Home > Surprise Me(7)

Surprise Me(7)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

We’ve only been next-door neighbours for three years, but before Dan and I bought our house, we lived opposite, in a flat, and we got to know Tilda then. In fact, Tilda was the one who told us about our house being for sale and begged us to come and live next door. It’s the kind of thing she does. She’s impulsive and demonstrative and opinionated (in a good way) and has become my best friend.

‘Bye!’ I wave goodbye to Professor Russell and Toby and then start striding along. I’m wearing trainers, with my kitten heels in my bag, along with a turquoise velvet hairband which I’m going to put on at the office. Mrs Kendrick loves velvet hairbands and she gave me this one for Christmas. So although I’d rather die than wear it at home … if it makes her happy, why not?

‘Nice highlights,’ I say, eyeing up Tilda’s hair. ‘Quite … bright.’

‘I knew it.’ She clutches her head in dismay. ‘They’re too much.’

‘No!’ I say quickly. ‘They brighten your complexion, actually.’

‘Hmm.’ Tilda plucks at her hair dubiously. ‘Maybe I’ll go back and have them toned down.’

Tilda is a bit of a contradiction when it comes to looks. She dyes her hair religiously, but rarely wears make-up. She always wears a colourful scarf but doesn’t often wear jewellery because she says it reminds her of all the guilt presents her ex-husband bought her. At least, she realizes they were guilt presents now. (‘I wish he’d bought me kitchen equipment!’ she once exclaimed furiously. ‘I might have a KitchenAid!’)

‘So,’ I say as we turn the corner. ‘This quiz.’

‘Oh my God.’ Tilda rolls her eyes in horror. ‘I know nothing.’

‘I know less than nothing!’ I counter. ‘It’s going to be a disaster.’ Tilda, Dan and I have volunteered to be in a team for a charity quiz, tomorrow night. It’s at the pub at the end of our road, and it happens every year. Simon and Olivia across the road organized our team, and they lured us in by saying the standard was ‘pitifully easy’.

But then yesterday morning, Simon saw Tilda and me on the street and totally changed his tune. He said some of the rounds might be ‘rather tough’ but not to worry, as we’d only need ‘a bit of general knowledge’.

The minute he’d walked away, Tilda and I looked at each other in horror. A ‘bit of general knowledge’?

Maybe I had a bit of general knowledge once. In fact, I once learned a hundred capital cities for a school competition. But since having babies, the only information I seem able to store is: 1. that Annabel Karmel recipe for chicken fingers, 2. the theme tune to Peppa Pig and 3. what day the girls have swimming (Tuesdays). And truthfully, I sometimes get the Peppa Pig tune confused with the Charlie and Lola tune. So. Hopeless.

‘I’ve told Toby he has to be on the team,’ says Tilda. ‘Actually, he likes the food at the Bell, so he didn’t need much persuading. He knows about music, that kind of thing. And it’ll get him out of the house, at least. That boy.’ She makes a familiar frustrated sound.

To say that Tilda and Toby get on each other’s nerves would be an understatement. They both work from home, but from what I can gather, there’s a slight clash of working cultures. Tilda’s culture is: work in your home office in an orderly, contained way. Whereas Toby’s culture is: spread your crap all over the house, play loud music for inspiration, have sessions with your business partner at midnight in the kitchen and don’t actually make any money. Yet.

Yet is Toby’s watchword. Anything he hasn’t done in life, he was totally planning to, he just hasn’t done it yet. I’ve even heard him bellowing it, through the party wall: ‘I haven’t cleared up the kitchen yet! Yet! Jeez, Mum!’

He hasn’t found funding for his start-up yet. He hasn’t considered any other careers yet. He hasn’t thought about moving into a flat yet. He hasn’t learned how to make lasagne yet.

Tilda has an older daughter, too, called Gabriella, and by the age of twenty-four she was working for a bank, living with her boyfriend and giving Tilda advice on useful gadgets from the Lakeland catalogue. Which goes to show. Something.

But what I’ve learned with Tilda is: when she starts on a Toby-rant, you have to quickly change the subject. And actually, there’s something I want to ask her. I want someone else’s opinion on this whole marriage thing.

‘Tilda, when you got married,’ I say casually, ‘how long did you imagine it would last? I mean, I know, “forever”.’ I make quote marks in the air. ‘And I know you got divorced anyway, so …’ I hesitate. ‘But on your wedding day, when you couldn’t see any of that coming, how long did you think “forever” would be?’

‘The honest truth?’ Tilda says, shaking out her wrist. ‘Shit. My Fitbit’s stopped working.’

‘Er … yes. I suppose.’

‘Is it the battery?’ Tilda clicks with annoyance. ‘How many steps have we done?’ She bangs her Fitbit. ‘It doesn’t count unless it goes on my Fitbit. I might as well not have bothered.’

Tilda’s Fitbit is her latest obsession. For a while it was Instagram and our daily walk was punctuated by her taking endless photos of raindrops on leaves. Now it’s steps.

‘Of course it counts! I’ll tell you how many we’ve done when we reach the station, OK?’ I’m trying to haul her back on track. ‘So, when you got married …’

‘When I got married,’ Tilda repeats, as though she’s forgotten the question.

‘How long did you think “forever” would be? Like, thirty years?’ I venture. ‘Or … fifty?’

‘Fifty years?’ Tilda makes a sound which is half-snort, half-laugh. ‘Fifty years with Adam? Believe me, fifteen was quite enough, and we did well to last that long.’ She shoots me a sharp look. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I say vaguely. ‘Just thinking about marriage, how long it goes on for, that kind of thing.’

‘If you really want my opinion,’ says Tilda, striding more briskly, ‘the whole system is flawed. I mean, forever? Who can commit to forever? People change, lives change, circumstances change …’

‘Well …’ I trail off. I don’t know what to say. I have committed to forever with Dan.

I mean, haven’t I?

‘What about wanting to grow old together?’ I say at last.

‘I’ve never understood that,’ says Tilda emphatically. ‘It’s the most gruesome life aim I can think of. “Grow old together”. You might as well say you want to “keep your own teeth together”.’

‘It’s not the same thing!’ I object, laughing, but she doesn’t hear me. Tilda often gets on a bit of a roll.

‘All this nonsensical emphasis on “forever”. Well, maybe. But isn’t “till death us do part” a bit over-ambitious? Isn’t it a bit of a gamble? There are a lot more likely scenarios. “Till growing our separate ways us do part”. “Till boredom us do part”. In my case: “Till thy husband’s wandering penis thee do part”.’

I give a wry smile. Tilda doesn’t often talk about Adam, her ex-husband, but she once gave me the whole story, which was funny and lacerating and just really sad.

He’s married again, Adam. Has three small children with his new wife. Apparently he looks exhausted all the time.

‘Well, here we are.’ As we arrive at the tube station, Tilda bashes her Fitbit against her wrist. ‘Stupid bloody thing. What have you got on this morning?’

‘Oh. Just a coffee with a supporter.’ I show her my phone, which is open on my pedometer app. ‘There you go: 4,458 steps.’

‘Yes, but you probably ran up and down the stairs six times before we started,’ retorts Tilda. ‘Where are you going for coffee?’ she adds, giving me such a raised-eyebrow, sardonic look that I laugh. ‘Where?’ she persists. ‘And don’t pretend it’s Starbucks.’

‘Claridge’s,’ I admit.

‘Claridge’s!’ exclaims Tilda. ‘I knew it.’

‘See you tomorrow.’ I grin at her and head into the station. And as I’m reaching for my Oyster card, I can still hear her voice behind me:

‘Only you, Sylvie! Claridge’s! I mean, Claridge’s!’

I do have quite a jammy job. I can’t deny it.

Literally jammy. I’m sitting at a table in Claridge’s, surveying a plate of pastries and croissants with apricot jam. Opposite me is a girl called Susie Jackson. I’ve met her quite a few times now, and I’m telling her about our upcoming exhibition, which is of fans from the nineteenth century.

I work for a very small charity called Willoughby House. It’s been owned by the Kendrick family for years, and is a Georgian townhouse in Marylebone, stuffed full of art and treasures and – slightly bizarrely – harpsichords. Sir Walter Kendrick had a fascination for them, and he began a collection in 1894. He also loved ceremonial swords and his wife loved miniatures. In fact, basically the whole family was a load of compulsive hoarders. Except we don’t call their stuff a ‘hoard’. We call it a ‘priceless collection of artwork and artefacts of national and historical interest’, and put on exhibitions and talks and little concerts.

It suits me perfectly because my background is history of art. I studied the subject at university and I’m never happier than when I’m surrounded by things that are beautiful or historically significant, or both, which is the case for many of the pieces at Willoughby House. (There are also a fair number of pieces which are ugly and totally irrelevant to history, but we keep them on display because they have sentimental significance. Which in Mrs Kendrick’s world counts for far more.)

Before Willoughby House, I worked for a prestigious auction house, helping to put catalogues together, but I was based in a totally separate building from the actual auctions and I never saw or touched any of the pieces. It was a pretty drab job, to be honest. So I leapt at the chance to work for a smaller outfit, to be more hands on, and also gain experience in a development role. Development means raising money, only we don’t put it like that. The very word ‘money’ gives Mrs Kendrick a pained look, along with the words ‘toilet’ and ‘website’. Mrs Kendrick has a very distinct ‘Way’ of doing things and after six years working at Willoughby House, I’ve learned her rules perfectly. Don’t use the word ‘money’. Don’t call people by their first names. Don’t shake collecting tins at people. Don’t make speeches asking for funds. Instead: build relationships.

   
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