It was Maria’s fifteenth birthday. Her dad did his best to make it a good one. He COOKED from the crack of dawn and laid out a finger buffet that would have fed thirty people, including a lovely birthday cake he had actually made himself, from scratch, from baking the cake to icing it with her name and her age and fifteen candles on it.
“It’s lovely, dad,” she said. “Thanks.”
It would probably be the last birthday cake kind of party she would have. Fifteen was already getting a bit old for it, but her dad had started buying mini sausage rolls and frozen vol-au-vent cases before she had even thought about the sort of birthday party she wanted. And she decided it was EXACTLY the sort of party she wanted.
Anyway, she invited most of the girls she knew at school and some of the boys. Luke and Clyde came, of course. And Sarah Jane had to be there. She couldn’t imagine her birthday without her being there.
Funnily enough, she COULD imagine her birthday without her mum there, and it proved to be the case. She did TURN UP, and she was all dressed up in a posh dress, but not for her daughter’s party.
“Sorry, love,” she said. “I’d love to stay, but E-van wants to take me to this new sushi restaurant. Anyway, here’s a little present for you. Bye now…”
And she had kissed her on the door step and then turned and run back to the waiting car. Maria turned from the door and opened the envelope her mum had pushed into her hand. It was a ten pound token for HMV. It wasn’t even in a gift card. She had left the receipt in the envelope by mistake and the time stamp showed that she had bought it about two hours ago, just before the shops shut.
Alan looked at her daughter as she turned back from the door. He saw her disappointment. Not in the measly afterthought of a present, but the fact that her mum couldn’t even spare an hour to watch her blow out the candles on her last little girl birthday cake before she became a young woman and wanted a different sort of birthday.
“It’s ok, dad. Really it is,” she said. “There’s a CD I’d really like that I can use the token on.” She put the opened envelope in the basket where Alan always dropped the junk mail and smiled brightly as she went back to the party. Her other presents were on a table by the window and everyone gathered around to watch as she opened them. Most of them were CDs and DVDs and girl stuff like make up and clothes. And that was ok. She was pleased with all the kind thoughts of friends.
Her dad had bought her the most expensive present of all, and the most coveted. Her own laptop computer. He had got it cheaper than it would have been in the shops because he worked in computers and got it direct from the wholesaler, but it was still a great present and she was pleased with it.
Clyde bought her a skateboard and promised to teach her how to use it. She appreciated the thought if not the prospect of bruises on places she didn’t know she had.
Luke gave her a small but beautifully wrapped box. She opened it and saw what looked like a Faberge Egg, except it couldn’t be. They were too expensive. But it DID seem to be made of gold with exotic designs all around and it WAS beautiful.
There was a note in the box.
“This isn’t new, I’m afraid. Mum gave it to me ages ago. But she said I could give it to you as a present. It’s an alien antique from a planet called Gallitia. It’s a Bazoolium weather meter. When it’s cold outside it feels cold and when its warm, it feels warm. I don’t know why you can’t just look out of the window, but anyway, happy birthday. And thanks for being my friend.”
“It’s great,” she said, appreciating the note more than the present at the moment, but knowing she would ALWAYS treasure the present. “Thanks, Luke.”
There were two other gifts with the same neat and beautiful wrapping on them. One was from Sarah Jane. It was a watch exactly like the one she always wore. EXACTLY like it. She opened the front and saw the LCD panel underneath that would tell her when aliens were near and all the other things Sarah Jane was able to do with hers.
“It’s brilliant,” she said, strapping it on her wrist and hugging Sarah Jane fondly.
“This one is from a friend who couldn’t be here,” Sarah Jane said about the other present. “But he sent his love.”
She opened the box, which was about the size that a nice pen set might come in. But it wasn’t a pen. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was at first. It was a bit longer than a pen, and considerable shorter than Harry Potter’s wand, which somebody had shouted as she held it up curiously.
“It’s my own sonic screwdriver!” she whispered as she understood at last. “But WHO sent…” Then she smiled as she saw the card inside, written in beautiful copperplate writing. “Happy Birthday, Maria. Love from ‘D’.”
“How did HE know it was my birthday?” she asked.
“HE knows everything,” Sarah Jane told her. “He knows you’re old enough to be responsible for something like that. But best put it away for now. You’ve got another present to open. That big one, there, in the pink paper.”
“It’s from my gran,” Maria explained. “Dad’s mum. I always save gran’s present for last. Because… well, she’s old, and not so well, and one year there won’t BE one, so it’s always special.”
She sat on a chair and took the big box on her knee. She opened the wrapping carefully and slowly to reveal a doll. A doll with a pretty, frilly dress. It had a face like a sweet little girl; blue eyes with eyelids that opened and closed, long, luxurious dark hair and a pink, pouting mouth.
“What a stupid present,” somebody said with a cruel laugh. “Like, does your gran think you’re EIGHT?”
“Yes, she does,” Maria answered in a quiet, calm voice despite feeling quite hurt by that comment. “She got me a teddy bear last year. And it’s a great teddy bear. And this is a GREAT doll. And YOU haven’t got one, Lizzie MacKenzie.”
Lizzie MacKenzie turned away and said something to one of the other girls, who laughed and whispered to one of the others. Maria knew they were saying something mean. But she didn’t care. She didn’t mind that her gran couldn’t get her head around the fact that she was a teenager who didn’t play with dolls or teddies. She loved her gran and she loved the presents she gave her. And she didn’t have to explain that to anyone.
She sat the doll carefully on the sofa before going to blow out the fifteen candles on her birthday cake that her dad had spent hours making.
None of the girls wanted any, because it had too many carbohydrates or too much sugar, or because they were on gluten free or dairy free diets or were allergic to artificial food colourings. Clyde and Luke and some of the boys had a slice. But there was more of it left than was eaten.
If truth be told, she was glad when the party was over and everyone went home. Even Sarah Jane and Luke, who left last of all, hugging her and wishing her well before they went back over the road. Her dad put all the left over nibbles in the fridge and made a pot of tea and they ate big slices of the birthday cake and drank tea.
“It was a great party, dad,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “I think I’ll get an early night though. I’m pretty tired.”
He helped her to take all the presents to her room. She put the new laptop on her desk and the skateboard under it. She found spaces for all the CDs and DVDs on her shelf and the make up and girly stuff went on her dressing table and the clothes in the wardrobe. She hung the Bazoolium at the window so she could look out AND feel if it was hot and cold. The alien detecting watch and the sonic screwdriver she put on her bedside table next to a picture of her gran.
She laid the doll on her pillow reverently and when she had showered and got into her nightdress and she slid into bed, she kept it near her.
“I’ll call you Nina,” she whispered. She didn’t really know why. The name just seemed to fit. The dolls eyes closed and opened again as she moved it slightly.
She thought about the party. Most of it was nice. Two things spoiled it. Her MUM preferring to go to a sushi restaurant than eating vol-au-vents and birthday cake with her.
And Lizzie MacKenzie whispering nasty things to all the other girls and making them all giggle and look at her THAT way. Like she was stupid and immature and uncool.
I hate them BOTH!” she said. Then she thought of the good bits. And she thought of cake and tea in the quiet kitchen with her dad. And on balance it wasn’t the WORST birthday ever.
That would have been the one before last when her mum and dad had argued in the kitchen so loudly that all her old friends from her old school heard it even above the music and there had been all those embarrassed looks and people feeling sorry for her, and she just wished the ground would open up and swallow her.
She tried to get back to thinking about cake and tea and a quiet, nice time with her dad, but remembering that other birthday spoiled the mood and she fell asleep with a lump in her throat and a stray tear squeezing out under her eyelids.
She didn’t hear her new watch beep softly. She didn’t see her new sonic screwdriver cast a small pool of blue light on her bedside table.
She didn’t see the doll’s eyes open and shut, momentarily seeming to have a tiny blue light of their own.
It was just after one o’clock in the morning when Alan rushed into his daughter’s room, snapping on the light and shaking her awake.
“Get dressed, Maria love,” he said anxiously as she pulled herself upright, setting aside the doll that she had gone to sleep hugging. “We have to go to the hospital. Your mum and Ivan have had a car crash.”
To Be Continued...