It’s my wife’s birthday and the party is happening at her parents’ home in the countryside. This is a beautiful place near the English Channel, with a flowery garden my in-laws work on every day, weather permitting.
Weather permitting. Crucial words. I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, Kim’s parents greet me as they always do, with hugs and the words: “Are you all right?”
This is one of my favorite British-isms.
Brits don’t ask how you are - they ask if you’re all right, as if you’ve just dodged a disaster.
I’m guessing the question is left over from World War II, when German bombs were falling and Brits were pulling each other out of the rubble.
In that situation, you don’t ask a dust-covered survivor: “So, how’s it going?”
My in-laws actually did live through it. Betty Ashdown O’Mahony spent her childhood nights hiding in cellars during bombing raids, and one of Frank O’Mahony’s fondest memories happened one day when he was seven years old and he spotted a Nazi plane falling from the sky, trailing smoke.
“We were on our bicycles,” Frank recalls with a smile, “and we pedaled like mad to get to the wreck and grab some souvenirs. Later on the coppers came by and made us hand ‘em over.”
That was long ago, but even now, on Kim’s birthday, Betty and Frank are scanning the skies for another enemy - the weather.
It’s no joke. You need the guts of a Las Vegas gambler to plan an outdoor event in England because the weather is like a heavenly roulette wheel.
Clouds spin in and out of view. The sun shines, then vanishes faster than a pick-pocket. A rainstorm is always a heartbeat away. The TV weatherman has about as much credibility as a faith healer.
So, do we or don’t we set up outdoor tables for Kim’s party?
Yes we do, Frank proclaims!
Out we go, carrying tables and chairs for more than a dozen people. We set them up at the far end of the garden, under trees. It’s a beautiful sight. Kim’s daughter Catherine carries out a luscious chocolate cake.
We start singing “Happy birthday” and just as we reach “to you” someone yells: “I felt a drop!”
Sure enough, it’s raining. Now comes the classic British dilemma: Do we stay, or do we go?
Half the table wants to wait it out, insisting the sun is “trying to come out.” The other half is in favor of moving indoors.
I’m guessing that if the cake had a vote it would be in favor of moving. Chocolate icing is puddling up at the bottom of the plate, and the candles are sputtering in the rain.
But then, miracle of miracles, the rain stops and the sun comes out! Yes!
Except now, it’s bit chilly under those trees. We have to move after all, to a sunny part of the garden.
Off we go, bearing tables, chairs and that soggy cake to the other end of the lawn. We set it all up, and now we can enjoy ourselves!
Only, that sun is awfully strong, and the typical English pelt can’t take it.
That’s no joke. When God was dishing out pigmentation these people were last on line, right behind the Irish. If a true-blue Brit goes to bed and dreams about a trip to the beach, he wakes up with a sunburn.
So a new tactic is devised - we’re going to need a couple of big umbrellas (excuse me, “brollies”) if we’re to sit out in this blazing sunshine!
We set up the brollies, which work fine, until a sudden wind picks up and blows them over, along with a crash of plates and glasses.
The solution? Hoist those tables and chairs and brollies, lads - we’re moving to the other side of the house, sheltered from the wind!
I’m dying to taste that chocolate cake, but my sudden career as a furniture mover is keeping me pretty busy.
You may be wondering - with such a schizophrenic sky, why the hell didn’t we just have the party indoors in the first place?
Because that’s would be admitting defeat, and Brits will not give in to the damn weather, any more than they gave in to those Nazi bombers.
Good for them, I say to myself, as at last I can sit down and dig into my wife’s birthday cake.
It’s really good. Unusually moist, as you may have guessed.
(Next time: BORN TO RUN)