George Powell had just climbed out of the bath when Jack Owen rang. He reeked of Carol's Jasmine soap. His wife had taken the twins shopping and afterwards she would treat them to a meal at a new pizza parlour. She'd been vague about the shopping. George hadn't pressed her or given his customary warning about overspending, didn't want to influence the cost of his fortieth birthday present, if that was what she was up to. She and the kids were going on to her mother’s, something about ma-in-law needing a perm. He’d felt a bit off about it at first, it being his birthday, but then he decided that time alone would be good. It didn’t happen very often and anyway they could make up for it later on. It was one of the reasons he’d had an early bath, he didn’t want the smell of sweat and toil putting her off.
The run downstairs left a trail of snowy froth where his feet hit the carpet. He'd wrapped a white bath sheet around him but hadn't stopped to remove any surplus suds. He could smell the beef casserole warming in the oven, smiled because Carol hadn't neglected his welfare; even the fridge was stocked with her latest batch of baking. Much as he loved them George looked forward to some quality time before his noisy family descended to shatter the peace.
He barked ‘Hello’ into the phone, hoping to convince the caller that he wasn’t willing to chat, but when he heard Jack’s voice he made an effort to soften his tone.
Jack's invitation to accompany him to the Duke's Feathers was not well received. 'Not tonight, mate. I'm just about to sample Carol's stew and while I've got the place to myself I want to get stuck into that new book I bought. Don't get much chance to read when the twins are around.' Picking up a psychedelic pencil with a rubber shaped like a giraffe's head on the end, he doodled on the message pad while he listened to Jack outlining his day with Samantha and Mary-Jane and thought yet again what a fiend Louise was to limit her husband's access days to one a month. He'd be inconsolable if he didn't see Gill and Kenny every day.
By the time Jack rang off, George was perfectly dry. Casting his eyes downwards he studied his form. Not a bad figure for an oldie; neither a blemish nor a bulge of excess fat to worry about. The tan of last year's holiday was holding, though he was naturally swarthy. With his hair so wavy and dark he could easily have been mistaken for a man of Eastern birth.
Overlooking his nakedness, he went into the kitchen to stuff the towel in the washing machine. The smell in there was mouth-watering. 'Five more minutes,' he said, patting the oven door, 'and you'll be devoured.' He didn’t know that Michael Abbott had arrived at his back door until he went to leave the room and saw him through the window. Uttering a few profanities, he retrieved the towel and secured it around his waist.
'Why are you lurking in my garden?' he demanded as he eased open the door.
Mike pushed past his friend. 'Glad to see you're all dressed up, George. Expecting someone special?'
Slamming the door to, George turned the key. 'Expecting no-one. Can’t a man have a bath without the whole neighborhood dropping in? Anyway, you shouldn't be here, you should be at home preparing Gloria's tea.'
'If she wants tea, she can stop working late.'
George's skin was a mass of goose bumps. 'Do me a favour, Michael, make a drink of tea or something while I get some clothes on.' Clutching the towel to his abdomen he went towards the door, but there he turned. 'Fancy a bit of stew?' he asked.
Straddling a chair, Michael Abbott inwardly feared that his efforts to get George out of the house were about to fail. 'Why, that's what I want to know. Since when has reading taken priority over drinking?'
'Jeepers, Mike, can't you take no for an answer?'
'There's going to be a disco.'
'At the Feathers? Have they gone mad?'
'Not much of a thing, shouldn't think, but it'd be a bit of fun. Look at all the ladies you could ogle in Carol’s absence.'
'I'd rather have a quiet drink.'
'Ah. Does that mean you'll come?'
George slammed his book on the table and got to his feet. 'I suppose I won't get a minute's peace if I don't, just don't expect me to jig about like a moron. You can do what you like. I'll just watch.'
George's idea of dressing-up was wildly off-course. Mike was horrified when he saw him wearing casual gear, baggy green cords and an overlarge grey Shetland jumper.
'Christ, George, you're not exactly dressed for dancing.'
'I'm going drinking not dancing.'
Mike could feel the sweat inside his collar. This conspiracy lark was becoming a real chore. Fifteen minutes ago George had suggested they wait for Carol and the twins. Mike had a devil of a job persuading him otherwise. He indicated that Carol might veto the trip and when George told him that Carol would never do that, Mike resorted to prevarication, hinting at a prearranged assignation. George had chortled for a good minute. And now there was this problem with his dress. George was already unhooking his Barber from the back of the kitchen door.
'Dressed like that, my friend will think you're an odd-ball,' Mike said, tongue in cheek.
'If Carol doesn't mind the informal look, why should your bit of on the side complain?’
'She's very fussy.'
'Can't be if she's knocking around with you.'
Mike tried pleading and was surprised when it worked. Giving unprintable utterances, George sailed off to change. Three minutes later he emerged looking as spruce as he did on Sundays when he and the family went to church.
'Will I do?
The shabby upstairs function room was transformed. Pennants adorned the insipid magnolia painted walls, screaming HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GEORGE in noisy colours; yet it was artistically done, Carol having arranged the banners in symmetrical order. It had been easier than expected getting out of the house, under the pretext of taking the twins for a meal. George had been so engrossed in his book had had merely nodded when she said where she was going, as if he was only half listening. Ordinarily she would have badgered him for not paying attention, but his lack of response had suited her today.
Carol finished laying the food on long tables and stood back to admire the arrangement. In the language of the twins, the smell of the food was yummy. Carol had put the cake, baked and iced by Chrissy Brown, on a mount draped with white muslin. Oval platters borrowed from Holly Harris, the road’s newest resident, were flush with five varieties of crust-free sandwiches. Bowls of salad were strategically placed midst quiches, sausage rolls, chicken legs, and miniature pork pies. Eddy Brown, the landlord had seen to the glasses and the drinks. It was the first time she had planned a surprise party and it would probably be the last. She found it exhausting and decidedly nerve-racking.
Thinking of Jack's assignment, to escort the unwitting George, Carol crossed her fingers and prayed they wouldn't arrive before eight-thirty. By that time the guests should be installed; all of them had promised to be there no later than eight-fifteen. She expected Jack any minute. He was to deliver the balloons on his way to collect George. She would go through the timing then. There wasn't much more to do. She and the twins were already dressed in their party gear, covered by commodious aprons to keep them clean.
Jack crept into the room as if stealth was the prevailing rule, looking to all sides as if expecting George himself to be there. He was overloaded with oblong boxes of assorted balloons, some securely wedged under his arms and the rest carried like laden trays.
The twins, Gill and Kenny, tittered in the corner, childishly regarding their pseudo uncle as a bit of a numskull. They had been detailed to wrap cutlery in paper napkins but Kenny was bored with the task. For him, Jack's furtive entrance had provided a welcome break in the tedium of preparation. He wanted the excitement to start. All this groundwork was dreary.
Carol questioned Jack about George. 'Can I check what time you'll be bringing him?'
'I'm not. He refused to come out. Said he wanted to finish his book -'
'I see.' Carol worriedly laboured the words. She had felt so sure George would accept Jack's invitation to join him for a drink she hadn't concocted another method of getting him there without him knowing why.
Jack grinned at her panic-stricken expression. 'Don't worry. Mike's dealing with it; he's more persuasive than me. I think he's there now.'
Carol ran her fingers through her blonde curls, breathing out in relief. 'Phew. I thought for a minute the plan was ruined.'
Gillian had got the knack of wrapping cutlery. She could wrap and roll four complete sets in the time it took Kenny to do one. She enjoyed the task. It made her feel important, as if she was helping to move the plot along. 'I was wondering, Mum. If the lights are out when Dad gets here, how will we see his face.' Gillian was a stickler for having every detail in black and white.
'By the corridor light when he opens the door.'
'What if Uncle Mike comes in first.'
'He won't,' Jack said. 'He'll be a gentleman and usher your Dad in first.' Using a pump, he began to inflate the balloons.
Kenny considered that rather more worthwhile than wrapping cutlery. 'Can I do some, Uncle Jack?'
'Sure can, Kenny. Just let me get a few ready to string up and then you can take over.'
Kenny shrieked, 'Yes,' and executed the salute of power.
'I don't consider pumping a few balloons a major achievement, Kenny.'
'Aw, Mum. It's got to be better than the sissy job you've had me doing.'
Eyebrows raised, Carol looked at Jack. 'His father all over.'
Mike Abbott was barely listening as George lauded the achievements of the Edrington football team, his mind was focused on getting his friend to the pub; that and wondering if Gloria would make it in time for a bit of a jig.
He didn’t seem to see much of his wife now their working hours had changed. It was a case of him coming home as she went out which wasn’t conducive to a contented life. If they’d had kids it might have been different. The guys thought he was daft to put up with it. Jack was always telling him to make a stand, not that he could talk much. Look what happened to him. On his own. Two kids he rarely saw. An ex-wife who fleeced him blind. At least Glo was still with him. Just never there when he needed her. He was coming up the same age as George but what a difference in their circumstances. Maybe he should make a stand.
'Hey Mike, there's Andy. I hear his wife’s gone astray. Let's go and say hello.’
Hearing George’s suggestion dragged Mike back to the present. He had a task on his hands and now his friend wanted to go walkabout.
Mike glanced across the road, saw Andy Rowlands sitting on the front step, demoralised and morose. Heaving a sigh he kicked a rolled-up piece of chip paper into the gutter. He didn’t dare look at his watch. He felt pity for the man, knowing as well as anyone what it was like to be left to his own devices by a woman although to be fair to Gloria she was only working. Andy’s wife had gone the whole hog and hopped over to Ireland to keep house for her ageing mother. There was no knowing when she’d be back. Much as he’d like to commiserate he couldn't do it now in case Andy let something slip about tonight. Mike assumed his most persuasive tone. 'We should get on, I think, George. We don't want to miss the start.'
'Christopher Columbus! Didn't know there was a bloody deadline for going to a pub. Opening time's when I get there, what happens before then doesn't matter.'
A collared-dove cooed to its mate. Mike glanced up in case he was in range of a dropping or two. Glo detested the bigger birds. If she heard them she would cover her head with her bag. Mike wondered if she was home yet. She had been out all day, first having her hair trimmed, then lunch with an old school friend whom Mike had never heard of, and then into work. It was about time he made a stand.
'Come on,' George said. 'Won't take a minute to say hello.'
Afraid of making an issue and raising suspicion, Mike reluctantly followed his friend across the road.
'Jen home yet, Andy?' George asked, rather too heartily under the circumstances.
'Seems like she's gone for good. Not heard a word from her in days.' Although he appeared sober, the fumes on Andy's breath were enough to intoxicate anyone who got too close.
'Seems like she's gone for good. Not heard a word from her in days.' Although he appeared sober, the fumes on Andy's breath were enough to intoxicate anyone who got too close.
'No phone call?' asked Mike.
Andy shook his head. 'No bloody telegram either.'
George asked if there was anything they could do, and Mike surreptitiously tugged his arm as a reminder that their presence was required elsewhere.
'George said, ‘Tell you what, Ray, Mike and I are off to the Feather's. I'll give you a ring later. See if you're all right.'
'Yeah, forgot it was the big do. Hope you enjoy it.'
Mike cringed. He had known it wasn't wise to stop and talk. Drawing George away, he steered him back across the road and towards the corner.
'Andy knows more than me, Mike. Fancy him knowing about a do at the Feathers when he never goes in there.'
The twins sniggered as they clung to Carol, crushing the blue velvet to her legs and impeding her own movements. Sometimes they wailed mischievously that they didn't like the dark, sometimes they issued spook-like moans. The function room had been plunged in darkness when the lookout, landlord Eddy Brown, sighted Mike and George coming across the car park. His cry of 'They're here' had carried up the stairs, sending the occupants of the party-goers into a stew of seething hurly-burly. Gillian and Kenny had flown to Carol's side screeching 'Daddy's here, Daddy's here.' To shut them up, Carol clamped her hands over their mouths and hauled them backwards to a recess near the door from where she intended they would spring out on George before Jack switched on the lights.
There wasn't a sound on the upper storey of the Feathers and with the staircase meanly lit there was a ghostly quality to the place. Influenced by the atmosphere Mike moved stealthily in the shadows, but George stomped noisily up the narrow stairs, complaining about the absence of Eddy Brown and the contrary way he had of running a disco. 'What about tickets, eh?' Surely anyone with an ounce of sense would know there should be tickets. How else can he monitor the crowd.'
With George in the lead, the two men climbed the second flight. Mike ignored George's grievances and his uncertainties about an evening out he didn't want in the first place. Half way up, George paused and contemplated the closed doors ahead. 'There’s not even a chink of light. At a rough guess I'd say the place was in darkness. You sure you got the date right?'
'I'm beginning to wonder,' Mike said, easing past George. 'Wait here while I investigate.' He started up the stairs. 'Perhaps I got the room wrong. Perhaps it's the one at the back.'
George trailed after Mike. 'Can't be. We'd have heard the music on the way in.'
Arriving at the door, standing as far back as the cramped space would allow, Mike cupped his ear with his hand in pretence of listening. George, however, was at the end of his tether. Groaning with exasperation he shoved Mike aside and rammed open the heavy door.
George blinked as instant illumination penetrated the gloom. 'What the Hanover ….'
Jubilant applause interrupted him, demolishing the lumbering silence. Mike propelled him through the doorway as cries of Surprise and Happy Birthday emanated from the bosom of the crowded room.
Carol stepped towards him, holding out a glass of champagne. 'Happy 40th, darling,' she said. The DJ played Happy Birthday and the guests chanted in tune.
Wishing he could think up a witty response, George took the glass from his wife, drank deeply until he felt the twins' arms go round his waist. Looking down at Kenny and Gill he saw their excitement, saw how much they were enjoying his astonishment. His heart filled up with tenderness.
In three years, Mikey had not once missed Gloria's homecoming. Until today. The living room was empty and as tidy as when she left that morning. No littering of mugs and not a newspaper in sight. Mikey had clearly been out all day. Gloria let out a sigh. After all her efforts to get off work early, he wasn’t here. For a few moments she contemplated the vacant room, endeavoring to establish a reason for her husband's unexpected absence.
Gloria hung her coat in the downstairs closet and kicked off her shoes. What fun it would be to turn the tables and accuse Mikey of always being late. She could tease him about an elicit love affair. Her mother always said shrewdest safeguard for one's transgressions was to attack although Gloria didn’t think there was any reason for either. Even though it wasn't true, Mikey would blush to his auburn-flecked hair roots. Gloria giggled at the thought, but the giggle petered out when a whit of unease threatened to take the triumph away. She couldn’t imagine where he was.
She trusted her husband implicitly. He would no more go off the rails than take up skydiving. As for her job, she’d given the evening shift a try and now decided it wasn’t for her. She was basically a home bird and it wasn’t as if they needed the extra money. She’d told Jeremy today that she wanted to switch back to mornings. He was a reasonable boss and he’d agreed that she could do the switch next week. It would be so much better to work when Mike worked instead of living life like one of those German weather clocks. The little lady going in as her man was going out. Her grandmother had one once. Gloria used to sit and watch it, mesmerised, waiting for them to change round. Well, she didn’t want her life to go on like that. Maybe now she’d changed her hours things would improve.
Gloria perched on the arm of the chair and peered through the window, nervously drumming her foot against the skirting board. Her wine glass had been empty for a while but she still held it in her hand. Faint household sounds broke the silence: the fridge switching on, the whirr of the electric clock. For once, rather than suffer the eerie stillness, she would have chosen to listen to Mikey's crazy operettas.
The road outside was deserted. Not even a car passed by. Where the heck was he? Oh god, what if he’d had an accident. She dismissed the thought on the grounds that someone would have been in touch if he had. He always carried ID. What if he was with another woman? How would she cope with something like that? He might be a bit silly sometimes but she loved him desperately, she’d die if he found another woman.
Unable to sit there any longer, Gloria moved away from the window. Tension soared inside her. If she didn't do something she'd pass out with worry. Mikey couldn’t be far away. She had rung Jack and George several times. No reply. Gloria went to the fridge for more wine. Replacing the carton she closed the door and leaned against it, feeling the vibration. Without moving away, she sipped the wine. In a minute she would ring Mikey’s mom to see if he’d gone there.
Just as she put her hand on the receiver, the telephone rang.
Gloria sank to the bottom step of the stairs, her favourite spot when talking on the phone. 'Oh, Mikey,' she cried.
Mike said, 'I thought you were never coming home.' Gloria felt her cheeks flush. 'Guess you forgot about George's party?'
Her face was on fire. George's party!
'Been home long?' enquired Mike.
'Well, get your glad rags on and get over here. You're missing all the fun.'
'Where are you?' Gloria's voice was indistinct.
'At the Feathers, where'd you think. Don't be too long, my sweet. I'm pining for you.'
Gloria remained on the bottom stair for a long time after Michael rang off. Her anxiety quenched, she thought how much she loved that man and what’s more his love for her was once again confirmed.
The high heels and sequined grey dress was perfect. It made her feel sexy. If she played her cards right tonight might be the turning point in her marriage. It wasn’t the ideal outfit for climbing flights of stairs but she felt too relaxed to care. She didn’t think she could blame the wine either. Ever since Mikey rang she’d been on a high, all anxiety so nicely washed away when she heard his voice.
She stopped outside the door, arranged her hair over her shoulders. The music sounded a bit wild and she wondered fleetingly if she’d chosen the wrong gear. Then she thought, to hell with it, Mikey liked mad tunes so she’d just have to talk a bit louder. A smile flickered across her face at the thought of stopping him from yapping on the dance floor. One kiss was all it would take, plus a bit of lingering seduction. Eagerly she pushed open the door .
Michael saw her coming. She looked so beautiful his heartbeats worked overtime. It had been a while since they danced together and he so wanted to feel her in his arms. He pushed through the crowd, his eyes never leaving her face.
George and Carol were locked in an embrace. He looked up as Mike passed, saw the love written on his face, saw who he was heading for. Whispering to Carol he said, ‘Looks like surprises all round. I reckon tonight is going to be one of those happy ever after times for all of us.’