I knew I’d regret it. I knew when I was letting Jenny write out the invitations. I knew when we put the invitations through the letterboxes. Of course, Jenny pestered about using stamps. My fool of a daughter never had any sense and it seems that my granddaughter will have none either. I don’t have anything against grandchildren, not in theory. But in practice it’s another matter. Jenny gets sent round to “cheer Grandma up”. Like I need cheering up!
But I know what my daughter’s after. She gets more out of sending me her silly children than I do in having them. To start with - childcare. I’ve heard her telling people that it’s a treat for me to look after them! Is that how she convinces herself that she isn’t using me! (Of course, she doesn’t know that I heard this - she thinks I’m deaf, but I just pretend to be. It makes everything so much more open and friendly when people say to your face what they’d normally say behind your back.) Anyway, the other reason she sends me her children is so obvious that I don’t know why she doesn’t just admit it. You see, she said terrible things about me. So I told her they were all out of my will. She knows I don’t joke, but somehow thinks that if her children look at me lovingly then I’ll melt, and leave them all my money!
I wish now that I could say it was a joke. Not the will, you understand. I could never forget the things my daughter said to me, let alone that husband of hers. Where was I? Oh, yes - “I wish I could say it was a joke”. That’s the trouble about invitations - they aren’t the sort of things that you send by mistake. But it was such a mistake - I don’t want anyone to come.
So I had to think of a way out and this is where my intellect shines through. I’ll give Jenny a lesson in the genius of her Grandma. Not that Jenny will be here to witness it. I didn’t send invitations to my family - Jenny could look at me lovingly all day and I wouldn’t sink so low. They might have sent Jenny anyway, without invitation, apart from the fact that Jenny is with her other Grandma. I’m glad - it’s about time she had her share of her.
Even without anyone to witness it, I have been very clever. You see, although you can’t take invitations back, you can send out “second invitations”. Now, Jenny had written twelve invitations. I’ve already had little notes from four, all saying the same thing: “Apologies, regrets, not coming”. I like those four people a lot better now. They have shown respect for a person’s privacy. I know that the whole town is just longing to look inside my house. It’s simply the grandest place you can imagine. But it’s not some kind of museum for coffee mornings. My grandchildren told my neighbours what it was like, but I cured them of gossip by reducing their pocket money.
So that left eight people to get rid of. When I went into the butchers - their prices have gone up dreadfully and I’m thinking of switching to Harding’s instead - Arthur Samson said that he couldn’t come because ... I smiled back at him and said, “I’m ever so pleased”. He didn’t know what to say to that, so I cheered him up by telling Mrs. Clare, nice and loud so Samson could hear, that I might not change to Harding’s till next week.
Then I got a phone call from Jason Moon. He said that his wife was very ill and couldn’t leave the house so would be unable to come. I thanked him and said that I hoped she’d get better after my birthday. But that’s today and there are still six people coming.
But dear me! I didn’t tell you my remarkable scheme - what I wrote on the second set of invitations! Fancy missing out my inspired solution! The second invitation simply adds that they can only enter my party if they bring me something that I don’t already have in my house.
Wasn’t that clever?! None of them have ever been in my house before, so they’ll really be at a loss to know what to bring. I’ve spent many a happy hour thinking of Eileen Dorrit’s silly powdered face, screwed up so all her wrinkles criss-cross like wrinkles should, as she tries to think what to bring. I’ve made up my mind not to let her come inside, on principle.
The outcome of this cunning scheme should be six laughs and no guests! But, like my old mother used to say, the proof of the pudding is certainly in the eating. And I can already see Mary Wilson coming up the path. I knew she’d be first - she’s always wanted a look in my house.
I open the door.
“Happy birthday, Mrs Hennessey!” she says. Her voice is too silvery and much too eager. Truth is that she hasn’t said a word to me since I told her how stupid her new hat looked. She still wears it, and it still looks stupid.
“Good morning, Miss Wilson. What have you brought for me?”
She is too pleased with herself to be shocked, which is annoying.
“I’ve brought you something you I’m sure you won’t already have! It’s a birthday cake!”
I snort. “’Course I have one!”
She trembles and quivers at me. “But you didn’t make your own, did you?”
The scandal that my “Yes” causes is written all over her face and makes me laugh so heartily that by the time I look up, she’s gone.
One down, five to go. I hope the others will be a little more inventive than birthday cake! No wonder Mary Wilson never married. She didn’t believe me when I said that no man would look at a woman who had such poor taste in hats. But - oh, here’s the next victim: Harold Simms!
As he walks along the road towards my house, he tips his hat to me with deep respect. I know he hates me. He hates me because of what I said to his wife at that fete. It was decades ago, and he buried her recently. But she never forgave me and so he’s always been wary of a woman like me, who says what she thinks of people rather than just thinking it. He must be desperately lonely to bother turning up today.
“Many happy returns, Mrs Hennessey!” he says, with a good deal of solemnity.
I smile back, encouragingly. This shouldn’t take long. “Well?” I say.
He holds out an antique brooch that must have belonged to his wife.
“I thought you would like this and you certainly can’t already have one, for it’s quite rare and priceless.”
I look at it. It’s perfectly hideous. I’m not surprised that it belonged to Angela. I recall how easily she was persuaded to buy any number of antiques that were really cheap rubbish. I take the brooch in my palm and play with it gently. Then I rub at the finish and the bronze paint comes off under my nail.
“Mr Simms, this is no antique - Angela was tricked again. I bet it cost you a fortune!”
Harold Simms takes it out of my hand and looks at the place where the paint has come off. He gives me such a scowl, and I can’t help laughing. He takes the brooch away with him down the path. As he goes out through the gate, he nods to visitor number three. This is going to be duller than dull. It’s Alison March and she has a no-nonsense way about her that makes me understand the cat that disliked having her fur rubbed the wrong way.
“Mrs Hennessey!” she says.
“Mrs March!” I reply.
She holds out a package in brown paper - obviously decided I wasn’t worth wasting wrapping-paper on! I open it very slowly. I know this will wind her up. She does everything so fast. I pretend to fumble with the string and make the knot tighter. She looks very impatient and forces it out of my hand. Alison has come out of “duty” but is just longing to leave. She opens it with a tremendous rip and pulls out four pink sickly-smelling soaps. I twitch my nose at the stench, before laughing at Alison’s face. She’s just waiting for approval! I cry, “Don’t they smell awful!” This birthday party lark was such fun. She looks at me very haughtily and storms away.
Now the next bit is a shame really. I’ll never know what Eileen Dorrit was bringing because Alison March stopped her from coming up the drive. Probably telling her that I wasn’t worth their time! I did so want to see Eileen’s face when I refused to let her in!
The phone rings. It’s Rachel Lowe. She can’t make the party - word gets round fast! I sigh as I gaze out my front window. Only one more left on my list. I wish now that I’d let Jenny send out more invitations - I didn’t know birthdays could be so fun. And here’s the last - Donald Baker. He’s an old man now and stoops. His army days seem like someone else’s. Could I ever have been sweet on this wizened old man?! But I had.
He pushes right passed me and straight into the house! I remonstrate, “No entry without a present - you have to give me something that I don’t have, that’s the rule!”
He fixes his one good eye on me. “Jean Hennessey, I’ve brought you the one thing that you don’t have - a friend. I’ve heard what a cow you’ve been, but you’re not going to beat me. You don’t have one friend, not even in your own family. It’s your own fault - but I’ve come for a birthday party and I demand that you keep your side of the bargain.”
I could have hit him. I would have, if he hadn’t looked so frail. But my mother’s words came back to me. And this pudding left a very bitter taste in the mouth.
Copyright © 2010 Abigail J. Fox