Home > Surprise Me(13)

Surprise Me(13)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

‘No you weren’t!’

‘Of course I was.’ He gives her a rancorous glare. ‘I just hadn’t taken them yet.’

‘Well, even if it was a holding system, you can’t have a holding system for pizza boxes in an airing cupboard!’ Tilda’s voice pitches upwards in outrage. ‘An airing cupboard!’

‘So, on with the Space and Time round.’ Dave’s chirpy tones boom through the microphone. ‘And the first question is: Who was the third man on the moon? I repeat: Who was the third man on the moon.’

There’s a rustling and muttering throughout the room. ‘Anyone?’ says Olivia, looking round the table.

‘The third man on the moon?’ I pull a face at Tilda.

‘Not Neil Armstrong.’ Tilda counts briskly off on her fingers. ‘Not Buzz Aldrin.’

We all look at each other blankly. Around the room, I can hear about twenty people whispering to each other, ‘Not Neil Armstrong …’

‘We know it wasn’t them!’ snaps Olivia. ‘Who was it? Toby, you’re into maths and science. Do you know?’

‘The moon landings were faked, so the question’s invalid,’ says Toby without missing a beat, and Tilda emits an exasperated squeak.

‘They were not faked. Ignore him, Olivia.’

‘You can live in denial if you like.’ Toby shrugs. ‘Live in your bubble. Believe the lies.’

‘Why do you think they were faked?’ I ask curiously and Tilda shakes her head at me.

‘Don’t get him started,’ she says. ‘He’s got a conspiracy theory about everything. Lip balm, Paul McCartney …’

‘Lip balm?’ I stare at her.

‘Lip balm causes your lips to crack,’ says Toby dispassionately. ‘It’s addictive. It’s designed to make you buy more. You use lip balm, Sylvie? Big Pharma’s using you like a puppet.’ He shrugs again, and I gaze back, feeling a bit unnerved. I always have lip balm in my bag.

‘And Paul McCartney?’ I can’t help asking.

‘Died in 1966,’ Toby says succinctly. ‘Replaced by a lookalike. There are clues in Beatles songs everywhere if you know where to look for them.’

‘You see?’ Tilda appeals to me. ‘You see what I have to live with? Pizza boxes, conspiracy theories, everything in the house rewired …’

‘It wasn’t rewired,’ says Toby patiently, ‘it was rerouted.’

‘Question two!’ says Dave into the microphone. ‘Harrison Ford played Han Solo in Star Wars. But what character did he play in the 1985 film Witness?’

‘He was the Amish chap!’ says Simon, coming to life and tapping his pen thoughtfully on his fingers. ‘Or … wait. He wasn’t Amish, the girl was Amish.’

‘Oh God.’ Olivia gives a groan. ‘That film is ancient. Does anyone remember it?’ She turns to Toby. ‘It was before your time, Toby. It’s about … what’s it about?’ She wrinkles her brow. ‘The witness protection scheme. Something like that.’

‘The “witness protection scheme”,’ echoes Toby sardonically, doing quote marks with his fingers.

‘Toby, do not start about the witness protection scheme,’ says Tilda ominously. ‘Do not start.’

‘What?’ I say, my curiosity fired up. ‘Don’t tell me you have a conspiracy theory about the witness protection scheme, too.’

‘Does anyone know the answer to the actual question?’ Olivia demands crossly, but none of us is paying attention.

‘You want to know?’ Toby turns his gaze on me.

‘Yes! Tell me!’

‘If they ever offer you a place in the witness protection scheme, run for your life,’ says Toby without batting an eyelid. ‘Because they’re going to get rid of you.’

‘What do you mean?’ I demand. ‘Who is?’

‘The government kills everyone in the witness protection scheme.’ He shrugs. ‘It makes economic sense.’

‘Kills them?’

‘They could never afford to “protect” that number of people.’ He does his little quotey fingers again. ‘It’s a myth. A fairy-tale. They get rid of them instead.’

‘But they can’t just “get rid” of people! Their families would—’ I stop mid-stream. ‘Oh.’

‘You see?’ He raises his eyebrows at me, significantly. ‘Either way, they disappear forever. Who knows the difference?’

‘Absolute nonsense,’ snaps Tilda. ‘You spend far too much time on the internet, Toby. I’m off to the loo.’

As she pushes her chair back, I fold my arms and survey Toby. ‘You don’t really believe all this rubbish, surely? You’re just winding up your mum.’

‘Maybe.’ He winks. ‘Or maybe not. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean there isn’t a conspiracy against you. Hey, do your girls like origami?’ He pulls a piece of paper towards him and starts folding it swiftly. A moment later he’s created a bird, and I gasp.


‘Give it to Anna. Here’s one for Tessa.’ He’s making a cat now, with little pointed ears. ‘Tell them they’re from Tobes.’ He flashes me a sudden smile and I feel a pang of affection for him. I’ve known Toby since he was a teenager in a school uniform and used to lug a trombone to school every morning.

‘Harrison Ford!’ Olivia bangs the table to get our attention. ‘Concentrate, everyone! What character did he play?’

‘Actually, I’ve just seen Dan arriving.’ I get to my feet, desperate to escape. ‘I’ll just go and … er … Back in a second!’

OK, I’m never doing a pub quiz again, ever. They’re pure evil, sent from Satan. There’s a conspiracy theory for you.

It’s nearly two hours later. We’ve had about a hundred more rounds (it feels like) and now we’re finally on to the answers. Everyone’s getting very tired and bored. But proceedings have stalled, because a row has broken out. The question was: How do you spell ‘Rachmaninov’? and some Russian girl at another table wrote it down in Cyrillic. Now Dave is trying to manage a dispute between her and the purple-polo-shirt team, who are arguing: if no one else in the room understands Cyrillic, how can anyone judge if she’s right or not?

I mean for God’s sake, what does it matter? Give her the point. Give her ten points. Whatever. Let’s just move on.

It’s not just our marriage which is going to last forever. This quiz is going to last forever. We’re going to be trapped at this table for eternity, drinking terrible Chardonnay and trying to remember who won Wimbledon in 2008, until our hair goes white and we shrivel up like Miss Havisham.

‘By the way, Sylvie, I saw a piece about your father in the local paper,’ says Simon in an undertone. ‘About his fundraising achievements. You must be very proud.’

‘I am.’ I beam gratefully at him. ‘I’m very proud.’

My father spent a lot of time fundraising for liver cancer. It was his big thing. And being Daddy the super-networker, he did it spectacularly. He launched an annual ball at the Dorchester and managed to corral a load of celebrities into coming along, and even got minor royalty involved.

‘It said they’re naming a scanner suite at the New London Hospital after him?’

I nod. ‘They are. It’s amazing. They’re putting on this big opening ceremony, in a couple of weeks. Sinead Brook is unveiling the plaque, you know, the newsreader? It’s such an honour. I’m making a speech, actually.’

I must finish writing it, it occurs to me. I keep talking confidently about the speech I’m going to make, but all I’ve actually written so far is, ‘My lady mayoress, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to what is a very special occasion.’

‘Well, it sounds like he was pretty amazing,’ says Simon. ‘To raise all that money, mobilize people year after year …’

‘He also climbed Everest, twice.’ I nod eagerly. ‘And he competed in the Fastnet sailing race. He raised loads doing that.’

Simon raises his eyebrows. ‘Wow. Impressive.’

‘His best friend from school died of liver cancer,’ I say simply. ‘He always wanted to do something for people with that disease. No one at his company was allowed to raise funds for anything else!’

I laugh as though I’m joking, although it’s not really a joke. Daddy could be quite … what’s the word? Intransigent. Like the time I suggested cutting my hair, aged thirteen. He got angry that I’d even suggested it. He kept saying, ‘Your hair is your glory, Sylvie, your glory.’ And actually he was right. I would have regretted it, probably.

Instinctively, I run a hand through my long, blonde waves. I could never cut it now. I’d feel like I was betraying him.

‘You must miss him,’ says Simon.

‘I do. I really do.’ I can feel tears brightening my eyes, but manage to keep my smile going. I take a sip of wine – then I can’t help glancing over at Dan. Sure enough, he’s looking tentery. His jaw has tightened. There are frown lines on his brow. I can tell he’s waiting for the conversation about my father to pass, like you might wait for a cloud to move.

For God’s sake, is he that insecure? The thought shoots through my brain before I can stop it. Which I know is unfair. My father was always so high-octane. So impressive. It must be hard if you’re his son-in-law and keep hearing people raving about him, and you’re just …

No. Stop. I don’t mean just. Dan isn’t just anything.

But compared to Daddy …

OK, let’s be absolutely honest. Here in the privacy of my own mind, where no one else can hear, I can say it: To the outside world, Dan isn’t in the same league as my father. He doesn’t have the gloss, the money, the stature, the charitable achievements.

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