Make or break, p.1

Make or Break, page 1

 

Make or Break
 



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Make or Break


  Praise for How Not to Fall in Love, Actually

  ‘A phenomenal cast of characters and some real laugh out loud moments. Brilliant!’

  Heidi Swain

  ‘This superb debut is romcom at its very best. I haven’t fallen so in love with a bunch of characters in a long while. Loved it’

  Sun

  ‘How Not to Fall in Love, Actually is a hilarious, frank look at a modern girl’s dilemma as she tries to find harmony in life – laugh-out-loud comedy!’

  My Weekly

  ‘A charming, feel-good gem of a debut novel that’s guaranteed to leave you smiling . . . An honest narrative and a fresh voice to tell it . . . a great way to spend a lazy afternoon’

  CultureFly

  ‘More bubbly than a big glass of champers and just as fun. How Not to Fall in Love, Actually is bright, breezy, and the perfect way to beat back the winter blues’

  Georgia Clark

  ‘Full of heart and unique characters . . . It’s original, fresh and a little bit crazy, everything I love in a book’

  Alba in Bookland, five stars

  ‘This book had me laughing out loud so much. Pretty much all the way through in fact. Catherine has such a gift for humour. This is the type of romantic comedy I wish I had the talent to write’

  Novel Kicks

  With witty dialogues and a captivating plot, I read this refreshing and entertaining novel in two days laughing from the first to the last page’

  Chicklit Club

  ‘This book was really funny, it had emotion and a great story, but the humour really stood out. Definitely one to pick up when you need a good old rom-com’

  Rachale’s Reads

  ‘Debut novelist Catherine Bennetto has written exactly my kind of romantic comedy: funny, engaging, clever, emotional, quirky, and truly uplifting’

  NZ Book Lovers

  ‘Can I give this book seven stars please?’

  Goodreads Reviewer, Sozie

  ‘It’s a perfect rom-com and a highly enjoyable read. I think I have found a new author to love’

  Goodreads Reviewer, Vicki

  ‘Brilliantly written with the right balance of comedy that doesn’t take away from the real narrative’

  Goodreads Reviewer, Felicity

  ‘This could be the next Richard Curtis movie. Read it! You will not regret it’

  Goodreads Reviewer, Melodiacat

  For Mama

  (She will be SO mad if I don’t put her

  actual name, so to keep Mama happy:

  For Tricia Helen Brown)

  CHAPTER ONE

  ‘Harry Styles.’

  ‘That’s not shameful!’

  ‘I’m eighteen years older than him. Yes, it is.’ Lana, my boss, looked at her Rolex; a fortieth birthday present from some boy-band member with a cougar fetish, and snapped her laptop shut. ‘Right, enough “Shameful Shag” talk. Go home.’

  ‘What?’ I frowned and checked my phone. ‘But it’s only three thirty?’

  Admittedly we’d done nothing since lunchtime except compare our updated ‘Shameful Shag Wish List’, stuff invites into envelopes for my parents’ joint seventieth birthday/anniversary party and do a few moves on Lana’s Pilates ball (January was a particularly slow month in the world of music video production) but still, 3.30 p.m. was two hours before my official finish time.

  ‘Why don’t I start on the rider for the Feet of the People shoot?’ I said, flicking open my ever-present, neatly utilised Moleskin notebook. ‘They’re all vegan apparently and their manager requested there to be no meat on the premises. Also, weirdly, one of them won’t sit on a used toilet seat, so we need to fit a new one in his dressing room and plastic-wrap it so he—’

  ‘God, they sound awful,’ Lana said, shuffling papers. ‘And not even original – the plastic-wrapped new toilet seat is Mariah’s thing. Anyway,’ she waved her short-nailed, manicured hand. ‘That’s ages away. It’s a horrible, rainy Friday. Go and get started on your weekend.’

  ‘But—’

  ‘In a few weeks it’s going to be crazy.’ Lana indicated towards the whiteboard calendar that covered an entire wall of her office where two months of music video production schedules were recorded in various colour-coded pens. Nothing but a handful of meetings and Elsie’s twenty-sixth birthday – she was the other PA I shared the open-plan office with – were written in for the next two weeks. After that, each square representing a day, was crammed with prep, shoot and edit days; voice recordings, CGI meetings and viewings. It did indeed look ‘crazy’. ‘We’ve got those vegan/toilet people,’ Lana continued. ‘I’ve pitched for Pink’s new collab, and I’m still waiting to hear about Little Mix. We should take time off now while we can.’

  I looked away from the whiteboard and stood at the end of Lana’s desk, unsure.

  ‘Go!’ she said with a shooing motion. ‘I’m five minutes behind you.’ She made a show of pretending to file documents I knew were just scribbled wish lists of embarrassing celebrity shags.

  Half an hour later I stepped out of Balham station into weather so depressing it could make a Disney princess turn to drink. My phone beeped with a text from Lana.

  I did actually shag him ;)

  I laughed, happy that I genuinely liked my boss, then zipped up my parka and appreciated the lack of Friday evening commuters on the dreary mid-January walk to my sister’s flat.

  ‘Oh hey,’ Annabelle said, as I let myself in her front door, not mentioning (or realising) that I was two hours earlier than usual. She continued searching through a Marvel Avengers school bag. ‘We’ve got broccoli cheesecake standoffs, Mum’s repacking her packing and the cat is in the laundry, vomiting.’

  ‘Poor kitty. Did he eat the broccoli cheesecake?’ I shut the door with a smirk.

  ‘Aunty Jess!’ Seven-year-old Hunter appeared in the hall with a foam baseball bat tucked into his trousers, a fist full of kitchen utensils and a Thor helmet resting at a jaunty angle on his dark brown bird’s nest. He pushed past his mum and launched at me for a hug.

  ‘Hunter, why don’t you try your broccoli cake?’ Annabelle said, emerging from the school bag with three unmatched socks and a lunchbox spilling crumbs.

  Hunter made a face.

  ‘I’m with him,’ I said, setting my wriggly nephew on the ground and peeling off my coat and scarf. ‘It should be illegal to say those two words together. It sullies the word “cake”.’

  ‘Broccoli is very high in—’

  ‘Grossness.’ I winked at Hunter.

  ‘Fibre,’ Annabelle countered, tightening her unintentionally model-ish bun and picking a path through some Lego. ‘Mum thinks Katie is constipated because her midday “evacuation” had the wrong consistency.’

  Annabelle and I rolled our eyes and sniggered as we arrived in the kitchen.

  ‘Hi, Mum,’ I said.

  ‘Oh hello, Plum,’ Mum said using the nickname I’d had since I was two. Apparently my tantrums were so vigorous (passionate) I’d turn a deep, fruity purple. She looked up from her open suitcase that sat on one end of the kitchen table; food, spilt water and Moana cutlery littered the other end. ‘Shouldn’t you still be at work?’ she said, glancing at Annabelle’s retro kitchen clock.

  I took the baseball bat which was being wielded hazardously and put it on top of the fridge with the rest of the confiscated toys that had been repurposed as weapons.

  ‘Lana let me leave early. There isn’t much to do at this time of year,’ I said, while coaxing Hunter into his chair. ‘And, to make the day even better, Pete called and said he had to stay late at work because of some emergency, but he’s coming here because apparently he has a surprise for me!’

  ‘What kind of surprise?’ Mum said.

  Annabe
lle frowned. Despite the fact I was at her place every evening and most weekends to help with the kids, Pete, my boyfriend of six years, hardly ever came over. I shrugged and bent to pick up Katie, my three-year-old niece, who was on the floor playing with a rainbow-coloured xylophone. I signed and said, ‘I love you’ to her and she gripped my neck in an intense hug.

  ‘And what kind of emergency would mean a PE teaching assistant has to stay at work late on a Friday?’ Annabelle leant against the kitchen counter with a glass of something green and probably disgustingly healthy – but with her customary dash of something ‘beneficial’ (cannabis).

  ‘I dunno.’ I headed to the fridge, Katie kissing my cheek with three-year-old fervour. ‘Maybe the soccer balls deflated.’

  The three of us giggled. Pete took his job as a PE teacher’s assistant at an International Baccalaureate school near Virginia Water very seriously. He was in a team of nine and was the most junior, but he may as well have been the private coach to David Beckham’s kids. Having said that, the clientele at the private school weren’t far off Beckham status. Pete had to wear a uniform and they had strict rules on facial hair, ironing and deodorant usage (must be used, must work, must not be Lynx-level fragranced), and I got in a lot of trouble if I bought the kind that resulted in white powdery pits.

  I pulled a half-bottle of rosé from the fridge; Annabelle, being a semi-reformed substance indulger (cannabis oil is homeopathic apparently), didn’t drink but always kept a bottle handy for Mum and me.

  ‘Now, I’m leaving you with my iPad,’ Mum handed Annabelle an orange-coloured hand-sewn pouch, ‘and my phone. I’m not even allowed to take them in the car. Fancy that!’ She handed over another pouch in recycled curtain fabric. ‘If it rings, you answer and take a message.’

  Annabelle nodded and sipped her drink.

  ‘I have a mouthful, you have a mouthful,’ I whispered in Hunter’s ear, and pointed to his broccoli cheesecake.

  Hunter nodded and we each cut off a piece of cheesecake. While Mum explained to Annabelle the intricacies of how she’d like her phone answered, Hunter and I silently mouthed, ‘One, two, three’ then shoved the squares of broccoli cake in our mouths.

  ‘It tastes like toes,’ Hunter said through his greenish-grey mouthful.

  He held his nose to swallow and I pretended to vomit making him and Katie giggle.

  ‘Here’s a notepad for the messages,’ Mum continued. ‘And I got a nice pen.’ She produced a fat plastic pen covered in koalas wearing Raybans then looked back into her suitcase and muttered to herself in German.

  She’d been dipping in and out of it more and more lately. She usually only did it when stressed but recently Annabelle and I had noticed a definite change in her. She’d been acting weird. Well, weirder. We thought it was her impending seventieth birthday. Or the fact that Dad, also approaching seventy, wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. He’d flown past the usual retirement age with barely a glance out of his business class window. Which, seeing as he brokered the sale of islands to the rich and secretive, meant he was still spending weeks and weeks abroad. Or perhaps general senility was settling in. Whatever it was, it had her mumbling in her native tongue, weeping at adverts for insurance packages, mistaking a stranger’s folded fur coat for a lap dog and asking to pat it, and booking herself on a ten-day silent retreat.

  ‘They don’t allow reading, Mum,’ I said, scanning the contents of her suitcase and pulling out three self-help books and a herbal remedy magazine. ‘Remember?’

  ‘Or writing.’ Annabelle plucked Mum’s paisley notebook with its multi-coloured sticky tabs poking out at all angles from among the clothing.

  ‘It is strict, isn’t it? What will I do with all my thoughts . . .?’

  ‘Ignore them,’ I said.

  ‘Observe them,’ said Annabelle.

  ‘You will feed my scoby, wont you?’ Mum glanced towards the jar of glutinous bacteria she’d brought round that was sitting on the bench looking like something Jabba the Hutt might excrete after a particularly big night out.

  Annabelle nodded. I gagged.

  ‘And you’ll listen to Eileen?’ she continued while watching me extract various other tomes on herbal living from every pocket of her suitcase. ‘I told Patrick I didn’t want her replacing me. She’ll lose me my listeners! Doesn’t know her walnuts from her worts, that woman. And I’ve seen her eat a Pot Noodle.’ Mum looked at me, expecting allied horror. I gave her panto-style shock.

  Mum had had a daily show on the local independent radio station giving ‘Natural advice for the home and health’ for twenty-five years. Patrick was her long-suffering producer. Mum had always been interested in alternative health, but Annabelle’s unruly behaviour and my ADHD had propelled her firmly into a natural, preservative-free world. Yes, I’m mildly ADHD. Mum had treated my ‘excitable nature’, as she’d called it, with diet. I was gluten, grain, sugar and dairy free way before all the blogging beauties started doing it. And it worked. Although growing up it meant no kids liked to come and play at our house. The cupboards were full of raw nuts, almond flour cookie falsehoods and bowls of low FODMAP fruit.

  The doorbell rang, and Hunter was off his chair and hurtling down the hall in seconds.

  ‘That will be my driver.’ Mum tossed the last few items in the top of her suitcase. ‘Now, you’ll remember Katie’s tonic? I’ve put it in the door of the fridge. And I made more of Hunter’s special muffins. Oh, and Katie needs—’

  ‘Mum, she knows how to look after her own children,’ I said, steering my mother away from her suitcase by her tiny shoulders.

  ‘I do.’ Annabelle nodded.

  ‘And anyway, I’ll be here.’ I dropped the suitcase lid down and zipped it up.

  ‘You’ll come every day?’ Mum fretted.

  ‘I’ll be fine,’ Annabelle said.

  ‘Yes. Every day. Like usual.’

  ‘She needs help.’

  ‘I don’t,’ Annabelle said.

  ‘She’s got her hands full, being—’

  ‘On her own. Yes, I know, Mum.’

  ‘But it’s “no contact”. I didn’t really think about it till now. No contact for ten days. That’s an awful lot of time to be out of touch. Perhaps I shouldn’t go . . .?’

  Annabelle’s eyes widened over her smoothie.

  I hoisted Mum’s suitcase off the table, ushered her down the hall, thrusting her coat at her on the way, and bundled her out of the front door towards the waiting minivan. ‘If there’s an emergency they do let us contact you, you know. You’re not in solitary confinement. Just a lentils-for-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner silent retreat. You’ll come back calm and content, with terrible gas, and everything will be fine.’

  ‘But you’re an awful cook,’ Mum said, watching me hand her suitcase over to the driver. ‘You’ll give them all E. coli.’

  ‘I know how to order a takeaway,’ I said.

  Mum pursed her lips and began listing the perils of fast food while Annabelle stood in the doorway watching with relaxed amusement.

  ‘Just go and have a good time with all your thoughts,’ I said, guiding her into the van among the words ‘sodium’ and ‘trans fats’ and ‘unethical mutton’. ‘You’ll come back transcended, or tranquil, or whatever they tell you you’ll come back like.’

  ‘Transformed,’ she said through the open door, her eyes narrowing behind her large-framed glasses.

  ‘Yes, transformed you shall be. You’ll be a parrot of peace, or a sea-turtle of serenity, or a—’

  ‘Goodbye, Jess,’ Mum said in a clipped manner.

  She slid the van door shut.

  ‘Bye, Mum,’ I said through the open window. ‘I’ll still love you if you come back a rat of restfulness.’

  ‘Halt den mund,’ Mum said with a scowl.

  ‘Grandma, that’s rude!’ said Hunter, who was very good at German.

  ‘Yes, it is,’ said I, who was not but had a feeling my mother had just told me to shut my sausage-roll hole. ‘Shame
on you.’

  Mum shook her head and closed the window on me and the drizzly evening. But I suspected mainly on me.

  Annabelle waved from the front door. ‘Have fun!’

  Hunter waved a broken rake he’d somehow found and which I immediately seized before he started fencing with it. ‘Bye, Grandma!’ he hollered.

  The driver reversed onto the darkened street and Hunter, Annabelle and I headed inside to the warmth of the kitchen. Moments later we heard the front door open and Mum appeared in the doorway.

  ‘I just realised, without my phone I have no map.’

  Despite the fact that the driver had sat nav and had been there many times before, we recognised Mum’s need for a modicum of control and spent another five minutes printing out directions to the Buddhist retreat in Devon ‘just in case anything happens’. We said more goodbyes, coaxed her back to the van and then flopped at the kitchen table. The front door opened again and Mum stepped into the kitchen, wringing her bony hands.

  ‘I forgot my phone,’ she said.

  Annabelle and I gave her a look. It took a few moments.

  ‘Oh yes,’ she said, worrying the tiger’s eye pendant dangling over the top of her taupe turtleneck. ‘Quite right. That’s the whole point. Yes.’

  It was the first time she was going to be apart from the kids since Katie was born. The anticipation of separation was clearly taking its toll on my grey-haired, herbal little mother who’d been Katie’s secondary carer for three and a half years. She gave a plaintive look at the two children, Hunter submerging a Lego batman in his broccoli cake and Katie signing ‘love you, Grandma’; got a bit teary, kissed Katie nineteen times, muttered something in German that possibly translated to ‘I am dance scarf’ but I couldn’t be sure, as I hadn’t kept up with my Deutsch lessons; said, ‘OK, well, I’d best be off,’ muttered to herself and left. Again. How she was going to keep her German trap shut for ten days I would never know.

  ‘Is Mum worse?’ I asked half an hour later, while standing in the doorway of the bathroom watching Annabelle bath Katie.

  Hunter, my charge, could be heard singing a 21 Pilots song, far too old for his seven years, in the shower down the hall.

 
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