The chocolates are individually boxed inside a glossy case. Fourteen beauties, each with the name of the evil it represents printed on its lid. ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ – the coolest party gift of last Christmas, now sadly discontinued.
Which is why I was both surprised and delighted earlier this evening when Pete’s new girlfriend, Hannah, handed me the box.
‘Where did you manage to get these? I asked.
She mumbled something about a shop near her apartment in Bath.
I eye up the golden box now sitting amongst dirty dishes on the kitchen unit. ‘Gluttony’ (dark caramel with raspberry) hadn’t disappointed and, since Pete and Hannah went for ‘Envy’ and ‘Greed’, there’s still one Gluttony left, which I shall devour with the rest of the Merlot once I’ve finished cleaning up. Not that I haven’t had enough. I’m feeling quite Merlot-infused. Weird thoughts are taking shape. Hannah.. A shop in bath.. Discontinued range.
I rip off my rubber gloves and concentrate, visualising last year’s staircase-incident: my stuffed Waitrose bag, a loose lid on a beetroot jar, the dreaded burgundy liquid splashed across groceries and doormat.
It can’t be, surely?
I wipe my latex-damp hands on a tea towel and grab the box, narrowing my eyes as I flip it over with one hand. On the golden sticker at the back, the ever so tiny burgundy spot is barely visible. But it’s there. The stubborn mark I hadn’t been able to wipe off before handing ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to my new neighbour. Almost one year ago.
Blimey! I have been given my own Seven Deadly Sins! By Hannah, who is just in from the West Country and doesn’t know anybody I know, other than Pete, to whom I’ve never given chocolates.
Textbook re-gifting, come full circle. Perhaps it’s the wine, perhaps it’s the low-budget movies I’ve been playing in the background whilst wrapping presents for the last week, but I’m starting to envisage Christmas miracles and sleigh-rides across a dark winter sky with real-life Santas dropping good-looking boyfriends outside random shopping destinations.
Michael Bublé contributes to my seasonal delusions as he gears up for what must be the evening’s tenth performance of ‘Ave Maria’ and I slide down the wall, settling on the floor. My brain is in and out between clear and hazy as I guzzle the rest of the Merlot and wolf the second ‘Gluttony’ and two ‘Prides’. An idea is cooking in my brain, stirred by something my mother always tells her Labrador: ‘Don’t eat that, Claude. You don’t know where it’s been.’
The Spyclever section at Harrods is a concession that sells Coke cans doubling as purses and biros with miniature cameras. A domain previously reserved for James Bond, now accessible to women investigating travelling chocolate. Amongst the gadgets, I find a miniature tracker. Not cheap. But like James, I am on a mission.
This metal device, roughly the size of the security tags on expensive toiletries, comes with a monitor similar to the GPS systems found in cars. As I stare into the box with its user’s manual and bits of kit, the Swedish saleswoman ensures me that it’s easy to operate.
‘You can place it on the bottom of a shoe, under a car, anything,’ she says. ‘Nobody’s going to know.’ She goes on to demonstrate the map where a red cursor indicates the whereabouts of the tracker and its direction and area of travel, including buildings, postcodes and street names.
‘I’ll take it,’ I say.
On the way home, I head to ‘Couture Chocolates’ in Parson’s Green and choose twelve freshly made pieces in a velvety black box. If I’m doing this, I’ve got to take the classy route.
Back at the flat, I attach the tracker inside the box, covering it in black tissue paper, while sipping prosecco and contemplating which of my friends shall be Recipient Zero.
It’s my sister on the phone. On a Saturday morning. Not great. It usually means that somebody is ill and that Poppy needs emergency assistance in her shoe shop.
‘What?’ I ask, rolling onto my front.
‘I need a favour,’ she says.
I hate myself for having picked up the phone.
‘I’ve just found out it’s Alice’s birthday, and I haven’t got her a gift. Could you get her a little something and discreetly drop it round?
‘I’ll be there in a flash,’ I say.
Recipient zero. My sister’s new assistant and a total stranger. Perfect!
After dropping off the chocolates at ‘Vicky’s Shoes’, I catch the tube to Sloane Square where I’m meeting Pete. Over tea amongst pink Christmas baubles at Colbert’s, he asks why I have such a big smirk on my face.
‘I’m not smirking,’ I say.
‘Has this got anything to do with Martin?’
‘From the cricket club?’
‘No. Why would it have anything to do with Martin?’
I go on to tell Pete all about my chocolate-tracking plan, while wondering why he mentioned Martin. What has he heard?
‘I’ve got to see that equipment,’ he says, seeking the waiter’e eye. ‘Just help me pick up something first.’
I get a little jealous when he buys Hannah a Cartier ‘LOVE’ ring. Then again, I’m pleased for Pete. He’s had more than his share of disappointments, so it’s nice to see him happy.
Back at the flat, I light the candles on the mantelpiece and grab us two Heinekens from the fridge while Pete investigates the monitor.
‘That’s a decent piece of kit,’ he says, placing it back on the coffee table. ‘It must have set you back a few quid.’
‘It did,’ I say, handing him a beer.
‘Abel Road,’ he says.
‘The tracker is flashing on Abel Road.’
‘Are you sure?’ I stare at the monitor. He’s right. This is Vicky’s street in Hammersmith, which means either she’s invited Alice back or Alice has given my sister her chocolates. Neither makes sense.
A door slams in the distance.
‘What was that?’ I say.
‘Shhh,’ says Pete.
The sound of a deep sigh.
‘Darling?’ Says Vicky. ‘Could you please pop these chocolates in the bag.’
‘And you didn’t know this thing had a microphone?’ Says Pete.
‘Never occurred to me,’ I say. ‘I thought it was just a GPS system, like for the car.’
‘It is. But with a microphone. This is gold, Poppy. This is literally fly-on-the-wall equipment.’
‘I just don’t understand how the chocolates ended up at Vicky’s.’
‘Shhh,’ he says.
Sound of an engine starting.
Then James, my brother-in-law’s voice: ‘Fancy that. Your new assistant shops at ‘Couture Chocolates’. Are you sure you’re not paying her too much?’
‘The chocolates were my birthday present to her. Poppy brought them over. Turns out Alice is diabetic,’ says Vicky.
‘Poppy, the party girl! Had she sobered up after Pete’s dinner party?’
Traffic and blurry noises.
James: ‘Did she have any luck with that Martin-chap from the cricket club?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh Vicks. She’s was all over him like a cheap suit.’
Pete cracks up.
‘I’m not after Martin,’ I whisper. ‘Where do people get this from? He has hair in his ears and looks like an elf.’
‘You don’t have to whisper, says Pete. ‘You’re spying on them, remember? Not the other way around.’
Vicky: ‘Mum texted. We need to stop at Tesco Express. She’s worried she doesn’t have enough lemons for the smoked salmon.’
But Mum and Dad’s Christmas drinks aren’t till tomorrow, I think.
A car door slams. It’s so loud that Pete and I both flinch.
Slow beeping, the sound of somebody making a call. Then:
James: ‘Babe. Just checking in. I’ve literally got thirty seconds.
‘Maggie. Have some compassion. It’s gonna break her heart. I told you. After Christmas. Actually, after New Year.
‘January first. No. Final promise. January second, I’ll tell her. Hundred per cent.’
‘OK. January first.’
‘Who is Maggie?’ asks Pete.
‘The bastard,’ I say. ‘The bastard.’ I rub my upper arms. ‘Is it cold in here?’
‘Oh man,’ says Pete. ‘Do you think-‘
‘What else could it be? Shit. That wasn’t how this was supposed to go,’ I say.
James: ‘I’m not saying she doesn’t stand a chance with him, I’m just saying that she might want to drop half a stone or so-
‘What do you mean?’ Says Vicky. ‘Poppy isn’t fat.’
We lose the sound. The red light is still moving.
‘Where are they headed?’ I ask. I know I’ve put on weight. I just thought I’d managed to hide it.
‘Walton Street,’ says Pete, watching the monitor closely. ‘Now Hans Road.’
‘Turning into Herbert Crescent-‘
‘I don’t understand this. Why would they be going to my parents’ house and taking lemons when the party is tomorrow?’
Pete shrugs. We listen for a bit to engine sounds and indistinguishable voices.
‘I can’t believe it,’ I say. ‘Bloody James is cheating.’
‘You know you have to tell her,’ says Pete.
Vicky: ‘Mum, you look amazing.’
Mum: ‘James, darling, your parents are here already.’
Lots of air kissing and barking.
I don’t understand this. Are they all having dinner without me?
‘Keep those chocolates away from Claude,’ says Mum. ‘You know what he’s like – he’ll eat the lot including the packaging. And dogs aren’t allowed chocolate.’
‘I wasn’t invited,’ I say. ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’
‘I hate to ask this,’ says Pete, ‘but isn’t that the least of your problems right now?’
‘Jesus,’ I say.
We share my last bottle of Merlot before he heads home.
I wake up on the sofa at a quarter past midnight with a stiff neck, the beginnings of a hangover and a feeling that things are not right. There are muffled voices coming from the monitor but I don’t care. Then I remember: James is cheating on Vicky, and it appears that my family meet for regular dinners without me.
Is it because I am single and not deemed suited for the grown-up table?
‘You look like a Goddess in that suit,’ says Dad.
‘This old thing?’ Mum slurs her words ever so slightly.
‘Those legs. Those famous Lucinda legs. I always got turned on by-‘
‘What are you up to, Pip?’
‘Why don’t you come closer and I’ll show you what I’ve got in my-‘
NO. NO. NO.
I hold my hands over my ears and make for the bathroom.
I wake up to that weird slurping Dad does over his cornflakes. He must be sitting right next to the microphone.
Mum: ‘What do you think?’
Oh God. Please have mercy.
Dad: ‘That’s a very nice handbag. It looks expensive.’
Mum: It’s Chanel. This is the one Poppy has been wanting for ages.’
Oh my God, Mum! Is it the Boy Bag? Can I be that lucky?
Dad: ‘It’s a very nice bag.’
Mum: ‘She needs something special this year. Getting fired and still having no luck with that boy from the cricket club.’
Dad: ‘Which boy?’
Mum: ‘What’s his name? Marvin or something. He’s got hair in his ears.’
Dad: (coughs): ‘You mean, Martin? He’s a good chap. I didn’t know Poppy was interested in him. (more slurping noise). Would it be worth my having a word?
Mum: ‘Hmm. I’m not sure-‘ (blurry sound).
Christ oh Christ. If Dad has ‘a word’ I’ll have no option but to leave the city.
Dad: ‘These are awfully good.’
Sound of slap on skin.
‘Dad: ‘Oh live a little, Cindy.’
Blurry noises. Then loud banging.
Mum: ‘What’s this?’
Loud banging and scratching.
Dad: (sounding puzzled): ‘Looks like some sort of security device.’
‘Just go over right now and get the damned thing before your parents find out you’ve been listening to them copulating,’ says Pete down the phone.
‘I didn’t’ listen,’ I say.
‘They won’t know that,’ he says. ‘And what are you going to do about James?’
‘I have no idea,’ I say. ‘What I really want to know is why everyone still believes I was fired? I quit. And I told you all.’
‘It’s because people don’t know how ballsy you are.’
‘Am I, though?’ Wouldn’t a ballsy person have headed over to Hammersmith and smacked James with his own cricket bat by now?’
‘There’s still time,’ says Pete.
I leave for Mum and Dad’s a good four hours earlier than planned. On the bus I obsess over how to avoid causing suspicion until my inner voice decides to talk sense. What are you so worried about? It’s not as if your parents are going to think, ‘Oh dear Poppy is early. Hmm. That’s probably because she’s put a tracker in a box of chocolates which has ended up at our flat by mistake and led to her hearing us engage in an act of-‘ Oh shut up.
Once I arrive at the flat, I realise nobody gives a hoot that I’m early. In the kitchen Mum is bossing around Lynn, the caterer, who is bossing around her pretty teenage daughters.
‘Hands off those canapés,’ says Mum with her back to me.
Claude, the Labrador, is burping underneath the kitchen table.
‘I wasn’t even near them,’ I say, scanning the kitchen units. There is food everywhere. Pigs in blankets, ‘ready to go in,’, smoked salmon blinis, mini burgers, paté, cheese, fruit and Christmassy cupcakes.
‘Do we have any chocolate?’ I ask.
Lynn gives me a weird look and nods towards the conservatory, where trays of logs take up the entire dining table.
‘I’ll just go to my room and get myself organised,’ I say, heading upstairs, oddly comforted by the smell of Mum’s carpet cleaner which always lingers in the corridor.
I knock on the door to my parents’ bedroom and wait a few seconds before entering. The black Couture Chocolate box is sitting on the dresser surrounded by Mum’s silver-plated combs and brushes. I sigh with relief. What was I so worried about? As I reach for the box, I spot the words CHANEL on one of the many bags underneath the dresser and I’m just about to reach for it when Dad enters, a tall figure lurking behind him.
‘To this day, my daughter sneaks around her parents’ room looking for Christmas presents,’ says Dad. ‘I’m sorry you had to witness this, Martin, just as I was talking-up Poppy to you!’
Oh my God.
‘You look like you could do with a drink,’ says Martin.
We’ve been put in charge of decorating the Christmas tree and Lynn’s daughters are in and out of the room, giggling. But I don’t care. I’ve had two glasses of champagne and Martin has got nice shoulders. Broad. Nice hair too, actually – curly. It makes him look young. And he hasn’t said anything to indicate that he thinks I’m the weird daughter who is all over men like low-priced clothing and, at thirty-two, is still rummaging for presents in her parents’ room. Because I have told him the truth.
What can I say? ‘Tis the season. And since we’re all about opening-up, there’s just two more things I have to do before I can let myself be engulfed by the Christmas spirit.
‘You’ve always said that you couldn’t bear James’s parents,’ says Mum, ‘so we just thought we’d invite them alone so that none of us would have to put up with them at the real party.’ She strokes my cheek.
‘Silly girl. Wait until you see what Dad and I got you this year.’
‘Oh, yes, that’s another thing: I wasn’t fired, Mum. I quit.’
‘Of course, you did, darling. Just remember, we love you just the same.’
I wait until the party is in full swing and the cast of Glee is peaking with All I want for Christmas. Pete is standing by the fireplace with his arm around Hannah and chatting to Martin. Martin nods and Pete winks as I approach James by the drinks trolley.
‘How are things, James?’ I ask.
‘Good. And you?’
‘Yeah. I’m on a diet.’
‘I had to. I need to lose half a stone if I want to score Martin.’
‘Martin. You know. From the cricket club.’
‘What’s Vicky told you?’
‘The question isn’t what Vicky has told me,’ I say. ‘The question is what you need to tell Vicky.’