Twenty-two years ago, my wife and I spent an entire day driving around in search of an emergency kitchen table. We had invited a load of children and parents round for the oldest’s third birthday the next day, but we owned nothing for anyone to sit round. At the time this seemed like a really big deal.
It was a desperate excursion: nothing we could afford could be procured at 24 hours’ notice. Finally, at dusk, on a road full of junk shops, we found two men loading a battered workshop table on to the back of a lorry to take it to the dump. For £50 they took it to our house instead. It was crooked, gouged and spattered with grease and paint. The top was made of old roof rafters, with large peg holes at either end. It would do in an emergency, we thought, until something better came along.
Twenty-two years later, I am sitting at the same kitchen table, staring at the 2p coin that we jammed into one of the peg holes to stop things falling through, when the oldest one walks in.
“Morning,” I say. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” he says.
“What are you, like, 30 now?” I say.
“Something like that,” he says. My wife walks in.
“Happy buh-irthday!” she sings, doing a little dance.
“Thanks,” the oldest says.
“How old are you, actually?” she says.
“Twenty-five,” he says.
“Christ,” she says. “So we’ll have supper and presents here, with everyone. What time are you back?”
“I’ve got football after work,” he says. “And then drinks.”
“We can wait,” she says.
At 9pm we are still waiting. Supper is getting cold. My wife texts the oldest one, who says he’s in a taxi. We wait some more. Eventually he arrives; the cork of a bottle of sparkling wine ricochets off the ceiling.
Because he is 25, the oldest one is for the first time the recipient of birthday cards dwelling on lost youth.
“The joke is always that you’re either past it or a drunk,” he says. “Is that just a British thing?”
“It’s impossible to buy a birthday card for a woman over 40 that doesn’t have a glass of white wine on it,” I say. What I mean is: impossible at 7pm, in Morrisons.
“Get used to it,” my wife says, filling a glass with white wine.
“It’s true, all cards are cruel,” the middle one says. “Birthday, anniversary…”
“Bereavement cards aren’t cruel,” I say. “Possibly a gap in the market.”
“Open your presents,” my wife says.
“At last your husband is dead,” the youngest one says. “Have a crate of wine!”
“My idea,” I say.
The first present the oldest one opens is mine. I’m not good at buying gifts, but I know exactly what a 25-year-old wants for his birthday: any one of those pedestrian but costly items that make you resent adulthood every time you’re obliged to pay for them yourself.
“An economy pack of razor blades,” he says, peeling back the paper.
“How thrilling,” my wife says.
“Damn right,” I say. “It’s Britain’s most shoplifted item.”
“Thank you,” the oldest one says.
“After meat,” I say. “Most people just steal meat.”
The rest of the presents are in a similar vein – sturdy shoes, dark jumpers, work trousers – unglamorous necessaries, subsidised. I don’t want to tell him that birthdays are basically like this from now on: a blue shirt and a card making light of either your decrepitude or your alcoholism, if you’re lucky.
After the oldest one blows out the candles stuck in a store-bought cheesecake, the talk turns to birthdays past: friends’ birthdays, family birthdays, good birthdays, bad birthdays, forgotten birthdays.
“I remember going to some kid’s house on his dad’s birthday, and it was like, weirdly lavish,” the oldest one says.
“Yeah, I’ve seen that,” the middle one says.
“Some adults take that sort of thing very, very seriously,” my wife says.
“Some families take all birthdays seriously,” I say.
“You’re not in one,” my wife says. “Bad luck.”
I nod in agreement, but I also think back to a panicked young couple driving around the city in circles, in search of a kitchen table.