Short Story: Birthday ghosts.

Hilary looked around the empty hall with some satisfaction. Everything was ready. The marquee was up, the sun was shining, and the little village hall had never looked better than it did now, with its jam jars of wild flowers, card tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths and home made heart shaped bunting. It had been a good idea to hire somewhere up here even if people would have to drive a bit further. Greg had got the projector working and there was a distracting clunk each time an image from her past emerged onto the white wall. There were ghostly grey fragments of holidays, smiling people, strange frocks and big hair, a stream of consciousness taking in fifty years of success and failure. Of course only success managed to flicker its way onto the peeling plaster just below the roof. There was no photo of the ex husband, no reminders of the affair with the beautiful young twenty year old who broke her heart, no record of her face at the moment she was told she hadn’t got the job which would have made all the difference, and thank God there was no reminder of how it had felt when she took the phone call telling her that her mother had died. The images would look better later on tonight in the darkness, and so did her life when she looked back at it through the distorting lens of its best moments.
“Are you OK mum?”
She turned to look at her son, and did a double take as a photo flashed up behind him and his features morphed into the five year old tiny king who had clutched his gift too tightly in the nativity play so that his fingers tore the paper, and worried about how to say frankincense.
“I said are you OK?”
“I’m fine.”
For a long time Hilary had told anybody who asked, and there weren’t many, that she would not be doing anything at all for her fiftieth birthday. It had been Greg who had insisted that she must celebrate and fear of a surprise party had finally forced her to agree. His blues band was providing the music and she had asked him to sack the drummer for the evening and play some Otis Redding and Bessie Smith. Quietly.
“I’ll get off then, if we’re all set. You know how to switch the projector off don’t you? Just don’t move any of the slides. Took me ages to sort it out.”
A quick wave of his hand and he was gone. He hadn’t asked if his father would be there. Since Hilary had not mentioned the invitation which she had sent he would be assuming not. She wondered if she should have told him about it. Probably, but after all it was her birthday, her half century, her business. He would have been expecting the wrong father in any case. There was no way she was allowing Keith through that door. As soon as she had looked into Greg’s eyes, seconds after he had been born, she had known that he was Sam’s child.
“He won’t come”, she told the empty hall defiantly. It was a stupid thing to do but it wasn’t going to make any difference. Bloody internet. People didn’t stay in the past where you had filed them away any more. All you had to do was click send in a moment of weakness and they were ready to jump out of cyberspace and bite you on the bum. She switched off the projector, bringing her past to a grinding uncertain halt, and rushed home to change into her black satin dress from Ghost. They wouldn’t know it came off Ebay…….would they?
The party had been going for well over an hour before Hilary began to relax. People had turned up, the buffet tables had been filled after all, and the guests were mostly settled with paper plates full of food in front of them. She had said hello and made polite conversation with almost a hundred of them. Duty had been done and now she could begin to think about letting her hair down. Greg, the one who had got her into all this, was doing his usual thing and lurking behind his amplifiers, having sent his new girlfriend, an earnest Goth, out into the hall to get him a six pack of beer. He had talked to nobody, busy in his own world. Finally, in a rush of hastily corrected feedback, the music boomed out and a few people got up to dance. She watched as her scruffy uncommunicative son came to life in front of the mike. Things were going well. She had got away with it. She might even get her best friend Susie up for a dance later.
Hilary was so busy being pleased with herself that she almost walked straight into Sam on her way outside for some fresh air.
“Hilary? You’re looking good.”
For a few seconds she stared at him while her brain rearranged the features of a good looking, sandy haired twenty five year old into the face of a man approaching middle age with silver flecked hair and the beginnings of a paunch. He was holding out a small package. She took it and thanked him, wondering what to with it and, more to the point, what to do with him.
“What the hell are you doing here? I mean, thank you.”
He laughed. It always did make him laugh when he managed to wrong foot her, she remembered that.
“I was invited.”
Of course he was- stupid thing to say.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
He looked at her wryly and she felt a nostalgic hit of the same charm which had knocked her for six twenty years ago. He still looked good. Well he was bound to have aged wasn’t he? He still looked bloody good. Don’t let him smile, please don’t let him smile.
“Have you brought anyone with you?”
He shrugged.
“Why would I do that?”
Hilary’s stomach flipped as she realised what that might mean, but she wasn’t ready to deal with this, not yet.
“No reason. Look, it’s great to see you, I’d better start circulating. Catch up with you later.”
She turned round at a speed that was far too fast to be dignified, headed to the dark corner where the bottles were piling up, poured herself a large glass of Merlot and went outside to hide herself. It was cool round the far side of the small marquee where the overspill buffet had been set up and you could see up into the woods. John had promised that he would bring his violin and she could hear the theme from Schindler’s list floating out plaintively towards the hills. Thanks John she thought bitterly. Great choice. Of course she could simply let Sam hang around for a while and go home. As if. Just forget it. The band were zipping through Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do back in the hall and she wondered if he would be watching them, and whether he would see himself looking back at him from the stage. No, he wouldn’t, of course he wouldn’t. He didn’t even know that Greg was her son, let alone his. If she wanted him to know, if she wanted Greg to know, then she would have to tell him. And she wasn’t going to do that. Was she? Of course not. She took a deep swig of wine and went back into the hall. After half an hour of flitting around talking about nothing she collapsed into a chair on the edge of the dance floor. Within a few minutes she heard the scrape of a chair and he was next to her, legs stretched out, surveying her with his head on one side.
“So how are you doing then?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Not too shabby. Great band.”
“Do you still play?”
“I play bass in an eighties cover band. My speciality is A Town Called Malice. I’ve been to a hell of a lot of fortieth birthday parties.”
“The singer’s my son Greg.”
Damn. She hadn’t even meant to say that much. Sam nodded and watched Greg as he introduced the final song of the set, Foulsham Prison Blues.
“He’s pretty good. How old is he?”
“Almost twenty. Just about to start his last year at uni.”
“Twenty?”
“It was a rebound thing. Ended up in a crappy marriage.”
He nodded. Hilary drew breath. Sam never liked to think too deeply about things.
“I’ve no kids. I have a bit of a problem with commitment.”
Hilary couldn’t resist it.
“Really?”
He winced.
“Yes, really. It’s what split Joanna and I up as much as anything. She wanted them, I didn’t.”
“You with anyone now?”
Hilary knew that she shouldn’t be asking but since when had she ever been sensible when it came to Sam? He turned and looked her in the eyes.
“No, and I’m guessing you’re not either.”
Suddenly she didn’t have enough breath to speak. He looked at her sharply.
“Thought not. You’re looking well Hils anyway.”
“Thanks.”
As Hilary felt his eyes on her twenty years vanished into dust, and an unwanted private slide show of memories crashed into her head one by one. The time that they had gone up into the sand dunes above Saltburn. The way he would carefully tie up a packet of crisps after he had finished it. The way he could make her laugh about just about anything, even a tiny pot of UHT cream. His hair. His grey jumper. The slam of the door as he left her curled up, sobbing on the floor in the middle of the passageway when he walked out. He had a bloody cheek coming here, invited or not.
“What made you come Sam?”
“I don’t know. Curiosity perhaps? See how you were. Sending a message once in a blue moon didn’t seem enough any more.”
“After twenty years?”
“Why not?”
Why not? That was typical Sam that was. There was a list of reasons as long as your arm why not, but Hilary doubted whether he would want to hear any of them. He shrugged.
“We’re both single. It’s not going to upset anybody.”
“It might upset me. Had you thought about that?”
“I don’t think so.”
He rested his hand on her knee. She felt herself tense up, sending out a message that a few well chosen sentences would not be able to deny, even if she could find the words. Damn.
“Dance?”
Reluctantly Hilary allowed him to take her hand and pull her gently to her feet. Greg’s band were starting their second set with a storming version of Brown Sugar which was just as well. Susie would be wondering what the hell was going on already, without being treated to the sight of the two of them having a slow dance. Thankfully it would take a lot more than a slow dance before Greg would get round to wondering what was happening. Hilary jigged around doggedly, trying to put aside thoughts of exactly what kind of activity between her and Sam might send her son an unambiguous message. She could still feel that hand on her knee. Finally, after three songs, she was forced to give in. She waved her hand across her face, miming heat, and pointed towards the door.
“Sorry. I need a bit of air.”
Sam waved his hand in answer and began to direct his attention towards Hilary’s work colleague Rebecca, who was wearing the kind of low cut red frock and strappy shoes that Hilary had stopped trying to get away with ten years ago. He would like that.
It was cool outside and by the time she had finished another glass of wine and chatted about nothing for half an hour Hilary was calmer. Sam would probably have Rebecca draped around him by now. He wasn’t going to bother her, and she wasn’t going to tell him about Greg. Why should she? What people didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, and in particular what people didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
It was almost dark when he came outside to find her.
“Hi.”
She smiled, wondering if he was about to leave.
“Hi.”
“Having a good birthday?”
“Great thanks.”
“You forgot this.”
He held out the small package which he had brought with him. Hilary couldn’t even remember where she had put it down.
“Open it.”
It was a delicate necklace with a turquoise in the centre of it.
“Thank you Sam. It’s beautiful. You shouldn’t have brought anything. I said no presents.”
Hilary wanted to ask him if he remembered the turquoise earrings which he had given her for her thirtieth birthday twenty years earlier but that would mean admitting that she did, which would sound a bit sad after all this time. She was never able to say afterwards who moved first, but she never forgot the blistering warmth of the kiss that came next, or the way that she responded to it.
“Shouldn’t you ask permission before you do that?”
He grinned.
“I got permission. Didn’t I?”
Hilary laughed. Dammit he could always make her do that, even when she didn’t want to. Sam made a parody of a sad face and shrugged.
“I need to get moving I’m afraid. Thank you for a lovely evening.”
“No problem.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
“Yes, drop me a message sometime.”
He wouldn’t. They both knew that. In a few seconds he was going to turn around and walk away. He would never know. Hilary stood and watched as a part of her walked into the car park, pointed his car keys at an aging MX5 and drove away. She had done the right thing. Of course she had. She walked back into the hall and found Greg, needing a familiar face and anxious to show herself that he was all right.
“Thanks Greg. That was a great set. It’s been a wonderful party. I know I said I didn’t want it but it’s been wonderful.”
“No probs mum.”
He put his arms out and gave her a hug, something he had stopped doing when he was eight.
“I just wish dad could have been here too, but you can’t have everything.”

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