Home > Surprise Me(8)

Surprise Me(8)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

That’s what I’m doing today. I’m building a relationship with Susie, who works for a large charitable trust, the Wilson–Cross Foundation, whose remit is to support culture and the arts. (When I say ‘large’ I mean about £275 million and they give a chunk away every year.) I’m gently reeling her into the Willoughby House world. Mrs Kendrick is all about being subtle and playing the long game. She positively forbids us from asking for donations at first. Her argument is: the longer you’ve known the patron, the more they’ll give, when the time comes.

Our secret dream is another Mrs Pritchett-Williams. She’s the legend of Willoughby House. She came to every event, for ten years. She drank the champagne, ate the canapés, listened to the talks and never gave us a penny.

Then, when she died, it turned out she’d left the house five hundred thousand pounds. Half a million!

‘Have some more coffee.’ I smile at Susie. ‘So, here’s your invitation to the launch of our antique fan exhibition, Fabulous Fans. I do hope you can make it!’

‘It looks amazing.’ Susie nods, her mouth full of croissant. She’s in her late twenties, I’d say, and always has some amazing new pair of shoes on. ‘Only there’s a thing on at the V & A that night that I’ve been invited to.’

‘Oh, really?’ My smile doesn’t waver, although inside I’m seething. There’s always a bloody thing on at the bloody V & A. And half our patrons are V & A supporters, too; in fact, more than half, probably. We spend our whole life changing our events calendar so as not to clash. ‘What’s that?’ I add lightly. ‘I hadn’t heard about it.’

‘Some textiles exhibition thing. I think they’re giving away scarves to all the guests,’ she adds, her gaze shooting sharply to me. ‘Like a goody bag thing.’

Scarves? Damn. OK, think, quick.

‘Oh, didn’t I mention?’ I say casually. ‘We’re giving away a wonderful gift for supporters at our launch. It’s actually … a handbag.’

Her head pops up. ‘A handbag?’

‘Inspired by the exhibition, of course,’ I add, lying through my teeth. ‘They’re rather beautiful.’

Where I’m going to find thirty handbags which look like they were inspired by an exhibition of antique fans, God only knows. But I do not want to lose Susie Jackson to the V & A, let alone all our other patrons.

I can see Susie mentally weighing her options. Scarf from the V & A versus handbag from Willoughby House. A handbag’s got to win. Surely?

‘Well, I might be able to fit it in,’ she allows.

‘Great!’ I beam at her. ‘I’ll put you down as an acceptance. It’ll be a lovely evening.’

I ask for the bill and finish my croissant, allocating this meeting a ‘B plus’ in my mind. When I get back to the office I’ll write my report, and tell Mrs Kendrick about the clash. And find thirty appropriate handbags to give away.

Maybe I’ll try the V & A shop.

‘So!’ says Susie with a weird, sudden brightness as the bill arrives. ‘How are your children? I haven’t heard about them for ages. Have you got a photo? Can I see?’

‘Oh,’ I say, a bit surprised. ‘They’re fine, thanks.’

I glance down the bill and hand my card to the waiter.

‘It must be so cute, having twins!’ Susie is babbling. ‘I’d love to have twins – you know, one day. Of course I’d have to find a man first …’

I’m half listening to her and trying to find a picture of the girls on my phone, but something’s bugging me … And suddenly I have it. How much was that bill? I mean, I know this is Claridge’s, but even so …

‘Could I see that bill again?’ I say to the waiter. I take it back and read down the list.

Coffee. Yes.

Pastries. Obviously.

Coffee gateau costing fifty pounds? What?

‘Oh,’ says Susie in a weird voice. ‘Oh. I meant to … um …’

I slowly lift my head. She’s staring at me defiantly, her cheeks getting pinker and pinker. But I still don’t understand what’s going on, until another waiter approaches, holding a huge patisserie box tied up with ribbons and hands it to Susie.

‘Your cake, madam.’

I stare at it, speechless.

No way.

She’s ordered herself a cake and put it on our bill? At bloody Claridge’s?

The nerve. The absolute, copper-bottomed nerve. That’s why she started babbling: she was trying to distract me from looking at the bill. And it nearly worked.

My smile is still fixed on my face. I feel slightly surreal. But I don’t hesitate for a moment. Six years of working for Mrs Kendrick has taught me exactly how to proceed. I punch in my PIN and beam at Susie as the waiter gives me the receipt.

‘It was so lovely to catch up with you,’ I say as charmingly as I can. ‘And we’ll see you at the launch of Fabulous Fans, then.’

‘Right.’ Susie looks discomfited. She eyes the cake, then looks up warily. ‘So, about this cake … they put it on your bill, I don’t know why!’ She gives an unconvincing stab at laughter.

‘But of course!’ I say, as though astonished she’s even bringing it up; as though buying fifty-quid coffee cakes for people is what we do all the time. ‘I wouldn’t hear of anything else! It’s absolutely our treat. Enjoy it.’

As I head out of Claridge’s, I’m seething with fury. We’re a charity! A bloody charity! But as I arrive back at Willoughby House, twenty minutes later, I’ve simmered down. I can almost see the funny side. And the plus is that Susie definitely owes us one now.

I pause at the front door, put on my velvet hairband and slick my lips with pink lipstick. Then I head into the spacious tiled hall, which is staffed by two of our volunteers, Isobel and Nina. They’re chatting away as I enter, so I just lift a hand in greeting, and head up to the office on the top floor.

We have a lot of volunteers – women of a certain age, mainly. They sit in the house and drink tea and chat and occasionally look up to tell visitors about the items on display. Some have been volunteering for years, and they’re all great friends and this is basically their social life. In fact sometimes the house gets so full of volunteers, we have to send some home, because there’s no room for visitors.

Most of them hang out in the drawing room, which has the famous painting by Gainsborough in it and the amazing golden stained-glass window. But my favourite room is the library, which is stuffed full of old books and diaries written by family members, in old scratchy copperplate. It’s barely been changed over the years, so it’s like walking back in time when you go in, with glass-cased bookshelves and the original gas-lamp fittings. There’s also a basement, which has the old servants’ kitchen, preserved just as it was, with ancient pans and a long table and a terrifying-looking range. I love it, and sometimes go downstairs and just sit there, imagining what it was like to be the cook in a house like this. I once even suggested we have an exhibition of the servants’ life, but Mrs Kendrick said, ‘I don’t think so, dear,’ so that was the end of that.

The stairs can seem endless – there are five floors – but I’m pretty used to it now. There is a cranky little lift, but I’m not wild about cranky little lifts. Especially cranky little lifts which might break down and leave you trapped at the top of a lift shaft, with no way down …

Anyway. So I take the stairs every day, and it counts as cardio. I arrive at the top, push my way into the light, attic-level office and greet Clarissa.

Clarissa is my colleague and is twenty-seven. She’s the administrator and also does a bit of fundraising, like me. There’s only the two of us – plus Mrs Kendrick – so it’s not exactly a huge team, but we work because we’re all simpatico. We know Mrs Kendrick’s little ways. Before Clarissa, a girl called Amy joined us for a while, but she was a bit too loud. A bit too sassy. She questioned things and criticized our methods and ‘didn’t quite fit in’, according to Mrs Kendrick. So she was axed.

Clarissa, on the other hand, fits in perfectly. She wears tea dresses a lot, and shoes with buttons which she gets from a dance-wear shop. She has long dark hair and big grey eyes, and a very earnest, endearing way about her. As I enter, she’s spritzing the plants with water, which is something we have to do every day. Mrs Kendrick gets quite upset if we forget.

‘Morning, Sylvie!’ Clarissa turns and gives me a radiant smile. ‘I’ve just got back from a breakfast meeting. It was so successful. I met six prospects who all promised to put Willoughby House in their wills. So kind of them.’

‘Brilliant! Well done!’ I would high-five her, but high-fives are very much not a Mrs Kendrick thing and she might walk in at any moment. ‘Unfortunately, mine wasn’t quite so good. I had coffee with Susie Jackson from the Wilson–Cross Foundation and she told me the V & A are having an event the same night as our Fabulous Fans launch.’

‘No!’ Clarissa’s face crumples in dismay.

‘It’s OK. I told her we’d be giving away handbags as a gift and she said she’d come to ours.’

‘Brilliant,’ breathes out Clarissa. ‘What kind of handbags?’

‘I don’t know. We’ll have to source some. Where do you think?’

‘The V & A shop?’ suggests Clarissa after a moment’s thought. ‘They have lovely things.’

I nod. ‘That’s what I thought.’

I hang up my jacket and go to put my receipt for coffee in the Box. This is a big wooden box which lives on a shelf, and mustn’t be confused with the Red Box, which sits next to it and is cardboard, but was once covered with red floral wrapping paper. (There’s still a snippet of it on the lid, and that’s how it got the name the Red Box.)

The Box is for storing receipts, while the Red Box is for storing faxes. And then, next to them is the Little Box, which is for storing Post-it notes and staples but not paper clips, because they live in the Dish. (A pottery dish on the next shelf up.) Pens, on the other hand, go in the Pot.

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