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The International Writers Magazine : Birthday

Many Happy Returns
Mary Colvin

Party dresses. I had party dresses when I was little. With sashes, rainbow sashes. And party shoes. Shiny red t-bar shoes that winked at me as I danced. Oranges and Lemons, Farmer’s in his Den, Pass the Parcel, Squeak Piggy Squeak. Squeak, squeak! I loved them all. Crisps and trifle and cupcakes and jelly’n blancmange and twiglets and sandwiches and sausage rolls and sausages on sticks and cheese on sticks and six, seven, eight, nine Happy Birthday to youoo and make a wish and blow the candles out.

I shan’t blow the candle out. Not just yet. Soon. But not just yet. I can’t quite get used to this darkness. It seeps into your bones. Switches all the lights off there. Besides someone may be looking, see the light. Don’t want them to think no one’s here.

We stood in the dark holding our breath when Paul came home on his birthday. Wanted him to think no one was there and then: Surprise! and kisses and squeals and slaps on the back and haven’t seen you since and champagne and forty! and life begins…and ends. Who would have picked him as one of the first? Paul the ‘just have a quick run before my low fat, low carb dinner,’ Paul. Always me that had that extra glass of wine, never Paul. Not much wine around now.
He was a good Dad too. I think, deep down, I always knew he wouldn’t stay with me, but Ella…she really was the love of his life. Something about the way he held her in those first precious moments. I understood that no matter what happened to me she’d be ok. He’d be there for her… Forty candles they squashed onto that cake. Set the smoke alarm off in the kitchen before they ever brought it out to him. You don’t hear those now either. Alarms. Used to be all the time. Drove you mad really because you knew they’d never be answered. Wouldn’t mind hearing one now though. It’d be a sign…a sign of something, perhaps of someone.

So I’m making Ella a dress. Or I’m trying to. Not that easy by candlelight. But I’ve found my sewing basket and I’m cutting up a red skirt of mine that never suited me and I hardly wore. It’ll suit her so much better with her long blonde hair. Not much of a present but then it’s not much of a birthday. I’m not even absolutely sure it is her birthday. I’ve done my best to try and keep count. Nothing else much happens but the sun does keep rising and for as long as that happens I’ll mark off the new day. Counting’s good. Counting keeps you busy. Keeps things ordered.

Reckon it’s been forty days we’ve been stuck in here now. Forty days and forty nights. Just like Jesus. Only He chose to starve in the wilderness. And He always knew his Dad was looking out for Him. We didn’t choose this. Although the bible bashers try to tell us we did. Make out we brought it on ourselves. But Ella especially didn’t choose this. And her Dad’s… Why are my fingers all thumbs now? I used to be quite good at this. Sewing and mending. Always something to mend. No, there’s no Heavenly Father looking out for us. There’s no one. Full stop.

When people, like Paul, first fell ill I didn’t think much of it. Every winter they predict some kind of super bug that’s going to kill us all and every winter hey ho miraculously we all survive. How could we have known that this really was different? I don’t go out on the street now. I could, I think. But the silence gets to me more than at home. Everything is boarded up, nothing’s working, no one’s there. At home I can pretend I’ve chosen to be on my own, outside I know I am.

Can’t do sleeves, so it’ll have to be a sleeveless one. Don’t reckon there’d be enough material anyway. She’s grown so much! Last year on her fourth birthday we had to buy her an age three dress she was still so tiny. Not now. Four big candles she had on her Princess Barbie cake and that naughty Callum blew them out before she could. Had virtually the whole class round here. Was a real squeeze. Pizzas she wanted. Not proper party food. Times change. Got tomato sauce all down her pink dress…there’s a photo somewhere of her…think I should get this finished before the candle burns out. Then tomorrow… She’ll look so lovely in it and I’ll comb her blonde hair and I’ll light this last big candle and I’ll sing to her:
‘Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday, dear Ella
Happy Birthday to you.’
Then I will blow the candle out.

© Mary Colvin November 2008
mary at

Mary is studying for her Masters in creative writing at the University of Portsmouth

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