I have always thought that making a fuss of your birthday is in poor taste. Why on earth would anyone be interested in the day you were born? Working in the restaurant I have come to recognise the kind of people who believe that their birthday is a special day – for everyone.
One is expected to smile benignly when told that ‘It’s Courtney’s birthday!’ (They’re all called Courtney.) One has to help festoon the table with hideous silver balloons. One trips over mountains of expensive-looking presents that are piled up in the passageway to the table. One tactfully tries to move the presents so that one can pour the wine.
Finally Courtney arrives looking ravishing. She is wearing the kind of Jessica Simpson shoes that are meant to be looked at not walked in. She is displaying acres of tanned, healthy skin and her hair, freshly $400 Keratined, looks like a commercial. When it’s time for dessert, one has to retrieve a huge hideous cake with loopy letters saying ‘Haffy Birfday Courtney’ from the walk-in. The cake is invariably tres leches with rococo cream icing and has to be cut into 43 slices. Courtney doesn’t eat a bite. You stay thin either by starving or waiting tables. In her case it is the former. All of which made me remember other birthdays in other countries.
My best birthday was when I was ten. I was given a small black pony. My heartbeat in my small chest was like the wings of a bird. Tears sprang to my eyes when I saw him in the paddock, tugging at the grass. I put my ear next to his while he drank water and heard the gulp gulp as it slid down his throat and thought that I would die of happiness. I brushed him with a brand new dandy brush until my miniature spaghetti arms were limp. When my mother refused to buy a fly sheet, I cut up a green candlewick bedspread and stitched a rug for him on my dolls sewing machine.
After school there was a little party with paper cups and chains and picture-hat biscuits. They were Marie biscuits with marshmallows in the center and pretty icing. As was the tradition in those days, all the little girls attending the party brought small gifts that were laid out on my bed. Handkerchiefs, Lakeland coloured pencils and Sharps toffees in a tin with a kitten on it. Time passed. I am twenty one. I am wearing a fabulous chamois dress and I am getting engaged to a chap called Roddy. We decided to get engaged on my birthday. Robert Hodgins, my painting lecturer from Wits is there. The party is to be held at a farmhouse near by. Unfortunately, while Roddy and his friend are trying are to burn fire breaks up the driveway so that they can put candles in paper bags on either side, a fierce wind blows up and flames from the fire engulf part of the house. The image of the farm hands running out of the house carrying furniture has never left me.
I am 29. I am at the St Geran in Mauritius. I am surrounded by strangers who have become instant friends – just add Indian Ocean. People called Gaetan are wishing me happy birsday. (sic) I am 30. My office at the Sunday Times is so filled with flowers it looks like a florist shop. Or a funeral parlour. My success is measured by how large the arrangements of St Joseph’s lilies are.
Five years later the beat is still going on. I am collected from my apartment by in a limo. My escort calls the radio station as asks the DJ to play ‘Give me All Night’ by Carly Simon, because, he says ‘That’s how long it is going to take to celebrate my birthday. My friend Barbara has arranged a party for me at a chic supper club. I am wearing Errol Arendz and high heels.
More time passes. I am in London on my 40th birthday. Alone. I walk around Hampton Court Palace alone and linger in Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal. I am alone but not lonely. Something in the spiritus loci resonates with me. I commune with the ghosts of the great writers who lived on this sceptred isle. I meander down the Long Water, the stretch which Henry created specifically so that barges coming from Chelsea would have a glorious first view of the Palace as they arrived.
Pootling around Surrey I come across a village – well, its only a couple of hamlets – called Friday Street. Nearby is the Silent Pool. It is said that Guinevere was bathing in it when some knights came upon her. She submerged herself to avoid detection and since then the pool has remained without a ripple…. I explore my amazement at this green and pleasant land. Everything pleases me. Even the fact that the local Hedgehog Hospital is called Miss Tiggywinkles, after the Beatrix Potter character. But that was England.
Usually birthdays are a time of melancholy. They remind one of one’s mortality and what one has yet to achieve… The wounds which haven’t yet healed and that which is no longer within one’s reach…
My memory is indeed a misty landscape in which shrubs of the heather of recollection crop up from time to time. At times there are memory banks of lilac heather, at times, sparse, spiky fingers of memory-nightmares that poke through my gauze-thin skin.
These days the only family I have are three girls, who have a leg at each corner. How does one celebrate when one is a stranger in a strange land? My first year in America was the fateful 9/11/2001. At first it was something of a relief to have a reason not to celebrate, but gradually, as I became, for better or worse, part of a small Norman Rockwell community, my birthday was allowed to resurface.
Last year there was a garden party in the park-like surroundings of a friend’s home. This year I spend most of the day being interviewed by a journo from Boston. We meet with one of my best friends whose two little boys have my heart captive. The five year old gives me rosemary and a spray of foliage from the garden. An Elizabeth Lock ring wouldn’t have brought me any more joy.
I get dressed up in a tulle skirt and combat boots (to keep it real). About ten of my friends have gathered at a local restaurant. Veuve Clicquot does indeed flow and yes, there is even a ridiculously wonderful champagne cake which Abby Wabby has baked. I shriek and giggle and blow out the candles. For a few hours I turn into Courtney! Why, there is even a present table. Later we wander through the deserted streets of the village singing at the tops of our lungs. There was a small incident when Matteo, the beautiful, leaned against a picket fence which promptly collapsed. But that’s a detail. I write this demi-blog, dear readers, because I have turned (yet another) corner in my life. In these sunlit uplands, I am learning that if you are with people who feel affection for you its OK to admit it’s your birthday. In fact it IS cause for celebration.
Praise the Lord and pass the Pommery.