When his parents reached their fortieth year he had just turned sixteen. His parents’ birthdays were close, just a few weeks apart. Both were born in midsummer 1955. Late blooming Baby-Boomers.
By small coincidence, his birthday fell between theirs, almost equidistantly. Cancer on the cusp of Gemini. At sixteen, he was the same age as his parents when they first met, at the local polytechnic, where his mother was training to be a hairdresser and his father studying to be a quantity surveyor. After a lengthy courtship, they married in their early twenties. His mother bought the engagement ring. He was born a year later. His brother arrived a couple of years after. Between them, their mother had suffered a miscarriage, something that she only spoke of once, almost at a whisper, one Sunday over dinner, after several glasses of wine. She had been expecting a girl.
To his sixteen year old self, forty was a place as alien and unreachable as the cold moons of Neptune. 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 precisely 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.
Now, inconceivably, he found himself two years away from his fortieth birthday. Already his flesh was exhibiting signs of flaccidity, a bulbousness about his midriff which was difficult to shift. 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, now like his father’s threatened to disappear altogether. Their resemblance, frequently remarked upon, became inexorable. There were sudden, sharp pains in his knees when he moved too quickly; he had to remove his glasses to read at night.
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.
Forty. The old age of youth, according to Victor Hugo. The hinge-point, the turning. Where time hastens, just as one’s ability to comprehend it’s hastening slows.
His upbringing was partly to blame. 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. Rotarian status beckoned. When his father turned forty he treated himself to a classic Porsche; other friends splashed out motorbikes 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 friends. Another had been procured for 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. Tanned and healthy and happy.
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. 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. As the band laboured their way through crowd-pleasing favourites by Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, The Pretenders, Deacon Blue, the guests danced limply in the damp air long into the night, unsettling the gathering dew on the grass.
His grandparents were still alive then, fit and well and showing few signs of advancing age. 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 launched by another over-lubricated guest, the officers allowed the band to play on and went on their way.
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.