OK, here’s the thing. I don’t like birthdays, and I don’t like surprises. Probably because I’m too much of a control freak, which for someone as messy and disorganised and otherwise happy-go-lucky as I am is probably a bit odd.
Let’s start off with the easy one to explain: surprises. I don’t like them because what if I don’t like whatever it is that someone has prepared as a surprise for me? How am I meant to react? The whole thing terrifies me. I mentioned an incident on Cloudlife once when S ducked back inside a shop we’d just been into and I knew he was buying something for me, and I had no idea what – what if he spent lots of money on it? What if I didn’t like it? What if there was no way I could ever reciprocate? I know that isn’t the point. For all the time he was in the shop I was quaking with fear – and yes, it was a bad day, but even on a good day I’d have been pretty jumpy. He came out with a bag of chocolate raisins. I like chocolate raisins. It was thoughtful of him and a lovely gesture but I just wasn’t in a chocolate-raisin/eating anything kind of a mood, and in the end I gave most of them away. But the whole incident terrified me. There have been a very few surprises in my life and all of them have turned out well, because they were in a very strict remit: things I had already said I really wanted to have or to do that I’d been told, for whatever reason, I couldn’t have. Presents I’d seen in the toy shop in the High Street that I really wanted but were too expensive, or silly, that then, oh what miracle, turned up on my birthday. Like the time I got my ears pierced. Everyone, it seemed, had pierced ears, and I really wanted my ears pierced, but I’d been told by my mother that it would be a special thing and that I could get my ears pierced on my thirteenth birthday or when my period started (as it happened, my thirteenth birthday pipped my period to the post by millenia, but that’s by the bye). So when we were shopping for birthday presents for my twelfth birthday, I really wasn’t expecting to be led upstairs to the hair salon over the pharmacy and to get my ears pierced, and it was a wonderful surprise. To this day I have probably more earrings than any other kind of jewellery and usually will wear earrings when I want to look in the least bit well put-together.
Equally, presents. What if I already have whatever-it-is that I get? What if I don’t really like it? What if it’s so amazing that I then feel pressured to do something equally amazing for that person’s birthday when it next rolls round, or if it’s Christmas and I know that whatever I’ve got simply doesn’t match up? I hate buying presents for people, it makes me so ridiculously nervous. I worry about getting presents from people, I worry that they’ll notice if I don’t happen to wear or use whatever they’ve given me, even if I do regularly enjoy the possession of that object. Some things only come into their own when I’ve had them for a while, and that worries me too – why didn’t I realise what a perfect gift this was earlier, do I think they’ll notice? I would far rather just make a pact with anyone and everyone, here and now, to stop with the presents thing – but then I would feel churlish, so I muddle along somehow, pick out a nice card, plump for flowers or a bottle or money if I really don’t know what else to do or because, frankly, I really, really like flowers, and so should everyone. I got flowers from a friend on my nineteenth and they made me so happy. But picking out flowers is stressful – they’re expensive, if you want to get a good bunch of them, and then there’s the whole issue of does this go with that, how should I arrange it, do they have a vase to put them in, are they the kind of people that would just put them in a measuring jug or something and not mind, because hey, they’re flowers, they’d look nice in anything? Every so often – very rarely – I’ll spot something that’s perfect for someone and buy it straight off, save it for their birthday or send it as a belated gift, but so many friends miss out on getting presents from me at all for ages before I go all out on the perfect thing, or perhaps they never do get that perfect thing. And then stepping out of the borders from standard lovely gifts into something really individual that will make that person laugh – hell. Joke presents are the absolute worst. Everyone has a couple of friends whose favourite thing about getting presents is whether they make them laugh or not, and picking out ‘funny’ presents is impossible because I just don’t really have that kind of sense of humour. And then some people are lifesavingly easy to buy for – they have a hobby which always needs this or that bit of kit which, thank heavens, I know how to buy, and that makes a good present – sheet music, say, or poi, or something.
As for birthdays, well, for years I’ve been on holiday for my birthday – it’s in August – so I’ve had a lovely day with my family, we open the presents in bed with my parents or round the table in the tent or over breakfast, I get to choose what we do that day, which if we’re in the right sort of area is usually a cave – I love stalagmites and stalagtites and all those formations, and the weird strata in the rocks from years and years of debris compressing together and forming all kinds of fascinating kinds of rocks, perhaps there are fireflies or a boat ride, and if I get the chance to hang back and turn my flashlight off I love the fear of being all alone in the pitch black. That said I hate the idea of proper caving – I’m far too claustrophobic to go swimming about in tiny little tunnels which I’m not sure I’ll be able to get out of and where I’m not sure there’s any air above my head to breathe if I’m underwater, and the whole thing sounds too terrifying. There’s nothing else I’m scared of, really – just small dark spaces and drowning miles under the ground. Heights are fine by me, swinging about on the end of a rope with nothing between me and instant death but that rope, the harness, and my own (scant) ability to haul myself up; or the idea of skydiving or bungee jumping or canoeing down some rapids or a waterfall or something, yes please – these are all things I want to try some day. Just not caving, or potholing, whatever the difference may be. Anyway, I’m tangenting. Which is clearly a word, shut up.
So yes, for years I didn’t celebrate my birthday with my friends. And now I feel I ought, and I’m going to be at home on my birthday, so I can. Last year I was at home too and that time I invited some of my closest friends round for dinner and we went to a lovely restaurant and everyone as far as I can remember had a wonderful time. It was a chinese restaurant, and there was a cello/guitar two-piece band playing covers of hits from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and we all sang along, and did a conga round the room, and it was hilarious and happy and everyone rallied around and then we had hungover fried eggs and I got chocolates and flowers and things and it was wonderful. I could do that again with the same group of people but when I’ve tried to organise similar things at Christmas it hasn’t worked out, it’s too far for people to come, or something. And circumstances have changed. Back then I was just recovering from a big dip, and a fairly public dip at that, so I wonder whether everyone felt they should come because it would be the nice thing to do; T was already away in Germany, so all her usual protests about coming all the way to my city (oh, come on, it’s a 40 minute drive and you don’t even have to drive it if you don’t want to) didn’t apply (that’s a massive problem, incidentally, T’s massive reluctance to go out of her way on any specific point. Which is probably the real reason why we always socialise at her place and nowhere else – things are on her terms and in her patch and she doesn’t need to make any extraordinary effort; and everyone follows her lead, which is fine, I certainly don’t want to take on that role, but at the same time, she could be less subconsciously autocratic, and try and see things from our perspectives some of the time). There was one group I was especially close to, and I’d more or less lost contact, if only temporarily, with everyone else, so there was only one group I could feasibly invite – and of that group, several people weren’t on good terms with me, which cut it down to a nice neat number – and most of us had all just been away on holiday together so we were a tight-knit, easy circle, by and large.
This year I just don’t know. I’d like to do the dinner thing again but I have real doubts that it would work. There are far more people I could invite, and far more people I’d like to invite, and they don’t all know each other, and they don’t all get on with one another, and then there’s my friends up at university, do I invite them or not? Then back home there’s a whole new group, if not two, to be considered, who I feel very close to already and who I want to include, and if I invited everyone I want to celebrate my birthday we’re really looking at more like houseparty numbers, but houseparties terrify me, because then there’s fewer criteria for who to invite, the bar is lowered, and then you’ve got the whole group politics thing to consider. Different groups party in different ways and I don’t want to scare people and make them think my friends are all completely debauched, and houseparties almost always seem to involve some kind of major situation with someone flying off the handle or getting hideously depressed, a couple or ex-couple having some kind of Big Conversation and taking over a whole room and the atmosphere with it, and I have to flit from group to group being all things to all people, all the while stressing about whether anything has broken yet and have we got enough to drink or eat and is anyone bored and has someone honestly just set fire to the shed and what if there are gate-crashers or if specific people who I really don’t want to see take it upon themselves to show up?
The situation I’m in this year with friends is that there are far more people I could technically invite. But there are major tensions between a lot of people. Shyness, and resentment, the ex-factor, it’s all seemingly insurmountable. There are other issues too: if I invite one person from a given group, should I invite other people from that group, the whole group, even if I don’t feel so close to them, or none of them; and if I do that will the person I originally invited have anyone to talk to? If I do invite all these people will enough of them show up to make the party go well anyway? If I go for something smaller I risk offending people by being oddly selective with my guest list because if it was a dinner of just my closest friends very few of them would know or like each other, so I’m better off just going for inviting one specific group and then risk offending everyone else who I am close to but not close enough to let that kind of thing slip by.
Birthdays and parties are politically impossible minefields to me, and perhaps I’m getting myself worked up about this. I love the idea of celebrating my birthday with all my favourite people, but not the reality of it. I’d half love it if someone took it upon themselves to book a venue, pick a number of my friends, and surprise me with a party – but again, we’re onto the surprises thing. It would have to be organised by someone who knows me as well as I know myself, and who knows my friends, and who knows what they’re doing and isn’t afraid to badger guests and arrangements until it’s all perfect. It would have to be one of my favourite places to be – a picnic somewhere, or one of my favourite restaurants, or something, and it would have to be a careful selection of my friends who would all get along just fine, and to be honest, the idea of a surprise party scares me becuase I don’t want anything to be got wrong, so really I’d have to be consulted to make every detail perfect, but then you’ve got the major issues outlined above rearing their ugly heads all over again.
It’s going to take a lot of persuading to get me to celebrate my birthday this year with anyone except my parents and my sister. And no, please God no, this isn’t by way of a very extended hint about surprise parties. Perish the thought.