My ‘big’ birthdays – the ones ending in zeros – always seem to be memorable. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not.
My thirtieth birthday fell on a Sunday during my ministerial training in Manchester. My fellow student John Wiltshire and his wife Judy invited me to their flat for a birthday dinner. I still remember the delicacy they served up: beans on toast. Not that I was grumbling on a student grant.
When the time came for me to head back to the hall of residence, John asked if I wanted to call a cab. Being an experienced city dweller, I declined, thinking I knew the safe ways back. No, actually, it was because I was too mean to pay out for one.
Big mistake. I was mugged on the way by a teenage thug. So much for being city-wise. I recall another student, Martyn Coe, who phoned my bank and got my credit card cancelled, and another, Stuart Wild, a former solicitor, who came to the police station with me.
My fortieth was much happier. It was the day I introduced my girlfriend Debbie to my family. My sister and brother-in-law had booked a table at a French restaurant, and my parents joined us. When Debbie came to order her steak, the waitress asked her how she wanted it cooked. In a memorable reply she said, “Cremated.” It was, she explained, the only way she could ever be sure of getting meat well done.
A year and a quarter later, Debbie was my lovely wife, and my family have had to grow accustomed to her frequent comparisons between spades and shovels.
So to my fiftieth, on Thursday just gone. Debbie and the children had prepared a bag-full of surprises for me, all planned with loving detail. Perhaps most special was that both kids had made their own birthday cards for me. Price doesn’t matter: love does.
After taking the monkeys to school, Debbie and I decided we would drive somewhere for breakfast. Turning the key in the ignition, we heard a strange noise. Had it not been a dry, sunny day, I would have sworn it was the sound of the rear window wiper. But even an absent-minded person like me doesn’t usually manage that.
At a garage later, we discovered it was the exhaust. I couldn’t complain: it was the original exhaust, and the car is eleven years old. Nevertheless, I hadn’t bargained on spending my birthday morning at ATS.
That evening, we were due to go out for a tapas meal. Our favourite babysitter was ready to come, but at tea-time, Mark started complaining that he felt sick.
“Don’t be silly,” I said, “It’s just that you woke up early. You’re tired.”
Wrong, Dad. The bug in his stomach announced its presence in spectacular fashion. No meal out, but fish and chips later from the chippie. Debbie said we should have stuck a candle in my cod and taken a photo.
But who cares? Having become a parent at a later age than most, it’s a small thing to miss a restaurant to look after a child.