It’s not all about the numbers
Today, yes, today, is my 57th birthday. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m finishing writing this, right now, in, as young people say, real time. What, though, is more real than time? It’s here, it always will be, even when we’re not. It goes, yes, it passes, but for now there’s more. Good.
I’m in Paris. I come here some years for my birthday. Paris never disappoints. There’s nowhere I love being more, although some places come close. My favourite places have always been cities and this is my top 5: London, Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv, Bordeaux.
I’m sitting at a table in front of a café where I’ve sat many times before. I have a glass of rosé, another of ice and a small dish of those addictive peanuts they give you in France. I like eavesdropping on the other tables, although my French isn’t good enough to understand what they’re saying. Who said what to who, who’s done what to who, who’s done who, would be my guess. What else would anyone talk about? I used to bring a book with me on holiday, but no longer. I enjoy sitting, watching the world, even more than I enjoy reading about it. Later I’ll go to Le Bear Den and join in, be a part of the fun.
Some of you, I’m sure, will clutch at your pearls at the thought of 57. I may have done so myself many years ago. 57 is unimaginable to 17. But, you should know, I don’t feel unusual. Quite the opposite. I feel as much like me as I’ve ever felt, maybe more so. I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I was at 25. I know myself better now and I’m more confident. I feel easier around strangers. I feel easier around friends, too.
I laugh more than I did at 25, but not more than I did at 15. One of my goals – I’ve only discovered it as I’ve been writing this – is to laugh like I did when I was young. Laugh without embarrassment, without feeling self-conscious. Laugh until I can no longer stand, my face wet with joyous tears, my sides in actual, hilarious pain. Now that would be something, wouldn’t it.
This summer has been extraordinary, both professionally and personally. I’ve started on paths that I had felt paralysed to step onto a few months ago. A picture library I love is talking to me about carrying my photos. I’ve started writing professionally. The second of those comes directly from writing Things I Love… and Siberia, my food blog. It feels thrilling for my life to be changing like this. I’m halfway through writing a novel. Think I’m going to finish it, too. It’s for young adults and I want it to be 90% funny and 10% scary. Those are good proportions. Pretty much the proportions you’d want in your life. This summer has been 60% funny and 40% scary and I hope funny increases soon.
I’ve become estranged from my family. I told you this summer has been momentous. I am estranged from my family and this wasn’t the case 6 months ago. They’ve done something, broken a promise of 30 years and are, of course, blaming me for this. Our ties have always been taut and now they’re broken and I don’t think they’ll repair. This is about 80% of the 40% of scary, if you see what I mean. I’m not the first person to suggest that we have to survive our families, there are tensions in each of them. But mine, maybe because I’m in it, seems especially destructive.
I once knew a man called Bill. Lovely Bill. I loved him. If you’d met him you’d have loved him, too. There was no more than a few months difference in our ages. We went out for the shortest time when we were in our 20s. We slow-danced together once. Oh, I haven’t thought about that since it happened, 30 years ago. I had to stop typing, look up from my computer and pause. It is a happy memory. He worked abroad and I think there was someone else and things in your twenties can be quite murky, can’t they. I’m probably not the marrying kind, anyway. But he moved back to London and we became friends which may be better. He came back because he was ill. He made a new life for himself, one that he hadn’t imagined or wanted. He wanted what he had; working for Save the Children in Africa. He fought harder than anyone I’ve ever seen to stay alive. He would have gone a long way to have a 57th birthday. He did go a long way, but he didn’t get there. Here. He died 15 years ago and I think about him every day, still.
So I can’t hate 57. It is a joyous day. They all are. Naomi calls it my Heinz year. I am 57 varieties and I love that thought. I can’t be scared of ageing, there are so many other things to be scared of. I never try to hide my age, what would be the point? So I’m going to sit here, in this lovely café, on this lovely street, in this lovely city, raise my glass to Bill, and toast myself, too. I’m going to be ok. Happy birthday me. Happy 57.