BIRTHDAY BOY (from Light Years, 2002)The year of birth is wrong on my birth certificate. An emergency baptism on a premature baby delivery by Caesarean is not the cause. My father carried the registration form around in his pocket for a month. It was retrieved from the drycleaners, smudged with tobacco shreds and damp. A bored copy clerk in the City Hall transcribed proof of my existence. The bottom loop in a 3 had become a 2 and so I gained a year.
The discrepancy between my passport and driving license caused me bother only once. In Porto Velho on the border between Brazil, Columbia and Bolivia. An impassive customs official, with the usual drooping bigode and well-filled uniform, looked at my papers and then at me. Tapping his fingers together, he pronounced, ‘No regular’. I had been waiting all my life for this moment. I congratulated him on his perfect English and uncanny powers of observation, tipping him lavishly, but discretely, in dollars. It was enough. I was let through. Escaping a police record in the hottest drugs spot in South America made me feel a year younger.
The day of my birth is correct. July the 8th has no feast day. It is the day families move out of town for the holidays. A day to try the patience of a saint - armies and large families should stay at home.
My inconvenient birthday was rarely anticipated. Parental visits to town, harbingering presents, were unlikely. A last minute flurry in the village shop was the best to be expected and parties a pipe dream. Arranging them in transit was unthinkable. Anyway other children were not around. I never had a party in my growing years. In adult life I have never given one. Self-celebrations embarrass me. They’re absurd. But perhaps in this I am commemorating my childhood birthdays in their own idiom.
I understood why my birthday could not be otherwise. It’s easier to understand than to accept. A lesson I learned young - the best time. The most I could hope was that my birthday would not be forgotten. I was all ears for my mother’s eleventh hour preparations, urgently whispered to sisters. It always moved me. She had so much to do. I viewed their reluctant cooperation with sibling wryness. Excited by something else - the seaside. I understood but did not accept. They had properly planned birthdays and parties. It was not fair. I measured from year to year the number of minutes in the eleventh hour before the flurry. A good year was five past the hour. Despair set in at quarter to twelve.
On my sixth birthday the holiday hullabaloo is complicated by music exams. Once again my mother does not forget. But it is five to twelve. A trip to the village is not possible. My sisters are in town. I am hanging round the yard outside the kitchen. ‘I haven’t forgotten your birthday.’ My mother gives me a balloon and a promise of something else later.
The balloon is in a floral envelope. With a crayon sketch of a boy kicking a football on the vellum. My mother pauses on the step, smiling helplessly. She says my name and goes back in.
The big move tomorrow, no help at hand - I understand. Ungratefulness would be to my shame. I can accept. Taking the balloon and the promise beyond the long hedge where things grow wild, I sit down in the raspberry bushes and begin to blow up the balloon.
I see barren apple trees with weeds entwining their twisted flanks, a white sticky moss where the fruit should have been, long grass strangling the gooseberry bushes, a thick rusty grove of decaying palms, a smouldering fire where rubbish was burnt that morning. People have been here. I cannot control my breathing. When the balloon inflates larger than my hand, it slips my mouth and the air is lost. Poor breathing is a prelude to tears. I harden myself against them and think of the fuss made of my brother’s birthday. Fluffy buns and lemonade with his friends. The highlight a gramophone record of the Hindenberg Disaster. Pop goes the balloon - flipping noisily into the gooseberries. I leave it there.
The recently stripped raspberry beds are unencumbered with overgrowth. Face down, I crawl amongst the stalks picking out stray berries lurking under leaves. Each one perfectly ripe and larger than I expect. I gobble them down, the afterglow a happy memory. In the criss-cross of the stalks hard little raspberries nestle. I eat them slowly. They taste salty like tears until the pulp explodes in juice and the sweetness is the sweetest sweetness ever. The aftertaste is smoky like autumn. The last of the raspberries foretell the fall of leaves, the first frost.
I forget my birthday. Slip through a hole in the hedge. And wander down to the Atlantic pond. Boys wading in muddy water are netting freshwater shrimps. They show me how the shrimps disappear in the hand - pink against pink. Fey fabulous creatures dropped in jam jars full of water. I watch them for hours.
Returning home, I am sent to the bathroom to wash my face. Red blotches of raspberry juice show in the mirror. The boys must have thought I was an Indian. At tea a town cake with six lighted candles appears. My sisters’ surprise. I blow the candles out. My breathing is back. Everybody applauds and Happy Birthday is sung with mock hearty zest, as it should. The cake, the candles and the song do not make me happy. I am happy already.
On the way back from the pond I uncrumple the envelope in my pocket.
The boy kicking the football is me. The drawing is by my mother. And she never ever draws.
It was my best birthday.