Home > Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)(5)

Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)(5)
Jenny Colgan

‘Can I use the mixer?’

‘Yes,’ said Issy. Then, after a pause, ‘You mean to make cakes, right?’

Darny tutted.

Somehow, Issy supposed, she’d expected Austin to be desperate to get back home. Anyway, in New York they were all shouty and fast-paced and yelled ‘buy buy sell sell’ all day, didn’t they? That wouldn’t suit Austin at all, she was sure of it. He was so laid-back. He would check a few things out, meet some people, then they’d all go along as before. They’d threatened to send him overseas a year ago, but with the economy being how it was, it hadn’t transpired, and that was just fine by Issy. So she was a little put out to hear him so cheerful.

‘That sounds great,’ she said, a tad unenthusiastically. ‘London looks amazing too. Everywhere is all dolled up with lights and decorations and windows. Well, everywhere except for here.’

Pearl coughed, unabashed.

‘Oh yeah,’ said Austin. ‘Oh, but wow, you have to see it. The skyscrapers put special red lights in their windows, and there’s snow on the streets … it’s just magical.’

Issy picked up a stack of chocolate-stained plates and cups that had just landed on the countertop next to her.

‘Magical,’ she said.

Austin frowned after hanging up the phone. Issy hadn’t been quite her normal ebullient self. He supposed it was hard when there was a time difference. Everyone was at sixes and sevens with one another. He’d have to call again later anyway, to talk to Darny, even though Darny was entering adolescence and was thus quite likely either to answer every question with a grunt or, even worse, an invisible shrug, or to start castigating his brother for being in the finance industry and therefore, as far as Darny was concerned, responsible for bringing about the end of the world, massive apocalyptic catastrophe and general evil. Austin deeply regretted letting him read The Hunger Games.

Explaining that Austin’s job was necessary to put the enormous amount of food Darny got through on the table and buy him new trainers for his gigantic boat-like feet didn’t seem to cut him any slack whatsoever. Darny only muttered about how come Issy managed to buy Fairtrade coffee, which somehow made her one of the nice capitalists. Issy would wink at Austin and try and explain to Darny that she couldn’t have opened the shop without Austin’s help, whereupon Darny would end the conversation by tutting loudly and slouching off, his thin shoulders hunched. It was going to be, Austin sometimes thought, a tricky next seven years.

The café bell rang and in rushed Louis, Pearl’s four-year-old, with his best friend, Big Louis. Big Louis was substantially smaller than Louis but had been at the school first, and there was another Louis, smaller than both of them, so that was how it worked. Louis had explained this in painstaking detail to Pearl one night, and it had taken him almost the entire length of the number 73 bus trip to do so.

Pearl had tried to move from her south London estate up to north London to be nearer work and Louis’ excellent, difficult-to-get-into school (they’d used the café address, which she’d told her vicar made her feel uneasy and he had patted her hand and told her that the Lord worked in mysterious ways and he’d heard William Patten was a wonderful school), but it was difficult: her mother, who lived with them, hated leaving the house, and Ben, Louis’ dad, didn’t live with them but popped in regularly, and she really didn’t want that to stop. So it made for a long commute, but she couldn’t think of a better plan right at the moment.

Big Louis’ mum picked the boys up every day from reception, a massive favour she was repaid for in coffee and buns. Pearl left the counter and crouched down so Louis could launch himself into her arms. It was bad for her knees, but, she told herself sternly, there would come a day, who knew when, when he would no longer want to rush to her and give her a huge cuddle and a big wet kiss on the cheek and tell her all about his day and generally behave as if she was the best person in the world; which to him, of course, she was. She never grew tired of it.

‘Hello, sweetheart,’ she said. Although Big Louis’ mum probably felt exactly the same way about her own little boy (there was, in fact, no probably about it), Pearl could never help but feel that the curve of Louis’ smooth cheeks, his long black eyelashes, his soft tight curls, his round little tummy and ready smile were possibly the most beautiful things she had ever seen. And even to disinterested observers, he was an appealing-looking child.

‘MUMMY!’ Louis had a worried look on his face as he pulled a picture out of his Cars rucksack. It was a large butterfly, roughly painted in splurges with silver paper on its head and wired antennae. ‘BUFLYS ARE BUGS! DID YOU KNOW THAT?’

‘Well, yes, I suppose I did know that. Don’t you remember the book about how hungry he is?’

‘They are caterpillars. Caterpillars are bugs with legs but they are also butterflies. Like toast,’ he added reflectively.

‘What do you mean, like toast?’ said Pearl.

‘There is bread, and there is toast. But one is bread and then it is toast and is different. I hungry,’ said Louis.

‘I HUNGRY,’ barked Big Louis, suddenly anxious in case he was missing out.

‘Here you go, you two,’ said Issy, appearing with some toasted fruit bread and two cups of milk. Being let loose in a cake shop every day wasn’t very good for four-year-olds, so they all made sure they kept an eye on the boys, particularly Louis, whose body shape echoed his mother’s, and who liked nothing better than settling down for a chat about diggers with a customer – anyone would do, although he particularly liked Doti, the postman – with a large wodge of icing in his chubby fingers.

‘Mamma?’ said Louis. ‘Is it Christmas?’

‘Not yet,’ said Pearl. ‘When it’s Advent, and we start opening all the little doors up till Jesus comes. That’s Christmas.’

‘Everyone at school says it’s Christmas. We have a big tree in our classroom and Miss Sangita says that it’s a good time for everyone to slebate.’

‘Slebate?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, it is a good time to celebrate. In its own time. This is still November. Fireworks and Hallowe’en just finished, remember? Scary costumes and loud noises?’

Louis looked down at the floor and bit his lip. ‘I’m not afraid of fireworks,’ he said quietly. He had been, undeniably, very very scared of the fireworks. And although he had enjoyed getting the sweeties at Hallowe’en, he had found running into ghosts and ghouls – particularly the big boys off the estate in their Scream masks, charging about shouting on their bicycles – rather off-putting too, if they were being honest about it. Miss Sangita had told Pearl that Louis was a little sensitive, and Pearl had sniffed and said that what she meant was not a total lout like the rest of the children, and Miss Sangita had smiled nicely and said she didn’t think that attitude was really necessary, and Pearl had felt cowed again, and remembered that this was a nice school and she had to stop panicking about her boy.

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