Alex McDonald: The Surprise

As we stepped out of the cab the sun was low and everything was pale orange and greying around the edges. We had given the cab driver the address from the invitation but when we saw the place we didn’t need to check twice. There was a small gate that led onto a drive and beyond that was the house: wide and detached and square and whitewashed.

We passed through the gate and onto the driveway. There were a handful of cars crammed in at different angles and my eyes were drawn to a shiny, red convertible. With my attention elsewhere the heel of my shoe became caught in the gravel and it was all I could do to pull my foot free and prevent falling flat on my face as I stood helpless and half hopping on one foot. Even the dress couldn’t make it look graceful.

‘Err, Kerry? Help?’ I said. Kerry turned around and laughed.

‘Come on Cinderella,’ she said, making her way over. ‘You’ll be late for the ball.’

I hadn’t seen Nick for three years. In the first year or two after university I had heard his name crop up in conversation, seen a picture or two on the internet, but as time hurried on he had slipped my mind altogether. My brain, like most, had a special space, a unique storage centre on its very peripheries where it placed people like Nick; people that were not necessarily friends, or acquaintances even, but people that drifted, ghostlike, in and out of your life for a year or two until they were gone.

With both shoes back on, Kerry and I stood side by side at the front door. Kerry took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. Aside from all the cars, there were no real signs of a party inside.

‘Are you sure this is the right place?’ I said,‘It doesn’t look like there’s much going on.’

‘Luce,’ Kerry replied, turning to face me, ‘what kind of a surprise party would this be if they advertised it on the front door?’

She had a point. I was beginning to think that maybe I was a little nervous. My whole brain had slowed down or gone into overdrive; I couldn’t even tell which. Kerry rang the doorbell again and we stood, the two of us, on the step below, facing up at the door and waiting as innocently as children. A moment passed but we didn’t speak. Finally, a yellow light bounced on, visible from the glass in the door. A shadow blocked it out. The latch clicked and the door opened.

When I thought about it, I realised my most recent memory of Nick must have been from our graduation. The last time I’d seen him in person he had been hoisted on the shoulders of his friends. Across the dancefloor I could see him up in the air, laughing, beer in one hand, his other arm raised at the shoulder in triumph. Shades of yellow and red and blue from the lights above flashed over his face. He had just been voted President of the Student Union.

At the time, obscured by alcohol, unsure of where my next steps in life would take me, leaving friendships and the safety net of university behind, I became conscious of how jealous I was of Nick’s happiness. Afterwards, I realised it was more than his happiness I envied – I knew happiness came and went with a small gust of wind – it was his togetherness, his ability to seem like he had it all figured out. More than anyone I’d met, Nick seemed like he knew what he was doing in life. Whilst we were all aimlessly stumbling around, Nick was charging ahead, already on to the next big thing.

When the door opened, I had almost expected to see Nick on the other side, tall and ruddy and smiling (I guess I really did struggle with the whole ‘surprise party’ concept) so when a small lady with white hair stood in the doorway, I was slightly taken aback.

‘Hi. We’re here for the party?’ Kerry held up a card and a gift bag in front of the woman at the door as if they were tickets for our entry.

‘Oh,’ the lady seemed surprised. She kept taking furtive glances over our heads. ‘I’m sorry, I thought you were him.’ She relaxed and cracked a smile, though it seemed like hard work. ‘Of course, come in. Nick will be here soon. Straight ahead, ladies. Everyone is through there.’ The white haired lady took the card and the bag and moved aside to let us pass. When I looked back she was still lingering in the doorway.

‘Is that his mum?’ Kerry whispered when we were out of earshot. I shrugged.We were walking through a shadowed hallway and the heels of our shoes rapped rhythmically on the wooden floorboards, so much so that I began to feel self-conscious. I didn’t know if the lady was Nick’s mother. Until now, I hadn’t even thought about who might be hosting the party.

At the end of the hallway there was a door but before we reached it, Kerry clutched my arm and turned me to face her.

‘Are you okay?’ She said. ‘You’ve gone quiet.’

‘How do I look?’ I asked. Kerry tilted her head to one side as if to see me better.

‘Is that…is that lipstick?’ She said, mimicking shock. ‘My god, this is a special occasion.’

I stifled a laugh. ‘Stop.’ I said. ‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously? You look great. You are shaking a little though. I thought this wasn’t a big deal for you?’

‘He’s not.’ I said quickly. ‘I mean, it’s not, I just…oh God can we get a drink already?’

Kerry smiled and squeezed my hand. ‘I thought you’d never ask.’

***

It took me fifteen minutes to knock back three glasses of champagne before I realised that it wasn’t champagne at all.

The door at the end of the narrow hallway had opened onto a room brimming with life and noise. The space was large but the amount of people and the long glass doors on one side made it feel like a busy waiting room at a train station. Kerry had taken my hand and we’d fought our way through the crowd. Nodding and smiling at people I didn’t recognise, we slipped politely and urgently past everyone until we found a table of drinks. Once there, I breathed a sigh of relief and downed a couple of thin glasses of champagne. Kerry took a sip and eyed her glass suspiciously.

‘They should’ve gone for some of that cheap, super strength cider,’ she said. ‘Would have given the event that authentic university feel.’

‘I dunno,’ I replied, moving on to my third glass. ‘This stuff tastes less like actual bin-water.’ But I realised I was largely talking to myself. Kerry had become preoccupied by a man in a hat, standing nearby. She tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around I could see he wore a bow-tie.

‘Tim?’ she said. ‘Oh my gosh, I knew it was you! How are you?’

‘Kerry!’ He said, holding out his arms, and he kissed her once on each cheek like he thought it was the right thing to do. ‘I thought I would have bumped into you down on Shaftesbury Ave. by now.’ My mouth was full and when he said ‘Ave.’ I almost spat champagne across the room. I thought I had recovered well but I must have made a noise because Kerry glared at me with narrowed eyes.

‘Sorry,’ I said, suddenly feeling very drunk.

‘I see you’re on the apple juice too then,’ Bow-tie said, holding up his glass. ‘Luckily Jeanette brought a flask with her so mine has a little kick to it at least.’

I smiled in answer and when Kerry and her friend started talking again, I went to look for more drink. The champagne table was empty of glasses but a large bottle sat nearby. The room was loud and I felt light headed. I filled my glass and took a sip. Usually, I found champagne too fizzy and nutty and hard to drink but this stuff was as smooth as anything I had ever tasted. I studied the bottle and found a name I’d never heard of. When I turned the bottle over to check the percentage, there wasn’t one.

I slammed down the glass and went back to Kerry and Bow-tie.

‘Did you know that the champagne is non-alcoholic?’ I asked.

Bow tie smirked. He answered, though the question wasn’t addressed to him.

‘I thought you knew? Why do you think I topped mine with Vodka. Apparently the guy is teetotal or something. I never knew him that well, just got the invite and thought, what the hell!’ He raised his eyebrows and turned his attentions back to Kerry. ‘And I’m glad I did, because it meant I bumped into this pretty little-‘

‘Excuse me! Erm, excuse me!’ Before Bow-tie could finish he was cut off by a shout from near the door. A slow hush entered the room. I could just about make out the thin head of an elderly man. He was either very tall or stood on a chair. ‘Everybody, erm, please, if you could quieten down that would be marvellous. It is almost time for the surprise. Nick will be coming in at any moment now, so please, keep the noise down to a whisper and be ready.’ The man’s head disappeared as quickly as it had arrived and the room hissed quietly in anticipation.

‘Well this is it,’ Kerry said, turning to me. ‘Excited?’

‘I can’t see a thing back here,’ I replied. ‘Want to find a better spot?’

‘I’m gonna stick with Tim,’ she said, motioning in Bow-tie’s direction. ‘You go ahead though. We’ll be here.’

I crossed the room alone, heading for a staircase in the far corner. Squeezing past the people gathered at the bottom, I climbed about halfway up and watched the room below from between two balustrades. From there I could see the gathered groups, the already-thinning hair on heads all turned to face the door and the great young man that would walk through it.

As I watched them bob and chatter, I thought about how each of those heads had its own version of Nick. Singular, frozen images of what he would look like, what he would sound like. A hundred differently imagined Nicks, pieced together from things he once wore, things he’d once said, things they’d seen him do in the past. Some of the Nicks would be blurry, barely visible. Others would be carefully constructed, meticulously detailed, right down to the way his head moved when he walked or the rise and fall of his voice when he spoke.

The door opened slowly. The room saw it and ‘shh’ed and hushed its way to silence. It was time for the surprise. Once open, a person stepped into the room from beyond. From my place on the stairs I could see he looked tall but a little hunched over. He shuffled slowly and awkwardly into the space with his head down. A short, rough beard grew on his face and his eyes moved quickly around the room. It was hard to tell from where I crouched on the staircase but the impression I got most was of tiredness. The man looked thoroughly exhausted, as if carrying the weight of his own skin was too much to bear. The room stayed silent and waited patiently for Nick. The man was not someone they recognised.

The next person to enter the room was the lady from the front door. Next, the man who had been stood on the chair. The man closed the door behind him with purpose, and it was only then, when it was all too late, that the room realised.

‘Surprise!’ Came the shout from an alert group, and others joined in but it was ragged and thin and obvious. I watched it all from above as though I wasn’t part of it, as though I was behind the camera on the set of a film. The better actors tried to save the situation. They cheered and clapped but this was not the role they had expected to play. We were supposed to be the surprise but that was not how it had turned out. I watched helplessly from the stairs as it all became horribly, searingly clear. Nick was the surprise.

Everything happened too slowly after that. A painful slow motion took hold of the room, so much so that I wished I could cry out to the participants to tell them to hurry. People moved towards Nick and shook his hand. Someone brought him a glass of non-alcoholic champagne. Someone called for quiet and slowly, a semi-circle of space was created with Nick at its centre. The room fell silent with expectation and Nick took quick sips from his glass and shuffled from foot to foot. Without warning, a knot appeared in my stomach, accompanied by a short, sharp pain and it shocked me so much that my hand reached instinctively to the place where it lay. With the pain, came the realisation of how unfair the whole thing was. These people weren’t here to see Nick, they were here to judge. They wanted to see the man they had known, hear him talk, shake his hand, but not because they’d missed him – half of them barely knew him – but so they could go away having gathered that information and compare it to their own lives. They wanted to put themselves on a scale next to Nick to see just how well they were getting on. Before they had arrived, most of the crowd probably thought they would come away disappointed, that Nick would be existing in a world of success and happiness beyond their reach, but it was worth coming all the same, because maybe, just maybe…

The pain passed but the uncomfortable feeling crept up to my chest and settled as nausea. I looked from Nick’s anxious face to the shocked, smug, whispering faces of the people that surrounded him. I knew what they were thinking and it was the cause of my discomfort. When Nick walked through that door, they had been expecting someone else. At first they were dazed and confused – there must have been some mistake – but as the dust settled and they realised that this was the person they had come to see, the same human being as that high-flying, free and generous thing from university, a new feeling took hold. They were pleased.

I couldn’t hold on any longer. I couldn’t stay and watch the game play out. Without a word I pushed past the people beside me and charged up the stairs. I almost fell onto the landing but kept balance and threw open every door I could find. It was dark and quiet and when I found the bathroom I slammed the door shut and collapsed by the toilet. I didn’t throw up, I just sat there on the floor and let the minutes pass by, huddled up by the toilet bowl with that aching, corrosive feeling eating into my chest, seeping down to my guts. I thought about not leaving at all until there was a knock on the door. A female voice.

‘Anyone in there?’

‘Yes. Just a minute,’ I said, steeling myself for the world outside the door.

I pulled myself off the floor and straightened my dress before opening the door to a smiling girl. I smiled back, instinctively, as I passed her. It was an action beyond my control.

I decided I couldn’t face the theatre downstairs and the thought of seeing Nick’s face again made the rotten feeling inside of me grow worse. Checking there was no one around, I slipped into one of the open bedrooms and shut the door. I fumbled at the wall for a light switch but finding nothing, stumbled blindly across the room until I found the bed. Kerry would call me when we needed leave and until then, I lay down and stared into the blackness, listening to the sound of my own breathing.

I don’t know how long I was asleep for. Thirty minutes? An hour? But I woke suddenly as the light came on. I sat up quickly and tried to shuffle off the bed as if I’d been caught doing something terrible. At first, I didn’t even notice him standing there.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t know you were in here. I’ll – ’ Nick turned to leave the room.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ I said, standing up quickly. ‘I was just getting some rest and lost track of the time. I’ll go.’ I moved towards the door. Now he was closer, I could see the heavy bags under his eyes. He looked too old for his age.

‘You don’t have to.’ He said and I stopped. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I felt like I owed him some small measure of kindness to help make up for what had happened downstairs.

Silence hung heavy as we stood across from each other.  I looked around Nick’s room now that the light was on. It was a mess. There were piles of books and clothes on the floor, the bed was unmade and the drawers were thrown open. It was as if he’d been looking for something that he’d lost. I noticed that one of the walls was almost entirely covered in photographs.  I had to say something and when I spoke, words came out in a garble just to fill the quiet of the room.

‘It’s great to see you again. I can’t believe it’s been three years. How have you been?’ I immediately regretted that, so I tacked on quickly, ‘Enjoying the party?’ But I regretted that too.

‘Three years.’ He said, ‘Is that really all it’s been?’ Nick moved over to the bed and perched on its corner. ‘It feels like longer.’

I didn’t know how to reply to that. In the same way that Nick’s aura of success used to infect me, his nervousness and awkwardness infected me now. I moved over to the wall of photographs just for something to do. There were pictures of Nick smiling as a golden haired child. Pictures of Nick on holiday with his parents. Pictures of Nick dancing with friends. Pictures of Nick playing sport, reading, at a birthday party, swimming, graduating. Nick’s whole life was frozen into pieces and plastered up on the wall and in every photograph he looked different to that stranger on the bed.

‘These are nice,’ I said.

‘Oh, yeah. That was another one of my mum’s great ideas. Like the party, you know. She calls them ‘’Strategies to beat the slump’’.’ When Nick looked up, he met my eyes and realised he had said too much. He tried to laugh it off. ‘Something like that anyway. Actually, I think you’re on there somewhere, you know.’

Nick got up and stood next to me, studying the wall. ‘There,’ he said, stabbing a photograph with his finger. ‘That, once upon a time, was us.’

I looked to where he was pointing and almost in disbelief, saw some young version of myself peering back. Bleary eyed and beaming, I stared back into the lense, my cheek pressed up against the lively, handsome face of a long-gone version of the person stood beside me.

‘I remember that.’ I said, without thinking, but it was the truth. I saw Nick across the table from me in the kitchen of his small university flat. We were passing a can of beer between us. I was poking fun at a picture of him that was stuck to the fridge. There were playing cards tossed carelessly on the table, thin and sticky and soaked with alcohol.

‘It was good fun.’ He said and for the first time that night, Nick smiled. He returned to his seat on the bed.

‘It was, wasn’t it?’ I said, still back in Nick’s kitchen. ‘You know, I was pretty pissed off when you never text me again after that.’

‘I didn’t? I could have sworn I-‘

I shook my head.

‘Wow. What could have been, eh?’ Nick smiled. ‘I guess I wasn’t as clever as they all thought.’

‘I almost thought that was what tonight was about – great big, elaborate party to win me back.’

‘You got me,’ he said, holding his hands up. And then, ‘Did it work?’ I was caught off guard by this. I thought about how in another life the question might have been serious, but in that place and in that time it was just a joke and could no longer be anything else. Despite this, Nick seemed to be brightening up. ‘Hey, do you want a drink?’ He moved over to the wardrobe. ‘I keep some whiskey in here, for special occasions like this, of course.’

‘Do you still drink? I said, remembering what Bow-tie had said. ‘I thought you were teetotal now? What about the alcohol-free champagne?’

‘Trust me, that’s not my doing.’ Nick said, pulling out a bottle and two plastic cups. ‘That’s another of my parents’ grand schemes to keep me on the straight and narrow.’

Nick handed me a cup and I realised I was still standing. There was a chair by a desk on the opposite side of the room. I pulled it closer to where Nick sat on the bed.

‘Cheers!’ He said, looking me square in the eyes. ‘To old friends.’

‘Cheers.’ I said, taking a sip of the liquid. It burned my throat pleasantly.

Nick knocked back his cup and poured himself another. It was like he’d momentarily turned a corner. We sat and we drank, and Nick was no longer old and tired, but young and alive again. As time passed though, I struggled to find things to say untilI felt Nick ebbing slowly away and then the quiet took hold of the room again and the moment was lost. It was awful to watch Nick almost return to his old self like that, only to retreat back into what he had become. I couldn’t save the question any longer.

‘What happened, Nick?’ I asked with caution.

‘What do you mean?’ he replied.

‘You know, what happened…to you? I mean, the old you?’

‘I’m still the same person, Lucy.’ He said with a forced charm.

‘You know what I mean. You used to be so confident and full of life and…something must have happened to make that change.’

‘Come on Lucy, now you just sound like the rest of them.’ The tone of Nick’s voice shocked me a little. He wasn’t angry, but he was clearly tired of the question.

‘Like who?’ I said, aware I’d touched a nerve.

‘Everyone.’ He went on, wearily, his eyes to the wall. ‘They all want the same thing. They all want a reason. Everyone wants to know what seismic, cataclysmic event turned the golden boy into a failure. What could possibly have thrown me so far off course that I became like this. They all want to hear about a terminal illness or a dead cousin or a cheating girlfriend, but the truth is, I can’t give them that. More than anything in the world, I wish I could give them their reason. Something, anything, that they could quantify, that would make them understand, but I can’t, because there is no reason. It’s not as easy as that. It’s not that simple.’

‘Well what was it then?’ I said, sounding more frustrated than I’d meant to.

‘That’s the point. I can hardly give it a name.’ He looked at me again and he sounded surprisingly sure of himself.‘It wasn’t one thing, it was a few. And it wasn’t some great exciting event, it was normal, trivial things that happen to people on a daily basis. I made mistakes. I had bad luck. I was in the right place at the wrong time and the wrong place at the right time and pretty quickly, things fell apart. If you’re not careful, that’s what things have a tendency to do. The difference is, people didn’t expect it from me. They looked at me and thought it could never happen to someone like that, so when it did, they didn’t know what to do. My parents, my friends, those people downstairs, they see what’s happened to me and it scares the hell out of them because if it can happen to me then it can happen to anyone.’

I thought of the hysterical, whispering heads of the people downstairs as they had seen Nick enter the room. They hadn’t seemed scared. They had seemed excited.

‘I hope it gets better,’ I said.

‘It will get better,’ he replied, ‘but it won’t be the same.’

‘I’m sorry, Nick.’ I didn’t know what else to say.

‘For what? It’s not your fault.’

‘I know, but somebody has to be.’

Nick shrugged his shoulders. ‘I guess nobody’s to blame.’

I took another drink with Nick and we talked about university and people and nothing in particular. As I sat with him in his room, just as I had on that night at university, I felt a horrible feeling crawl all over me. It was the feeling you get when you realise something or someone that had once been so present, so real, has vanished and is never coming back. It was the feeling of loss.

Isaid goodnight and told Nick I had to leave. I thanked him for the party and left him there, sitting on a corner of his bed in a messy room he never imagined would be his world.

I found Kerry downstairs among thinning groups of people. She was alone.

‘Where have you been?’ She said anxiously. ‘I’ve been looking all over.’

‘Where’s bow-tie? I thought you were with him.’

‘Eurgh.’ Kerry rolled her eyes. ‘Turns out he wasn’t who I thought he was.’

‘I hate people.’ I said.

Kerry laughed. ‘You’ve had a good night, then. Where have you been all evening?’

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Let’s go, I’m done.’

In the taxi home Kerry talked and talked but I hardly listened to a word. As the car purred through the dark and empty midnight streets, electric yellow squares flashed periodically onto the backseat window from the streetlights above. In one instant, as I watched the window flash yellow, I caught Kerry’s reflection in it from behind me. She was someone I didn’t recognise. I moved my head closer to the glass and waited for it to light up once again. It did, a wave of yellow passed over it and I saw my face. I was a stranger too.

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Alex McDonald studied American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. His short fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Scrittura Magazine. When Alex is not writing, he is wishing he was in Wyoming. He is currently working on the Great American Novel.

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