A Magical Mystery Tour

“I think I’d like to be with people,” I had said when Mr Blue-Shirt had asked me in late summer what I’d like to do for my 60th birthday in November. “And I think I’d quite like it to be a surprise.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and left it at that. Over the succeeding weeks, though, I was aware of hurried phone conversations that he took great pains to ensure I couldn’t overhear, and of lengthy periods he spent behind closed doors on his laptop: Mr Blue-Shirt was plotting. And, despite my preference for a surprise, I couldn’t help being curious. After all, that’s half the point of a surprise surely…

Small clues extracted
And a few red herrings too
Not enough to guess

By early October I had established that we were going to spend a week in the UK, and a couple of weeks later I had learnt that on my birthday itself we would be staying in the Cotswolds where, I learnt later still, some friends would be joining us for dinner. Beyond that, though, nothing. Well, nothing of any use. When I asked for some hints, just so I could start thinking about what to pack, that I wouldn’t need my swimming things or my ‘steelies’ (steel-toed boots), but might need something for parachuting, wasn’t quite what I had in mind…

Selecting outfits
Suitable for partying –
Or bungee-jumping..?

With barely a week to go, I managed to prise out of Mr Blue-Shirt the fact that we would also be spending the first part of the week at his sister’s house near Exeter, from which I concluded that his plans involved those family members who live in the area. But as to the precise details, he remained resolutely tight-lipped …

What? and where? and who?
Tantalising surprises
Yet to be revealed

This still left a couple of days unaccounted for, though, especially as Mr Blue-Shirt had disclosed that there were not just two but three occasions (if not four) for which I would want to pack something nice to wear. So when even Mr Blue-Shirt started checking that certain shirts (in his signature colour, obviously) were washed and ironed, I pressed him further. It transpired that we were staying somewhere else again on the first night – a cosy pub somewhere in Berkshire perhaps, simply to break the long and often very slow journey from Stansted to Devon? But when I put my theory to Mr Blue-Shirt, he just shrugged.

Excitement fizzing
As my birthday drew near, like
Bubbles in champagne

He came clean only once we were airborne: we were spending the night not in Berkshire but in Essex, and not in a cosy pub but with some lifelong family friends who were also treating us to dinner at a very swanky local restaurant. And this wonderful stay with my ‘nearly-cousin’ (our fathers had been best friends, each other’s Best Man and Godfather to each other’s children) was just the first in a succession of meticulously planned surprises that unfolded as the week went on…

Only the next day came a visit to a blacksmithing friend in Surrey who stocks a range of distinctive artisan jewellery in her ironwork gallery where I was invited to choose whichever piece caught my fancy as my birthday gift from Mr Blue-Shirt himself. Since you ask, a delicate silver necklace set with blue and white topaz, which happens to be my birthstone.

The day after that was a lunch at a lovely pub on the coast a few miles from Exeter where we have enjoyed many family occasions over the years. Put like that, it may not sound that special, but Mr Blue-Shirt ensured that for me it was more special than I could ever have imagined. Travelling not, as I had anticipated, just from Exeter, but also from Southampton, Bristol, Torquay and even St Ives in deepest Cornwall, every single member of my family (as well as their partners, children and dogs) was present, from my three-year-old great nephew to my ninety-one-year-old aunt – as well as my sister-in-law and nephew whom I hadn’t seen for nearly ten years and whose arrival reduced me to a delighted, blubbering wreck. To say that ‘my cup ranneth over’ would be an understatement.

Sunday was spent ‘at leisure’, but on Monday it was on to the Cotswolds and what Mr Blue-Shirt finally revealed would be a two-night stay in a favourite pub/hotel in Burford that we have been going to for over thirty years. And while I was sure I could guess which friends were probably joining us for my birthday dinner the following evening, still the surprises kept on coming. First was an upgrade to the hotel’s only and very luxurious suite (which came as a surprise even to Mr Blue-Shirt), then, when we went down for drinks before heading into the town for what I had been led to believe would be a casual meal on our own, sitting in the bar with a glass of fizz already on the table for me were Ginny and Pete, dear friends since the early ‘90s when we all lived in Germany. Since they are still enjoying the novelty of early retirement, they had decided to come for two nights, so the four of us had a wonderful ‘bonus’ evening together and by the time we called it a night it was technically already my birthday.

Sixty! How on earth..?               
Way too young to reach this age
Inside still a girl

Mr Blue-Shirt still hadn’t finished, though. After a late start and a leisurely day opening gifts and pottering around Burford’s pretty shops, I was getting really excited about my birthday dinner that evening, which I was sure I had got all worked out. In addition to Ginny and Pete, I was confident we would be joined by Diane and James (more very old army pals from our Brunei days) and two sets of dear friends from our time in Lincolnshire, Nick and Elaine (who I used to sing with) and David and Samantha (who we used to drink with!) I had in fact got this bit spot on, but what Mr Blue-Shirt had kept up his sleeve was that, as well as dinner, he had also reserved part of the lounge for the afternoon so that everyone could gather there first for tea and birthday cake… and maybe a glass or two of champagne…

Dinner was everything I had hoped for and more: first-class food and wine served in beautiful surroundings and accompanied by animated conversation and raucous laughter, and all of it enjoyed in the wonderful company of treasured friends. Once again, my cup truly ranneth over.

I was rather thrown by how little things seemed to have changed when we got home barely 36 hours later. While some of the plants in the garden did look slightly more dishevelled, the peaks of the Sibillini remained dusted with snow, autumn colours still glowed in the trees, and even though the warmth of our protracted Indian summer had perhaps faded a tad, there was still no sign of proper, wintry cold. Then again, we had only been away for a week. But I had somehow expected everything to look or feel different after such a fantastically joyful, treat-filled, surprise-packed and completely overwhelming week.

Ever the engineer, Mr Blue-Shirt had taken my wish literally, and then delivered it in spades. He had created for me the most marvellous and memorable Magical Mystery Tour that was…

Planned with care and style,
Military precision,                                                   
And, of course, with love

And for which I shall forever remain thankful.

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