It’s not the holiday season without a short story from Sophie Kinsella! In Six Geese a-Laying, Christmas is approaching, and Ginny is looking forward to the birth of her first baby. It’s a pity her partner Dan is so useless, and she has to keep reminding him where he’s going wrong. Luckily she’s enrolled in the most exclusive prenatal class going—all the highest achieving, smartest mothers-to-be aspire to be taught by the legendary Petal Harmon. Like the other five women in the class, Ginny already knows exactly what she wants, and how she’s going to handle motherhood. But when they turn up for the final class it isn’t quite what they expect. As Ginny discovers what parenthood is really going to be like, she begins to realize the things that really matter…
And at the end, don’t miss a sneak peek of I Owe You One, Sophie Kinsella’s newest novel, on sale February 5, 2019.
Six Geese a-Laying
We’re a fairly exclusive group.
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Which, OK, I know sounds awful and conceited. If I were talking to anyone else I wouldn’t even say it. But you understand. This isn’t just any antenatal group. You can’t just turn up. You have to be chosen.
Petal Harmon, our teacher, conducts all the interviews herself. She isn’t affiliated to any of the hospitals or nationwide chains, but let me tell you, she gets enquiries from all over London. People travel miles to be in one of her classes. And she doesn’t even advertise. It’s all word of mouth.
The women who have had Petal Harmon classes are different. They have a strange look in their eye. They know something the rest of us don’t. The thing I’ve heard, over and over, is that Petal changed their lives.
Which sounds a leetle bit of an exaggeration to me, but I take the point. So naturally I applied for her classes as soon as I heard I was pregnant, like everyone else round here. I didn’t do anything special at the interview. So many girls have asked me if there’s some special trick but all I can say is, I was myself! We talked about my pregnancy . . . and my work in personnel . . . and Dan . . .
Dan’s my husband, by the way. He’s the one who dropped me off tonigh—although he missed the street, and had to go round the one-way system. Which is just typical of him. He said the sign was covered in snow so he couldn’t read it, but honestly. He’s just useless. How he’s going to cope with a baby I’ll never know!
So where was I? Oh yes, the interview. So I was just very natural, very bubbly, and the next thing I knew a handwritten card had arrived, inviting me to the classes.
Obviously I was thrilled. Not that I would gloat or anything. I’ve barely mentioned it more than a few times to my neighbour Annabel. (She didn’t get in, poor love. Even though she took Petal a bunch of flowers and some of those earthy biscuits she makes.) We all feel the same way, all of us in the class. We’re not smug, obviously not. But the fact that we were all selected gives us . . . I don’t know. A little glow. We must have some special quality that others don’t.
There are six of us altogether, all due around the same time—Christmas. As I walk—well, waddle—into the room, the fire is glowing and the fairy lights are twinkling and it really looks quite Christmassy.
Geraldine’s holding forth about something or other, balancing a cup of tea on her bump. She’s still in tailored suits, believe it or not. Adjusted to fit, naturally. She had them made up on her last business trip to Singapore.
She’s fun, Geraldine, but a bit abrasive, if you know what I mean. When a midwife came to talk to us, Geraldine’s first question was ‘If you were negligent during my delivery, would I sue you individually or the hospital?’
‘So there I am, lying on the couch—and the midwife starts texting her friend!’ she’s saying now. ‘I mean, it’s tantamount to negligence, ignoring a patient like that. I’m complaining.’
‘Which midwife was it?’ asks Georgia alertly. Georgia has blonde highlights, is very posh, and has already put her baby down for Eton and Suzuki violin lessons.
‘It was that bloody Davies woman,’ replies Geraldine. ‘I tell you, I’m writing to the senior midwife, and I’m CC-ing the consultant and my chum in hospital management. I’m going to make her life hell. It’s the only way to get results with these people.’ She scribbles something on a leather-bound notebook and stuffs it into her Mulberry briefcase.
‘I saw my midwife today too,’ says Gina, who is sipping her own organic raspberry tea. ‘I told her my birth plan. No pain relief.’ She smiles contentedly around the room. ‘I’ve told Ralph, as well. I’ve said to him, even if I beg you. Even if I scream for an epidural!’ She leans forward earnestly, her plaits falling over her shoulders. ‘Don’t listen to me. I won’t know what I’m saying.’
Ralph is Gina’s partner. He has a goatee beard dyed three shades of red and apparently at the father’s evening he read out a poem he’d composed himself about placentas.
‘You’re brave!’ says Georgia. ‘Didn’t Petal say we should be open-minded about pain relief?’
‘I’ve been practising yoga and meditation for years.’ Gina looks smug. ‘I think I know how to work with my body. It’s all in the mind. You can see it as pain, or you can see it as empowerment. Plus, Ralph’s taken a course in aromatherapy. He’s going to make me my own personal blend of oils.’
‘He’s very supportive, Ralph, isn’t he?’ says Georgia, with a slight frown. Her husband is called Jonno and works non-stop at a merchant bank.
‘He’s great.’ Gina still looks smug. ‘We really connect, on every level. That’s why I’m so confident about labour.’
‘And Dan’s supportive, isn’t he Ginny?’ Georgia turns to me. ‘He seems really sweet.’
‘Oh, he’s crap!’ I say with a burst of laughter. ‘Utterly useless! He put up the changing table yesterday. I said, if you’re as cack-handed as that with the baby I’m not letting you near it—’
My laughter’s interrupted by the door opening. Petal is at the door in her purple crinkly skirt. She really does look like a witch sometimes.
‘Are we all here?’ she says, her eyes darting around the room. ‘Our special guest speaker has arrived, but I’ll wait until the whole group is assembled.’
‘No Gabby yet,’ says Geraldine. ‘I know her firm’s handling a big merger this week, so . . . ’ She shrugs. We all know what she means. Gabby’s attendance hasn’t been great. She always arrives late and often leaves early—and one week she sent along her PA in lieu. It makes you wonder why she’s having a baby. Actually, we know why she’s having a baby. It’s because her husband wanted one. She’s already booked her Caesarean and her twenty-four-hour nanny, and is going back to work three weeks after the birth.
‘Last lesson!’ says Georgia brightly to Petal. ‘If we don’t know it now, we never will!’
Petal says nothing for a few moments, just looks at her with that mysterious, slightly eerie gaze she has. ‘There are certain lessons each of you has still to learn,’ she says at last. Her gaze moves around the room, lingering on each of us in turn. Then she quietly disappears out of the room.
‘Oh God,’ says Geraldine as the door closes. ‘It’s the breastfeeding counsellor, I know it. They’re worse than Bible bashers, my friend Lucy said.’
‘Breastfeeding raises the IQ,’ Georgia says at once. ‘Breastfeeding and Mozart. Did you read the article?’ She pulls a glossy magazine entitled Intelligent Baby out of her bag. ‘I’m planning to play the Mozart clarinet concerto every day to my baby.’
There’s a sudden flurry of snow against the window, and we all jump in surprise.
‘Look at that!’ Gina exclaims. ‘It’s going to be a white Christmas.’
It hasn’t snowed like this for years. Real, proper snow. Dickensian snow, Dan called it this morning.
‘Speaking of Christmas . . .’ Georgia looks around, a little coy. ‘Has anyone thought of names yet?’
‘Holly?’ says Geraldine with a grin.
‘Ivy,’ I say with a laugh. ‘Or Noel. Dan suggested Bianca. I said, that’s the kind of name you would think of.’
‘Only I’ve thought of one that’s rather unusual . . .’ Georgia looks around, her mouth twisting with pleasure. ‘Melchior.’
‘Melchior?’ echoes Geraldine. ‘You can’t call a baby Melchior!’
‘I think it’s rather lovely,’ says Georgia, looking offended. ‘For a girl or a boy. Mel for short. What do you think, Grace?’
We all turn to look at Grace in the corner, and as usual, she stares dumbly back with that frightened-rabbit expression she always has.
Now. I’m sure Petal had her reasons for inviting Grace into the class. But frankly . . . she doesn’t fit. She’s barely out of her teens, for a start. I mean, fancy having a baby at the age of twenty-two! People just don’t do that any more. So, of course, she hasn’t got the confidence of the rest of us, bless her.
And to be honest, I think it’s a shame. The last thing the rest of us need is some drippy, insecure girl bringing us down. Especially when the classes are so oversubscribed. You’d think Petal could have found someone more . . . suitable.
‘I haven’t even thought about names,’ she says, her voice barely above a whisper. ‘I just,’ she swallows. ‘I just can’t get my head round it.’
‘I’ve got a book you can borrow . . .’ begins Georgia.
‘Not just that. All of it.’ Grace looks imploringly around at the rest of us. ‘Motherhood. Being responsible for another life. What if the baby gets ill and I don’t recognize the symptoms and it dies? What if I don’t bond with it?’
‘You’ll bond with it,’ says Gina in sure tones. ‘It’s nature.’
‘But what if I don’t? I listen to you all talking away and I think, how can you all be so confident?’ She sounds almost desperate. ‘Don’t you ever have any worries? Don’t you ever doubt yourselves?’
Oh, for goodness sake. This is what I mean. She’s all wrong for the class! Maybe some people go to antenatal classes to moan on about their insecurities. But we’re just not that kind of women. We know what we want. We know ourselves. Frankly, we don’t have any doubts. I think it’s an age thing.
I glance at Geraldine, who has a perplexed frown. Georgia looks rather blank. Gina is stroking her bump with a beatific smile.
Then Geraldine glances down at her watch. ‘I call this a con!’ she says. ‘We’ve paid for Petal Harmon’s time. Not some jumped up health visitor—’
The door opens and we all swing round, but it’s only Gabby, in her black Formes trousers and jacket, holding her PalmPilot open and talking into her mobile phone headset.
‘Yup,’ she’s saying. ‘Yup. FedEx both of them off. And get me the Anderson figures. OK, I’ve gotta go now. I’ll call as soon as I’m out of this place.’ She snaps her PalmPilot closed and looks around. ‘What’d I miss?’
‘Nothing,’ says Geraldine. ‘We’ve all just been sitting here waiting for some “special speaker”. Special rip-off, more like.’
‘I assure you,’ Petal’s calm voice from the back of the room makes us all jump, ‘my last speaker is not a rip-off.’ She’s walking to the front now as Gabby takes her seat. ‘I might go so far as to say this last lesson will make the information I have given you in the preceding weeks seem irrelevant.’
There’s silence in the room. As Petal looks around there’s a faint smile at her lips and her eyes look even more witchy than usual.
‘Some of you may have wondered why you were offered places in my class. You will be aware that a lot of women apply, but not many are accepted.’
A glow of pleasure creeps over me. As I glance around I can see the same smug smiles on everyone else’s faces too. All except Grace, who’s looking as petrified as ever.
‘Let me just say that I felt you could all particularly benefit from this final lesson.’ She reaches for the switch and dims the light, then draws the door closed. We all exchange glances through the gloom.
‘Sounds quite mysterious!’ says Geraldine with a laugh. ‘I wonder what this is all about.’
‘I did once hear a rumour,’ begins Gina, lowering her voice. ‘I heard that Petal Harmon can foresee what kind of labour you’re going to have. And that she tells you on your final lesson.’
‘I heard she could tell the sex of your baby,’ says Gabby, busily texting. ‘But what’s the point, with ultrasound? Anyway, I know what kind of labour I’m going to have.’
Suddenly the room goes even darker, although no one’s been near the switch. The only light comes from the white of the snow outside the window and the glow of Gabby’s mobile.
‘Great,’ says Georgia, looking up from her notebook. ‘How am I going to take notes now? D’you think she’ll give out a sheet?’
She stops as the door opens, and we all turn to see a figure standing in the doorway. Tall and slim, wearing a long black dress with a kind of snood affair over her head. Without saying anything, she glides into the room and I see she’s holding a laptop.
She turns to face us, but still says nothing. The hood thing is masking her face. All in all, she’s hardly the most prepossessing of speakers.
‘Not very talkative, is she?’ Geraldine whispers in my ear.
The woman dips her hood, reaches for the laptop and switches it on. Visions are flitting across the screen but whatever CD-rom she’s using, it’s not up to much. It’s more like some old cine-film. The colours are washed out, and the actions jerky. We all peer silently, our eyes trying to adjust.
Then I see it. It’s a woman in labour. She’s sighing and puffing, her head in her hands.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ murmurs Geraldine. ‘Excuse me?’ she says in a louder voice. ‘We’ve seen several videos of giving birth. I really think our last lesson would be better used in discussion, or recapping what we’ve already covered.’
But the woman doesn’t seem to hear her. The images flicker on and we all gaze at the screen in silence. It’s strangely compelling, even though you can hardly make out what’s going on.
‘Hang on,’ says Georgia suddenly. ‘Gina, that’s you.’
We all crane forward and peer at the woman’s face.
‘Oh my God,’ breathes Gina.
‘How can it be Gina?’
‘I think I’ve heard about this,’ says Geraldine uncertainly. ‘Video-empathy. It’s to help you visualize your birth. They must have superimposed your head on the screen. It’s a bit of a cheap trick.’
‘But how have they got Ralph too?’ says Gina, sounding freaked out. ‘Look!’
Sure enough, on the screen, Ralph is approaching the bed that Gina’s lying on. ‘Love?’ he says. ‘I’ve brought the oils.’
‘Ralph.’ On-screen Gina lifts her head, her face is contorted with pain. ‘I want pain relief. Proper pain relief.’
‘But love, you told me, no pain relief. I’ll rub your back with lavender and jasmine . . . ’
The sound of Gina’s moaning dies away and the screen goes momentarily blank. A moment later she reappears on screen, looking even worse than before.
‘Ralph, I need something,’ she’s panting. ‘Please. I’ve changed my mind.’
‘She doesn’t,’ Ralph is saying to a midwife. ‘Look. It’s in her birth plan. “Even if I beg, do not give me pain relief. My body will adjust.”’
‘Gina. Love.’ Ralph hurries to her side, and strokes her hand soothingly. ‘Remember, it’s all in the mind. Work with your body. That’s what you said . . . ’
‘But I didn’t knooow!’ Gina’s voice rises to a howl. The screen flickers and dies to nothing.
There’s a staggered silence. As I glance around, everyone looks stunned.
‘Who are you, anyway?’ Gina’s voice bursts out, trembling. ‘What right have you got to come in here, making things up?’
The woman says nothing, just inclines her head slightly.
My skin starts to prickle all over. My heart is thudding.
‘Maybe she wasn’t making it up.’ I take a deep breath. ‘Are you . . . showing us our futures?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ says Geraldine. ‘Get real . . . ’
‘I don’t believe in mediums,’ says Georgia firmly. ‘It must be a trick—’
‘But how did she do it?’ Gina’s voice rises in agitation. ‘That was me and Ralph! Right there on the screen!’
‘I know who it is,’ says Grace suddenly. ‘It’s the Ghost of Babies Future.’ She looks at the figure, her face white with fear. ‘Is that right?’
There’s a taut silence. Then the figure bows her head.
‘Oh my God,’ says Gina, sounding almost hysterical. ‘That was true?’
‘That’s it.’ Geraldine’s voice snaps. ‘I’m not sitting around to hear a lot of ridiculous gobbledegook! I tell you, I’m complaining to Petal Harmon—’
The woman silences her by lifting her hand, and another flickering image appears on the screen. It’s Geraldine. She’s sitting on a hospital bed, wincing with pain.
‘Just a few details first,’ a midwife is saying kindly, pen in hand. ‘Then we’ll get you sorted out.’ She gives Geraldine a sympathetic smile. ‘Your name?’
‘Geraldine Foster,’ puffs Geraldine.
‘Ge-ral-dine . . .’ the midwife begins writing. Then she stops and her sympathetic smile disappears. ‘Geraldine Foster?’ she says in a different tone. ‘You’re the one who complained about me.’
As she moves, the badge on her uniform comes into view. It reads ‘Davies’.
‘This woman complained to all the big guns!’ she’s exclaiming indignantly to a second midwife. ‘I was given a formal warning. For one lousy text message!’
‘She complained about me too,’ says the second midwife, and shoots Geraldine a scathing look. ‘Said I hadn’t followed protocol.’
‘Er . . . could I have some pain relief?’ Geraldine’s voice is strained.
The two midwives look at each other.
‘The protocol says we have to examine her thoroughly first,’ replies the second. ‘I’ll fetch some gloves.’ She saunters towards the door.
‘Will it take long?’ Geraldine sounds desperate. Both midwives raise their eyebrows.
‘You wouldn’t want us to rush things, would you?’ says one innocently. ‘We’ll take as long as we have to.’
The images fade away and we all glance awkwardly at Geraldine. She’s gone rather pale.
‘Listen,’ she says at last. ‘Ghost. Or whatever you are. Are you showing us things which will happen? Or . . . which might happen?’
The spirit doesn’t reply.
Suddenly I become aware that Gabby is murmuring into her mobile phone. I don’t think she’s even noticed what’s been going on.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ she says, getting up from her chair. ‘Crisis at work. I’ve got to go. Thanks very much for the presentation, but to be brutally honest, this baby stuff doesn’t really interest me.’
She breaks off, as a kind of angry flash comes from the spirit. On the screen appears an image of Gabby in a maroon suit, holding a baby. She’s just standing there in a white room, holding a tiny baby, while in the background someone’s shouting ‘Gabby! Taxi’s here!’
Her face is utterly stricken.
‘Gabby!’ comes the voice again. ‘You’ll be late! Just bring the baby down, he’ll be fine with the nanny—’
A tear trickles down on-screen Gabby’s face. Then another. Then another.
I risk a glance at Gabby. She’s staring at the screen, transfixed. There’s a faint sheen to her eyes.
‘Er . . . Tristan . . .’ she says into her mobile. ‘I’ll be along later. Yes well, this is important.’ She snaps her phone shut and quietly takes her seat again.
There’s a subdued atmosphere, and I can’t help feeling a rising apprehension.
‘I can’t believe it’s all doom and gloom!’ says Georgia defiantly. ‘I’m sure some of us are going to have perfectly wonderful labours and gorgeous babies!’ She looks around, as if for support. ‘And I’m certainly not going back to work. I’m going to devote myself to my child!’
The spirit seems to regard her thoughtfully for a moment. The next moment, an image of Georgia appears on a screen. She’s breastfeeding a baby in a vast, expensive kitchen, while Mozart plays in the background.
‘There,’ says Georgia smugly. ‘I knew it! Of course, I have prepared for this baby very thoroughly . . . ’
The image fades away and is replaced by one of a small boy in a school playground.
‘Milky . . . Milky . . .’ a gang of boys is chanting around him.
‘Don’t call me Milky!’ he yells desperately. ‘I’m Mike!’
‘No you’re not! You’re Milky Melchior!’
The images fade away and Georgia clears her throat.
‘All children are teased,’ she says, sounding a little discomfited. ‘It’s perfectly normal.’
Another image comes into view. This time a man in his twenties is at the entrance to a smart restaurant together with a blonde girl, her hair in a very peculiar hairstyle. The place looks rather like the Savoy Grill, although they’ve done a few strange things to it. ‘My name’s . . . Mel.’ His face twitches in a nervous tic.
‘Are you all right?’ says the maître d’.
‘I’m fine.’ He gives a tight smile and hands over his coat. Then, as piped music becomes audible through the loudspeakers, his whole body seems to tense. ‘Oh my God. No.’
‘The music,’ says the blonde girl urgently to the maître d’. ‘Can you turn off the music?’
‘I can’t stand it.’ The young man’s hands are to his head and he’s heading for the door. ‘I can’t stand it!’
‘It’s the Mozart clarinet concerto!’ the blonde girl shoots over her shoulder as she hurries after him. ‘He’s phobic!’
The images die away. I dart a glance at Georgia—and she looks utterly shellshocked.
‘I knew it.’ Grace’s trembling voice comes from the back. ‘That’s why we were picked for this class. Because things were going to go wrong for us.’
The spirit lifts her head and seems to look directly at Grace. And all of a sudden a new image is on the screen. It’s Grace. Her figure has snapped back into shape, she’s had a new haircut and is walking jauntily down the street. In fact if I’m utterly, grudgingly honest, she looks better than anyone.
Must be her age.
Now she’s sitting in a café, holding her baby and sipping a smoothie. The baby starts to cry, and with an expert ease she slips a finger into its mouth and carries on drinking. She looks totally content and natural.
‘Your hair’s fab!’ says Georgia. ‘Where do you go?’
‘I dunno,’ says Grace in bewilderment. ‘I never cut my hair.’ She peers at the screen. ‘I don’t understand. What’s wrong? What’s the catch?’
‘Nothing, apparently,’ says Gina, sounding a little petulant.
‘Maybe that’s what you had to learn, Grace,’ says Geraldine, sounding kinder than I’ve ever heard her. ‘That it would all be OK.’
I’d murmur some agreement, but I’m feeling too tense to speak. I’m the only one in the room who hasn’t seen her future yet.
‘So, what about me?’ I try to give a casual laugh. ‘What’s going to happen to me?’
There’s a pause. Then the spirit nods, and the screen lights up again.
Even though I was expecting it, I can’t help feeling a jolt as I see myself on the screen. I’m holding a baby, watching Dan as he taps at a crib with a hammer.
‘You’re useless!’ I’m saying. ‘It’s a rocking crib! It should bloody rock!’
The image segues straight into another one. Dan’s changing the baby’s nappy while I hover behind.
‘That’s not how the tabs go!’ I’m snapping. ‘You’ve done it wrong!’
As I hear my own voice I feel an uncomfortable twinge. I never realised before how sharp it was.
And I’ve never seen Dan with that hurt expression before. I stare, transfixed, as my screen self turns towards him and he quickly wipes it away with a smile.
‘Well you’re OK too, Ginny!’ says Georgia, sounding a little piqued. ‘Everything’s fine!’
‘It’s not.’ My voice sounds a little hoarse to my own ears.
Now the images are coming thick and fast. Dan with me and the baby at home, at the shops, at the park. And a constant soundtrack of my own voice, snapping at him. ‘You’re useless!’ ‘That’s wrong!’ ‘Give it here, I’ll do it!’
Shut up! I want to yell at myself. Leave the poor man alone!
But my screen self just keeps on relentlessly hectoring and criticising. And all I can see is Dan’s face, gradually closing in on itself. Until he looks as though he doesn’t want to know anymore. As though he’s had enough.
I feel a shaft of panic.
‘Spirit . . .’ I say quickly. ‘You didn’t answer the question before. Are these the things that will happen? Or that might happen?’
I look up. But the room is empty. The spirit’s gone. Slowly the lights are coming up.
I look around – and the others are all blinking. Georgia’s rubbing her eyes. Gabby looks as though she’s in a trance. As though from nowhere, Petal has materialised at the front of the room.
‘That was your final lesson,’ she says in soft tones. ‘I’ll ask you all now a small favour. I would prefer that the exact contents of my classes be kept to yourselves.’
We all give stupefied nods. I don’t think any of us can quite speak.
‘Please, take a few moments to gather yourselves.’ Petal smiles around at us. ‘You can leave whenever you’re ready. And good luck. All of you.’
Before any of us can say anything, she makes her way to the doorway and vanishes. We all sit in dazed silence for a few moments. Then there’s a small crash as Intelligent Baby slithers off Georgia’s lap onto the floor.
‘Here you are,’ says Gina, picking it up. Georgia surveys it for a few moments.
‘Thanks,’ she replies. She takes it from Gina’s hand and rips the whole thing in two.
There’s a scuffling next to me, and I see Geraldine pulling her leather notebook out of her bag. She rips out the page on which she’d written ‘Davies – COMPLAIN’ and crumples it up.
‘There,’ she says, and exhales sharply.
‘Does anyone want to go for a drink?’ says Gabby suddenly. ‘I could do with one.’
‘Absolutely,’ says Georgia in heartfelt tones.
‘Me too,’ says Grace, stepping forward. Her cheeks are glowing and she looks like a new woman. She shakes her hair back, as though practising for her new style. ‘I’m in no hurry.’
‘Sod the baby,’ says Gina. ‘I need a double vodka.’
‘Ginny?’ Geraldine looks at me. ‘You coming?
‘You all go.’ I say. ‘I . . . have to get home. Now.’
As I arrive home, Dan’s in the nursery. He looks up as I approach, and for the first time ever I notice the wary look in his eyes.
‘I’m trying to make up this crib,’ he says. ‘But it won’t rock.’ He shoves it in frustration. ‘I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with it—’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ I cut him off. ‘None of it matters. Come here.’ I hold out my arms and Dan looks at me in startled bemusement.
I feel a small icy plunge. It’s too late. It’s all too late.
Then, slowly, Dan puts down his screwdriver. He comes forward and takes me in his arms, and I find myself clinging onto him.
‘Happy Christmas.’ I say, my voice muffled with emotion. ‘And . . . and thank you. For making the crib. And everything. Thank you for everything.’
‘That’s OK!’ says Dan with a surprised laugh. ‘Happy Christmas to you too, darling.’ He smiles down at me, stroking my bump. ‘And Happy Christmas to this little one.’
For a while the two of us are silent, standing by the window arm-in-arm as the snow falls endlessly outside.
The three of us, I should say.
God Bless Us Every One keeps running through my head, over and over. But naturally, I don’t voice it aloud. Instead, after a while I murmur, ‘You know, I was thinking about names.’
‘Really?’ Dan looks up. ‘Any ideas?’
‘Well . . . I was thinking we probably shouldn’t call it Melchior . . .’
And now, for a sneak peek at I Owe You One, on sale February 5th!
The trouble with me is, I can’t let things go. They bug me. I see problems and I want to fix them, right here, right now. My nickname isn’t Fixie for nothing.
I mean, this can be a good thing. For example, at my best friend Hannah’s wedding, I got to the reception and instantly saw that only half the tables had flowers. I ran around sorting it before the rest of the guests arrived and in her speech, Hannah thanked me for dealing with ‘Flowergate’. So that was OK.
On the other hand, there was the time I brushed a piece of fluff off the leg of a woman sitting next to me by the pool at a spa day. I was just trying to be helpful. Only it turned out it wasn’t a piece of fluff, it was a pubic hair growing halfway down her thigh. And then I made things worse by saying, ‘Sorry! I thought that was a piece of fluff,’ and she went kind of purple, and two nearby women turned to look…
I shouldn’t have said anything. I see that now.
Anyway. So this is my quirk. This is my flaw. Things bug me. And right now the thing that’s bugging me is a Coke can. It’s been left on the top shelf of the Leisure section of our shop, in front of a chess board propped up for display. Not only that, the chess board is covered with a brown stain. Obviously someone’s opened the can or dumped it down too hard and it’s spattered everywhere and they haven’t cleared it up. Who?
As I look around the shop with narrowed eyes, I fully suspect Greg, our senior assistant. Greg drinks some kind of beverage all day long. If he’s not clutching a can, it’s noxious filter coffee in an insulated cup decorated with camouflage and webbing, as though he’s in the Army, not working in a household store in Acton. He’s always leaving it about the place, or even thrusting it at customers and saying ‘Hold this a mo,’ while he gets a saucepan down off the display for them. I’ve told him not to.
Anyway. Not the time for recriminations. Whoever dumped that Coke can (Greg, definitely Greg) it’s caused a nasty stain, just when our important visitors are about to arrive.
And yes, I know it’s on a high shelf. I know it’s not obvious. I know most people would shrug it off. They’d say: It’s not a big deal. Let’s get some perspective.
I’ve never been great at perspective.
I’m trying hard not to look at it, but instead focus on the rest of the shop, which looks gleamingly clean. A little shambolic, maybe, but then that’s the style of our all-purpose family shop. (Family-owned since 1985, it says on our window.) We stock a lot of different items, from knives to aprons to candlesticks, and they all need to go somewhere.
I suddenly catch sight of an old man in a mac in the Kitchen section. He’s reaching with a shaking hand for a plain white mug, and I hurry over to get it for him.
‘Here you are,’ I say with a friendly smile. ‘I can take that to the till for you. Do you need any more mugs? Or can I help you with anything else?’
‘No, thank you, love,’ he says in a quavering voice. ‘I only need the one mug.’
‘Is white your favourite colour?’ I gently press, because there’s something so poignant about buying one plain white mug that I can’t bear it.
‘Well.’ His gaze roams doubtfully over the display. ‘I do like a brown mug.’
‘This one maybe?’ I retrieve a brown earthenware mug that he probably discounted because it was too far out of reach. It’s solid, with a nice big handle. It looks like a cosy fireside mug.
The man’s eyes light up, and I think, I knew it. When your life is restricted, something like a mug choice becomes huge.
‘It’s a pound more expensive,’ I tell him. ‘It’s £4.99. Is that OK?’
Because you never take anything for granted. You never assume. Dad taught me that.
‘That’s fine, love.’ He smiles back. ‘That’s fine.’
‘Great! Well, come this way…’
I lead him carefully down the narrow aisle, keeping my eyes fixed on danger points. Which isn’t quite the selfless gesture it might seem – this man is a knocker-overer. You can tell as soon as you lay eyes on him. Trembling hands, uncertain gaze, shabby old trolley that he’s pulling behind him… all the signs of a classic knocker-overer. And the last thing I need is a floor full of smashed crockery. Not with Jake’s visitors arriving any moment.
I smile brightly at the man, hiding my innermost thoughts, although the very word ‘Jake’ passing through my brain has made my stomach clench with nerves. It always happens. I think Jake and my stomach clenches. I’m used to it by now, although I don’t know if it’s normal. I don’t know how other people feel about their siblings. My best friend Hannah hasn’t got any, and it’s not the kind of question you ask random people, is it? ‘How do your siblings make you feel? Kind of gnawed-up and anxious and wary?’ But that’s definitely how my brother Jake makes me feel. Nicole doesn’t make me feel anxious, but she does make me feel gnawed-up and, quite often, like hitting something.
To sum up, neither of them makes me feel good.
Maybe it’s because both of them are older than me, and were tough acts to follow. When I started at school, aged eleven, Jake was sixteen and the star of the football team. Nicole was fifteen, stunningly beautiful and had been scouted as a model. Everyone in the school wanted to be her friend. People would say to me, in awed tones, ‘Is Jake Farr your brother? Is Nicole Farr your sister?’
Nicole was as drifty and vague then as she is now, but Jake dominated everything. He was focused. Bright-eyed. Quick to anger. I’ll always remember the time he got in a row with mum and went and kicked a can around the street outside, shouting swear words into the night sky. I watched him from an upstairs window, gripped and a bit terrified. I’m 27 now, but you never really leave your inner eleven year old, do you?
And of course there are other reasons for me to feel rubbish around Jake. Tangible reasons. Financial reasons.
Which I will not think about now. Instead I smile at the old man, trying to make him feel that I have all the time in the world. Like Dad would have done.
Morag rings up the price and the man gets out an old leather coin purse.
‘Fifty…’ I hear him saying as he peers at a coin. ‘Is that a fifty pence piece?’
‘Let’s have a look, love,’ says Morag in her reassuring way. Morag’s been with us for seven years. She was a customer first, and applied when she saw an ad pinned up on a postcard. Now she’s assistant manager and does all the buying for greetings cards – she has a brilliant eye. ‘No, that’s a ten pence,’ she says kindly to the old man. ‘Have you got another pound coin in there?’
My eyes swivel up to the Coke can and stained chess board again. It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. There isn’t time to sort it now. And the visitors won’t notice it. They’re coming to show their range of olive oils to us, not inspect the place. Just ignore it, Fixie.
Oh God, but I can’t. It’s driving me nuts.
My eye keeps flicking upwards to it. My fingers are doing that thing they do whenever I’m desperate to fix something; when some situation or other is driving me mad. They drum each other feverishly. And my feet do a weird stepping motion: Forward-across-back, forward-across-back.
I’ve been like this since I was a little kid. It’s bigger than me. I know it would be mad to drag a ladder out, get a bucket and water and clean the stain up, when the visitors might arrive at any moment. I know this.
‘Greg!’ As he appears from behind the glassware section, my voice shoots out before I can stop it. ‘Quick! Get a step-ladder. I need to clean up that stain.’
Greg looks up to where I’m pointing and gives a guilty jump as he sees the Coke can.
‘That wasn’t me,’ he says at once. ‘It definitely wasn’t me.’ Then he pauses before adding, ‘I mean, if it was, I didn’t notice.’
The thing about Greg is, he’s very loyal to the shop and he works really long hours so I forgive him quite a lot.
‘Doesn’t matter who it was,’ I say briskly. ‘Let’s just get rid of it.’
‘OK,’ Greg says, as though digesting this. ‘Yeah. But aren’t those people about to arrive?’
‘Yes, which is why we need to be quick. We need to hurry.’
‘OK,’ says Greg again, not moving a muscle. ‘Yeah. Got you. Where’s Jake?’
This is a very good question. Jake is the one who met these olive oil people in the first place. In a bar, apparently. He’s the one who set up this meeting. And here he isn’t.
But family loyalty keeps me from saying any of this aloud. Family loyalty is a big thing in my life. Maybe the biggest thing. Some people hear the Lord Jesus guiding them; I hear my dad, before he died, saying in his East End accent: Family is it, Fixie. Family is what drives us. Family is everything.
Family loyalty is basically our religion.
‘He’s always landing you in it, Jake is,’ Greg mutters. ‘You never know when he’s going to turn up. Can’t rely on him. We’re short-staffed today, too, what with your mum taking the day off.’
All of this might be true, but I can hear Dad’s voice in my head again: Family first, Fixie. Protect the family in public. Have it out with them out later, in private.
‘Jake’s does his own hours,’ I remind Greg. ‘It’s all agreed.’
All of us Farrs work in the shop – Mum, me, Jake and my sister Nicole – but only Mum and I are full-time. Jake calls himself our ‘consultant’. He has another business of his own and he’s doing an MBA online, and he pops in when he can. And Nicole is doing a yoga instructor course Monday to Friday, so she can only come in at weekends. Which she does sometimes.
‘I expect he’s on his way.’ I add briskly. ‘Anyway, we’ve just got to deal with it. Come on! Ladder!’
As Greg drags a step-ladder across the shop floor, I hurry to our back room and run some hot water into a bucket. I just need to dash up the ladder, wipe the stain away, grab the can, jump down and clear everything before the visitors arrive. Easy.
The Leisure section is a bit incongruous, surrounded as it is by tea towels and jam-making kits. But it was Dad who set it up that way, so we’ve never changed it. Dad loved a good board game. He always said board games are as essential to a household as spoons. Customers would come in for a kettle and leave with Monopoly, too.
And ever since he died, nine years ago now, we’ve tried to keep the shop just as he created it. We still sell liquorice allsorts. We still have a tiny hardware section. And we still stock the Leisure section with games, balls and water guns.
The thing about Dad was, he could sell anything to anyone. He was a charmer. But not a flashy, dishonest charmer, a genuine charmer. He believed in every product he sold. He wanted to make people happy. He did make people happy. He created a community in this little corner of west London (he called himself an ‘immigrant’, being East End born), and it’s still going. Even if the customers that really knew Dad are fewer every year.
‘OK,’ I say, hurrying out to the shop floor with the bucket. ‘This won’t take a sec.’
I dash up the steps of the ladder and start scrubbing at the brown stain. I can see Morag below me, demonstrating a paring knife to a customer and I resist the urge to join in the conversation. I know about knives, I’ve done chef training. But you can’t be everywhere at once, and-
‘They’re here,’ announces Greg. ‘There’s a car pulling into the parking space.’
It was Jake who insisted we reserve our only parking spot for these olive oil people. They’ll have asked ‘Do you have parking?’ and he won’t have wanted to say, ‘Only one space,’ because he’s pretentious that way, so he’ll have said airily, ‘Of course!’ as though we’ve got an underground vault.
‘No problem,’ I say breathlessly. ‘I’m done. All good.’
I dump the cloth into the bucket and swiftly start descending, the Coke can in one hand. There. That took no time, and now it won’t bug me and-
‘Careful on that ladder.’
I hear Greg’s voice below, but he’s always regaling us with stupid health and safety rules he’s read online, so I don’t alter my step or my pace, until he shouts, ‘Stop!’ sounding genuinely alarmed.
‘Fixie!’ Stacey yells from the till. She’s another of our sales assistants and you can’t miss her piercing, nasal voice. ‘Look out!’
As my head whips round, it takes me a moment to comprehend what I’ve done. I’ve snagged my sleeve on a netball hoop, which has caught on the handle of a massive tub of bouncy balls. And now it’s tipping off the shelf… there’s nothing I can do to stop it, shit…
‘Oh my God!’
I lift my spare hand to protect myself from a deluge of little rubber balls. They’re bouncing on my head, my shoulders, all over the shop. How come we have so many of the bloody things, anyway?
As I reach the bottom of the ladder, I look around in horror. It’s a miracle that nothing’s been smashed. Even so, the floor is a carpet of bouncy balls.
‘Quick!’ I instruct Greg and Stacey. ‘Teamwork! Pick them up! I’ll go and head off the visitors.’
As I hurry towards the door, Greg and Stacey don’t look anything like a team, in fact, they look like an anti-team. They keep bumping into each other and cursing each other. Greg is hastily stuffing balls down his shirt front and in his trouser pockets and I yell, ‘Put them back in the tub!’
‘I didn’t even notice that Coke stain,’ volunteers Stacey as I pass, with one of her shrugs. ‘You should have left it.’
Is that helpful? I want to retort. But I don’t. For a start, Stacey’s a good worker, and worth keeping on side. You just have to deal with what Mum and I call the SIMs. (Stacey’s Inappropriate Moments).
But of course, the real reason I say nothing is that she’s right. I should have left it. I just can’t help fixing things. It’s my flaw. It’s who I am.
The visitors are posh-looking. Of course they are. My brother Jake likes hanging out with posh people. He’s always been ambitious, even since he was a little boy. At first he was just ambitious to be in the football team. Then, in his late teens, he started hanging out with a rich crowd – and suddenly he was dissatisfied with our house and our holidays and even Dad’s accent, one awful time. (There was another huge argument. Mum got really upset. I still remember the sound of the shouting, coming through the floor from downstairs.)
He worked as an estate agent in Fulham – until about three years ago, when he started his own business – and there the poshness rubbed off on him even more. Jake likes being around blokes in brogues, with identikit haircuts and raah voices. Basically he resents the fact that he wasn’t born in Chelsea. That he’s not one of those Hoorays on the telly, partying with Royalty and taking six holidays a year. But since he’s not, he can at least spend all his time in pubs on the King’s Road with guys called Rupert.
These two men, stepping out of their Range Rover, clearly come from that crowd, with their poloshirts and deck shoes and tans. I find these types a bit intimidating, to be honest, but I tell myself Chin up, Fixie, and go forward to greet them. I can see one eyeing up the shop with a critical frown, and I feel a defensive prickle. OK, it’s not the most beautiful shop-front – it’s a 1970s purpose-built structure – but the glass panes are gleaming and the display of kitchen textiles looks great. We have a pretty good amount of space, for a high street store, and we use it well. We have several display tables at the front and three aisles, and it all works.
‘Hi!’ The taller one greets me. ‘Clive Beresford. Are you Felicity?’
A lot of people hear Fixie and think Felicity. I’m used to it.
‘Fixie.’ I smile and shake his hand. ‘Welcome to Farrs.’
‘Simon.’ The other guy lifts a hand as he lugs a heavy-looking box out of the Range Rover. ‘We found it! Good space you’ve got here.’
‘Yes.’ I nod. ‘We’re lucky.’
‘Not exactly Notting Hill though, is it?’
‘Notting Hill?’ I echo, puzzled.
‘Jake said the family business was in Notting Hill.’
I press my lips together. This is so Jake. Of course he said we were based in Notting Hill. He probably said Hugh Grant was a regular customer, too.
‘No, we’re Acton,’ I say politely.
‘But you’re planning to expand into Notting Hill soonish?’ presses Clive, as we head inside. ‘That’s what your brother told us.’
Expand into Notting Hill? That’s total rubbish. I know Jake just wanted to impress a pair of strangers at a bar. But I can hear Dad’s voice in my head: Family first, Fixie.
‘Maybe.’ I say pleasantly. ‘Who knows?’ I usher them into the shop, then spread my arms around at all the saucepans, Tupperware and table-cloths. ‘So, this is us.’
There’s a short silence. I can sense this isn’t what they expected. Simon is peering at a display of kilner jars. Clive takes a few steps forward and looks at a Monopoly set curiously. A moment later, a red bouncy ball drops on his head.
‘Ow!’ He looks up. ‘What the-‘
‘Sorry!’ I say quickly. ‘No idea how that happened!’
Shit. There must have been a stray one teetering somewhere.
‘So you’re looking to turn into more of a high-end deli?’ Simon seems puzzled. ‘Do you stock any food at all?’
I feel a defensive prickle at his expression. I don’t know what stories Jake’s been telling him, but that’s not my fault.
‘Absolutely.’ I nod. ‘Oils, vinegars, spices, that kind of thing. Please do put your box down.’
‘Perfect.’ He dumps the box on a front display chest which we cleared in advance. (Normally we’d go into the back room, but it’s full of boxes of scented candles, which we need to unpack.) ‘Well, let me introduce you to what we do. We’ve sourced a range of olive oils which are rather special.’ He says it in that posh way – raaather special. ‘Have a taste.’
As he speaks, both men are unpacking large bottles of olive oil from wooden boxes. Simon briskly lays out some dipping saucers and Clive produces some pre-cut cubes of bread.
He’s talking about some olive estate in Italy, but I’m not listening properly, I’m staring in horror at Greg. He’s just walked into view – and his pockets are still stuffed with bouncy balls. His entire groin area looks massive and lumpy and just… weird. Why didn’t he get rid of them?
I give him a furious eye-roll which means Why have you still got bouncy balls in your pockets? Greg immediately shoots back an urgent eye-roll of his own, which clearly means There’s a good reason, believe me.
I don’t believe him for a moment. Greg acts in good faith, no-one doubts that, but his logic is random and unnerving. He’s like a computer on its last legs that works perfectly until it suddenly decides to email your whole in-box to Venezeula.
‘Would you like to have a taste?’
I abruptly realize Clive’s spiel is over and he’s proffering bread cubes and oil.
As I dip and taste, I’m thinking: Typical Jake, setting up this meeting on the one day that Mum isn’t in the shop. What does he think, that he can get this past her beady eye? That she won’t notice? Mum notices everything. Every sale, every refund, every email. Everything.
Suddenly I notice that the two posh guys keep shooting surreptitious glances at Greg’s bulging groin area. I mean, I don’t blame them. It’s a pretty disturbing sight.
‘Excuse Greg’s strange-looking appearance,’ I say with a relaxed laugh. ‘He doesn’t normally look like that! It’s just that he-‘
‘Hormone disorder,’ Greg cuts me off with an impassive nod, and I nearly choke on my bread. Why – What does he even mean by- Hormone disorder? ‘Nasty,’ Greg adds meaningfully.
I’m used to Greg’s idiosyncrasies, but sometimes he silences even me.
‘Funny story,’ Greg adds, encouraged by the attention, ‘my brother was born with only half a pancreas. And my mum, she’s got this manky kidney-’
Thanks, Greg!’ I interrupt desperately. ‘Thanks for… Thanks.’
The two smart guys look even more appalled, and Greg shoots me a self-satisfied look which I know means, ‘Saved things there, didn’t I?’
For about the hundredth time I wonder if we could send Greg on a course. A course on Not Being Greg.
‘Anyway!’ I say as Greg heads off. ‘These olive oils are amazing.’ I’m not just being polite, it’s true. They’re rich and aromatic and delicious, especially the dark green peppery one. ‘How much would they retail for?’
‘The prices are all laid out here,’ says Simon, handing me a printed document. I scan the figures – and nearly fall over flat. Usually I’m pretty cool in situations like this, but my voice comes shooting out before I can stop it:
‘Obviously this is very much a luxury, high-end product,’ says Clive smoothly. ‘As we explained, it’s a very special estate, and the process is unique-‘
‘But no-one’s going to spend ninety-five quid on a bottle of oil!’ I almost want to laugh. ‘Not in this shop. Sorry.’
‘But when you open in Notting Hill?’ chimes in Simon. ‘Very different market. We think “The Notting Hill Family Deli” is a great name, by the way.’
I try to hide my shock. The what? Our shop is called Farrs. It was named Farrs by our dad, whose name was Michael Farr, and it’s never going to be called anything else.
‘This is the olive oil we stock.’ Greg’s voice takes us all by surprise, and he places a bottle of oil on the table. ‘Costs £5.99.’ His prominent grey eyes survey the two posh guys. ‘Just saying.’
‘Yes,’ says Simon, after a pause. ‘Well, of course, that’s a rather different product from ours. Not to be rude, but if you both have a taste, you’ll notice the difference in quality of the cheaper oil. May I?’
I notice how skilfully he’s drawn Greg into the conversation. Now he’s pouring out our £5.99 oil and dipping cubes of bread into it. As I taste, I can see what he means. Our oil tastes thinner in comparison.
But you have to know your customers. You have to know their limits. I’m about to tell Simon that our customers are a practical, pragmatic lot and there’s not a chance in hell they’ll spend ninety-five quid on oil, when the door opens and I turn to see Jake striding in.
He’s an impressive sight. Always is. He’s got Dad’s firm jaw and Dad’s twinkling eyes and he’s dressed in really nice clothes. Posh estate agent clothes. Navy blazer, tie, shiny expensive shoes. Cuff links.
And at the very sight of him, I feel a rush of familiar feelings attacking me, like flapping ravens. Inadequate. Guilty. Inferior. Rubbish.
This is nothing new. My big brother always brings these feelings out in me, and why shouldn’t he? If I believe in anything as much as family first, it’s be fair. I’m always fair and truthful, however painful it is.
And the painful truth is that Jake is the success and I’m the failure. He’s the one who started an import-export business without a penny from anyone else. He’s the one who made a mint on some brand of nude, seamless knickers that he sold to a discount store. He’s the one who has the flash car and the business cards and the (nearly) MBA.
I’m the one who took a loan from Mum (‘our inheritance’, Jake always calls it) and tried to set up a catering business and failed. And who still hasn’t paid the money back.
I’m not the black sheep of the family. That would be glamorous and interesting. I’m just the stupid dumb sheep who still has a stash of dark green aprons under the bed, all embroidered with my logo: Farr’s Food. (I sold everything else, but I couldn’t get rid of those.) And whenever I’m around Jake, I feel even more stupid and dumb. Like, literally dumb. Because I barely ever open my mouth, and when I do, I start to stammer.
I have opinions, I have ideas. I really do. When I’m managing the store alone – or alongside Mum – I can tell people what to do. I can assert myself. But around Jake, and even sometimes Nicole, I think twice before I venture my thoughts. Because the unsaid message hanging in the air is: Well what would you know? Your business went bust.
The only one who makes me feel like none of it matters and I’m still worth something is Mum. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know how I’d have coped.
‘Guys!’ Jake greets the visitors. ‘You’re here already! Ciao.’
Ciao. This is how he talks with them. We grew up in the same family, but I can’t imagine ever being the type of person who says Ciao.
‘Jake!’ Clive claps him on the back. ‘My man.’
‘Call this Notting Hill?’ joshes Simon, shaking Jake’s hand. ‘This is bloody Acton!’
‘It’s just the start of the empire,’ says Jake, with a broad grin – then he darts me the tiniest of looks, which I can read completely, it means, ‘I’m assuming you haven’t dumped me in it?’
I shoot back a corresponding look, which says, ‘”The Notting Hill Family Deli”?’ But now he’s blanking me.
Jake often blanks me when he’s with his smart friends. He’s probably worried I’ll expose some of the fibs I’ve heard him tell. I’d never do that – family first – but I do notice when he’s fudging the truth about things. Like where he went to school (he calls himself a ‘grammar school boy’ but it was a comp.) And references to our ‘little place in the country’. I have no idea which ‘little place’ that would be, maybe the old privy at the end of Mum’s garden?
‘So these are the famous oils!’ Jake exclaims. ‘Fantastico!’
‘You have to come and see the estate, Jake,’ says Simon, enthusiastically. ‘Absolutely stunning.’
‘Love to,’ Jake drawls. ‘I adore that part of the world.’
I don’t remember Jake ever going to Italy in his life, although obviously I’m not going to point this out.
‘You know it costs ninety-five quid a bottle?’ I say tentatively to Jake. ‘I don’t think our customers can afford that, can they?’
I see Jake flinch in irritation and I know why. He doesn’t want to be reminded of our practical, price-conscious customers. He wants non-existent millionaire customers.
‘But if you’re going high end, this is where the market is.’ Clive taps the bottle. ‘The taste is phenomenal, I’m sure Fixie will agree?’
‘It’s great,’ I say. ‘It’s delicious. I’m just… you know. Will our customers appreciate it?’
Sure enough, my voice has started shaking. I’m asking questions instead of making statements. Jake’s presence has that effect on me. And I hate myself for it, because it makes me sound uncertain, when I’m not, I’m not.
‘They’ll learn to appreciate it.’ Jake brushes me off. ‘We’ll have tasting evenings, that kind of thing…’ He addresses Clive and Simon. ‘We’ll definitely make an order, guys, it’s just a question of how much.’
I feel a shaft of panic. We can’t make an order on the spot, especially in Mum’s absence.
‘Jake, maybe we should talk about this first?’ I venture.
‘Nothing to talk about,’ he shoots back, his eyes clearly telling me: shut up.
Oh God. Even though the ravens are batting their wings in my face, I have to persevere. For Mum.
‘I just…’ My voice is wavering again and I clear my throat. ‘Our customers come here for sensible, value for money products. They don’t buy luxury food items.’
‘Well, maybe we have to educate them,’ snaps Jake. ‘Teach them. Get their mediocre taste buds used to finer flavours.’ He grabs a cube of bread, scoops up some of the £5.99 oil and puts it in his mouth before anyone can say anything. ‘I mean, this is sublime,’ he says, in muffled tones as he chews. ‘It’s on a whole different level. It’s nutty, it’s rich… you can taste the quality… Guys, what can I say, congratulations. I’m seriously impressed.’
He holds out a hand, but neither Simon or Clive takes it. They seem too stunned to move.
‘So, which one was that?’ says Jake, finally finishing his mouthful. ‘Was it the most expensive?’
There’s silence. I can’t look at anyone. Every fibre of me is cringing for Jake.
But, kudos to the posh: they have impeccable manners. Not a flicker runs over Clive’s face as he immediately, deftly, saves the situation.
‘I’m not quite sure which one that was?’ he says to Simon, his brow wrinkled.
‘I’m not sure either.’ Simon swiftly takes his cue. ‘I think the dishes have been mixed up, maybe, so-’
‘Probably our fault for bringing so many.’
‘Absolutely,’ chimes in Simon. ‘They all start to taste the same!’
They’re being so kind to Jake, while he’s totally oblivious, that I want to say, Thank you, posh guys. Thank you for being so nice to my brother when he doesn’t even know it.
But of course I don’t. Simon and Clive glance at each other and tacitly seem to agree to wrap up. We all keep smiling and chatting as they pack up their stuff and suggest that we have a chat and they’ll be in touch.
As they drive away from the front of the shop, Jake and I both draw breath to speak – but he gets in first.
‘Well done, Fixie,’ he says, looking annoyed. ‘You scared them away. Nice work.’
‘Look, Jake, I’m sorry,’ I begin, then curse myself for apologizing. Why do I always do that? ‘I just… I really think…‘
‘I know what you think.’ He cuts me off dismissively. ‘But I’m the one trying to be strategic about the future of the shop, here. Bigger. Better. High-end. Profitable.’
‘Yes, but ninety-five quid for one bottle of olive oil, Jake.’ I appeal to him. ‘You can’t be serious.’
‘Why not?’ he snaps. ‘Harrods stock it.’
I don’t even know what to say to this. Harrods?
I’m aware of Greg glancing our way, and hastily paste on a smile. Dad would kill us for airing family disputes on the shop floor.
‘Jakey?’ I turn to see Leila, Jake’s girlfriend, coming into the store, wearing an adorable yellow full-skirted dress and sunglasses on her head. Leila always reminds me of Bambi. She has long spindly legs and she wears high, wedged sandals which clip-clop like hooves and she peers at the world through her long eyelashes as though she’s not sure if it’s about to shoot her. She’s very sweet and I can’t possibly argue with Jake in front of her.
Not just because she’s sweet, but because family first. Leila isn’t family. Not actual family. Not yet. She’s been going out with Jake for three years – they met in a club – and I’ve never seen them argue. Leila doesn’t seem the arguing type, although she must get angry with Jake sometimes? She’s never mentioned it, though. In fact, she once said to me, ‘Jake’s a real softie, isn’t he?’ and I nearly fell over backwards. Jake? A softie?
‘Hi Leila,’ I say, kissing her. She’s as thin and tiny as a child, in fact I’m amazed she can hold all those glossy carrier bags. ‘Been shopping?’
‘I’ve been treating the missus,’ says Jake loftily. ‘We got Mum’s present, too.’
Jake always calls Leila ‘the missus’, although they’re not even engaged. I sometimes wonder if she minds, but then I’ve never known Leila mind about anything. Once Jake arrived at the shop for a family meeting and it was only after an hour that we realised he’d left Leila in the car to watch out for traffic wardens. She wasn’t annoyed at all, she’d just been sitting scrolling through her phone, humming to herself. When Mum exclaimed, ‘Jake! How could you just leave Leila like that?’ he just shrugged and said, ‘She offered.’
Now Leila dangles a shiny Christian Dior bag at me and I inspect it with a small pang. I can’t afford to buy Mum Christian Dior perfume. Still. She likes Sanctuary stuff too, which is what I bought her. And now, just the thought of Mum is calming me down. I don’t need to worry about any of this, of course – Mum will sort it out. She’ll talk to Jake in that firm, calm way she has. She won’t let him order silly-money olive oil.
Mum runs the family, the home, the business… basically everything. She’s our CEO. Our anchor. When Dad suddenly died of a heart attack, it was like something exploded in her. It was as if all the negative energy of her grief circled round into a determination that this wouldn’t destroy the business, or the family, or anything. She’s powered us all through the last nine years, and she’s learned zumba and no-one makes flaky pastry like she does. She’s amazing. She says she channels Dad in everything he does and that he talks to her every night. Which sounds weird – but I believe her.
She’s normally in this shop from dawn to dusk. The only reason she’s not here now is it’s her birthday party this evening and she wanted the day off to cook. And yes, some women of her age – or any age – would let other people cook for them on their birthday. Not Mum. She’s made sausage rolls, Waldorf salad and apple pie, every 2nd August since I can remember. It’s tradition. We’re big on tradition, the Farrs.
‘By the way, I sorted out your car repair bill for you,’ Jake says to Leila. ‘I rang the guy. I said, “You’ve been messing my girlfriend around. Try again.” He backed down on everything.’
‘Jake!’ gasps Leila. ‘You’re my hero!’
‘And then I think you should upgrade,’ Jake adds carelessly. ‘Let’s get you a newer model. We’ll look at the weekend.’
‘Oh, Jakey.’ Leila’s eyes glow, and she turns to me. ‘Isn’t he the sweetest?’
‘Er… yes.’ I smile feebly at her. ‘Totally.’
At this moment, Morag and her customer – a middle-aged woman – come up to the till. Immediately Jake switches into top customer-service mode, beaming at her and asking, ‘Did you find everything you need? Ah, a paring knife. Now, I’m afraid I will have to ask a delicate question: are you over eighteen?’
The woman giggles and blushes, and even I crack a smile. Jake’s pretty charming when he wants to be. As she leaves we all say, ‘Good bye’ several times and smile until the door closes. Then Jake gets his car keys out of his pocket and starts swinging them round his finger, the way he’s done ever since he first got a car.
I know what I want to say to him. It’s almost as if I can see the words forming in front of me, in a thought bubble. Articulate, passionate words about the business. About what we do. About dad. But somehow I can’t seem to get the words out of the thought bubble and into the air.
Jake’s face is distant and I know better than to interrupt him. Leila is poised like me, waiting, her eyebrows anxiously winged together.
She’s so pretty, Leila. Pretty and gentle and never judges anyone. The thing she takes most seriously in life is manicures, because that’s her business and her passion. But she doesn’t even blink at my tatty nails, let alone sneer at them. She just accepts everyone for who they are, Jake included.
Finally, Jake stops swinging the keys and comes to. I have no idea what kind of thoughts have been transfixing him. For someone I grew up with, I really don’t understand Jake very well.
‘We’ll head over to the house then,’ he says. ‘Help Mum out.’
By ‘Help Mum out,’ I know he means, ‘Get myself a beer and turn on Sky Sports,’ but I don’t challenge him.
‘OK,’ I say. ‘See you there.’
Our house is only ten minute’s walk from the shop; sometimes it feels like one is an extension of the other. And I’m turning back to sort out a display of table mats which has gone wonky, when Leila says,
‘What are you going to wear, Fixie?’ in excited tones, as if we’re going to the school prom.
‘Dunno,’ I say, puzzled. ‘A dress, I suppose. Nothing special.’
It’s Mum’s birthday party. It’ll be friends and neighbours and Uncle Ned. I mean I want to look nice, but it’s not exactly the Grand Embassy Ball.
‘Oh, right.’ Leila seems perplexed. ‘So you’re not going to…’
‘I just thought, because…’
She trails off meaningfully, as though I’ll know exactly what she’s talking about.
‘Because what?’ I peer at her, and Leila suddenly swivels on her clippy-cloppy heel to Jake.
‘Jakey!’ she says, in her version of a reproving tone. (Basically still an adoring simper.) ‘Haven’t you told her?’
‘Oh, that. Right.’ Jake rolls his eyes and glances at me. ‘Ryan’s back.’
I stare at her, frozen. I can’t speak, because my lungs have seized up, but my brain has already started analyzing the word ‘back’ like a relentless computer program. ‘Back’. What does ‘back’ mean? Back to the UK? Back home? Back to me?
No, not back to me, obviously not back to me-
‘He’s back in the country,’ elaborates Leila, her eyes soft with empathy. ‘It never worked out with that American girl. He’s coming to the party. And he was asking after you.’
I don’t know how many times a heart can be broken, but mine’s been shattered again and again, and every single time by Ryan Chalker.
Not that he’d know it. I’ve been pretty good at concealing my feelings. (I think.) But the truth is, I’ve been in love with Ryan pretty much solidly since I was ten years old and he was fifteen and I came across him and Jake with a group of boys in Burger King. I was instantly fixated by him. How could you not be fixated by him, with that blond hair, that profile, that glow?
By the time I joined secondary school, Ryan and Jake were best friends and Ryan used to hang around our house every weekend, cracking jokes and flirting with Mum. Unlike every other boy in that year, he had flawless skin. He knew how to style his hair. He could make our school uniform look sexy, that’s how hot he was.
He had money, too. Everyone whispered about it. Some relative had left him a small fortune. He always hosted parties and he got a car for his seventeenth. A convertible. I’m twenty-seven years old and I’m sure I’ll never own a convertible. Ryan and Jake used to drive around London in it, roof down, music blaring, like a couple of rock stars. In fact, it was Ryan who introduced Jake to that posh, flash, hard-partying set. The pair of them used to get into the kind of clubs that you read about in tabloids and boast about it at our house the next day. When I was old enough, Mum let me go out with Jake and Ryan sometimes, and I felt like I’d won the Lottery. There was such a buzz around them, and suddenly I was part of it too.
Ryan could be genuinely kind, too. I’ll always remember one evening when we went to the cinema. I’d just broken up with a boy called Jason and a bunch of his friends were behind us. They started to laugh and me and say jeering things, and Ryan whipped round before anyone else could, and lashed into them. People heard about it at school the next day, and everyone was saying, ‘Ryan loves Fixie!’
Of course I laughed along. I treated it like a joke. But inside, I was smitten. I felt as if we were connected now. I kept thinking, ‘Surely we’ll end up together? Surely it’s meant to be?’
There were so many moments over the years when I thought I had a chance. The time in Pizza Express when he kissed me lingeringly on greeting me. The time he pinched my thigh. The time he asked if I was single at the moment. Dad’s funeral, when he sat with me for a while at the reception and let me talk on endlessly about Dad. At my 21st birthday party he sang a karaoke version of ‘Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’, straight to me, while my heart fluttered like a manic butterfly and I thought. ‘Yes, yes, this is it…’ But that night he got off with a girl called Tamara. Over the years I watched and secretly wept as he dated what seemed like every girl in west London, and never looked my way.
Then, five years ago, he moved to LA to be a movie producer. An actual movie producer. You couldn’t pick a more glamorous or unattainable job. I’ve still got the business card he gave me before he left, with an abstract logo and an address on Wilshire Boulevard.
It would have been easier to forget him if he’d disappeared forever – but he didn’t. He flew back to London all the time and he always came to see Jake, in a blast of light and excitement. His wavy blond hair was permanently sun-bleached. He had endless stories of celebrities. He’d casually say ‘Tom,’ and I’d think, ‘Tom? Who does he mean, Tom?’ And then I’d suddenly realize he meant Tom Cruise and my heart would be gripped and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, I know someone who knows Tom Cruise?’
Meanwhile, I went out with other guys, of course I did. But Ryan was lodged in my heart. And then last year, a full sixteen years after I first met him, he arrived at Jake’s birthday drinks really drunk and unhappy – I never got the full story but it was something about a studio executive playing him around.
I’m a good listener, so I let him slag off this guy, and nodded and said sympathetic things. At last he ran out of steam, and I could see him looking at me. Like, really looking at me. As though he’d only just realized I was an actual grown-up woman. He said, ‘You know, I’ve always fancied you, Fixie. You’re so genuine. You’re so bloody refreshing.’ Then he added, as though puzzled, ‘Why have we never got it together?’
My heart was hammering, but for once in my life I managed to play it cool. I just looked at him and left it a moment, and then said, ‘Well.’
And he gave me one of his lazy smiles, and said, ‘Well.’
Oh my God, it was amazing. We left about three minutes later. He took me back to the flat where he was staying and we spent the night fulfilling every teenage fantasy I’d ever had, and then some. My brain kept screaming, ‘It’s happening! I’m with Ryan! It’s actually happening!’ For ten solid days I was in a trance of delight.
And then he went back to LA.
I mean, of course he went back to LA. What did I expect, that he was going to propose?
(I’m not going to answer that. Not even in my own head. Because I might give away my most pathetic fantasy of all: that we’d be one of those pairs of lovers who were ‘meant to be’ all their lives and finally realized it and never left each other’s sides again.)
As he left for his flight, that grey April morning, he kissed me with what looked like genuine regret, and said, ‘You’ve been so good for me, Fixie.’ As if I was a juice fast, or a series of TED talks.
I said, as lightly as I could, ‘I hope you come and see me again.’ Which wasn’t quite true. I actually hoped he’d suddenly exclaim, ‘Now I realize the truth! Fixie my darling, I can’t live without you and I want you to get on this plane with me, now.’
Anyway. Astonishingly enough, that didn’t happen.
Then I heard from Jake that he’d got a new girlfriend in LA called Ariana and they had rows all the time, but it was pretty serious. I looked at them on Facebook a few times. (OK, all the time.) I wrote casual, friendly texts to him, then deleted them. And all the while I pretended I was fine with it. To Mum, Jake, everybody. Because what other option did I have?
But it was all lies. I never reconciled myself to having lost him. I still secretly, crazily, hoped.
And now he’s back. The words are thudding through my head like a drum beat – he’s back, he’s back – while I stand in Anna’s Accessories like a star-struck 14-year-old, frantically trying out hair clips. As though choosing exactly the right hair decoration will somehow, magically, make Ryan fall in love with me.
I couldn’t cope with going straight home from the shop. What if he was there already, lounging on the sofa, ready to catch me out with his irresistible smile? I needed time. I needed to prepare. So at 5pm I told Greg to close up and headed to the High Street. I bought myself a new lipstick. And now I’m standing in front of a display rack, trying to transform my appearance beyond belief with a £3.99 diamante hair clip. Or maybe I should go for a flower.
I know this is all displacement. I can’t even contemplate the momentousness of seeing Ryan again so instead I’m fixating on an irrelevant detail which nobody else will even notice. Story of my life.
At last, I gather up two beaded hair clips, some diamante hair grips and a pair of dangling gold earrings for good luck. I pay for them and head out to the balmy street. Mum will be laying out the table by now. Stacking the paper cups. Wrapping knives and forks in napkins. But even so, I need more time. I need to get my head straight.
On impulse, I duck into Café Allegro, which is our family’s favourite local cafe. I buy a bag of coffee beans for Mum’s cappuccino machine – we’re always running out and Café Allegro does the best ones – then order a mint tea and go to sit by the window. I’m trying to think exactly how to greet Ryan. What vibe to give off. Not gushy or needy, but self-possessed and alluring.
With a sigh, I retrieve my Anna’s Accessories bag, take out the two beaded clips and hold them up against my hair, squinting into my hand mirror. Neither looks remotely alluring. I try the gold earrings against my ears and wince. Oh God. Terrible. I might take them back.
Suddenly I notice a guy opposite me, watching in slight amusement over his laptop, and at once I flush. What am I doing? I would never normally start trying on hair clips in a coffee shop. I’ve lost all sense of propriety.
As I shove the clips and earrings back in the bag, a drip of water lands on the table, and I look up. Now I think about it, there’s been a steady stream of drips from the ceiling ever since I sat down, only they’ve been landing in a nearby bucket on the floor. No wonder this seat was free.
A barista is nearby, giving a hot sandwich to a customer, and I attract her attention as she turns to go.
‘Hi, the ceiling’s leaking.’ I point upwards 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 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, any more.
‘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 back, 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 30-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 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 evening light catches them and I see a sudden 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 soft-hearted 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 thrusts 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… Not, 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 humour 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 mid-air in a way that won’t attract his gaze. The guy starts typing at his laptop and I glance at my watch. 5.45pm. 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 LA.
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 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 level-headed, 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 say, ignoring my greeting. ‘What happened to that girl in LA?’
‘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 18 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 last summer, after he went back to Hollywood, it would be fair to say that every other conversation we had was about Ryan.
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 LA?’
‘I know,’ I say.
‘And your whole life is your family shop.’
‘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 towards 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.’
I know why she’s saying that. It’s because she tried to set me up with this actuary mate of hers last month, and I wasn’t into him. I mean, he was nice. He was just so earnest.
‘I get it,’ Hannah continues. ‘Ryan’s good-looking and glamorous and whatever. But are you going to give up on finding a proper guy just for ten minutes with Mr Hollywood?’
‘No, of course not,’ I say after a pause, even though the phrase ten minutes with Mr Hollywood has instantly flashed me back to me and Ryan in bed last year, and just the memory is making me damp behind the knees.
‘I think you need to draw a line and move on,’ says Hannah. I imagine her at her desk, briskly drawing a line under a column of numbers with a ruler, and then turning the page, no problem.
But then, Hannah was always immune to Ryan’s charms. In the sixth form she dated all the guys in the A-Level physics set, one by one, and ended up with Tim, the second cleverest one. (She was the cleverest.) They were together all through sixth form, broke up, went to uni and dated other people, then got back together again and married. His kissing has improved a lot since that first date, apparently. They both have good jobs and they’re trying for a baby and they’re basically sorted.
‘So what am I supposed to do?’ I say, a bit snippily, because I know she has a point and I resent it, even though I love her for caring enough to call me up and lecture me. ‘What if he’s there tonight, and…?’
I break off. I don’t want to say it out loud because I’ll jinx it.
‘You mean, what if he’s all hot and sexy and wants to carry on where you left off last year?’
‘Well.’ Hannah is silent for a few moments. ‘Here’s the thing. Can you sleep with him and not get upset when he goes back to LA? Be honest.’
‘Yes,’ I say robustly. ‘Of course. Sex is just sex.’
‘No it’s not!’ says Hannah with an incredulous laugh. ‘Not for you. Not with Ryan. He’ll mess you up somehow, I know it. You’ll end up weeping on my shoulder.’
‘Well maybe I don’t care,’ I say defiantly.
‘You’re saying the sex is so good, it’s worth it even if you do end up weeping on my shoulder?’ says Hannah, who always likes to analyse everything into equations.
‘Pretty much.’ I have a sudden memory of Ryan’s LA-tanned body entwined with mine. ‘Yes.’
‘Fine,’ says Hannah, and I can hear the rueful eye-roll in her voice. ‘Well, I’ll buy the tissues.’
‘He might not even come,’ I point out. ‘This whole conversation might have been for nothing.’
‘Well, I’ll see you later,’ says Hannah. ‘With or without Ryan.’
I ring off and stare morosely out of the window. Now I’ve said it, I realize of course that’s the most likely scenario. Ryan must have a million more glamorous events to be at tonight than Mum’s party. He won’t turn up at all. I’ll have bought all these hair clips for nothing.
‘Hi Briony.’ The guy across the table is answering his phone and I glance round. ‘Oh, you’ve spoken to Tanya. Right. So- No, that’s not what-’ He seems to be trying to get a word in. ‘Listen, Briony-‘ He breaks off, looking beleaguered. ‘Sweetheart, I’m not trying to ruin- No, we did not agree anything.’
Ha. Well, at least it’s not just me with the messed-up love life.
‘Is that what you think?’ he’s exclaiming now. ‘Can I remind you that this is my flat, for me to -’ He lifts his eyes and suddenly seems to become aware that I’m listening. I quickly look away, but even so, he gets to his feet.
‘Excuse me,’ he says politely to me. ‘I’m just stepping out to take a phone call. Could you watch my laptop?’
‘Sure.’ I nod, and watch him threading his way between the tables, already back on the phone, saying,
‘I never promised anything! It was your idea-’
I sip my mint tea and glance at the laptop a couple of times. It’s an Apple Mac. He’s left it closed, with a stack of glossy folders next to it. I tilt my head slightly and read the top one. ESIM: Forward-looking Investment Opportunities. I’ve never heard of ESIM – not really my thing – but then, investment funds aren’t really my thing, either.
People who invest money in funds and shares and all that are like a foreign country to me. In the Farr family there are three things you do with money. You spend it, you put it back into the business or you start another business. You don’t trust a guy in a suit and a posh tie with a glossy folder that probably cost a tenner to produce.
There’s nothing else interesting about the guy’s laptop, so I sip my drink and run my mind over my clothes options for tonight. And I’m just wondering where my blue lace top has got to, when something in my mind tweaks. Alarm bells have started to ring. Something’s wrong.
Or something’s about to happen.
My brain can’t even articulate what it is, properly, but my sixth sense is kicking in. I have to act. Now.
Quick, Fixie. Go.
Before I’ve even thought clearly what’s happening, I’m diving across the table, like a rugby champion scoring a try, cradling the guy’s laptop. And, a split second later, a whole section of the ceiling crashes down on top of me, in a gush of plaster and water.
‘Oh my God!’
‘Is it an attack?’
‘Help that girl!’
The screams around me are a din in my head. I can feel someone pulling at me, saying, ‘Get away from there!’ But I’m so worried about the laptop getting wet that I won’t move from my rigid protective position, until I feel paper towels being thrust at me. The water has finally stopped cascading, but plaster is still falling in bits from above, and as I raise my head at last, I see a freaked-out audience of customers watching me.
‘I thought you were dead!’ says a teenage girl so tearfully I can’t help laughing – and this seem to set off everyone else:
‘I saw that water dripping! I knew this would happen.’
‘You could have been killed, innit!’
‘You need to sue. That’s not right, ceilings falling down.’
A moment ago we were all strangers in a coffee shop, studiously ignoring each other. Now it’s as though we’re best friends. An elderly guy holds out his hand and says,
‘I’ll hold your computer while you get dry, dear.’ But I don’t want to give it up, so I awkwardly mop myself with one hand, thinking, of all the days, of all the days…
‘What the hell?’
It’s the guy. He’s come back into the coffee shop, and he’s staring at me, his mouth open. Gradually the excited comments die down and the coffee shop falls silent. Everyone’s watching the pair of us expectantly.
‘Oh, hi,’ I say, speaking for the first time since I was drenched. ‘Here’s your laptop. I hope it isn’t wet.’
I hold it out – it isn’t wet at all – and the guy steps forward to take it. He’s looking from me to the ravaged ceiling to the puddles of water and plaster, with increasing disbelief. ‘What happened?’
‘There was a slight ceiling incident,’ I say, trying to downplay it. But like a Greek chorus, all the other customers eagerly start filling him in.
‘The ceiling fell in.’
‘She dived across the table. Like lightning!’
‘She saved your computer. No question. It would have been ruined.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ A barista raps on the counter to gain our attention. ‘Apologies. Due to a health and safety incident, we are closing the coffee shop. Please come to the counter for a takeaway cup and complimentary cookie.’
There’s a surge towards the counter and the most senior-looking barista of them all comes up to me, her brow crumpled.
‘Madam, we would like to apologise for your discomfort,’ she says. ‘We would like to present you with this £50 voucher and hope that you will not…’ She clears her throat. ‘We will be glad to pay for the dry-cleaning of your clothes.’
She’s looking at me beseechingly and I suddenly realize what she’s driving at.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say, rolling my eyes. ‘I’m not going to sue. But I wouldn’t mind another mint tea.’
The barista visibly relaxes and hurries off to make it. Meanwhile, the guy in the suit has been scrolling through his laptop. Now he looks up at me with a stricken expression. ‘I don’t know how to thank you. You’ve saved my life.’
‘Not your life.’
‘OK, you’ve saved my bacon. It’s not just the computer, that would have been bad enough. But the stuff on the computer. Stuff I should have backed up.’ He closes his eyes briefly, shaking his head as though in disbelief. ‘What a lesson.’
‘Well,’ I say again. ‘These things happen. Lucky I was there.’
‘Lucky for me,’ he says slowly, closing the laptop and surveying me properly. The late sun is full on his face now. His eyes are so green and woodlandy, I find myself thinking briefly of deer in dappled forest glades; leafy branches; peaty scents. Then I blink – and I’m back in the coffee shop. ‘It wasn’t lucky for you,’ the guy is saying. ‘You’re a mess and your hair’s wet. All on my account. I feel terrible.’
‘It wasn’t on your account,’ I say, embarrassed under his gaze. My T shirt feels wet, I suddenly register. But how wet?
Wet-T-shirt-contest-level wet? Is that why the whole coffee shop was staring at me? Because my T-shirt is, in fact, transparent?
‘The ceiling fell in,’ I continue, folding my arms casually across my chest. ‘I got wet. Nothing to do with you.’
‘But would you have dived in that direction if you hadn’t promised to look after my laptop?’ he counters at once. ‘Of course not. You obviously have very quick reactions. You would have dived out of harm’s way.’
‘Well, whatever.’ I shrug it off.
‘Not whatever.’ He shakes his head firmly. ‘I’m indebted to you. Can I… I don’t know. Buy you a coffee?’
‘A muffin?’ He squints at the display. ‘The double chocolate chip one looks good.’
‘No!’ I laugh. ‘Really.’
‘What about… can I buy you dinner?’
‘I’m not sure Briony would appreciate it,’ I can’t resist saying. ‘Sorry, I overheard you talking.’
A wry smile comes across his face and he says, ‘Touche.’
‘Anyway, it was nice to meet you,’ I say, taking my mint tea from the barista. ‘But I’d better get going.’
‘There must be something I can do to thank you,’ he insists.
‘No, really, nothing,’ I say, equally firmly. ‘I’m fine.’
I smile politely then turn and head towards the door. And I’m nearly there when I hear him shout, ‘Wait!’ so loudly that I swivel back. ‘Don’t go,’ he adds. ‘Please. Just… hold on. I have something for you.’
I’m so intrigued, I take a few steps back into the coffee shop. He’s standing at the counter with a cardboard coffee sleeve and a pen and he’s writing something.
‘I always pay off my debts,’ he says at last, coming towards me. ‘Always.’ He holds out the sleeve and I see that he’s written on it:
I owe you one
Redeemable in perpetuity.
As I watch, he signs it underneath – a scribbly signature I can’t quite make out, and puts the date.
‘If you ever want a favour,’ he says, looking up. ‘Something I can do for you. Anything at all.’ He reaches in his pocket, pulls out a business card and then looks around, frowning. ‘I need a paper clip… or any kind of clip…’
‘Here.’ I put down my cup, reach into my Anna’s Accessories bag and pull out a diamante hair grip.
‘Perfect.’ He fixes the business card to the coffee sleeve with the hair grip. ‘This is me. Sebastian Marlowe.’
‘I’m Fixie Farr,’ I reply.
‘Fixie.’ He nods gravely and extends a hand. ‘How do you do?’ We shake hands, then Sebastian proffers the coffee sleeve IOU.
‘Please take it. I’m serious.’
‘I can see.’ My mouth can’t help twitching. ‘Well, if I need any “forward-looking investment opportunities”, I’ll let you know.’
My tone is a little mocking but he doesn’t pick up on it, in fact his green eyes light up.
‘Yes! Please do! If that’s the case, we can set up a meeting, I’d be delighted to give you some advice-‘
‘It’s not the case.’ I cut him off. ‘Far from it. But I appreciate the offer.’
Belatedly he seems to realize I was teasing him, and his face flickers with a smile.
‘Something you actually need, then.’ He’s still holding the coffee sleeve out to me, and at last I take it.
‘OK. Thank you.’
To humour him, I put the coffee sleeve into my bag and pat it. ‘There we are. Safe and sound. And now I really must be going. I have a family party I need to get back for.’
‘You think I’m joking,’ he says, watching as I pick up my cup. ‘But I’m not. I owe you one, Fixie Farr. Remember that.’
‘Oh, I will!’ I say, and flash him a last, cheerful smile, not meaning a word of it. ‘Absolutely. I really will.’