The sausage rolls were burnt, but they would do. Stuart, standing back and observing the buffet, smoothed down his ‘Don’t Blame the Cook’ apron and smiled proudly. The mini Yorkshire puddings, filled with creamed horseradish butter and topped with a slither of 32-day aged rare roast beef, were a triumph. And yet, they didn’t detract from the Victoria Sponge, made from his mother’s own recipe, which was the centrepiece of the table, lovingly dusted with icing sugar and punctured with candles that spelt out: ‘Happy 50th Birthday Janet.’ The Cuckoo clock cuckooed four o’clock, so Stuart headed upstairs to change into the suit he’d collected from the dry-cleaners early that morning. The guests would be here soon.
As he glided down the stairs to meet the first guests, Stuart grinned. He’d always stayed away from surprises-they were too messy, too fussy, too wonky-but actually, he now realised he needn’t have worried. His meticulous planning meant that Janet’s surprise party was going to be, he was sure, the talk of the neighbourhood for years to come. The beaming smiles on the faces of the guests-Sue and Alan from the Tennis club, Colin and David from next door, Jason and Beatrice who they’d met on the cote’D’Azur fifteen years ago- as they turned up, laden with bottles of wine and expensive candles, only served to confirm that this would be a surprise party Janet would never forget. Stuart felt as though he had done her proud.
The final guest- Lucy from the bookshop- arrived at 4.32pm. Stuart frowned slightly as he drew a perfectly straight line through ‘Last guest arrival: 4.30pm’ in his notebook, but turned his frown upside down (he loved saying that to the children) as he saw to the next task on his list: Champagne and hiding places. One by one, couple by couple, guests were handed a chilled glass of Champagne (never Prosecco) and then directed to a hiding-place specially chosen by Stuart beforehand. Sue’s recent weight gain meant that she needed lots of space-she went behind the curtains. Beatrice, a recovering alcoholic, was directed to behind the door, well away from the reaches of the champagne, chilling in ice buckets on the table under which Colin and David crouched excitedly.
It was five minutes to five. Janet would be home, as she had been for the past thirty years, at exactly five ‘o’clock. She’d be tired and irritable-as she was getting older, the commute to and from the city was becoming increasingly wearing, but he’d meet her at the door, serene smile on show, hand her a gin and tonic, before kissing her and leading her into the living room where he would rub her feet.
Before getting into his hiding place behind the corner sofa, Stuart made one final check that the guests were perfectly hidden. He saw Sue’s fingers, poking out from behind the curtain and his mind flashed back to the way those fingers felt gripping the hair of his chest two weeks previously, at a hotel in Bath. A reassuring smile from Lucy, as she poked her head up from behind the easy chair made his heart beat: he’d have to feel those lips against his again soon. He smiled knowingly as he saw Beatrice’s tanned arm bent out from behind the door. He gently pushed it back out of view and pressing it affectionately as he did so. She winked back at him and made an obscene gesture her husband wouldn’t have understood.
Janet had found out about the surprise party two weeks before- Sue had blurted it out clumsily during their Sunday morning yoga class. Outside, she strode up the garden path. In her left hand she clutched at photographs she’d been sent that morning from a Private Investigator she’d found online. Slowly and deliberately, she laid each of the photographs out on the doorstep: Stuart leaving a sushi restaurant with Beatrice; Stuart passionately embracing Lucy in the window of a Winchester hotel room; Stuart laying his head on Sue’s shoulders at a race meeting in Somerset.
Happy with the door-step collage of her husband’s infidelity, Janet walked back to the car and fetched a container. Back at the door step, she emptied petrol onto the photographs and sloshed the remainder against the bottom of the oak door Stuart had begged her to buy back in 1989. She took a box of matches from her pocket, lit a match and threw it onto the photographs. Only when the flames began to lick at the door did she let out a snigger.
“Surprise”, she muttered.