“And it’s eight o’clock on this July morning. You’re listening to Heart FM, and here is the morning news.”
As I slowly opened my eyes, and looked at the clock, I wondered just how long I would be able to stay in bed today. After all, this was one of the most important days of the year, and surely I…
Ah, who was I kidding – the days when that was my attitude to life were long past now, as I sat on the edge of the bed and stretched, yawning before I looked round. One part of that was true however – today was my birthday, and it was an important day for that reason.
So I put my slippers on, and walked slowly down the stairs, heading towards the kitchen. Mum was sitting there, with Andrew in his high chair.
“Lshha,” he said as he looked at me, some mashed up Weetabix at the corner of his mouth.
“That’s right, it’s Alicia,” Mum said, “and this is a very special day for her. Do you know why it’s a very special day, Andrew?”
“Yeah, I guess I don’t look my best at the moment,” I said as I went to the fridge and took out the orange juice, pouring myself a glass before I sat at the table. “Where are Dad and Angela?”
“They just nipped down to the corner shop,” Mum said as she gave Andrew another spoonful of his breakfast. “Help yourself to cereal.”
I finished my drink and opened the cupboard where the cereal was kept – only to see some cards sitting on the shelf.
“Find something interesting,” Mum said without looking round.
“Has the mailman been already?”
“Not yet – those are from the family. Happy Birthday Alicia.”
“Thanks,” I said as I took them out, “can I open them now?”
“You may – and then when the others get back, you can open your presents.”
I took the cards out and opened them one by one. Mum and Dad had given me one with a young girl wearing a princess crown, saying “You may look like a princess, but inside…”
I opened the card to see the same girl in a short black dress, and the caption “You’re really a party girl. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”
“Aw thanks,” I said as Mum came over and gave me a kiss.
“Actually, it’s the other way round for you, but you’re too old for those cards,” she said before she started to fix me some cereal. I made my way through the cards from Alicia, Uncle Alex and Aunt Susan, Bobby, Suzie and my grandparents, before I started to eat my cereal.
“Oh, so her ladyship had finally woken up,” Angela said as she came in.
“Leave her alone Angela,” Mum said as she took my bowl away.
“Oh no, mater dearest,” Angela said with a smile, “today is Lady Alicia’s special day, and her every wish is to be met.”
“No I’m not and no it isn’t,” I said with a smile. “I’m not like that anymore, remember?”
“I know – I’m joking,” Angela said as Mum took Andrew for his bath. As they left the room, I whispered “Angie, can I ask you something?”
“Sure squirt,” she said as she made herself a coffee, “what is it?”
“Last weekend, at the manor house – what was wrong with you?”
“Wrong with me? Nothing was wrong with me, what makes you think something was wrong with me?”
“Oh I don’t know – the giggling, the funny walking. The last time I saw that was when we all spent that weekend, and our mums and aunts were all…”
I suddenly looked over at Angela and said “Don’t tell me whatever happened to them that weekend happened to you as well?”
“All right,” Angela said as she stood up, “I won’t.” She walked out of the room, wearing her denim shorts over her leggings and a blue t-shirt, as Dad walked in.
“Morning, Your Ladyship,” he said with a smile. “What have you and Angela been talking about?”
“Not much,” I say with a smile, “I was just wondering why she’s seemed so jittery and nervous recently. You know, the odd day?”
“Not sure,” Dad said, “but we have noticed it as well. Anyway, she’s not the focus of today – you are. Come on – your presents are in the front room.”
“Sure,” I said as I followed him in, and looked at the presents lying on the coffee table. I was going to meet up with some of the girls later, so I knew this was just from Mum, Dad, Angela and Andrew. Andrew gave me the cutest gift – a silver necklace that spelt out “Alicia” in little letters.
Angela had bought me the new Kasabian CD, as well as two tickets to see them in December, with a little note that said “I’ll come back for it, promise,” while Mum and Dad had bought me some DVDs.
“So,” Dad said as I hugged and kissed both of them, “I understand you’re going with Mum into town later this morning. You had better go and get changed – I need to get to work.”
He waved as he grabbed his jacket and set off, shouting “Have fun your ladyship” as he went out.
“Don’t ask me,” Mum said as I looked at her, and then left the room, heading for the shower and then my bedroom.
After I had cleaned and dried myself off, I looked through my wardrobe, wondering what to wear today. In the end, I took out a white top with a black floral print and put that on, as well as a tiered denim skirt, white socks and trainers.
“Not bad, Alicia Bowden, not bad,” I said as I looked at myself in the mirror, and then headed downstairs.
“Ah good – you are dressed,” Mum said as she handed me Andrew. “Can you get him in the car seat please? I need to go and find my handbag.”
“Sure thing mum,” I said as I looked at my baby brother. “I don’t know about me being Lady Alicia, but you are definitely Lord Andrew, the way everyone carries you around at the moment,” I said as I tickled his chin.
“Ndeee” he giggled back.
“That’s right, you’re Andy,” I said with a smile as I carried him through to the kitchen, and then to the garage, opening the passenger door and strapping him into place. Closing the door, I went and pressed the button that opened the garage door,
“Mum, have you found your handbag yet,” I said as I called into the house, the door slowly rolling up and under the garage roof.
I suddenly turned round to see Jenny Craig standing there, wearing a black leather jacket over a black t-shirt and jeans, smiling with her head tilted to one side.
“God, girl, you nearly gave me a heart attack,” I said as I looked at her, “what are you doing here anyway? I thought we were meeting up in town later.”
“Yeah, about that,” she said as she walked in, “Small, teeny tiny change of plan, Lady Alicia.”
“Oh dear god, not you as well,” I said as I rolled my eyes, “I’m not a lady anything.”
“Well, today you are,” Jenny said as she came closer, “and I am afraid that for the first part of today, I need to return a favour.”
“Favour? What Favour?”
“Do you remember two years ago, when you and my grandmother hijacked me on my birthday?”
“Yeah of course I remember it – why?”
“Good - makes this easier,” Jenny said as she produced a pair of zip ties and a roll of clear tape from behind her back. “Hands behind your back please – lots of things to do and people to see.”
“Oh now I get it,” I said as I turned round and crossed my wrists behind my back, “so where am I going this time? The Manor House? The Hall?”
“You’ll just have to wait and find out,” Jenny said as I felt the plastic strip tighten on my wrists, bringing them together, before she helped me to sit in the car and used a second zip tie on my ankles. “Anything to say before we begin?”
“You could tell me what’s going to happen…”
“Sorry, Lady Alicia,” she said as she tore a long strip of the clear tape off, and pressed it down over my mouth, “you’re just going to have to wait and find out.”
“Fnksalttt” I mumbled as she then slipped a sleep mask over my eyes, and I heard her get into the car beside me.
“Right then,” I heard mum say, “is Lady Alicia ready for the first part of her journey?”
“Ukneeee?” I mumbled as I heard the car engine start.
“OF course I knew,” Mum said as we moved forward a little bit, and then I heard the car door open and close, and then do the same thing a few minutes later.
“Right then – and away we go,” she said as I felt the car move off. It was no use now, I just had to sit back and enjoy the feel of the drive, if not the sights and sounds.
As time passed, however, I realised we weren’t going to the Manor House, or the Hall – in fact, I had no idea where we were going, until we finally came to a stop and I felt my hands and feet being released.
“Out you come,” I heard Jenny say as I was helped from the car, and the cool breeze hit my face as we walked a short distance, and then I was helped to climb some stairs and enter something. I blinked as the sleep mask was removed - and then blinked again.
I saw Uncle Alex and Aunt Susan standing there with Suzie, Tommy and Brian, as well as Mrs Craig and Cassie, Mrs Pickering and Patty, and finally Mrs Williamson with Lisa.
“Whrmeee,” I said as I looked round, and then realised where I was – in a pod at the London Eye!
The doors closed behind me as Mum peeled the tape away from my mouth. “Welcome to the first part of your birthday, your ladyship,” she said as we slowly started to move, “your very own trip to see the sights of London.”
“And we have a suitable drink to toast you with,” Uncle Alex said as he opened a bottle of Buck’s Fizz and started to fill the glasses. “Everyone take one and then we will sing Happy Birthday to Her Ladyship.”
I looked round as Jenny said “Oh don’t worry – Martin will join us later. For now, this is a chance for you to get presents from the rest of your family and some of your friends.”
“First – HAPPY BIRTHDAY ALICIA!”
I blushed as everyone toasted me, and we slowly started to rise up over the river.
“I didn’t expect this,” I said as I sat on a bench, the pod slowly rising as I was handed more cards and presents from Bobby and Suzie, and all the others.
“Wow – you can see all over London from here,” Patty said as she and Lisa looked out of the windows.
“You knew?” I said when I walked over to join Jenny.
“I know some things, but not all – I was charged with making sure you got here as a surprise, and after that – well, I guess you’ll find out eventually.”
“So you’re not going to tell me?”
“Ali,” Jenny said as she put her hand on my shoulder, “I don’t even know what’s going to happen when we get back to the bottom. My strong advice to you is to sit back and just enjoy whatever’s coming.”
“Do I have a choice in the matter?”
“No – no you don’t,” Jenny said as we reached the top of the wheel. I looked out over the city, and smiled as I sipped on my glass.
“Right – time to get you ready for the next stage Lady Alicia,” Bobby said as he walked over, “Hands behind your back please?”
“Because I’m taking you for a walk – hands behind your back, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh great – the public bit,” I said, but I did as I was requested, feeling the cords as Bobby wrapped them round my wrists to secure them together, and then round my waist.
Jenny then took a poncho from a bag, and placed it over me so that it covered my upper body, the front and back panels coming down over my skirt, and my arms completely hidden.
“One last sip,” she said as she held the glass to my lips, and then I had to let her put a cloth in there, before the clear tape was smoothed over my mouth.
“We need to do one more thing,” Mum said as I was sat down, and she removed my trainers and socks, replacing them with a pair of my black shoes. I looked at her to try and find out she’s done that, but she just shook her head and said “Spoliers, sweetie.
“Jenny, thanks for making sure she got here today,” Mum said as she kissed me on my forehead, “but for now, Lady Alicia, Robert will be your escort for the next stage.”
I nodded as the pod slowly came to a stop, and the others got out, carrying my presents and cards with them as Bobby put his arm around me and walked me onto the pavement.
“Have fun,” Jenny said as she waved us off, Bobby taking me towards Westminster Bridge as the others headed the other way.
“It’s a beautiful day for a walk, isn’t it,” Bobby said as we crossed the bridge and then headed along the embankment, absolutely nobody noticing that I had tape over my mouth or my arms covered. We then turned up Northumberland Avenue, past Trafalgar Square which was teeming with tourists, and along to Regent Street.
“Whssnnbdeelkng,” I mumbled.
“It’s London Ali – when you’re here, do you usually pay much attention to what’s going on around you?”
He had a fair point, which I acknowledged with a nod of my head as we headed up and then along Piccadilly, stopping outside the entrance to Fortnum and Masons.
“All right then, Lady Alicia,” he said as the doorman opened the doors, “shall we?”
I at least understood now why I had to change my shoes – they don’t allow anyone wearing trainers to even get past the front door here! We got in however, as Bobby led me past the tourists and shoppers, and then into the Fountain Restaurant.
“Ah, excellent – and right on time Robert. Very well done.”
“Grndffr?” I said as I saw my grandfather and grandmother sitting at a table. Bobby reached under my poncho and untied my wrists before I took the poncho off, and managed to remove the tape and cloth before anybody noticed.
“Well now,” he said as he collected those items and placed them in a bag he took from his pocket, “I have some other things to take care of. I trust you enjoy your early lunch Lady Alicia.” He made a small bow and then left me there.
“Indeed,” grandfather said as he signalled to the waiter, “you have a very full day ahead of you, my dear, and best you have something now to sustain you through the rest of the day.”
“Shocked, Alicia darling,” grandmother said as we were handed a menu, “most unlike you.”
“Sorry – it’s just been a very strange day so far. I have no idea what is going on.”
“What is going on now is we are buying lunch for you,” grandfather said. “I will have the kedgeree. Lucinda?”
“The pork tenderloin I think. What about you Lady Alicia?”
“That’s going to be my name all day, isn’t it?”
“Bright as a button, isn’t she,” grandfather said.
“I’ll have the fish and chips,” I said quietly.
“And to drink?”
“The Dancong Honey Orchid Oolong for three,” grandmother said, the waiter bowing as he took the menus and headed off.
“So how has your day been so far,” grandmother said as she sat back and looked at me.
“Quite enjoyable actually,” I said with a smile. “Not knowing what is coming next is certainly interesting.”
“We hoped it would be,” grandfather said with a smile.
“And you’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“No we are not.”
“Figured as much,” I said with a smile as the tea arrived. “Shall I?”
“You may, Lady Alicia,” grandmother said, so I lifted the teapot up and poured the tea.
“We want to give you your present now,” grandfather said as I handed a cup to him, “I’m afraid it doesn’t look much, but given everything that’s happened over the last few months – well, I think it’s the right thing for you to have.”
I sipped my own tea, and said “even if it was just a sheet of paper with your name on it, grandfather, I’d be glad you were still here to give it to me.” That had been one of the scariest days of the last couple of years – and believe me, there had been a good few to choose from – but seeing him so grey as he sat in that chair had really shaken me up.
“Well, you’re half right – it is a sheet of paper,” grandfather said as he handed me a white envelope. I took it and opened it up, taking out the folded sheet of paper and looking at it.
“Oh,” I said as I read it, and then folded it, “grandfather, this is too much…”
“Alicia darling,” grandmother said as she put her hand on mine, “Angela said much the same thing. But when we are gone, it is Alexander and that side of the family who inherit the title and the grounds.”
“Your father and mother have brought you and your sister up – and will bring Andrew up – to know rank is a privilege, not a right,” grandfather said, “even if – and forgive me for saying this – for a while you believed the opposite.”
“I know, and I still get embarrassed about it,” I said with a smile.
“So we always said we would make sure Anne’s family were taken care of. Today, we want you to see how that will be done in your case. We know you’ll use it wisely when you are of age to do so, but for now our present is to tell you it is there.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly as I put the sheet back into the envelope. “Could I ask you to hold on to this for the moment – I don’t seem to have a bag with me.”
“Of course,” grandfather said as he took the envelope. “Ah – lunch is here.”
As I cut into the fish, I looked at both of them. I knew one day they would pass on, but I was glad it hadn’t happened yet, and prayerful that it was still a long way off. The girls staying a week or so back had transformed grandfather in particular, as we talked about how Aunt Susan was beginning to show her bump, and also about Patty’s friends who we had met for the first time at the Manor House.
I didn’t even realise how much time had passed until I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a familiar voice said “Please forgive the interruption.”
“Hello Simon,” grandfather said, “And don’t worry, you’re just in time. We were just talking about the visit of the girls a week or so back.”
“Good – well, if I may take my daughter from you now?”
“Enjoy the rest of your day, Lady Alicia,” grandmother said as I stood up and followed Dad out.
“I thought you were at work today,” I said as we left the shop and started to walk along Piccadilly.
“I am,” Dad said, “but I get to have a lunch hour as well, you know. So why cannot I spend it with my younger daughter on her birthday?”
“No reason whatsoever – but I’ve already eaten.”
“Good – so have I,” he said as we walked across Piccadilly, and past the statue of Eros. “Did you get your present from your grandparents?”
I nodded slowly before I said “Dad, does Angela really have a trust fund that big as well?”
“Bigger actually,” Dad said. “John manages it on our behalf, and since she got hers five years ago, it’s grown quite substantially.”
“But it doesn’t bother you that we are worth…”
“Lady Alicia, may I speak plainly?”
We walked over to a bench in Trafalgar Square as we both sat down.
“Ali, you, Angela, Andy and your mother are the four most precious things I could ever ask for in my life. Money isn’t the important thing, you are – all right?”
“Thanks Dad,” I said with a smile.
“Anyway,” he said as we stood up, “onwards and upwards. Come on.”
We crossed the rest of Leicester Square, past the cinemas and clubs, and then turned up Charing Cross Road. As we approached the Palace Theatre, I was surprised to see Colin and Martin standing outside with Jenny.
“And here is her ladyship now,” Colin said as he made a deep bow, while Martin took my hand and kissed it.
“I am so glad that Lady Alicia agreed to our invitation,” he said as he looked at me.
“Invitation? What invitation? What’s happening now?”
“Never mind,” Jenny said as Martin took my arm, and we joined the crowds going into the theatre, “just come and watch the show. Colin and Bobby fixed this up for us a few days ago.”
“Fixed what – oh…” I said as I looked up and saw what show was on there, smiling as we made our way to the box they had bought tickets for.
Now, if you’ve been reading these stories by me and others, you know Martin loves classical music, and he also has been known to sing the odd love song. Based on that, you might think a musical based around old rhythm and blues classics would not exactly be his cup of tea – you might even think Gilbert and Sullivan are more to his tastes.
Well, you’d be right on the last bit, but as he handed me the program he whispered “I’ve been looking forward to seeing this for weeks.”
“Yeah – you can’t beat some Northern Soul,” he said as the band started to play.
And you know what? He was absolutely right. It was an amazing show – all four of us were on our feet, stamping, cheering, singing along as the story unfolded of the band in Dublin.
At the end, there was a massive concert with the whole theatre standing and cheering. So when the lead singer said “this one is for a very special birthday girl – Alicia,” I almost fainted as they sang Try A Little Tenderness.
“Part of my gift to you,” Martin said as he put his arms round my waist and held me from behind. I could see Colin doing the same to Jenny, so I held Martin’s hands and smiled as we swayed along.
Sadly, the show had to come to an end, but we sat in the box for a while and waited until the theatre had emptied out.
“Enjoy it,” Martin said as he looked at me.
“Loved it,” I said before I kissed him on his mouth and Martin returned the kiss.
“Oops, is that the time,” Colin said as he looked at his watch. “We need to get the ladies outside Martin.”
“Oh yes, so we do,” Martin said as Jenny put her jacket on, and we left the theatre. Coming out of the side door, I saw Mister Bridges standing next to my grandparent’s car.
“What’s going on,” I said as he opened the door, and Jenny and I got in with the boys.
Mary and Cathy both reached over and hugged me as we sat down, Mary was wearing a red blouse and a pair of tight black jeans, while Cathy had on a peasant style white blouse and a long tiered skirt.
“I wondered when you two were going to show up,” I said with a smile. “Where have you been all day?”
“Oh here and there, making arrangements,” Cathy said with a smile.
“Especially for you two,” Mary said as she produced two lengths of rope. “So be good friends, and cross your wrists behind your backs please.”
“Well, at least I got to see a good show with my hands free,” I said as I winked at Jenny, and we turned round – only for Colin and Martin to take the ropes and tie our wrists tightly together behind our backs.
“Oh – you thought we were going to do it?” Mary said with a smile.
“Not a chance,” Cathy said, and it was only as I turned round I noticed that their ankles were tied together, and that there was rope around Mary’s legs below her knees. I presumed Cathy also had her legs tied together.
“So we’re all going to be in the same boat,” I said, only to be taken completely by surprise as Martin started to tie rope around my arms and body, taking it above and below my chest.
“Hey – rules,” I said in a mocking tone as I look at him.
“We got special dispensation for today,” Martin said as he pulled the ropes tight, and I let out a little gasp as they pressed down on my chest.
Jenny and I were both then helped to sit down as the two boys tied our ankles together, and then our legs below our knees. Martin gave me another little kiss before they turned their attention to Mary and Cathy, with their upper bodies soon as tightly secured as ours.
“Now then,” Colin said as he looked at us, “any last words before we give you the opportunity to enjoy the drive in peace and quiet?”
“What happens next?”
“Oh you’ll find out soon enough Lady Alicia,” Martin said as he folded a white scarf in his hands, “now open wide.”
“Fair enough,” I said as I let him push the scarf in, the silk tickling my mouth a little, before he pressed a long strip of white tape over my lips, and then gave me a little gag kiss. As he was doing this, Colin was doing the same for Jenny, and then they silenced Cathy and Mary – without the kiss at the end, I might add.
“Right then,” Martin said as he and Colin opened the car doors, “I will leave you all to enjoy the ride, and I will see you later.”
The two boys waved and jumped out, closing the doors behind us as the car moved off. “Now then ladies,” Mister Bridges said as he spoke through the funny intercom thing this car has, “just sit back, relax and enjoy the drive – I will open the windows later.”
There was no need actually, as he drove us round Central London, seeing the sights through the darkened windows.
“Shnggfnsfr,” Cathy said as she looked at me through her glasses.
“Ysss,” I said as I nodded, “Prsnttnsss, lndnee, shww, lnshwfgrnprnts…”
“Snddsfn,” Mary said as she looked out of the window.
“Twsss,” I said with a smile as we looked out, and then Mister Bridges headed out into the country, taking the old A40 out of town as we went through Denham and Gerrard’s Cross, and then through Beaconsfield.
“Rwgngntwssndn,” I called out.
“I am not meant to tell you, Lady Alicia,” Mister Bridges said, “but it does appear that way, doesn’t it?”
I sat back and watched the scenery as it rolled by – whatever was going on was obviously going to happen at Bobby’s place. Not that I minded, but I did wonder what was going to happen there.
As we drew in through the gates, I was surprised to see not only Mister Boyle, but Mary’s brother Eddie waiting there.
“Ah there she is,” Eddie said as he opened the door, lifting me in his arms, “if you will come with me, your ladyship?”
“Hdrgddd,” I said as he carried me through the house, out into the back garden and up into the tree house, sitting me on the floor as Mister Boyle sat Jenny next to me. We looked at each other, wondering what was going on as Mary and Cathy were brought in and sat next to us.
“Whtsgnnhppnnw,” I said as I looked at them, but the look in their eyes told me they were as clueless as I was as to what was going on.
So when Eddie came up with a laptop, and turned it to show us a blonde haired and a dark haired girl looking at us, I almost screamed at him.
“Hey there,” Heidi said on the other end of the Skype call, “are we interrupting something?”
“Ntrrlleee,” I said as I looked up at Eddie.
“OH yeah – bit difficult to talk right now,” he said as he removed the tape from my mouth and then the silk scarf.
“Nah, you’re not interrupting much,” I said as I looked at Heidi, and saw Cindy join her on the screen, “How’s Maine this morning?”
“Hot, how are things your way?”
“Little tied up at the moment,” I said as I wriggled round.
“Yeah, I kinda see that,” Heidi said with a grin. “None of the younger girls with you today then?”
“Not at this exact moment,” I said as I looked at the other three, “but today – who the heck knows?”
“Language, Your Ladyship,” Cindy said with a smile.
“Oh lord protect me – not you two as well,” I said as I rolled my eyes.
“But of course, Lady Alicia,” Heidi said, “we must pay due homage to the aristocracy, after all.”
“And then kick their butts out of our country,” Cindy said with a laugh, the other three giggling and agreeing.
“So listen,” Heidi said, “we wanted to wish you a happy birthday, and to make sure you got our present. I believe it should be arriving right about – now.”
The door opened as Eddie carried a box in, and set it on the floor. As he opened it up, I looked on, to see him taking out a set of Gilmore Girls DVDs.
“Your dad said your player should be all right with these, so we hope you enjoy them,” Heidi said.
“I will – thanks.”
“Right, well we have to get going – our mums are taking us off for a week in the country, and we need to get ready for the trip. Enjoy everything that happens today Your Ladyship.”
“I will – and thanks again,” I said as Eddie ended the call, and then re-gagged me.
“Now, we need to find a way to keep you occupied for an hour or so,” Eddie said, “and fortunately, I have a number of willing assistants to come and help me out.”
I looked to the door as it opened, allowing Brian Hampton, my cousin Tommy and Charlie Williamson to come in. Each of them was armed with feathers, as the four of us looked at each other.
“Now then,” Eddie said with a smile, “I’m going to leave you to their tender mercies for a little while. Enjoy yourselves.”
“Uwlnddrrr,” I said as the three of them removed our shoes and any socks we were wearing.
“Want a bet,” Tommy said, and I knew I was going to not avoid this…
An hour later, we were panting through our noses and sweaty as anything, before Bobby and Colin came back up.
“All right you three,” Bobby said, “out of here. You need to get ready.”
“Reddefrwht,” I mumbled as the two boys untied us, and we removed our gags.
“Dinner of course,” Bobby said. “And you four look as if you could do with a freshen up as well. There are fresh clothes for you in one of the spare bedrooms upstairs – why don’t you follow me and Colin?”
“Do we have a choice,” Jenny said as she hugged Colin.
“Yeah – you could eat naked.”
“We’ll change,” I said hurriedly as we headed out of the tree house and into the house.
“Oh, and before I forget,” Bobby said as we went into the spare room, “Mark rang and said he would be here on time, Mary.”
He closed the door, as the three of us turned and looked at our friend.
“Mark? Is there something you have been forgetting to tell us about Mary Holmes?”
“If it pleases Your Ladyship…”
“It pleases me greatly,” I said with a smile, “if you would fess up right now. Mark? Mark who?”
“There’s a Mark Cottrell in our class,” Cathy said quietly, and then she burst out laughing. “How on earth did you keep that one quiet, Mary?”
“Because we just didn’t tell anyone,” Mary said, and my goodness she was blushing. “I guess the cat is out of the bag now.”
“Oh the bag has just been ripped to shreds,” I said with a laugh as I grabbed a dressing gown and a towel. “I want to hear all about this – after I have cleaned up.”
I headed down the corridor and into the bathroom, standing under the shower for a few minutes as I thought about this. So Mary had a boyfriend now? I wondered how Cathy must be feeling, and if any of the other boys I knew might be interested in going out with her.
Then I realised I wasn’t the matchmaker in our family – for whatever perverse reason, that honour had fallen to Bobby of all people. So I started to clean myself up, wondering what was planned for this evening.
When I came out, a towel wrapped round my head, Mrs Boyle was standing there in her grey dress coat and white apron. This was what she wore when a formal event was taking place, so when she said “I have your dress laid out for you in here, Lady Alicia,” and pointed to a different door, I smiled and went in.
Jenny was already inside, drying off her hair as she watched me come in. “So, are you as surprised at Mary as I am,” she said as I sat on the long stool.
“Flabbergasted is a better way of putting it – did you know she was going out with someone?”
“Nope,” she said as she stood up, and put on a pair of black tights, “unless Colin knew, and I doubt it. Mark Cottrell? Maybe Martin knew?”
“Who can tell,” I said as I looked at my dress. It was made from olive green silk, and had a square neckline with puffed short sleeves. The skirt was ruffed and came to just below my knees. I also had a matching pair of green satin shoes with two inch heels.
“So I guess we’re having a formal meal now,” I said as Jenny put on her black velvet dress. It was held up by thin straps over her shoulders, and had a low neckline, while her dark tights and black shoes completed the outfit.
“I guess so – or we would not have these to wear as well,” she said as she held up the long gloves. We put them on, and then we each put on a locket, before there was a tap on the door.
“Are you ready,” Colin said.
“Yes, you can safely come in,” Jenny called out, before Colin and Martin came into the room. Both of them were wearing dark suits, white shirts and bow ties, as well as very highly shined black shoes.
“Good evening ladies,” Martin said as he gave a little bow. “It is our pleasure to accompany the Lady Alicia and her friend, the Honourable Jennifer Craig, to dinner. If you will come with us?”
Colin held the door open as Martin took my hand, and we walked out, followed by Colin and Jenny. With my arm in the crook of his, we walked down the stairs and into the dining room.
Mary and Cathy were already there, with their partners. Cathy was wearing a yellow gown with a high collar and elbow length sleeves, white gloves and gold bracelets, and was standing next to Bobby, dressed like the other two with us.
The surprise was Mary. She was wearing a black cocktail dress, the skirt just coming to her knees, with matching long gloves and black high heels. Standing with her was a boy I recognised from school.
Mark Cottrell had short sandy brown hair, and was as tall as Martin – but he did wear a suit well, as he held the chair back for her to sit down, and then took his place opposite her. I was sat at one end of the table, and Martin at the other, as Mrs Boyle came in and served us all a starter of cold meats and salad.
“I want to thank you for inviting me here tonight, Lady Alicia,” Mark said as he looked at me.
“Well, it was my pleasure,” I said, “although technically I was invited here as well. This is where my aunt and uncle live, not where I live.”
“Still, I want to thank you for inviting me – a farm boy like me doesn’t normally get invited to places like this.”
“Oh you have got a lot to learn,” Bobby said as the eight of us started to eat. He told Mark about some of the family history, including the fact we own several farms, and that Jenny’s great uncle was also a farmer.
“All right,” he finally said, “but it’s still very kind of you to invite me.”
“So how long have you two been an item,” Jenny said as the plates were cleared, and we were served with a veal cutlet and vegetables.
“Well,” Mary said, “Mark asked me if I wanted to go to the pictures back in Whit week…”
“Whit week? And we’re only learning now?”
“Yes, Cathy, you’re only learning now – but we went out a few times, and well…”
“I get the picture – let’s talk about something else, please.”
Mind you, given the way Martin was smiling at me from the other end of the table, I wasn’t going to be critical at all.
After we had our dessert, Martin stood up and said “I think we should leave the ladies alone for a few minutes. Gentlemen?”
All four of them stood and left us alone in the room, as Mrs Boyle brought through a pot of coffee.
“Very formal,” Jenny said as she stood up and poured. “So what do you think they’re plotting?”
“Plotting? What makes you think they are plotting?”
“Ask yourself a question Lady Alicia – where is Suzie? Or any of the others?”
Cathy had a fair point – where was everyone else? We found out a minute later, when we had barely taken a sip of our drinks, and the door opened.
Suzie, Cassie, Patty, Lisa and Rachel all came in, wearing party dresses that came down to their knees, but their arms tied tightly to their sides with rope, and their mouths covered by a band of white tape round their heads. They lined up, and then started to sing
“Why thank you,” I said as they all made a little curtsey, and then walked out – only for Suzie to look back and indicate we should follow.
“Dare we?” Jenny said, as we looked at each other, and then nodded as we went after them and into the front room.
How they did it, I have no idea – but everyone was in the front room – our parents, aunts, uncles, babies – everyone, and there was a huge banner up against the wall that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY LADY ALICIA in big bold letters.
“We couldn’t let this day pass without you getting your presents from the rest of us,” Cassie Craig said as she stepped forward, and took me by the arm, “but before you do that, there is the small matter of a cake for you to blow the candles out on.”
“Cake? What cake?”
“This one,” Mum said as Mrs Boyle wheeled in a trolley, with – and I kid you not – a three tier cake on it, and fourteen candles on each tier.
“Go on, blow them out and make a wish,” Jenny said as I stepped forward, and blew as hard as I could, with everyone clapping and cheering.
As I looked round, I saw Cathy looking at a young lad I hadn’t seen before, who was standing in the doorway watching. He was about the same age as us, and was wearing a blue v-necked sweater over a white shirt, brown chinos and a pair of trainers.
“Who is that,” I said as I watched Dad cut the cake.
“Oh for goodness sake Sam come in,” Mrs Boyle said as the new arrival came in. “This is Samuel, my little brother. He’s come to stay with us for a couple of weeks. Sam, this is Lady Alicia, the birthday girl.”
“Very pleased to meet you,” he said quietly as I saw Cathy looking at him.
“Come in, join the party,“ I said as I took him by the hand. “Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. Cathy, this is Sam… what is your second name anyway?”
“Stewart – Samuel Stewart,” he said as he looked at Cathy, who was starting to blush under her glasses.
“Hi Sam – I’m Cathy Harmer,” she said as they walked off, while the younger girls were sat down and their gags removed, before they were fed cake by Charlie, Tommy, Brian and Bobby.
“Mary told me you lot liked to play some funny games,” Mark said as he came over, “but she didn’t say how strange.”
“Does it upset you or worry you?”
“Not really – but I don’t think I’ll play them with Mary for a while.”
“Never say never,” I replied with a smile. “Get her to tell you about last December some time.”
“Had a good day then Sis,” Angela said as she and Eddie came over.
“I’ve had a fantastic day,” I said with a smile.
“And the present from our grandparents?”
“Unexpected,” I said with a smile.
“Well, come with me – you have some more cards and presents to open in the library.”
I followed the two of them in to find a small pile of gifts and cards, each of which I opened and made a note of who to thank. The most surprising was a small gift from Sarah and Brian, which I opened to find a locket. When I opened it, I saw a picture of the twins, and then I read the note that was in with the locket.
“Oh my,” I said quietly, “they want me to be one of the godparents when they have the twins dedicated later this summer.”
“Congratulations kiddo – who else are they naming?”
Looking at the note, I said “Chloe and James, her – her fiancé?” I looked at Angela, who nodded and said “I know – but don’t tell anyone. They haven’t had a chance to tell the others yet either.”
“They‘ve also asked Amy, Uncle Alex and Alice’s father.”
“Well, say yes – and don’t worry, I’m sure there won’t be much to do,” Angela said as I wiped my eye, and then went back to opening the rest of the presents.
“There you are – you need to come with me right now.”
“Why?” was the only sound I got out before Jenny and Bobby took my hands and led me into the main room. There was a chair set in the middle of the room - one from Uncle Alex’s office, made of oak with arm rests, and it was those I was made to put my arms, before Bobby and Jenny tied my wrists and elbows down to the wood with scarves.
“All right, what’s going on,” I said as Bobby tied my ankles together and to the leg of the chair, while Jenny held a folded scarf in her hand in front of my mouth. “You’ll see,” she said as I allowed her to push the scarf in, and then press some white tape over my mouth.
The floor cleared in front of me, as I saw Martin standing there – and then the music started, the music to an old song Grandmother likes.
Today it is your fourteenth birthday
And I only have one thing to say
Of all the girls I can see, there’s one for me
This song’s for Lady Alicia
Your smile will light the darkest room,
And when you’re here there is no gloom
Although you can’t make a sound, there is one thing I have found
We all love you Alicia
So on this, your special day
There’s just one thing we want to say
To wish that you are blest, and show from all the rest
This song’s for Lady Alicia…
I was crying – hell, we all were crying by the end of it, as Martin came up, and whispered into my ear “Happy birthday darling” before he kissed me on the forehead.
I was a complete wreck at that, as Jenny said “Right – let’s par-TAY!”
I was untied as the music started, and we all began to dance with our boyfriends – and Cathy started dancing with Sam as well. Perhaps she had finally found someone as well.
“Had a good day,” Martin whispered into my ear as we danced.
“Oh yes – I’ve had a wonderful day,” I whispered as I looked round.
“Good – I’m glad you did, Lady…”
“No,” I said as I looked at him, “Just Alicia please.”
“All right – I’m glad you did, Alicia,” he said, and then we kissed.
As I lay in my bed that night, I smiled – it had been a wonderful birthday, and I’d been surprised from start to finish. As I finally went off to sleep, I wondered what could possibly top that…