Sur­prise Me,

Fairlady - - BOOK EXTRACT - by So­phie Kin­sella (Pen­guin Ran­dom House)


I have this se­cret lit­tle vo­cab­u­lary for my hus­band. Words I’ve in­vented, just to de­scribe him. I’ve never even told him about them: they just pop into my head, now and then. Like…

Scrub­cious: the adorable way he scrunches up his face when he’s con­fused, his eye­brows akimbo, his gaze im­plor­ing, as if to say: ‘Ex­plain!’ Dan doesn’t like to be con­fused. He likes ev­ery­thing straight. Clear. Out in the open.

Ten­tery: that taut, de­fen­sive way he be­haves when­ever the sub­ject of my fa­ther comes up in con­ver­sa­tion. (He thinks I don’t no­tice.)

Shoffed: when life has turned round and punched him in the face

so hard, his breath is lit­er­ally taken away for a mo­ment.

Ac­tu­ally, that’s more of an all-pur­pose word. It can ap­ply to any­one. It can ap­ply to me. Right now, it does ap­ply to me. Be­cause guess what? I’m shoffed. My lungs have frozen. My cheeks are tin­gling. I feel like an ac­tor in a day­time soap, and here’s why: 1. I’m prowl­ing around Dan’s of­fice, when 2. he’s out at work, obliv­i­ous to what I’m do­ing, and 3. I’ve opened a se­cret locked drawer in his desk, and 4. I can’t be­lieve what I’ve found; what I’m hold­ing; what I’m see­ing.

My shoul­ders are ris­ing and fall­ing as I stare at it. My brain is shout­ing pan­icky mes­sages at me, like: What? And: Does that mean…? And: Please. No. This is wrong. This has to be wrong. And, al­most worst of all: Was Tilda right, all along? Did I bring this on my­self?

I can feel ris­ing tears, mixed with ris­ing in­credulity. And ris­ing dread. I’m not sure yet which is win­ning. Ac­tu­ally, yes I am. In­credulity is win­ning and it’s join­ing forces with anger.

‘Re­ally?’ I feel like shout­ing. ‘Re­ally, Dan?’

But I don’t. I just take some pho­tos with my phone, be­cause… just be­cause. Might come in use­ful. Then I put what I found back, shut the drawer, lock it care­fully, check it again (I’m slightly OCD over locked doors, turned-off wash­ing ma­chines, that kind of thing; I mean, not a big deal, I’m not crazy, just a bit… you know) and back away, as though from the crime scene.

I thought I knew ev­ery­thing about my hus­band and he knew ev­ery­thing about me. I’ve seen him cry at Up. I’ve heard him shout, ‘I will van­quish you!’ in his sleep. He’s seen me wash out my knick­ers on hol­i­day (be­cause ho­tel laun­dry costs are ridicu­lous) and he’s even hung them up for me on the towel rail. We’ve al­ways been that cou­ple. Blended. In­ter­twined. We read each other’s thoughts. We fin­ished each other’s sen­tences. I thought we couldn’t sur­prise each other any more.

Well, that shows how much I knew.

5 weeks ear­lier

It be­gins on our tenth an­niver­sary. Who would have thought?

Ac­tu­ally, there are two things go­ing on here: 1. Who would have thought it would all kick off on such an aus­pi­cious day? And 2. Who would have thought we’d make ten years in the first place?

By ten years, I don’t mean ten years since our wed­ding. I mean ten years since we first met. It was at my mate Ali­son’s birth­day party. That was the day our lives changed for­ever.

Dan was man­ning the bar­be­cue and I asked him for a burger and… bam.

Well, not bam as in in­stant love. Bam as in I thought, Mmm. Look at those eyes. Look at those arms. He’s nice. He was wear­ing a blue T-shirt which brought out his eyes. He had a chef’s apron round his waist, and he was flip­ping burg­ers re­ally ef­fi­ciently. Like he knew what he was do­ing. Like he was king of the burg­ers.

The funny thing is, I’d never have thought ‘abil­ity to flip burg­ers’ would have been on the list of at­tributes I was look­ing for in a man. But there you go. Watch­ing him work that bar­be­cue, cheer­fully smil­ing all the while… I was im­pressed.

So I went to ask Ali­son who he was (‘old uni friend, works in prop­erty, re­ally nice guy’) and made flirty con­ver­sa­tion with him. And when that didn’t yield any re­sults, I got Ali­son to in­vite us both to sup­per. And when that didn’t work, I bumped into him in the City ‘by ac­ci­dent’, twice, in­clud­ing once in a very low-cut top (al­most hooker-like, but I was get­ting a bit des­per­ate). And then fi­nally, fi­nally he no­ticed me and asked me out and it was love at, you know, about fifth sight.

In his de­fence (he says now) he was get­ting over an­other re­la­tion­ship, and wasn’t re­ally ‘out there’. Also: we have slightly edited this story when we tell other peo­ple. Like, the low-cut hooker top. No one needs to know about that.

Any­way. Rewind to the point: our eyes met over the bar­be­cue and that was the be­gin­ning. One of those kismet mo­ments that in­flu­ence your life for­ever. A mo­ment to cher­ish.

A mo­ment to mark, a decade later, with lunch at the Bar.

We like the Bar. It has great food and we love the vibe. Dan and I like a lot of the same things, ac­tu­ally – films, stand-up com­edy, walks – al­though we have healthy dif­fer­ences too. You’ll never see me get­ting on a bike for ex­er­cise, for ex­am­ple. And you’ll never see Dan do­ing Christ­mas shop­ping. He has no in­ter­est in presents, and his birth­day be­comes an ac­tual tus­sle. (Me: ‘You must want some­thing. Think.’

Dan (hunted): ‘Get me… er… I think we’re out of pesto. Get me a jar of that.’

We’re very lucky to be here, still to­gether. I know that. A few other cou­ples we know who started off around the same time as us weren’t so for­tu­nate.

Me: ‘A jar of pesto? For your birth­day?’)

A woman in a black dress shows us to our ta­ble and presents us with two large grey fold­ers.

‘It’s a new menu,’ she tells us. ‘Your wait­ress will be with you shortly.’

A new menu! As she leaves, I look up at Dan and I can see the un­mis­tak­able spark in his eye.

‘Oh, re­ally?’ I say teas­ingly. ‘You think?’ He nods. ‘Easy.’ ‘Big-head,’ I re­tort. ‘Chal­lenge ac­cepted. You have pa­per?’ ‘Of course.’ I al­ways have pa­per and pens in my bag, be­cause we’re al­ways play­ing this game. I hand him a roller­ball and a page torn out of my note­book, and take the same for my­self. ‘OK,’ I say. ‘Game on.’ The pair of us fall silent, de­vour­ing the menu with our eyes. There’s both bream and tur­bot, which makes things tricky… but even so, I know what Dan’s go­ing to order. He’ll try to dou­ble-bluff me, but I’ll still catch him out. I know just how his mind weaves and winds.

‘Done.’ Dan scribbles a few words on the page and folds it over.

‘Done!’ I write my an­swer and fold my own pa­per over, just as our wait­ress ar­rives at the ta­ble.

‘Would you like to order drinks?’

‘Ab­so­lutely, and food too.’ I smile at her. ‘I’d like a Ne­groni, then the scal­lops and the chicken.’

‘A gin and tonic for me,’ says Dan, when she’s fin­ished writ­ing. ‘Then the scal­lops also, and the bream.’

The wait­ress moves away and we wait till she’s out of earshot. Then:

‘Got you!’ I push my piece of pa­per to­wards Dan. ‘Al­though I didn’t say G & T. I thought you’d have cham­pagne.’

‘I got ev­ery­thing. Slam dunk.’ Dan hands me his pa­per, and I see Ne­groni, scal­lops, chicken in his neat hand.

‘Damn!’ I ex­claim. ‘I thought you’d guess lan­goustines.’

‘With po­lenta? Please.’ He grins and re­freshes my wa­ter.

‘I know you nearly put tur­bot.’ I can’t help show­ing off, prov­ing how well I know him. ‘It was be­tween that and the bream, but you wanted the saf­fron fen­nel that came with the bream.’ Dan’s grin widens. Got him. ‘By the way,’ I add, shak­ing my nap­kin out, ‘I spoke to—’ ‘Oh good! What did she—’ ‘It’s fine.’ ‘Great.’ Dan sips his wa­ter, and I men­tally tick that topic off the list.

A lot of our con­ver­sa­tions are like this. Over­lap­ping sen­tences and half-thoughts and short­hand. I didn’t need to spell out ‘I spoke to Karen, our nanny, about babysit­ting’. He knew. It’s not that we’re psy­chic ex­actly, but we do tend to sense ex­actly what each other is go­ing to say next.

‘Oh, and we need to talk about my mum’s—’ he says, sip­ping his drink.

‘I know. I thought we could go straight on from—’ ‘Yes. Good idea.’ Again: we don’t need to spell out that we need to talk about his mum’s birth­day gath­er­ing and how we could go straight on from the girls’ bal­let les­son. We both know. I pass him the bread bas­ket know­ing that he’ll take the sour­dough, not be­cause he likes it par­tic­u­larly, but be­cause he knows I love fo­cac­cia. That’s the kind of man Dan is. The kind who lets you have your favourite bread.

Our drinks ar­rive and we clink glasses. We’re both pretty re­laxed this lunchtime, be­cause we’ve got the af­ter­noon off. We’re re­new­ing our health in­surance, and so we both need a med­i­cal, which is slated for later on to­day.

‘So, ten years.’ I raise my eye­brows. ‘Ten years.’ ‘Un­be­liev­able.’ ‘We made it!’ Ten years. It’s such an achieve­ment. It feels like a moun­tain that we’ve scram­bled to the top of. I mean, it’s a whole decade. Three house moves, one wed­ding, one set of twins, about twenty sets of Ikea shelves… it’s prac­ti­cally a life­time.

And we’re very lucky to be here, still to­gether. I know that. A few other cou­ples we know who started off around the same time as us weren’t so for­tu­nate. My friend Na­dia was mar­ried and di­vorced within three years. Just didn’t take.

I look lov­ingly at Dan’s face – that face I know so well, with its high cheek­bones, sprin­kling of freck­les and healthy glow from all the cy­cling he does. His sandy, springy hair. His blue eyes. His air of dy­namism, even sit­ting here at lunch.

He’s look­ing at his phone now, and I glance at mine, too.

We don’t have a no-phone rule on dates be­cause who can go a whole meal with­out look­ing at their phone?

‘Oh, I got you some­thing,’ he says sud­denly. ‘I know it’s not a real an­niver­sary, but what­ever…’

He pro­duces a gift-wrapped ob­long and I al­ready know it’s that book about tidy­ing your house that I’ve been mean­ing to read.

‘Wow!’ I ex­claim as I un­wrap it. ‘Thanks! And I got you a lit­tle some­thing, too…’

He’s al­ready smil­ing know­ingly as he feels the heft of the pack­age. Dan col­lects pa­per­weights, so when­ever he has a birth­day or a spe­cial thing, I get him one. (As well as a jar of pesto, ob­vi­ously.) It’s safe. No, not safe, that sounds bor­ing and we’re def­i­nitely not bor­ing. It’s just… Well. I know he’ll like it and why waste money on tak­ing a chance? ‘Do you love it?’ ‘I love it.’ He leans over to kiss me, and whis­pers, ‘I love you.’

‘Love that Dan,’ I whis­per back.

By 3.45 p.m. we’re sit­ting in a doc­tor’s surgery, feel­ing pretty mar­vel­lous about ev­ery­thing, in the way you only can when you’ve got the af­ter­noon off work, your chil­dren are at a play date af­ter school, and you’re stuffed with amaz­ing food.

We’ve never met Dr Bam­ford be­fore – the in­surance com­pany chose him – and he’s quite a char­ac­ter. He brings us both into the room to­gether, for a start, which seems un­con­ven­tional. He does our blood pres­sure, asks us a bunch of ques­tions and looks at the re­sults of the fit­ness tests we did ear­lier. Then, as he writes on our forms, he reads aloud in a rather the­atri­cal voice.

‘Mrs Win­ter, a charm­ing lady of thirty-two, is a non-smoker with healthy eat­ing habits…’

Dan shoots me a com­i­cal look at ‘healthy eat­ing habits’ and I pre­tend not to no­tice. To­day’s our an­niver­sary – it’s dif­fer­ent. And I had to have that dou­ble choco­late mousse. I no­tice my re­flec­tion in a glass cup­board door and im­me­di­ately sit up straighter, pulling in my stom­ach.

I’m blonde, with long, wavy hair. I mean re­ally long. Waistlength. Ra­pun­zel style. It’s been long ever since I was a child, and I can’t bear to cut it. It’s kind of my defin­ing fea­ture, my long blonde hair. It’s my thing. And my fa­ther adored it. So. Our twin girls are also blonde, and I make the most of it by putting them in adorable Scandi stripy tops and pinafores. At least I did un­til this year, when they both de­cided they love foot­ball more than any­thing, and want to live in their lurid blue ny­lon Chelsea shirts. I’m not blam­ing Dan. Much.

‘Mr Win­ter, a pow­er­ful man of thirty-two…’ Dr Bam­ford be­gins on Dan’s med­i­cal form and I sti­fle a snort. ‘Pow­er­ful’. Dan will love that.

I mean, he works out; we both do. But you wouldn’t call him mas­sive. He’s just… he’s right. For Dan. Just right.

‘… and there we are. Well done!’ Dr Bam­ford fin­ishes writ­ing and looks up with a toothy grin. He wears a toupee, which I no­ticed as soon as we walked in, but have been very care­ful not to look at. My job in­volves rais­ing funds for Wil­loughby House, a very tiny, niche mu­seum in cen­tral Lon­don. I of­ten deal with wealthy older pa­trons, and I come across a lot of toupees: some good, some bad.

No, I take it back. They’re all bad.

‘What a de­light­ful, healthy cou­ple.’ Dr Bam­ford sounds ap­prov­ing, as though he’s giv­ing us a good school re­port.

‘How long have you been mar­ried?’

‘Seven years,’ I tell him. ‘And we dated for three be­fore that. It’s ten years ex­actly since we met!’ I clutch Dan’s hand with a sud­den swell of love. ‘Ten years to­day!’

‘Ten years to­gether,’ af­firms Dan.

‘Con­grat­u­la­tions! And that’s quite a fam­ily tree the pair of you have.’

Dr Bam­ford is look­ing at our pa­per­work. ‘All grand­par­ents still alive, or else died at a very good age.’

‘That’s right.’ Dan nods. ‘Mine are all still alive and kick­ing and Sylvie’s still got one pair go­ing strong, in the south of France.’

‘They’re pick­led in Pernod,’ I say, smil­ing at Dan.

‘But only three re­main­ing par­ents?’

‘My fa­ther died in a car crash,’ I ex­plain.

‘Ah.’ Dr Bam­ford’s eyes dim in

‘How long have you been mar­ried?’ ‘Seven years,’ I tell him. ‘And we dated for three be­fore that. It’s ten years ex­actly since we met!’ I clutch Dan’s hand with a sud­den swell of love. ‘Ten years to­day!’

sym­pa­thy. ‘But oth­er­wise he was healthy?’

‘Oh, yes. Very. Ex­tremely. He was su­per-healthy. He was amaz­ing. He was…’

I can’t help it, I’m al­ready reach­ing for my phone. My fa­ther was so hand­some. Dr Bam­ford needs to see, to re­alise. When I meet peo­ple who never knew my fa­ther I feel a weird kind of rage al­most, that they never saw him, never felt that firm, in­spir­ing hand­shake, that they don’t un­der­stand what has been lost.

He looked like Robert Red­ford, peo­ple used to say. He had that glow. That charisma. He was a golden man, even as he aged, and now he’s been taken from us. And even though it’s been two years, I still wake up some days and just for a few sec­onds I’ve for­got­ten, un­til it hits me in the guts again.

Dr Bam­ford stud­ies the photo of my fa­ther and me. It’s from my child­hood – I found the print af­ter he died and I scanned it into my phone. My mother must have taken it. Daddy and I are sit­ting out­side on the ter­race of my old fam­ily home, un­der­neath the mag­no­lia. We’re laugh­ing at some joke I don’t re­mem­ber and the dap­pled sum­mer sun is bur­nish­ing both our fair heads.

I watch Dr Bam­ford care­fully for his re­ac­tion, want­ing him to ex­claim, ‘What a ter­ri­ble loss to the world, how did you bear it?’

But of course he doesn’t. The longer you’ve been be­reaved, I’ve no­ticed, the more muted the re­ac­tion you’ll get from the av­er­age stranger. Dr Bam­ford just nods.

Then he hands the phone back and says, ‘Very nice. Well, you clearly take af­ter your healthy rel­a­tives. Bar­ring ac­ci­dents, I pre­dict nice long lives for both of you.’

‘Ex­cel­lent!’ says Dan. ‘That’s what we want to hear!’

‘Oh, we’re all liv­ing far longer these days.’ Dr Bam­ford beams kindly at us.

‘That’s my field of in­ter­est, you know, longevity. Life ex­pectancy is go­ing up ev­ery year. But the world re­ally hasn’t cot­toned on to the fact. The gov­ern­ment… in­dus­try … pen­sion com­pa­nies… none of them has prop­erly caught up.’ He laughs gen­tly. ‘How long, for ex­am­ple, do you ex­pect to live, the pair of you?’

‘Oh.’ Dan hes­i­tates. ‘Well… I don’t know. Eighty? Eighty-five?’

‘I’d say ninety,’ I chime in boldly. My granny died when she was ninety, so surely I’ll live as long as her?

‘Oh, you’ll live be­yond a hun­dred,’ says Dr Bam­ford, sound­ing as­sured. ‘A hun­dred and two, maybe. You…’ He eyes Dan. ‘Maybe shorter. Maybe a hun­dred.’

‘Life ex­pectancy hasn’t gone up that much,’ says Dan scep­ti­cally.

‘Av­er­age life ex­pectancy, no,’ agrees Dr Bam­ford. ‘But you two are way above av­er­age in health terms. You look af­ter your­selves, you have good genes… I fully be­lieve that you will both hit one hun­dred. At least.’

He smiles benev­o­lently as though he’s Fa­ther Christ­mas giv­ing us a present. ‘Wow!’ I try to imag­ine my­self aged 102. I never thought I’d live that long. I never thought about life ex­pectancy, full stop. I’ve just been go­ing with the flow.

‘That’s some­thing!’ Dan’s face has bright­ened. ‘A hun­dred years old!’

‘I’ll be a hun­dred and two,’ I counter with a laugh. ‘Get me with my su­per-long life!’

‘How long did you say you’ve been mar­ried?’ says Dr Bam­ford. ‘Seven years?’

‘That’s right.’ I beam at him. ‘To­gether for ten.’

‘Well, just think what good news this is.’ Dr Bam­ford twin­kles in de­light. ‘You should have an­other sixty-eight more won­der­ful years of mar­riage!’ Wh— What? My smile kind of freezes. The air seems to have gone blurry.

I’m not sure I can breathe prop­erly. Sixty-eight? Did he just say… Sixty-eight more years of mar­riage? To Dan?

I mean, I love Dan and ev­ery­thing, but… Sixty-eight more years? ‘I hope you’ve got plenty of cross­word puz­zles to keep you go­ing!’ The doc­tor chor­tles mer­rily. ‘You might want to save up some of your con­ver­sa­tions. Al­though there’s al­ways the TV!’ Clearly he thinks this is hi­lar­i­ous. ‘There are al­ways box sets!’

I smile weakly back and glance at Dan to see if he’s ap­pre­ci­at­ing the joke. But he seems in a trance. He’s dropped his empty plas­tic wa­ter glass on the floor with­out even notic­ing. His face is ashen. ‘Dan.’ I nudge his foot. ‘Dan!’ ‘Right!’ He comes to, and gives me a ric­tus smile.

‘Isn’t that great news?’ I man­age. ‘Sixty-eight more years to­gether! That’s just… I mean… Lucky us!’

‘Ab­so­lutely,’ says Dan in a stran­gled, des­per­ate voice. ‘Six­tyeight years. Lucky… us.’

Did he just say… Sixty-eight more years of mar­riage? To Dan? I mean, I love Dan and ev­ery­thing, but…

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