We have been to two surprise parties in the last few weeks. I think I have been to six in my lifetime, including one for me (on my 17th birthday), and one for my mother (her 40th). The surprise party, of life’s many purported pleasures*, is a very ambitious animal. It cannot happen in moderation. There is such a thing as a surprising party, but it is no relation of the real thing: the lights out at home, the stumble in, carrying modest shopping that no one was supposed to see, and then the flick-on, the terrible roar of friends and former lovers who have been hiding in the dark, and the explosion of something like joy in the surprised heart. SURPRISE!!! The simple, self-referring scream.
The surprise party claims, at its conception, a bold combination of enjoyments. These include the thrill of the conspiracy: lies, deception, the stealing of phone numbers, wrongs made right, and so safe to enjoy. This excitement is focused in the surpriser, but it still radiates a burr of anticipation throughout the email list and (although I can’t really remember, but presumably) the telephone calls and word of mouth that used to make ancient surprise parties. Looking through old emails, invitations to surprise parties are covered with breathless syntax like SSSHH and warlike invocations. There are crack teams and emergency committees and emails that just start: “Chaps.”
On the day or night itself, the person being surprised is, naturally, expected to have a transcendent experience that informs them beyond doubt how much they are loved in the world. The chief surpriser (it is understood) will be rewarded for their unasked-for efforts with special favour and respect. As for the rest of us, we get not only a brilliant party (although this is rarely thought through) but also the hunkering down, the several false arrivals, the hiding in our friend’s bedroom, the whispers, our own small surprise in who we end up crouching next to and hollering with at the crucial moment.
My own and only surprise party took place on June 11, 1997, after an A-level French exam. My friend Al, who spent some years in Paris as a child, had been assigned by the committee to bring me from the exam to some half-arsed café in Canterbury where people used to go and smoke in their free periods and worry about who fancied them at the time. Al had had a terrible exam. We met on the steps outside the school hall and she started to cry.
We had arranged to go into town and have lunch a few days earlier. It was my only birthday engagement that year. I asked her if she wanted to call it off, sure that she would, but she shook her head and said no, she would like to go. I imagined a quiet lunch in our school uniform somewhere, me commiserating, doing some non-sexual adolescent sadness and understanding (my speciality in those years) and so was, basically, a bit pissed off and confused to find a bunch of my friends hiding in a boat at the back of the café that Al had decided we should go to.
They all piled in. They started smoking. They ate sandwiches. I had recently been acquiring some friends in the top year at school who I didn’t know very well, and I found myself on a table surrounded by them. Some people had chipped in to buy me some aftershave. I would shave, properly, for the first time in my life that October. I overheard someone at another table say, “Look at Sam with his new friends.” Al continued to cry. It was okay, but not more than that.
It had nothing of the beauty of my mother’s surprise 40th birthday party, which I remember as my first encounter (I was 8 years old) with adult pleasure. In a novel way, my father had arranged for the surprisers (and the food and drink) to gather outside our house in the November night, and to start singing Happy Birthday as my mother was opening the front door to head out for supper. She took a step out, and they flooded in, a cold happy procession, overwhelming her. I remember the trays coming into the house at my head height, the belts on the men’s trench coats. I ran around. I made a bet with a man that I could guess how much change he had in his pocket. In the morning, I came down when my parents were still asleep and found the sitting room covered with little papery balls, about the size of Maltesers. In the quiet, I considered these little balls and recognised them as symbols from a world of grown-up sin that I was a long way from understanding.
In the surprise parties that I have been to since then, my principal unease has been at the precise moment of the coup, when what seems to me a force-field suddenly forms around the person who is hopefully being astonished. At this one instant when – as our denied fantasies have told us repeatedly – the world does indeed revolve around us, we are the meaning of everything, people invariably are left to face it alone. Everyone stands off and there is a strange moment of confrontation: We are here. You did not know. The surprised person is oddly excluded at the moment of their celebration, glorified but separate.
It passes, of course. They cry / cover their face / are enveloped. But it always goes on longer than I like, and then really the next phase of the surprise is a kind of examination of the surprised: how will they react in this emergency? How will they carry themselves? And at the last surprise party we went to, last weekend, the surprised did this so well. She was not absolutely expected to be happy about being ambushed after lunch in her own flat on her 32nd birthday, but she came in, leaned briefly against the wall, and then retreated to the safety of the toilet, before emerging and edging her way in, from the bedroom where people were leaving their coats, into the kitchen, and then went step by step, conversation by conversation, joining her own conspiracy.
*AHAP is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.