Billie looked around the community hall. Balloons, bunting, streamers and dim lighting all worked wonders to lift the space from its usual dull, dark brown.
Ada’s homecoming surprise party would be a hit.
Guests would start arriving soon. Ada was being brought here directly from the airport, no clue that everyone who loved and missed her was here, waiting.
It had all been planned with precision; Billie’s acumen as an events planner was the talk of this tired, small town.
The doors to the hall swung open, and Billie was unshocked that Mrs Bennett was the first to arrive. Punctual to a fault.
‘Hello Billie. My, how wonderful to see you after all this time,’ Mrs Bennett said.
Billie was astonished at how young Mrs Bennett looked. The old school teacher must surely have been 95, two decades ago. At least, that’s what Billie and Ada used to say, sniggering quietly during her English classes. But to look at her now, Billie figured she could only be in her early 60s.
‘Nice to see you too, Mrs Bennett. You’re looking very well.’
‘Pilates, dear. Highly recommend it.’
Billie smiled, and nodded in agreement.
Within thirty minutes, everyone on the invitation list had arrived. Billie scratched a big tick on her running sheet. Townspeople mingled with drinks in their hands.
Another half hour ticked over, Billie grabbed the microphone attached to the portable PA system.
‘Please everyone, can I have your attention?’
The room fell silent.
‘Thank you. It’s great that you’re all here to welcome home our beloved Ada. We left here together fifteen years ago and then, although we vowed we’d never part, five years ago she left for Europe. And tonight, she’s back.’
A smattering of guests clapped their hands.
‘In fact,’ Billie checked her watch. ‘She’ll be here any minute. So, please find a hiding spot and wait quietly for the doors to open.’
Obediently, all the guests hid behind stage curtains, in the hall’s kitchen, some of the younger people crouched behind chairs, each one silent, hoping to make the surprise zing for Ada.
But as the minutes ticked by, the doors remained closed. Billie’s mobile rang, the trill stinging the silence, sharp like a bee sting.
Billie’s face fell while she listened to the voice. After she’d pressed red icon to end the call, she turned the hall lights back on. The walls garish, the guests’ faces pale, concerned.
‘Folks, I’m sorry. Ada won’t be coming here tonight.’
The groans of disappointment echoed. Someone in the crowd yelled, ‘Why not?’
‘It seems she met someone on the plane and she’s following him up to Port Douglas.’
Billie was livid. She’d only returned to their home town to host this party because that’s where Ada had said she’d like to settle down. One by one Billie watched the townspeople leave. Only Mrs Bennett remained.
‘Billie, dear. Would you like help cleaning up?’
Billie knew that Mrs Bennett wasn’t concerned with the cleanliness of the hall. But she looked at her and replied, ‘Yes, that would be lovely.’
Together they sat on the hard plastic chairs that lined the room. Billie cried on her shoulder, devastated her sister would not be returning to her after all.