Even if I think about it very hard, I don’t remember the specifics of birthdays as much as the emotions – clutching excitement, a great feeling of being important and cherished, candles yes, cake yes – but overwhelmingly special. I have friends older than me now who cannot enjoy birthdays any more. They are just evidence of time passing. Funny cards don’t make them smile and they decry presents as “unnecessary.” And as you get older, especially if you live alone, and for very often for good reasons – getting enough exercise, eating properly, seeing somebody with whom you can exchange at least greetings and probably chat – life becomes ritualised, even as in this case the ritual of denial.
It took me ages to accept that I was so used to shopping for hordes, that I bought too much and it was a frightful waste. And then I noticed that I was in danger of “it’s Monday, I must do …” whatever it was. Why should every Monday be the same? So I began to consciously welcome changes to routine. A warm memory of my mother is when I welcomed her to the flat in which I was living with my first husband, deprecating my efforts to make her comfortable and she hugged me “Forget it. I don’t need all that.” As she got older, her needs became simpler. It was a good lesson. And some of my friends live a distance away and some have schedules that are very demanding. So what we have come to is rather wonderfully that any day could be your birthday, any settled pattern can be thrown to the four winds.
I don’t see as much of LM who has been my representative and my friend for 20 years as I would like (she should be paid for living) but to her among other things I owe my introduction to Lord Dodo’s loose leaf cookery book, an enormous white hydrangea in a matching basket, the most beautiful flowers for Christmas/New Year/or any other excuse: care packages of salads, soup, bread and anything else that caught her eye, and the steps, the solid platform short ladders you need when you can’t stretch easily any more. Definition of a friendship – when your friend arrives with something useful out of the blue. You get all those feelings I described of myself as a child.
Pam the Painter came to lunch on Friday and handed me a small china mug with an English bullterrier on it (and it is, as my father would say “a good one” ie the right shape) and a witty comment and I got all wet eyed. She found it in her parents’ house during monumental clearing out and thought I might like it. I do.
On Saturday Percy Snowdrop (a film academic who teaches in the north) came through and I went him to meet him near the British Museum. He has a small carefully chosen collection of drawings and pictures (he started at art school) and he showed me on his tablet his latest acquisition – a signed drawing, a wonderful drawing by Jean Cocteau. As he is the only person I know who would want such a thing, I don’t know who was more excited. And I know that he got ploughed over by his editor this year and consigned a book into limbo he had deeply believed in. Part of my admiration for him is that he loves to teach and I cheer for the self belief that drawing embodied.
I go to the market most Saturdays, I pick up this and that in independent chemists, I do the laundry. Not this week. I bought a book and a card and I sat and drank tea and ate apricot tart and told stories and heard stories and saw him off to Kings Cross.
When I was a kid, there was a song which began “A very merry unbirthday to you,” which became a family sentiment, if you forgot, were late or away for a birthday. But I like this version even better. I don’t give a damn about the years, they are going to come anyway. I care about contact and thought and pleasure and joy, mine and everybody else’s. The world is hard, it always was. Welcome to better than birthdays.