Home > Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)(8)

Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)(8)
Jenny Colgan

‘No!’ howled Helena. ‘NO! Don’t! I just … Chadani! That is behaviour of which I am critical! Not that I am criticising you as a person and as a goddess. It is because this behaviour at this time …’

Chadani stared at Helena, continuing to hold the beaker upside down, as if conducting an experiment.

Issy decided not to press the boyfriend matter any further.

‘I’ll just head out …’ she said.

As she went, she could hear Helena saying, ‘Now, I would be very happy if you would give me that cup now, Chadani Imelda. Very happy. Make Mummy happy now and give me the cup. Give me the cup now, Chadani. Give Mummy the cup.’

Chapter Three

Whatever Pearl thought, Issy decided when she got home, it was time to start the Christmas cakes. She gathered together the huge bags of sultanas, raisins and currants – wondering, as she passingly did once a year, and once a year only, what the difference between them was again – along with the glacé cherries and candied peel. If she didn’t start them now, she wouldn’t have enough time to feed them and they wouldn’t be good and strong and delicious in time.

Darny thumped through to the kitchen as soon as he got in from homework club. As he marched through the door, Issy jumped; he sounded like a grown man already, even though he was only eleven. And of course he’d had his own set of keys since he was six years old.

‘Hey,’ he shouted. Normally he swung straight past her up the stairs to his bedroom to play on his Xbox – unless, of course, she was making something good to eat.

The house Austin and Darny had inherited from their parents was a rather pretty red-brick terrace, with a large knocked-through downstairs sitting room and a back kitchen, and upstairs three little bedrooms. There was a patch of garden out the back which was in no way large enough to play football, rugby, handball, volleyball or Robin Hood, not that it had stopped the boys trying over the years. Five years of just two chaps there, one small and one overworked and dreamy, had left the place in a very unpleasant state, even though they had a despondent cleaner. Issy was, gradually, trying to do up bits of it: a coat of paint here; a new flagstone floor there. The bones of the house were reasserting themselves, though Issy had kept intact a little square of the skirting board that had a long procession of racing cars drawn on in indelible ink in the hand of a five-year-old.

‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ she’d asked Austin.

‘Well, I rather liked it,’ he’d said mildly. ‘He’s good at drawing; look, he’s got all the wheels in the right positions and everything.’

Issy looked and decided it was sweet. She cleaned up the rest of the paintwork and kept the cars. The rest she was trying to make over.

She couldn’t help it. She never felt she needed to see a therapist to confirm that it was because of her insecure childhood – her mother a restless spirit; her father a traveller she’d never known. The only constant in her life had been her beloved Grampa Joe, whose bakery had always been a warm and cosy haven for her. Ever since then, she’d tried to reproduce that cosy, comfortable feeling wherever she went.

Pre-Austin, Helena had said once that she was a people-pleaser. Issy had asked what was wrong with that exactly, and Helena had pointed out that all her boyfriends had been really horrible users. But Issy could never march through life like Helena did, doing what she felt like doing and damning the consequences. Meeting Austin, who liked the fact that she liked to please him … well, the boys had complained at first about the house – who really needed curtains anyway, Darny had said; they were just bourgeois (a word he clearly had no concept of the meaning of), about shame and a fake privacy the state didn’t even let you have – but Issy had persisted, and gradually, as the windows were cleaned, and a new kitchen table brought in (they let Darny keep the old one, covered in ink spills and old glue and that part where they’d played the knife-throwing game that time, as a desk upstairs) with a comfortable wall bench covered in cushions, and all Issy’s kitchen appliances, which she bought like other women bought shoes; lamps in the corner of the room rather than bare bulbs (Austin had complained he couldn’t see a thing until Issy had told him it was romantic and would make romantic things happen, which changed his outlook somewhat), and even cushions (which were constantly being secreted upstairs for Darny to use as target practice), the house was beginning to look really rather cosy. More like a home, Issy had pointed out, like normal people had, and not a holding pen for delinquent zebras.

Austin might have grumbled cheerfully – because, on the whole, it was expected of him, and also because it was exactly what all his interfering aunts had been saying for years, that the place needed a woman’s touch. In the past there had been plenty of women who’d promised to supply that and tried to inveigle their way in. Austin and Darny had even had a name for them: the Awws, because of the concerned expression they got on their faces and the way they said ‘awww’ when they looked at Darny like he was an abandoned puppy. Austin hated it when someone said ‘awww’. It meant that Darny was about to do or say something unspeakable.

But somehow with Issy it was different. Issy didn’t say ‘awww’. She listened. And she made them both feel that coming home to somewhere cosy and warm every evening might actually be rather pleasant, even if it did require them to start making their own beds and remembering to put the rubbish out and eating with cutlery and having fruit and stuff. Yes, there were more soft furnishings and bits and bobs about, but that was just the price you paid, Austin reckoned, for all the lovely stuff too; for something that felt not a million miles away from happiness.

Darny took off his winter jacket and rucksack, scattering school books, hats, scarves, Moshi Monster cards and random small pieces of plastic everywhere.

‘Hello Darny,’ said Issy. He padded through into the kitchen.

‘What are you doing?’ he said. ‘I’m starving.’

‘You’re always starving,’ said Issy. ‘You can’t eat this, though.’

He gazed into the huge pans. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Oh, this is the easy bit. Just marinating the fruit.’

Darny took a sniff of the bottle she was applying liberally to the mix. ‘Phew. What’s that?’

‘It’s brandy.’

‘Can I—’

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