Diary of a separation

It’s my birthday and I want … A Fuss

It’s my birthday. I’ve turned one of those boring numbers that no one much cares about. I care though – I’m a complete pain about birthdays. I think they should be lavish and celebratory, and not involve household appliances or the word “useful”. For a week or so before my birthday each year, X would take on the drawn, hunted look of a man who knew whatever he gave me could never equal my soaringly bonkers imagination. He hates surprises. I love them, second-guess them, long for them.

But how on earth can I work up a decent frenzy on my own? The children are coming in the evening but until then, it’s just me. So I wake and have breakfast, then open the couple of waiting cards and presents from friends and family. My sister and stepfather text birthday wishes. But then I have to take the dog out, clean the bathroom, work: business as usual. It’s all a bit anticlimactic, solo. I try to enjoy the simplicity of it, but really, I want A Fuss.

Thankfully, in the evening, when the children arrive, tradition steps in to fill the gaps and restore a semblance of fuss. Our ritual, immutable and solidly reassuring, is to go out to dinner at a restaurant, slightly out of town on the edge of a lake, where if it’s your birthday you get a sparkler in your pudding. Not just a piddly little sparkler either: it’s more like a miniature roman candle, with a distinct, celebratory edge of danger.

It’s a bit more complicated now, because we’re at the mercy of our feckless local taxi firm, who I have grown to loathe beyond all reason now I am car-less. By 7.15pm, a cab is supposedly “at the corner of the street”, as it has been for the last 15 minutes, and we are sitting in the hallway with our coats on, celebratory mood ebbing.

He does finally show up, in an unapologetic cloud of pine-fragranced Magic Tree and fags, and we head off into the night. On arrival, the restaurant is deserted save for one table of suited businessmen, but the waiters lounging around the bar are quite welcoming of our odd little party. I order a kir royale valiantly, to be festive, and force the boys to clink glasses with me. “Cheers, boys.”

“Can I play with your phone?” The eldest is holding his hand out expectantly. “No, you have to talk to me. At least for another five minutes. Tell me one thing that happened at school.”

He rolls his eyes. “I can’t remember.”

The youngest sighs heavily and reaches for some bread, knocking his juice over. I suddenly feel like my mother. I remember the year we all forgot her birthday and how she forced us all to go out to the pub, and my sister, aged three, behaved atrociously. I think I’ve inherited that bloody-minded insistence that some things must be celebrated, however painful the process.

The food comes swiftly, and the boys pick half-heartedly at their hamburgers, having gorged on bread. One of the older waiters comes and kneels down beside the youngest and tries to chivvy him, paternalistically, into finishing.

“Come on, a bit more for your mum.” The youngest scowls at him but eats up and the waiter nods with satisfaction and clears the plates.

“Mum!” The eldest pulls my sleeve.

“What? “

“You know.” He nods meaningfully towards the waiter who is handing out dessert menus. Ah. I have to ask for my own birthday surprise now. It feels a bit odd, but dammit, I have to have the sparkler.

“Excuse me? I need to tell you something,” I say to the waiter, expressionless, daring him to comment. “It’s my birthday.”

He gives me a grave answering nod, pregnant with understanding. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you.” I incline my head regally.

A couple of minutes later, my ice cream arrives with, yes, an enormous sparkler. The table of businessmen look over, startled, forks poised comically in mid-air.

As we leave, we’re surprised by a light flurry of snow, desultory wet flakes flicking around the black sky. There’s even the faintest dusting on the ground, illuminated by the big low garden candles in saucers they put at the lakeside to stop you falling in. It’s rather beautiful. The boys are rapt as they run around, trying to scoop it up, and finally, finally, I get my sense of celebration. The taxi even comes, almost on time.

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