Authors: Fiona Gibson
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Humor, #Romance
For Gavin, for setting me up on a very significant blind date
(‘I don’t think he’ll fancy you though’)
Table of Contents
‘So you’re setting up a meringue business,’ Erica says as I show her into my kitchen.
‘That’s right,’ I reply. ‘I’ve been testing different recipes and I’m all ready to go – as soon as I have official permission, of course.’ I’m aware of this thing I do – of putting on an oddly posh, grown-up voice when I’m in the company of an Official Person. In her navy blue trouser suit, with her shiny auburn hair swinging around her pointy chin, Erica falls into this category. She is an inspector from the council’s environmental health department. Her job is to ensure that I don’t poison the public – i.e. that my fridge isn’t seething with listeria or my cooking quarters populated by mangy cats. They aren’t, of course, but still, Erica’s very presence is making me nervous. It’s like when you’re being followed by a police car while driving.
Is something broken on my car?
you start wondering.
Could the wine I guzzled two nights ago still be swilling around in my bloodstream?
‘I love meringues,’ Erica enthuses, peering into my fridge which I’ve scrubbed so thoroughly even its light seems to shine more brightly. ‘It’s the texture, isn’t it? The crunchiness on the outside, the gooey bit in the middle …’
‘That’s right,’ I agree. ‘I imagine it’s impossible to feel depressed when you’re biting into a meringue.’
She laughs politely and marks a few boxes on the form attached to her clipboard. I try to sneak a look, but can’t read it. Anyway, I must stop feeling so paranoid. I spent the whole of yesterday preparing for her visit, and so far it seems to be going well. Erica caresses my cooker hob and ticks another box on her form. ‘D’you have a name for your business?’ she asks.
‘Yes, I’m calling it Sugar Mummy.’
‘Oh, that’s cute. That definitely has a ring to it. I assume you have children then?’
‘Yes, two sons.’
,’ Erica repeats with a slight shudder. ‘Oh, I take my hat off to you. I don’t know how people cope with boys.’
‘Really?’ I say, acting surprised. In fact, I have encountered this anti-boy attitude on numerous occasions since Logan and Fergus were tiny; a fierce aversion to young males, as if they are not miniature humans but incontinent pitbulls, prone to violence and likely to pee wherever the mood takes them (as opposed to little girls who’ll quietly colour in and groom their teddies for weeks on end).
couldn’t,’ Erica asserts. ‘My sister has three and her place is a wreck. She used to collect Danish glassware and of course that’s all been trashed.’
‘Oh dear,’ I say, wanting to add,
Why didn’t she put it away in a cupboard?
However, it’s crucial to keep Erica on my side. I’m itching to get my business started, and need to convince her that Logan and Fergus won’t be constantly charging into my ‘professional’ kitchen, bringing in live bugs to show me or using my mixer to blend potions of rotting leaves and soil.
‘Well, they’re thirteen and sixteen,’ I tell her, ‘so we’re past that crazy stage now.’
boys,’ she goes on with a dry laugh, ‘and their terrible bedrooms.
. That horrible dank duvet smell …’
‘They’re actually incredibly helpful around the flat,’ I fib, trying to quash the defensive edge to my voice.
‘Really?’ Erica widens her eyes. ‘Handy with the Mr Sheen, then?’
‘Yes, very.’ Actually, they back away from it as if it’s pepper spray, and neither seem capable of operating the Hoover without choking it. Plus there
an underlying smell around here, which I’ve tried to obliterate by burning the sandalwood and ginger oil my friend Ingrid gave me, with the promise that it would ‘uplift the senses’. On this rain-lashed November afternoon, both boys are off school with streaming colds, and the flat is tainted with the whiff of the unwell.
‘D’you have any children yourself?’ I ask pleasantly as she peers into the oven.
‘Just the one, a little girl.’
Ah, that figures.
‘I was terrified she was going to be a boy,’ Erica adds, straightening up. ‘In fact, I paid to have an extra scan to determine the sex as early as possible.’
‘Really?’ I have no idea how to respond to this.
‘If it was a boy,’ she goes on, ‘I wanted to be prepared.’ What could she possibly mean? Line up an adoptive mother for him? Just as I’m about to say they’re not that bad really – I mean, look at me, I’m healthy and happy and alive (well,
) – Fergus, my youngest, yells, ‘Mum!’ and stomps along the hallway towards us.
‘I’m still with the lady,’ I call back. ‘Won’t be long now.’
. Can’t get this stupid thing to work at all.’ He marches into the kitchen, wavy caramel hair askew, clad in just a pair of baggy grey boxers. He is clutching a small silver gadget which he thrusts into my face.
‘Fergus,’ I say, ‘you might want to go and put your dressing gown on, love.’
‘Nah, I was really boiling up, like my whole body was soaking. And the tubes at the back of my nose are totally bunged up with phlegm …’
Erica pretends to study our spice rack. ‘I’m a bit busy right now,’ I say briskly, trying to transmit the message:
Please leave this kitchen immediately.
Curiously, Ingrid’s sandalwood oil appears to be failing on the mood-lifting front. Fergus sneezes without covering his mouth, and something actually shoots out, causing Erica to shrink back in alarm. Christ, he’s probably infected her now. ‘It’s stopped working,’ he says, stabbing at the gadget’s buttons. ‘It’s gone weird.’
‘What did you expect for two pound fifty?’ Logan asks, wandering into the kitchen bare-chested in a pair of particularly unfetching tracksuit bottoms, bringing with him the powerful meaty pong of unwashed underarms. Neither of my boys have acknowledged our visitor.
‘Er … what’s gone weird?’ Erica asks Fergus politely.
‘My translator,’ he mutters, scowling at the gadget’s tiny screen.
‘Oh, what’s that for?’
,’ he replies, rolling his coffee-brown eyes as if to say,
Who is this bloody fool?
‘He likes buying old gadgets from charity shops and trying to get them to work,’ I explain.
‘That’s, um, resourceful,’ Erica says unconvincingly as Logan blows his nose on a square of kitchen roll.
‘Anyway, boys,’ I say firmly, ‘could you leave us for a minute please? This is important. Remember I told you—’
‘It has translations for thirty-six thousand words,’ Fergus cuts in, ‘in seven languages.’
‘Wow, that’s impressive,’ Erica says, checking her watch.
‘Tell it to say something,’ he demands.
Our visitor’s jaw tightens. ‘Er – hello, how are you?’
Fergus prods a few buttons.
Ich bin diabetika
, it chirps robotically.
He touched my breast—
‘It said it’s diabetic,’ Fergus starts.
‘And someone touched its breast,’ Logan chuckles, twanging the elasticated waistband of his trackies.
‘Yes, we heard that.’ My posh voice has disappeared and now I, too, am sweating as I try to figure out how I might remove my sons from the kitchen without shouting or manhandling them in front of Erica.
‘It doesn’t have any,’ Fergus sniggers.
‘Have you been groping it?’ Logan ribs him. ‘’Cause it wouldn’t say that unless there was a reason—’
‘What are you on about?’ Fergus retorts.
‘You must’ve assaulted it,’ his brother exclaims as the darn thing starts up again:
Ich bin diabetika
He touched my breast. Ich bin—
‘Fergus,’ I bark, ‘
put that thing away. We don’t need it right now …’
Logan rubs his upper lip where the faintest moustache is beginning to sprout. ‘We’ll never need it. It’s obsolete. What’s the point of a piece of crap like that when there’s Google Translate?’
‘Logan!’ I try to shoo him away with a fierce glare.
‘Well,’ Erica says dryly, ‘I suppose it has a certain retro appeal.’
non posso mangiare che
mean?’ Fergus asks, mouth-breathing over the screen.
‘I’ve no idea,’ I mutter. ‘I don’t speak Italian.’
Erica clears her throat. ‘It means “I can’t eat that.”’
‘Great line for a meringue company,’ Logan snorts. ‘Maybe that should be your slogan, Mum.’
‘You can’t speak German either,’ Fergus reminds me, ‘or Polish or Dutch …’ No, because, clearly, I am an imbecile.
There are many cockroaches in my hotel room
, the translator bleats.
I require police assistance immediately. Help! Help! Where is the nearest unisex hair salon? Ich bin diabetika—
‘Type in “goodbye”,’ I snap. ‘Type in, “It’s been very nice to meet you, Erica, but now I am going to leave you both to get on with important things.”’
I have been raped!
the machine squawks, at which Logan honks with laughter.
‘Excuse me a second.’ Grabbing Fergus by his clammy hand, I march him out of the kitchen and into the living room where I hiss, ‘Stay here until she’s gone, okay? I’m trying to create a good impression and you’re
He fixes me with a challenging stare. ‘It’ll be useful on holiday if I can fix it.’
‘You’re going to the Highlands with Dad, remember? As far as I’m aware, they speak the same language as us.’
‘I don’t mean for Easter,’ he calls after me as I leave the room. ‘I mean our
holiday. Are we going anywhere this year?’
‘Haven’t decided yet.’
‘We never go abroad,’ he bleats. He’s right – but how far does he think we’ll get on the bit of fluff I have left in my purse at the end of each month?
By the time I’m back in the kitchen, Logan has returned to his bedroom and Erica is clutching her brown leather briefcase in readiness for leaving. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if it would really be so terrible if the translator suffered an unfortunate accident, such as tumbling from our second-floor window and being run over by a car.
‘Well, Alice,’ Erica says coolly, ‘I’m pleased to tell you that your premises have passed.’
It takes me a moment to process this. ‘You mean everything’s okay?’
She nods. ‘Yes, you’re ready to go.’
‘Oh, that’s great! Thank you.’
Her clear blue eyes skim the room, settling momentarily on the scrunched-up piece of kitchen roll which Logan deposited on the table. Then, just as she makes for the door, another small object catches her eye. She frowns, and I follow her gaze towards the cooker – or, more precisely, to the small, turd-like object that’s poking out from under it.
It’s a bit of old sausage. Time seems to freeze as we stare at it.
It hasn’t been there long
, I want to explain. Or I could joke about cutting it open to date it, the way you can count the rings in a tree. But instinct tells me that Erica wouldn’t find that amusing so, mustering a brazen smile, I saunter towards it and send it scooting under the cooker with a sharp kick. Our eyes meet and she smirks. ‘Well, good luck with your meringues,’ she says. ‘I think it’s a great idea for a business. And I do hope your son manages to get his translator fixed.’
It’s a cool, breezy afternoon as I leave Middlebank Primary where I work as the school secretary. Having texted the boys, who’ll head straight home from their nearby secondary school, I take a short detour via Betsy’s, a smart, airy cafe housed on the ground floor of a converted chapel. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of quaint tea shops here in Edinburgh. While there is no shortage of cupcake suppliers, meringues appear to have novelty appeal, which has proved good for business. Betsy’s is owned by an eager young couple who look like they’re barely out of college.