Surprise Me (Page 69)

My head is spinning like a kaleidoscope. Daddy. Dan. Joss Burton. That book, lying in Mummy’s kitchen. Dan’s tension. All the whispers, all the huddling … I knew there was something, I knew it …

‘Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?’ My voice bursts forth in a roar. ‘Why am I the only person sitting here who doesn’t know any of this?’

‘Darling,’ says Mummy hastily, ‘Daddy was appalled by this … this vicious slander. He didn’t want you hearing salacious, invented stories. We decided to keep the whole matter under wraps.’

‘And then, just as things were settled, your father died,’ puts in Roderick in a ponderous, heavy way. ‘And everything changed again.’

‘You were so fragile, Sylvie.’ Mummy reaches out a hand and squeezes mine. ‘You were so devastated. We couldn’t tell you. Any of us. Besides which, we thought the whole thing was over.’ She starts blinking again.

‘And isn’t it? No,’ I answer myself, thinking aloud. ‘Of course it’s not, otherwise why are you here?’ I stare around at the faces again, thoughts springing up in my brain so fast I can barely get them out. ‘Why’s Dan in Devon? What’s the “one million, maybe two”?’ I round on Mummy. ‘Is that to do with this? What’s been happening?’

‘Oh, sweetheart,’ says Mummy vaguely, her eyes swivelling away, and I quell a sharp response. She’s so frustrating.

‘Joss Burton has written another memoir,’ says Mary. ‘A “prequel”, describing her earlier life. She is adamant that this time she will describe her alleged relationship with your father. Apparently it is “key” to her story. It’s due to be published in a year’s time, when the film of Through the High Maze comes out.’

‘A film,’ says Mummy in distaste. ‘Who wants to watch a film about her?’

I bite back the retort, ‘Who wants to watch a story about a woman who overcame her demons to become a massive global businesswoman? Oh, no one, I should think.’

‘The new book will be very high profile,’ continues Mary. ‘Serialized in a national newspaper, no doubt. And your father’s name with it.’

‘Her advance is a million,’ puts in Roderick. ‘Although of course she says it’s not about the money, it’s about the truth.’

‘The truth!’ says Mummy, a vicious edge to her voice. ‘If this book is published, if your father is remembered for that … after all his charity work …’ Her voice rises shrilly. ‘It’s wicked! And anyway, how could she remember after all these years?’

‘So, why is Dan in Devon?’ I’m still looking from face to face. ‘I don’t understand—’

‘He’s talking to Joss Burton again,’ says Mummy, dabbing at her nose with a tiny lace handkerchief. ‘She lives in Devon.’

‘He went down on the sleeper train last night.’ Mary gives me a kind look. ‘I think one of the biggest strains for Dan in all of this has been keeping the truth from you.’

The sleeper train. I thought he was with his lover. When all the time …

My throat is suddenly clogged as I picture Dan getting on a train, all alone. Shouldering this, all alone. I stare into my tea, my eyes getting hot, trying to stay composed.

‘He never breathed a word,’ I say at last. ‘Not a word.’

‘His biggest concern, all along, has been that you might find out and “not cope”, as he put it,’ says Mary.

‘Have another … episode,’ puts in Roderick tactfully.

‘It wasn’t an “episode”!’ My voice rockets out, and I see Roderick exchanging startled looks with Mummy. ‘It wasn’t an episode or a breakdown or whatever everyone said,’ I say more calmly. ‘It was grief. Just that. Yes, I was devastated. But just because I found Daddy’s death hard to process … it doesn’t mean I was unstable. Dan worried about me too much. He was over-protective. Far too over-protective.’

‘We were all worried, darling!’ says Mummy defensively.

‘You were just worried I might embarrass you,’ I snap, and turn to Mary, who I sense is the most receptive to what I’m saying. ‘Dan had the best possible motives, and I don’t blame him … but he got it wrong. I could have coped and he should have told me. You all should have told me.’ I put my cup down on the coffee table with a bang. ‘So now I want to know. Everything.’

I meet Mary’s eyes, and I can see her taking the measure of me. At last she nods.

‘Very well. I’ll give you access to all the files. You’ll have to look at them here, in the office, but I can give you a room to sit in.’

‘Thank you.’ I match her businesslike tone.

‘Sylvie, darling.’ Mummy makes an anguished face. ‘I really wouldn’t. You really don’t need to know—’

‘I do!’ I cut her off furiously. ‘I’ve been living in a bubble. Well, now I’m stepping out of it. I don’t need protecting. I don’t need shielding. “Protect Sylvie” is over.’ I shoot a savage look around the room. ‘Over.’

I sit alone, reading and reading. My eyes blur over. My head starts to hurt. An assistant brings me three more cups of tea, but they all sit going cold, undrunk, because I’m too wrapped up in what I’m seeing; what I’m understanding. My head is a whirl. How can all this have been happening and I had no idea? What kind of blind, oblivious moron have I been?

Joss Burton used to go on holiday to Los Bosques Antiguos. That’s where she apparently met Daddy. None of this is in doubt. Her family genuinely did have a house there, very close to ours. Her parents did socialize with Mummy and Daddy. I don’t remember them, but then again, I was only three or four at the time.

Then there’s all the stuff she alleges: stuff about Daddy giving her presents, plying her with cocktails, leading her into the woods … and I couldn’t bring myself to read that properly. Just the idea of it made me feel ill. I skimmed just a few pages, taking in phrases here and there, and felt even more sickened. My father? With a naïve, inexperienced teenage girl, who’d never even …

Mary Smith-Sullivan was right. It’s not particularly easy reading.

So I hastened on to the emails, the present-day correspondence, the actual case. There are hundreds of emails in the files. Thousands, even. Daddy to Dan, Dan back to Daddy, Roderick to both of them, Dan to Mary, Mary back to Dan … And the more I read, the more shocked I am. Daddy’s emails are so abrupt. Demanding. Entitled. Dan is resolutely polite, resolutely charming, but Daddy … Daddy pushes him around. He expects Dan to drop everything. He swears at him when things go wrong. He’s a bully.

I can’t believe I’m having these thoughts about my father. My charming, twinkly father a bully? I mean, yes, he sometimes lost it with his staff … but never with his family.

Surely?

I keep reading, hoping desperately to discover the email where he’s appreciative. Where he thanks Dan for all his efforts. Where he gushes. He was a charming person. Where’s the charm here?

After 258 emails, I haven’t yet found it and my stomach is heavy. Everything makes horrible sense. This is why Dan’s relationship with Daddy deteriorated. Because Daddy dragged him into his problems and made them Dan’s and treated him like mud.