The weather was terrible on the day Iris arrived. She didn’t exactly blow in with the storm like Mary Poppins – that would have been a little too clichéd; but as Howie looked up from placing the ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the front of his tiny coffee shop, she was there – looking as fresh as the rainbow that suddenly arched overhead and almost as colourful.
“We’re not open yet,” he said apologetically, but she ignored his comment, waltzing not just into the shop but into the tiny kitchen, plucking an apron from a hook and tying it round her waist as if he’d already hired her. And Howie sighed to himself and thought that maybe he would let her wash a few dishes in exchange for a latté and a muffin for he was a kind-hearted man.
He busied himself setting up for the day ahead: emptying the grounds from the coffee machine, filling the sugar bowls on each table, making sure the napkin box was full. It was as he reached for the chalkboard that served as a menu that his nostrils caught hold of a delectable smell: sunshine and chocolate and happiness all rolled into one. Wonderingly, he let the aroma guide him into the kitchen where Iris was just taking several trays of brownies out of the oven.
How had she done that so quickly? He didn’t like to ask and she didn’t offer any explanations. Instead, she reached for another mixing bowl and asked him whether he had any more eggs.
“There’s a box of twelve over there,” he said, pointing in the right direction. He hadn’t realised she could bake. “If you tell me what you’re making, I’ll write it up on the menu board.”
“Rainbow cake,” she said, smiling at him. Was she aware that the smudge of flour on her nose made her look unbelievably cute? “And maybe a batch or two of macarons in case anyone feels like something lighter.”
“I’ll get you a coffee,” he said as she turned back to her ingredients. “Or would you prefer a tea?”
“Earl Grey,” she said, without looking round. “Made with water just off the boil, in a bone china cup and saucer (it tastes better that way), a dash of milk, no lemon.” As he hesitated, she added, “You’ll find the Earl Grey in the floral caddy under the counter and you can use one of your grandmother’s teacups – the ones on display in the cabinet in the corner.”
By the time the tea was made, her rainbow cake was in the oven and she was busy measuring sugar and egg white for meringues.
“Better get a wriggle on,” she told him as he handed her the hot, steaming liquid. “It’s almost nine and you’ve got customers waiting already.”
All day long, she stayed in the kitchen, turning out cake after cake in a dizzying procession of deliciousness. People who tasted one of her creations immediately asked to buy more to take home, and when he finally flipped the sign around at five thirty, he had taken more money than any other day he could remember.
“I thought perhaps fruitcake tomorrow,” she said, taking off her apron and sinking down onto one of the carved wooden chairs. “You’ve got raisins and sultanas and cherries and…”
“Stop,” Howie said, too bewitched by her violet eyes and her golden hair to want to do anything other than look at her. “I mean, let’s talk about cake later. You must be tired after baking all day.”
“A little,” she said and yawned delicately behind long, pale fingers. He could see the delicate bones in her wrist and the blue of her veins beneath her paper-white skin, and he felt his heart fluttering inside him like a moth allured by a candle.
“I was just going to cook pasta,” he said, surprising himself with his boldness. He was normally tongue-tied around pretty girls. “Would you like to have some with me?”
“That might be a good idea,” she said, her eyes dancing with merriment, “because I can bake but I can’t cook. If you left me to fend for myself, I’d starve.”
And Howie the Bashful, Howie who normally stuttered and stammered around women, marched into his kitchen feeling at least six inches taller and started to whip up a Bolognese sauce.
When he carried the food out of the kitchen twenty minutes later, she had found a linen tablecloth from somewhere and laid out two place settings. A mug acting as a makeshift vase held a simple posy of flowers and there was something that looked like a bottle of wine, along with two glasses.
“We might as well make it an occasion,” she said, looking at him. “After all, it’s not every day you find a new employee-cum-lodger.”
“I don’t have space for a lodger,” he said, startled.
It was true. Two of the store rooms over the coffee-shop were filled with surplus stock and the rest of the space was taken up with his bed-sit: a single room containing a sofa-bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a bookcase. There was a tiny bathroom with a shower and a toilet, and he usually cooked his meal in the kitchen downstairs then ate it sitting in solitary silence.
“We’ll work something out,” she said, lighting a candle and placing it in an empty milk bottle. “But let’s eat first – I’m starving.”
In the end, he let Iris take the sofa-bed while he slept on the floor. The next day, he worked on one of the store rooms, cleaning it out in fits and starts whenever there was a lull in the coffee shop, and that weekend, she moved into it. The pre-loved, wrought-iron bedstead she’d somehow managed to locate at a nearby garage sale pretty much filled the whole space, but there was still room for a hanging rail for her clothes – long, floaty dresses in all the colours of the rainbow – and a Victorian washstand topped with a dressing table mirror. It already felt as if she’d lived there a lifetime.
She was an early riser, and most mornings, he would wake to the smell of her baking wafting up the stairs to his bedsit. By the time he’d limped down the stairs to make her Earl Grey tea, she would have one batch of cakes in the oven and another cooling on the side. His customers loved her too: they were so busy these days that she worked a double shift, baking from 6am until noon, then taking her turn behind the counter and serving the long lines of people who turned up to sample her cherry pie and her lemon meringue and her sticky Black Forest gateau. She had a way of smiling at people and listening to them that made them forget they were in a hurry so that they lingered over their lattés and took their time with their tea.
In her second week in the coffee shop, she stole the townschildren’s hearts with a gingerbread school that sprang up overnight on the counter and was peopled with miniature, edible versions of every child under the age of eighteen. Nothing, it seemed, was impossible for those clever fingers. She mixed sunbeams and butter into melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, stirred sprinkles of laughter into blueberry muffins and built a tower of profiteroles that was taller than Howie himself.
On the third week, she asked if she could write out the menu. Howie handed her the chalks and the board and then watched as intricate flowers and vines wound their way around the prices of cakes and scones. She didn’t stop at the chalkboard either: smiling her smile like sunshine and rainbows, she floated through the door and created a flower garden on the pavement outside. Whether it was Iris or the chalks, he couldn’t say, but her drawings seemed to have triggered something in the town so that hanging baskets suddenly overflowed with colour and every customer that day came in wearing a daisy chain or a buttonhole.
The following day, she made rainbow cake again. Grade-schoolers claimed to have seen unicorns trotting through the town and family feuds that had lasted for decades suddenly dissolved as if made of candyfloss. Was Iris magical? Howie wondered, or did she just inspire people to be the best versions of themselves?
He was falling in love with her, but he knew this beautiful fairy creature would never look twice at a man with a limp and a stammer. All he could offer her was his heart – and his coffee shop; but a talent like hers was wasted in a small town like Floral Springs and he knew it wouldn’t be long before she moved on to something bigger and better.
She had been there for six weeks when he plucked up the courage to tell her how he felt. During this time, he’d come to think that maybe she was an angel, not a fairy, because she’d reunited countless estranged parents and children, mended three broken engagements and found Mrs Wilkinson’s lost cat. His takings had doubled since she’d arrived and he knew it was all down to her, but money was the last thing on his mind as he sat down opposite her once all the customers had gone home and said he needed to talk to her.
“Your profits are up,” she told him, smiling in that way she had of making him feel invincible. “Pretty soon, you’ll be able to hire a proper pastry chef and turn this place into an upmarket patisserie.”
“I don’t want a pastry chef,” he said. “I want you.”
She looked away from him then, her violet eyes troubled. It was the first time he’d seen the sun disappear from her face. “I can’t stay forever, Howie,” she said quietly. “I’ll be gone with the next rainbow.”
“What if I asked you to marry me?” he said, desperation forcing the proposal out of him.
She leaned forward and kissed him gently on the mouth. Her lips were honey and almonds and she smelled of French vanilla.
“I can’t stay in your world,” she said. “But you could come with me to mine.”
It was the first time she’d mentioned the life she’d had before he met her.
“Your world?” he echoed. “Where do you come from, Iris?”
Taking his hand in hers, she led him outside the shop, to the blank wall that formed the back of the building. “Watch,” she said, and he saw that she was holding the box of chalks.
Her hands worked busily, drawing golden sands and azure water, sketching fronded palm trees and a lush jungle. “Watch,” she said again, and the chalk outlines shimmered into reality and a scarlet parrot flew out of the jungle and flittered round their heads.
Howie stared at the sparkling waves as they rolled across the back wall of his coffee shop. He could hear the whisper of the sea, feel the cool of the tropical breeze as it ruffled his hair.
“Come with me,” she said, taking his hand and beginning to step into the picture; but the strangeness of it all was too much for Howie and he began to weep.
“What about my business?” he moaned through his tears. “And my home? I’ve lived all my life in this place, Iris. I can’t walk away and leave it.”
The picture shimmered and was just chalk again, and Iris stood before him, her violet eyes full of tears. “Then let’s bring my world into yours,” she said. “Just for tonight.”
This time, she didn’t use the chalk. Flowers sprang at her feet when she walked back into the coffee shop with Howie following her. Lush vines wrapped themselves around tables and chairs and formed a canopy above their heads, and parrots with feathers of scarlet and brilliant blue and emerald green swooped and spun, dropping berries and tropical fruit onto the counter until a cornucopia rose to the ceiling.
Long into the night, Iris and Howie talked and kissed, then talked and kissed some more. A large two- handed goblet appeared on the table in front of them, its contents giving off a heady aroma of longing and desire. And when Howie had sipped from it, he found his twisted leg had straightened and he was able to scoop Iris up in his arms and carry her up the stairs to the wrought-iron bed where they lay entwined in each other’s arms as the stars sang to them.
He fell asleep holding her, his heart so full of happiness he thought it would burst. She loved him and he loved her, and he was sure he could convince her to stay.
But when he woke the next morning, Iris had disappeared along with the flowers and the vines, and instead of the wrought-iron bedstead, he found himself sleeping on a dusty floor.
Wildly, he rushed outside, hoping to find some trace of her. The street was deserted, but as he looked up, he saw the rainbow arching over the coffee shop. That was when he knew she would not be coming back.