The Birthday Party / by Alex Williamson

i.

He remembered his parents’ fortieth birthday party as though it were yesterday. His parent’s birthdays were close, just a few weeks apart, and his own birthday fell between theirs, almost equidistantly. Cancer on the cusp of Gemini. In the year they turned forty, he himself turned sixteen, by coincidence the same age as his parents when they first met, on the bus to the local polytechnic, where his mother was training to be a hairdresser and his father studying to be a quantity surveyor. It was less of a meeting and more of an encounter. According to his mother, they caught the same bus to the poly, and would pass each other in the aisle and blush. His mother was pretty in her youth, his father toothsome and gawky. Eventually his father plucked up the courage to ask his mother out. After a lengthy courtship, they married in their early twenties, when it became apparent that his father’s mother wouldn’t give her blessing to their living in sin. His father was a reluctant groom. His mother bought the engagement ring. The photographs from their wedding day show his mother smiling beatifically, his father angular and awkward in his cafe creme suit. He liked to leaf through the pages of their wedding album, the cardboard pages with the plastic sleeves, and study the document of that day, quietly, alone, in the spare room of their home, where all the photographs were stored and left undisturbed. He liked to imagine the time they spent together in their courtship before they became a family.

He was born a few months after their first wedding anniversary. An unplanned pregnancy, the consequence of his father’s cavalier approach to birth control, and the product of a difficult labour for his mother. His brother arrived a couple of years after. Between them, their mother had fallen pregnant again, but suffered a miscarriage. She had been expecting a girl. It was something that she only mentioned once, one Sunday over dinner, blurted out after several glasses of wine.

To his sixteen year old self, even though all was possibility, being forty remained inconceivable. At sixteen he had seen himself as an artist-in-becoming; in his twenties he would move to London and make a name for himself; by forty he expected he would have amassed a substantial body of creative work. By his late thirties, he had achieved the square root of fuck all. Much of his twenties and thirties had been spent in London, in a sequence of inconsequential jobs, in a prolonged state of dissolution, drunk or drugged or both. Miraculously during this time he had met someone, married her and had two children. With their finances dwindling, due in part to his interminable fecklessness, they sold the house they had bought together and upped sticks to Scotland. Once he left London, he wondered what he had been doing there all that time, how little he had to show for it. How little he could remember.

At sixteen, he could not picture his fortieth birthday. By his thirties he had vaguely hoped it would be at the centre of some bacchanalian carnival in the Balearics or the Cyclades, surrounded by the huge circle of friends he had amassed over the years, some of whom had flown in especially to surprise him. A far cry from the prosaic reality of the event. How he would rise in the morning, perhaps after making love to his wife, sleepily embrace his small children, before descending into the kitchen, the remains of a benign garden party still lingering, sitting down to open the cards and gifts from a handful of friends and family, and feeling wounded by their generosity, their kindness, despite the great distances between them. Then, as was customary, his wife would go to work, and he would take his children to school in a muggy veil of drizzle, returning home to shower and shave, and contemplate his face in the mirror, the unremarkable face written in his hybrid genes, his mother’s eyes and his father’s nose, the face he deserved, ten years in advance of Orwell’s deadline, which did not please him, which whenever he caught sight of it left him dissatisfied. The years imprinted upon it and the hint of years to come.

The self it presented to the world. Already his flesh was exhibiting signs of looseness and flaccidity. There was a bulk to his midriff which was difficult to shift. Back fat. Love handles. The moobs he had kept at bay with regular exercise during his thirties had become inured to that regime. His face, like his mother’s, was crinkled with crow’s feet, and his forehead lined and creased. His hairline, slowly receding since his late teens, like his father’s was on the brink of disappearing. Their resemblance, frequently remarked upon, had become irresistible. There were sudden, sharp pains in his knees when he moved too quickly; he had to remove his glasses to read at night. There was something about his lungs which bothered him. His nose was crooked and his ears hairy. Everything was beginning to sag. This was the body which would carry him into old age. He could feel it coming.

Forty. The same age as Toni Morrison when she published her first novel. Hemingway when he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. Beckett when he penned ‘First Love’, ‘The Expelled’, ‘The Calmative’, ‘The End’. Bukowski when he published his first book of poems. Orwell when he began Animal Farm. Picasso when he painted Three Musicians. John Lennon when Mark Chapman shot him dead. BS Johnson when he slit his wrists. Forty. The old age of youth, according to Victor Hugo. The hinge-point, the turning. The moment where time begins to accelerate, just as one’s ability to adjust to it slows.

ii.

His parents were part of a large circle of lively, upwardly-mobile, mostly middle class friends, linked together through membership of the local Round Table. Moderate affluence seemed to be a precursor to membership, which came to a close at the age of forty, providing a physical and symbolic watershed moment in their social lives. Once you were too old for Table, you were past it. Over the hill. Out to pasture. There was an ironic post-Table grouping names 41 Club, but after that Rotarian status beckoned. When his father turned forty he treated himself to a classic Porsche; other friends splashed out motorbikes or kit cars and took off on touring holidays to the continent.

There was a tradition among the Tablers of passing a zimmer frame on to the next unfortunate who came of age. The zimmer frame had already been through several of his father’s closest, older friends. Now it was his turn, and another zimmer had been procured to present to his mother for the party. Both were festooned with L-plates, corn plasters, incontinence pads. There is a photograph of his parents mock-hobbling over the lawn on their zimmers; then another of them kissing, her slender chin raised, his eyes closed behind his John Major specs, still young enough to resemble their wedding photograph. His mother seemed ageless then, untroubled by the touch of age.

What will survive of us is love. He often thought of Larkin’s words when he contemplated that photograph, despite its apparent ambivalence. Like the Arundel Tomb there is no timeless truth to the photograph; it is a factual document that proves his parents were, at one given moment in time, simply there. There in a way that they no longer were. As the products of a supposedly permissive society, they reminded him of the couple of kids of Larkin’s other poem, ‘High Windows’, twenty years on. And yet they were in love then, the kind of quiet, undemonstrative love of a more repressed tradition.

In the months leading up to her birthday he had observed his mother move through varying depressive moods, frequently quick to anger and tearful. She was not comfortable growing old, and saw no cause for celebration. There was a stigma, and it stymied her ability to see herself clearly, to simply let herself be. On the night of the party, she came downstairs to greet her guests, looking impeccable. She spotted a large housefly wafting idly among the party-goers, and when it came to rest on a window, rather than let it out, she suddenly swatted it with her bare hand, crushing its body and smearing its pus-like hemolymph over the glass.

The impetus for the party had been largely driven by his father, who organized the barbecue and invited his friends to camp out on the back lawn. Theirs was the latest in an accretion of fortieth birthday celebrations, each marginally grander than the last, but following a similar format: a booze-soaked barbecue with much drinking and dancing into the early hours. Moderate amounts of inter-spousal flirtation and innuendo. Good, clean, harmless fun.

His father had recently finished the renovation of a small pub in his hometown, and the landlord, in his gratitude, had dropped round with a keg of John Smiths bitter and a self-pouring tap. The first guests set about it with great gusto, and the lawn was soon littered with empty plastic pint pots. He had also convinced a local covers band to play at the party: two female singers and a trio of male musicians – drummer, guitarist, bassist – huddled beside the garage under a lean-to tarpaulin tent, an insurance policy against the threatening summer rain. The band laboured their way through crowd-pleasing songs by Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, The Pretenders, Deacon Blue, and the guests danced limply in the damp air, unsettling the gathering dew on the grass.

His grandparents were still alive then, fit and well and showing few signs of the health issues which would blight their later years. His mother’s father spent the evening patrolling the perimeter of guests, supping wine and taking photographs. When a neighbour came to complain about the music, his granddad, who did his national service in Suez, put down his camera and hooked the neighbour under the arm to march him back home. What’s the matter, were you never young? Some time later two bobbies wandered up the drive: a WPC and male officer. This time his granddad made himself scarce. Despite one or two heckles about strippergrams from one over-lubricated guest, the police allowed the band to play on.

He didn’t witness the incident but heard about it the next day. His memory of the evening was limited, much of it being spent in a drunken clinch with the daughter of his parent’s friends. He was a hair’s whisker from losing his virginity that night, after secreting her into his room while the adults partied downstairs; but she went cold when she saw his collection of posters on the wall: Pamela Anderson, Madonna, other nameless and faceless Athena models; the obligatory bedroom draperies of a teenage onanist. They resumed kissing on his younger brother’s bed, while his sibling played computer games and pretended not to notice. He contented himself with this, not realising he would remain a virgin for some time to come. For he had only just turned sixteen. He had all the time in the world.