Surprise parties and lead balloons

On the Edge

Áine Ryan

A s a recovering control freak it shouldn’t have been a shock that the surprise party my daughters’ threw for my 50th birthday some years ago went down like a lead balloon.
Okay, I didn’t pass out like a certain person of my acquaintance but, on reflection, fainting would have been the perfect get-out clause.    
For weeks I was oblivious to the fact that they plotted and planned to lure me into a trap of smiling faces, clapping hands, whoops, hurrahs and ‘gotchas’.   
The thing is, I always imagined I was such a clever clogs I would have secretly sniffed out such undercover preparations and, at the very least, have cunningly had my nails French-polished, my roots coloured and my eyebrows tinted to optimise the look of unadulterated surprise, when caught on camera for the family album.
So there I was in the weeks before the milestone anniversary, on high-alert for whispered asides, sneaky side-glances, stray receipts, mysterious phone calls, whenever I was in the company of the pirate princesses.
Ironically, you could say that I was complicit in the hatching of the idea in so far as each year as my birthday approached I would glibly announce: “There is no need, darlings, to hire a yacht or rent a villa on the Riviera for my surprise party. Any old shindig with egg sandwiches and a few bottles of Blue Nun wine (for old time’s sake) in the backroom of the local is  all I want.”

Ultimately, the strategy for duping me turned out to be simple. A family friend’s birthday falls a week before mine and we were (allegedly) invited out to dinner to celebrate it. Or so I assumed. On the afternoon in question, the eldest Pirate Princess (a primary school teacher and the real matriarch of the family) casually suggested that it would be nice for me to head off to the hairdressers and treat myself to a wash and blow-dry.
This cleared the way, it transpired, for the cake to be collected, the decorations put up, those guests who were holed up in hotels around Westport, afraid of running into me on the street, to escape their rooms, stretch their legs, smirk smugly to themselves.
Meanwhile, I was innocently having my head massaged and conditioned while musing about whether going on a green tea and curly kale diet for the next seven days would banish a half a foot off my waistline and take ten years off my age.

Lamb to the slaughter
Little did I realise that within four hours I would be teetering on the edge of a heart attack, looking paler than the ghost of Granuaile, while ejecting a litany of expletives from my perfectly lipsticked mouth.
I was a lamb to the slaughter right to the end.
“What the hell are we going to the Quay for a drink for, when we are already running late for meeting Luise in the restaurant in town?”
Didn’t help that I was having a bad stiletto moment.
I must have been in mid-sentence when everything froze and time stood still. Suddenly it seemed I was walking onto the set of a movie …. you know when the camera zooms in on a floating memory or a scene from the actor’s past and everything is in slow-motion.  
Glass doors open into a cacophony of smiling faces … familiar voices ….What the hell is Mack doing here? I haven’t seen him for almost a decade. That can’t be Thomas.  Last time I saw him he was sucking on a bottle in a buggy and  now here he is towering over his Dad.
Next thing a vision of my wee northern friends, Janice and Bert, swims in front of my eyes. Shouldn’t they be at home in Newtownards, climbing up to Scrabbo tower instead of streeshing at me like two Cheshire cats?
From behind them Bernard and Mary appear through a haze of low-lights. They are ballasted by a boatful of other island friends.
The chorus of ‘surprise, surprise’ echoes through the waves of hugs and kisses as the band begins to play some cool riffs from the 1970s – my debutante decade.
I’m already boogeying out on the floor. Well, it is either that or bolt for the door.