artificial knowing look. Gwen sighed. It’s easy to be contemptuous about people who pretend to know what they’re doing, but that’s all of us, sooner or later. At least the timber was happy, it’s song growing brighter as it left.
Visiting home had been a disappointment. Gwen’s parents had been hostile, as they had been ever since she’d left. Nanna though… she was always sympathetic to Gwen, but when Gwen had sat down and explained her plan, Nanna had told her in no uncertain terms that it was wrong.
“A love potion is a thing of evil,” Nanna had said over tea and scones. “Love doesn’t come out of a bottle. Something that looks like love might, but the real thing never does. It’s a cruel thing to keep someone in a state like that, of making them have fake love so you can have the real thing. You tell this Pennington to go and stuff himself.”
She was right, of course, but it hadn’t been what Gwen had wanted to hear. She had told herself that what she wanted from Nanna was advice. In truth, what she wanted was permission. She’d have to give the potion back to Pennington when…
As if answering a silent call, Pennington crossed into the timber section, his trolley loaded with cleaning chemicals and plastic tube. He looked up at Gwen as if surprised to see her and gave a friendly wave.
“Hello, Gwen,” he said. “I’ve missed you around here the last few days. Been away?”
Gwen reached into her jeans pocket and extracted a small glass phial. “Here. I’ve changed my mind.”
“Keep it,” Pennington shrugged. “You might change your mind again.”
“I won’t,” Gwen said. “I don’t need it. I’m going to march up to Norman and ask him out, and if he says no, I’m just going to bloody cop it.”
Pennington’s smile faded. “I have to admit, Gwendolyn, I’m feeling a little insulted. I give you a very valuable product, completely free of charge and you throw it in my face. Do you know what I usually charge for something like that? More than you paid for your car, probably. I’m not a generous man by nature, and I think it’s wrong to throw such generosity aside, lightly.”
Gwen snarled at him. She guessed that if she pressed the phial on him he’d refuse it, so she stepped forward and slipped it into the pocket of his grey business shirt.
“I. Don’t. Want. It.”
Pennington turned his head from side to side, taking Gwen in from all angles. The singing of the timber became low and ominous as the boards and beams became caught up in the suspense.
The alchemist shrugged theatrically. “Very well,” he said. “If you change your mind, be aware that the next one will not be free. Good morning.”
The song of the wood took on a relieved tone and Pennington pushed his trolley towards the checkout. Gwen stood back, her arms folded. A teenaged girl approached Gwen’s with a sheet of 3mm MDF, but caught the look on her face and backed away.
Gwen breathed out slowly. She’d done the right thing. She knew it, because it felt as disheartening and disappointing as doing the right thing so often does. What now? What now? How she felt about Norman hadn’t changed. She’d arrived this morning and he’d given her a big smile and she’d almost fainted. She knew that the smile was not for her, it was just that he was in a good mood, but even so…
Had she meant what she said to Pennington? Had she meant that about marching up to Norman and asking him out? She should. She should damn it. He would say no. Almost certainly, he would. But then she could move on, get past him. Fuck it, why not? In saying ‘no’ to Pennington, she’d just given up her last chance of being with Norman. Why not make it official?
She strode out of Timber and into Power Tools. Anticlimax. Norman wasn’t there. Gwen almost slunk away, but gritted her teeth and asked Norman’s supervisor, Ali, where he was.
“I think I saw him out in Seasonal with Axel,” Ali said. “You see him, tell him to get his arse back here, he’s not on a break.”
Gwen marched off to Seasonal, which was in the process of clearing out the air conditioners to replace them with heaters. There, between a pile of Dyson fans and a drift of Easter merchandise was Norman, talking to Axel and Fiona from plumbing. Axel said something Gwen couldn’t hear, but it made the kids jump with glee when they heard it. Axel pressed his finger to his lips and swaggered off. Norman put his arms around Fiona. She hugged him back, then the two released one another and strolled off to their respective departments.
The DIY Barn was a big building. Now it seemed bigger. The walls seemed further away, the tin roof seemed miles overhead. The shoppers seemed like a sea, a river in which little gnome-like staffmembers bobbed and floated.
It only lasted a moment, before Gwen shook her head clear.
“Righty-O,” she said, before rushing for the exit. If she hurried, she might catch Pennington in the car park.