I am surrounded by cardboard boxes. There are piles of them, heaped up all around me in an arc on the newly laid, slightly dusty shop floor. And all I can do is close my eyes, lean back against them and wish I could wind time forward. A week would do. Maybe a fortnight. Then all the items in these boxes would be arranged on the shelves, scattered artfully across the middle tables, and customers would be wandering in and out, arms piled high with throws and candle holders. I allow that image to sink in for a moment.
Isn't that what you're supposed to do so a dream becomes real? Visualize it?
But it's not long before the cold seeps in through my jeans and I throw myself forward with a sigh. It's five days before we open. Five days before my dream becomes a reality, and all I feel is hot, stifling panic. My phone rings and I force myself to get up, hurriedly rustling through the open boxes, turning in a circle on the heels of my perfectly white trainers. There. It's on the new counter. I lunge for it, swiping it open as I catch the name.
"I got the Thai. They didn't have the beef massaman, so I got chicken instead. Should be another..." His tinny voice slips away and I picture him shaking back his sleeve, checking his watch. "Twenty minutes?"
"James, the thing is... I..." My words stick in my throat, excuses glued to the roof of my mouth.
There is a pause, a beat of silence. "You forgot, didn't you?"
A wash of shame fills my chest and I close my eyes. We were meant to get a takeaway tonight. Just me and him, alone in our flat, so we could catch up, refuel. Have a date night like an actual husband and wife, like we used to. But of course, I forgot. As I got the last load of scent diffusers on the shelves for the launch, another arrived, then Diana called to say there was a delay with the printed paper bags... then suddenly it was dark outside and all I could do was sit on the floor. Just sit and stare at nothing, my mind filling with a tiredness that sleep can't cure.
I clear my throat. "I'll be back in an hour. Give me an hour and I'll get all this put away in the stockroom. I can pop back in afterwards, after we've had dinner—"
He huffs an exasperated breath. "I can keep it warm in the oven. Don't get back too late, yeah?"
"James, I'm sor—"
But the line has already gone dead.
A laugh claws up my throat, short and bitter, as I drop my mobile phone back on the counter. Staring blearily around at the tumble of boxes, the dustpan full of dust by the door, the till still blinking angrily, not yet set up, I feel that sharp pain again. That insistent prickle in the center of my chest.
This is all I wanted. This is what I've been building towards for the past three years, this shop with its double-fronted sage-green-framed windows, its casually rustic timber flooring. I take a deep, rattling breath and reach for the nearest shelf. I run my hand over the photo frames, the textured napkins, letting the feel of fabric and wood ground me, anchor me. It reminds me I've got this far. That I could be enough, if I push harder. Try harder. I nod to myself, straightening a set of four white napkins, smoothing them down until they are perfect again.
It's all worth it. He'll see.
I have to remind myself of this whenever I feel that gnaw of doubt in my stomach. All the maxed-out credit cards, the hours at trade fairs, the nights spent glued to my laptop screen.
For a moment, I allow myself to step into the haze of what only I can picture. What I'm creating with this brand. The charm of a well-decorated room, the scent of the ocean, afternoon light as it dances across the floorboards. This vision of peace and calm that I so desperately needed a few years ago. That other people might need too. Then I blow out a breath. If James doesn't get it, that's fine. But this is everything I have worked for, the all-consuming distraction I have needed over the last three years, and I won't stuff it up at the last minute.
I won't fail this time.