“Where’s Chris?” Cheryl asked, as they settled around the table. Chris had texted to say that he wouldn't be able to pick her up and their parents would. Daniel and Angela had brought the girls to the one of the most popular and upscale restaurants in the town. She had been here before with them but never on her birthday. “He did not tell me what’s delayed him.” She had been tempted to ask but finally didn't He would have answered her and not really liked it. Her brother was very busy, training to become a surgeon.
“He has been held up at the hospital”, Angela informed her. “But we don’t have to wait for him. He asked us to start without him.”
“Oh.” Cheryl had hoped that Chris might be able to make straight to the dinner on time even if he was unable to pick her up. She caught Joyce’s eye across the table and smiled.
“Here you go, Cher. For you.” Bertha caught her attention.
Cheryl kissed her sister, while her mother urged her to open the gift. She unwrapped the small package to find a jewelled pen set. “That’s so beautiful, Bertha. Thanks.” Her parents had already given her a new laptop, when they had come to pick Cheryl and Joyce from the hostel.
“I hope all that you write with this pen brings loads, loads and loads of fun”, Bertha said, before adding, “to your boring life.”
Cheryl scowled at Bertha as everyone else laughed.
“What do your parents do, Joyce?” Daniel asked. The main course had just arrived.
Joyce with her open and exuberant nature had won Cheryl’s parents. She recognized Bertha and Cheryl had been afraid that her friend could become star-struck. But while Joyce had almost gushed for the first minute after meeting Bertha, she had quickly become her confident self.
“Dad teaches history while Mom is a maths teacher”, Joyce replied. “They...”
“Chris is here!” Angela exclaimed with a broad smile.
Chris settled at the table between Bertha and Cheryl. “Hey, kid. Sorry, I am late. Happy Birthday.”
Cheryl waved his apology away and kissed him. “I understand. Too much work.” She did, even if she wished otherwise.
Chris flashed a charming smile and all was forgotten. Cheryl introduced her friend to her brother. She was a little puzzled to see Joyce’s effervescence dim a little after Chris’ arrival but thought not more of it as she was drawn back into the conversation flying around her.
“I can’t believe my kids are so grown-up. Chris and Bertha barely have time these days. And now Cheryl is also away”, Angela commented a little emotionally, as their plates were cleared and Daniel signalled for the check.
Bertha groaned. “Oh, Mom. Do you have to? You used to crib all the time, I was at home.” And then grinned wickedly.
Angela glared at her older daughter. “You must think, Joyce, what ill-mannered children have I raised.”
Joyce laughed. “Not at all, Mrs. Woods. Cheryl is perhaps the only good girl I know. You must be so proud of her.”
“Yeah, yeah. We are”, Angela replied. There was warmth in her voice but Cheryl could almost taste the undercurrent of resigned disappointment. Maybe her mother was herself not aware of it. She looked at Joyce and saw that her friend’s smile had also noticed what her mother had not said.
“it was truly a pleasure meeting you all”, Joyce’s voice encompassed all the Woods, though it lingered - a little less warmly, perhaps? – on Chris. “I was going to say, privilege but then I realized how functional and formal it sounded.”
“It was pleasure all round, Joyce. I am so glad that Cher has you to watch her back.” Daniel’s eyes alighted on her with affection.
Chris offered to drop Cheryl and Joyce back at the campus. It was his way of trying to make up for turning up late, he said.
“As if.” Cheryl heard Joyce mutter as she settled in the back seat. Cheryl turned to look at her but her friend’s face was her usual smiling self.