Born towards the end of New Year’s Eve of 1963, I managed to save my mother’s blushes by not quite being a New Year’s Day baby. She would have hated having our photograph in the newspaper, as was the tradition back then.
It’s a weird day to have a birthday (not that I have anything to compare it with). I swing between the opinion that everyone celebrates my birthday, and that no-one does. It’s inescapably true, however, that my birthday coincides with merry making, drunkenness and ribaldry on a grand scale and I have often done my best over the years to join in.
Throughout my childhood my mother concocted lavish birthday parties for me, in part to offset the disappointment of receiving fewer birthday presents as it came so soon after Christmas. It’s a bigger present than ususal as it’s for Christmas and birthday, my aunties would invariably chime, leaving me bereft on my birthday as I couldn’t by then remember what I’d got. My mother prepared sandwiches and snacks, elaborate jellies, a blancmange in the shape of a rabbit, a trifle, and an often sculptural home made birthday cake. I still remember the one in the shape of a steam train. A handful of friends would be invited in their best bib-and-tucker along with the massed ranks of uncles and the heavy field artillery of auntie-hood. My grandparents would come, as well as my cousins, fillling our little house to within a squash and a squeeze of bursting.
I, the star of the show, would always feel a bit cheeky. Slicked hair, new jumper, shiny shoes - I felt the onus was on me to entertain my guests and can’t now remember whether or not I actually enjoyed myself. I certainly found it exhausting despite all the sugar I ingested.
The parties continued into my early teens, though I began to suspect they were as much for the adults as for me and my friends. After a hiatus of some years, and despite my protestations, my mother insisted that when I got to eighteen she would arrange another bunfight. I was not remotely amused by the idea, being by then a seasoned drinker, and having long planned a pub crawl down the valley with my friends.
She assumed that as she had organised it all and invited the family I would have to be there. I, on the verge of official manhood in my mind, stubbornly went out at midday and didn’t set foot in the house again until early the following morning, missing the whole shebang. I was woken on New Year’s Day by my father roughly shaking me while standing on one leg to avoid the puddle of vomit by my bed. I was firmly instructed, man-to-man, to clean up the bloody mess and come downstairs at once.
My mother was pacing around displaying the full gamut of emotions I’d expected, including peeved, disappointed, irked and downright furious. She was also worried, as my friend, who was supposed to be staying the night with us, had not come home at all. I was grilled.
Where did you last see him?
What state was he in?
Would he have gone home?
Doubt it, his dad would kill him.
Did he have any money on him?
Not after he bought the whole pub a round, no.
Right, you’ll have to go and look for him, poor boy. He could be anywhere.
Arthur, get your hat.
I dressed hastily in my pungent clothes of the night before and joined my dad by his van. It had been a freezing night and, as we scraped the windscreen, the memory of hitching a lift home from Glanamman started to form in my mind. The driver that had stopped for me was more drunk than I was, and had skidded and swerved his way back up the valley by following the white line in the middle of the road at terrifying speeds.
My dad laughed at the state I was in as soon as we were out of earshot of my mother, and told me stories of his drunken nights out as a young man to make me feel better. We drove slowly (he knew no other way) in the icy conditions, and I began to realise the gravity of the situation. It would have been no fun to be out all night in a drunken stupor and I imagined finding my pal frozen to a half empty flaggon of cider at the bottom of a ditch. I twisted the few brain cells I had left to recall where we’d lost touch with each other but it was still pretty hazy.
Then it came back to me that we’d had a long, drunken discussion about whether or not we were half way up, or half way down the valley. Were we closer to his house in Ammanford or mine in Brynamman? We had decided that the only way to find out was to each walk home and time how long it took, reporting back tomorrow. Barmy, and I soon found my thumb waving around as I walked, out of habit as much as anything. I’d consequently got home in fifteen minutes and completely forgotten the whole thing as I threw up soon after.
As I was relating this to my dad he suddenly pulled in to the kerb. There he is! he shouted triumphantly. And there he was, a crumpled prince, leaning against a car scratching his hair while blinking out of eye sockets that seemed to be narrow tunnels to the back of his head.
He’d walked a bit, he told us, but realised he wouldn’t make it in the cold while weaving uncontrollably so had knocked up some poor family and asked if he could sleep in their porch. They’d said no, but kindly opened their car up so he could sleep in there instead. He was just ruefully surveying the damage you could do to beige velour upholstery with regurgitated rum and black when we found him.
We drove him home and dropped him off to a welcoming clip around the ear from his dad. I got home to the less welcoming wall of silence that was my mother’s weapon of choice when annoyed. I thanked my lucky stars. I was an adult now, and I relaxed into a peaceful, nag-free day to nurse my man-sized hangover. I quietly hoped there wasn’t too much sherry in the leftover trifle in the fridge that my stomach was reminding me had my name on it.
My peace didn’t last long. As I lounged in my bedroom, my mother vacuuming downstairs, my dad pottering in the garden, a growing feeling of shame and self-loathing came over me. My conscience pricked away at my sense of righteousness at my behaviour the day before and made for an increasingly uncomfortable bed that I was lying on. My mother had done her best for me, and despite my opposition to the party I slowly accepted that I should have made an effort, however small, to appear and accept my family’s good wishes.
I was small, and stupid, and still a child and I realised that it would take a giant effort from here to raise myself into being a man. I began that journey with the smallest of steps and went downstairs to apologise.