The day I was paid cake to surprise a couple on their special day

It is Valentine’s Day again and I believe some clueless man will walk into a flashy hotel he has googled in the last minute after their lover surprises them with a well thought gift. To make it special, he will turn to the waiters and expect them to do acrobatics, dance, sing and act like he had pre-planned a cake or flower surprise. But do you know what it takes to execute these last-minute surprises? Well, I recently learned from the best.

Working at Prostudios I have seen things. Just the other day, I had this client, a middle-aged West African couple who I guessed were Nigerian from their accent.

“Hello, I’d like to book a birthday shoot for my girlfriend,” the man said to me booking a slot over the phone with this thick Nigerian accent. After getting a few details from him, he booked the shoot for later in the afternoon on the same day. Now most people book a day or two ahead so this obviously looked rushed, but we had a slow day so we were more than obliged.

When he arrived, I felt he looked a bit too old to be marking birthdays with photoshoot, but to each their own. He was a little late for the shoot blaming the ‘unexpected’ Nairobi traffic as if it comes anywhere close to the legendary Lagos traffic gridlock. His lady in tow, a heavy set woman who looked very pleased to be spoiled with a photoshoot. As the lady was doing her makeup, the man called me aside and whispered through the accent, “Today is actually her birthday and I want it to be special.”

Like a curtsy of the service industry, It is our duty to reassure clients that we know our trade and I went on with a smile and all PR, “of course, we will make sure she has a great time.” But he had not finished. “I have a small surprise and I was hoping that you could assist me… could you delay the shoot a little bit because the guy who is doing delivery is telling me that he’s running late,” he made his request whispering, his mouth half covered.

I was a little confused which man, what delivery, I definitely had no idea what conspiracy I was being drawn into. But in the service industry we are supposed to anticipate our clients’ needs within reasonable expectations. So I explained to him that the shoot will take an hour so we should just proceed since that would be enough time for his delivery to be made. I assumed he was getting her a gift or flowers. From his general demeanor I could tell he probably doesn’t do this often or the relationship is relatively new and he wanted to impress her unfortunately on short notice.

We proceed with the shoot. A few moments later he calls me aside again, “The delivery is almost here and I was requesting that you can hand over the gift,” he whispers with his conspiratorial hand over mouth gesture that this time it is almost inaudible. I had assumed this was very simple request and I agreed immediately. But nothing could prepare me for what was about to happen. Some time goes by and I almost forget about his request, we are almost done with the shoot when my colleague tells me there’s a delivery for me at the door. Immediately I remember the request.

Read also: We are too old for a digital valentine’s day

The way our studio is set up, once you walk in the door, there is a kitchen area on your left. On the right is the living room area that has been transformed to unique photoshoot backgrounds. There’s a partition between the two, with a small open space in the middle that must have been meant for passing dishes and food from the kitchen to the dining area. There’s no door that opens up to the kitchen, so when you walk in you can see fully the two rooms making it quite difficult for secret missions such as this one.

I walk towards the door to collect the delivery and see the Nigerian hiding in the kitchen area.  ‘Well, that’s a bit strange,’ I think to myself but say nothing. At the door, it is not a bouquet of flowers but a big ass cake.

Now I have to figure out how to deliver cake to the birthday girl. If I just dump it in front of her it would look odd, should I say something. But what should I say, I certainly don’t want to sing happy birthday. By now, I can’t even remember her name, and it is just too late to ask.

So, I turn to look for our West African man hoping he can give me a cue on how he would like us to proceed. But the West African is suddenly too busy with his phone avoiding me and I look stupid standing there with the 2kg of cake. I have to decide maybe I could just say a few words while handing over the cake. I take it over to the lady with an ear to ear grin and she is pleasantly surprised even though I say nothing. In fact, much to my own surprise it was all going perfectly, she was pleased, giggling a bit even like a little girl, certainly feeling cared for or appreciated. 

“You should sing for her so she can cut some cake,” the West Arican’s voice barks across the kitchen through the small open space in the middle that must have been meant for passing dishes and food from the kitchen to the dining area.

“But why.. this was going so well…’ I think to myself although I know I can’t say no, I’m in too deep. I turn to my team and tell them to gather around so we can sing her happy birthday.  All of a sudden the photographer is too busy looking for non-existent items, another has to make an urgent phone call right this moment and the stylist and make-up artist is busy attending to her work station that now needs some organizing.

It is going to be me alone, singing happy birthday out of tune, unless I can find a volunteer, and so I turn to this one intern, a quiet one who I suspect agrees to stay only because she was relatively new, and she also couldn’t say no.

“Happy birthday to you…” we sing to her as she awkwardly claps her hands, also not sure what to do or where to look. Meanwhile the West African is still in the kitchen quiet happy. “Happy birthday dear…” shit, what is her name again? I knew this would happen. So we look on the cake for rescue, since they always have names written on with a loving message. And it is written alright, but it is a West African name. If you know West African names you know it’s an impossible task to try to read them out loud. The consonants are randomly placed together with one vowel, mostly a ‘u’ also placed in the most random position. We know we can’t pronounce it but massacre it anyway. He tries to correct us from the kitchen but at this point we’ve had enough so I call him to come cut cake with her.

I can’t count the number of times I have witnessed waiters, hoteliers, hostesses turned into someone’s last minute surprise. Now I understand how they pull up the forced excitement and plastic smiles, cram names that will be forgotten immediately the song is over, the awkwardness on the receiving end, the need to put on a gratitude through forced tears and fake smiles.

And I am convinced it is a bad idea that your birthday or anniversary or proposal or graduation to turn to random strangers for a few minutes of unpaid entertainment just to make your day special.  Perhaps we can put in a little more effort for the ones that are close to our hearts, and make more elaborate plans to make a special moment a little more real and fluid.

And as if he has not put all of us through the longest 5 minutes of our lives, he calls the whole team in for a photo. This time my busy colleagues come through, they smile even, as we each get a piece of cake for our troubles.

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