Home > The Party Crasher(2)

The Party Crasher(2)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

   “But good dates?”

   “Yes, good dates.” I smile happily.

   “Excellent. OK, here we go…” She sets up her iPad on the dressing table and we both watch a whizzy title sequence reading The one and only…Tony Talbot! A still photo appears next, of Dad in his local Layton-on-Sea paper when he was eleven and won a maths prize. Next comes a graduation photo, followed by a wedding photo with our birth mother, Alison.

   I gaze at her pretty, wide-eyed face, feeling the weird sense of disconnect I always do when I see pictures of her, wishing I could feel more of a bond. I was only eight months old when she died and three when Dad married Mimi. It’s Mimi I remember singing to me when I was ill, baking cakes in the kitchen, being there, always. Mimi’s my mum. It’s different for Bean and Gus—they have dim memories of Alison. Whereas I have nothing except family resemblance, which, to be fair, I have big-time. We all take after her, with our wide faces, strong cheekbones, and eyes set well apart. I look permanently startled, and Bean’s big blue eyes always seem questioning. Meanwhile, Gus generally looks absent, as though he’s not paying attention. (Which is because he never is.)

       A series of old home videos begins on the screen, and I lean forward to watch. There’s Dad holding a baby Bean…a family picnic…Dad building a sandcastle for a toddler Gus…then a video I’ve seen before: Dad walking up to the door of Greenoaks and theatrically opening it, the day it became ours. He’s often said it was one of the biggest moments of his life to buy a house like this—“a boy from Layton-on-Sea made good,” as he puts it.

   Because Greenoaks isn’t just any old house. It’s amazing. It has character. It has a turret! It has a stained-glass window. Visitors often call it “eccentric” or “quirky” or just exclaim, “Wow!”

   And OK, yes, there might be those very few mean, misguided people who call it “ugly.” But they are blind and wrong. The first time I ever overheard Greenoaks described as a “monstrosity,” by a strange woman in the village shop, I was shocked to my core. My eleven-year-old heart burned with indignation. I’d never come across an architectural snob before; I didn’t know they existed. And I passionately loved everything about my home, everything that this unknown mean grown-up was mocking. From the so-called “ugly brickwork”—it is not ugly—to the mound. The mound is a slightly random steep hill that we have in the garden, to one side of the house. The woman laughed at that, too, and I wanted to yell, Well, it’s brilliant for bonfires, so there!

       Instead, I stalked out of the shop, throwing a resentful glance at Mrs. McAdam, who ran it. To her credit, she looked a bit shocked to see me and called out, “Effie, love, did you want to buy anything?” But I didn’t turn back, and I still don’t know who that mocking stranger was.

   Ever since then, I’ve watched people’s reactions to Greenoaks with a close eye. I’ve seen them step back and gulp as they survey it and scrabble for positive things to say. I’m not saying it’s a test of their character—but it’s a test of their character. Anyone who can’t find a single nice comment to make about Greenoaks is a mean snob and dead to me.

   “Effie, look, it’s you!” exclaims Bean, as a new video appears on the screen, and I peer at the toddler me, staggering around the lawn, holding an eight-year-old Bean’s hand. “Never mind, Effie,” she says cheerfully, as I tumble down. “Try again!” Mimi always says Bean taught me to walk. And ride a bike. And plait my hair.

   We’ve scooted straight past the dark year of Alison’s death, I register silently. This video is just of the happy times. Well, why not? Dad doesn’t need to be reminded of that. He found happiness with Mimi and he’s been content ever since.

   The buzzer rings, and Bean ignores it, but I look up, alert. I’m expecting a parcel with Mimi’s Christmas present in it. I arranged for it to arrive today especially, and I don’t want Mimi opening it by mistake.

       “Bean,” I say, pressing pause on the iPad screen, “will you come to the gate with me? I think that’s Mimi’s sewing cabinet arriving, and I want to bring it in secretly. But it’s quite big.”

   “Sure,” says Bean, closing the video down. “So, what do you think?”

   “Amazing,” I say emphatically. “Dad’s going to love it.”

   As we hurry down the stairs, Mimi is winding greenery around the banister. She looks up and smiles at us, but her face seems a bit strained. Perhaps she needs a holiday.

   “I’ll get the gate,” I say hurriedly. “It’s probably a package.”

   “Thanks, Effie, love,” says Mimi in her distinctive, soft, comforting Irish brogue. She’s wearing an Indian block-print dress, and her hair is caught back in a hand-painted wooden clasp. As I watch, she ties a deft knot with red velvet ribbon, and, needless to say, nothing collapses. Typical.

   As Bean and I crunch over the gravel drive to the big iron gates, the afternoon air is already taking on a wintery, dusky gloom. A white van is parked outside the gates, and a guy with a shaved head is holding a cardboard box.

   “That can’t be it,” I say. “Too small.”

   “Delivery for the Old Rectory,” says the guy as we open the pedestrian gate. “They’re not in. Mind taking it?”

   “Sure,” says Bean, reaching for it, and she’s about to scribble on his device when I grab her hand, stopping her.

   “Wait! Don’t just sign. I signed for a package for my neighbor and it was this glass vase which was broken, and they couldn’t get a refund because I’d signed, and they blamed me—” I stop breathlessly. “We need to check it first.”

       “It’s fine,” says the guy impatiently, and I feel my hackles rise.

   “You don’t know that.”

   I rip the lid open and draw out the invoice paper.

   “Yoga sculpture,” I read. “Assembly included.” I look up, feeling vindicated. “You see? It’s not fine! You’re supposed to assemble it.”

   “I’m not assembling nothing,” says the guy, giving a revolting sniff.

   “You have to,” I point out. “It says so on the paper. Assembly included.”

   “Yeah, right.”

   “Assemble it!” I insist. “We’re not signing for it till you do.”

   The guy glowers at me silently for a moment, rubbing his shaved head, then says, “You’re a stubborn pain in the arse. Has anyone ever told you that?”

   “Yes,” I reply, folding my arms. “Everyone.”

   “It’s true.” Bean nods, grinning. “You’d better assemble it. What’s a yoga statue, anyway?” she adds to me, and I shrug, nonplussed.

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