She appeared. A mess of damp caramel waves, bare limbs and clinging clothes; satchel strap stretched diagonally across her chest.
Justin dropped the soil he had been wiping from the counter to the floor.
The girl browsed until she found the lavender. She gently stroked the plant, brought her fingers up to her nose and closed her eyes as she inhaled. Are some senses heightened when others are closed off? Justin wondered.
‘Is there anything I can help you with?’
She turned and looked at him. ‘No . . . I’m sorry. I’ve been looking for a part-time job . . . it was raining.’
‘After school?’ He couldn’t tell her age.
She nodded. ‘And weekends.’
He hadn’t thought about hiring anyone. ‘Know anything about plants?’
She shook her head.
‘Ever had a job before?’
She shook her head again, looked a little embarrassed.
‘Well, that doesn’t matter, everyone has to start somewhere.’ He could make allowances.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Lovely name. I’m Justin.’
She smiled and let something on the floor turn her attention from the compliment.
Justin glanced down to see what she was looking at; noticed her mosquito-bitten legs and her frayed cotton pumps.
‘I love the tiles.’
She squatted down and traced one of the patterns.
‘I’m surprised you can still see them. They were beautiful when I laid them – Moroccan. They’re so old and filthy that I’d almost forgotten they were there . . .’
‘They’re still beautiful.’ She dusted her finger off on her skirt.
‘I’m happy you think so.’
‘I could use some extra help, why don’t we give it a try?’ He wanted eye contact.
She looked up. ‘Really? Thank you.’
‘Do you have some time now? I could show you around.’
The longer she stood there, the longer he wanted her to stay.
Leah was all nerves. She imagined that Justin was amused by her discomfort and inexperience. Why else would he give her a chance? Perhaps he was just a generous person. She wasn’t about to question. She’d left her name in several shops that morning but none of them had an opening.
She followed him through the shop. Candles and ornaments competed for shelf space; glass lanterns, planters and mobiles hung from the rafters; greenery climbed the walls, looking for a way to reach the sun.
Justin opened the door to the outdoor area. ‘The rain has given up,’ he announced.
As Leah’s eyes adjusted to the glare, a green oasis came into focus – a bountiful maze of herbs, flowers, fruit trees and overflowing tubs. She wondered how many times she had walked past, completely unaware of the shop’s existence.
Justin rattled off some names but she knew she would retain none of them.
‘You will love this one: Chocolate Cosmos.’
Leah bent down to the delicate maroon petals. ‘It does actually smell like chocolate!’
She listened as Justin talked about the way the sun and shade shifted around the garden during the day, about watering and overwatering, the temperature of the greenhouse and deadheading.
‘I can go over the rest some other time; I don’t want to bore you to death.’
‘It’s not boring. I just don’t know how I will remember everything.’
‘Oh don’t worry about remembering all this. It will all become as clear as mud once you get going.’
Leah noticed a tall, wooden, shed-like structure, concealed almost entirely by enormous drooping purple flowers. ‘What’s in there?’
‘Does anyone else work here?’
‘Yes. Andy most days. And Ella runs the flower workshop Thursday to Sunday. Sometimes my brother, when he’s not abroad.’
Up close Leah could see that Justin’s eyes appeared to be painted from turquoise water; almost too pretty to belong to a man. She found it difficult not to stare.
On Monday, Leah managed to sneak up on Justin in the outdoor area.
Her cotton dress had thin straps; a low V revealed a tanned chest. The sun silhouetted the lines of her body but hid the details of her face and eyes. Her hair ran wild, over her bare shoulders; the sun had burnt the natural colour so that the ends were almost blonde.
‘How are you?’ he asked.
She said very little but soon, as her shyness subsided, there would be lots of adolescent blether. It really was only a matter of time before she would do or say something childlike and he would be reminded of her age.
‘Where would you like me to start?’
‘Maybe some pruning, but first I have something for you.’
Justin jogged off and returned with an apron which he gently, almost ceremoniously, hung around her neck. The Potting Shed now covered her chest. She crossed the straps behind her back and tied them in front. Looked at him expectantly.
Leah felt a warmth radiating from Justin as he stood next to her and showed her where and what to cut.
‘Okay to have a go?’
Leah nodded and took hold of the clippers.
‘Just shout if you need me.’
He walked away, taking the invisible heat source with him.
She cut through her first stem; it felt strange, like she’d severed someone’s limb.
Justin stopped by several times to check up on her, probably to make sure she wasn’t massacring all of his plants in one afternoon.
‘Edward Scissorhands needs to step aside. You’re a natural!’
‘Very funny. I’m sorry for being so slow!’
‘There’s no rush when it comes to the clippers. People tend not to buy plants with blood all over them.’
She laughed and immediately felt less anxious.
Justin was encouraging without being patronising, and he kept asking her opinion on things in the shop.
‘What do you think?’ he asked. ‘Window boxes are a very personal thing. Would you buy one that was already planted?’
‘Depends on what you put in there.’
He smiled. ‘Good point – no one wants a shit window box.’
At six, Justin went to find her. She’d swept up an enormous pile of debris and was bundling it into the green waste bin with her bare hands. He berated himself for not giving her gloves.
‘Thank you, Leah – that’s brilliant. I need to give you some gloves though. You must be exhausted. First day . . .’
‘No, I’m okay. I liked it.’ She smiled and brushed her hands down the front of her apron. ‘I’ll just go and wash my hands.’
‘Wait.’ Justin lifted his hand towards Leah’s hair. She stayed remarkably still. For a moment he hesitated, then very carefully picked out the fragment of foliage.
‘See you Friday?’