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A Surprise Party

Author: Sheila Bryer

Still there, the rim paling towards lemon yellow, centre small and purplish, a sickle shape also fading. Just a day or two more and there’ll be no trace. I press gently. Not so sore now.

Poor timing, her phone going off mid action, needle embedded, all that fretting and distraction, failure to recognise her own ring tone, heads turning. Being already in remote mode I stayed put, still as possible, eyeing an empty bench through the window, hoping it would be available when I moved outside.

‘We need you to remain on site for fifteen minutes. Keep an eye on you.’

How swiftly a role can change.

‘No really I’m fine, happens all the time doesn’t it.’

Ever seeing the funny side. Almost apologetic.

I sank deeper into my coat. The men stood about or paced. Supposing one of us did crash, would those inside notice? I pictured a race for help. In the event nothing happened. One by one we drifted to our cars, others taking our place.

‘At least it’s cause for celebration!’

Almost a jest to the attendant in high viz who looked bored, didn’t hear and simply waved us off.

Traffic was building and it had started to rain. We drove home in silence, a light dusting of green softening the kerbside, trees wakening, though drowsy and cautious, night temperatures still prone to plummet. And it wasn’t just up north, spring was holding back, uncertain whether to commit. Countrywide, seedlings were being hurriedly sheltered, magnolia’s cream splendour getting nipped in the bud.

I shifted about, uncomfortable in heavy outdoor gear, feeling listlessly weary, as though unequal to the season, to anything. As though I had grown so accustomed to the stuffy, hunched up nature of shut- in life that I was fearful of re-entering. A creature emerging raw from hibernation with no conversation or social skills. Perhaps I was in mild shock. I told myself I was grateful but felt I had aged ten years.

Somewhere a hook has snagged. Celebration. A word to be reckoned with at the best of times. I sigh, weighing once again the ambiguity of my nature, my tendency to pursue another’s excitement, the person who charges ahead scattering armfuls of exuberance but leaves a vacuum in their wake, a creeping contagion that drains the spirit. Needed guarding against. A baited trap. Though perhaps this also might be changing –

Another tug of the hook. Despite. Never quite pulling its weight that one, as if whole continents are being bypassed, oceans ignored. Despite. Dismissive as a shrug. What about those vast prairies of existence, spaces between; people’s untold stories, the ones hidden behind the eyes?

Maybe I am drifting quite beyond reach, a ghost ship.

Observing the slack faces of motionless drivers for some reason conjures Paul, preparing to exchange a steady job for six months on the road with camper van and girlfriend. The plan had been Europe.

‘Not now.’

Carpe Diem. May they flourish. May they find something truly unique. May they be spared.

Life: a series of adjustments.

____________

It was fast becoming apparent that the day would be treated no differently to any other. Twenty-five years and three grown children, but my mother, withdrawn and preoccupied, seemed intent on her own course. By degrees a fledgling plan became a plot, neighbours drawn in as co-conspirators, Anne and Bob at No 43. Anne, with her untidy bun, flat feet and smiling eyes that nonetheless signalled distance.

‘Not at all. Love to help.’

Nothing too much trouble. Sandwiches and tea. There would be flowers, cake. ‘Something a little special.’

It was well understood, mentally documented, the hospital run. I watched as she opened the car door, flapping from her hand as though it were the white flag of surrender, an enormous absorbent pad for the passenger seat, in case. Today was a "home day" and she would be expected. Our house had taken on a brooding quiet, a gentle, liminal mourning. The dog mooched from room to room, a slumped inconvenience blocking doorways. The piano seemed bereft. Standing to attention in the hall, a wheelchair, our long stay guest.

I entered their bedroom and opened the wardrobe. His clothes still hung expectantly: shirts, jackets, ties. Old friends. Comfortable smell of stale sweat and tobacco. He liked tweed. For a moment I buried my face as it came again, sharp as a punch to the gut – nameless overwhelming. No language to hand, not even tears. One day, when the world had caught up, I would be helped to realise there was in fact a way, a bridge back.

As a surprise, it all worked beautifully. There was pleasure in giving pleasure, a lightness to the afternoon with sense of accomplishment, even a fragile, self-conscious family pride accompanying us along the pavement. I believe the sun did shine. Back in our own garden a bottle would be opened, with music from the gramophone, more smiles, glasses raised, a photo taken which years later my daughter would discover, and later still, paint, a memory in gouache and ink. His playful grin, left arm draped lightly round her shoulder, the right hanging stiffly, hand a little clenched. My mother drawn in close, glass lifted, smiling in return, slightly tense. Something intimate being shared. Maybe they were already saying their goodbyes. Mutual Admiration she wrote on the reverse. My dear, feisty, independently minded parents, he from Lancashire, she Glasgow, becalmed in the South West.

Behind, the French windows are ajar. To the left, a swarm of roses. Home as it was becoming: a series of adjustments.

____________

Another day or two should see the back of it. I press once more to check. No, not so sore now.

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