Home > Surprise Me(9)

Surprise Me(9)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

It sounds a bit complicated, I suppose, but it’s not, when you get used to it.

‘We’re nearly out of fax paper,’ says Clarissa, wrinkling up her nose. ‘I’ll have to pop out later.’

We get through a lot of fax paper in our office, because Mrs Kendrick sometimes works from home, and likes to correspond backwards and forwards with us by fax. Which sounds outdated. Well, it is outdated. But it’s just the way she likes to do things.

‘So, who were your prospects?’ I ask, as I sit down to type up my report.

‘Six lovely chaps from HSBC. Quite young, actually.’ Clarissa blinks at me. ‘Just out of university. But terribly sweet. They all said they’d make us legacies. I think they’ll give thousands!’

‘Amazing!’ I say, and draw up a new document. And I’ve just started typing when there’s the sound of unfamiliar feet on the staircase.

I know Mrs Kendrick’s tread. She’s coming up to the office. But there’s another person, too. Heavier. More rhythmic.

The door opens, just as I’m thinking, It’s a man.

And it’s a man.

He’s in his thirties, I’d say. Dark suit, bright blue shirt, big muscled chest, dark cropped hair. The type with hairy wrists and a bit too much aftershave. (I can smell it from here.) He probably shaves twice a day. He probably heaves weights at the gym. Looking at his sharp suit, he probably has a flash car to match. He is so not the kind of man we usually get in here, that I gape. He looks all wrong, standing on the faded green carpet with his shiny shoes, practically hitting the lintel with his head.

To be truthful, we rarely get any kind of man in here. If we do, they tend to be grey-haired husbands of the volunteers. They wear ancient velvet dinner jackets to the events. They ask questions about baroque music. They sip sherry. (We have sherry at all our events. Another of Mrs Kendrick’s little ways.)

They don’t come up to the top floor at all, and they certainly don’t look around, like this guy is doing, and say, ‘Is this supposed to be an office?’ in an incredulous way.

At once I prickle. It’s not ‘supposed’ to be an office, it is an office.

I look at Mrs Kendrick, who’s in a floral print dress with a high frilled collar, her grey hair as neatly waved as ever. I’m waiting for her to put him right, with one of her crisp little aperçus. (‘My dear Amy,’ she said once, when Amy brought a can of Coke in and cracked it open at her desk. ‘We are not an American high school.’)

But she doesn’t seem quite as incisive as usual. Her hand flutters to the purple cameo brooch she always wears and she glances up at the man.

‘Well,’ she says with a nervous laugh. ‘It serves us well enough. Let me introduce my staff to you. Girls, this is my nephew, Robert Kendrick. Robert, this is Clarissa, our administrator, and Sylvie, our development officer.’

We shake hands, but Robert is still looking around with a critical gaze.

‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘It’s a bit cluttered in here, isn’t it? You should have a clean desk policy.’

Instantly I prickle even more. Who does this guy think he is? Why should we have a clean desk policy? I open my mouth to make a forceful riposte – then close it again, chickening out. Maybe I’d better find out what’s going on, first. Clarissa is looking from me to Mrs Kendrick with an open-mouthed, vacant expression, and Mrs Kendrick abruptly seems to realize that we’re totally in the dark.

‘Robert has decided to take an interest in Willoughby House,’ she says with a forced smile. ‘He will inherit it one day, of course, along with his two older brothers.’

I feel an inner lurch. Is he the evil nephew, come to close down his aunt’s museum and turn it into two-bedroom condos?

‘What kind of interest?’ I venture.

‘A dispassionate interest,’ he says briskly. ‘The kind of interest my aunt seems incapable of.’

Oh my God, he is the evil nephew.

‘You can’t close us down!’ I blurt out, before I’ve considered whether this is wise. ‘You mustn’t. Willoughby House is a slice of history. A sanctuary for culture-loving Londoners.’

‘A sanctuary for gossiping freeloaders, more like,’ says Robert. His voice is deep and well educated. It might even be attractive if he didn’t sound so impatient. Now he surveys me with an unfriendly frown. ‘How many volunteers does this place need? Because you seem to have half the retired women of London downstairs.’

‘The volunteers keep the place alive,’ I point out.

‘The volunteers eat their body weight in biscuits,’ he retorts. ‘Fortnum’s biscuits, no less. Isn’t that a bit extravagant, for a charity? What’s your biscuit bill?’

We’ve all gone a bit quiet. Mrs Kendrick is examining her cuff button and I exchange shifty looks with Clarissa. Fortnum’s biscuits are a bit of a luxury, but Mrs Kendrick thinks they’re ‘civilized’. We tried Duchy Originals for a bit, but then went back to Fortnum’s. (We rather love the tins, too.)

‘I’d like to see a full set of accounts,’ says Robert. ‘I want cash flow, expenses … You do keep your receipts?’

‘Of course we keep our receipts!’ I say frostily.

‘They’re in the Box,’ confirms Clarissa, with an eager nod.

‘I’m sorry?’ Robert looks puzzled, and Clarissa darts over to the bookshelf.

‘This is the Box …’ She gestures. ‘And the Red Box and the Little Box.’

‘The what, the what and the what?’ Robert looks from Clarissa to me. ‘Is any of this supposed to make sense?’

‘It does make sense,’ I say, but he’s stalking around the office again.

‘Why is there only one computer?’ he suddenly demands.

‘We share it,’ I tell him.

Again, this is a bit unconventional, but it works for us.

‘You share it?’ He stares at me. ‘How can you share a computer? That’s insane.’

‘We make it work.’ I shrug. ‘We take turns.’

‘But …’ He seems almost speechless. ‘But how do you send each other emails?’

‘If I want to correspond with the girls from home, I send a fax,’ says Mrs Kendrick, a little defiantly. ‘Most convenient.’

‘A fax?’ Robert looks from me to Clarissa, his face pained. ‘Tell me she’s joking.’

‘We fax a lot,’ I say, gesturing at the fax machine. ‘We send faxes to supporters, too.’

Robert walks over to the fax machine. He stares at it for a moment, breathing hard.

‘Do you write with bloody quill pens, too?’ he says at last, looking up. ‘Do you work by candlelight?’

‘I know our working practices may seem a bit different,’ I say defensively, ‘but they work.’

‘Bollocks they do,’ he says forcefully. ‘You can’t run a modern office like this.’

I don’t dare look at Mrs Kendrick. ‘Bollocks’ is very, very, very much not a Mrs Kendrick word.

‘It’s our system,’ I say. ‘It’s idiosyncratic.’

Beneath my defiance I do feel a tad uncomfortable. Because when I first arrived at Willoughby House and was shown the Boxes and the fax machine, I reacted in the same way. I wanted to sweep them all away and become paperless and lots of other things, too. I had all kinds of proposals. But Mrs Kendrick’s Way ruled, as it does now. Every idea I put forward was rejected. So gradually I got used to the Boxes and the fax machine and all of it. I suppose I’ve been conditioned.

But then, does it matter? Does it matter if we’re a bit old-fashioned? What right does this guy have to come and swagger around and tell us how to run an office? We’re a successful charity, aren’t we?

His gaze is sweeping around the room again. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ he says ominously. ‘This place needs knocking into shape. Or else.’

Or else?

‘Well!’ says Mrs Kendrick, sounding a little shell-shocked. ‘Well. Robert and I are going out for lunch now, and later on we’ll have a little chat. About everything.’

The two of them turn to leave, while Clarissa and I watch in silence.

When the sound of their footsteps has disappeared, Clarissa looks at me. ‘Or else what?’ she says.

‘I don’t know.’ I look at the carpet, which still bears an impression of his big, heavy man-shoes. ‘And I don’t know what right he has to come and order us around.’

‘Maybe Mrs Kendrick is retiring and he’s going to be our boss,’ ventures Clarissa.

‘No!’ I say in horror. ‘Oh my God, can you imagine him talking to the volunteers? “Thank you for coming, now please all fuck off.”’

Clarissa snuffles with giggles, and she can’t stop, and I start laughing too. I don’t share my slightly darker thought, which is that there’s no way Robert wants to run this place, and it’s a prime piece of London real estate and it always comes down to money in the end.

At last, Clarissa calms down and says she’s going to make coffee. I sit down at my desk and start typing up my report, trying to put the morning’s events behind me. But I can’t. I’m all churned up. My anxious fears are fighting with defiance. Why shouldn’t this be the last quirky corner of the world? Why should we conform? I don’t care who this guy is or what claim he has on Willoughby House. If he wants to destroy this special, precious place and turn it into condos, he’ll have to go through me first.

After work I have to go to a talk on Italian painting given by one of our supporters, so I don’t arrive home till nearly 8 p.m. There’s a quiet atmosphere in the house, which means the girls have gone to sleep. I pop upstairs to kiss their slumbering cheeks, tuck them in and turn Anna the right way around in bed. (Her feet always end up on the pillow, like Pippi Longstocking.) Then I head downstairs to find Dan sitting in the kitchen with a bottle of wine in front of him.

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