Home > I Owe You One(9)

I Owe You One(9)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

“Hi, Mum!” I greet her, but she cuts me off, her brow creased with concentration. She’s naturally beautiful, Mum, with high strong cheekbones and a thin vibrant face. You can see where Nicole got it from. “Can I help?”

“Shh! Wait!”

All her attention is on crafting a peony out of sugar paste. Painstakingly, she winds the cut-out shape into a flower and attaches a green sugar-paste leaf.

“Beautiful.” I applaud.

“It works, doesn’t it?” Mum pops the peony on a frosted cupcake, then taps the plastic cutter. “This is good. Well priced too. I think we should stock it.”

Mum is never knowingly under-tasked. Right now not only is she preparing cupcakes for her own birthday party, she’s simultaneously trying out a product for the shop. Mum would never stock a product unless she believed in it. So every pan, every food storage container, every fancy culinary gadget, has to pass the Mum Test. Does it work? Is it good value? Will our customers actually use it?

“Vanessa will love this,” she adds.

“Definitely.” I nod, smiling at the thought of Vanessa, with her patchwork waistcoats and red raincoat and boundless enthusiasm. Vanessa is one of our most regular customers and a member of the Cake Club, which we run every Tuesday evening. Morag does demonstrations at a portable cooking station and everyone shows off their own efforts. We’ve got a customer board in the shop, filled with photos of cakes, plus an Instagram page. It’s one of the things that makes Farrs so special: our community.

“I’ll take over in here,” I say now, seizing my chance while Mum has paused. “You go and get ready.”

She looks up for the first time—and her face drops.

“Fixie, what happened to you? The weather’s not that bad?” She glances out of the window at the light summer rain, which began as I was walking home.

“No! I just had a little accident. It’s fine.”

“She looks awful, doesn’t she?” says Nicole, drifting in.

“Mum,” I try again. “Why don’t you go and get ready? Have a nice bath. Relax for a bit.”

“I’ll just make two more of these,” says Mum, rolling out more sugar paste.

“OK, well, I’ll nip up and sort out my hair,” I say. “I’ll be super-quick.”

“Then maybe you could make me a coffee, darling?” says Mum to Nicole. “If you’re not doing anything else?”

“Oh.” Nicole wrinkles her nose dubiously. “Coffee. You know I can’t do the machine.”

It was Jake who bought Mum her cappuccino machine as a present last Christmas. It’s quite technical, but you can get to know it if you try. Nicole, though, seems pathologically unable to. She peers at it and says, “What does it mean, Empty drip tray?” and you explain it and show her three times, but she still doesn’t get it. So in the end you do it yourself.

“I’ll do it,” I say hurriedly, and reach for a mug.

“Hi, Mum.” Jake breezes into the kitchen, wafting aftershave and beer. “Happy birthday.” He plants a kiss on her cheek and presents her with the Christian Dior bag.

“Darling!” Mum’s eyes have widened at the glossy bag. “You shouldn’t!”

When most people say, “You shouldn’t,” they really mean, “You should,” but not Mum. She gets twitchy when people spend money on her, especially us, her children. Of course she’s touched—but she’s anxious too, because she thinks it’s needless.

Mum thinks a lot of things in this world are needless. She rarely wears makeup. She never travels abroad. In fact, she hardly ever takes a holiday. She never reads the paper. I’m not sure she even votes. (She says she does, but I think she’s fibbing so we won’t lecture her.)

The only websites she ever visits are craft suppliers, cooking stores, and gadget sites. She watches EastEnders, she manages Farrs, she goes to her Zumba class; that’s it. Sometimes I’ve suggested that she take a trip abroad or visit a country-house spa. But she gives me this kind little smile and says, “That’s for other people, love.”

As for another man, forget it. She hasn’t looked at another man or been on a single date since Dad died. She says he’s still with her and she still talks to him and she doesn’t need anyone else. When Jake once tried to sign her up to some “silver years” dating site, she got quite angry, which is unlike her.

“Jake, you make the coffee for Mum,” says Nicole. “Where’s Leila?”

“I sent her off to buy some more beer,” replies Jake, whereupon I have a sudden image of poor Leila lugging ten crates of beer along the street in her skinny arms. And I wasn’t going to ask, but before I can stop them the words spill out:

“Is Ryan here?”

My voice is husky and I flush as everyone turns to look at me. I would never have mentioned Ryan—but I suddenly got worried he might appear in the kitchen. I’ve still got pipe water all over my hair and I’m wearing my work jeans and basically I’d have to hide in the fridge.

“Not yet.” Jake runs his eyes over me. “Jeez, is that your party look? Drowned weasel?” At once Nicole bursts into laughter.

“Oh God, Fixie, you do look like a drowned weasel.”

“A ceiling fell on me!” I say defensively. “It wasn’t my fault!”

“Darling, you go up and take a shower and you’ll look lovely,” says Mum in that soothing way she has. Soothing with an edge of steel, enough to warn off Jake and Nicole.

Mum’s like one of those dressage riders on TV. She changes her voice an iota and we all obey her instantly, like trained Olympic horses. Even Jake.

“Are you OK, Fixie?” asks Nicole, looking abashed. “Sorry, I didn’t realize.”

“Fixie, I didn’t mean it,” says Jake. “You go and get ready. Take your time. I’ll hold the fort here.”

He sounds so charming, I’m mollified. Jake can be really nice when he wants to.

“OK.” I pick up my bag of hair clips. “I’ll go and have a shower. Mum, why don’t you come up too now? We could pick out an outfit for you.”

“In a moment,” says Mum absently as she shapes another peony.

I’ll be in a better position to chivvy Mum into her party clothes when I’m ready myself, I decide. I sprint upstairs, rip off my damp jeans and T-shirt, and quickly take a shower in our tiny old-fashioned cubicle.

I haven’t always lived at home—I shared with Hannah for a while. She bought a flat in Hammersmith and said I had to live there too and she would subsidize the rent with her ridiculously large salary. But then she and Tim got more serious and I felt awkward, lurking around every evening.

Then my company went bust and everything had to change, anyway. Mum was the one who said, “Lots of girls your age are still at home, love,” and made me feel OK about moving back for a while. To be honest, I was just really grateful to have that option.

I stand on the landing to dry my hair, wrapped in a towel, because there’s more space and a big mirror. And I’m pausing between blasts when a sound catches my attention from downstairs. It’s Jake, talking.

Our house isn’t huge, and the walls and floors are pretty thin. So although I can’t hear exactly what Jake is saying in the kitchen, I can pick up on how he’s saying it. He’s talking on and on, and nobody’s interrupting him, and I suddenly feel suspicious. I hurry downstairs, still in my towel, and now I can hear Jake properly, saying in his smoothest drawl, “As I say, it’s an amazing opportunity, and the oil tastes out of this world. But I don’t want to bother you with the details, Mum; you’re busy enough. So shall I just put in an order? Ten bottles?”


I’m breathing furiously as I reach the bottom of the stairs. He deliberately got me out of the way; he deliberately chose a moment when Mum was distracted …

Shit. I’ve dropped my towel.

I hastily wrap it around myself again and approach the kitchen.

“Mum!” As I burst in, my chest is rising and falling. “About this olive oil …” The ravens are flapping around me, but I’m trying desperately to ignore them. “I’ve already talked to Jake, and I … I really don’t think …”

Oh God, my voice has gone wobbly again. My courage has disintegrated. I loathe myself.

“It’s nothing to do with you, Fixie,” says Jake, glowering at me.

“Yes, it is.” I glare back at him.

“Jake. Fixie.” Mum’s calm voice cuts through the atmosphere. “You know I’d never order a new product without seeing the details. Show me, Jake.”

“It’s your party!” Jake is obviously trying to sound jovial. “You don’t want to see all that right now—”

“I do, love,” she says pleasantly. “Hand it over.”

“Right. OK,” says Jake at last. He hands Mum a sheaf of papers and we both stand waiting while she flicks through them. I see her reach the price list and I see her eyes snap in shock.

“Too expensive, love,” she says, and hands the papers back to Jake. “Way too expensive. Not for us.”

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