In Peter Neville's short story, the whole family is getting ready for dad's 60th birthday. However, something isn't quite what it seems.
Steve Jones slowly buttoned up the new silk shirt that his mother had persuaded him to buy a week earlier. In the middle of the department store, when his eyes settled on a very nice black leather jacket, his mother had practically gone insane.
Her eyes might as well have bulged from her head, her cheeks puffed and her hands rolled into fists. Her voice became shrill and serious in that terrifying manner in which mothers possess; the ultimate weapon in their arsenal of looks, glares and accusative questions.
“Stephen! You can’t wear that; everybody will think you are some sort of vampire. And you know, as a highly religious woman, I strongly object to having any beings of supernatural orientation in my household… Now, pick a nice and brightly coloured shirt for your father’s birthday.”
“Right. If you say so.”
After no more than a few seconds of browsing - he couldn’t feign interest for any longer than that - he settled on the loosest-fitting item in the category of brightly coloured. It was navy blue, with a nice pattern along the sleeve that he would endeavour to hide from his mother’s endless gaze. And so, here he was, getting ready for the event that would cover the whole day; the event which the entire family had spent the past week preparing for.
As he did up the last button and took a look at his reflection in the new mirror he had received as a very unwanted Christmas present, he had to admit that he looked kind of handsome. Not the Hollywood, surgery-influenced world of forced perfection, but for a normal person, without millions of earnings received for pretending to be someone else, he looked pretty okay.
Now, to be feeling that way was not only strange but also unorthodox for Steve; he was always more focused on his writing and music rather than his appearance. Since a young age, his mother had always told him that if he paid more attention to things like his hair and his fashion sense, then he would be lusted after by the women of the small city he lived in.
However, Steve then discovered his love of metal music, and knew that the world of glamour and bright clothes was pretty much frowned upon. And so, he allowed himself to follow the stereotype of moody teenager, who played in a band that would never be good enough to become famous. And to tell the truth, he enjoyed his life. And more so, he actually didn’t mind that his mother was a small bit controlling at times.
It had been her influence, and also his fear, that had prevented him smoking or getting tattoos, even if the other guys were covered in them. His girlfriend loved him for it. She kept saying that he had the proper balance between kick-ass and sensitive. Whatever that meant.
As Steve admired himself in the mirror, it slowly dawned on him that he was wearing nothing more than a shirt and his underwear; the thought of appearing like that made him smile for the first time in days. However, he wiped his grin away and quickly put on the black suit trousers; his mother’s way of making a compromise, whilst keeping her son looking respectable. And that followed with the suit jacket that his father had bought for him for Christmas; little did the man know that his son would first wear the outfit at an event that had been organised especially for him. However, of course, he did not know about it.
Once he was dressed, Steve scoured the room for any signs of a hairbrush so that he could tame his wild brown hair, which was already puffed out to an almost-afro style. With a little hair gel and the brush held in hand, he began work on something that could only be described as mission impossible; to make his hair look like what his mother imagined, whilst retaining his original style.
He had already shaved off the beard he had been growing for the past ten months, and now that he had slicked his hair back in a way that didn’t scream middle-aged lawyer, he seemed to have the appearance of a twelve year old. Damn! With his hands, he quickly shook his hair and made it a tad scruffier, but more acceptable to himself.
On the dresser was a birthday card marked ‘Dad,’ which Steve grabbed as he headed out of his bedroom and began to climb down the stairs…
People had been notified weeks in advance of the great occasion - the big sixty - and had made plans in hushed tones to be there for the celebration party. The cake had been purchased, the meals had been planned; even Steve’s mother had begun writing her speech.
It had been a difficult job to hide the birthday-related stuff within the house, but in a location which they hoped the recipient of the surprise would not discover. After all the hard work, they did not want to blow it. Nobody mentioned the party, or indeed the fact that their father and husband was about to turn what once would have been viewed as a very significant age.
Then on Thursday, he had left the house to go on one of his routine walks. Steve’s mother had told him not to go, although she knew he would be fine. He was a large, strong man who was well capable to defending himself if he got into trouble. In fact, he had taught Steve how to defend himself, and had done a good job at it. However, even the strongest of us sometimes fall…
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Steve turned into the living room and immediately saw his dad; dressed in his own suit and looking sharp. He passed all the people who had gathered in the room, who saluted him with nods or small hand gestures. When he got to where his dad was, he took the birthday card out of his pocket and placed it on his dad’s chest.
“Here, Dad. This is for you. Happy Birthday.”
And without another word, he turned away from the coffin and walked back towards the people dressed in black who had gathered in the room. And through tear-stained eyes, across the room, his mother smiled at him in a way that suggested that he looked his best.
In that moment, he realised that although his Dad hadn’t been around to see it, he would have been proud that so many of his friends and family had gathered for his birthday.