My brother-in-law sat meekly in the back of the car smothered with bright pink paper. With a gold bow stuck on top, Jo’s first surprise was complete.
Josh had flown halfway round the world to be with his sister for her birthday. Now exhausted with jetlag, he was sweating on the back seat of a hot car dressed as a parcel.
The problem was, Jo didn’t want her surprise. “It’s not my birthday till Tuesday: I’ll open it then”, she said, absorbed with Izzy in The Night Garden. “But it’s too big to hide – please go outside and open it”. She had sighed earlier as I’d said I was going to town to “collect something”.
Like all men, I normally only shop for presents at the eleventh hour, but she hoped I’d at least made an effort for her 40th. The one thing she really wanted was a pair of size 35 Christian Louboutin shoes, quite unobtainable in Newcastle, so, despite a few hints and a magazine left open at an appropriate advert, she guessed I’d ended up making the usual panic buy at Fenwick’s. She hoped I’d kept the receipt. “Just put it in the shed, I promise I won’t look”, she said. “It’s a bit bulky – give me a hand with the…dangly bits”. I’d nearly said “arms”.
Eventually I dragged her outside to look. She gasped when I opened the car door. I admit it did look a little alarming. Josh was holding himself perfectly still, arms strapped to his sides. You couldn’t see an inch of flesh and you’d never have guessed it was a body, were it not for the brightly coloured trainers sticking out the bottom. “Er, that’s just weird”, was the disappointed reaction. “Is it a Raoul Moat doll?”
She was serious. The murderer had been the only thing on our minds for the entire week. Now it crossed her mind that some shop in Newcastle might already be selling replicas. This was too eccentric, even for me. Or perhaps it was a real corpse?
Suddenly the cadaver coughed and Jo shrieked. “Open it before it suffocates”, I urged. She gingerly tore back the top, and there was her beloved brother, face now pink as the wrapping paper: “Surprise!”
Organising Jo’s 40th birthday was more complicated than any television programme.
The climax of the big day was to be a secret party at a friend’s house. For weeks emails had pinged across Northumberland as her girlfriends and I conspired. But with a week to go Jo had become increasingly gloomy. She muttered darkly about missing LA and her family; she wanted the beach and a plate of decent sushi.
Suddenly I twigged: when Jo had started dropping hints about her birthday, all her friends had made excuses because they didn’t want to blow the surprise – some said they were working, the rest were “out of town”. Her great friend Claire, in panic, said she was going to be “in Stockholm”.
Then gloom turned to suspicion: was something afoot? So we arranged decoys: a girly supper here, a lunch there, a beach picnic the following weekend (when Claire had returned from Stockholm).
The birthday dawned with breakfast in bed and a series of unexpected arrivals: a hairdresser, a masseuse, then a huge tray of fresh sashimi, made by the obliging chef at Yo Sushi. But best of all was her shock that night as we arrived at the party to the massed screams of “Surprise!” from all her friends. There was an enormous cake featuring a 40-Star Spangled Banner above an image of the present I’d given her just an hour before: the very pair of Louboutins she’d seen in the magazine.
Thank goodness it’s ten years till we have to do it all again.