Dear Carys, Zoe and Andrea
Come and join me for my fortieth birthday adventure weekend, full of mysteries and surprises the like of which you can’t imagine.
When Joanne’s friends reluctantly accept an invitation to her birthday party, it quickly becomes clear that there is more to this weekend than they are expecting.
One of them is hiding a secret.
And Joanne is planning to reveal it…
A weekend away in a cottage in the woods sounds like fun – until no one can hear your cries for help.
A party to die for.
Who will survive?
Friendships are made up of all the little things that matter, the common ground of lives, shared interests, loves, dislikes, the highs and the lows. They matter and they are matter. Like stars in the night sky, friends can light up the darkness. Sometimes we might forget they are there and yet know they will always be there. Others can come in a burst, dazzling us with the excitement of newness, seducing us with promises of adventure. Some will deliver on this promise, others will fizzle away while some will shoot across the night sky in one last hurrah before they disappear from our lives.
I think of my best friends, I can count them on one hand with digits to spare. Joanne, Andrea and Zoe are the stars in my night sky. Together, we make a good constellation. We stick by each other. We look out for each other. We forgive each other.
I remind myself of the last fact as I hold the invitation in my hand, knowing that I should accept, with grace and maturity, the olive branch it represents.
Dear Carys, Zoe and Andrea
My Fortieth Birthday Celebrations
Come and join me for an adventure weekend, full of
mysteries and surprises, the like of which you can’t imagine.
With the grand reveal on Sunday evening.
Friday 8 September – Monday 11 September
Meet at Chichester Cathedral 09.00 Friday morning
P.S. As it’s also Carys’s birthday on the Monday,
I thought we could celebrate that as well.
Two months ago, Joanne had told us to save the date, or rather the weekend, and said she’d let us know nearer the time what was happening. I could have quite happily ignored my thirty-ninth birthday, but Joanne had been insistent the weekend was to be a double celebration. She also insisted that, despite it being her birthday, the whole weekend was to be a surprise for me too. I had hoped we’d find out the details sooner and, I have to admit, leaving it until the night before is cutting it fine but she has steadfastly refused to give us any more details until now.
I flip the card over and see there is a handwritten message, the tall spiky writing unmistakably Joanne’s.
PPS. I know things have been difficult lately but amends need to be made. Do come, it’s important you’re there.
I sit down at the kitchen table and read the invitation again. I’m not sure what it is about the PPS on the reverse, but it sounds . . . odd. I think that’s the best way I can describe it. I mull over the significance but before I can settle on anything meaningful, my mobile rings.
Andrea Jarvis’s name flashes across the screen.
‘Hiya,’ I say, kicking off my running shoes. Flakes of dried mud from my afternoon cross-country run scatter across the tiled floor like dirty snowflakes. I sigh inwardly at the mess. Sometimes I’m no better than my teenage son. Stepping over the debris, I go to the fridge, hook out a bottle of wine and pour myself a glass, something I would normally reserve for a Friday night, but seeing as we’re off on our jolly tomorrow, I feel a drop of alcohol is justified. ‘Don’t tell me, you’ve seen the invitation.’
‘Too bloody right,’ says Andrea. ‘Did you get the PPS on yours?’
‘Where it says about making amends?’
‘What is that all about?’
I shrug even though Andrea can’t see this action. ‘No idea. Maybe, she just really wants us to go. Maybe she thought we’d change our minds now that it looks like it’s going to be an outdoor adventure type of weekend.’
‘I’m not bothered about that,’ says Andrea. ‘It’s not like we haven’t done this sort of thing before. Last year we all did that charity walk up Snowdon. Before that, the mountain bike trail. You’ll be in your element anyway.’
It’s true, I am an adventure junkie and working at the local outward-bound centre tends to satisfy my addiction for kayaking, rock climbing and the like these days. I also help with the outdoor activities for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, so I’m not particularly fazed by the prospect of what Joanne has in store for us. ‘It’s going to be like a busman’s holiday for me,’ I say. ‘And you’ll be OK yourself.’
‘Yeah, that’s as maybe, but I’m stuck behind the desk most days since I took over the gym. I headed up a high-impact aerobics class the other day and thought my legs were going to seize up afterwards.’
‘You’ll be fine. Have you spoken to Zoe about the invite?’ I ask, taking my seat at the table again. I glance at the official-looking letter which was also waiting on the doormat when I got in this evening and push it to one side to read later.
‘She hasn’t a clue what it means either. But she’s gone into full-on cute Labrador puppy mode. All excited – can’t wait for the weekend and thinks Joanne is utterly wonderful.’
I give a small laugh into my glass as Andrea does a perfect imitation of Zoe, whose voice gets squeakier the more excited and enthusiastic she gets about anything. ‘It’s too late to change your mind,’ I say.
‘It would be awful if I was struck down with a stomach bug, though,’ says Andrea.
‘Don’t even think about it. We made a deal, remember?’
‘I might have been under the influence of alcohol when I did that one-for-all-and-all-for-one shit.’
‘You promised and you can’t break a promise. Not to one of your best friends. Besides, it’s my birthday too.’
‘I think that’s called blackmail.’
I laugh as I imagine the scowling look on Andrea’s face. ‘No, seriously, Andrea. You can’t back out now. Joanne will kill you.’
‘Hmm. When she said it was a surprise, I was hoping it would be more of a spa weekend. You know, fluffy white dressing gowns, manicures. Lots of pampering and relaxation.’
‘Look, like I said before, I think this is her way of making up for being so distant lately.’ In saying this, I silently acknowledge that I’m referring more to the way my own relationship with Joanne has been in recent times. We had once been so close, but things happened and the balance of our friendship shifted, leaving a hiatus in our alliance.
There’s a small silence while we both contemplate the sentiment of the weekend. Andrea speaks first. ‘I suppose I owe it to her. You know, give her a chance to make up for the way she’s been since I took on the gym.’
‘Is all that still going on between you two? I thought the dust had settled.’
‘Sort of. I’ve certainly drawn a line under it all, but not Joanne. I have this sense that she’s still angry at me. I can’t put my finger on it or explain it, but when I speak to her, it’s like an undercurrent of tension. Do you know what I mean?’
‘Mmm . . . I do.’ Andrea could be describing my own rela¬tionship with Joanne.
‘Anyway, as I say, I’ll give her a chance to make amends, but if she starts again, about having to work for me now instead of being a partner, I’m sorry, I won’t be keeping my mouth shut. Fortieth birthday or not.’
‘And when do you ever keep your mouth shut, my darling?’ I say.
‘I think I did once, in 1986 – I might be wrong though,’ says Andrea with a laugh. ‘Anyway, so now you’re not letting me skive off, we’d better sort out what’s happening tomorrow. Is Alfie still coming to mine for the weekend?’
‘He’s not in from college yet – five-a-side football, I think he said. But yes, he’s all good to come to you. He’s going to go home with Bradley. Are you sure Colin is up to this?’
‘Oh, he’ll be in his element. Takeaways and gaming. It’s totally a boy’s weekend.’
‘That’s kind of him. I appreciate it.’
‘Anytime. You know that. Although, I’m surprised Alfie’s not staying at Joanne’s, with Ruby and Oliver.’
I ignore the little drop my stomach gives at the mention of Joanne’s daughter. It’s the sort of weightless feeling you experience when the rollercoaster tips over the edge of the first big dip and it takes a few seconds for your internal organs to catch up with the fall. I’m used to that sensation. As sure as night follows day, I get that every time Ruby comes up in conversation. As always, I make a faultless recovery. ‘Fortunately, Tris is away this weekend too, so Ruby is going to stay with Joanne’s mother.’ I try to keep my tone neutral as my thoughts are thrown off course and on to a different trajectory. If my friends are the constellation by which I navigate life, then Ruby is the black hole whose gravitational pull is so great that nothing, not even light, can escape from being drawn in and swallowed up. I know. I’ve witnessed stars in my night sky pass the point of no return, the absolute horizon of the black hole, and disappear forever, while other stars are teetering around the edges, unwittingly being drawn closer and closer until it will be impossible to turn back.’
Four friends head to a country cottage to celebrate a fortieth birthday, what could be more ordinary? Well, the invitation is intriguing, the journey unusual and the invitees hide secrets, even from each other. A suspenseful few days follow, full of sinister happenings, simmering anger and settings so atmospheric you feel like the fifth guest.
Written in the first person, Carys reveals the story, except for the insights into the mind of the antagonist. There are many suspects, but the final revelation of the truth is more horrific than you first believe.
Adrenaline, angst and adversity characterise this fast-paced story, making it an addictive read. The cleverly written roles of the key players, lead to a heart-stopping twist at the end, which makes you shudder.
A classy psychological thriller with realistic characters and an insightful exploration of what happens to human emotions when pushed to their limits.
I received a copy of this book from Harper Impulse via NetGalley in return for an honest review