Laura left the library, her shoulders drooped, and set off towards the book store. The book she’d wanted had been checked out only the day before.

That’s what comes of leaving it to the last minute!

Muttering to herself, she dawdled down the High Street, past the animated faces in the coffee shop and the moochers in the clothing store. Much as she loved the bookshop, it would be packed with the lunchtime crowd, and Laura Walker didn’t do crowds. In fact, to Laura three was more than a crowd, it was an ambush. She arrived at the entrance and peered inside, biting her bottom lip. Relief washed over her face; it wasn’t as busy as she’d expected, and she pushed open the heavy glass door, grateful for the warm welcome from the overhead heater. She scanned the floor map just inside the doorway and headed straight for the stairs. Lifts were another no-go area, especially lifts with other people inside. 

She clambered up the stairs, two at a time.

Please let it be on the shelf. Pretty please.

She surfaced from the stairwell to find there was barely another soul in sight. The gods were on her side for once. Following the overhead arrows to the self-help section, her heart skipped a beat at seeing no one there and the flicker of a smile passed her lips. She scanned the categories: improve your productivity; healthy weight loss; build your confidence. The choice was endless. 

‘I could do with all of these,’ she said, pressing a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. ‘Aha! Conquering Shyness, at last.’ Her joy was short-lived as there were only three books in that section, none of them the one she’d been recommended. She rolled her shoulders to ease the tension in her neck and was about to leave when she saw a sign swinging above her head. “If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please ask a member of staff for assistance.”

‘Der! If I could approach a stranger, I wouldn’t need the damn book,’ she said, with a shudder. The very thought made her palms damp, her mouth dry, and her throat clog up. She shoved her hands into her pockets, pulled up her hood, and made for the staircase. Ordering the book online was now her only option. Unfortunately the delivery times meant it’d likely not arrive before the first session of her evening class. She’d have to give it a miss until the book arrived. No way could she go unprepared. Her stomach clenched knowing she’d have to explain her late start to the course tutor, but she was a quick learner, and would catch up in no time. Anyway, the first class would likely be all about meeting the other students. That was something she could quite happily live without. Such was the beauty of an art class; the whole idea was to improve her painting techniques, not to master the art of conversation. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him heading her way. Her face scrunched up in worry, and she stepped to the side to allow him past. 

‘Can I help you?’ asked the young man, his name badge identifying him as Toby, Sales Assistant. 

Laura’s posture stiffened, her breath loud in her ears. She shook her head and rushed past him, head down and resolute.

‘Are you alright?’ he called after her.

She paused, and turned, giving a slight nod. Shy she might be, but rude she most definitely wasn’t. Plastering on a smile, the words, ‘Thank you, I’m fine,’ squeaked from her lips. 

Toby tilted his head to one side and came closer, pushing away an over-long fringe to reveal smiling, kind eyes.

Please don’t talk to me.

Too late. 

‘Are you sure? It’s just you look a little upset. Did you find what you were looking for? Is that it?’

Avoiding him now was as futile as carrying water with a knife. Her mouth worked soundlessly, the words unable to break free. Instead, she unzipped her bag and pulled out a notebook where she’d written the name of the book. She passed it to him.

‘Ah, yes,’ he said, empathy reflecting in his warm smile. ‘I can check to see if there’s a copy out back. We’ve had a lot of new stock arrive and it’s not all on the shelves yet. If you’d care to wait …’

‘Sure,’ she croaked, imagining returning home with the book in her hands. How proud her mum would be that she’d taken the first step finally. It had been a long time coming, and Laura’s mum had become increasingly concerned that shyness was taking over her daughter’s life. To placate her, Laura made a resolution on New Year’s Eve to take the matter in hand. Properly. In the past, Mrs Walker had made no end of appointments with counsellors, but each time Laura had wriggled out of going, her excuses getting less believable each time. Not that her mum didn’t know the reason why Laura backed out of those sessions, but even so, doing nothing solved nothing, as she was inclined to say …frequently. 

In an unusual act of bravado, Laura had enrolled on an art course at the local college. She was much better at speaking through her paintings, and she figured such a class wouldn’t involve too much chitchat. The course was due to begin in four days, and already panic had set in, tempting her to cancel on more than one occasion. In a rare show of temper, she’d accused her mother of pushing her into something she wasn’t ready for. Instantly, she regretted the words and had flung her arms around her mum’s neck, apologising over and over. Of course, Mrs Walker forgave her; she recognised herself in Laura and understood the young woman’s fears. That didn’t stop her worrying though, and together they had browsed the Internet in search of the right guide to help Laura face her demons and prepare herself ahead of her classes. If she had some coping strategies, then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Now, Laura pictured her mother’s expression when she actually followed through and returned home to tackle the problem head on. It was only a book, said the voice in her head. That was true, but it was also a clear sign that she was finally ready to live a life without this debilitating shyness. Her mum would be bouncing on her toes in glee, with a huge smile warming her lips if Laura pulled this off. And all she had to do was wait a few minutes. She could do that for her mum. And for herself.  

She was staring at the “staff only” door when he reappeared, holding a book in his hand. She unglued her eyes from him and focused on the book, drawing in a frustrated breath at the sight of the cracked spine and well-thumbed pages. Righting herself, a satisfied smile raced across her face. A second-hand copy was better than nothing. 

‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘that particular book is out of stock right now. We sold the last copy yesterday.’

Her head sagged. ‘Procrastination will be the death of me,’ she muttered.

‘Don’t worry, though, we have more supplies coming next week if you’d like to reserve a copy…’ his words trailed off, and she heard nothing but the sound of the air conditioning whirring. ‘Hey,’ he said, jolting her out of her trance, ‘ did you hear me?’ 

A pained look marred her face, and she shook her head. ‘I’m sorry. You were saying something-’

‘Yeah, I said I can recommend this book if you want to take a look. It worked wonders for me.’ He handed the book over, and she thumbed through a few pages. Underlined and highlighted sentences suggested the book had indeed been well read.

‘This is your copy?’ 

He laughed at the incredulity in her tone. ‘Oh, yes. Damn shyness; it’s a curse, isn’t it? But this really helped me. I’d be glad to lend it to you. Why not take a few minutes to look through it while I reserve you a copy of the other one. What name shall I put?’

‘Laura, Laura Walker. Thank you.’ Tears brimmed on her lashes; this young man - a fellow sufferer - genuinely wanted to help. 

He guided her to the reading zone, to an empty corner and pointed to a plush, chocolate brown sofa. 

A streak of cobalt blue paint caught her eye, glistening in his blond hair under the bright reading lamps either side of the sofa. 

He followed her gaze with his hand and touched the spot, staining his fingers with the wet paint. ‘Damn! You caught me. I was engrossed in my painting before I left for work. Nearly didn’t make it on time. As you can tell, I didn’t check my appearance beforehand either.’ His lips parted in a grin.

A painter! His words ran through her head to the hum of cymbals clashing; she beamed back at him and removed her coat. Dark tresses tumbled from her hood, and in one synchronised movement she pushed the loose hair behind both ears. Her attention anchored on his quizzical expression, and she rolled up the sleeve of her sweater. A blob of burnt sienna and splashes of ochre dotted her forearm.  

He bit his lower lip, trying not to laugh. ‘You, too?’

The reply left her mouth with a booming clarity. ‘Yes. Guilty as charged.’

He shot her a roguish grin. ‘I guess that makes us kindred spirits. My break starts in twenty minutes, how about you sit here until then? We can …’ 

Laura had already sat, and was running her finger down the book’s table of contents. 

‘Right you are, then,’ Toby said, ‘I’ll leave you to it.’

‘Twenty minutes,’ she said, not looking up. 

Laura barely noticed his return until he dropped some books on the table in front of her. ‘Oh, hello,’ she said, ‘What are these?’

‘Some of my favourite artists: Constable; Turner; Monet, to name a few.’

Laura reached for the middle book with Monet’s “The Water Lily Pond” on the cover. She clutched it to her chest. ‘My all-time favourite,’ she said, ‘and the inspiration behind my own paintings.’ Her smile came warm and dreamy. 

‘Hey, I’m doing an evening class on painting landscapes at the college in Greenhills. It starts later this week, but I’m sure you could still enrol.’

A burst of giggles engulfed her, leaving Toby dumbstruck. ‘What did I say?’

Laura struggled to speak, but this time not from shyness. She took a few deep breaths and explained she’d already registered for the art class, but needed some coping techniques to overcome her shyness before the class started. 

‘Well, there’s no need to worry about that now. We can go together,’ said Toby, brimming with enthusiasm.

Laura could only nod in response, her throat thick with emotion. She would take that class; a room full of strangers was no longer as daunting now that she had a friendly face to greet her. At last, she stood a chance of sticking to her resolution. 

January 22, 2020 14:38

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