When I was nine or ten, my birthday included a few cards, though I’m not sure if they arrived on the day or were collated for a few days before being handed over by the headmaster. I assume, though can’t recall whether one’s friends made a fuss – I expect in true prep school fashion they sang rude songs and gave me the bumps, which were more a form of bullying than a shared celebration.
The parental gift must have arrived in the same post, though I just don’t remember receiving them each year. We didn’t have any personal communication with parents on the day – no pre-arranged phone call from the head’s office or telegram with wishes. I seem to think that some boys’ parents arrived uninvited to the school at about 6pm to catch their sons outside the front door, as we returned from evensong, to deliver presents and kisses, but then that might be my own self-pity working on my memory. Mine certainly never appeared.
There was no exeat anyway, no visiting rights for the family, if they had remembered. Besides, I was fourth of five children in a loveless marriage full of arguments and recriminations. The main reason I was at boarding school was so that they could row in peace without worrying about our feelings. “Pas devant les enfants” was de rigeur – as though we were ignorant of its meaning after we’d been crammed with French lessons at boarding school. So why would they want to visit the school to celebrate something which was no longer within the path of their myopic vision, their clouded eyesight, swirling fog and looming forests in which only the monsters of each other were prowling. Out of sight, out of mind. Fuck. How could they put me away at 8, post me off to disappear into a melting pot of standardization and stereotypy. The loss of self, the loss of any sense of celebration happened then.
We weren’t branded with numbers, whatever about the Cash’s name tapes in every garment, but we could have been. And come to think of it, we were numbered in the choir. Seniority and the slow progression towards being one of the top 4, a ‘corner boy’ in the choir stalls. I would have been number 2 by rights in the end – simply because I was one of four who started together in 1965 and was numbered 34 out of the 36 in the school. Each year moving up by a few places until the last year, when my singing wasn’t up to scratch and I was demoted two places – or was I messing about in church? Anyway, that meant I would only ever be number 4. It was ignominious. Reinforcing the ‘not quite good enough’ message which had started years earlier.
For our birthdays, we were allowed to choose four boys to join us on the small ‘top table’ set into the window bay, the one with the Edwardian stain glass windows, on a raised step in the dining hall. The choosing, as one might expect of 9 or 10 year olds, was a big issue and formed or broke friendships. I can’t remember anyone I invited except my best friend Mikey, of course. Mikey with whom I climbed on the school roof, Mikey with whom I ran away from the school and had to be dragged back, to be beaten. Poor Mikey was already being abused by Fiddler. His problems went far back to having lost his father at a young age.
The five of us then would be served jelly as well as the food other boys on the long refectory tables received for tea. I don’t think there were any other special treatments. We might have been served our food rather than queuing like the other boys at the serving table, but I remember crawling out under the top table to go and get my plate of sausages and fried eggs and chips. Calorie controlled diets for children hadn’t surfaced at that time, but I don’t think there were many obese children in the school, just the odd fatty who was teased like Billy Bunter and learned to use his weight to bully in turn. Did I get a birthday cake? Carried from the kitchens by the plump and rosy cheeked cook with her flour-dusted apron? Not as far as I can recall. I think the 36 boys sang happy birthday, as they did almost every week for one birthday or another, before they ran from the room to maximize the free time they enjoyed before bed.
Maybe that wasn’t the peak of the birthdays enjoyability graph. Pretty pathetic if it was. Maybe the peak was at 17, hoping for a date, or at 19, hoping for a chance to sleep with whoever was on the wish list, or 25, when work and play had become confused and marriage awaited. It was probably at 28, the year when we met and we’d been apart for some weeks since Greece, and met for a weekend in my flat in Stockwell and poured out our feelings in bed and all day and maybe found out that we should be together for a long time. Birthdays are guaranteed to disappoint because there is no intrinsic significance in having lived for a multiple of 365 days. Nothing to mark but another day. My eldest sent her “thanks for the birthday wishes and the present, dad” message this morning on her 33rd birthday – already older than I was my peak at maybe 28 – and described a day at the office with a list of the frustrations and negative forces she had to face today and will again tomorrow. The creeping negativity sounded all too familiar. The genetic code for lousy birthdays and downbeat attitudes. The undying realism.