Read an Excerpt
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 angel 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 underpants?”
“Fine.” I untie the angel and step back. “I’ll brace the branch with a 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 afterward, he’d raised the money, he’d got the job done, and he’d survive. Dad was always exclaiming, “You’ll survive!” during our childhoods, 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 sweaters and cuff-links 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. Absentminded. 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’s opening 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 to buy 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!”