The Birthday Weekend – Lesley Sanderson

Amy’s message arrives during netball practice. I take aim and the ball sails through the net. I punch the air, high-five Mel, my heart pumping. The ball goes back to centre and my watch buzzes with a text. A quick scroll up and I see the word invitation. My heart pumps even harder. Finally. What has she decided? I turn my attention back to the game, dodge behind the goalkeeper and run across the court to catch the ball. Aim, shoot, goal. We win three-nil. For once I don’t go to the pub afterwards, the team’s usual weekly tradition. No laughing and dissecting the game with my team-mates – my friends – over a pint or two. I want to get home to my flat, to our flat, that one small word sending a thrill down my spine. Never will I take Theo for granted again. Everything feels new with him; we’re tiptoeing our way along the path, baby steps, both determined to make it work this time.

My thoughts turn to Amy’s message. Birthdays are a Big Thing for Amy, always have been. Celebrations are spread over at least a week; her twenty-first set a record by lasting three weeks, and included a trip away, a meal, a club night and an all-night pub crawl. In two weeks’ time it will be her thirty-fifth – not normally a milestone, but after the year she’s had, she deserves to celebrate. Theo won’t be home for at least half an hour, and I stick a vegetable lasagne I made before I went out to netball in the oven. Once I’m sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of tea in front of me, I locate Amy’s message. Invitation surely means a party – it’s been a while since I had a good dance. These days I prefer to curl up on the sofa with a book, or go out for a glass of wine with a close friend, checking in on our emotions and putting the world to rights. I’ve finally decided what I’m doing for The Birthday. I’ve set up a WhatsApp group – see you in there! Oh, Amy – as if I didn’t have enough WhatsApp groups to be part of.

I open the link inviting me to the group entitled Amy’s Birthday, wondering how many messages I’m going to be bombarded with. Amy will kill me if I fail to join, so I click on accept. No doubt she’s hired a huge venue and invited her vast menagerie of family and friends. I sip my tea and frown when I see the other members of the group. That can’t be right. It’s tiny, four in total. Maybe this is a subgroup, her close friends who she wants to help her organise the event. There have to be more people invited somewhere else; perhaps that’s a separate group. Who am I trying to kid? I close my eyes and take a deep breath, realising what Amy has done. It’s a reunion.

It’s the reunion. I go back to the group. Four names, the other three as familiar to me as my own. Close friends throughout three years at university. Some experiences bring you closer. When our world collapsed, we clung to one another for survival – at first. Until it broke us. I read the list aloud. ‘Amy Barnes, Kat Carr, Louise Redfern, Daisy Tannet.’ Amy tried so hard to keep us together.

The four of us met in our first year at Buckinghamshire University, graduating almost fifteen years ago. How time flies. Graduation took place during a difficult time for us, and if it wasn’t for Amy, I’m sure we’d have gone our separate ways. Exactly a year later, she arranged for us all to meet up for a lunch in London, a tiny bistro in Covent Garden, followed by a browse around the craft market. Over lunch, I looked at these three women, all of whom had confided their darkest fears to me, and was overcome by waves of sadness. Conversation was stilted, fixing on safe topics, nothing of consequence, as we all avoided the subject that was really bothering us. Daisy and Kat made their excuses before we’d even got around to coffee. Undeterred, Amy suggested we make it an annual reunion, but somehow it never happened: one of us was always busy, another away, so many excuses on offer. Amy is like a spider at the centre of her web, keeping us all linked together, although the threads have loosened and split over the years. She keeps us updated with each other’s news, so we’re kind of in the loop together.

Five years ago, Kat moved to London, so the two of us have seen each other quite a lot lately, recent events bringing us closer together. My voice falters on Daisy’s name, a bubble of complicated feelings rising inside me. We’ve had more contact over the last couple of years, since Amy’s diagnosis, but a blush comes to my cheeks whenever I recall the last time we saw each other, well over a year ago now. Loyalty in friendship is a trait I pride myself on; any knots in my relationships have to be unpicked, no matter how long it takes. Daisy’s knot is proving hard to unravel, but she, out of the four of us, should know how loyal I can be. It’s obvious what Amy is doing. Her illness has caused her to re-evaluate everything in her life, and one thing she hates more than anything is disharmony. She knows me too well – springing this invitation on me without forewarning means I’ll have to attend. Not to do so would be betraying my best friend. To think I almost lost her this year.

I swallow that unpleasant thought away, give myself a shake and turn back to the invitation. You are invited to a fun weekend to celebrate Amy Barnes’s thirty-fifth birthday and her recent inheritance Venue: Thistle Cottage, Blackwood Lane, Bucks. Date: Thursday 18–Sunday 21 April Partners invited overnight on Saturday for The Birthday evening! A link to a map indicates the location of the cottage, which strikes me as a bit unnecessary, given that we shared a hall of residence situated further along Blackwood Lane, backing onto the edge of the forest. Blackwood Forest. As if we could ever forget that name. An involuntary shudder catches me unawares, as it does whenever the forest comes to mind, and I’m relieved when I hear Theo’s key in the door and the thud of his bag as he drops it on the hall floor and appears in the doorway. ‘Hi,’ he says as I move to greet him. ‘I won’t get too close; I worked up a bit of a sweat walking home.’ ‘I can tell.’ I sit back down, wrinkling my nose in exaggeration to hide my disappointment.

It’s only a small thing, but he always used to kiss me when he came in. But that was before. We’ll make this work. His face glows with a healthy sheen, one of the benefits of being able to train outdoors. He’s wearing Nike pants and sweatshirt, his sweaty kit left in his gym bag ready for the wash. Theo is the most fastidious man I have ever met, and I’d bet he’s the cleanest personal trainer around. Another good reason for us to stay together. I can’t get out of the habit of listing the pros and cons of our relationship since the week we spent apart to decide our future. For me, the pros outnumber the cons. For him, I’m still not convinced, despite his assurances.

‘Good day?’ ‘Yeah, it was, actually. Two new clients, both referrals from other clients. One wants twice-weekly meetings, the other has booked a trial session, so happy days. How about you?’ ‘Nothing out of the ordinary. Did a bit of lesson planning after school, then went straight to netball.’ ‘How many goals this time?’ ‘Three, but it was only a practice game. Our next proper match isn’t for a while.’ I close the laptop and stretch out my arms. ‘I’ve put a lasagne in the oven.’ ‘Great, I’m starving.

I’ll just have a quick shower.’ ‘OK. Oh, and I’ve heard from Amy, she’s finally organised her birthday do. I’ll tell you over dinner.’ I prepare a salad and serve up the lasagne along with two glasses of sparkling water. Theo is the first partner I’ve had who doesn’t drink, and since our decision to start a family, it’s having a good effect on me. I can’t remember the last time I opened a bottle of wine at home. The boiler whooshes as he showers, and I think about the invitation. I try to convince myself it would be good to get the old gang together again, and the party with all our partners should be fun, but no matter how positive a spin I try to put on it, I’m nervous. On the plus side, Theo has never been to Blackwood Forest before, and there are some great runs for him to do, trails already established by the many runners who use the wood.

We could even stay an extra day, just the two of us, away from London and our busy lives. Maybe in a different part of Buckinghamshire, though, as the mere mention of Blackwood Forest makes my skin tingle. Theo smells of apple shampoo when he reappears. His towel-dried hair looks darker blonde when it’s damp, and he’s shaved his stubble off, which makes him appear younger. ‘Smells good,’ he says as the aroma of baked cheese wafts around the kitchen. ‘Anything I can do?’ ‘Just eat.’ We sit opposite one another on bar stools at the kitchen counter, which extends into the open-plan living room. Does it bother him too that we no longer hug when he comes home? In the old days that hug would often develop into a lingering kiss. A peck on the cheek would be a good start. Give it time, I tell myself; we’re getting on so much better than we were this time last month.

I tell him about the birthday weekend while we eat. ‘It falls in the Easter holidays, so that’s not a problem. This term has felt like the longest ever.’ I love teaching Year 6, but by the end of every term I’m ready to drop. ‘So this is the cottage her aunt left her?’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Where is it?’ ‘It’s in Blackwood, not far from where we went to university.’ Amy was the only student I knew who actually came from the area. At eighteen, most of us couldn’t wait to get as far away from home as possible. Me and my sister would have ended up killing one another if I hadn’t. I could never have foreseen how we’d all leave Blackwood as soon as our finals were over, returning briefly for graduation before scurrying back to our respective homes.

Once again, Amy was the only one of us who stayed in the area. It must have been tough for her, an impossible choice, but her mother needed her. ‘Will she move into the cottage?’ ‘I doubt it. She only bought her flat about two years ago. This has come out of the blue. Last time we spoke, she was still in shock about it. She’d been close to her aunt when she was younger, but they lost touch when the aunt had some kind of falling-out with Amy’s mother, and this was totally unexpected. The aunt wasn’t old, either. In any case, I can’t imagine Amy would want to move in.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘The cottage is small, and it’s on the edge of a huge forest.

It’s a bit creepy. I wouldn’t want to live there.’ ‘It would be great for walking and running.’ ‘I knew you’d think that. And yes, it would, although …’ I concentrate on a particularly chewy piece of lasagne, not wanting him to pick up on my discomfort. I didn’t plan not to tell him what had happened back at university, but given that I preferred to shove the memories out of my mind whenever they made an unfortunate appearance, I’d just never got round to it. He finishes his food and pushes his plate away. ‘Although?’ ‘Nothing important. Did you enjoy that?’ ‘Great, thanks. Are you not going to finish yours?’ The half-eaten lasagne on my plate no longer looks appetising.

I slide it towards him and he tucks in eagerly. Theo eats more than any other man I’ve been out with, on account of all the energy he uses up at work. ‘So it’s a long weekend for the women, with the men arriving for the main event? Sounds good to me.’ ‘Not just men. Kat’s got a partner now.’ ‘Oh yes, I forgot, though from what you’ve told me, her relationships don’t normally last that long. Who says they’ll still be together by Easter?’ ‘Theo! That’s only two weeks away.’ He’s right, though, of course. Kat’s always been a bit of a free spirit, no matter how much she moans about wanting to settle down. ‘Jade might well be the one.

She’s been around for a good few months now, and Kat sounded pretty smitten last time I spoke to her. Jade and I hit it off straight away, so I hope it works out.’ ‘Good for her.’ ‘You know what this means, though?’ I look at him directly, struck as I always am by how much I love him, wishing I could be sure he felt the same way, hating the niggling doubt that won’t quite go no matter how many times we’ve seen the relationship counsellor. ‘No, what?’ He gathers the plates together and takes them over to the sink, raising his voice as he turns the hot tap on full. ‘Daisy.’ ‘Ah, yes. You haven’t seen her since that evening, have you? How long ago is it now?’ ‘Six months. I’ve been meaning to ring her but kept putting it off. This invite is deliberate on Amy’s part.

The four of us were a really tight group at university and she wants us all back together like we used to be. I can understand why, given what a tough year she’s had.’ ‘Give Daisy a ring. I’m sure she’s been meaning to ring you too. And she’ll have had her invitation, so it will no doubt be on her mind. I bet she’ll be happy to hear from you.’ ‘When did you get so wise?’ Our eyes meet and I look away, wishing my tongue didn’t run away with me. We’ve spent the last nine months in counselling, and Theo has become very good at articulating his emotions in front of the therapist – too good at times. ‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘I’ll give her a ring.

We need to sort it out before the party, to make sure we’re cool with each other before we get there. For Amy’s sake, if nothing else.’ ‘I guess it’s possible she won’t go,’ he says, plunging his hands into the sink, then quickly jumping backwards. ‘Ouch. Jeez, that’s hot.’ The suggestion floats through my mind, a lifeline. Daisy might say no and Kat will be busy; Amy will cancel and the weekend won’t happen, we won’t need to go back to Blackwood and confront the ghost that awaits us. If only. CHAPTER TWO ‘Do you fancy watching another episode of that drama this evening?’ Theo scrolls through the TV guide, legs stretched in front of him. He used to stretch them across my lap not so long ago.

Baby steps. ‘Can we save it for tomorrow? I’d rather phone Amy, talk about the birthday.’ ‘I’m out with work tomorrow night; it’s Billy’s leaving do. Drinks then a curry. You’re welcome to join us if you like.’ ‘Yeah, I might.’ Whenever Theo mentions work, flashing lights go off in my head. But he wouldn’t have asked me before and I appreciate that he’s making an effort. He’s told me the woman he had an affair with has left the company, and I believe him. I have to.

I take my phone into the bedroom. Amy picks up straight away. ‘I knew you’d call,’ she says. ‘What do you think?’ ‘The party on the Saturday, is that just us lot, or are you inviting all your friends? Is it a proper party, that’s what I mean.’ ‘No, just us. You haven’t read the invitation correctly. Can you see the word party? It’s more of a gathering, a select few of my old friends.’ ‘Are you sure? It’s your thirty-fifth, Amy, and you’ve just been given the all-clear. I thought you’d be having a Kate Moss-style blowout lasting at least a week.’ ‘You’ve not been on social media lately, have you? You need to keep up.

Kate’s calmed down a lot in recent years, and so have I. Everything feels different now. I still can’t believe the past year isn’t a dream.’ ‘I wish it was, Ames, you don’t know how much.’ I was the first person Amy told about the lump she’d found – smaller than a pea, most likely nothing – and I was the one who accompanied her to the hospital when she was asked to come in to discuss the results of her tests, who held her hand and asked all the questions Amy was too shocked to ask. But work meant I couldn’t be there every time she went for a round of chemotherapy, and her vast support network stepped in. Just over twelve months later, she is in remission and her life has changed. She stepped down from her post as head of English at a secondary school and now teaches part-time only, spending her spare time training to be a yoga teacher. ‘I don’t,’ Amy says. ‘My priorities have changed, and I know what’s important.

’ Hence the toned-down celebration. ‘Are you sure? Never mind your birthday, you’ve got so much else to celebrate. There’s nothing wrong with having a party.’ ‘I am sure,’ she tells me. ‘I want to be with my closest friends.’ ‘I know exactly what you’re doing,’ I say, curling into the armchair. ‘It’s not a party, it’s a reunion.’ She doesn’t respond. ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ ‘Yes. I’ve given it a lot of thought.

We need closure, and I’ve thought of a way of getting it.’ ‘How—’ ‘No questions, Lou, it’s a surprise. You know you can trust me, right?’ ‘I guess.’ My mind is whirring with possibilities of what she might be planning. ‘I saw Kat had replied, but not Daisy. Has she rung you?’ ‘No, not yet.’ Silence lingers between us. I’m working out the best way to phrase what I want to say when Amy speaks. ‘I know going back there is difficult, but it’s really important to me, Lou. Inheriting this cottage feels like a sign.

As if my aunt is trying to tell me something. We were close back then. She moved abroad around the time I finished uni.’ While Kat went travelling after graduation, and Daisy and I went home to our parents, wanting comfort food and parental pampering – we needed nurturing back to life – Amy never had anyone to look out for her, given her mother’s poor health. It took her a while to work out what she wanted to do as a career, and teacher training made perfect sense. She had the gift of relating to people, and a strong desire to help and motivate others, to build communities. Hence the reunion. ‘What about the location, Amy? Do you really want to go down that route? It’s right on the edge of the forest.’

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