It was most certainly one for my daughter-in-law. She knew she was turning 40, but had not a scooby about the plans forming around her. They fluttered like scarves in a breeze for weeks, months, between those of us in the know, secrets on a huge scale, a mighty gathering of family and friends from faraway lands. So very easy to name one of them in error, a slipped word, a ‘see you next weekend’ kind of slip, but no-one did. She had no idea. Continuing with her busy life, her children’s dancing dates and what to cook for dinner, the dog, the cat, the husband, the ordinary hysterics and calm in a young family’s daily life, she must have had moments of questioning. Why was her man being so furtive, disappearing off to meetings from which she, as business partner, was excluded? Perhaps he had gone off her? Was he heading for a breakdown, perhaps, because he sure sounded like he was going to explode any time soon?
As we all hid in the hallway and up the stairs in silence, she arrived. Her face was a picture and it was worth the travel just to see that. Her dad and brothers from the Netherlands, her aunt from the States, my huge family, her friends from Englandshire and a turbulent bundle of little boys and girls all erupted into Happy Birthday to You, in various keys. Let the weekend begin. Let the sun shine. And it did.
Each part of each day was to be a surprise. The meet for lunch in a lovely beach café for fish and chips; the games on the sand, the dogs romping in and out of the waves, the talking, laughing, sharing. The first night in a stunning pine built lodge with enough food to feed a whole village. I met up with young friends I had first laughed with many years ago, before they had partners, before children and the ‘behave yourself’ life took a hold of them. I could still see the fun in their eyes, that party sparkle and I could see them in the faces of their little ones. The woodburner warmed the big room as we settled into the evening. And, still, there were secrets.
CrossFit. Well, I wasn’t going to join that bit of the morning, a 0600 start, but many did and they returned flushed and panting and wanting to go again. I don’t think I was ever like that, even as a young woman, and I am impressed that anyone does it at all, let alone joining in Spartan Races and the like. Running up mountains with bricks on my back just isn’t me, but I could see how the challenge and the being together through it all is so much more healthy than meeting at the pub for a pint. We had an hour or two to rest up before having to be on site by 6pm for the next secret. Dressed for a dazzling night out, we teetered through a spiteful wind and into the venue. It looked like Disneyland. Tables laid, lights flickering, the band ready to go and fizzy pop in fine tall glasses as a welcome. Suddenly, the word came through that everyone, that is EVERYONE!, needs to sit down right now. The guest of honour will be here in five minutes. Through the glass doors, we watched, again in silence, all 130 of us, as she walked into the courtyard on her husband’s arm, looking like she was on the catwalk, which she often is and wearing heels that lifted her head into the clouds. She and her friend had a thing going about heels. Something to do with a long history of who-is-the-tallest-model-in-the-room. I got a stiff neck talking to either of them, standing, as I do, barefoot and shortarse. As we all rose, on command, to our feet, still in silence, she caught sight of us. Well, you can hardly miss 130 pairs of eyes all staring out at you. Her lovely face crumpled with emotion as the light dawned.
There was music. There was dancing. There were speeches, videoed messages from those who couldn’t come and a group of ballerinas from the Edinburgh Academy who performed a very moving piece. My favourite bit was the video of my two little grand-daughters, with their dad, singing (in a recording studio) that lovely song from the Greatest Showman – the one about a thousand dreams. Not a dry eye in the house for that one.
And so it went on.
Making the journey, in secret, was worth every complication. To gift such a gift takes an enormous amount of planning and a can-do attitude. It takes careful consideration, furtive meetings with caterers and venues and helpers and co–ordination of a hundred different facets. But he did it. He did it for her. And that is the most wonderful thing of all.
The young guests, whose partners are nearing this golden age of 40 are now wondering if Tea with The Neighbours is going to be enough. In fact, I think it’s bothering them a lot.