‘Coo-ee,’ I call at the kitchen door, simultaneously knocking at it with my elbow. Ow! My funny bone. Normally I walk straight in, but am currently encumbered with a birthday cake loosely draped in tin foil.
Cass opens the door, bearing a look of forlorn commiseration. ‘Sal told me,’ she says. ‘What a git!’
‘…face-features,’ I add drily.
‘Oh, you are brilliant!’ Sally takes the cake from me and puts it in the centre of the table. She whisks off the foil. ‘Mmm. It looks delicious.’ She turns and locks me and Cass in a group hug.
‘Happy birthday to us,’ Sally and I chorus,
‘happy birthday to us...’
‘…you look like two monkeys,’ sings Cass, sounding slightly muffled,
‘ and you smell like them too!’ finishes Sal’s 14-year-old daughter Phoebe, who, at the promise of chocolate cake, has broken loose from Facebook and drifted into the kitchen.
I fumble in my bag, pull out the birthday candles and plant them in the cake. Two numbers, 4 and 3. Cass and Sal laugh.
‘Are you 43?’ asks Phoebe suspiciously.
‘Yes,’ I say, while Sally makes Pinocchio nose-growing signals to her daughter. ‘Ah, thank you for this,’ she says. She is in high spirits.’What a treat! Tea, or shall we crack the sherry?’
‘I need a stiff G&T,’ I say, knowing a) there won’t be any and b) Sal knows I don’t like it anyway.
‘Did you get on to your lawyer?’ asks Sal, pouring us all a sherry.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Oh! Before we hear all about that, which I do want to, first I have to show you something very special.’ She prances like a fawn to her office and dances back with a wedge-shaped box covered in green, gold and red foil.
‘Look what Arthur made for me: A rocket!’
Cass and I exchange glances. Sally is genuinely thrilled.
‘Are those chewing gum wrappers?’ I ask, studying it more closely.
‘Yes! He had to chew an awful lot of gum to produce this. Look at this wonderful shape, like a stealth bomber. It’s very fragile so I’d better hold it. Look at the fire coming out of the back!’
Her enthusiasm is infectious.
‘There’s a solar panel on the top!’ I remark. ‘It must be a green spaceship.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Sally. ‘I didn’t get the spec.’
Cass hands me a present swathed in crisp silver tissue paper, tied with a crimson satin ribbon. ‘It’s from Sally and Giles and me and Piers and Franny and Jim and Dan and various London friends,’ she says. ‘They’re all on the card.’ I undo the ribbon and take off the paper carefully. I gasp. Inside is a beautiful oil sketch of Mistle Hill by Patrick Stour, a well known artist whose works we all covet.
‘God!’ I say, overwhelmed. ‘I can’t believe this! I know that view exactly – Dusty and I were up there earlier! I didn’t know he’d painted Mistle Hill. What a brilliant present!’
‘Well you dropped enough hints,’ says Cass.
‘Did I?’ Surely my memory isn’t that bad, is it? I have no recollection of making any hints or indeed thinking of such a present in order to hint about it in the first place.
‘When we did the Candlebury Art Trail,’ says Cass, ‘you told me about that woman you know who got remarried and didn’t need any more Le Creusets or toasters, so all her friends clubbed together and commissioned her favourite artist to paint a picture of her house. And you said, if you ever got married again, that would be the perfect present…’
Ah, that hint. Which wasn’t a hint. It was just a comment. But well translated!
‘Patrick was a nightmare to get hold of,’ continues Cass, ‘but somehow through a friend of a contact of a contact of Franny’s, I tracked him down and we commissioned him to paint your favourite view.’
‘You commissioned it! Gosh! He did it specially? That’s amazing! Thank you so much.’ I put it reverentially on the table and fumble in my bag again. ‘I’ve got a little something for you,’ I say to Sal. Sal’s already had her 50th. She’s exactly a year older than me. Schools weren’t such sticklers for being the right age for the year group in our day. Though, I admit, eight years’ difference in one year group is pushing it.
‘Oh thank you,’ says Sal, ‘but I’m dying to try your cake. Shall we have some first?’
We sit round the kitchen table. I am on tenterhooks in case it’s inedible. We light the candles and blow out one each, then Sal and I hold the knife together, like a newly wed couple, and as we’re plunging it down into the chocolate, I say, ‘Wish!’
I usually wish for the same thing, a gorgeous, rich replacement husband, but today I have two different wishes: a) that if Gitface can’t feasibly get trapped in a jar of cockroaches, a brick lands on his head, and b) that the perfect, unmissable job opportunity simultaneously lands in my lap. Sally, however, has stopped mid-plunge. She’s looking troubled.
‘I’d better do peace on earth,’ she says finally, ‘but it’s a lot to ask from a cake.’ She cuts generous slices and we tuck in.
‘Oooh,’ says Sally, catching some oozing chocolate as it trickles down her chin. ‘This is delicious. What did you do to it?’
It is delicious! Moist, rich, chocolatey. I am a Nigellaesque domestic goddess. Have invented new cake recipe. So simple. Put the butter icing on while the cake is still warm so it melts and seeps into the cake, à la lemon drizzle. Yes, will call it Eliza’s Chocolate Drizzle Cake. Oh, brilliant idea!
‘I’ve just had a brilliant idea,’ I say. ‘I’m going to do a cookery book. I’ll be the new Nigella! I’ll make my fortune! That’ll be one in the eye for Gitface!’
‘Brilliant!’ says Sally. ‘What will your USP be?’
‘How To Improvise Using The Contents Of Your Store Cupboard and Barren Fridge? For example, you might think this is an all-butter cake. Well the icing is all butter, but the cake, I can now reveal, is 33% Lurpak Spreadable, 33% Bertolli Olive Oil Spread and 33% Flora.’
Cass lowers the remaining half slice that she was about to put in her mouth. ’I think it sounds too studenty. I had a contents-of-your-store-cupboard Penguin paperback when I first went up to London.’
‘Haven’t Rose Prince and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall cornered that market?’
Hmmm. ‘Quick Cooking in the Country?’
Sally holds up Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals which Phoebe gave her for her birthday. ‘You USP should be South-East Asian cooking,’ she says. ‘You’re brilliant at it.’
‘Eliza’s 30 Minute South-East Asian Meals?’ I suggest.
‘South-East Asian in the Country,’ says Cass.
‘South-East Asian on a Shoestring,’ says Sal.
‘South-East Asian in a Sari,’ says Cass, adding, ‘to your door.’
‘Brilliant idea,’ says Sal. ‘There’s too many cookery books out there already. Just do the cooking. I’d hire you!’
‘I’m never going to do that,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘I’m not organised enough. And in the country, going to people’s doors takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money in petrol… no, I’m never going to do that.’
We put the cooking ideas on hold while I give Sally her present. First she opens her card.
‘Oh it’s so sweet! It’s like you can reach out and touch it. I just love newborn lambs. I spend hours leaning over the gate gazing at them... I like eating them as well.’
Then she opens her present, a Cath Kidston make-up bag, an Indian notebook with hand-block printed leaves on the cover, and a wooden sign saying ‘Live Laugh Love.’
‘Aah,’ coos Sally, her face crumpling with touchedness. ‘What a lovely sentiment. It looks a bit like British Rail, doesn’t it? You know, it’s kind of authoritative.’
She strokes the make-up bag. ‘I love this bag, though I’m still using the same make-up I had when I was 16.’
‘Are you?’ Cass and I are mildly shocked.
‘Yes, I’ve still got that old roll-on lip gloss.’
‘What?’ Now she’s got me excited. ‘The one that smells like passion fruit?’
‘Yes!’ squeals Sally. ‘I love it.’
‘Oh yes, yes!’ I sound like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
Sally runs off and brings it back. I turn the glass phial in my fingers, feeling the embossed red swirly design. I remember every detail as if I’d held it yesterday. The coldness of the glass, the ridges of the design under my fingers, the red cap, the stickiness of the gloss, but most of all the smell. I unscrew the cap and inhale. Aaah. Laura Ashley dresses. Smooching to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Bellbottom Levi’s. In turn we roll the syrupy gloss reverentially over our lips and pout to each other. Yes, yes!
‘Mu-um!’ grimaces Phoebe, walking out in disgust.
‘Of course, I never go out wearing it,’ confides Sally, as if she’s confessing to secret cross-dressing.
’Why not?’ I demand.
‘Oh no!’ Her brow has furrowed. ‘You can’t wear lip gloss at our age. People would think I was on the game. Or a newsreader.’
‘I think we should!’ I say. Lip gloss rights for the over 50s!
‘Men don’t like kissing glossy, sticky lips, they really don’t,’ says Sally.
‘Not even if it smells like passion fruit?’ asks Cass.
Sally shakes her head.
‘Tastes like passion fruit?’ I offer.
‘No,’ says Sally, adamant.
‘How do you know?’ I ask.
Just then, Arthur, my 17-year-old godson sticks his head round the kitchen door. He scans the room, as if expecting an ambush. When he’s decided it’s safe, he lopes in. ‘Happy birthday,’ he smiles, giving me a tentative hug. After cutting himself a mansize slice of cake, he slumps into a chair. ‘Do snakes chase raccoons or is it the other way round?’ he asks.
Phoebe is now hovering in the doorway. ‘Arthur! What kind of stupid question is that?’
‘The same kind as, “do ants have muscles?” which is the other thing I was wondering on the bus.’