The Birthday Girl – Sue Fortin

Friendships are made up of all the little things that matter, the common ground of lives, shared interests, loves, dislikes, the highs and the lows. They matter and they are matter. Like stars in the night sky, friends can light up the darkness. Sometimes we might forget they are there and yet know they will always be there. Others can come in a burst, dazzling us with the excitement of newness, seducing us with promises of adventure. Some will deliver on this promise, others will fizzle away while some will shoot across the night sky in one last hurrah before they dis-appear from our lives. I think of my best friends, I can count them on one hand with digits to spare. Joanne, Andrea and Zoe are the stars in my night sky. Together, we make a good constellation. We stick by each other. We look out for each other. We forgive each other. I remind myself of the last fact as I hold the invitation in my hand, knowing that I should accept, with grace and maturity, the olive branch it represents. Dear Carys, Zoe and Andrea My Fortieth Birthday Celebrations Come and join me for an adventure weekend, full of mysteries and surprises, the like of which you can’t imagine. With the grand reveal on Sunday evening.

Friday 8 September – Monday 11 September Meet at Chichester Cathedral 09.00 Friday morning Love Joanne P.S. As it’s also Carys’s birthday on the Monday, I thought we could celebrate that as well. Two months ago, Joanne had told us to save the date, or rather the weekend, and said she’d let us know nearer the time what was happening. I could have quite happily ignored my thirty-ninth birthday, but Joanne had been insistent the weekend was to be a double celebration. She also insisted that, despite it being her birthday, the whole weekend was to be a surprise for me too. I had hoped we’d find out the details sooner and, I have to admit, leaving it until the night before is cutting it fine but she has steadfastly refused to give us any more details until now. I flip the card over and see there is a handwritten message, the tall spiky writing unmistakably Joanne’s. I sit down at the kitchen table and read the invitation again.

I’m not sure what it is about the PPS on the reverse, but it sounds … odd. I think that’s the best way I can describe it. I mull over the significance but before I can settle on anything meaningful, my mobile rings. Andrea Jarvis’s name flashes across the screen. ‘Hiya,’ I say, kicking off my running shoes. Flakes of dried mud from my afternoon cross-country run scatter across the tiled floor like dirty snowflakes. I sigh inwardly at the mess. Sometimes I’m no better than my teenage son. Stepping over the debris, I go to the fridge, hook out a bottle of wine and pour myself a glass, something I would normally reserve for a Friday night, but seeing as we’re off on our jolly tomorrow, I feel a drop of alcohol is justified. ‘Don’t tell me, you’ve seen the invitation.

’ ‘Too bloody right,’ says Andrea. ‘Did you get the PPS on yours?’ ‘Where it says about making amends?’ ‘What is that all about?’ I shrug even though Andrea can’t see this action. ‘No idea. Maybe, she just really wants us to go. Maybe she thought we’d change our minds now that it looks like it’s going to be an outdoor adventure type of weekend.’ ‘I’m not bothered about that,’ says Andrea. ‘It’s not like we haven’t done this sort of thing before. Last year we all did that charity walk up Snowdon. Before that, the mountain bike trail. You’ll be in your element anyway.

’ It’s true, I am an adventure junkie and working at the local outward-bound centre tends to satisfy my addiction for kayaking, rock climbing and the like these days. I also help with the outdoor activities for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, so I’m not particularly fazed by the prospect of what Joanne has in store for us. ‘It’s going to be like a busman’s holiday for me,’ I say. ‘And you’ll be OK yourself.’ ‘Yeah, that’s as maybe, but I’m stuck behind the desk most days since I took over the gym. I headed up a high-impact aerobics class the other day and thought my legs were going to seize up afterwards.’ ‘You’ll be fine. Have you spoken to Zoe about the invite?’ I ask, taking my seat at the table again. I glance at the official-looking letter which was also waiting on the doormat when I got in this evening and push it to one side to read later. ‘She hasn’t a clue what it means either.

But she’s gone into full-on cute Labrador puppy mode. All excited – can’t wait for the weekend and thinks Joanne is utterly wonderful.’ I give a small laugh into my glass as Andrea does a perfect imitation of Zoe, whose voice gets squeakier the more excited and enthusiastic she gets about anything. ‘It’s too late to change your mind,’ I say. ‘It would be awful if I was struck down with a stomach bug, though,’ says Andrea. ‘Don’t even think about it. We made a deal, remember?’ ‘I might have been under the influence of alcohol when I did that one-for-all-and-all-for-one shit.’ ‘You promised and you can’t break a promise. Not to one of your best friends. Besides, it’s my birthday too.

’ ‘I think that’s called blackmail.’ I laugh as I imagine the scowling look on Andrea’s face. ‘No, seriously, Andrea. You can’t back out now. Joanne will kill you.’ ‘Hmm. When she said it was a surprise, I was hoping it would be more of a spa weekend. You know, fluffy white dressing gowns, manicures. Lots of pampering and relaxation.’ ‘Look, like I said before, I think this is her way of making up for being so distant lately.

’ In saying this, I silently acknowledge that I’m referring more to the way my own relationship with Joanne has been in recent times. We had once been so close, but things happened and the balance of our friendship shifted, leaving a hiatus in our alliance. There’s a small silence while we both contemplate the sentiment of the weekend. Andrea speaks first. ‘I suppose I owe it to her. You know, give her a chance to make up for the way she’s been since I took on the gym.’ ‘Is all that still going on between you two? I thought the dust had settled.’ ‘Sort of. I’ve certainly drawn a line under it all, but not Joanne. I have this sense that she’s still angry at me.

I can’t put my finger on it or explain it, but when I speak to her, it’s like an undercurrent of tension. Do you know what I mean?’ ‘Mmm … I do.’ Andrea could be describing my own relationship with Joanne. ‘Anyway, as I say, I’ll give her a chance to make amends, but if she starts again, about having to work for me now instead of being a partner, I’m sorry, I won’t be keeping my mouth shut. Fortieth birthday or not.’ ‘And when do you ever keep your mouth shut, my darling?’ I say. ‘I think I did once, in 1986 – I might be wrong though,’ says Andrea with a laugh. ‘Anyway, so now you’re not letting me skive off, we’d better sort out what’s happening tomorrow. Is Alfie still coming to mine for the weekend?’ ‘He’s not in from college yet – five-a-side football, I think he said. But yes, he’s all good to come to you.

He’s going to go home with Bradley. Are you sure Colin is up to this?’ ‘Oh, he’ll be in his element. Takeaways and gaming. It’s totally a boy’s weekend.’ ‘That’s kind of him. I appreciate it.’ ‘Anytime. You know that. Although, I’m surprised Alfie’s not staying at Joanne’s, with Ruby and Oliver.’ I ignore the little drop my stomach gives at the mention of Joanne’s daughter.

It’s the sort of weightless feeling you experience when the rollercoaster tips over the edge of the first big dip and it takes a few seconds for your internal organs to catch up with the fall. I’m used to that sensation. As sure as night follows day, I get that every time Ruby comes up in conversation. As always, I make a faultless recovery. ‘Fortunately, Tris is away this weekend too, so Ruby is going to stay with Joanne’s mother.’ I try to keep my tone neutral as my thoughts are thrown off course and on to a different trajectory. If my friends are the constellation by which I navigate life, then Ruby is the black hole whose gravitational pull is so great that nothing, not even light, can escape from being drawn in and swallowed up. I know. I’ve witnessed stars in my night sky pass the point of no return, the absolute horizon of the black hole, and disappear forever, while other stars are teetering around the edges, unwittingly being drawn closer and closer until it will be impossible to turn back. I force myself to focus on the conversation.

Andrea is talking about a film showing at the cinema that Colin might take the boys to see. I let her chatter on for a while, before the conversation comes to a natural halt and Andrea closes with, ‘Right, well, I’d better get on. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.’ ‘Yep. See you then. Don’t let me down.’ ‘When have I ever let you down?’ For some time after the call, I remain sitting at the kitchen table, looking at the invitation with Andrea’s words on repeat in my mind. She’s never let me down. In my darkest hour, when Darren had committed suicide, she was there for me. ‘That’s what friends do,’ she had said once.

‘They look after each other.’ A sigh leaves my lips and I blink away thoughts of Darren to focus on the next four days. Despite my assurances to Andrea that it’s going to be a great weekend, my own doubts are beginning to surface. Perhaps I’m expecting too much by way of reconciliation. Can we honestly put everything behind us? Even if we want to, can we truly repair our fractured friendship or is it another black hole on the not-too-distant horizon? How many times have you lied to yourself? I suspect you’ve lost count. You must lie to yourself every single day of your life. So much so that it trips of your tongue with ease; you probably even believe it yourself now. You may be able to fool everyone else, but you can’t fool me. I hear the pity in people’s voices, I see the compassion in their eyes as they exchange knowing looks when they talk about you. I can’t tell you how much I loathe that.

You are not deserving of their sympathy and yet, I can forgive them. You’ve been very careful in cultivating a false history, hiding behind the status of a grieving widow if friends come too close to the truth or show too much of an interest in your past and ask questions that could unpeel the layers of deceit you’ve created. As Shakespeare said, ‘The truth will out.’ I have been extremely patient, waiting for the right moment to make you pay for what you’ve done. And now the time has come, I can hardly believe it’s here. My body trembles in anticipation and excitement at the prospect of the next few days. I have the power and I will get my revenge. FRIDAY Chapter 2 ‘OK, Alfie, I’m heading off now,’ I say, popping my head round the door to my son’s room. I’m dismayed to see him still in bed. ‘Hadn’t you better be getting up?’ ‘Don’t nag,’ comes a reply muffled by the duvet he pulls over his head.

I check my watch, I can’t afford to hang about any longer and without giving it too much consideration, I yank the end of Alfie’s cover, exposing his head and shoulders. ‘Come on, you need to get up now.’ ‘Oi!’ Alfie sits up and snatches at his cover. ‘What did you do that for?’ ‘To make you get up. You’ll be late for school. I need to go.’ ‘I’m not stopping you. Go.’ ‘Alfie! Get up. Now.

’ I go to pull the cover again, but this time he’s prepared and holds it tightly around his shoulders. ‘Pack it in. Just piss off.’ I ignore his bad language. Some battles are not worth the fight. ‘Get out of bed,’ I insist. I don’t expect him to move so fast but in a split second, Alfie has jumped out of bed and is standing directly in front of me. ‘I’m up now. All right?’ he snarls at me, his face inches from mine as I get the full force of his stale breath. ‘OK,’ I say, taking a step back, instantly wishing I had thought twice before going into battle.

My heel hits the bottom of the bedroom door, which vibrates violently as the edge digs between my shoulder blades. I let out a small cry of pain. ‘I think that’s called karma,’ says Alfie. He pushes past me, knocking his shoulder against mine as he does so. ‘Hadn’t you better go? You’ll be late if you don’t get a move on.’ He slams the bathroom door shut behind him. My attempts at garnering a response from Alfie by calling bye to him through the bathroom door are met with the sound of the shower on full-blast. Normally, I’d make an effort to smooth things over before leaving, but today I haven’t got time and I think Alfie is deliberately spending longer in the shower than usual to avoid appeasing my guilt by parting on amicable terms. As I walk down the road, I reflect that today’s battle was tame. Sometimes the arguments and confrontations can be much worse and I find myself thinking about the future when we don’t live together and wonder if our relationship will be any better then.

I’m tired of the emotionally draining status quo we’re at, and I long for quieter days ahead when I’m on my own. Before I reach the end of the road, I already feel guilty for wishing the days away as I remind myself it’s not Alfie’s fault he’s the way he is. It’s mine. My spine aches from carrying my rucksack the mere half a mile from my home and I’m sure the knock to my back earlier isn’t helping matters as, even to the touch, it feels tender. I turn the corner into South Street where the dark shop windows and closed doors, yet to be roused from their slumber by the arrival of early morning shop assistants, serve only to reflect the prospect of rain later today. I adjust the straps of my rucksack and hitch it further on to my shoulders as I head towards the end of the road where the four main shopping streets meet and the city cathedral occupies one corner. I scan the benches which line the pavement and overlook the cathedral grounds. Andrea is sitting on the middle bench, a Styrofoam coffee cup in one hand and her mobile in the other. She spots me and waves, phone still in hand. I lumber over to her.

‘Yay! You came. And you’re the first one. You must be keen.’ I wriggle my arms free of the straps and dump the rucksack on the ground, then take a seat beside Andrea on the bench. ‘Keen as mustard, me,’ says Andrea. ‘To be fair, Colin dropped me off this morning so I didn’t have to get the bus. Don’t mistake my dislike of the bus service for enthusiasm to be here.’ She reaches down and retrieves a cup from under the bench, presenting it to me. ‘Here, I got you a latte.’ ‘Thanks.

’ I take the cup and tentatively lift it to my lips, taking a minuscule sip to gauge the temperature. ‘No sign of Zoe yet?’ ‘She texted me. Said she’ll be five minutes.’ ‘And no word from Joanne as to what happens now?’ I take a more confident sip of the latte, having deemed it to be of an acceptable drinking temperature. ‘Nope. Nothing. So we sit here and wait,’ says Andrea. She leans against the wooden slats of the bench and purses her lips in the way she does when she has something on her mind. I wait for her to speak. ‘I know you said it was a chance to put our friendships back on track, but I’m not sure things will ever be the same between me and Joanne.

The dynamics have changed and I don’t think she can deal with it.’ ‘Try to be positive about it. This could be her way of saying sorry.’ I don’t wish to reignite the flames of doubt that I had successfully extinguished before I went to sleep last night. ‘Look, it’s Joanne’s fortieth. Maybe she’s realised the importance of having good friends. Yes, we may have our little disagreements or falling outs, but at the end of the day, friendship is worth more.’ Andrea gives me a sideways look. ‘You need to try harder than that to convince me.’ ‘I’ll be honest.

Last night, after I spoke to you, I did think maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. Maybe it’s best to leave the past alone.’ ‘Isn’t that what I’ve been saying all along?’ ‘I know, but another part of me thinks if this is Joanne’s way of saying sorry, it could be a good opportunity for us to clear the air with her. That way, maybe things can get back on track.’ ‘True, but it will be awkward for Zoe. I don’t think her and Joanne have fallen out about anything.’ ‘I thought about that too. My theory is that Zoe’s the goodwill ambassador for this trip.’ ‘But why all this big secrecy? Why not a meal out? Isn’t that what normal people do?’ ‘Remember, this is Joanne we’re talking about. She loves all this cloak-and-dagger stuff.

’ I give Andrea a playful tap on her thigh. ‘I’m sure we’re going to have a great time.’ As we both sip our drinks, I spot Zoe’s unmistakable five- feet-ten frame cutting across the lawn of the cathedral. She has a sports holdall hanging off her shoulder, her blonde hair tied in a ponytail and is wearing leggings with trainers. She looks more like she’s off to the gym than an adventure weekend. I wave to her. ‘Hi, guys,’ says Zoe. ‘I made it. Ooh, coffee, is that for me?’ She takes the cup that Andrea holds out to her. ‘Lovely.

We all set for this mysterious adventure weekend?’ She smiles broadly, reminding me of an excited child on Christmas Eve. ‘Yeah, Andrea can’t wait,’ I say, winking at the new arrival. Zoe pulls a card from her pocket. I recognise the white lettering on the black invitation immediately and the PPS written by Joanne. Zoe reads it out loud. ‘An adventure weekend, full of mysteries and surprises, the like of which you can’t imagine.’ She looks at both of us. ‘What’s not to like?’ ‘It’s the surprise bit I don’t care for,’ says Andrea. ‘Not to mention the bit about making amends.’ Zoe gives a shrug.

‘I love surprises. I wonder what she has planned for us?’ ‘Oh God, I don’t know if I can cope with your enthusiasm this early in the morning,’ says Andrea, shaking her head. ‘Thank goodness I packed some vodka. Where is it?’ Andrea makes to rummage around in her rucksack. Both Zoe and I laugh. ‘If only your clients knew the truth about you,’ says Zoe. ‘Right, what happens now? Anyone know?’ ‘We wait for Joanne, I suppose,’ I say, looking around to see if there is any sign of our infamous host. As if on cue, a black MPV pulls up alongside the pavement. The rear door automatically slides open and the driver gives a toot of the horn. ‘This must be for us,’ says Zoe.

‘How exciting.’ ‘Either that or we’re about to be abducted,’ says Andrea, picking up her rucksack. I hoist mine up on to my shoulder and follow Zoe to the car, dropping my half-drunk latte into the waste bin as I go. Zoe hops into the vehicle without a moment’s hesitation. ‘Ooh, it’s very swish in here,’ she calls to us. I exchange looks with Andrea as we reach the edge of the path. Andrea surveys the vehicle. ‘I suppose it’s not a van. I’m slightly reassured that it looks like a swanky MPV, exactly the sort of thing Joanne would hire.’ ‘Come on, there’s loads of room,’ says Zoe.

‘And there’s an envelope, addressed to us all.’ ‘No sign of Joanne, then?’ I push my rucksack in first and climb into the vehicle, taking the rearfacing seat. I look over my shoulder at the driver. He’s a middle-aged man and, as far as I can see, is dressed in a shirt and tie. ‘Morning,’ I say with a smile. ‘Morning,’ he replies, not turning but looking in the rear-view mirror at me. ‘Where are we off to?’ ‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. Need-to-know basis,’ he says, giving a tap to the side of his nose with his finger. He shifts in his seat and reaches over to the passenger seat, retrieving a small blue cloth bag. ‘Mrs Aldridge has requested that you all put your mobile phones in this bag.

’ ‘What?’ Andrea plonks herself down in her seat. ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘I’m sorry, but Mrs Aldridge has said it’s all part of the surprise. It’s all there in the envelope apparently.’ ‘Give me that,’ says Andrea, taking the envelope from Zoe’s hand. She rips it open and reads out loud the letter inside. Dear lovely ladies, So now you’re all aboard and on Phase One of the journey. I hope you approve of your mode of transport. Only the best for my best friends! I expect Zoe, you’re all excited and can’t wait to find out where you’re going. You love secrets and surprises, probably even more than I do, but I think I’m going to have the last laugh this time.

Andrea, I imagine you’re frowning right now and cursing me for keeping it all hush-hush. Sorry, I know this goes against your natural instinct to be the one in charge! Carys, you, I imagine are sitting there, taking it all in and trying to second-guess my next move, wondering how to play this one and if you can out-smart me. Am I right? I bet I am. Hahahaha! Well, my lovely friends, don’t waste time trying to quiz the driver, I’ve paid handsomely for his silence. You’ve got about an hour’s drive, so sit back and relax. Please be very sweet and hand your phones over. I don’t want anyone cheating and turning on their maps app. Oh, yeah, bubbly under the seat. Chink, chink! Love Joanne xxx The driver shakes the bag and passes it to me. Reluctantly, I place my mobile inside.

‘Better play along,’ I say, even though I’m not happy about it myself. What if Alfie needs to speak to me? Or Seb? I console myself with the idea that Joanne will no doubt let us have them back once we arrive and this is only her way of keeping the location a surprise. ‘It is Joanne’s birthday treat,’ says Zoe. She too places her phone in the bag. We both look at Andrea expectantly. A small expression of defiance settles on her face for a moment and then with a big huff and drop of her shoulders, she produces her phone from her jacket pocket. ‘Don’t want to upset the birthday girl, do we?’ she says with little grace. She hands the phone to me, which I pop in the bag and then hand to the driver. ‘Right, that’s that,’ I say. ‘Hmm,’ says Andrea, dumping the letter in Zoe’s lap, before rummaging under the seat.

‘Where’s this bubbly?’ She pulls out a cool bag and we hear the distinct sound of glasses clinking. ‘Aha. Here we go. Right, what’s in here? Prosecco and three glasses. Typically, Joanne-style, they’re glasses and not plastic ones.’ Formalities pushed aside, Andrea dishes out the glasses and pops open the bottle as the car pulls away from the kerb. Despite jolting over some potholes, Andrea successfully fills each of the glasses. ‘Cheers!’ I’m not entirely sure I can stomach too much alcohol this early in the morning, but not wanting to be a killjoy, I decide to join in with the celebrations and take a small sip. ‘So, who’s looking after Alfie?’ asks Zoe. ‘He’s over at Andrea’s for the weekend.

I expect him and Bradley will be glued to their games, only emerging for food.’ ‘Colin will be in his element too,’ says Andrea. ‘He’ll be able to watch the sporting channels with zero interruptions.’ ‘Who’s looking after your boys?’ I ask Zoe. ‘I’ve enlisted the help of my mum. The kids tried to tell me that at fifteen and seventeen they were OK to be left for the weekend.’ Zoe gives a roll of her eyes. ‘I’m not that daft! If their dad didn’t live so far away, they could have gone there, but trying to get them up to Liverpool for just a weekend is nigh-on impossible. Plus, I didn’t want to ask any favours from him.’ Zoe emphasises the word him.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard her refer to her ex-husband by his name. Zoe is the new girl out of the four of us, having moved to the area about a year ago after her marriage broke up. It was a fresh start, she’d told us that first morning we all had coffee together. I can’t remember who made friends with her first. She appeared one day at our regular keep-fit class and the next thing, she’d struck up a conversation and she was sitting with us having coffee afterwards. She had just slotted in. It was like she’d always known us and we’d always known her. A new star to extend our constellation. As the MPV smoothly exits Chichester, I look out of the window for clues as to where we are going. We are heading north and in my mind I picture a rough map of the area and where we could get to in an hour.

Certainly out of Sussex. Although, there is the possibility that it’s part of the surprise and we end up back where we started from. I wouldn’t put it past Joanne. About half an hour later the car takes a turn off the main road and down a narrow lane. Trees line the road on either side, blocking out much of the daylight. The car turns off but I don’t manage to catch a glimpse of the signpost. Neither of my travelling companions seem to be worrying about where we are heading. The Prosecco bottle now empty, Zoe is busy opening another as Andrea tells us about the spinning class she had taken yesterday for the local rugby team. ‘I love my job, but some days, I love it more than others,’ she says. ‘Those rugby players, Christ, they have stamina.

All those muscular legs. I didn’t know where to look. Well, I did, if you know what I mean!’ She fans herself with her hand and sighs. ‘Ah, don’t give us that, you’ve eyes for Colin only,’ I say. Much as Andrea likes to make out she drools over all the toned men who come into the gym, her and Colin are a solid couple. The car begins to slow down and gradually the trees on either side of the road thin out, before disappearing completely on our left. A small airfield comes into view. ‘Farnstead Airport,’ I read the sign out loud as the driver turns through the gates and pulls up in a parking bay. ‘This is definitely where you were supposed to take us?’ ‘Definitely,’ says the driver. He opens the glove box and takes out another envelope.

‘These are your next set of instructions. While you read them, I’ll take this over to the departure terminal.’ He holds up the blue cloth bag and leaves us with the envelope. Zoe reads it out this time. ‘So, you’ve all arrived at Farnstead Airport, Phase One of the journey is complete. Now for Phase Two. Please proceed to the departure terminal where at reception you will find a flight booked for you under my name. Don’t worry, you don’t need passports, just the photo ID I told you to bring. Enjoy the view and see you soon!’ Zoe looks up at us, her eyes shining with excitement. ‘She’s only bloody chartered us a flight!’ Twenty minutes later, we are sitting in a small light aircraft, still none the wiser as to where we are heading.

‘Obviously the UK,’ says Andrea. ‘Although I can’t say I’m particularly enjoying being stuck in this thing. It’s hardly a Boeing 747.’ ‘I think it’s exciting,’ says Zoe. Andrea looks up to the ceiling in despair. ‘Oh, come on, Andrea. Don’t be a party-pooper,’ I say, nudging her foot with my own. ‘Joanne’s gone to a lot of trouble. Relax and enjoy it.’ Andrea gives another look of exasperation but I can tell it’s half-hearted.

‘I’ll relax when we’ve reached wherever the hell we’re going and my feet are firmly on the ground again.’ Andrea peers under the seat. ‘No Prosecco this time.’ I exchange a grin with Zoe. Andrea loves playing up to her role of harbinger of doom and gloom. The pilot is very pleasant but he too has been paid into silence by Joanne, so the three of us have no choice but to peer out of the window and make rough approximations of whereabouts in the UK we are flying over and speculate as to where we could be heading. The uneasy realisation that this is totally out of my control dawns on me. Joanne’s idea of a surprise has reached new heights, literally. And I don’t like feeling I’m at her mercy now.



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