An Important Step

Thinkstock © Man and woman sitting at kitchen table Illustration: Thinkstock, Mandy Dixon


Sometimes the only way is to stop worrying about all the possibilities and jump in…

“Are you doing anything on Saturday?” Tony asked. “Louise and I could do with you, if not.”

“Count me in for whatever it is,” Ryan said cheerfully.

“Great. We’re having a sort of dinner party and there’s this lovely girl we’d like you to meet. We’re sure you’re perfect for each other.”

Ryan scowled at the phone. He’d thought they wanted help with decorating or the garden.

“Hmm. Dinner party. Sounds very posh,” he said dubiously.

“Not this one. Everyone’s bringing something to eat or drink and you don’t need to dress up. Could you bring a couple of chairs and plates and all that?”

A dinner party involving mismatched furniture and guests, he could probably handle. In theory if the party included a nice girl who might possibly be interested in him, that should make it better.

He would like a nice girlfriend, and eventually wife and children, but time was running out – especially for a man who didn’t like to rush into things. He was over thirty and had never had a serious relationship. Tony and Louise said girls got fed up waiting.

“I understand you don’t want to get hurt, but by avoiding the chance of rejection, you miss any chance of being accepted,” Tony argued.

Ryan saw the truth in that…

…but he also saw he wasn’t much of a catch: tall and gangly with mud-coloured hair and eyes. He only earned just over the minimum wage, despite being a reliable employee for the same place since leaving school. The old people’s home where he was gardener, handyman and driver simply couldn’t afford more.

Money didn’t guarantee happiness, though. Despite a lack of money he’d had a fantastic childhood. His parents, Dad in particular, had shown him how to be content with very little.

They had each other, though. Ryan had no-one to love like Dad loved Mum, or Tony loved Louise. He was never lonely as such, but part of him longed for one special person to love.

He thought he could be a good husband to the right woman, if such a person existed. He could be a good father too, he was sure. Ryan imagined a little boy he could teach to dig and grow and build and mend things.

Having been tricked into accepting the invitation, Ryan decided to make the most of it and the opportunity it represented. Tony and Louise knew him well and had never tried to pair him with anyone before. Maybe the girl really would be right for him?

He didn’t buy new clothes, but wore the smartest he had. He took care with his shave and getting every scrap of dirt from under his fingernails. She’d see him at his best, but it would be the real Ryan.

As he wasn’t much of a cook, he’d offered to bring a salad. He gathered fresh early leaves, radish and spring onions from his allotment. To these he added sprigs of parsley, sorrel, thyme and a big bunch of chives.

He also selected armfuls of flowers; flamboyant tulips, sprays of richly scented sarcococca and wallflowers.

Ryan set off early, so that Louise could use the herbs in her dish and they’d have time to arrange the flowers.

Tony and Louise welcomed him warmly and he’d barely filled a vase when another guest, Petra, arrived. She helped him with the flowers and the salad, and persuaded him to part with a few parsley sprigs to garnish the onion quiches she’d made as a starter.

They chatted easily as they worked. Ryan didn’t get nervous until the other guests arrived. It then became clear that Petra was the girl Tony and Louise wanted him to meet.

They were right that she was lovely

He wasn’t judging just on looks, either. She was fun to talk to, happy to help her hosts prepare and, based on those quiches, a great cook too. No way would she be interested in him.

As Ryan and Tony hastily washed the starter plates so dessert could be served, Tony asked, “So, do you like Petra?”

“Yeah – I do actually. Very much.”

“Great! So you’ll ask her out?”

“She won’t be interested.”

“Go on! Ask. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Ryan had received bad reactions before, but he supposed Petra would have to be polite in front of their hosts.

He shrugged

“Look, she’s a bit like you… not much confidence. If you ask her out, it’ll help with that – even if she says no.”

“Alright, I’ll ask.”

He waited until the other guests had gone and he and Petra were helping to clear away.

“Would you come out with me one evening?” he said gruffly.

Petra’s eyes widened and she hesitated, but Louise muttered something in her ear.

“OK – but not for too long,” she said.

He took her to the pictures. He thought she might enjoy the film if not his company and he wouldn’t have to say much.

It seemed to go OK. He thought she might want to rush off straight away, but she came for a drink when he tentatively suggested it.

He told her about his job and she seemed interested.

“My garden is a real mess. I don’t have a clue what to do with it,” she confessed.

“I could come and have a look at it if you like, then?”


“Oh. Right.”

“I mean, it’s nice of you to offer but I couldn’t impose. It’s been a lovely evening, thank you, but I’d best go now.”

She kissed his cheek as she left. It felt nice, but seemed like a very final goodbye.

Tony rang him a few days later and asked, “What’s the problem?”

“She’s not interested in seeing me again,” Ryan explained.

“That’s what she said about you. Both of you seem to think you’re not good enough for each other, but we can see you’re perfect.”

“Why wouldn’t she think she was good enough? If there’s something wrong with her, it can’t be much as I never noticed.”

“Not wrong, no. She was in a relationship before that went badly wrong. I promised not to say… Look, we introduced you but we can’t do everything for you. Call her, for goodness’ sake.”

To his own surprise, Ryan did. He asked Petra to come for a meal.

“Can I think about it?” she begged.

He was amazed when she rang back and agreed. That was encouraging. In a way it was better than an instant acceptance, as that might just have been because she felt pressured into it.

Clearly she didn’t like that. She must have thought he was being too pushy by offering to do the garden. Understandable – going out with someone is very different to letting them into your home, he conceded.

After a few dates Ryan realised he was falling in love

Petra seemed to rather like him, but she was clearly holding something back. When he picked her up and took her home, she wouldn’t let him see her to the door.

He noticed she’d been right about the garden – at least from what he could see at the front. There was a muddy patch where she parked her old car, an equally muddy path and a few very neglected and untidy shrubs.

There was a fuchsia in there, he could see. If pruned back now, it would give a cheerful show of flowers in autumn and the variegated euonymus needed attention or the plain green shoots would take over the whole bush.

“I did mean it about helping with the garden if you like.”

“Can I let you know?”

He was hopeful; that’s what she’d said about going out with him, but her worried face saddened him.

He went straight to his friends’ home and asked, “Have I lost her?”

“No you idiot. I wish I could bottle some confidence and tip it down your throat,” Tony said. “You’re nowhere near as bad-looking as you think you are – and listening to her, you’re damned near perfect.”

“He’s right,” Louise added. “You say you’re gangly, Petra considers you tall and slim. Which you are. It’s not just that, though. You’re steady and reliable – she’s had experience of men who aren’t. Look – talk to her and maybe mention how much you’d like a family.”

“No way! I scared her off suggesting I tidy the garden. Suggesting setting up home together and raising a family would send her running.”

“Aaaargh! You two!” Tony said.

Clearly there was something Ryan was missing.

Petra called him the following day. “Louise said we should talk. I think she’s right. Do you want to come round on Saturday?”

Of course he did. He took a huge pink and purple bunch of tulips, peonies and sweet Williams with him.

When she opened the door, a cute little girl stood either side of her. Before he could even wonder what they were doing there, Petra introduced them as her twin daughters, Georgina and Lucia.

He saw then why Louise had been right in thinking Petra wouldn’t be scared off by a man who wanted a family.

He said hello to the girls. They giggled as he bent down to shake each of their hands.

“You’re Mummy’s boyfriend, aren’t you?” Lucia asked.

“Shhh! We talked about that, remember.” Petra was flustered.

“You said he was just a friend but he’s brought you flowers like a boyfriend,” Georgina pointed out.

“You are, aren’t you?” Lucia demanded. Clearly the girls had none of their mother’s shyness.

Trying to match their confidence, Ryan nodded to admit to being a boyfriend.

“Let me see your eyes, then. Mummy said they’re like chocolate.”

Blushing, he knelt down and they stared into an eyeball each.

“I’d rather have real chocolate.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to offer to buy them some, but he stopped just in time. Buying the children’s affection wasn’t the way, especially if he hoped to become more than an occasional visitor.

“How about you earn some by helping me sort out your garden?”

He kept them busy collecting up the prunings and grass cuttings and helping dig out weeds. It was even more fun than he’d imagined. The twins loved helping and learning plant names and Petra seemed really impressed with his skill and knowledge.

“I’m just going in for a bit,” she said eventually. “The door’s open so just yell if anyone needs me.”

“Lunch is ready,” she said when she reappeared.

Ryan hadn’t realised it was that time, but a glance at his watch showed it was actually nearly two. He followed the others back into the house, expecting to leave, but he saw the kitchen table had been set for all four of them.

It felt so right eating together and the Spanish omelette was delicious. The treacle tart and custard were even better. He could get used to living like that, but he expressed his pleasure in less presumptuous terms.

During the meal the girls kept up a stream of random questions about his job, blue whales, flowers and something he’d never heard of which might have been a TV programme.

The meal took quite a long time.

The girls wanted to continue gardening in the afternoon.

“Can we grow flowers like the ones Ryan brought?” asked Lucia.
Petra said, “I suppose we could buy some from the garden centre. Maybe you could suggest what to get, Ryan?”

“He can come with us, Mum.”

“Ryan might have things to do.”

Was she tactfully telling him it was time to go?

Or was Louise right and Petra was feeling as insecure as he did and therefore doubted he’d want to hang around any longer? One way to find out.

“You could buy plants with flowers already. That’s not the only way, though. I have spare baby plants at the allotment, or ones we could take cuttings from, and seeds. Would you like to plant those?”

He was interrupted by a request to explain about cuttings.

“Growing from seeds and the rest means it takes longer to get flowers, but you’d be growing them – not just buying them,” he finished.

“And you’ll help us do it all, Ryan?”

“Yes, if you and Mummy want me to.”

“Girls, why don’t you go and draw a plan of how we’d like the garden to look? Ryan can tell us which plants we need.”

Excitedly they rushed off.

“Ryan, before I lose my nerve… I don’t want you to feel obligated but if Louise is right and you do really like me and you’re willing to keep coming back and helping with the garden and everything, then I’d like that very much.” Bravely she met his eyes. “I don’t want the girls to get hurt, though – or me. If we start a garden, well, it has to be more than that.”

Seeing how difficult this was for her, he took her hand and gently squeezed it.

“I understand – I think. I want to promise to stick around, but first I have to know. Tony said there was something about you he’d promised not to tell me…”

“You know now. Georgina and Lucia.”

“That’s the worst there is to know?”

“Yes. I mean the fact I have two children – not that they’re awful or I don’t love them or anything. It’s just that the thought of a ready-made family scares some people, and –”

“I want a family – very much. Not a ready-made one, though…”

“Oh!” She looked ready to cry.

“Families have to grow, just like plants in gardens. I’d like to be part of this one but I know I can’t become their dad overnight. If we bought a tray of blooming plants and put them in the garden now, they’d look pretty for a few weeks but they wouldn’t last. To make a good job of it, something that’ll get better year on year, we need to prepare the ground, work out which plants fit where and which ones everyone likes best.”

“So you want to put in a few cuttings, sow a few seeds and work from there?”

“Yes.” He smiled gently into her eyes.

They were kissing when Lucia returned to ask, “What are you doing?”

“Wondering what the garden will look like after we’ve done more work,” Petra said hastily.

“It’ll look like this,” Georgina said. She handed over their picture.

It was a riot of vibrant flowers around the edge and in the centre were the four of them. The adults were kissing and each held the hand of a child.

“That looks perfect,” Petra murmured.

“Certainly does,” Ryan agreed. “Come on, then – let’s head down to the allotment and make a start.”

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Karen Byrom

My coffee mug says "professional bookworm" which sums me up really! As commissioning fiction editor on the magazine, I love sharing my reading experience of the latest books, debut authors and more with you all, and would like to hear from you about your favourite books and authors! Email me