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   Chapter 13 Christmas House

Attention Span and Other Stories By PaulineWiles Characters: 16224

Updated: 2018-01-11 12:02

'Do you think duck goes better with cream cheese or pickled onions?' I ask.

'You what?' Stephen looks up from his computer.

'Anton, at the sandwich shop. He said if I guess his favourite filling, he'll get me a date with Claude.'

'Oh, really?' Stephen's face is impassive, his attention clearly on his latest spreadsheet.

'So I'm trying all the combinations. Well, most of them. Probably not prawn and fig.'

Stephen sighs. He sighs at me a lot. 'If you do try that one, don't bring it near me.'


I've been at Walden Windows for two years and on most days during that time, I've bought lunch at Anton's. His bread is by far the best in town, he's friendly, and there's a certain continental class to his shop which the other cafés here lack.

But three months ago, at the beginning of June, his nephew arrived from Nantes to help for the summer. With dark hair just long enough to be tied back, a turned up nose, and thick eyelashes, Claude was literally the dishiest thing in the shop. Ooh la la. I could barely eat my cheese and pickle baguette that day, knowing he'd baked the soft, fragrant bread.

'Anton, ' I hissed, a week later, 'tell me more about Claude.'

Anton was restocking the display of crisps on the counter. 'What you want to know?'

My French friend has been in England for thirty years but hasn't lost his accent.

'How long is he here for?'

The sandwich maestro shrugged, a gesture perfected in his homeland, I expect. 'Oh, the summer, I think.'

I wondered if that meant an English summer, over by the first week of September, or the French Riviera kind, which would surely stretch into November.

'Well, like, is he, er, single?' Regardless of the length of summer, I couldn't afford to be bashful.

'Why you want to know?' Anton said, annoyingly.

'Well, duh…' I tapped a two pound coin on his glass counter to chivvy him along.

'I think so. Why, you like 'im?'

I made a face to imply it was obvious, wasn't it? Who wouldn't like the dreamy, dark-eyed Gaul?

The trouble was, I didn't get to talk much to Claude. He started work around four in the morning each day, and was mostly in the back of the shop, baking, until noon. I wasn't going to hang around to strike up conversation in the predawn hours, and despite buying my lunch later, I never managed to bump into him going home.

So, after Claude had been at the café a fortnight, I grew more bold.

'You could set us up, ' I implored Anton. 'I bet he doesn't have any friends in Saffron Walden.' Being a small market town, Walden is populated either by old people, or those who commute to London for work. Walden Windows does most of our business with the latter, or their wives.

'He no right for you, Jessie.' Anton didn't look up from the huge loaf he was wrapping for the customer beside me. 'He not your dream guy.'

'How would you know?' I asked crossly. 'He absolutely is.'

Anton said nothing, just did his shrug.

'How many sandwiches do I have to buy, for a date?' I was thinking my next birthday could be a baguette party.

'Hah. I not sell my nephew, ' he replied, pretending to be offended. He completed the loaf transaction, then seemed surprised I was still there, loitering with my sausage bap and can of Diet Coke. 'I tell you what, Miss Jessica.' He looked at the ceiling as if wondering why I had been sent to try his patience. 'The day you order my favourite filling, I fix you up with your dream guy.'

'Deal!' I said, before I really thought about it. How hard could it be to work my way through the menu of fillings? I'd even eat avocado, if I had to.

Deep in thought, I walked the short distance back to Walden Windows, where I was irritated to find a woman browsing our showroom. She looked well-heeled, usually a good sign, but I was keen to devour my lunch and then make a plan for deducing Anton's favourite filling. As patiently as I could, I explained the options for casement styles and recommended she consider the style of her home to help her decide. Then I gave her a stack of brochures and, with my best smile, opened the door. With the shop to myself again, I retreated to the back office.

Stephen was bent over the printer, pulling out the inky paper remnants which usually accompany a jam. He does our accounts, billing and ordering, and, reluctantly, our computer support. Our boss, Clifford, spends most of his time out selling to clients or supervising the two installation crews. So it's usually just Stephen and me. He's nice enough, but on the nerdy side, with glasses that don't quite fit. Ugly shoes, too: I don't think I've seen him wear anything but battered trainers.

Unlike the last office I worked, where the girls formed a close bond over dating dilemmas, Stephen appears either bored or dismissive of my love life. Last year, after the chap from a car dealership stood me up on a chilly Thursday night, all Stephen had to say was, 'Told you so.'

And in February, when I was thrilled to reach a fourth date with a trainee dentist right before Valentine's Day, Stephen caught me crying over being dumped by text message. 'Not worth it, ' was the verdict that time. In short, he's never been the least bit supportive, especially not the day I tried to get ready at the office so I could hop on the 5:38 to Bishop's Stortford to meet the son of a customer.

'Do you think that's ethical?' Stephen had said, after demanding to know why I'd been in the small office toilet for twenty-five minutes. 'Going out with a client?'

'He's not a client, ' I protested, deliberating between a red crew neck and a black blouse. 'Anyway, we sell windows. It's not like I'm his doctor or something.'

Stephen said nothing, just glowered.

'Well?' I prompted, jiggling the clothing but still blocking him from using the loo. 'Which?'

He sniffed. 'The red. You look nice in red.'

'Thank you!' I called, as I locked the door again. 'See, you can be helpful, if you try!'


Now, my phone rings, a customer who's due for installation later this month, wanting to know what happens in the event of bad weather.

'We work around it, Mrs Ford, ' I say, as reassuringly as I can. 'No, no, we won't leave you overnight with holes in your walls.'

But the truth is, things can get awkward if it pours for days, like it did last autumn. The fitters get restless, customers become anxious, and Stephen tuts about cash flow.

I put the phone down. 'She's tizzing about crappy weather.'

'Could happen, ' Stephen says, not looking up. 'Autumn and all.'

I sigh. 'I can't believe we're in September already!' I have the worst foreboding that Claude might return to France soon. 'And I haven't guessed Anton's bloody favourite!'

'For heaven's sake.' Stephen's unusually snappish. 'Not that stupid sandwich thing, still.'

I inspect today's filling – tuna and beetroot – morosely. 'I didn't realise there were so many permutations. I'm losing track of what I've tried.'

'You need a spreadsheet, ' Stephen huffs, looking half interested now he knows he can make one of his beloved Excel tables. 'And it's not a permutation, it's a combination.'

I don't ask for clarification. I'm actually not bad at maths, but with Stephen around, I pretend to hate numbers. That way I don't get stuck covering his work when he goes hiking in the Brecon Beacons.

I bite into my sandwich, still glum. 'I'm going to die an old maid, ' I proclaim, which is a bit over the top considering I'm thirty-two.

Stephen gives me a sidelong look. 'You could try being more open-minded.'

'What's that supposed to mean? I am open-minded.' I think back to this year's Cambridge Folk Festival and some of the frankly unbelievable sights there.

'About the guys you go out with. It's like you have a list of requirements. They have to be handsome, rich, sexy, aloof, fashionable, and preferably foreign. Ideally, arrogant chauvinists too.'

This is the most Stephen's ever said to me at one time.

'I didn't realise you were paying attention, ' I reply snarkily.

He just shrugs, silent again now.


, ' I say, stung, 'the dentist had bad dress sense. And the hunk from Bishop's Stortford wasn't foreign.'

'Forget it, ' says Stephen.

But twenty minutes later, he emails me a spreadsheet. I click on the attachment and find it's called Sandwich Tracker.


By mid-September, the weather has indeed turned foul. I'm standing in Anton's shop one soggy Tuesday, listening to the rain plopping into the puddles outside.

'It's no good, ' I say, staring forlornly down at my printed spreadsheet. 'I think I've tried everything. I don't think you have a favourite, do you? I bet you go home and eat, what, quiche every night?'

Anton laughs. 'Your sheet is very sweet, Jessica.'

'Stephen made it for me, ' I reply. 'But I don't think it's working. You promised me a date but I'm no closer, am I?'

Anton stops and leans his forearms on the counter. 'Don't be glum, ' he says. 'Of course you are close.'

'I've tried chicken and apricot, and ham and Roquefort, and egg and cress, and beef and horseradish.' I run my finger along the columns. 'I've even tried weird ones, like pineapple and smoked trout.'

'You don't trust Stephen?' Anton asks now, peering at my sheet upside down. 'He is good guy. He help you, yes?'

'Oh, I don't know. He's never enthusiastic about my dates, ' I say, tapping my fingers on the sheet. 'Maybe I'll just have chicken mayo today, Anton.'

Anton nods. 'If that's what you want.'

I sniff, not trying to hide my frustration. 'Well, I don't have any other options left, do I?'

Anton raises his eyebrows at me, then jerks his head to the sheet. 'Sure of that, Jessie?'

Then I see it, the one empty box. I missed it before, because the tick marks from two neighbouring squares were infringing on the space. I trace the row, then the column.

'Roast beef and Brie, ' I announce, as the door opens behind me and another customer comes into the shop. 'I'll have beef and Brie, please.'

Anton has a baguette in one hand, ready to slice. He stops, beaming. 'Ah! My favourite!'

'Really?' My heart lurches as I wait to see if he's kidding.

His eyes twinkle as he lifts the serrated knife.

'Really?' I say again. 'I've got it? Your favourite?' Suddenly, I can't stand still. 'So you'll get me a date?'

'What's up?' from behind me, Stephen steps forward.

'Voilà!' Anton beams and apparently forgets about assembling my sandwich. 'She did it, ' he tells Stephen, who darts a look at me. 'Jessie has guessed, so she gets her date, non?'

Stephen goes slightly pink, but I barely notice.

'When?' I ask Anton, a shiver zinging through me.

'When would you like to take her out?'

Why is Anton talking to Stephen?

'Er, how's Saturday?'

And why is Stephen talking to me?

'Hang on a minute, ' I say. 'Anton, you're going to set me up with Claude, right?'

'Non.' Back with the sandwich making, he waggles a slice of roast beef. 'With Stephen. He is your – how you say – your dreamy guy.'

I look at Stephen, whose cheeks are definitely red now. But he stands his ground. 'Saturday okay for you, Jess?'

'Look, sorry, there's been some mistake, ' I stall. 'Anton…' I crane my neck, trying to see if Claude is in the kitchen, hoping he'll come sauntering out right now and sweep me off for a picnic under the bandstand.

'No mistake, ' Anton says cheerily. 'Non. I am sure.' He holds up a wedge of Brie and sniffs it. 'Bien, ' he says. 'I shall make another of these, for myself.'

'Forget the sandwich, Anton.' My voice rises in pitch. 'My date –'

'Oui, ' he says. 'Your date is with Stephen, who has helped you with the sandwich challenge.'

'Yes, but –'

'He is much better for you than Claude.'

'Sorry? I don't understand.'

'Oui, you are much more… how you say… compatible.' Anton nods definitively. 'You know nothing about Claude, Jessie.'

'I do!' I take a breath to continue, but Anton is too quick.

'You no know how he votes. You no know if he want kids. You no know if he wants his wife to work or stay home. You no know if he's kind to his grandmother. You no know if he keeps a kitten or a tarentule as a pet.'

'So?' I lift my chin. Claude's hot. I can take my chances on that other stuff. Although I admit I'd prefer the fluffy feline over the nasty spider.

Anton jerks his head at Stephen. 'What we know about Stephen? We know he help you at work and with your love life.'

'He doesn't, ' I protest. 'The second one, I mean.'

'I would if you'd let me.' Stephen's been watching quietly but now he speaks. 'And Anton's right, you do know me better.'

Anton chimes in, nodding at my office mate. 'How many kids he want?'

'Lots, ' I say, without thinking.

Anton looks to Stephen for confirmation and gets a nod and a shrug. 'Eventually, obviously.'

'What did he buy his maman for her birthday?'

'I've no idea, ' I blurt, then relent. 'A digital camera. I only know that because she phoned him at work, for help with it.'

'Does he vote the same way as you? Does he give the blood? Does he like Strictly Come Dancing?' Anton is like a prosecuting barrister now, not a sandwich pusher.

I fold my arms. 'This is ridiculous.'

Stephen, though, looks intrigued. 'Wait, it's kind of fun. Come on, Jessie, do I?'

I shake my head, before snapping, 'Mostly, sometimes, no. Now, Anton, stop it.'

Anton wipes his hands on his apron before turning and pulling the door to the kitchen closed. Then he comes around the counter, moving heavily. 'Listen to me, Jessica. Claude, he is a good baker, but, how you say… a bit of a chauvinist pig.'

I say nothing but purse my lips.

'He no visit his grandmother, not even on her deathbed. He more interested in motorbikes. He takes girls out once, twice, no more. He is… a heart taker.'

'Breaker.' Stephen corrects him, then gives me a look.

'But –' I want to say, every girl likes a challenge, right?

'You waste your time with him, I promise.' Anton puts a hand on my arm and turns me gently towards Stephen.

'Your Stephen, he knows you better, you know him better. He is good lad, he treat you nice, Jessie. He is your dream guy.'

Well, this is awkward. I don't want to hurt my colleague's feelings, but this wasn't my plan at all.

'Jess, I'd like to take you out for dinner, ' Stephen says now. 'Get to know you more.'

I sniff. 'According to Anton, you already know me just fine.'

'A little, yes, ' Stephen replies. 'And I agree with Anton… I think we could be a match.'

I've never seen him so assertive. Still, I glance wistfully at the kitchen door.

'Margaritas?' Stephen suggests, holding my gaze. 'Followed by Thai? Then dancing, and ice cream on the way home?'

Hmm, maybe he does have an idea of what an ideal date involves.

'Okay, ' I say slowly. 'On one condition. I'll go out with you if…' I look around the shop, searching for inspiration, something to test him.

Stephen waits, head tilted, while Anton is already beaming.

'I'll go out with you if you can name my favourite sandwich.' I brandish the spreadsheet, as if it's evidence of the impossible task.

But Stephen laughs. 'Anton, I think she likes me after all.'

'Why?' I demand, thinking, it's not that easy, is it?

'Sausage and chutney, ' Stephen rattles off, 'with mature cheddar. Preferably with thinly sliced cucumber, but lettuce will do if not. On a bloomer bap, cut into four pieces, not two. Granny Smith apple and a can of Diet Coke on the side. Half a Twix to finish.'

Anton lets out a belly laugh which could wake Claude's dead grandmother all the way in the Loire.

'Stephen is the winner!' he declares, slapping him jovially on the arm.

'Shall we get back?' Stephen plucks my beef and Brie lunch off the counter and gives Anton a conspiratorial smile. Then he opens the door of the sandwich shop and waves me through.

I incline my head gracefully, determined to remain a little aloof. But as we dodge the puddles on the way back to Walden Windows, I think about Anton's parting words and I'm not sure I agree.

I think, just maybe, the winner in this sandwich saga might be me.

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