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The Big 4-O

Author: M.M.R. Boyce

Opening my eyes, I smile. The sun is shining, and it is my fortieth birthday. I cannot believe where the years have gone. With four wonderful sons, I know I am lucky. Aware that most of my years are behind me now, I sigh, acknowledging many were happy, but some not.

Jumping out of bed, dressing quickly, I look forward to the return of my husband, who has been gone for days, hillwalking and camping with his mate. I missed him.

Pondering over the gift he has probably hidden away to surprise me with on his return, imagining what he might have planned, I am excited. Will he take me somewhere new? Somewhere exotic? Will we do something we have never done before? Butterflies flutter around my stomach all morning as I busy myself with household duties. Time flies quickly.

Arriving back about lunchtime, his friend is with him. I make them something to eat, and we chat. Full of anticipation, I wait for him to mention my birthday. During the discussion, he informs me of a plan to go out that night with a few friends. Surprised, because he has not mentioned this previously, I am disappointed.

Losing my composure, I cry, 'It's my birthday. I'm forty today.' My heart plummets. I am dismayed to realise he has forgotten - after all these years - that not only is it my birthday but that I am forty!

Seeming aghast, his friend suggests he should forget the night out and take me to dinner instead. To say he looks disappointed is an understatement. He has the appearance of a trapped animal now. Visibly squirming. I can tell he is trying to think of a way out. He says, first, he has forgotten about my birthday because they hold no importance for him. Then, age is just a number. It is just another year.

Pretending not to care but cut to the core, I casually suggest he should go out with his friends. I tell him we can go out another night instead. There is no hurry. It is not a problem.

Insisting, his friend repeats that he should take me out. The look on his face makes it plain that the thought of spending the evening with me holds no appeal, so when he reluctantly agrees to the plan, I am not entirely thrilled.

Booking a table for a Chinese restaurant for that evening, he is smug, and despite the circumstances surrounding this, I am pleased. All dressed up later, with somewhere to go for a change: my excitement begins to build. Fond of Chinese food, anticipating a lovely meal, I am delighted that I will neither have to cook nor wash up after.

Smiling, as we drive towards the venue - which is in a lovely park - I think, since this is the celebration for my big 4-O, bring it on. I decide to go mad tonight and order a dessert; to hell with the diet. I might as well be fat and forty. Strangely quiet when we arrive, there is soft music playing and a delightful aroma of sweet orange blossoms emanating.

Relaxing immediately, I quickly check out the restaurant. There are no other diners, but it is still early, so I am not unduly surprised. There is no one to greet us, which does cause me to ponder. Spacious and set over two levels, the décor is a mix of contemporary and traditional with beautiful red paper lanterns dangling overhead.

Snaking around the wall on one side is a ubiquitous and impressive gold dragon and an oriental bridge allowing access from the lower section to an upper level. My eyes caught by a sudden movement, I turn. Watching a shoal of colourful fish, behind in a wall of glass, floating, swooping and circling each other. Entranced, I smile.

Standing silently in the doorway, something at the far end of the room on the upper level catches my attention. It is a large round table, set around with red velvet high-backed chairs, big enough to seat an extended family. Elegantly and festively set with enough paraphernalia for a party or special celebration. Hats and crackers adorn each place setting. There is also an enormous bouquet of exotic-looking flowers and a bottle of champagne which I assume, with a smile, are for the guest of honour.

Floating from the centre on weights are several helium-filled foil balloons - in my favourite colours of pink and purple - with the words: Congratulations and Happy Birthday printed on them. My heart leaps into my throat with a sudden thought. I can hardly get a breath now. Somehow, I manage to hold it together. I do not want to spoil the surprise, the big reveal. Anxious and excited for my husband to be the one to tell me, I glance at him, but his face gives nothing away.

Looking around furtively, I search for evidence, my loved ones or friends are hiding on the premises. On tenterhooks, waiting for him to fess up, to do the big reveal, my stomach flips. My heart, pounding fast, the word surprise ringing around my head, I cannot hide my smile.

Charming in a long cerise dress, a lady approaches, breaking the spell. Simpering, I consider she must be in on the secret. We follow as she leads down the middle path. I hold my breath, the celebration table on the upper level in my sights.

Stopping, causing me to stumble in my heels, she turns to face us. My smile falters, then fades when she stretches a hand towards the small table set for two. My eyes, drawn again towards the upper level over the bridge and disappointed, I bite my bottom lip, but composing myself, I force a smile.

Slipping into the seat facing my husband, catching sight of the tiny vase in the middle containing a single rose, my hopes and dreams dwindling into infinity, I sigh.