Home > The Party Crasher(4)

The Party Crasher(4)
Author: Sophie Kinsella

   “No, not Humph,” I say with elaborate patience. “His name’s Dominic. He’s an engineer. We met online and it’s going brilliantly. We’re so well matched. You know when it just works?”

   “Great,” says Joe, after a long pause. “That’s…I’m glad.”

       He doesn’t look glad. In fact, he looks kind of tormented. But that’s not my problem, I tell myself firmly. And he probably isn’t tormented at all. I thought I knew Joe Murran once, but I clearly didn’t.

   “Are you with anyone?” I ask politely.

   “No,” says Joe at once. “I’m…No.”

   We lapse into another silence, during which Joe hunches his shoulders, his hands thrust into his coat pockets.

   This conversation really isn’t working. I take a few deep breaths of the crisp winter air and feel sadness overcome me. On that awful night, two and a half years ago now, I didn’t just lose the love of my life. I lost the friend I’d had since we were both five years old. Joe grew up here; his mum is still headmistress of the village school. We were playmates. Then teenage boyfriend and girlfriend. Together through university. Young adults, planning to make a life together.

   But now we’re…what? Barely able to look each other in the eye.

   “Well,” says Joe at last. “Happy Christmas.”

   “Same. Happy Christmas.”

   I watch as he walks away, then turn and trudge back across the drive to the house, to find Bean hovering outside the front door.

   “Are you OK, Effie?” she asks anxiously. “Whenever you see Joe, you get all…prickly.”

   “I’m fine,” I say. “Let’s go in.”

   I’ve never told Bean about that night. Some things are just too raw to share. In fact, I try not to think about it, full stop.

   I need to focus on the here and now, I tell myself. All the good things. Decorating the tree. Christmas around the corner. All the family gathered together at Greenoaks. Feeling lighter already, I follow Bean inside, shutting the door firmly against the weather. I look forward to this day every single year, and I’m not letting anything spoil it. Least of all Joe Murran.

 

* * *

 

   —

       An hour later, my spirits are even higher, which might have something to do with the two glasses of mulled wine I’ve downed. We’ve finished the Christmas tree and are assembled in the kitchen around a propped-up iPad, watching the video that Bean and Gus made for Dad. I’m curled up in the ancient wicker chair in the corner in a contented haze, watching myself, aged four, in a smocked flowery dress made by Mimi. It’s a summer’s day on the screen and I’m sitting on a rug on the lawn, unstacking my Russian dolls and showing each one carefully to Dad.

   I turn to see if Dad’s enjoying it and he smiles back from his chair, toasting me with his glass of mulled wine. That’s a typical charming Dad gesture. My best friend, Temi, thinks Dad should have been an actor, and I know what she means. He has looks and poise and people are naturally drawn to him.

   “Ephelant, you were adorable when you were little,” says Bean fondly. My whole family calls me “Ephelant” when they’re not calling me Effie—it was my baby-word for elephant. No one ever calls me by my proper name, Euphemia (thank God) but then, no one calls Bean Beatrice, either, or Gus Augustus.

   “Yeah, shame you turned out like you did,” adds Gus, and I absently reply, “Ha ha,” without moving my eyes from the screen. I’m captivated by the sight of my pristine Russian dolls, new out of the box. I’ve still got them—five hand-painted wooden Matryoshka dolls that stack inside one another, with lustrous painted eyes, rosy cheeks, and serene smiles. They’re knocked about now and stained with felt tip, but they’re the most precious souvenir I have of my childhood.

       Where other children had a teddy, I had my dolls. I would take them apart, arrange them in rows, give them “conversations,” and talk to them. Sometimes they represented our family: two big parents and three smaller children, with me the tiniest doll of all. Sometimes they were different versions of me. Or else I gave them the names of friends from school and acted out the quarrels of the day. But more often they were just a form of worry beads. I would stack and unstack them, barely seeing them, letting the familiar ritual comfort me. In fact, I still do. They live by my bed to this day, and I sometimes reach for them when I’m stressed out.

   “Look at your dress,” Bean is saying now, gazing at the screen. “I want one!”

   “You could make one,” says Mimi. “I still have the pattern. There was an adult version too.”

   “Really?” Bean’s face lights up. “I’m definitely making that.”

   Yet again I marvel at how Bean has taken on Mimi’s creative mantle. They both sew and knit and bake. They can turn a space into a magical domain, with a velvet cushion here and a plate of oatmeal cookies there. Bean works at home in marketing, and even her office is beautiful, all hanging plants and art posters.

       I buy cushions and oatmeal cookies. I’ve even tried a hanging plant. But it never looks the same. I don’t have that flair. However, I have other skills. At least, I think I do. (Is being “a stubborn pain in the arse” a skill? Because that’s what I’m best at, apparently.)

   Our kitchen is the prime example of Mimi’s creativity, I think, my eyes drifting fondly over it. It’s not just a kitchen, it’s an institution. A work of art. Every cupboard is a panel of intricate forest, drawn in Sharpie, built up over the years. It all started with a tiny mouse that Mimi drew to cheer me up when I’d cut my knee, aged about three. She sketched the mouse in the corner of a cupboard, winked at me, and said, “Don’t tell Daddy.” I gazed at it, enchanted, unable to believe that she had drawn something so amazing, and on the furniture.

   A few weeks later, Gus was upset over something and she drew him a comical frog. Then, over the years, she added drawing after drawing, creating elaborate forest scenes. Trees to mark birthdays; animals at Christmas. She let us add our own little contributions too. We would draw them, holding our breath, feeling momentous. A butterfly…a worm…a cloud.

   The panels are pretty filled up with drawings now, but Mimi still squeezes in new touches now and again. Our kitchen is famous in the village, and it’s the first thing our friends want to see when they come over.

   “No one else has a kitchen like this!” I remember Temi gasping when she first saw it, aged eleven, and I immediately replied, bursting with pride, “No one else has a Mimi.”

       On the iPad screen now is a montage of Dad at various parties we’ve had over the years, and I feel waves of nostalgia as I watch Dad dressed up as Father Christmas when I was eight…Dad and Mimi in black tie, dancing at Bean’s eighteenth…So many happy family celebrations.

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