Home > The Party Crasher(3)

The Party Crasher(3)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

   “I’ll get my tools,” says the guy, now glowering at both of us. “But this is bollocks.”

   “It’s called being a good citizen,” I retort.

   After a minute he returns with his tools and we watch curiously as, with impatient huffs, he starts screwing together metal parts into…What is that, exactly? It’s some kind of representation of a person…no, two people, male and female, and they seem to slot together…What are they doing…?

       Hang on.

   Oh my God. My stomach rolls over and I glance at Bean, who seems transfixed. Does “yoga sculpture” actually mean “X-rated sex sculpture”?

   Okaaay. Yes, it does.

   And, quite frankly, I’m shocked! Andrew and Jane Martin wear matching padded waistcoats. They exhibit dahlias at the summer fete. How can they have ordered this?

   “Is his hand meant to go on her tit or her bum?” the guy queries, looking up. “There’s no instructions.”

   “I’m…not sure,” I manage.

   “Oh my God.” Bean comes to life as the guy pulls the final, most graphic male body part out of the box. “No! No way. Could you please stop a moment?” she adds shrilly to the guy. Then she turns to me and says in an agitated undertone, “We can’t take this round to the Martins. I’ll never be able to look them in the eye again!”

   “Me neither!”

   “We didn’t see this. OK, Effie? We did not see this.”

   “Agreed,” I say fervently. “Um, excuse me?” I turn back to the guy. “Slight change of plan. Do you think you could pack it all up again and put it back in the box?”

   “You are bleeding joking,” says the guy incredulously.

   “I’m sorry,” I say, in humble tones. “We didn’t know what it was.”

   “Thank you for your trouble,” adds Bean hastily. “And happy Christmas!” She reaches in her jeans pocket and finds a crumpled tenner, which mollifies the delivery guy slightly.

       “Bloody shambles,” he says, briskly unscrewing the parts again. “Make your bloody minds up.” He regards the naked female figure with disapproval. “Anyway, you ask me, she’ll give herself knee trouble, messing about like that. She wants a couple of pillows, cushion the joints.”

   I glance at Bean and away again.

   “Good idea,” I manage.

   “Can’t be too careful,” adds Bean, with a tremor in her voice.

   He stuffs the last metal body part back into the box and Bean scribbles on his electronic screen, and as he gets back into his van, we glance at each other again.

   “Knee trouble,” says Bean, her voice almost exploding.

   “The Martins!” I rejoin in slight hysteria. “Oh God, Bean, how will we ever talk to them again?”

   The van finally drives away, and we both dissolve into gales of laughter.

   “I’ll tape it up again,” says Bean. “They’ll never know we opened it.”

   She’s just reaching down to pick up the box when something catches my eye: a figure about ten meters away, walking toward us along the village road. It’s a figure I’d know anywhere, from the dark hair to the pale, strong chin to the long-legged stride. Joe Murran. And just the sight of him causes my hysteria to melt away. Instantly. As if it never happened.

   “What?” says Bean, catching my expression, and she turns. “Oh. Oh.”

   As he nears us, there’s a clenching in my heart. A python’s grip. I can’t breathe. Can I breathe? Oh, stop it, Effie. Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I can breathe. Come on. I can see my ex-boyfriend without actually perishing on the spot.

       “Are you OK?” murmurs Bean.

   “Of course!” I say quickly.

   “Right.” She sounds unconvinced. “Well, tell you what, I’ll take this box in and you two can…catch up.”

   As she disappears toward the front door, I instinctively take a step backward so that I’m standing on the gravel of the drive. On home territory. I feel like I need the ballast of home, of Greenoaks, of family love.

   “Oh, hi,” Joe says as he approaches, his eyes unreadable. “How are you?”

   “Fine.” I shrug nonchalantly. “How are you?”

   “Fine.”

   Joe’s eyes shoot to my neck, and I instinctively put a hand to my beaded necklace—then curse myself. I shouldn’t have reacted. I should have blanked him. What? Sorry? Did I once wear something around my neck with some kind of significance between us? Forgive me, I don’t quite remember the details.

   “Nice necklace,” he says.

   “Yes, Bean gave it to me,” I say carelessly. “So it’s quite special. You know. Meaningful. I love it, actually. I never take it off.”

   I could probably have stopped at Bean gave it to me. But I made my point, I can tell that from the look on Joe’s face.

   “Work going well?” he says, with stilted politeness.

   “Yes, thanks.” I match his politeness. “I’ve moved departments. I’m mostly organizing trade events now.”

   “Great.”

       “And you? Still aiming toward heart surgery?”

   I speak with deliberate vagueness, as though I’m not quite sure what stage of his medical career he’s at. As though I didn’t once sit with him, helping him study, till two in the morning.

   “That’s the plan.” He nods. “Getting there.”

   “Great.”

   We lapse into silence, Joe’s brow knitted in one of his customary intent frowns.

   “What about…” he begins at last. “Are you…with anyone?”

   His words are like salt on sore skin. What’s it to him? Why should he be interested? You don’t get to ask about my love life, Joe Murran, I want to retort hotly. But that would be giving myself away. Also, I have something to boast about.

   “Yes, I am with someone, actually,” I say, putting on my most dreamy expression. “He’s really great. So great. Good-looking, successful, kind, reliable…” I add pointedly.

   “Not Humph?” says Joe warily, and I feel a flicker of annoyance. Why does he have to bring up Humph? I went out with Humphrey Pelham-Taylor for three weeks as an act of revenge on Joe, and yes, it was petty, and yes, I regret it. But does he really think that Humph and I would ever have been a thing?

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