Carla disliked parties and themed ones were the worst of all. For years she had made excuses when invited along to such events. If the hosts took offence then that was regrettable, but her true friends accepted her quirks even if they did not understand. She was past caring what the wider world thought. Words still had the power to hurt, but she had moved on from the young woman she had once been, learning the hard way that there are those who would never be pleased or impressed unless she became a lesser version of them. Such a price was not worth paying.
The invitation sat on her crowded bookshelf mocking her resolve and hard won sense of self. Ashley knew how Carla felt but had declared that it was her birthday and she would do what she wanted on her special day. She had made sure that Carla knew how much effort the rest of the family were making. Mark was flying over from Australia with his new partner; their attendance would be part of a carefully planned tour of Europe. Craig could only get a few days off work but was flying in from Canada just for the weekend.
Carla had started to remind Ashley how much she struggled with these events only to be cut off in mid sentence. ‘You have to be there’ she had exclaimed, ‘You are my twin sister and you live less than three miles from the venue. For one night, just one night, try to act as if you are normal!’
So now Carla was putting together a hideous outfit that would make her look like a cast member from Saturday Night Fever. She had never liked that film. Discos had been her first experience of girls in a cattle market, expected to cosy up to drunk, sweaty Lotharios who thought that they were God’s gift. Ashley, of course, had loved them. Their mother had insisted that Carla go along to keep her sister company, not that Ashley was ever short of company.
Her sister fitted their mother’s idea of how a girl should be. Interested in fashion, boys and parties they gossiped and giggled together, flicking through magazines or sizing up the young actors from television shows. Carla was berated for not making an effort with her looks, for spending too much time reading in her bedroom. ‘How are you ever going to find a husband?’ her mother fretted. To her, this was the pinnacle of achievement for a good girl.
Mother would be at the party of course; costumed, coiffed and in her element. If Ashley was a challenge to cope with then she was an amateur compared to their mother who, even after all these years, could never give up trying to makeover Carla in her own image. The party had probably been a joint venture, a way to force Carla to act the way the family thought she should. The closer it came the more Carla was struggling to cope.
It would be so easy to agree to everything and then not turn up, claim illness, not answer the door if they tried to fetch her on the day. It would also be a pretence, and Carla would no longer live her life that way. She would attend as was expected and then leave early. She hated herself for not being stronger, for allowing herself to be sucked in yet again.
On the night, feeling nauseous and foolish, Carla filled her hair with spray and glitter, donned a floaty red dress, and waited for the hired limousine that would take the family to the venue. It didn’t arrive. An hour later Craig phoned from the hospital to inform her that their mother was on life support. They had been drinking all afternoon before Ashley and their mother had argued over the suitability of costumes, mutton dressed as lamb. Mother had attempted a dramatic departure, tripping over her feet as she left and falling down the steep front steps. She had banged her head at the bottom, hard. The doctors told them that she was unlikely to regain conciousness.
It was not the family reunion that Carla had expected and dreaded. For the first time in her life she was in charge, the only one amongst them who felt calm. As she held her mother’s hand and gave the doctors permission to turn the machines off, she silently wished herself a Happy Birthday.