I’m not someone who enjoys a big fuss on his birthday. In recent years some of the nicest have been spent in very simple ways. When our house was hideously damaged by people working on next door’s roof, our ceilings were smashed in and all our belongings were coated with ancient, greasy soot. That year we went into town and had tea at Marks and Spencers’ café. Everything was clean and white in there and it felt like such a respite and a treat to sit somewhere like that. Home was hellish and we were caught up in endless clean-ups and insurance wrangles. To sit somewhere tidy, sipping tea and not having to face our predicament seemed enough of a treat that year.
Others were busy and filled with people. Nights on Canal Street in my thirties: booking a table at Velvet or Taurus or in Chinatown. A table for twenty and lots of fuss and surprises. All good fun, but exhausting, really. Others, I was in Norwich, and we’d fill half a restaurant with faculty and students and visiting writers. (Remember Colleen, the quietest of the secretaries being tipsy and pretending to do a pole dance as everyone waited for taxis?) Then, right back when I was twenty: my first birthday away from home. It was the term we moved into our first student house and we all went for a Chinese. My first banquet! We dressed up smart. It was the day Waterstones had opened in Lancaster and I spent my book vouchers on ‘The Naked Lunch’ and ‘To the Lighthouse.’
My favourite birthday of all is still 1982 and my thirteenth.
Mam kept a brilliant surprise. A tape recorder. Something I longed for and dreamed about owning. The thing I wanted to do most in the world was to make my own audiobooks. I wanted to record stories I was writing with sound effects and music. I wanted to record shows off my portable TV and play them back in my headphones. Victoria Wood, The Two Ronnies, Doctor Who. With a tape recorder I would put my new tape player right up to the TV’s speakers and whizz the sound up. I’d create my own cassette covers and I’d keep them all in the plastic cassette cases I’d coveted in Boots. I would have a collection of soundtracks on cassette. All the old Universal horror movies they showed late at night: I’d record all them as well. I’d focus on the words and listen again and again, learning the tune of their reams of dialogue, wearing my headphones and walking round our estate doing my teatime paper round, or hurrying off to school and blocking out the world.
Mam was excited about giving presents, too. Things weren’t easy and she had to save or put down money each week in the catalogue. I think she was really excited about the tape recorder because she knew it was something I wanted so badly. And, the night before my birthday, she decided to try it out. She unwound the flex and opened the sample cassette tape. It was rainbow-coloured and just a few minutes long.
‘Hello, Paul! Happy birthday! It’s your thirteenth and now you’re a teenager! And here’s a nice surprise for you!’
She sang ‘happy birthday’ and her voice sounded so young and high, like a kid herself. I can still hear it now if I think about it. The tape went missing many years ago. We moved house again and again and belongings went astray. There are loads of books and drawings books and things I would love to have salvaged. But first among them is that sample tape with Mam’s message on. Not because of the daft stories and sound effects I tried out on the rest of it over the next couple of days (I made a short play about Dan Dare and the Mekon using sound effects from household implements and music from Geoff Love’s superhero album) but for Mam’s short message at the start.
Everything about that tape recorder was wonderful. I loved the little spools going round, and the grinding noise of fast-forwarding, and the fact you could fill it with batteries and take it out on location outside. Even when, a couple of years later, it started going wrong, and the Play button tended to malfunction, I blamed myself rather than the machine. It couldn’t be going wrong and failing, it had to last forever, didn’t it? It must be me using it wrong, somehow. It was my favourite thing in the world.
Mam’s always loved giving presents, so much. Even when – especially when – she couldn’t afford them. A couple of years ago I visited just before Christmas and for a variety of reasons it was a tense time. When I left I was catching the train and couldn’t carry the bag of presents she left out on the top landing. She was ill and the night before she’d flipped out for some reason and yelled at me and took to her bed, and I, of course, was horrified and upset and couldn’t deal with it at all. And the presents were put out on the landing in the morning and she never came to say goodbye. The presents seemed an aggressive offering, somehow.
There was no way, either, I could carry them with all the bags I already had. I tried saying it was too early to do Christmas things and we’d come back through and swap all our gifts in person. But it didn’t work out that way. It turned into an ugly fight, somehow, by phone and email and all those other, silly modern ways we have of sending and preserving and distorting our voices. I should have just taken that bag, even though I couldn’t actually manage with the luggage I already had on that ridiculously busy train.
Accepting gifts is so often about trying not to give offence and seeming delighted for their givers’ sake, not your own. Usually I rather like that. It’s lovely to see the pleasure someone else has in giving you something. It feels as good, sometimes, as being the one handing over the perfect, well-chosen gift and watching the recipient’s face.
Presents can be tender, treacherous things, though. All you’re wanting, really, is the affirmation that someone you love has spent a little time thinking about you. Devoting time to you, for just a little bit.
That’s the bit that always catches in my heart, and it’s why that cassette tape with Mam’s message is still the most wonderful present I ever got. It was a splinter of recorded time. A perfect moment that should have been there forever, and I wish it still was.