Home > I Owe You One(12)

I Owe You One(12)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

“OK, so how can I help?” she says now. “What needs doing? Let’s break it down.”

Let’s break it down is Hannah’s favorite phrase in the world. Give her any job, from a client report to washing her hair, and she’ll break it down into smaller tasks. Her Christmas to-do list has 926 entries, beginning with Order wrapping paper on Boxing Day.

“We’re fine, love,” says Mum fondly, who was once given a color-coded organizational calendar by Hannah for her birthday and used it to doodle on during phone calls. Mum really isn’t into systems. She runs the shop out of a hardback notebook, where she writes cryptic messages like Forks—68 or just Greg? and always knows what she meant.

The doorbell rings, and my stomach lurches. Oh God, is that— It might be—

“I’ll go!” I say before I can stop myself. I’m aware of Mum and Hannah exchanging looks, but I ignore this and hurry downstairs, nearly tripping on my heels, rehearsing my greeting.

Hi, Ryan.

Well, hello, Ryan.

Hello, stranger.

But as I approach the front door my heart sinks. I can already see gray hair through the wavy glass, and as I swing the door open, a familiar cantankerous, raspy voice greets me.

“Come on, come on, don’t keep me on the doorstep!”

Great. It’s Uncle Ned.

An hour later Ryan still hasn’t arrived and I’d quite like to stab Uncle Ned.

I pretty much always want to stab Uncle Ned at every family gathering. But I have to smile politely at him, because he’s Dad’s brother and the only one left of that bit of the family. More to the point, Mum gets upset if we slag him off.

We’re all in the sitting room by now and there’s quite a crowd of Mum’s friends, chatting away. Music is playing, people are greedily eating sausage rolls, and smoke is hazing the air, because Mum’s never believed in the whole “smoke outside” thing. Dad used to smoke inside, so even though she’s not a smoker herself, she almost encourages it.

“Shop doing well, then, Joanne?” asks Uncle Ned.

“Not bad.” Mum smiles back over her glass of Cava. “Not at all bad.”

“Well, I’m not surprised,” Uncle Ned declaims. “Mike was a master at what he did. He set you up for life, Joanne.”

“He did.” Mum nods with a misty fondness. “He lives on in the shop; that’s how I see it.”

“He had a knack,” Uncle Ned explains to Mum’s friend Pippa, even though I’m sure Pippa knows as much about the shop as he does. “He knew what people wanted, you see? Clever man. And now Joanne can simply carry on in the same pattern.”

I’m bristling inside. I know Dad set up the shop, but what’s Uncle Ned saying? That Mum’s been coasting along these last nine years?

“Bob’s very helpful,” adds Mum, gesturing at Bob, our financial manager, who is hovering over the buffet table with an anxious look on his face. He reaches for a little sausage, reconsiders, peers doubtfully at a quiche, then takes two crisps and places them on his plate. (Bob Stringer: Most Cautious Man in the World.)

“Bob!” says Uncle Ned as though this makes everything plain. “Fine man, Bob! Bob keeps you going.”

I feel another dart of indignation. Bob’s helpful—of course he is—but he doesn’t “keep us going.”

“Bob’s great,” I say. “But Mum’s in charge—”

“Every organization needs a ‘Man of the House,’ ” Uncle Ned cuts me off. “A Man of the House,” he repeats, with weighty emphasis. “And since poor Mike left us …” He pats Mum’s hand. “You’ve coped marvelously, Joanne.”

I can see Mum flinching slightly at the hand-pat, but even so, she doesn’t confront him. And although I’m seething, nor do I. I’ve tried in the past, and it doesn’t achieve anything; it only upsets Mum.

I got really angry last Christmas, when Uncle Ned started patronizing Mum yet again during lunch. This time, I challenged him. He instantly got red-faced and after-all-I’ve-done-for-you, and Mum soothed the situation by telling him I didn’t mean it.

Even then I didn’t give up. I dragged Mum, still wearing her paper hat, into the kitchen and listed all the ways he’d talked her down, finishing up with: “How can you just sit there, Mum? You’re a strong woman! You’re the boss of … everything!”

I was hoping to stir her up, but it didn’t happen. She listened, wincing a little, but then said, “Ah, he doesn’t really mean it, love. What does it matter? He’s been there for me when it matters, your uncle.”

“Yes, but—”

“He helped me sort out the new lease after your father died, remember? I was in such a state, and Ned stepped in to negotiate. I’ve always been grateful for that.”

“I know he did, but—”

“He got very good terms for us,” she carried on resolutely. “He beat them down. There’s more to Ned than meets the eye. He’s not perfect, of course he’s not, but who is? We’ve all got our funny little habits.”

Personally, I wouldn’t call being a total misogynist a “funny little habit.” But in the end I gave up, because it was Christmas, and who wants to upset their mum at Christmas?

And since then I’ve stopped trying to make the point. For her own reasons, Mum wants to preserve Uncle Ned in her head in the best possible light. She doesn’t want to fall out with him. She’s such a strong woman in so many ways—but this is her total blind spot.

And I know why. It’s because Uncle Ned is family. He’s the only bit of Dad she’s got left. And she values that more than most things.

“How’s the dating going, Ned?” she says now, changing the subject in that easy way of hers. Uncle Ned got divorced recently, for the third time. I have no idea what any woman sees in him, but the world’s a mysterious place.

“Oh, Joanne, these girls.” He shakes his head. “Nice-enough looking, some of them, but they talk so much. I need to take ruddy earplugs with me.”

Yet again, I wonder how he can be Dad’s brother. Dad was old-fashioned in some ways—he believed his role was to be the provider and he didn’t like bad language—but he respected Mum. He respected women.

Mum once told me after a few drinks that Uncle Ned took after my granddad, who could be a “difficult man.” But then she wouldn’t reveal any more. And I never really got to know my granddad before he died. So as far as I’m concerned, Uncle Ned is just one of those unsolvable family mysteries like, “Whatever happened to the key to the shed?”

“You’ll find someone,” says Mum peaceably. “And how’s the fishing going?”

Nooo! Not fishing. When Uncle Ned gets going on fishing, he can last for hours.

“Well,” says Uncle Ned. “I was down at the river the other day— Ah, Jake!” He breaks off as Jake joins the group. “How’s business, m’boy?”

Thank God. Saved from a six-hour anecdote about a trout.

“Pretty good, Uncle Ned.” Jake gives Uncle Ned his flashy smile. “Got a few interesting deals coming my way, as it happens. I’ve been at the Global Finance Conference at Olympia this week; have you ever been to it?”

Of course Uncle Ned hasn’t been to it. He used to work for an insurance company, but he was an office administrator in the Woking branch. I’m not sure he ever made it to head office, let alone any global finance conference. But he’d never admit that.

“Those were the days, m’boy,” he says, as though he were there every year. “Dealmaking and drinking and all the rest of it.” He gives a throaty laugh. “What happens at conference stays at conference, eh, Jake?”

“Amen to that!” says Jake, lifting his glass.

They’re such a couple of phonies. I know Jake only went to that conference because a friend of his had an extra pass.

“We had some times, back at the firm,” says Uncle Ned, blowing out smoke. “The stories I could tell you …” He makes an expansive gesture with his cigarette and knocks a glass off the sideboard, where it was resting. It crashes to the floor, breaking into bits, and he frowns in annoyance. “Damn it,” he adds. “One of you girls had better clear that up.”

One of you girls? I instantly prickle again, but Mum steps in, putting a hand on Nicole’s arm. “Love,” she says. “Would you mind?”

“And the MBA?” says Uncle Ned to Jake. “Going well?”

“Excellent,” says Jake emphatically. “It’ll open so many doors.”

“Nothing like letters after your name,” affirms Uncle Ned.

They carry on talking about qualifications and opportunities, but I’m not listening. I’m watching Nicole clear up the glass. She’s hopeless. She’s got a broom but she’s pushing it aimlessly at the bits of glass, spreading them around the floor, staring at her phone. Can’t she look at what she’s doing? She’s sweeping shards all over the place. This is glass. Someone could get hurt.

My fingers are drumming in that way they do. My feet have started pacing: forward-across-back, forward-across-back. I can’t stand it any longer.

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