- Published: 5 July 2022
- ISBN: 9781529176889
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $22.99
The Party Crasher
I know I can do this, I know I can. Whatever anyone else says. It’s just a matter of perseverance.
‘Effie, I already told you, that angel won’t stay,’ says my big sister Bean, coming up to watch me with a glass of mulled wine in her hand. ‘Not in a million years.’
‘It will.’ Firmly I continue wrapping twine round our beloved silver ornament, ignoring the pine needles pricking my hand.
‘It won’t. Just give up! It’s too heavy!’
‘I’m not giving up!’ I retort. ‘We always have the silver angel on the top of the Christmas tree.’
‘But this tree is about half the size of the ones we normally have,’ points out Bean. ‘Haven’t you noticed? It’s really spindly.’
I briefly survey the tree, standing in its usual alcove in the hall. Of course I’ve noticed it’s small. We usually have a huge, impressive, bushy tree, whereas this one is pretty puny. But that’s not my concern right now.
‘This will work.’ I tie my final knot with a flourish, then let go – whereupon the whole branch collapses, the angel swings upside down and her skirt falls over her head, exposing her knickers. Drat.
‘Well, that looks super-festive,’ says Bean, snorting with laughter. ‘Shall we write “Happy Christmas” on her pants?’
‘Fine.’ I untie the angel and step back. ‘I’ll brace the branch with a wooden stick or something.’
‘Just put something else on top of the tree!’ Bean sounds half amused, half exasperated. ‘Effie, why are you always so stubborn?’
‘I’m not stubborn, I’m persistent.’
‘You tell ’em, Effie!’ chimes in Dad, passing by with a bundle of fairy lights in his arms. ‘Fight the good fight! Never say die!’
His eyes are twinkling and his cheeks are rosy, and I smile back fondly. Dad gets it. He’s one of the most tenacious people I know. He was brought up in a tiny flat in Layton-on-Sea by a single mother, and he went to a really rough school. But he persevered, got to college and then joined an investment firm. Now he is where he is: retired, comfortable, happy, all good. You don’t achieve that by giving up at the first hurdle.
OK, so his tenacity can sometimes segue into irrational obstinacy. Like that time he wouldn’t give up on a charity 10K run, even though he was limping and it turned out he’d torn a calf muscle. But as he said afterwards, he’d raised the money, he’d got the job done, and he’d survive. Dad was always exclaiming ‘You’ll survive!’ during our childhood, which was sometimes cheering and sometimes bracing and sometimes totally unwelcome. (Sometimes you don’t want to hear that you’ll survive. You want to peer at your bleeding knee and wail and have someone say kindly, ‘There, there, aren’t you brave?’)
Dad had obviously been at the mulled wine before I even arrived today – but then, why not? It’s Christmastime and it’s his birthday and it’s decorating day. It’s always been our tradition, to decorate the tree on Dad’s birthday. Even now we’re all grown-up, we come back to Greenoaks, our family home in Sussex, every year.
As Dad disappears into the kitchen, I edge closer to Bean and lower my voice. ‘Why did Mimi get such a small tree this year?’
‘Don’t know,’ says Bean after a pause. ‘Just being practical, maybe? I mean, we’re all adults now.’
‘Maybe,’ I say, dissatisfied by this answer. Our stepmother, Mimi, is artistic and creative and full of quirky whims. She’s always loved Christmas decorating, the bigger the better. Why would she suddenly decide to be practical? Next year, I’ll go tree shopping with her, I decide. I’ll remind her subtly that we always have a massive tree at Greenoaks and there’s no reason to stop that tradition, even if Bean is thirty-three and Gus is thirty-one and I’m twenty-six.
‘At last!’ Bean interrupts my thoughts, peering at her phone.
‘Gus. He’s just sent over the video. Talk about cutting it fine.’
About a month ago, Dad said he didn’t want presents this year. As if we were going to take any notice of that. But to be fair, he does have a lot of jumpers and cufflinks and things, so we decided to be creative. Bean and Gus have put together a video montage, which Gus has been finalizing, and I’ve done my own surprise project, which I can’t wait to show Dad.
‘I expect Gus has been pretty busy with Romilly,’ I say, winking at Bean, who grins back.
Our brother Gus has recently landed this amazing girlfriend called Romilly. And we’re not surprised, we’re definitely not surprised, but . . . well. The thing is, he’s Gus. Absent-minded. Vague. He’s handsome in his own way, very endearing, and very good at his job in software. But he’s not exactly what you’d call ‘alpha’. Whereas she’s some kind of amazing powerhouse with perfect hair and chic sleeveless dresses. (I‘ve looked her up online.)
‘I want to have a quick look at the video,’ says Bean. ‘Let’s go upstairs.’ As she leads the way up the stairs, she adds, ‘Have you wrapped up your present for Dad?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘Only I brought some extra wrapping paper, just in case you needed it, and ribbon. I’ve ordered the hamper for Aunt Ginny, by the way,’ she adds. ‘I’ll tell you what you owe me.’
‘Bean, you’re brilliant,’ I say fondly. Which she is. She’s always thinking ahead. She’s always getting stuff done.
‘Oh, and something else.’ Bean delves into her bag as we reach the landing. ‘They had a three-for-two offer.’
She hands me a Vitamin D spray, and I bite my lip, trying not to laugh. Bean is turning into this crazed health-and-safety officer. Last year she kept getting me cod-liver-oil capsules and before that it was green tea powder.
‘Bean, you don’t need to buy me vitamins! I mean, thanks,’ I add belatedly.
We head into her room and I look around it affectionately. It’s been the same since I can remember, with the hand-painted furniture she’s had since she was five – twin white wooden beds, a chest, wardrobe and dressing table, all decorated with Peter Rabbit. Throughout our childhood she kept intending to upgrade to something cooler, but she could never quite bear to say goodbye to it, so it’s still here. I associate it so strongly with her, I can’t even see Peter Rabbit without thinking ‘Bean’.
‘Did you think of inviting Dominic along today?’ asks Bean as she opens up her iPad, and I feel a glow at the sound of his name.
‘No, it’s a bit early for “meet the family”. We’ve only had a few dates.’
‘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, buying 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 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 through the bannisters. 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 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 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 neighbour 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. ‘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.’
‘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.
‘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?
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!’
‘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 take it all apart 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.’
Charlie’s ugly Crocs stuck to the mats on the floor behind the bar, making a sticky, squelching sound.
All souls are special. Son or daughter, Grimm or not, Life touches her spirit to every one of her creations.
Back in his den with the cocoa he settles into the beanbag chair bequeathed to him by a departing student the year before.
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life
It began with the allocating of luck, our bodies pinballs inside a machine. It was the year of overlapping adolescences, when the girls started to faint and grow tall.
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low – for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love.