Photo by Anna Bratiychuk / Unsplash

Verity spotted Angela's red coat in the taxi queue and tooted. Angela waved and came over to the pick up point while Verity got out to greet her. They hugged, bundled Angela's bag into the back seat and set off.

'Lovely to see you,' said Verity.

'I couldn't miss my big sister's big birthday,' said Angela.

Verity glanced over and gave her a thin smile.

'If it wasn't for you I don't know what I'd be doing to celebrate. Janice and Leonie usually book somewhere nice for dinner but they've gone off the air. I've been racking my brains to think how I might have offended them but I've no idea. I did make a tactless remark about Leonie's health cake, last time we went round for coffee, but she didn't seem to mind at the time and we had a great night out for Janice's birthday.'

Angela patted her arm. 'We'll have fun, don't you worry about that.'

They were quiet for a while. Since Brian died – so suddenly and so young, who would have guessed? - Verity valued her women friends and her sister more than ever. Her first big decade birthday without him, they threw a party for her and even though she tripped over his absence as if falling into a hole several times during the night, she apppreciated the effort. Today was the second big zero – let's not be coy, she was turning 70 – and if Angela hadn't said she was coming up she might well have spent it knitting on the couch with the cat on her lap. She was trying not to feel hurt that her friends had forgotten.

She parked in the driveway and Angela got her bag while Verity unlocked the front door and bent to stroke Tigger who as always came running up to greet her. Cupboard love no doubt but it was something.

She turned to encourage Angela to follow and nearly leaped out of her skin as the dining-room door burst open and a dozen voices shouted, 'Surprise!' Leonie and Janice and Leonie's husband Craig came towards her with glasses in their hands and grins on their faces.

'Did you think we'd forgotten you?' teased Janice.

'As a matter of a fact, I did,' said Verity. She accepted their hugs stiffly and edged into the room to a cracked chorus of  'happy birthday'. She noticed the dining table was filled with food and winced that they hadn't used a tablecloth.

'Deep breaths,' she thought, 'deep breaths. They mean well.'

She was just managing to replace her shocked expression with a simulated smile when Janice, who had been fiddling with her phone, looked up with a satisfied whoop. Raunchy music blared from the Bluetooth speaker on the sideboard and the pantry door opened slowly. A slim young man came sashaying out, dressed in something satiny which he started tugging at. Everyone looked at Verity so he was in no doubt about his target. He dropped the red shirt as he danced up to her, did a few hip thrusts and reached for the waistband of his trousers.

'No!' gasped Verity.

She pushed Craig aside to get to the stairs and rushed up to her bedroom. She shut the door firmly and lay on her bed like a knight effigy, trying to calm her thumping heart. The music blared  for a few moments, then petered out. She felt like crying and then suddenly she was.

There was a gentle knock at the door. She ignored it, but it came again a little louder. Maybe Angela wasn't in the plotters' cabal. It would be mean to keep her out if she was trying to help.

'Come in,' she said, her voice a bit squeaky from crying.

The door opened in came, tentatively, not Angela but the man from the pantry. Verity pulled herself up to sitting position and was about to get off the bed but he stayed by the door. He had a sweat shirt over his shiny clothes and looked young and much more ordinary. He held his hands out by his waist, palms forward, and shrugged a little.

'I didn't mean to frighten you,' he said.

Verity hiccupped a little and frowned.

'I wasn't frightened, I was shocked.'

'Your friends thought you'd find it funny.'

It was a little bit funny, especially running away like that. She smiled wryly.

'They think I'm a good sport. I am, mostly. It was just so unexpected.'

'It usually is but the birthday girl doesn't often run away.'

'You could get yourself slapped, startling a person like that,' said Verity.

He laughed softly. 'I'd charge extra for that.'

She had to smile. Of course, you'd expect a stripper to be cheeky. She stood up and checked her hair in the mirror.

'I'm not even dressed for a party,' she said, shaking her head at her jumper and saggy jeans.

He gestured towards the wardrobe. 'What have you got?'

She looked at him. He did the thing with his hands again.

'It's ok, I won't try anything. I'm gay. Let's see if we can juge you up a bit.'

They looked in the wardrode together and he selected a few things, laying them on the bed to see what went with what. They weren't combinations Verity would have put together but they looked interesting. He stepped back, studying the clothes on the bed, then sized Verity up thoughtfully. Finally, he pointed to a lime green skirt and the hibiscus top she bought in Raro and had never worn. He reached into the bottom of the wardrobe and pulled out some high heels.

'How about this?'

She nodded. 'You'd better go down, they'll think we're up to something.'

He grinned. 'What if they do? I'll wait outside while you change and I'll escort you down the stairs in style.'

When Verity emerged with a dab of make-up and some bright lipstick, wearing the brightly-coloured clothes, he smiled and nodded, then held out his arm.

Walking carefully in the heels, she made her entrance down the stairs as if she was Princess Diana. A shout went up from the friends below and Janice started the playlist from her phone.

The stripper waltzed her gently round the room. Then he picked up his bag from the pantry floor, kissed her on the cheek, and left.

Verity grinned at Angela, Janice and Leonie. 'Nice one! Well, come on, let's party!'