Number One bestselling author Sophie Kinsella returns with an irresistible new standalone about family love, family tensions and exactly what you might hear everyone saying if they didn't know you were there...
“I NEED MY RUSSIAN DOLLS. It’s not a question of ‘want’, I need them. If I close my eyes, I can see them vividly, smell their faint woody, homey smell. One with a crack on her head where Gus threw her at me mid-fight. One with a blue felt-tip mark, right across her floral apron. One with a water stain from when I tried to use her head as a cup. All loved; all cherished. The thought of never touching them again, never feeling them in my hands, never seeing their familiar faces, makes my stomach curdle with panic.
But right now they’re at Greenoaks, hidden up a chimney in the box room, which is where I stuffed them six months ago.
The irony being that I did that to keep them safe. Safe. We’d had a burglary here at the flat. Thankfully the dolls weren’t touched – we only lost a bit of cash – but it freaked me out. I decided my precious dolls would be better off safely cocooned in Greenoaks than in our Hackney place.
But I didn’t want to leave them lying around for Krista to get her mitts on. She was already in her clearing-out and freshening-up’ phase. She might easily have ‘freshened up’ my dolls into the bin. So I put them right away, in a hiding place that only I knew about.
At the back of my mind, I planned to retrieve them sometime. I was relaxed about it. I thought I had for ever. I didn’t foresee that I would stop visiting Greenoaks. Or that the house would be sold in such a rush. Or that I would be ‘anti-invited’ to the final family event there.
I guess everything in the house will go into storage – but the packers will never look up a chimney. The dolls will be left behind. The new people will redecorate, because that’s what people do. I can already see a burly contractor putting his hand up the chimney and pulling them out: What we got here then? Some old set of dolls. Chuck ’em on the skip, Bert.
The thought makes me cold with dread. I haven’t slept properly since that night I sat bolt upright in bed, which was five days ago. I have to get them.
Which is why I am going to the party tonight. But not as a guest. I’ve got it all planned. I’ll get in while everyone’s distracted by the festivities, creep to the box room, grab my dolls and leave. In, out, gone. I’ll be ten minutes, tops, and the only crucial things are: 1. No one must see me, and 2. Krista must definitely not see me.
‘Are my trainers squeaky?’ I ask, pumping them up and down on our dingy green kitchen lino as though I’m in a cardio class. ‘Can you hear anything?’
Temi looks up from scrolling on her phone and peers blankly down at my feet.
‘Your trainers ?’
‘I need to be silent. I can’t be caught out by a squeaky trainer. It’s quite essential,’ I add, as she doesn’t seem to be responding. ‘You know, you could help.’
‘OK, Effie, slow down.’ Temi lifts her hand. ‘You’re wired. Let me get this straight. You’re going to crash your own dad’s party. A party that you have, in fact, been invited to.’
‘I was anti-invited,’ I retort. ‘As you well know.’
I stretch out a hamstring, because I have a vague sense I’m going to need all my physical powers to pull this off. I won’t exactly be ziplining in, but . . . you know. I might have to get in through a window.
I’m wearing all black. Not chic party black, but Mission Impossible black, as befits my quest. Black leggings, top, trainers and black leather fingerless gloves. Black beanie, even though it’s June. I feel slightly hyper, slightly nervous and slightly like, if I pull this off I could be the next James Bond.
Temi looks at me and bites her lip.
‘Effie, you know, you could just go to the party.’
‘But then I’d have to “go to the party”,’ I retort, making a face. ‘I’d have to ask Krista for an invitation . . . and smile at her . . . It would be hideous.’
‘Couldn’t you ask Bean to get the dolls?’
‘I suppose. But I don’t want to ask her for a favour.’ I look away, because the subject of Bean is a bit sensitive.
Bean still thinks I should go to the party. In fact, we’ve kind of argued about it. (It’s hard to argue with Bean, as she keeps backtracking and apologizing even as she’s landing killer points – but we got close.) If I once let slip to her that I’m going to be in the vicinity of Greenoaks tonight, she’ll try to convince me to join the party again. She’ll make me feel guilty. And I don’t want to feel guilty. I want to get my dolls and go.
‘You should take a dress, at least,’ says Temi, surveying me. ‘You might change your mind and want to join in the fun. What if you get there and the food and drink look really great and you think, “Damn, why didn’t I just go to the party?” ’
‘What if you see someone you want to talk to?’
‘What if you get caught?’
‘Stop it!’ I protest. ‘You’re being so negative! I’ll never get caught. I know Greenoaks inside out. I know all the secret routes, all the attics, all the trap doors, all the hiding places . . .’
I can see myself now: sidling into the box room, a mysterious silhouetted figure. Grabbing the dolls in one seamless move. Clambering down a drainpipe and doing a forward roll on the lawn before I dash through the darkness to safety.
‘You want a partner in crime?’ says Temi, and I shake my head.
“But now I’m thinking of Joe. And that night, four years ago, when I returned from the States and everything imploded.”
‘Thanks, but I’ll be better going solo.’
‘Well, if you need me, I’m available. I’ll triangulate your position. Sort out a chopper for your escape.’
‘I’ll let you know.’ I grin at her.
‘What if you see Joe?’ Temi’s words catch me off-guard, and I hesitate. Because this has crossed my mind, too. Of course it has. Endlessly.
‘I won’t,’ I say. ‘So it’s fine.’
‘Hmm,’ says Temi sceptically. ‘When did you last see him?’
‘Couple of Christmases ago. He was walking past our gate. We chatted. No big deal.’
I head out of the kitchen before Temi can question me any further, sink down on the sofa in the sitting room and pretend to be checking my phone. But now I’m thinking of Joe. And that night, four years ago, when I returned from the States and everything imploded.
We’d always had insecurities about being high-school sweethearts. We both kept wondering, Is everyone right? Are we too young? So when an exchange programme to San Francisco came along at my work, it seemed the perfect opportunity for a trial break. We would spend six months apart and hardly even text each other. We would be free to date other people, explore life without each other. And then when I came back . . .
We never actually said it out loud, but we both knew it. We would commit.
The night before I left for the States, we went out for dinner at a posh restaurant that we really couldn’t afford, and Joe produced a tiny gift-wrapped parcel which made my nerves flutter, because his finances were pretty stretched.
‘I know you say you’re not a “big diamonds” kind of girl,’ he began and I felt a jab of alarm, thinking, Oh God, has he taken out a mortgage to pay for some stupid rock?
‘I’m really not,’ I replied hastily. ‘Really not. And you know, there are always refunds.’ I nodded at the parcel. ‘If you wanted to take that back, I wouldn’t mind. We could pretend this didn’t happen.’
Joe burst out laughing – and of course, I should have known he was cleverer than that.
‘So I went a different way,’ he continued, his eyes crinkling. ‘And I’m very proud to say I have bought you . . .’ He handed it over with a flourish. ‘The Smallest Diamond in the World. Trademark.’
I started laughing myself – partly in relief – and began to unwrap it.
‘It’d better be the smallest one in the world,’ I said, as I pulled the paper off a jewellery box. ‘Don’t be palming me off with “quite little”.’
‘It’s actually invisible to the naked eye,’ Joe replied, deadpan. ‘Luckily I took a microscope along with me when I bought it. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it exists.’
Joe could always make me laugh. And cry. Because as I opened the box and saw a little silver candle charm, with a tiny diamond for a flame, my eyes went misty.
‘That’s me,’ he said. ‘Burning steadily for you all the time you’re away.’
As I looked up, his eyes were sheeny too, but he was smiling resolutely, because we’d already vowed we weren’t going to be anything but upbeat tonight.
‘You have to have fun,’ I said. ‘With . . . you know. Other girls.’
‘What, have fun with girls?’
‘If you like.’ His eyes glinted. ‘In fact, great idea. Send me the photos.’
‘Seriously, Joe,’ I said. ‘This is our chance to . . .’ I broke off. ‘To know.’
‘I already know,’ he said quietly. ‘But yes. I get it. And I promise to have fun.’
I enjoyed San Francisco, I really did. I didn’t mope around or pine. I worked hard, I got a tan, I cut my hair differently, and I went out on dates with American men. They were nice. Polite. Funny. But they weren’t Joe. They couldn’t compete. And with every meh date, I felt more sure.
Joe and I were deliberately keeping our messages to a minimum, but sometimes, late at night, I would send him a photo of my candle charm, which was now hanging round my neck on a silver chain. And sometimes my phone would ping with a photo of a candle, burning on his desk. And I knew.
It was my idea to reunite in the tree house at Greenoaks on Midsummer’s Night, where we’d hung out so many times, over the years. I’d landed the day before, but I’d told Joe not to meet me at the airport. Airports are stressy, functional places and it’s never like the movies. Everyone watches you greeting each other and you’re always struggling with some extra carrier bag full of crap and then you have to get on the Tube. I was very much not up for that. So instead, we would have our grand reunion in the tree house at Greenoaks, under the midsummer sky. I didn’t tell any of the family, just took the train to Nutworth, crept round the house and into the field. It was going to be our precious secret encounter.
It took me a long time to realize he wasn’t coming. A stupidly, mortifyingly long time. I’d arrived early, jittery but exhilarated, wearing new underwear and a new dress and the tiny diamond candle. I had wine ready, tea lights, a rug, music, even a cake. At first, when he didn’t arrive, I wasn’t concerned. I swigged the wine and let my anticipation happily build.
After half an hour, I sent him a photo of my candle charm, but there was no reply. So I sent another, and got no reply to that, either, which is when I started to worry. Abandoning all restraint, I sent him a series of cheery texts, wondering if he’d forgotten the date? The arrangement? Everything we’d talked about? Then, slightly more desperately: was he OK???
“The following Christmas, when I was fairly sure I might bump into Joe, I did another childish thing that I knew would make him flinch.”
Then I started to panic. I’d been sitting there for nearly an hour. Joe’s not the naturally late type. I started to catastrophize. He was dead. Knocked down on his way to our reunion, holding a bunch of flowers. Or kidnapped. Or at the very least, trapped under heavy furniture.
Which is my only defence for what I did next, which was to go round to his mother’s house. Oh God. The memory still makes me cringe. Tottering up Isobel Murran’s path, almost hyperventilating with worry, tears brimming in my eyes, jamming my finger desperately on the bell.
I don’t know what I’d hoped for. Some happy, heart-warming scene in which it turned out Joe had been delayed by rescuing a kitten stuck up a tree.
Instead, Isobel opened the door in her towelling dressing gown. She’d been in the bath. The shame.
‘Effie!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’re back!’
But I was too frazzled even to return her smile.
I gabbled out my fears, and her surprise turned to alarm. She instantly fetched her phone, sent a text, and a few seconds later watched the reply come in.
It was her expression that confirmed to me the dark, unthinkable suspicion that had been lurking the whole way along. She looked embarrassed. Troubled. Pained. And worst of all, pitying.
‘Effie . . . he’s fine,’ she said softly, her whole face creased up, as though she could hardly bear to deliver the news that her son was not in fact dead or trapped under heavy furniture.
‘Right,’ I said, feeling nauseous. ‘Right. Sorry. I . . . I understand.’
The full enormity hadn’t hit me yet, but I had to get away. My legs were already stumbling backwards . . . but then I paused a moment.
‘Please don’t tell anyone,’ I begged, my voice husky. ‘Don’t tell my family. Mimi. Bean. They don’t know I’m here. Don’t tell, Isobel. Please.’
By now tears were streaming down my face, and Isobel looked nearly as distraught as me. She muttered, ‘He needs to talk to you. I don’t know what . . . I can’t understand what . . . Effie, come in. Let me give you a cup of tea. A drink.’
But I just shook my head mutely and backed away. I had to find somewhere dark and private, to digest the nightmare that seemed to be happening.
The worst thing was that I still had hope; I couldn’t help myself. It was the phone call half an hour later that finished me off. Joe rang. He apologized. He said he was sorry, about a hundred times. He told me he’d treated me badly, about a hundred times. He told me there was no excuse, about a hundred times.
What he didn’t tell me was why. Every time I asked why, he just said he was sorry. I couldn’t get past his blank, impenetrable wall of apology. But apology didn’t help me.
My distress turned to fury and I demanded a meeting – It’s the least you owe me – and so we had a dismal coffee the following day. But it was like talking to a witness in a court case. I didn’t even know where my warm, witty, loving Joe had gone.
In hollow tones, he said he hadn’t met anyone new, but he didn’t think he could commit. He’d panicked. He hadn’t meant to hurt me, although he realized that he had hurt me. If he said ‘I can’t even explain it myself, Effie’ once, he said it about six thousand times, his gaze fixed on the far wall.
You can take a guy to a coffee shop, but you can’t make him bare his soul. In the end we were going round and round in circles and I gave up, weary and defeated.
‘Well, it’s lucky you only gave me the smallest diamond in the world,’ I said as a savage parting shot. ‘I didn’t mind too much when I chucked it in the bin.’
It was a childish thing to say and I saw Joe flinch, but I didn’t care. In fact, it felt good.
Which is why, the following Christmas, when I was fairly sure I might bump into Joe, I did another childish thing that I knew would make him flinch. I hooked up with Humph Pelham-Taylor, our local aristo.
Humph lives five miles away from Nutworth and he’s properly posh. Family tree, checked shirts, old nanny still living with them, that kind of thing. He’d pursued me endlessly at school – I hadn’t been interested, obviously – but now here was my chance to get revenge on Joe.
I mean, it kind of worked. When I turned up to that year’s carol service, arm-in-arm with Humph, wearing a spectacular fake-fur hat, Joe did look pretty flabbergasted. And when I loudly exclaimed, ‘Humph, darling, you’re hilarious,’ I saw Joe do a double-take in disbelief. (To be fair, I saw quite a few people do a double-take in disbelief. Including Bean.)
But that’s all I achieved. One flabbergasted expression and one double-take, then radio silence. Joe left before the mulled-wine reception. We didn’t even exchange words.
And for that I had to put up with Humph’s braying voice and terrible kissing and alarming views on life. (‘I mean, women’s brains are smaller, Effie, that’s a scientific fact.’) Until I kindly parted ways with him on Boxing Day. We’d been together three weeks, but that was already too much.
We never slept together, a fact I often reiterate to myself. I found a list online – 10 excuses not to have sex – and went down them methodically, from ‘I’ve got a headache’ to ‘Your dog’s watching me.’ But we were an item, which was enough.
Of course, I regret it now. It was an immature thing to do. But then, I regret a lot of things, like believing that Joe and I would have grandchildren together one day.
Extracted from The Party Crasher by Sophie Kinsella, out now.
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