The rule of six

‘Do not get me anything with seventy written on it,’ Mum says. ‘I don’t want reminding that I’m so old.’

‘It’s your birthday,’ I say.

‘I don’t want a fuss.’

‘You do.’

‘I don’t.’

I sigh. Whenever we mention anything about her forthcoming big birthday, the conversation always goes the same way. No to balloons. No to a party. No to anything with seventy written on it.

‘What shall we do?’ my sister, Sarah, asks, the worry showing on her face.

‘Take no notice.’ I use my big sister I know best voice. ‘She doesn’t mean it. We’re making a fuss of her. And she’ll love it.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘No. But we need to do something.’

Planning begins immediately. We consult government guidelines to see how many people we can invite. We send out the invites. We ring the guests to confirm. We order balloons and banners and bunting. Everything we buy has a seven and a zero written on it.

The next thing to decide is the present. ‘How about putting together and getting her some jewellery?’ I suggest.

Sarah agrees. Dad agrees. ‘Let me know what I owe you,’ he says. ‘But remember, I’m a pensioner.’

In a normal world, we would go to a jewellery store together, take our time, maybe have some lunch. Afterwards Sarah would buy a handbag, and I’d buy a book. But as there is nothing normal about the world, we have a rethink.

‘You buy it online,’ Sarah says. ‘And I’ll go to pick it up.’

This seems like a good plan, but the next day she calls me back. ‘I was going to go to Meadowhall, but it’s not an enjoyable experience anymore.’ She sighs. ‘It’ll be best to buy it online.’

It is at this moment — when my shopaholic sister is turning down a shopping trip — that I realise the world has changed beyond recognition. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’ Her voice is flat. ‘It’s not fun anymore.’

I am not a shopper, have never been a shopper, but I feel an overwhelming sadness for my sister who has lost one of her main hobbies in life. Not to mention the economy. Because without her shopping days, it’s in for some turbulent times.

‘Make sure you keep shopping online,’ I say.

‘I will.’

I get off the phone, picturing how happy she always looked, coming out of a store with a new purchase. I think of our last shopping trip at Christmas, and how she went from shop to shop, eyes lighting up, never tiring, while I trailed behind, desperate to get to the bookshop and go home. I long for a return to those days.

Between us, we select something special for Mum. I order online but when I come to arrange delivery, it won’t recognise my postcode. It’s doesn’t believe my new house exists. So, I arrange delivery to Mum and Dad’s house. I know this is risky, but they’ll give me a delivery time so Dad can take it in without Mum even noticing. I wouldn’t want her opening her present, or even seeing it, before her big day.

The order is going to plan. I get regular updates about its status. On Sunday evening, I receive an email saying it’s out for delivery and tomorrow I will have a time slot. This is good; everything is going to plan.

Until the next morning, at six o’clock, I receive a text message. The driver is on his way and will arrive in twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes!

I pick up the phone, call home, but there is no answer. They’ll be in bed. And if the driver knocks on the door, it’ll be Mum who wakes up first. I imagine her standing on the doorstep, looking at the parcel. ‘I wonder what this is?’ And she’ll tear off the packaging. All our planning will have been for nothing.

I throw on some clothes, dive into the car Dukes of Hazard style, and set off on the twenty-minute journey to my parents’ house. I imagine how cross Sarah will look when I tell her I’ve ruined the surprise. Just the thought makes me hit the accelerator hard.

I arrive just after the delivery man. He’s walking up the drive, lifting his hand about to knock on the door. In a second, I’m out of the car and running after him. ‘Stop!’

I wrestle the package from him, just as Mum is opening the curtains. ‘What are you doing?’ she shouts through the window.

‘Nothing,’ I say.

It is twenty past six in the morning. I am standing half-dressed on my parents’ front lawn with a man I’ve never met and a package I’m trying to hide behind my back.

‘Cup of tea?’ she says.

With the present safely delivered, plans for the party continue. Sarah orders the food. I sort the cake. Everything is ready to give Mum the wonderful day she deserves. Everything.

Just before I’m going to bed on Tuesday night, a news update comes through on my phone. ‘Social gatherings over six to be banned in England.’

I stare at the article, checking the dates and guidelines. For a moment, I feel like putting my head in my hands and sobbing. But I don’t. I pull myself together and call my sister.

‘We need to do the party on a smaller scale,’ I tell her. ‘The government says so.’

‘How small?’

‘Six people.’

‘Six?’

‘Six!’

‘Right.’

‘Mum will probably prefer a small gathering,’ I say. ‘She’s never been one for big parties.’

We pick up the phone and start uninviting the guests, but the food and cake can’t be unordered.

‘We’ll just have to eat a lot,’ Sarah says, reeling off the list of food. ‘Pizza, quiches, sandwiches, and puddings and party food for a small army.’

On the day of the birthday, we decorate the house, and jump out and shout ‘Surprise!’. With only five of us, it’s not quite the same, but it’s more than enough.

Mum smiles. ‘I knew you were up to something. But I didn’t expect all this.’ She stands in front of the food, looking slightly overwhelmed.

‘We were expecting a few more people,’ I say. ‘I hope you’re hungry.’

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