George had greeted the approach of his 60th birthday with a gloomy sense of the inescapability of fate. It wasn’t so much Time’s winged chariot at his back, or the whisper of the Reaper’s scythe at his front – it was more the knowledge that Harriet was going to be Planning Something. There had been brochures. She’d been talking to the children. She’d been on ruddy Facebook.
Left to his own devices – indeed, given anything so unlikely as a choice – George would spend the first evening of his 61st year in front of the golf with a bottle of especially good claret and poached eggs on toast. He’d allow himself, as a present, one of the rare cigarettes of which his doctor disapproved and his health-obsessed wife downright anathematised.
In the event, though, Harriet had settled on what – he consoled himself – was only the second most ghastly thing she could have thought up: a weekend in a spa hotel with Jeff and Ellie Burton. Ellie was a bore, but she and Harriet got on, and George had known Jeff since university. Their relationship was companionable rather than close, but Harriet had decided that they were best friends and so that was that. Not ideal, then. But better than a whole house full of the old friends he had spent the past 15 years trying to shed.
When he arrived at Bupton Manor, however, he found that Harriet had laid on a range of “treatments”, that the hotel was alcohol-free and the menu entirely macrobiotic, and that he was expected to spend a weekend padding about in a towelling dressing gown: he was wondering if the worst had not, in fact, already happened.
He telephoned his PA, covertly, on the Friday night. “Madeleine, this is an emergency.” The scheme he outlined was a simple one: Madeleine was to call the following morning with news of an urgent, fictitious meeting that was to take place back in London on Saturday evening, to catch a key client in transit between Stockholm and São Paulo. (This wasn’t implausible: George might be reaching retirement age, but after four decades in the Square Mile he had no intention of retiring.) He would make his excuses, hop on a train and be in his own armchair with a large Scotch by half past six.
That end of the plan went smoothly. Just in time, too: “breakfast” had been an unspeakable sage and prune infusion called, ominously, “Cleanse”. “Bad news, I’m afraid, darling…” He’d offered the necessary grimacing regrets – “If it wasn’t absolutely necessary… No, I won’t hear of you coming back. You chaps stay and enjoy the weekend, I insist. Yes, it is the most godawful luck…” – and bolted for the station with a song in his heart. On the train back from Somerset he browsed an old Bulldog Drummond, and barely looked up as a helicopter passed low overhead.
He let himself into their house on Regent’s Park. It was unusually empty, the staff having been given the weekend off. Bliss. George crossed the parquet purposefully and made straight for the soda siphon, palming a cigarette from his top pocket as he went and tucking it behind his ear. Scotch in first – a large one. Now, just a splosh of… and at that very moment a loud bang startled him half to death. His tumbler clattered to the floor and lukewarm soda water squirted down the front of his shirt and trousers.
He looked wonderingly about him. There was – confetti, was it? – sifting through the air. And a fusillade of what he would later identify as party-poppers. And then – where had the buggers sprung from? – all around him were faces he recognised and wished he didn’t convulsed in mirth and yelling: “Surrrrr-PRIIIIIIISE!”
Square-on in the doorway, holding hands and laughing, were Harriet and Madeleine.
“Happy birthday, darling,” said Harriet, smiling a smile in which affection and triumph mingled in roughly the proportions of vermouth to gin in a good martini.
“Sorry, boss,” said Madeleine. “Harriet nobbled me first. She knew you’d call me. She had the whole thing worked out.”
George arranged his face into the best imitation of good humour it was, under the circumstances, capable of. Then there was a moment.
“Darling?” said Harriet. “Are you quite all right?” George’s stomach made a sound audible from the next county and he felt something molten in his bowels. Oh, Lord. “Cleanse”, he realised with horror, was about to gatecrash his party.