If I had known Kevin was going to be at the party, I wouldn’t have come.
Well, maybe I would have, but either after having serious second thoughts, or going in disguise.
As soon as I stepped through the white front door, he came walking toward me down the hallway in his grey suit and teal tie, smiling that great, perfect smile.
“Helen! It’s great to see you!” As always, he took my arm and tried to plant a kiss on my cheek. As always, I ducked back and smiled a hard, little smile, careful for the plate I’d brought of red, steaming sausages.
“Kevin! How are you.” I loosed my arm from his grip and escaped down the hall. I just don’t get what he sees in me.
The Ulster’s large, spreading house had been strung with rippling pink and white crepe streamers. Thankfully there was some blue hung about the chandelier in the living room, and all the windows were open to catch as much of the warm, evening sunlight as possible. Up on the ridge where the ranch house squatted, the easy wind swept the scents of their garden through the windows; marigolds, violets and lilies. Morning glories covered the window frames like snow on a forest.
‘Sweeny’, the birthday girl, was kneeling on the pine floor under a table in the dining room. All the furniture in the room had been removed to make way for dinner tables, except for the great heavy couch settee. It brushed shoulders with the table, all green cotton and smelling of polished pine. I dropped to my knees, watched her for a moment and then called out “Hi!”
“Wah!” She jerked her head up, rammed it on the table underside and contorted herself round to look at me.
“Helen! You’re here!” She crawled out and gave me a hug.
“Happy birthday, birthday girl,” I said and she laughed.
“It’ll be yours soon too, and then we’ll both be nineteen together.”
“That’s us. Always together. Okay then, where do you want the sausages to go?”
She took a long, deep sniff. “Mmm. Smells good. Just put them on the kitchen sink. Oh, before you go, can you plug this CD cord in? You’re taller and thinner than I am, and that couch is just a half-inch too close to the wall for my hand.”
“Slender, not thin,” I corrected. I placed the plate on the tabletop and took the cord.
“Thin.” She argued. “I’ll get the music, it’s in my room.”
I pressed myself as far under the dark table as possible, and wriggled my arm around the table leg. Just a foot and a half away, between the cream wall and the back of the couch was the outlet, dim with shadow.
I stretched hard, twisting the plug as best I could so that the metal scraped the edges of the holes. I still wasn’t reaching. Why didn’t Sweeny just pull the couch away from the wall? Probably too heavy. Which means there’s no way I’m going to be able to move it either. Just keep stretching, almost there…
Footsteps came into the living room. I froze. Kevin? I curled up under the table as tightly as I could, hoping it wasn’t him, and if it was him, I hoped he didn’t see me.
The couch rumbled as someone pulled it away from the wall. I blinked dumbly as his neatly combed, red head appeared over the edge of the couch. He smiled down at me. I swallowed.
“Want some help?” He said.
“No thanks. I’m doing fine.”
“Well, turn it round, like this,” and with a gentle firmness he took it from me, turned it over and plugged it in oh-so-easily. “See, you had it the wrong way.”
I scrambled backward, seething. He could never mind his own business. Maybe I wanted to find out that I was doing it wrong by myself!
As I emerged from the edge of the table, feeling like a duck dragging itself from its hole into the muzzle of a grinning hunter, he gave me his hand. I ignored him and grabbed the edge of the table for leverage.
I grabbed the plate of sausages instead. They went flying, all over me and all over the pine parquet floor. I stood up and glared at him coldly. This was all his fault…
He looked mockingly sorry, and dropped to his knees to start picking them up.
“There, there now, it’s okay. If we rinse them off, they’ll be fine.” He bit into one. “Mmm. Did you make these?”
“It’s all we have for the hot dogs,” I growled, as stiff as a statue. I must sound very ‘un-ladylike’. Where are you Sweeny! Rescue me!
He gathered them all up and placed them on the plate. With the most infuriating formality, he bent at the waist like a Parisian waiter and sniffed, saying “I believe these are yours, miss?”
I smiled with determined disgust. “Oh you’re too kind sir.”
“It’s what I do.” And he bowed dramatically. I turned my back on him and almost ran from the room, feeling like I needed air. Air! Room to breathe!
* * *
By six o’ clock, everyone had arrived. The small barn fifty feet down the winding, gravel driveway was ablaze with coloured lights and laughter. Dean Martin’s warm baritone floated from the speakers Sweeny’s little brothers had taped to the overhead beams. I could see them, sitting on a crossbeam above the door, dropping strands of hay on the dancers with wicked smiles.
The sky was almost black, fading to a goldish cobalt round the edges, sprinkled with all the stars of the universe. It looked like a birthday cake. A big birthday cake.
I plucked one of their white morning-glories from outside the kitchen window and turned back to Mrs Ulster busy piping pink icing onto a lemon-orange cake. Sweeny always did have a ridiculous affinity for rosy pink. She was probably upstairs getting changed into something of that color.
The kitchen was panelled in teak wood with lamps like stylised storm lanterns. The glazed windows sported yellow chintz curtains. In a way, the house was more of a cottage.
“Helen, pass me the cloth on the sink, would you?”
With infinite care, she cleaned a streak of cream from a silver tureen before dumping in a can of pears and cherries, swimming in juice. “Flower?”
She didn’t even look up as she worked the sugary nozzle about a mass of green leaves. “Pick out three cherries from the pears, and give me the flower. Wait, dearie. No no, I said the big flower! The big one by the edge of the sill! That’s not big enough.”
Mrs Ulster. Perfection itself. I brushed my elbow across my forehead.
I leaned over the sink and reached out for the flower. I could barely see it round the edge of the sill where it bobbed its elegant white head. For a second, I smiled wryly at the thought of Kevin appearing and handing it to me.
I twiddled my fingers. It was just out of my reach. I stretched a little harder, just a little more…
“Just a sec. I’ll get it for you,” he called.
I groaned silently. His eager smile appeared round the edge of the window as he reached out, plucked the flower and placed it in my rigid hand.
“Did you want this?”
I twisted my lip, dropped back to the kitchen floor inside and closed the window in his face.
“Here it is ma’am.” I said, trying to hide my irritation.
“Perfect. I’m done here. Are you going to get dressed?”
“Mm hmm. As soon as I finish these dishes.”
“Oh leave them. I’ll do them. If you keep helping me like this you’ll never get to see anything of the party!”
I gave her a hug. “Alright, I’ll go change.”
My heart pounding, I pulled off the apron, dropped it on a chair and raced upstairs. As I passed a window in the staircase, I glanced outside. Where’s Kevin…
The front yard seemed to be empty, until I caught sight of a flare of red hair bending over a rosebush. He seemed to be picking something.
That had better not be for me.
I growled and trudged upstairs to Sweeny’s room.
* * *
“Happy Birthday…to…you!” Everyone chanted and then exploded in a waterfall of clapping and whistling. Sweeny, as pink as her dress, bowed and laughed. I stepped back from the edge of the crowd and turned away from the barn. Sometimes the Ulsters suffered from strokes of genius. This was one of them; a birthday party in a rustic barn with hay poking through a low-hanging overhead latticework, doves in the eaves and the night sky glowing through cracks in the roof.
Everyone cheered as she sliced the cake. I smiled to myself, thinking about my birthday and whom I would invite. Maybe they would let me have it here? I smoothed my skirt of green silk and pulled the white shawl a little tighter about my shoulders; it was a little chilly.
I turned. Kevin was leaning on the other side of the wall, holding out a rose bud. Wreathed in a strip of white streamer, like a cherry on a cloud of cream.
My heart went cold. “Kevin, let’s get something straight,” I gritted. “I…” What was I going to say? His blue eyes stared into mine. “No. . . thank you. I won’t take it.”
“Pity,” he murmured, looking away and sniffing it.
I turned around and headed back into the barn. Something grated above my head. I glanced up and saw a bare foot poking through the hay, and heard a laugh. One of her brothers still up there. I looked around for something to do, something to get me away.
The frosted-glass bowl needed more punch. I grabbed it and headed for the house.
A scream tore the air above me and something thumped heavily on the latticework. Wood cracked and splintered and I looked up, ice in my heart. A fistful of dust puffed into my eyes and I screamed too, dropping to the dirt floor, rubbing furiously as tears spilled like water.
People were milling and shouting around me, and I felt a leg against my shoulder. Someone else had taken the bowl from me and was trying to drag me away. The whole world seemed to be spinning in stinging smoke. My nose pricked with tears and I gagged, breathing in a load of fresh dust that set me coughing.
By the time I was blinking blearily, the low-hanging hay rack above my head was barely holding together. Kevin was holding up a central two-by-four, like a Samson, as Sweeny’s youngest brother leapt down into the safe arms of Mr. Ulster, nursing a splinter in his toe. Mr. Ulster was muttering something about “I knew I should have fortified it before,” or something.
“Helen? Are you alright now?” Sweeny dabbed a wet cloth on my face. I pushed it away, swallowing the acrid dust.
“Yes, I’m fine.” I croaked. Holding her hands, I pulled myself up and shook out my dress, staring up at Kevin. He was still holding the central beam. His eyes were still closed against the trickling hay. It didn’t look that heavy, but the haypile above it did.
“Everyone out, go out,” he was saying and everyone obeyed carefully. Presently the barn was empty.
As soon as I was safe amid a cheering bevy of girls, he slowly opened his eyes, glanced around, took a deep breath and dashed out of the barn into the applause of the young men. The beam groaned and creaked, hay drifting down, until it snapped and fell, bringing with it the entire hay bale.
“Well, Sweeny, there goes your party,” someone commented.
Sweeny pressed through the girls and gave me a warm, tight hug. “I don’t care. Helen’s okay, and that’s all I’m worried about.”
“Thanks Sweeny.” I whispered.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Yes, a glass of water. I’m as dry as a haybale.”
She laughed and ran off with half of the girls. I went to sit down on a magnolia-strewn bench to stare at the barn, the fallen lights peeping out of the masses of hay like coloured stars. They suddenly switched off. A streamer floated down like a cobweb from the last visible rafter.
“Helen, did you want some water?” A male voice asked. I turned and saw Kevin, holding out a cold glass.
I hesitated, but when I saw the dust on his jacket, I smiled. I actually smiled at him.
The water washing my throat clean felt deliciously cool. He passed me a napkin when I was done. In it was wrapped the rosebud.
“Can we be friends now?” He asked, dropping to a crouch.
I looked down at him. He was smiling, with the vaguest hint of laughter on his lips.
“We’ll be friends now,” I nodded, adding firmly, “but only friends.”
He laughed and bounced to his feet.
“As your friend, can I come to your party?”
I couldn’t help smiling.
“Sure. And you bring the sausages.”