The Birthday Wish

Emma awoke to the urgent chittering of a late summer flock of serins in the walnut tree outside the window, and the heavyhearted realisation that the holiday was over. She lay still for a few moments, eyes only half open, watching the shifting patterns of early sunlight shimmer vaguely across the thick, ugly wallpaper. She wondered at the stereotypical Frenchness of the décor, considering for a second or two whether the newly refurbished apartment in this big, old house had been deliberately badly decorated, to retain the ubiquitous french holiday cottage ambience.

Beyond the panelled, dark brown door that didn’t quite shut, she could hear Shelly already laying claim to the hottest of the water tank’s meagre daily ration, attempting to shower in the bath that had no curtain, in the cavernous bathroom that had no lock. She wished she had woken earlier. She was fed up with negotiating the slippery, grey wetness of the tiled floor, which reminded her of cheaper, supposedly less-comfortable camping holidays, where trying to dry feet, and place them neatly through tight jeans within the confines of a tiny, puddle-floored, hookless shower cubicle in the communal block had always offered an interesting challenge to her obsessive compulsions about cleanliness, dryness and modesty.

She turned away from the sunlight and the getting-up sounds, and put her arm lightly across Peter’s exposed back. It was going to be another hot day. He sighed. He moved. He stretched slowly, groaning, as he ironed out the night-grown stiffness in his spine. “Happy Birthday my dear,” he mumbled through his wine-stained mouth, still squashed against the flatness of his pillowless side of the bed, “coffee?”

Despite the less-than-perfect trappings of the holiday apartment, and the somewhat irritating-after-a-couple-of-days humour of their friends, it had been a lovely week. The weather, for once, had been unremittingly glorious, with none of the summer downpours that had drenched some of the easy-going enjoyment out of previous biking holidays. She and Peter had already spent three vacations in and around this small oasis of a market town, and had fallen in love with it. During the last week, they had revelled in the opportunity to introduce their friends to its many secret delights, like proud parents showing off their gifted children’s school work. And Joe and Shelly had been suitably impressed with the choice of holiday destination, and appropriately appreciative of the fact that they had been singled out to share the blessings of this jewel of a place, rather than any of Emma and Peter’s other biking friends.

But the week was over, and by ten thirty they would have to have cleaned up, packed and met with the owner for a last minute inventory check and the return, hopefully, of their damage deposit. Between them they had broken one mismatched wine glass, and snapped the back of an exceedingly worn plastic garden-chair, during one of many Merlot-soaked evenings of mellow conviviality on the star-lit roof terrace.