A family party
A FAMILY PARTY
Phillipa pushed the multi-flowered duvet down a few crucial inches, opened one blue eye and turned it cautiously towards the window, her first thought of the day – a prayer for sunshine. This day needed sunshine.
The sky was clear, dawn spreading over Wiltshire slowly, not in any hurry, but clear and cloudless. All would be well. She wriggled her toes in anticipant pleasure, yawned, stretched, gave Max a friendly dig in the ribs and jumped out of bed.
“Max – wake up – it’s the day – come on lazy-bones.”
She scuffled into her elegant Italian slippers and pattered cheerfully downstairs to organise boiled eggs, whole-meal toast and the coffee pot. By the time Max had regained his senses and plodded downstairs to enjoy the fruits of Phillipa’s labours it was eight o’clock and the highly organised day had indeed begun. He grinned at her.
“Think she knows yet?”
“Not a hope – we’ve all been so careful – even the children.”
They had a convivial chuckle as they drank their coffee.
“Give me an hour at the office Philly, and then we’ll be off. Come to think of it – its at least two years since the whole family were together.”
Max laughed, happy memories filling his thoughts.
“I’m really looking forward to this evening. Elsa’s quite a girl.” He gave his wife an engulfing hug and dashed off to the office.
Phillipa tidied up the remains of breakfast and turned her mind to ‘what-to-wear-and how to pack it.’ What would Elsa be wearing? Something devastatingly smart she had no doubt. When she married into this family all those years ago Phillipa hadn’t counted on the bonus of a beloved sister-in-law. Over the years the bond had become firm and treasured. Never having had siblings of her own, she took great pleasure in Max’s wild collection.
A hair-wash first she decided and ran cheerfully up-stairs.
“Oh - Don’t do that to me.” groaned Pru as an egg flew out of her wet hands and splattered stickily onto the pristine floor. It was already nine-thirty, and although she had jumped out of bed full of vigour and progressive ideas, things had not, somehow, gone to plan. She felt that her carefully purchased ingredients were ganging up on her. Surly tomatoes refusing to part with their skins, asparagus obstinately clinging to particles of earth, even the chickens refused to cook as quickly as they should. Several hard-boiled eggs had cracked in the boiling water, and oozy blisters bubbled untidily to the surface.
Her two hour start had frittered away, and now, to cap it all, she could hear the family pouring down-stairs like an un-stoppable avalanche; the children in their usual mixture of inside-out shirts and lost socks; John yelling “Who’s been at my razor?” and just to prove that someone had – peering over the banister with a crimson globule blossoming on his chin. Not unlike the egg-whites mused Pru as she hastily set the breakfast table for what was usually a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast. Not this morning though. There seemed too much to do and too little time to do it in.
Fortified by orange juice and a piece of toast, she pushed the plunger down into the cafetiera and poured herself a mug of life-saving coffee. Her bright blue mug read “Best Cook in Britain”. Shuddering, she turned her back on the bulging egg-whites and for the hundredth time mentally counted the number of people coming to Elsa’s seventieth birthday party.
John’s lively, elegant Mother was, unbelievably, seventy. She didn’t look as one imagines a seventy year old should look. She wore jeans and trainers. Whatever the hairstyle of the day was – she had it. Slim and attractive, golf-playing and invariably busy, the years did not seem to have caught up with her.
As Pru sat sipping her coffee from her blue mug in Sussex, the object of her affectionate thoughts was walking her over-enthusiastic setter on the shores of the Solent. While her ecstatic dog hurled himself fruitlessly at passing sea-gulls she leant pensively on an upturned boat and admired the day.
Morning sun was flickering across water busy already with a rash of multi-coloured sails, even at this hour, contrasting serenely with the soft relaxed swish ofm a lazy tide on the pebble-cast shore. She was enjoying the fact that it was her birthday. She had opened all her cards – admiring the pretty ones, laughing at the cheeky – a bit surprised at one or two, but it was friendly rudery and not to be taken amiss.
She could take nothing amiss today. It was a ‘Gods in his Heavan, alls right with the world’ day today. A day for lovely things, happy things. She supposed that somewhere there was unhappiness – it was inevitable – sadly. But not for her. Not today. It was a perfect day for a birthday. The thought made her laugh.
She was going to Pru and John’s tonight. As it was her birthday she presumed that they would be taking her to the fashionable culinary kingdom down the road, and with this in mind had been to the hair-dresser, and made the rash purchase of an exotic burgundy dinner dress; slim fitting and shot through with gold thread.
“Madam looks stunning” the sales-girl had twittered, offering her a smile of complete inconsequence.
‘What a silly creature I am.’ Elsa thought as she left the shop carrying a stylish black carrier-bag embellished with gold tassels, and looking a lot more confident than she ought to have felt……’Stunning indeed – at my age I ought to know better!’ But she had driven home with a light heart, ridiculously pleased with her purchase.
This morning, as she leant on the old boat and threw sticks for her enthusiastic dog, Elsa was completely unaware of all the activities taking place elsewhere..
Soon the whole family would be on the move. At that moment they were gathering their various contributions. Flowers were being chosen, with morning dew still enhancing their radiance. Exotic food was being carefully packed into cool boxes, and birthday presents paraded for a last inspection before the shiny ribbons held their secrets.
Phillipa lowered a flower-laden cake into its box and carried it to the car, where it fitted neatly beside Max’s wellingtons and the suit-cases. She added his anorak, knowing that he loved walking with his sister and her crazy dog. Then, sure she had remembered everything, she started the engine and drove to Max’s office to collect her workaholic husband.
He invariably went to the office on a Saturday, it was a habit Phillipa had never managed to break him of. Although far from deserted, the building was a great deal quieter than during the week. And he could work un-interrupted.
Phillipa parked the car under a tree in the interests of the cake and went to collect him. There was no-one in the entrance hall which was unusual, but there seemed to be plenty of activity at the top of the broad stairway. She made her way up to investigate.
The sun was falling quietly behind low lying hills and distant trees. Curtains were enclosing family teas, and street-lights opening their eyes to the night.
John sauntered down the stairs, straightening his bow-tie, and put a Gershwin tape on low. Pru. Beautiful in emerald green, took a last look at the candle-lit table of culinary perfection, poured herself a glass of wine, and joined him in the hall. Since Elsa had arrived and been persuaded that a long, hot, perfumed bath was just what she needed the house had been alive with activity. Flowers emerged from the garage, candles from cupboards, food from fridges and cool corners. Guests gathered giggling in the porch.
Elsa came down the stairs just as the door burst open and everyone she loved most dearly crowded in to wish her “Happy birthday.” The party had begun.
Phillipa was the last to arrive, struggling to keep the cake on an even keel as she pushed her way through the throng of family and old friends. Her sister-in-law had already flung her arms around everyone else, and was surrounded by the younger generation, all talking to her at once as she opened her presents. A laughing red-headed daughter spotted Phillipa as she rushed past to the kitchen with the cake.
“Mum - At last! We thought you were lost – where’s Dad?”
“Phillipa darling – whoops – mind the cake. What a wonderful one – its beautiful. Where’s that dreadful brother of mine?”
Elsa extracted herself from a sea of tissue-paper and twirling ribbons to give her sister-in-law a resounding kiss.
Phillipa handed the cake over to willing hands and gave Elsa a hug.
“Happy birthday. Poor Max. You know him and that wretched office. He was just about to leave when the Japanese delegation arrived – forty-eight hours early. He was so cross, but there was nothing he could do about it.”
“Oh - Honestly Mum – he is the limit. You should have made him come – even if he had to bring the Japanese.”
Before Phillipa could reply her daughter had vanished into the crowd and Elsa was once more engulfed in children and tissue paper.
It was midnight. Candles were burning low on the pedestals. Dishes straggled lonely wisps of lettuce, and glasses, mostly empty, were dotted around the room, abandoned by their owners. Elsa sat back in the deepest arm-chair and eased the shoes off two weary feet.
“Ooh!” She stretched her legs and wriggled her toes with a comfortable yawn. It had been a magical party. How she loved her ramshackle family.
She ruefully shook her head at the thought of her over-worked brother missing all the fun. She knew Phillipa worried about him. He really was the limit not coming – even if he had brought the Japanese. She laughed at the thought, but she had missed him. They had always been so close. Dear Max. She’d phone him tomorrow and tick him off. Now she must go and help Pru with the tidying up.
A mile down the road Phillipa sat in her car under a leafy tree.. Icy cold and shaking. A velvet wrap lay on the seat beside her, but she hadn’t thought of putting it on. She couldn’t release her hands from their grip on the steering wheel.
She had kept her secret well..; even the children had suspected nothing.
Tomorrow she would tell them. Max would never have forgiven her if she’d spoilt Elsa’s party.
“Oh, my darling.” She whispered. “I shall be so full of fears without you. Give me the strength to tell them. They all love you so much. Will they ever forgive me for lying?”
When the trembling eased at last the tears came. Since they had taken her, gently, into her husband’s office, she had not allowed herself to absorb the shock. Now it engulfed her.
But the party had been wonderful. It had been Elsa’s day, and she knew in her aching heart that she had been right not to spoil it
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