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DESCRIPTIONA short story donated to support the work of Kidney Research UK
Birthday Party by Al James
A short story donated to support the work of Kidney Research UK
Surprise! Surprise! Happy Birthday!
Ruth scans the room in astonishment, taking in all the grinning and cheering faces.
Is this your doing? she says, turning to Jamie beside her and whacking him playfully in the
Well youre not forty everyday.
His arms are around her.
So this is why it was all so mysterious!
In the centre of the room is a large cake. . . and behind it the familiar face of . . .
Sarah? But shes in Melbourne!
Was. Till yesterday.
Sarah, looking gloriously tanned is running up the room towards her.
Ruth! Happy birthday sister!
Arms out towards her; big hug as of old times. Tears begin to form,
Dont make me cry . . . youll smudge my make-up.
Well dont cry, you great blubber! Not changed much have you.
Im just happy!
Laughter and more hugging.
Mummy, mummy. Grandmas here.
Six year old Charlie, pulling at her dress, demands attention, pointing across the room.
Mother is waving her arms wildly while dad, sits sedately beside her as always, but smiling
How did you get everyone here?
Planning. Took a bit of organising but . . . come on, theres a table for us over here. Charlie
you coming with us?
Jamie is guiding her across the room to the table where her mum and dad are, and Gemma
is sitting with them. Sarahs husband is there too and both their boys. Charlie, holding
Sarahs hand and pulling her along, has run around to the table before them.
There are flashlights; cameras pointed at her and cheering all around the room.
Youll be on Facebook for weeks, mum! Gemma announces with full eleven year old
How many are here, Jamie?
Sixty, seventy maybe. Dont know exactly, but everyone wanted to come.
Oh my God, Jamie!
Well youre very popular. They all want to celebrate your special birthday.
She grins, sits back. Waiters and waitresses are walking around the room now and up to
their table. Suddenly, for no particular reason, the pain round her back niggles. Its been
there on and off, nothing serious. She rubs it. Sarah notices.
You alright, sis?
Just something Ive had a little while now. Nothing much.
Old age creeping on. Mustnt let it affect all this. I had no idea . . .
Jamies been planning it for months. He called us ages ago with the idea.
Happy birthday, Ruth!
Dad is stretching his glass out towards her, and everyone else around the table is following
Clinks all around the table, smiles and grins as they all drink to her.
Thankyou so much for all this. Youre making me cry.
Covering laughter round the table.
A young waitress offers her a bread roll. She shakes her head as she looks through the
starter menu. Strangely, the sickness feeling, an odd kind of nausea, is with her again as she
does so. She lifts her hand to her throat as if holding it back and the peculiar taste is there
Not that feeling again. You sure youre not . . .
No Jamie, Ive told you. Definitely not.
Grinning he calls across her to Sarah.
Shes been getting this sicky feeling lately. Thought she was pregnant.
You sure about that? Sarah says.
You know what its like . . . youve had your two. Its not the same at all. No morning
sickness for a start.
Happy birthday Ruth!
Jean! How nice of you to come. Everyone . . . this is Sister Jean. Ward sister; my boss at the
Ruth is our very special health care assistant, she announces around the table like a proud
parent, as good as many nurses. I couldnt help but adjust the rotas to be here.
Underneath the embarrassment, its difficult not to feel pride.
She picks at the main meal when it arrives. Everyone around the table is eating happily,
even picky Gemma.
Mmm, chicken. Lovely, she says.
Pity you dont eat up more often at home then, Jamie says.
Well look at Charlie. Stuffs everything in sight into his mouth.
Boys! Pigs more like.
Charlie, sitting next to her, pushes an elbow into her side. Jamie is quick to quell them
before any retaliation takes place.
Ruth watches, amused. Certainly a different dynamic having one of each instead of two the
same like she and Sarah are, and like Sarahs boys across the table chattering and laughing
Your boys even laugh with an Australian accent, she says.
Well thats where theyve spent their lives, sis, what do you expect?
She smiles and lifts a small fork load of chicken to her own mouth. Swallowing it feels like an
effort. The plate in front of her has ceased to be a pleasure. Pushing it away half-finished
feels unavoidable. No one notices immediately.
She looks round the table. Shane and Glen, fourteen and twelve, named after their cricket-
mad fathers favourite players, erupt with laughter at some private joke. They have already
finished their plates.
You two seem to have consumed everything at great speed, her mum says.
Yeah granny. We bogged in.
It was beaut!
Its hard not to laugh at her mums bemused face.
Arent you hungry Aunt Ruth?
Shane is pointing across at her plate, drawing everyones attention.
You dont want more, I hope Shane?
Well . . .
I expect theyll be coming round with seconds in a while.
But Sarahs attention has been drawn to her plate now.
Yes. I dont seem to be hungry much these days.
Sarahs blue eyes seem suddenly fixed on her. She has the strange sensation of the sounds
in the room around her fading into a distant place.
Youre not well are you?
That sounds very dramatic.
The eyes are still on her. It feels unusually uncomfortable.
Jamie said that the other day, but its nothing . . . really.
For someone in healthcare you seem very unaware of having any symptoms yourself.
Not much appetite. Sick feelings, and if Im not mistaken youve lost weight . . .
I could do with that, she says laughing, but it feels false.
Get yourself checked, kid. Dont risk it.
Risk? Risk what?
You shouldnt need me to tell you people who ignore symptoms of any kind are taking
The sensation is of a black hole opening out inside her. For a moment she wonders if she is
going to be physically sick. Her hands are on the table steadying herself.
You know dont you?
What? she manages to say.
That you might need medical attention.
Crystallising within her, like disparate particles coming together. All the separate pieces
shes known but not wanted to link up. She nods. It feels shaky.
Were here for ten days. Ill come with you.
Arms around her, comforting, sisterly. For now she can hold it together.
The other side of her, Jamie is on his feet. There is a rapping sound, quickly repeated when
the first has little effect. The room around her comes back into focus as it quietens. Two
children squabbling across the room are hushed by Sam, fellow HCA looking guilty for a
second. Then glancing up, she catches her eye and waves elaborately. A stifled laugh from
elsewhere, then a moment of quiet.
I know this was a surprise for Ruth . . .
But were gathered here today . . .
More laughter; someone mimics the phrase in a regal falsetto. Shushing from around him.
Lets drink to Ruth, my lovely wife, forty today!
Commotion as chairs scrape. One of Sams children surreptitiously wallops the other.
Clinking of glasses; her own name repeated round the room. Then . . .
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. . .
The birthday song comes to an end with cheering. Someone shouts out speech!, but its
the last thing she feels like doing
Thankyou, she says, waving around the room and sitting back in her chair. It will have to
be enough. Tears feel as if theyre not far away. Around them the usual hubbub returns as
the orders for the sweet course are taken and the waiters begin cutting the cake. Sarah is
looking at her with determination lined into her smile.
The waves lap against the beach. There isnt much wind to cause any great swell across the
North Sea, but its cold, barely above freezing. On the horizon a weak sun struggles to shine
through grey cloud.
I miss this coastline in the winter.
Winter? Its summer for you over there in Melbourne isnt it?
I know. Glad to escape the heat for a few days to be honest with you.
God yes! Near forty degrees at the moment. We grew up here with all this flat landscape,
wide horizons and the sea never far away. If Dennis got a job here in East Anglia Id be over
No chance. Australian through and through. Like the boys.
Without warning, Ruth catches her foot in the sand and nearly falls. The niggling pain is
Just stumbled. Thats all. . . dont look at me like that, Sarah!
Like Ive got some serious illness or something.
Youre not your usual self.