Home > I Owe You One(15)

I Owe You One(15)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

I force myself to keep smiling, determined he won’t see my disappointment. Why would he think it would be awkward? It wouldn’t be awkward! But there’s no point pressing the idea. If he doesn’t want to work at the shop, he doesn’t.

“Have you been helping Mum?” I ask Jake again. “Or has Nicole?”

“Jeez, Fixie.” He rolls his eyes. “Get off my case. I haven’t even seen Mum.”

Now that Jake is in here, the magical, transfixing bubble we were in has burst. And suddenly I feel guilty. I’ve dodged all the work. I’ve forgotten about the party. I’ve forgotten about everything except Ryan and me.

“I’ll go and see if Mum needs anything,” I say. “You know what she’s like. She’ll be back in the kitchen.”

I’m not being totally noble here. I’m feeling the need of Mum’s calming presence. Jake unnerves me, and I was already unnerved enough by Ryan. I need an injection of Mum’s calm, loving, steadying voice. I want her to say something that makes me smile, so I can take a step back from life and see it all in perspective.

I head out and glance into the sitting room, where all the guests have given up standing. They’re perched all over, on chairs and even the floor, chatting and smoking and still nibbling food. But sure enough, Mum isn’t anywhere to be seen. I knew it.

“Mum?” I call, as I stride down the corridor toward the back of the house. “Mum, are you there?”

I see a familiar flash of blue linen through the open kitchen door, but it’s in the wrong place somehow. I pick up speed, frowning as my brain tries to process the sight. There’s something not right, but I can’t work out—

“Mum?” I push the door right open—and my heart freezes in horror.

Mum is collapsed over the table, motionless. Her piping bag is still in her hand; her straggly hair is all over her face. “Mum?” My voice is strangled in alarm. “Mum?”

I push her shoulder gently but she doesn’t respond—and now terror is ripping through my guts.

“Mum? Help!” I yell through the door, frantically patting her cheeks, trying to work out if she’s even breathing. I can’t feel a pulse, but then, I don’t know how to feel for a pulse; I should have done first-aid lessons …

“Mum, please wake up, please.… Help! Someone please HELP!” I yell again, my voice hoarse, tears of fright springing from my eyes. “HELP!”

Footsteps are thudding along the corridor. I grab for my phone with fumbling, panicky fingers, feeling totally surreal. I’ve never dialed 999 in my life and I’ve always wondered what it must feel like. Now I know. It’s the scariest thing in the world.


When everything happens at once, it’s hard to process. It’s hard not to go around with a bewildered look and your brain only half engaged, because the rest of it is crying out, What’s happening? What’s happening?

First Ryan arrived out of the blue, which was enough to be dealing with. Then Mum collapsed and I thought my world had caved in. And then we got to the hospital and she was OK, and that was kind of shocking in its relief.

Except of course she wasn’t really OK. She isn’t really OK. As it turns out, she hasn’t been OK for ages.

She’d never even mentioned she’d been having chest pains, which is so bloody Mum. I wanted to scream when it came out. All this time, she’d had a dodgy heart and she’d never let on? A lot of her trouble comes down to smoking, they’ve said. She used to smoke, and of course Dad was on thirty a day. But then there’s the fact that she works fourteen-hour days in the shop. Still. At her age.

Make changes is the phrase every single medical professional used during those few days that Mum was in hospital. Make changes to your life. When Mum replied, “I’m not changing what I do! I love what I do!” they just reiterated it. You need to make changes. But this time they looked at us—Nicole and me—as they said it. They gave us the job of changing Mum. (And Jake too, I guess, except he wasn’t there much of the time. He had meetings to be at, apparently.)

Now it’s two weeks after the party. And if it were up to Nicole and me, even with our best efforts, I’m not sure anything would have changed very much. But that’s irrelevant now. Because last Friday, a brand-new thing hit us, like a juggernaut: Mum’s sister, Karen, came to stay.

We don’t even know Aunty Karen. She might be our aunt, but she’s lived in Spain for twenty-seven years. She never comes back to the UK, because it’s “too bloody cold.” She doesn’t do email, because it’s a “pain in the neck.” She didn’t come to Nicole’s wedding, because she was having a “procedure.” But she’s here now. And not only has Mum changed, the whole house has changed.

She burst into the house like a suntanned whirlwind, dragging a bright-pink wheelie case, her hair in a highlighted, straggly blond ponytail.

“I’m here!” she cried to Mum, who was sitting on the sofa. “Don’t you worry! I’ll take care of things! Now, first things first: flowers for the invalid.”

We all watched, a bit gobsmacked, as she produced a bunch of bright-red fake flowers from her bag, like a magician. “I don’t do fresh flowers,” she added. “Waste of bloody money. Put these in a vase, just as good, and you can use them again.” She thrust the plastic flowers at me, then she peered at Mum and shook her head. “Oh, Joanne. Bloody hell. Look at you. Look at your lines. I know I’m lined”—she poked at her suntanned, crinkly face—“but these are from fun. Look at you, working yourself into an early grave! That’s got to stop. If you can’t enjoy yourself, what’s the point of life? I’m taking you away.”

At first, I didn’t even know what Aunty Karen meant by “away.” Then I realized she meant away to Spain. Then I thought, Yes! Of course Mum should have a holiday. Then I thought, Mum will never have a holiday. No way. She won’t go.

But I’d reckoned without Aunty Karen. Somehow she’s got sway over Mum. She can talk her into things no one else can. Like, she told Mum she had to have gel nails, had to—and Mum listened meekly and let her apply them. How many times has Leila offered to do Mum’s nails without getting anywhere?

And now she’s talked Mum into coming back to Spain with her. Mum, who hasn’t been on a plane since before she was married. The doctors have okayed it. (I phoned up the consultant especially, to be extra sure.) Mum’s bought a new swimsuit and a hat and a one-way ticket. She doesn’t know how long she’s going for, but it’ll be at least six weeks. It was Aunty Karen who insisted on six weeks. She said short holidays are stressful. She said Mum would never properly relax otherwise. She said they might go to Paris too and she barely knew her own sister and it was about bloody time.

Which is great. It’s so great. Mum deserves some time to relax and see the world and get to know her sister properly again. When she told me she’d be gone for six weeks, if not more, I flung my arms around her and said, “Mum, that’s amazing! How exciting!”

“It’s a long time to be away,” she said with a nervous laugh. But I instantly shook my head and said, “You need it. And, anyway, it’ll fly by!”

Today we’re having a meeting to talk about how we’re going to manage the shop. Jake and Nicole have both promised to give more time to it. (It’s turned out that Nicole’s yoga course isn’t quite as “full-time” as she’s been making out.) We’ve upped Stacey’s hours and reworked the shifts so that everything is covered. Still, it’ll be weird with Mum away.

We’ve cleared the oak gateleg dining table that we only use at Christmas and we’re sitting round it with cups of coffee: Nicole, Jake, me, and Mum, whose appearance keeps making me draw breath. She’s now an unfamiliar biscuity color and has sparkly blue earrings dangling from her lobes. Aunty Karen talked her into the fake tan last night—and the earrings appeared this morning as a “little pressie.”

The chair at the end with the big wooden arms is empty. That’s still Dad’s chair, even after all these years. No one would ever sit in it, but no one ever moves it either. It’s like we still respect Dad and his position in the family, even though he’s gone.

“Here we are!” Aunty Karen plonks a bowl of pink marshmallows on the table, and we all blink at her. “You didn’t know you needed those, did you?” she exclaims triumphantly as she sits down and pops one into her mouth, and we all stare at them, a bit baffled.

This is what Aunty Karen says every time she brings something new into the house—which is every single day. From fake flowers to bowls of sweets everywhere to plug-in air fresheners, she’s constantly “improving” the place with things which aren’t really us. And each time, she cries, “You didn’t know you needed that, did you?” But she’s so bright and breezy and bossy, no one objects.

Jake eyes the marshmallows with disfavor, then pushes them away slightly and turns to Mum.

“Right,” he says. “So. Mum. You’re off to Spain.”

“Hola!” puts in Nicole brightly. “Por favor, signor.”

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