Antoine himself greeted us, and told us two other guests had arrived, and he led us too to the private room at the back. Inside John and his mother were waiting.
'Marie, good to see you!" My father walked over and gave her the formal double kiss that the French like to do (no, not French kissing, that's what John and I do).
"And you too Frank!"
She walked over to me.
"Happy Birthday, Michel, I owe you a big apology and I'll give it to you as soon as our other guest arrives."
She gave me the French double kiss, then John scooted up next to me and we sidled off to a corner and started whispering madly to each other.
"What the fuck is happening?"
"I don't know. I'm really pissed off. You'll never believe what happened this morning. My Dad made me sit a school entrance exam today."
"The invigilator didn't know anything. She said it was the exam you take when you have to transfer schools. My life is completely screwed up, and my Dad won't say a word, and it's the shittiest birthday ever."
"I'll make it up to you later, as soon as we get out of this."
The door opened and in walked Dad's friend Jim, his squash partner. That surprised me. I really don't know him very well. Weirder and weirder.
"Oh My God" said John. "It's Mr. Hetherington. He's my English teacher. What's he doing here on your birthday?"
"I don't have any idea what's going on. I think we entered a parallel universe or something. Wake me when we return to reality."
The adults did all their kissing and hearty handshakes and stuff. I went over and shook Jim's hand.
"Happy Birthday, Mike! Congratulations!"
"Good afternoon, John. How are you?"
"I'm very well, Sir, thank you. I didn't expect to see you here today, Sir."
Then John's Mum got down to business.
"OK, everyone, let's get started. Everyone please sit down."
I said with John on my right and Dad on my left. John's Mum sat next to him, and Jim sat between my Dad and John's mum. Then John's Mum spoke to me.
"Very well Michel, I have just a little to say, and I would prefer you let me finish before asking any questions. I know you are dying to find out what has been going on, and I think you are very angry at both your father and me for making you do an exam on your birthday. I apologize for that. This was the only day available for that exam.
"And now I am going to put you out of your misery, and it over to Mr. Hetherington here. He has a present for you from your father and myself. And Jean, even though it is not your birthday, you will have to share this with him because it is for both of you.'
Definitely a parallel universe. Why was a man who I hardly knew giving me, and John, a birthday present instead of our parents? Bizarro.
Jim stood up, smiled and John's mum, and then looked straight at me.
"Thank you, Marie. Michael, it was unfair to ask you to sit a surprise exam on your birthday, but it was the only day available. I hope that this will make up for it. Read this and let me know your response. Happy Birthday!"
He reached into his jacket pocket and took out a long white envelope with my name on it. Michael Edwards, Esq.
I stared at him, slowly reached out and took the envelope. I opened it, and took out a single sheet of paper. John leaned right over and we read it together.
My jaw dropped. I looked in amazement at Mr. Hetherington. Then I turned to John. His jaw had dropped as well, and his eyes were like saucers.
"Oh My God." he whispered. "This can't be true!""
I was speechless. I looked at my Dad, and he nodded at me, gave me a huge smile, stood up and opened his arms and I leapt up into those arms and started crying like a baby.
"Congratulations, Mike. I love you. I am so sorry you had to go through all of this. Does this make up for everything?"
I still couldn't speak. I just nodded and hugged him harder. The tears just kept pouring out. I could feel John hugging me, and Marie as well. Everyone was crying, even Jim had a couple of tears.
Eventually I managed to pull myself together. I sat down and dried my tears as best I could. I still couldn't speak. John brought his chair up next to mine, and gave me this wonderful cuddle. I burst out crying again. More handkerchiefs were needed, and for the second time I had to pull myself together.
"So I think this calls for a little celebration!" said Marie. "Antoine!" she called giving a little clap of her hands.
Antoine came rushing with bottle of champagne and five glasses, poured out some for all of us, and then quickly left us alone.
My Dad stood up and proposed a toast.
"Mike, you have made me very proud today. Congratulations on coming home. I am so happy to be spending much more time with you. I could not cope with the prospect of you going back to Impington and leaving John here in Oakbridge. I think you would have had a broken heart and I was worried about what would happen to you. To you new school and your continued partnership with John. Cheers!"
After we had a first drink of champagne, Marie also proposed a toast.
"Michel, I felt exactly the same as your father. I was terrified of what was going to happen to Jean after you went back to boarding school. I am the happiest mother in the word, and I too congratulate you on your new school. Salut!"
Then, somewhat to my surprise, John also proposed a toast.
"I've never done this before but I think I have to say something. Mike, you know I love you more than anything else in the whole world. It has been perfect. But over the past week since we got back from Montpelier there has been a cloud on the horizon which was that in a little time you would go back to boarding school and I'd be here alone without you. I didn't want to say anything to you for fear of messing up our love, but I was terrified. And now you and I can be together without any more clouds. I love you. Cheers."
Then of course there were some more tears and more handkerchiefs, and I hugged John and without thinking gave him a big juicy kiss.
Then I guess it was my turn.
"I am still in shock. I can't thank all of you enough. So I will make a little toast to each of you in turn.
"Jim, or I suppose now I have to call you Sir or Mr. Hetherington, thank you for helping us out, and I am pleased to accept your offer. It will be a pleasure to be your student.
"Dad, I'll never be able to repay you. I love you dearly. I am so happy to be home after all these years. I thought I was OK with boarding school but in the last few weeks I couldn't face the prospect of going back to Impington.
"John, I love you more than anything else. You have transformed my life and I can't imagine being separated from you.
"And Marie, a special toast. I looked all around the room, and the elephant has gone. Merci. Mille fois! Salut!"
And then Antoine came in and we had a wonderful lunch including smoked salmon and caviar, lobster bisque, green salad with proper French mayonnaise, biftek with garlic mashed potatoes and baby carrots. Adults had lots of wine, and kids had a little wine.
And I had questions. And while they got answered John sat right next to me and we held hands.
"Dad, why didn't you say anything. Were you deliberately trying to torment me?"
"No, it was very much the opposite. Because Jim and I are very good friends, indeed as you know we went to school together, we had to do everything as carefully and properly as possible. We had to avoid a situation where someone could accuse him and the school of accepting a student based on an Old Boy Network type of thing. So it all had to be very formal. Isn't that right, Jim?"
"Yes, Frank. I had that very strange day last week. First I had a call from an old school friend, Frank Edmonds, asking if there was any chance of a last minute entry for a 14-year old. We do have them from time to time when someone moves or drops out. When I asked why, he said his son Michael, who was a student at Impington, needed to be at home for very personal reasons, and if he had go back to boarding school there he might be at significant risk of depression or suicide or being a runaway or something like that.
"Then, within the hour, a parent of one of my pupils called me, and said she was really worried about her son because, for personal reasons, he was very much at risk for depression or suicide or being a runaway. When I asked her how I could help she asked if there was any chance of a friend of her son getting a last minute entry into the school. She told me the boy's name, someone called Michael Edmonds,
"What was really odd, I found out later, was that neither had consulted the other before they called me. Talk of an alignment of the stars.
"Well, it so happens we had two vacancies that year in the 14-15 year age group. I had a couple of dozen applicants, and all of them had sat the special Common Entrance Schools transfer examination. Some had good marks, some were merely average, but I had no doubt that I could fill my two vacancies from that pool of applicants.
"But, in all fairness, I was willing to give Michael a try. It took a couple of days to make the arrangements for a special examination to be conducted by a neutral person. I had to talk to your tutor at Impington, Mr. McAllister, to get a reference from him on your performance and contribution to the school. I had to get a copy of your marks in school last year. And I had to get a language certification. Fortunately I knew a French teacher who could verify that your French language was at least adequate, right Marie?
"It was only yesterday that everything was ready. And today was the last day of applications, so I had to move quickly.
"So that's why you did not know in advance. Neither your father nor Marie knew if and when this would happen. OK? Do you understand?"
I had listened very hard to what Jim had said, and it made sense.
"Well, I understand why the school had to be careful about nepotism or Old Boy Networks or whatever. But, Dad, why didn't you tell me what you were trying to do? Maybe I could have helped, and maybe I could have revised for the exam instead of it being such a surprise."
"Mike, Marie and I discussed this at length, and decided not to tell you or John. We were trying to protect you both. Let me explain. You and John are clearly in love, and for the past few weeks you have been inseparable. But you were suppressing the issue of what was going to happen when you had to go back to Impington. Right? Elephants in the room?
"If I had told you I was trying to get you into the Grammar School here, and there was no vacancy, or you failed to get good enough marks, you would have been doubly shattered. And the same was true for John. Neither Marie nor I felt we could take that risk. It was better to say nothing that to raise your hopes and then dash them.
"Does that make sense?"
I thought about it, then I nodded.
"Yes, I suppose so if you look at it that way. But why didn't you tell me this morning that I was going to take the exam?"
"Well, I was still trying to protect you. I'm sure Jim had expected me to tell you, and I think Marie had as well, but I was not convinced.
"Supposing you went into that exam knowing that if you passed you could stay home and be with John, but if you failed you had to say goodbye to John for several months and go back to Impington, do you think you could have concentrated very well? I decided for you, and thought it best you went into that exam puzzled and maybe a little angry at me rather than worrying about your performance and what it meant for you and John."
I looked straight at my Dad, I nodded, and promptly burst into tears yet again. More handkerchiefs, more face wiping. I gave my Dad yet another tearful hug, and went off to he bathroom to wash my face and tidy up. Needless to say, John came with me, and we had the most wonderful kiss.
When we came back into the dining room, it was like the entire weight of the world was off my shoulders. Then my Dad spoke again.
"Mike, John, there's one more thing you have to do before we let you both go off and do whatever you are going to do."
Oh no, more parental torture. Can't they ever leave off?
"You really have to finish these profiteroles. They are the best."
This story is part of the 2016 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: May I Help You?". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 18 October to 8 November 2016 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the competition home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:
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