Home > I Owe You One(6)

I Owe You One(6)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

“Hi, the ceiling’s leaking.” I point upward and she follows my gaze briefly, then shrugs.

“Yeah. We put a bucket down.”

“But it’s dripping on the table too.”

As I study the ceiling, I can see two sources of drips and a patch of damp. That whole area of ceiling looks very unhealthy. I glance at the guy opposite to see if he’s noticed, but he’s on his mobile phone and seems totally preoccupied.

“Yes,” he’s saying, in a voice which crackles with education and polish. “I know, Bill, but—”

Nice suit, I notice. Glossy, expensive shoes.

“They’re doing building work on the floor above.” The barista seems supremely unconcerned. “We’ve called them. You can move seats if you like.”

I should have wondered why this window seat was empty, when the rest of the coffee shop is full. I look around to see if there’s another available seat, but there isn’t.

Well, I’m not fussy. I can put up with a few drips. I’ll be leaving soon, anyway.

“It’s OK,” I say. “Just thought I’d let you know. You might need to get another bucket.”

The barista shrugs again, with a look I recognize—it’s the famous “I’m going off shift so what do I care?” look—and heads back to the counter.

“Strewth!” the guy opposite suddenly exclaims. His voice has risen and he’s making exasperated gestures with his hand.

The word strewth makes me smile inside. That’s a word Dad used to use. I don’t often hear it anymore.

“You know what?” he’s saying now. “I’m sick of these intellectual types with their six degrees from Cambridge.” He listens for a bit, then says, “It should not be this hard to fill a junior-level position. It should not. But everyone Chloe finds for me … I know. You’d think. But all they want to do is tell me their clever theories that they learned at uni. They don’t want to work.”

He leans forward, takes his cup for a gulp of coffee, and meets eyes with me briefly. I can’t help smiling, because even though he doesn’t know it, I’m hearing my dad again.

On the face of it, this man is nothing like my dad. My dad was a weather-beaten former market trader. This guy is a thirty-something professional in a posh tie. But I’m hearing exactly the same note of energy; the same pragmatism; the same impatience with clever-clever know-it-alls. Dad had no time for theories either. “Get on and do it,” he’d say.

“All I want is to hire someone bright and savvy and tough who knows how the world works,” the guy is saying now, thrusting a hand through his frondy hair. “Someone who’s been in the world, hasn’t just written a dissertation about it. They don’t even need a bloody degree! They need some sense! Sense!”

He’s lean and energetic-looking, with an end-of-summer tan. Deep-brown hair, lighter where the sun’s caught it. As he reaches for his coffee again, the fronds cast shadows over his face. His cheekbones are two long, strong planes. His eyes are … can’t quite tell. Mid-brown or hazel, I think, peering surreptitiously at him. Then the light catches them and I see a tinge of green. They’re woodland eyes.

It’s a thing of mine, classifying eyes. Mine are double espresso. Ryan’s are Californian sky. Mum’s are deep-sea blue. And this guy’s are woodland eyes.

“I know,” he says more calmly, his ire apparently vanished. “So I’m having another meeting with Chloe next week. I’m sure she’s really looking forward to it.” His mouth curves into a sudden, infectious smile.

He can laugh at himself. That’s one up on Dad, who was the sweetest, most softhearted person in the world but didn’t really get the concept of banter or laughing at yourself. You could never have sent Dad an irreverent, jokey birthday card. He would have just been hurt or offended.

“Oh. That.” The guy shifts on his chair. “Look, I’m sorry.” He passes a hand through his hair again, but this time he doesn’t look dynamic; he looks upset. “I’m just … It’s not happening. You know Briony, she gets ahead of herself, so … no. No home gym, not for now. Tanya’s designs were great, she’s very talented, but … Yeah. I’ll pay her for her time, of course.… No, not with dinner,” he adds firmly. “With a proper invoice. I insist.” He nods a few times. “OK. I’ll see you soon. Cheers.”

The wry blade of humor is back in his voice—but as he puts his phone away, he stares out of the window as though trying to rebalance himself. It’s weird, but I feel like I know this guy. Like, I get him. If we weren’t two uptight British people in a London coffee shop, maybe I’d strike up conversation with him.

But we are. And that’s just not what you do.

So I do that traditional London thing of pretending I didn’t hear a word of his phone call and staring carefully into midair in a way that won’t attract his gaze. The guy starts typing at his laptop and I glance at my watch—5:45 P.M. I should go soon.

My phone buzzes with a text and I reach for it, madly hoping it’s Jake saying: Ryan’s here. Or, even better, Ryan texting me himself. But it’s not, of course; it’s Hannah, replying to the text I sent her earlier. I quickly scan her words:

Ryan’s back? I thought he was in L.A.

Unable to stop smiling, I type a quick reply:

He was!!! But he’s here and he’s unattached and he was asking about me!!!!

I press SEND, then instantly realize my error. I’ve put too many exclamation marks. Hannah will see them as warning signs. She’ll be on the phone within half a minute.

I’ve been friends with Hannah since we were eleven and both elected as class monitors. At once we knew we’d found kindred spirits. We’re both organized. We both love lists. We both get things done. Although, to be fair, Hannah gets things done even more efficiently than I do. She never procrastinates or finds an excuse. Whatever the task is, she does it straightaway, whether it’s her tax form or cleaning out her fridge or telling a guy that she didn’t like the way he kissed, on their very first date. (Fair play to him, he took it on the chin. He said, “How do you like to be kissed, then?” And she showed him. And now they’re married.)

She’s the most levelheaded, straight-talking person I know. She works as an actuary and she starts Christmas shopping in July and … here we go. Her name’s popping up on my screen. Knew it.

“Hi, Hannah.” I answer my phone casually, as though I don’t know why she’s calling. “How are you?”

“Ryan, huh?” she says, ignoring my greeting. “What happened to that girl in L.A.?”

“Apparently it’s over.” I try to speak calmly, although a voice inside me is singing, It’s over! It’s over!

“Hmm.” She doesn’t sound convinced. “Fixie, I thought you were over him. Finally.”

I don’t blame her for that emphasis on finally. I’ve been spilling my heart to Hannah about Ryan pretty much since the first day we met. When we were eighteen I used to drag her around endless London pubs, just in the hope of bumping into him. She used to call it the Ryan Route. And it would be fair to say that last spring, after Ryan went back to Hollywood, every other conversation we had was about him.

OK, every conversation.

“I am!” I lower my voice so the whole coffee shop doesn’t hear. “But apparently he was asking after me.” Just the thought of Ryan asking after me makes me feel giddy, but I force myself to sound matter-of-fact. “So that’s interesting. That’s all. Just interesting.”

“Hmm,” says Hannah again. “Has he texted you himself or anything?”

“No. But maybe he wants to surprise me.”

“Hmm,” says Hannah for a third time. “Fixie, you do remember that he lives in L.A.?”

“I know,” I say.

“And your whole life is your family shop.”

“I know.”

“So there’s no prospect of you actually getting together,” Hannah carries on relentlessly. “Like having a relationship or anything. It’s not going to happen.”

“Stop spelling stuff out!” I hiss crossly, turning toward the window for extra privacy. “You always have to spell things out!”

Not for the first time, I wish I had a flaky, romantic best friend, who would say, “Oh wow, Ryan’s back! You two are meant for each other!” and help me choose what outfit to wear.

Nicole’s quite flaky and romantic, I suppose. But then, she’s not really interested in my life.

“I’m spelling things out because I know you,” says Hannah. “And what I worry is that deep down you’re still hoping for some sort of miracle.”

There’s silence. I’m not going to say, “Don’t be ridiculous,” because there’s no point lying to your best friend.

“It’s like … a ten percent hope,” I say at last, watching a traffic warden on the prowl. “It’s harmless.”

“It’s not harmless,” Hannah contradicts me with energy. “It means you don’t even look at any other men. There are nice men out there, you know, Fixie. Good men.”

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