Excerpt – Salt ‘n Vinegar

© Clare London

When The Guy came across to the shop, trade was light. What was more, Mandy had nipped off to the toilets for a moment, obviously trusting me sufficiently to serve a few portions of chips and onion rings without bringing the place to the cliff edge of Armageddon. It was just him and me.

Thank you God – and Mandy, I thought. I smiled encouragingly at him, assuming he’d be able to tell the difference between my genuine pleasure at seeing him and the professional grin expected of an employee of “The Reel Thing” – Barry’s latest name for the shop. “Hi there. The usual?”

He blinked at me. Flushed very slightly. He was absolutely gorgeous, and with that distracted air that meant he possibly didn’t even realise it. Didn’t play on it, anyway. “Yeah. Um. Chips, thanks.”

“I’ve got a sausage needs a home,” I said. Shit, did I really say that aloud? “I mean,” I added, horrified to feel myself going scarlet with embarrassment. “We’re closing soon and there’s one left from earlier that I won’t sell. Can I tempt you to it?” You utter prat, Joe. What happened to the cheeky chappie chat-up lines?

“The sausage?” he said. He looked bemused, and for a second, I thought I’d got away with my let’s-pile-humiliation-on-top-of-embarrassment speech. Maybe he was one of those guys who didn’t notice double entendre – even unintended – or was just immensely charitable.

Then he laughed, and I knew he’d been listening properly after all. “Yes thanks,” he said. “And the sausage, too.”

We both laughed. My laughter was swamped with relief. “I did not mean all that to sound like it did.”

“I know,” he replied. “That makes it even funnier.”

“Give me a break,” I protested, still grinning. “It’s been a long one.” He snorted a laugh again, and I shook my head and rephrased. “A long night, I meant.” And we chatted for a few more minutes. I gave up trying to be cool, which was probably for the best because it looked like those skills had deserted me tonight. Mandy came back from the toilet, sized up the situation and raised her eyebrows. But she also took over the counter so I could move to the end by the trapdoor-type opening, and pretend to sort the paper napkins and wooden chip forks while actually talking to The Guy.

“I’m Joe,” I said. “Joe Barnes.”

“Steven.” He didn’t offer a surname.

I leaned on the counter, smiling at him. “I’ve just finished at the Uni. Did Psychology. Next year, I’m hoping to do a Masters in Community Psychology.”

“Brainy,” Steven said with a nod.

There was an edge to his comment that I couldn’t miss. Disdain? Envy? Joe’s foot, meet mouth. Again. “Well, you know. It’s a practical application of the subject, especially if I want to work in mental health support.” Could I sound any more preachy? “It’s …” Unusual for me to be so tongue-tied? “I like the subject.”

“No, it sounds good. Really good. Sorry, I’m clumsy sometimes.” He genuinely seemed to be apologetic. I leaned farther forward, though still keeping a foot or so between us. Something made me wary of moving too far, too fast with this one. “I finished Uni two years ago,” he continued. “So I know how it is. But I didn’t want to study any more.” His gaze drifted away, towards the front window and the view of the choppy sea. “I worked for a while in London, then came back here with … well, came here to look for a job.” He looked back at me and smiled. “I love it here.”

“So do I.” I didn’t mind the loss of attention, from a fellow fan of the seaside. “You think I’d be wearing Eau de Fish ‘n Chips most nights of the week if I didn’t have to pay the rent on my beachfront villa?”

I was pleased to see him laugh at an intentional joke at last. His laugh was soft, his mouth half closed, as if nervous of letting it loose. But his pupils reflected the heat lamps in the food display cabinets with small, vivid flames of light. He looked mysterious. Gorgeous. And different from any bloke I’d been close to before. “So are you tempted?” I blurted out. “What I said earlier. You said ‘yes, please’“. As well as the sausage.” I was drifting into foot-in-mouth territory again.

But he smiled and nodded as if this wasn’t the clumsiest pick-up I’d ever launched.

“Yes, I know what I said, and I meant it. You want to go for a drink?” He glanced at his watch. A frown flickered over his face. “Um. I hadn’t realised the time. I mean, there are places open, I know, but …” His sentence just stopped. He exhaled like a shrug, slow and rather sorry.

“A walk?” I said, trying not to sound too eager. “I finish in ten minutes.” Mandy gave a snort behind me but was all innocence when I glanced around at her. “Just for half an hour or so.”

He nodded, his eyes lightening. “Yes. That’d be fine. That’d be great.”