THE OFFICIAL BIRTHDAY
This is my official birthday, Dora decided.
Many a child has wished that, desperate to persuade their parents of the brilliance of the idea, once they have discovered that the Queen celebrates such a day.
But Dora, everyone who knew her agreed, was no longer a child.
Many an adult has wished that, though often adding, aloud or in their wistful, half-humorous thoughts, unless it meant them growing an extra year older.
But Dora was not an adult, not yet.
She was a tall girl, who had outgrown her coltishness, but still not entirely grown into gracefulness, who held her head high, but sometimes, almost unconsciously, stooped and slumped in a way few her age did. She had the type of face that good-natured people described as handsome, or full of character, but as her Aunt Tanya said, she was growing into her looks. Her slate grey eyes sometimes looked cold, and she did not wholly mind if people had that impression, but they were, for the most part, mistaken. She had recently had her long, wavy ash-blonde hair cut short, and Aunt Tanya hadn’t really approved, and had said, “It seems a shame, love” but had neither tried to stop her nor taken issue with her afterwards. She was, Aunt Tanya realised, too old for that – and she had to admit, when she got used to it, that it suited her, giving her a puckish, and yet contradictorily mature look.
Dora made neither friends nor enemies easily. Her teachers, as they always had, agreed she was a clever girl and generally, despite everything, no trouble, but the more perceptive ones, as they always had, realised there was nothing submissive or even that biddable about her.
When she was only six, and the class were doing “colouring-in” – an activity which, unlike many of her classmates, she found tedious, much preferring things to do with words – their teacher, a bright-faced earnest woman who spoke loudly and slowly and as if everything she proposed was an earthly delight, had said, “Now, children, everyone using a thin crayon pick up a thick one, and everyone using a thick crayon, pick up a thin one.” Dora, had, for once, found a picture she rather liked, and was enjoying herself colouring in the wings of a peacock, for which only thin crayons were suitable. In a tone that was neither defiant nor cheeky, she asked, simply, “Why, Miss?” - and the teacher had not been able to say, and let her carry on with her thin crayons. A small victory.
She wondered whether to mention the matter of the official birthday to Aunt Tanya. They were, as her Aunt said, rubbing along nicely. They were not soulmates, and there were still moments of awkwardness, but a nascent adult friendship might well be there.
The last thing she wanted was for Aunt Tanya to humour her. She was sure she would not, or would not mean to, but there were little phrases, entirely innocent phrases, entirely well-meaning phrases, that she did not want to hear and even dreaded hearing, and could not be unsaid and unremembered.
She was sure that if Aunt Tanya had chosen an official birthday, it would have been in summer. They heartily disagreed on the matter of seasons, and that was the kind of thing you could disagree about, for the most part, safely and without those other thoughts and conversations emerging from the shadows where they always lurked. She was a summer person, and Dora was a winter one. Even before the crayon incident, she had asked her mother why winter days had to be short, and at first she had laughed, but then had offered her a perfectly sensible scientific explanation, and Dora had taken in at least some of it, but still wished it were otherwise.
But Dora had not chosen a crisp, snow-crunched, frost-windowed winter day as her official birthday, either. It was late September, the year turning, the equinox past, and (she had a love of poetry) mellow fruitfulness being eclipsed by mists. At least, that was how it was this year. In other years it might have a lingering glow of summer. Folk always said January was double-headed, but Dora thought September was, too.
The first expectation and nervousness of going back to school was over, routines re-established. She would have preferred to go to the local sixth form college rather than carry on at her old school, but they didn’t offer the subject combination she wanted. It was, despite what Aunt Tanya had seemed to think, a matter of no great importance. She wished Aunt Tanya had not said, “I know you wanted a clean break, love.” But she supposed she knew why she said it, and didn’t hold it against her.
I want my official birthday to be a day that is not set in its ways, Dora decided. I want it to be a day that can straddle the seasons, that can be dull or bright, bring colour or greyness, or all of them in one day. But I want it to be when the days are shortening and when the nights are lengthening. I want it to be a day that may surprise me, but not too much, a day of nuances, but not of blizzards or heatwaves.
In fact, and she had no notion of denying it, especially not to herself, a day very much like her real birthday, and yet as unlike it as it could be.
Her real birthday was in April – a time that could also be dull or bright, warm or cool. It could be before or after Easter – her family wasn’t especially religious, but there was something about the notion of a movable feast that both frustrated her and appealed to her. When her RE teacher had explained to a class of nine and ten year olds, including Dora, that setting the date of Easter had to do with the cycles of the moon, Dora had raised her hand and asked, “But Sir, didn’t pagans worship the moon? Why did Christians work like that?” Like his predecessor over the business of the thick and thin crayons, he had been unable to say. He made a mental note not to bring up the matter of Christmas coinciding with the winter solstice.
When she was little, like most little girls and boys, she’d had birthday parties. It was just something you were expected to do. She didn’t actively dislike them, either as guest or host, but had never thought over-cooked cold sausages tasted better for being on cocktail sticks, and experience taught her that the end product in Pass the Parcel was rarely worth the effort. She was privately and not so privately relieved when, gradually, they began to put aside such childish things, though some, who were really determined, carried it on into the first and even the second year of high school.
By mutual agreement, when she was nine, the birthday party was replaced with the birthday outing, and that was another matter altogether.
The choosing of the birthday outing was almost as much fun as the outing itself. It offered infinite variety, and yet was within defined limits that Dora knew without needing to be told. It could be something far more interesting and adventurous than the things you did at rainy weekends – a trip to the museum, or the swimming baths. But it could not be far enough away to entail an overnight stay – that turned it into a Holiday, and that was a different matter altogether. It often fell during the Easter break, but if it did not, or on a weekend, then the birthday outing took place on the next weekend. Never the previous one – that was important. So Dora supposed she already had a kind of official birthday.
Anyone entering the room would have thought Dora was intently studying Aunt Tanya’s Yucca plant, nicknamed the Triffid. But though she had a certain affection for the plant, her mind’s eye was far more active. She saw the wildlife park where there were colourful parrots and playful meerkats, and she saw the pottery workshop where she had made the little model of a lopsided cat that Aunt Tanya had put in pride of place on her mantelshelf. She could still almost feel the clay on her fingers. At first she had not liked it, and had given a little shudder, but soon decided it was a good sensation after all, and she drawn to the way it was malleable and truculent at the same time. She saw the stately home where you kept bumping into “real” historical characters as you wandered among the bowers and the statues and along the echoing corridors. Of course she knew they were really modern-day people, but was glad to go along with the illusion.
Her fifteenth birthday was the first time it had coincided with one of the actual feast days – Easter Monday. But the Birthday Outing would be on the Tuesday, as the Aqua Park was run by the local authority, and not open on bank holidays. This seemed very bizarre, and she was old enough, and had enough economic sense, to register that it would lose them revenue, but she was quite glad to have an “ordinary” day made special, too. She had surprised herself by developing such a fixation on the Aqua Park. She was a good swimmer, but not obsessive about it. But the minute she saw the promotional video on the internet she was hooked by the waterfalls and the little kayaks, and the bright glass buildings around it. Her only worry was that it was a little too far away; two hours’ drive, but her parents assured her that was absolutely fine.
She had long since admitted that she much preferred lemon drizzle cake to a traditional birthday cake, and rather to her mother’s relief, she was quite happy with the shop bought version! She didn’t really have a very sweet tooth, and was still a little sated from nibbling at her Easter Egg, but this cake, from the luxury range, was delicious. Her parents, at birthdays or Christmas, never over-indulged her with presents, but made a point of finding things she really liked and would find joy in. This year her presents were almost all “grown-up” ones – a little silver locket, a generous book token, and a scented candle. But she was secretly pleased there was also a stuffed hippo!
Her parents popped out for a couple of hours in the afternoon to pay a “duty visit” to an old neighbour of her mother’s, who was in a care home. They asked Dora if she wanted to come along, but were neither surprised nor annoyed when she said she’d prefer not to. She could have sworn her father gave her a wry look implying that he wouldn’t have minded getting out of it either. Of course, it had been years since she’d had a baby sitter, but it was a standing joke that her parents said they were worried about leaving her on her own. She was getting a bit tired of the joke, and wondered how long they would keep it up for, but her smile, if a little forced, just managed to avoid being long-suffering.
The truth was, though, and she knew it might be considered unfashionable or “uncool” to say so, that, for the most part, she genuinely enjoyed her parents’ company.
But she had never minded her own company either, and though she had toyed with the idea of going out for a while, she curled up with the book she was determined to finish before spending her book token (Dora always tended to think that the “next book” would be more gripping, although her logical side told her that the present book had once been the next book!) and put the radio on. It was one of those days that you couldn’t really call gloomy, but that never quite became bright, either. Dora was impatient to light her candle (so perhaps I like birthday candles after all, she thought). She was glad her parents knew her well enough to get one with the scent of sandalwood, nothing cloying or claiming to resemble cake or lilies. But, at least for the first time, to appreciate candlelight properly it had to be, if not dark, at least when the day was waning.
She would always insist that she never had anything resembling a premonition – not throughout that long, peaceful, Easter Monday afternoon, the afternoon of her fifteenth birthday, as she sat reading and listening to the radio and looking forward to lighting the sandalwood candle.
She only felt her chest tighten and her hands tremble a little when she saw the two police officers, a man and a woman, coming up the drive. Yes, they could have been making enquiries about local break-ins or the like, but so far as she knew there had been no local break-ins, and they weren’t likely to be offering routine security advice on a Bank Holiday.
She was only sure when she saw their faces. Only a week or so back, her English teacher, who was generally very enthusiastic about her creative writing, had gently pointed out that “everything seemed like a blur” was a cliché, but that did not stop things turning into a blur now. There were stabs of ridiculous trivial clarity in it. The older male officer initially addressed her as “Miss Harris” and she was pretty sure it was the first time she was addressed as “Miss”. She noticed that the female officer was wearing a little silver bangle, and was surprised it seemed to be allowed in uniform. It was plain they had noticed her birthday cards, and later on she supposed they talked about it and said, perhaps, how much worse it made things and how unfair life could be. They said she should sit down and asked if they might. They asked if there was anyone she would like to have round, that it might be best to have someone with her, but she heard her voice assuring them it was fine.
She knew it was not fine. She only found out later that her parents had left the care home a little later than they’d expected to, as there were some papers they needed to sign. Otherwise they would not have been in the path of the lorry driver who fell asleep at the wheel and veered across the carriageway.
She could not recall anyone actually using the word “orphan” to her, and was sure she had never used it herself, but it hung in the air, still, sometimes seemed to be unspoken in every sentence. Aunt Tanya had already, by her parents, been appointed her guardian should anything happen to them before she was 18, and through the fog that surrounded her, and the moments it broke, which were far worse, Dora supposed even from the start it was the “best” solution. She doubted there would ever be a time when, in her mind, words like “best” and “good” and “wished” did not have quote marks around them.
She realised that Aunt Tanya would never have expected to actually fulfil the duty she had committed herself to as a formality. But she did so wholeheartedly and with no thought for what she wanted, or how it impacted her life. At least, Dora never had the slightest reason to think so. She went to a few counselling sessions, because her GP and Aunt Tanya had said she should. In theory, Dora approved of counselling, and had always been impatient when some adults were sarcastic and said they had coped without it. But now, though she was polite and surface-cooperative with Molly from Young Minds, she was relieved when the sessions ended. How could Molly, with her kind face and colourful sweaters and touching trust in mindfulness make anything better? She couldn’t turn back time and make her parents leave the care home on time, and make the lorry driver pull over and have a coffee.
She coped in her own way, and for the most part, Aunt Tanya respected that. Over time they grew closer, and Dora even initiated a hug sometimes, or confided something she did not need to. She decided, at last, that she would confide in her now. Not because she wanted her official birthday to be celebrated in any “regular” way, not even because she needed someone else to approve of it, but just because she wanted to tell her.
Aunt Tanya, though quite a talkative woman, was also a good listener. She had a way of sometimes giving a little nod to indicate that she was listening, and taking something in, but thought it was not right to interrupt, not yet, and a knack for knowing when a pause was long enough to mean she ought to say something.
“I think that’s a good idea,” she said, quietly. “Of course, for the “administrative” stuff – and I’m afraid you’re getting to an age when you’ll have to be bothered with that more and more – you’ll have to stick to the original one.” She smiled. “Strange, in a way, isn’t it? You can legally change your name, but not your birthday. But I’m quite happy to have this as your official birthday. And as it is – don’t you think you should light the candle?”
She had long since spent the book token, and often wore the locket, and the hippo sat on her bed, but she had not touched the candle. She had doubted she ever would.
But that September evening, as the light faded, and a crescent moon began to rise, she lit the candle, and its flickering light and the soft smell of sandalwood filled the room.
“Happy birthday, Dora,” said Aunt Tanya.
And in Dora’s mind, there were no inverted commas around the word “Happy”.