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.
Harking back to yesterday’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang reference, there’s a scene where Baron Bomburst comes into a room singing ‘Happy Birthday to me’. Yet he’s a married man with a fawning wife and an obsequious entourage.
There would have been the odd time in my past when I would have croaked ‘Happy Birthday’ to myself when I was single and fairly isolated. No longer.
In case you haven’t guessed, it’s my birthday today, and it has been a great joy to share simple pleasures with Debbie and the children. Nothing fancy or expensive, just the joy of family love. And Mastercard can’t buy that.
When I brought the assorted teas (Rebekah and me), coffee (Debbie) and warm milk (Mark) up first thing this morning, the children were on the starting line, desperate to open my presents – gifts they had only wrapped yesterday with Debbie’s help. What fun it was to see them rip the paper with almost as much abandon as if the presents were for them and they didn’t know what was inside.
Much as I love them, I was pleased they were both fit for school today. So after a mundane trip to B&Q for a carbon monoxide detector, Debs and I had coffee in a Wyevale garden centre and then headed for a pub she had seen advertised in the Essex Chronicle. She thought a print-out from their website would be enough to find them, but it was in the middle of nowhere and we soon ended up in the middle of a different nowhere. Oh well, resort to the Essex Street Atlas.
It was worth it. The Duck Inn was fabulous. They were advertising a ‘three courses for ten pounds’ offer. The menu was strictly limited, but the quality certainly wasn’t. For me, chicken pâté followed by fillet of salmon and finished with bread and butter pudding in vanilla cream. For Debbie, deep fried Brie, then roast chicken and finally assorted ice creams. The main courses had some beautifully cooked seasonal vegetables.
They also do a jazz night menu every few Friday evenings – three courses for fifteen pounds with live music. The normal á la carte menu is quite expensive, with main courses around fifteen to twenty pounds, but if you live anywhere near here, then it’s in the tiny hamlet of Newney Green and comes more thumbs aloft than even Paul McCartney can muster.
Back home and a surprise visit from a local friend before the school run. Debbie took Rebekah for her weekly swimming lesson but I stayed home with Mark in view of his ear infection. Then we finally had our Shrove Tuesday pancakes! Plus the children had insisted on a birthday cake. An extremely sickly chocolate one. I managed three mouthfuls. They enjoyed it, along with lighting the candles. Little Becky managed a picture or two on her camera.
Sabbatical work? Today? What do you think?