Home > Surprise Me(12)

Surprise Me(12)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

Mostly, it’s my day at work which has got me agitated. I don’t know what’s happened at Willoughby House. No, scratch that, I know exactly what’s happened: the evil nephew has happened. I suppose what I mean is: I don’t know what he’s said to Mrs Kendrick, because she’s transformed overnight, and not for the better.

Mrs Kendrick used to be the standard-bearer. She was the fixed measure for what was Right, according to her. She just knew. She had her Way, and she never doubted it, ever, and we all abided by it.

But now her iron rod is wavering. She seems jumpy and nervy. Unsure of all her principles. For about half an hour this morning, she went wandering around the office as though seeing it through fresh eyes. She picked up the Box and looked at it, as though suddenly dissatisfied with it. She put some old editions of Country Life in recycling. (She got them back out again later; I saw her.) She gazed longingly at the fax machine for a bit. Then she turned away, approached the computer and said in hopeful tones, ‘A computer is very like a fax machine, isn’t it, Sylvie?’

I reassured her that yes, a computer was in many ways like a fax machine, in that it was a great way to communicate with people. But that was a huge mistake, because she sat down and said, ‘I think I’ll do some emails,’ with an air of bravado, and tried to swipe the screen like an iPad.

So I broke off what I was doing and went to help her. And after a few minutes, when Mrs Kendrick tetchily said, ‘Sylvie, dear, you’re not making any sense,’ Clarissa joined in too.

Oh my God. It eventually turned out – after a lot of frustration and bewilderment on everyone’s part – that Mrs Kendrick had been under the impression that the subject line was the email. I had to explain that you open each email up and read the contents. Whereupon she gazed in astonishment and said, ‘Oh, I see.’ Then when I closed each email down she gasped and said, ‘Where’s it gone?’

About twenty times.

She was getting a bit hassled by then, so I made her a nice cup of tea and showed her a letter of appreciation that had come in from a supporter. (On paper, written in ink pen.) That made her happy. And I know her nephew’s probably said to her, ‘Get with the programme, Aunt Margaret, and start using email,’ but what I would retort is: ‘For God’s sake, let her send faxes to all her friends, what’s wrong with that?’

He’ll be coming in again to ‘assess things’ apparently. Well, two can play at ‘assessing’. And if I ‘assess’ that he’s freaking his aunt out for no good reason, I’ll be letting him know, believe me.

(Probably in a nice polite email after he’s left. I’m not brilliant at confrontation, truth be told.)

I give my hair a quick smooth-down, then venture into the pub, already deciding that this was a terrible idea but there’s not much I can do about it now.

The place has been transformed for the evening, with a glittery banner reading ‘ROYAL TRINITY HOSPICE QUIZ’, and a little stage in the corner with a PA system. Groups of people are already sitting with glasses of wine and pints, peering at sheets of paper. I see Simon and Olivia sitting with Tilda and Toby, and head to the table, giving everyone a kiss.

‘Dan’s on his way,’ I say, pulling out a chair. ‘Just waiting for the babysitter.’

What with the cost of babysitting, plus tickets and booze, tonight has worked out pretty expensive for an evening we’re both dreading. As I was leaving home, Dan actually said, ‘Why the hell didn’t we just send along a fifty-quid donation, stay at home and watch Veep?’

But I don’t divulge this to the others. I’m trying to be positive.

‘Won’t this be fun?’ I add brightly.

‘Absolutely,’ says Olivia at once. ‘You can’t take these things too seriously. We’re just here for the fun of it.’

I don’t know Simon and Olivia very well. They’re about Tilda’s age, and have children at uni. He’s avuncular and jolly, with curly hair and specs, but she’s quite nervy and intense. She always seems to be clenching her hands, with her knuckles straining at her white skin. And she has this disconcerting way of looking away mid-conversation, with a sudden swooping, ducking gesture of her head as though she thinks you’re about to hit her.

The gossip is that they nearly divorced last year, because Simon had an affair with his assistant, and Olivia made him go away for a week’s marriage therapy in the Cotswolds, and they had to light candles and ‘brush away his infidelity’ with special mystic twig brooms. That’s according to Toby, who heard it from their neighbour’s au pair.

Although, obviously, I don’t listen to gossip. Nor imagine the pair of them brushing away his infidelity with twig brooms, every time I see them. (Believe me, if it was Dan’s infidelity, I’d want to do a lot more than brush it away with a twig broom. Thrash it with a mallet, maybe.)

‘What’s your specialist subject, Sylvie?’ demands Tilda as I sit down. ‘I’ve been boning up on capital cities.’

‘No!’ I say. ‘Capitals are my thing.’

‘Capital of Latvia,’ rejoins Tilda, passing me a glass of wine.

My mind jumps about with a little spark of optimism. Do I know this? Latvia. Latvia. Budapest? No, that’s Prague. I mean, Hungary.

‘OK, capital cities can be your thing,’ I allow generously. ‘I’ll focus on art history.’

‘Good. And Simon knows all about football.’

‘Last year we would have won if we’d played our joker on the football round,’ Olivia suddenly puts in. ‘But Simon insisted on using it too early.’ She regards Simon with stony eyes and I exchange glances with Tilda. Olivia is so not here for the fun of it.

‘Our team is called the Canville Conquerors,’ Tilda tells me. ‘Because of living on Canville Road.’

‘Very good.’ I take a gulp of wine and am about to regale Tilda with my day at the office, when Olivia leans forward.

‘Sylvie, look at these famous landmarks.’ She pushes a sheet of paper towards me. On it are about twenty grainy, photocopied photos. ‘Can you name any of them? This is the first round.’

I peer at the sheet with a frown. It’s so badly reproduced I can’t even see what anything is, let alone—

‘The Eiffel Tower!’ I say, suddenly spotting it.

‘Everyone’s got the Eiffel Tower,’ says Olivia impatiently, ‘Look, we’ve already written it in. Eiffel Tower. Can’t you get any others?’

‘Er …’ I peer vaguely at the sheet, passing over Stonehenge and Ayers Rock, which have also been written on. ‘Is that the Chrysler Building?’

‘No,’ snaps Olivia. ‘It just looks a bit like the Chrysler Building, but it isn’t actually it.’

‘OK,’ I say humbly.

I’m already feeling a bit hysterical. I don’t know anything and nor does Tilda and Olivia is looking more and more like a headmistress with pursed lips. Suddenly she sits bolt upright and nudges Simon. ‘Who are they?’

A team of guys in matching purple polo shirts walks in and sits down. Half of them have beards and most of them have glasses and all of them look fearsomely bright.

‘Shall we not do the quiz?’ I say to Tilda, only half joking. ‘Shall we just be spectators?’

‘Welcome, everyone, welcome!’ A middle-aged guy with a moustache mounts the tiny platform and speaks into the microphone. ‘I’m Dave and I’m your quizmaster tonight. I’ve never done this before, I’ve stepped in because Nigel’s ill, so go easy on me …’ He gives an awkward half-laugh, then clears his throat. ‘So, let’s play fair, let’s have some fun … please switch off your phones …’ He looks around severely. ‘No googling. No texting a friend. Verboten.’

‘Toby!’ Tilda gives him a nudge. ‘Off!’

Toby blinks at her and puts his phone away. He’s trimmed his hipster beard, I notice. Excellent. Now he just needs to get rid of his million grotty leather bracelets.

‘Hey, that’s Iguazú National Park,’ he says suddenly, pointing at one of the grainy pictures. ‘I’ve been there.’

‘Ssh!’ says Olivia, looking livid. ‘Be discreet! Don’t yell it out for the whole room to hear!’

At the next table, I hear someone saying, ‘Put “Iguazú National Park”,’ and Olivia practically explodes in rage.

‘You see?’ she says to Toby. ‘They heard! If you know an answer, write it down!’ She jabs furiously at the paper. ‘Write it!’

‘I’m getting some crisps,’ says Toby, without acknowledging Olivia at all. As he gets up, I shoot Tilda a collusive grin, but she doesn’t return it.

‘That boy,’ she says. She presses her hands against her cheeks, hard, then blows out. ‘What am I going to do with him? You won’t guess his latest. Never.’

‘What’s he done now?’

‘Empty pizza boxes. He’s been keeping them in the airing cupboard, can you believe? The airing cupboard! With our clean sheets!’ Tilda’s face is so pink and indignant, I want to laugh, but somehow I keep a straight face.

‘That’s not good,’ I say.

‘You’re right!’ she says hotly. ‘It’s not! I started to smell herbs every time I opened the airing cupboard. Like oregano. I thought: Well, it must be our new fabric conditioner. But today it started to smell rancid and quite vile, so I investigated further and what did I find?’

‘Pizza boxes?’ I venture.

‘Exactly! Pizza boxes.’ She fixes a reproachful gaze on Toby, who sits down and dumps three packets of crisps on the table. ‘He was disposing of them in the airing cupboard because he couldn’t be bothered to go downstairs.’

‘I was not disposing of them,’ Toby responds laconically. ‘Mum, I’ve explained this to you. It was a holding system. I was going to take them to recycling.’

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