Simon knocked on Dean’s door after their time of worship.
“Dean, it’s Simon. Please come and join us for tea and the last two stories.”
He was doubtful if Dean would come. A spasm of anger ran through Simon which he quelled at once. He shouldn’t be angry. He had no idea what the other man’s life had been like, or even why he limped. God knew. God had it all in hand. Simon believed that.
“Yes, I’m coming, Simon. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Five minutes. That gave them just enough time. They had all been working hard for the last fifteen and they should be ready before Dean arrived.
“Okay, see you in the dining room,” he called and hurried down the corridor back to the others.
The room looked amazing. Festive. A banner stretched across one corner. There were balloons bobbing above every table. The hotel staff had filled them with nitrogen during the morning. Flowers were everywhere and, in the centre of the room, was a glorious cake which Sandra had organised.
Candles were blazing; the gift was wrapped and ready. All they needed now was the Guest of Honour.
People turned to look at him as Simon came through the doorway. He sensed the unspoken question.
“It’s fine. He’s coming. He’ll be here in five minutes.”
There was a sigh of relief from everyone. They had hoped he would join them. They had all been careful to keep the whole idea of a birthday celebration a secret. They thought they had managed it. No one had even hinted it was going to happen.
Mary was in the doorway watching. She darted back into the room.
“He’s coming, he’s coming. Quiet everyone.”
They stopped talking, each one turning towards the door, waiting for him.
Dean came around the corner and stopped in surprise.
“Happy 70th birthday!” the banner across the corner proclaimed.
Bekka started singing, and they all joined in.
Dean stood there, his face drained of colour, fighting the emotion which threatened to overwhelm him. His seventieth birthday. He’d forgotten all about it. But somehow these young people hadn’t. They’d found out it was today and had decided to celebrate.
He could see the gift on the table. He could not help but notice the cake, blazing with candles. But what struck him more than anything was the joy and the love in the faces of those who were singing. It was too much. Too much.
He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose.
Cries of ‘Happy birthday’ now filled the air as people surged forward to shake his hand or give him a hug. As the mêlée eased, Simon put his arm around Dean’s shoulders.
“Please come and blow out your candles. We’re all dying for a piece of cake.”
The laughter eased the emotion as Dean allowed himself to be led forward to blow out the candles. He was relieved to see there were only seven. He didn’t think he had the breath to blow out seventy! He cut the first slice with an enormous beribboned knife.
Sandra took the knife from him.
“I’ll do the rest, Dean. You’ve done your bit for now.”
She began to slice it up and hand pieces around to everyone. Dean took the plate she offered him and stared down through his tears at the generous piece of chocolate cake in front of him. He felt overwhelmed with emotion. He thought he should say something but the words couldn’t get past the lump in his throat.
“Dean,” Simon said, “you may not know we tracked you down through the Government Pensions website. It gave your date of birth. We realised this would be your seventieth birthday so we planned the weekend around today. We wanted it to be a surprise. I hope we didn’t make a mistake?”
“No, no. It’s just such a shock. I haven’t had a birthday party for, what, over sixty years. I always kept the date to myself, not thinking people would worry to remember it. There was never anyone to care, you see …” His voice caught, as the tears threatened to overflow.
“We care, Dean. You made such a difference to our lives. When you left Ranburne it was too soon, and we were too young to know the impact those lessons would have on us. Now, looking back, we can all see it was a turning point for each one of us. God used you in a powerful way. Even if you didn’t believe in him, he still used you to draw us to him.”
“I still don’t really believe in him,” Dean said, his voice low.
“I think you will. One day,” said Simon, smiling at him. At least Dean’s colour had returned. He didn’t look as if he was going to pass out on them anymore.
“We have one more surprise. I hope you will accept it from us as a token of our love and respect for you. It is given as a birthday gift but also to say thank you.”
Simon turned from Dean and tapped a teaspoon against his coffee cup.
“Friends, before we start the next session, there is one other thing we must do.” He leaned forward and picked up the attractive parcel which lay next to the cake.
“Dean, this comes to you with our love and thanks. We wanted to give you something that will remind you of the Class of 1990, this weekend, and the love God has for you.”
He took Dean’s plate from him and handed him the parcel. Dean’s heart sank. One of the things he loathed above all else, was opening presents in front of the givers. Usually, he didn’t like what they gave him and then had to feign delight.
His hands were shaking as he unwrapped the parcel, laying the ribbons and label to one side. He undid the paper taking care not to tear it. It was the way his mother had taught him, all those years ago. She would take it and press it and use it again for someone else’s birthday. Sandra took the paper from him as he turned the heavy book over in his hands.
For some reason, even though five minutes before, he would have had to fight with himself to appear grateful for such a gift, he was touched by their care and concern.
He opened the front of it. Every one of them had signed it.
They had not just signed it but had written messages above their names. He knew it was a gift he would treasure for the rest of his life. He may never read the book itself, but he would read the messages again and again.
He looked around at the crowd of eager faces, waiting for his response.
“Thank you. Thank you. I am a bit overcome at the moment. Perhaps I can have a few minutes, at lunchtime to thank you properly? But this is a lovely gift and such a wonderful surprise. You’ll never know what it has meant to me.”
People began to clap. And then to cheer. Hip hip! Hip hip! The men came and slapped him on the back; the girls gave him hugs and one or two even kissed his cheek. He nodded and smiled, acknowledging them all, but his mind was in turmoil.
Simon had said those words again. ‘The love God has for you’. Simon had no idea of his history. He might think God loved Dean, but Dean was fairly sure that God couldn’t.
Gordon raised his voice above the clamour of congratulations.
“As reluctant as I am to halt these joyous proceedings,” his friends jeered at the pompous language and he laughed and went on, “Simon and I still have stories to tell and I have a feeling there’ll be a stupendous lunch waiting for us when we are finished. It would be sad if it was all dried up because we took too long.”
This received another round of applause. People started moving towards the lounge, some still carrying their coffee cups, in preparation for the next story.