This hadn’t exactly been how she’d wanted it to happen but she’d been planning it for so long that it was too late to change anything now.
She’d followed her own self-imposed rules. Made sure she carried on as if nothing were about to happen; nothing different; nothing strange, unusual, unprecedented, and yet—and yet she hadn’t anticipated this—not from Aiden with his generally sombre demeanour and disinterest in anything other than his football and his pint; how could she possibly have known that he too had been planning something so… so mammoth, so secretive? Without her having noticed something?
Right now, though, she didn’t have time to consider the where, the how, the why-now-of-all-times because, standing here, at the threshold of their kitchen patio doorway and staring at the lights dripping from the branches of their trees; seeing the beaming, expectant faces of friends and family flooding back at her after Aiden flicked the switch and illuminated them all, she began to doubt her meticulous organisation. Oh no. She couldn’t have doubts. Not now.
But how could he? How could he have imagined this would be a good idea? He knew she hated parties; much less a party in her honour and he’d known for years how she’d dreaded leaving her thirties behind. Her eyes, adjusting to the glare from the overhead lights, scanned along the edges of their garden’s boundary where their own trees began to merge with the woodland beyond, her heightened anxiety subsiding only slightly when she realised that—thankfully, no— there wasn’t an emblazoned ‘40’ anywhere to be seen, although there was a very large ‘SOPHIE’ spelled out in dressing-room lights and propped up against the trees.
She’d heard about hearts hitting the floor before, and had known for months that this wasn’t going to be an easy night by any means, but now this… this… what would it be called now? A send-off, more than a surprise Happy Birthday party. Although none of the guests would suspect this might be the last time they’d see her.
He mum was here; her stepdad and her sister. Friends from work, three close friends she’d managed to stay in touch with despite the way she’d increasingly—over the years—alienated herself from social situations. Aiden’s mates were here (of course, with their pint glasses) and their partners; the neighbours and, now, so was she. The star of the show.
She thought of the bag packed and stored safely inside the old washing machine drum at the rear of the garage and bravado filtered back through her veins. She took a glass of champagne from Aiden, planting a kiss on his cheek as if she were shocked and yet delighted at this turn of events; as if they must be as close as happy as the day they’d met. Because that’s what everyone thought; what she made sure everyone saw, not realising they’d been actors on the stage for a long time now. Reading from their scripts, they’d made the right moves, the right sounds, and soaked up the kind of acceptance from their audience that society deemed respectable. It had been a play which had finally run its course and she wondered if Aiden were as exhausted as she had finally found herself.
She made sure she did her bit, though, wandering around the guests, chatting to them; kissing some, hugging others, the blazing letters of her name propped up amongst the trees constantly reminding her who she was and yet also urging her to find out who she might still beciome. During one of her trips inside to freshen up, she’d brought the bag out of the garage and stowed it behind her lighted name in the darkness without anyone noticing.
As Aiden flicked off the lights in preparation for the arrival of the cake, Sophie slipped around the side of the house and made her way over to the bag. Hefting it on one shoulder, she turned and saw her mum parade it from the kitchen to the patio, all forty candles lit and flickering in the dark. She could hear a chorus of “Happy Birthday to you…” beginning to swell and then— on impulse— she dragged the letters ‘S’ and ‘I’ from the ground, dropped them, and rearranged the rest before disappearing into the night.
Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink photo prompt writing competition 22/09/17