Home > I Owe You One

I Owe You One
Author: Sophie Kinsella

One

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 chessboard propped up for display. Not only that, the chessboard is covered with a brown stain. Obviously someone’s opened the can or dumped it down too hard and it’s splattered 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 to focus instead 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 favorite color?” 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 cozy 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 secondary 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 twenty-seven 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 greeting 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 chessboard 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 us their range of olive oils, not inspect the place. Just ignore it, Fixie.

Ignore it.

Oh God, but I can’t. It’s driving me nuts.

My eye keeps flicking upward 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 stepladder. 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 later, in private.

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