Ashley sat on the edge of his bed, his birthday cards fanned out on the eiderdown, listening for the doorbell, for the three chimes. Today’s trio sounded jubilant. Ashley imagined his uncle beaming at his aunt in the porch, rasping his hands together in their tan driving-gloves, delighted to surprise Ashley's parents with this little fanfare to mark the occasion.
Every sixth Friday Ashley came home from school to his parents flustering over the lamb and asking would he mind, since he was still at the door, snipping some mint. While they sweated from spitting fat and reddened over steaming potatoes, they remembered to ask Ashley about his day and thank him for the bundle of mint-leaves. His father eased the cork from the sherry bottle ready for his mother to construct the trifle. While the jelly melted and the brittle sponges fragmented, Ashley vanished from the kitchen.
“Everything all right, son?” one of his parents would call while he was on the staircase.
Although a note of anxiety trembled like a freshly detached leaf, he never answered the question. No need. Their fretfulness was part of sixth Friday. They may as well say, “Is the cauliflower done?” or “Is the wine breathing?”
Today, as always, Ashley heard the four people greet each other, Uncle Paul's brogues scraping backwards and forwards before he breezed in. Auntie Meg teetering through the hall, her spiked heels sinking into the carpet. They never removed their shoes and slotted them on the plastic rack with Mother's and Father's and Ashley's.
They clattered into the hot kitchen. Ashley knew they were standing in the narrow passage between the sink and the cooker, where his parents were juggling saucepans and colanders and oven-gloves, passing them to each other like batons in a relay race.
Uncle Paul would be placing a small box of chocolates on the table, in the space reserved for the joint. Beside it Auntie Meg would lay carnations wrapped in wet newspaper. Damp would seep through the cloth and leave a cloudy patch on the polished wood beneath. Ashley knew all this because he used to stay downstairs on sixth Friday, excited to have an uncle and aunt in the house for dinner. Younger than his parents, still smooth-skinned, they didn't fuss. Uncle Paul just strolled in, relishing the proceedings and assuring his parents the food would be wonderful. Auntie Meg was shyer, in her husband’s shadow, but always looked so glad it was sixth Friday, so relieved to stand in the sweltering kitchen and keen to ask Ashley how life was treating him. It always struck him as a peculiar phrase, as if he had no say in his life at all.
Uncle Paul told loud jokes that his parents pretended to enjoy, while Auntie Meg squealed with laughter and said, “Go on with you!” She watched his big, jovial face all the time. Sometimes, when they were about to go home, her eyes seemed to swell, as if they might spill out of their sockets. Uncle Paul would take her hand and sandwich it between his, as if he was nursing an injured bird.
Ashley always liked the serviettes rolled into sausages and the crystal glasses and his mother wearing a dress instead of trousers under her apron. They played Consequences after the meal, all the adults' faces flushed and shiny while they chewed the ends of their pencils and said, “Oh dear, I can't think of anything to write.” But they always did.
He liked the way Mother always said with relief, “That went well, I thought,” after the visitors left. And the way Father said, “Indeed. Nice tender meat, dear. They certainly tucked in, didn't they? Jolly good.”
But for the last two years Ashley had stayed upstairs and sat on his bed until Father knocked on his door and asked would he please join them for the prawn cocktail.
Tonight it made his heart hammer to hear the chinking plates and cutlery and the roar of the lamb as it emerged from the oven. Everything exactly the same; the rumble of voices, Uncle Paul's louder and more frequent than the rest, the sweetish smell of the roasting meat, the beaters of the electric whisk whipping the cream and the swiping of the carving knife against the sharpener.
This time, everything would be extra special. This was his sixteenth birthday.
“Did you want a party of some sort for your friends? If you do, we’ll willingly ask Uncle Paul and Auntie Meg to skip next Friday,” his parents had said a few weeks ago. They were anxious, trying to say the right thing for a boy about to come of age.
“No thanks,” Ashley said.
They looked bewildered, as if they had turned the page of a good book to find the next one missing.
“We thought about rolling up the carpet. Oh, and buying a punch bowl. There's a good one in Bryson's Sale. It’ll be glass, mind. You’d need to take care. And you could ask friends to bring a few records, as long as they're careful with the stylus.”
“No thanks.” Ashley looked at the carpet as if it might suddenly twitch and whirl itself into a fat scroll at the end of the room.
“We wouldn't need to have a cake with candles if that's a bit childish for you now. And we'd sit upstairs in the spare room out of your way, once we'd seen everyone arrive.”
“Honestly, no. Thanks all the same. I don't want a fuss. Or for anything to be different.”
He felt as if he had struck them or sworn badly. They cut short their suggestions and returned to the television as if they were shrinking into a shop doorway out of the rain.
The prawns were out of the fridge. Ashley could hear Mother twisting off their heads and tails, saying, “I can't bear to do this to the poor things, really.” And Father saying “Shall I take over, dear?” And Mother replying, “No, no. I'm fine. Top up Paul's glass instead, would you?”
Ashley opened his window and felt the wind driving in at him, drying the wet patches on his thick checked birthday shirt. He saw the little boy next-door pedalling a tricycle down his garden path. He watched the child, wishing he could remember being so small. No burdens. He wished he could feel the wind lifting his hair while miles of garden jungle waited to be explored.
Ashley jumped at the footfall on the stairs. But he stayed at the window. There was a long pause before the tap on his door.
“Ashley, time to come down.”
Father's voice sounded nervous. Ashley had expected that. He breathed in hard. The little boy reached the slope, but lost his nerve and crashed into a bed of hollyhocks. Ashley knew the child’s mother would run out in slippers and reach the child before the first wail finished echoing round the garden. Even before the wheels stopped spinning.
Ashley’s mother had scooped him up many times. She had always sat him on the kitchen worktop with a beaker of milk and dabbed his grazes with iodine. He could still hear the sound of the cork as she released it from the bottle. He could still feel her soft arms holding him close.
“Ashley, please come down.”
“Yes, Father, of course.”
Uncle Paul, red-faced and hearty, shook hands with Ashley. Auntie Meg gave him a hug, her nervy fingers rubbing his back in a rhythm reminiscent of the three doorbell rings. They both reached for his glass of limeade and delivered it to him with great ceremony.
“Not every day you turn sixteen,” Uncle Paul said.
They kept looking at him, as if waiting for a speech now he was so grown up, then laughed some more and drained their glasses.
Ashley's parents stood at the table, looking awkward holding the goblets of prawns in lettuce nests and capes of pink sauce.
“Sit down then, everyone,” Father said, with a trace of anxiety in his voice.
Ashley could see his present from Uncle Paul and Auntie Meg wrapped in gold on the sideboard and the card lying on top of it.
Perhaps the letter would be tucked into the card. Or would they give it to him separately, with a flourish? His heart throbbed harder.
He could not picture the moment the blue envelope would appear. In the lounge perhaps, with after-dinner coffee and the chocolates? Would Mantovani still play in the background and would Mother still jump up and close the curtains to keep the warmth in the room?
Or would his uncle and aunt usher him to the front room while his Mother washed and his Father dried the mountain of dishes?
“Shall we leave the pan to soak?”
“Oh yes, let's.”
“Plenty of cold meat here for tomorrow's sandwiches.”
“Mm. Nice easy lunch.”
He would not hear them from the front room. But they would say the same words, the same as every sixth Friday.
Two years ago he had looked in his parents' room for the key to the garage. They had gone shopping and Ashley wanted his bike out.
He opened one or two drawers. Mother's scent tumbled from her chiffon scarves. Father's stack of receipts, clamped in a bulldog clip, bristled beside his pants and socks. Ashley wanted to stop. But he couldn’t.
He saw their Aspirin bottle, their boxed sets of handkerchiefs and their cuticle-removing lotion. He leafed through piles of photographs, thank-yous from cousins for gifts and, underneath the rest, a blue envelope with Auntie Meg's writing on it, her loops and curlicues familiar from years of sixth Friday Consequences.
For Ashley, on the occasion of his sixteenth birthday.
The flap was sealed. But Ashley's fingers seemed to belong to someone else, to his older self, who thought he should open something addressed to him. Or to his reckless self, who said he would never rest until he had taken a quick look.
He switched on the kettle. Gripping the envelope with a pair of kitchen tongs, he held it in the steam and watched the adhesive wrinkle and wither.
Tonight's dinner passed in the same way as always. How good that it was Friday again and how the evenings were beginning to draw in and what a pity the cinema was closing.
“None of you go to the cinema anyway,” Ashley murmured.
And they all laughed more than usual at his laconic teenage wit.
When Uncle Paul said he would take Ashley to see an X-rated film in two years time, he watched everyone’s eyebrows arch in horror. Ashley thought Uncle Paul was winking at him, the way he always did when he made a joke that shocked Mother and Father. But when he looked again, his uncle's eyes were just blinking hard and looked like grey pebbles, the sun-bright kind washed over and over again in the lacy fringe of the sea.
The sixth Friday dinner continued as usual. Uncle Paul sucked on his lamb fat and Auntie Meg pushed her cabbage around in a pool of gravy. Father refilled the wine glasses. Uncle Paul insisted Ashley should try a drop of wine and guffawed at the wry face he pulled.
Mother kept shuffling the serving-dishes and tidying the heaps of vegetables every time the spoons were replaced. The clatter of knives and forks penetrated the long silences. Trifle squelched under spoons.
Bird-song filled the kitchen as the sun sank. They all tried to identify the different squawks and chirps and whistles. Father left the table to find the Observer's Book, where all the nuances of sound were accurately described. The mild interest intensified. It became an obsession, a method of adjournment.
Even in the lounge with the lamps switched on and the curtains closed and the coffee-cups in a row, they discussed whether the rapid piping they could hear belonged to a nuthatch.
Consequences started late.
Ashley was sweating and a little dizzy. He had returned to the kitchen and drained each glass of its dregs. A sky-full of nuthatches chatted in his head.
Uncle Paul began. He had to choose a man's name, then Auntie Meg a woman's name.
“Make them good and funny,” beamed Father from the edge of the settee, patting Mother's knee. She busied herself shaving pencils over the waste-basket.
Uncle and Auntie did not look as if they were thinking. He was not sitting with his feet on the pouffe and one arm flung along the back of the settee. He perched on the arm of Auntie's chair.
“Do start,” Ashley's mother said with a smile that showed the lipstick caught on her teeth. “You know the drill by now, you two.”
They smiled, entering into the spirit of the game at last.
Father wrote the 'He said...' part. Mother wrote the 'She said...’ which followed.
And Ashley wrote down the hilarious consequence.
In honour of his birthday, he was chosen to read first. “Here we go,” he said, trying to focus on the words. They seemed to be swimming. “Er, Daft Derek met Crazy Carla. He said, 'What a huge knickerbocker glory.' She said, 'I can knit a jumper from spaghetti.' ”
The adults forced their heads back to laugh. Ashley held his breath.
“Go on then, Ashley. Tell us the consequence,” Mother smiled.
He hesitated. He ran his hands through his hair. He let out a brief, nervous laugh and heard them all chuckle in anticipation. The piece of paper trembled in his hands.
He remembered the injured shrew he had found, years ago. The cat left it in the wet garden. Ashley touched it carefully. It was still warm. Its heart was still beating.
Ashley kept the tiny creature in his pocket until Mother found him a box that had once held his christening mug. They tucked it in the box while Father made some holes in the lid. When the shrew recovered, Mother said Ashley must release it, back into the garden.
“But what will happen to it?” he said.
“It will be happier,” she told him. “It may be safe in the box, but it won’t like staying in there forever.”
Ashley and his parents watched the shrew scuttle under the honeysuckle.
“Why is it hiding?” Ashley asked.
“It’s making sure the world outside is still the same. Waiting for the right time to emerge,” Father said.
“How will it know?”
“It will take its chance, Ashley. When it thinks the moment has come.”
While he was remembering the shrew, Ashley didn’t realise he was holding his breath. Mother and Father were looking at him. “Are you all right, dear? Are you ready?” they asked.
“You’re a little flushed,” Auntie Meg said. And Uncle Paul added that naturally Ashley was excited. It was a big day for him. Uncle Paul’s voice sounded as if he were holding his breath too.
Ashley spoke in a whisper. It was all he could manage. He said he was ready to end the game. “I’m sorry,” he told them. “I’m sorry if it isn’t…”
“It’ll be fine, dear,” Mother said, touching his sleeve. “You’re always good at this. Unless…unless you don’t feel like it tonight?”
“No. Yes. I mean, I want to,” he said. “But it’s hard sometimes, isn’t it?”
They all agreed. It could be almost impossible to think of just the right words to finish the story.
“I’ve made it a happy ending,” Ashley said, stumbling over the words. They were all straining forward in their chairs, trying to hear him. “I hope you all like it. I hope you think it’s happy too.”
The grown-ups all fell silent, their kind, encouraging faces watching him, just as they always had.
Ashley tried to keep his voice steady as he read out the concluding part of the sixth Friday Consequences.
“And sixteen years ago they had a baby. But because they were still students they gave him away and became his uncle and aunt instead. It was a private adoption. The two Mothers and Fathers called it something else. They called it the most precious gift of all.
The uncle and aunt met the mother and father every sixth Friday so they could all be one family. They wanted to wait until the child was old enough to understand the truth. But he found out and he’s sorry. He doesn’t know what to say. He just wants them to know he does understand. He’s been happy all his life. He’s happy now. And, more than anything, he hopes they can carry on in the same way as always, so that there are no consequences from him knowing the truth, and so that nothing changes, however grown-up he might be.”
Quietly, Ashley gathered up the paper and pens. And while he smiled at each of them in turn to show he was ready for his presents now, the birds outside the window struck up their final song of the evening.
(C) Joanna Campbell 2016