My four-year-old came in with a tightly folded piece of paper. He said: "Happy Birthday Mummy." Bleary, I pushed a pillow underneath my head. I said: "Darling, how lovely." I unfolded the A4 paper to admire the coloured pencil scribbling. I unfolded it some more to reveal the words: "To Granny and Granddad, love." I said: "This says it's for Granny and Granddad." "Yes," he nodded, "but they can't have it. It's yours." I kissed him. When I came down to breakfast, my six-year-old had marked the occasion by peeling a satsuma and making plate faces with it for his brother and sister and chopping up an apple for me. He must have been awake for some time because the apple was brown and deep scars striped its flesh; it looked like it had been in a knife fight and lost, badly. Technically, he is not allowed to use knives when I am out of the room but since there were no fingers among the slices, I pretended not to notice. The only injury of the morning was in fact mine when I was helping to dress him for school and an arm shot out of his sleeve and he socked me in the eye incredibly hard. I thought: "No one's ever given me a black eye for my birthday before."
Once the older boy was at school, my four-year-old and I went to the local ice cream parlour. It is a little how I imagine American milk bars to be; a long counter with stools which you draw up and occasionally fall off. Or perhaps I am mixing up my bars. This year, it finally recognised Britain's membership of the European Union and introduced cappuccinos and lattes. Before the arrival of the big glittery coffee machine, I once asked for a cappuccino and was told: "We don't do cappuccinos pet. We do coffee and hot milk." I love this cafe. It serves milk shakes in glasses whose sides bulge with pressed glass fruit. Next to the frothing trophy of pink, bubble popping milk, an aluminium vat stands with more shake; ready, when you drain the glass, to fill your life again with thick and chilly sweetness. Here, bar flies stuck fat and happy on their stools, eat bacon sandwiches and watch cold tourists buy colder ice cream cornets at the window. Hands wrapped around your coffee, you can sit there and think: "I live here. I know you do not have to stand at the window. You can come in and sit awhile." You do not call out an invitation to the strangers.
I think my birthday was all the better for being spontaneous. I like the idea of spontanaeity, I just find it difficult to work into my schedule. But as soon as I decided to stay put, it was make do and mend and the better for it I think. My four-year-old and I bought a blue marbled plastic bucket, a red spade and a fishing net to celebrate the day, snatched up the baby and headed for the beach. I always thought myself a silent soul before I became a mother. Silence was easy for me. I could hold my peace and never felt the need to chat and chatter. Then children come and you think: "I have to talk. I have to teach or my child will grow silent and grave as his mother. Which would never do." So you talk and you do not stop. You say: "Look at that..." Whatever it may be. You say: "Did you see...?" and "That's because..." till any sensible child blocks up his ears with peas. Then, children leave. "Bye Mum". There is silence in the kitchen and the car and everywhere. But I do not think there can be silence in the heart of that woman. I think in her most secret places, her mother's chatter plays out, regardless of the emptied nest. An old woman, shabby in a mac and slippered feet, holding a shopping carry-all; her hair, tousled; her mind worse. Sometimes then, the words escape again, she calls long gone children to her side and loud mumbles to them of birds and trees and passing marvels that she sees.
I have not yet become that ghost but as I watched my son walk ahead of me, intent on the sea, resolute in his wellies, his net in one hand, his bucket dangling from an arm, the spade in the other. I thought: "This is how the man will be; looking out to the horizon, armed and ready for his task, his mother hardly more than a memory. This is how I will be, trailing behind him, hoping he will stay safe, hoping he is happy, that he will turn round and remember me." He found his spot in a wash of water running across the beach while the baby girl and I squatted down, gathering seashells and pressing them into sandy walls of small castles. I got older. Despite that, it was a good birthday.
Today I discovered, my friend has taught my daughter to say "Princess" when she is asked: "What are you?". I said: "We're republicans" when I heard it first. Then I wondered: "Is it right to teach a daughter that she is a princess? That she is your princess? That she is special, different, richer, that life is a fairy tale, that she may need rescuing, her wishes will come true and her endings all be happy ones?" In the event of revolution, I have set before her a different path. Tonight, I taught her answers to a different question. "Who will you be?" The answers she can chirrup: "Docdor. Loya. J'neer." I am working on "Astronaut". "Physicist" may defeat me.