Home > Most Popular > I Owe You One: A Novel

I Owe You One: A Novel
Author:Sophie Kinsella

“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 flavors.” 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 nor 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 fiber 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 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 I 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 that 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 backward. 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 to mind about anything. Once, Jake arrived at the shop for a family meeting and it was only after an hour that we realized 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 leave Leila like that?” he shrugged and said, “She offered.”

Now Leila dangles a shiny Christian Dior shopping 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 she 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 August 2 since I can remember. It’s tradition. We’re big on tradition, we 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, “Goodbye,” 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 kinds of thoughts have been transfixing him. Even though I grew up with him, 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 minutes’ 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 neighbors 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 …”

“Not what …”

“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.