Home > Surprise Me(17)

Surprise Me(17)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

‘Cardigans!’ I echo with a tweak of glee. I follow Tilda into her office, which is yellow-painted and lined with books and has French windows into the garden. She reaches below her desk and pulls out a flat, expensive-looking box.

‘They’re perfect,’ she says, as I’m taking off the lid. ‘The only issue is the fit.’

I pull the cardigans out and sigh with pleasure. The colour is beautiful and the cashmere is super-soft. How Dan could ever have chosen that vile—

Anyway. Not the point.

An almighty, whining drilling comes from upstairs and Tilda jumps. ‘What’s he doing now?’ She gazes upwards as though in despair.

‘It’ll be fine!’ I say reassuringly. ‘He’ll just be putting brackets up, or something.’

I try on the size ten, and then the size twelve and then the size ten again, admiring myself in Tilda’s full-length mirror.

‘Stunning.’ Tilda eyes me curiously. ‘But you still haven’t told me what it’s for. Not birthday, not Christmas, not your wedding anniversary, I don’t think?’

‘Oh.’ I pause in my preening. I don’t mind telling Tilda, I suppose, even though this is quite a private thing. ‘Well, the truth is, Dan and I have decided to plan some little surprises for each other.’

‘Really?’ Tilda’s curious gaze doesn’t waver. ‘Why?’

I won’t go into the whole 68-more-years-of-marriage thing, I decide. It might sound a bit weird.

‘Because … why not?’ I prevaricate. ‘To keep our marriage alive. Spice things up. Because it’s fun.’

‘Fun?’ Tilda looks aghast. ‘Surprises aren’t fun.’

‘Yes they are!’ I can’t help laughing at her expression.

‘I understand “keep your marriage alive”. That I understand. But surprises, no.’ She shakes her head emphatically. ‘Surprises have a bad habit of going wrong.’

‘They do not!’ I retort, feeling nettled. ‘Everyone loves surprises.’

‘Life throws enough curve balls at you. Why add to them? This won’t end well,’ she adds darkly, and I feel a flinch of annoyance.

‘How can it not end well? Look, just because you don’t happen to like surprises—’

‘You’re right.’ She nods. ‘I don’t like surprises. In my experience you plan one surprise and end up with a totally different one. When I was twenty-eight, my boyfriend – Luca, his name was, Italian – he threw me a surprise party. But the big surprise was that he ended up snogging my cousin.’

‘Oh,’ I say feebly.

‘While everyone was singing happy birthday.’

‘Oh God.’

‘They didn’t stay together or anything. Shagged a couple of times, maybe.’

‘Right.’ I pull a face. ‘That’s really—’

‘And we’d been happy until then,’ she continues relentlessly. ‘We’d had three great years together. If he hadn’t thrown me that surprise party, maybe I’d have married Luca instead of Adam and my life wouldn’t have been the clusterfuck it has been. He moved back to Italy, it turned out. I stalked him on Facebook. Tuscany, Sylvie. I think you need the ten,’ she adds without taking breath. ‘Fits you much better across the shoulders.’

‘Right.’ I’m trying to take in everything she’s saying, all at once. Tilda is a brilliant multitasker, but sometimes her conversation multitasks a bit too much. ‘If you hadn’t married Adam, you wouldn’t have Gabriella and Toby,’ I point out. I’m about to elaborate on this, when there’s a thundering down the stairs. The door of Tilda’s office bursts open, and Toby surveys her with an accusing look. He has a large piece of plaster in his hair, a light dusting of plaster over his beard and an electric power drill in his hand.

‘These walls are crap,’ he pronounces resentfully. ‘They’re shoddy. How much did you pay for this house?’

‘What have you done?’ demands Tilda at once.

He scowls, ignoring the question. ‘They’re flimsy. Walls should be solid. They shouldn’t just break off in chunks.’

‘“Break off in chunks”?’ echoes Tilda in alarm. ‘What do you mean, “break off in chunks”? What have you done?’

‘It’s not my fault, OK?’ Toby exclaims, with a defensive glower. ‘If this house was a bit more well built …’ He gestures at the door frame with his drill, and clearly presses the ‘On’ button by mistake, because it starts drilling noisily into the door frame.

‘Toby!’ screams Tilda above the noise. ‘Stop! Turn it off!’

Hastily, Toby turns the drill off and withdraws it from the hole that it’s now made in the office door frame.

‘I don’t know how that happened,’ he says, eyeing the drill dispassionately. ‘That shouldn’t have happened.’

‘What have you done?’ says Tilda for the third time, and this time she sounds quite steely.

‘There’s a bit of a … hole,’ says Toby. He catches Tilda’s eye and gulps, suddenly looking a bit less sure of himself. ‘I expect I can cover it up. I’ll do that. I’ll cover it up. Bye, Sylvie,’ he adds, and hastily backs away.

‘Bye!’ I call after him, biting my lip. I know I shouldn’t laugh. But Tilda’s expression is quite comical.

‘How my life could have been different,’ she says, apparently to the wall. ‘I could be in Tuscany. Making my own olive oil.’

‘Hey, Dan’s coming up the path,’ Toby calls down from the stairs. ‘Shall I let him in?’

My whole body jolts in shock. Dan? Dan? Here?

Wildly, Tilda and I stare at each other. Then Tilda calls back, ‘No, don’t worry, Tobes!’ in a slightly strangled voice. ‘Upstairs,’ she hisses to me. ‘I’ll get rid of him.’

I hurry up the stairs, my heart pounding, hoping frantically that he won’t recognize me through the wavy glass of Tilda’s front door, or look up through the clear fanlight. What’s he doing here?

‘Hello, Dan!’ From my vantage point on the landing, I can just see Tilda greeting him below. ‘This is a surprise!’

‘I’m just going to Clapham on a site visit,’ says Dan, ‘so I thought, why not pick up that package now, while Sylvie isn’t about?’

‘Good idea!’ says Tilda, heartily. ‘Very good idea. It’s just through here in my office, come this way …’

My heartbeat is subsiding. OK. No need to panic. He’ll just take the box and go and never know I was here. It’s quite funny, really, the two of us creeping around after each other.

Tilda leads Dan to her office and I tiptoe down the stairs a little, to listen to them.

‘… very nice,’ Dan is saying in a voice I can only barely make out. ‘You’re right, the blue was a little … blue. So which size do you think I should keep?’

‘Definitely the size ten,’ says Tilda. ‘I know it’ll fit her better.’

‘Great.’ There’s a slight pause, then Dan says, sounding puzzled, ‘Er … where is the size ten?’

Shit! Shit, shit!

I look down at myself in sudden ghastly comprehension. I’m wearing the size ten.

‘Oh!’ says Tilda, her voice a desperate squawk. ‘Oh! Of course. I took it upstairs to … to ask Toby’s opinion. I’ll just get it. Stay there!’ she adds, shrilly.

She hurries into the hall and waves her arms at me in mute desperation. Frantically, I unbutton the cardigan, my fingers catching on the buttonholes and, at last, thrust it at her.

‘Go!’ Tilda mouths at me.

As I retreat upstairs to the landing, Dan wanders into the hall, holding the box, and my stomach squirms. That was close.

‘Here we are,’ says Tilda, giving him the cardigan with a rictus smile.

‘It’s warm.’ Dan sounds even more puzzled, as well he might.

‘It was lying in the sunlight,’ says Tilda without missing a beat. ‘Such a lovely present; I know she’ll adore it. But I’m afraid I really do have to get back to work now.’

I sense a movement behind me and turn to see Toby emerging from a door, covered quite thickly in plaster dust.

‘Oh,’ he says in surprise. ‘Hi—’

Before he can say ‘Sylvie’ I’ve clamped my hand over his mouth like a mugger.

‘No!’ I whisper in his ear, with such ferocity, he blinks in alarm. He struggles a little, but I’m not letting go. Not till it’s safe.

‘Right,’ says Dan, below us in the hall. ‘Well, thanks again, Tilda. Really appreciate it.’

‘Any time.’ Tilda gives him a quizzical look. ‘Is it for anything special? Or just a random surprise?’

‘Just a random surprise.’ Dan smiles at her. ‘Just felt like it.’

‘Good idea! Nothing like a nice surprise.’ Tilda shoots a quick, sardonic glance upwards in my direction. ‘See you, Dan.’ She kisses him briskly on each cheek, then the door closes behind him, and finally I relax my grip on Toby.

‘Ow!’ he says, giving me an aggrieved look and rubbing his mouth. ‘Ow!’

‘Sorry,’ I say, not meaning it. ‘But I couldn’t risk you giving me away.’

‘What is all this?’ he demands.

‘Just … a thing,’ I say, heading downstairs. ‘Surprise present. Don’t tell Dan you saw me.’ I squint through the fanlight. ‘What’s he doing? Has he gone? Can you see?’

‘He’s driving away,’ reports Tilda, who is peering through the letter box. She stands up and makes an exaggerated huffing sound. ‘What a palaver. You see? All you’re doing is making trouble for yourselves.’

‘We’re not!’ I say defiantly. ‘It’s fun.’

   
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