So what’s Surprise Me about? Well, Dan and Sylvie are a couple who decide to try and add some surprises into their marriage, to keep things interesting. Instead, they find themselves with life-changing shocks… It’s impossible to sum up a book in a few words – but in no particular order, this one is about: marriage, love, sex, Fitbits, surprises, shocks, racy underwear, Battersea Park, parents, death, life, old friends, new friends, misunderstandings, fear and bravery. It made me laugh and then it made me cry and I hope it does the same for you. I can’t wait for you to read it!
After being together for ten years, Sylvie and Dan have all the trimmings of a happy life and marriage; they have a comfortable home, fulfilling jobs, beautiful twin girls, and communicate so seamlessly, they finish each other’s sentences. However, a trip to the doctor reveals they could live another 68 years together… and panic sets in. They never expected ‘until death do us part’ to mean seven decades.
In the name of marriage survival, they quickly concoct a plan to keep their relationship fresh and exciting: they will create little surprises for each other so that their (extended) years together will never become boring.
But in their pursuit to execute Project Surprise Me, mishaps arise and secrets are uncovered that start to threaten the very foundation of their unshakeable bond. When a scandal from the past is revealed that questions some important untold truths, they begin to wonder if they ever really knew each other after all…
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 it 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.
FIVE 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’s 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.’ 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?’ ‘Easy.’ He nods.
‘Big-head,’ I retort.
‘Challenge accepted. You have paper?’
I always have paper and pens in my bag, because we’re always playing this game. I hand him a roller-ball 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-‘
‘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 baby-sitting’. 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.’
‘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… I mean 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 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 your 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 3.45pm 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 playdate 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 32, 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. Waist-length. 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 32…’ 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. Actually, 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 back at Dan.
‘But only three remaining parents?’
‘My father died in a car crash,’ I explain.
‘Ah.’ Dr Bamford’s eyes dim in 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 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 it 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 onto 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. 80? 85?’
‘I’d say 90,’ I chime I boldly. My granny died when she was 90, 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.
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!’
My smile kind of freezes. The air seems to have gone blurry. I’m not sure I can breathe properly.
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. ‘Sixty-eight years. Lucky… us.’
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