Mother and Dad set to work planning my ninth birthday party, with a dedicated fervour that I know my brother Richard monitored with confusion and envy. Even his recent tenth birthday -numerically more pleasing and nominally more important- had ended up wading its way through a Saturday with a desperate humidity of mood. My parents invited children Richard barely knew, but understood to be his friends based on false intelligence (me). The resultant rapport was on par with the pungent proximity and stink of strangers crammed into a fallout shelter. Worse, his ex-‘girlfriend’ Tanya was on the list of invitees, my parents again having been mis-informed that she and my brother were still going steady. Neither of them even liked the girl; while my brother ‘dated’ her, she was eleven and he was nine, a two-year difference that Dad kept insisting bordered on the paedophilic (‘Just think, when she was two, he hadn’t even been born!’) Mother, fifteen years younger than Dad, and confused about the order of cause and effect, declared that Tanya was clearly from a broken home to be robbing cradles so openly, and that if she wasn’t, she deserved to be with the way she behaved. The party was leaden and tortured, with as much atmosphere as Mars. My small prank had apparently worked too well, and my brother’s tenth birthday was entirely ruined.
I hoped my ninth birthday would be no such bust. I triple-checked the list of guests, and had cleverly not yet had a girlfriend of whom to be an ex. To this day, I maintain that my number of relationships, and indeed copulations, is deliberately low to reduce Richard’s options come his inevitable retaliation.
The day arrived. A Saturday, the gaudy sports car of the week, all flash and no economy, perfect for a birthday party. In truth my birthday had been on the preceding Thursday, but I swore my parents to secrecy, warning them that if word got out of my deceit, I would refuse to acknowledge any of my future birthdays, and remain a perpetual nine-year-old. I would never leave to work in the mines, and never bless them with grandchildren. I knew this wasn’t how age worked, but it was the sort of wacky oath that my parents didn’t want to see the consequences of, possible or not.
Thankfully, all of my friends arrived on time or thereabouts, no nasty surprises, pity invites or ghosts of birthdays past. I was turning nine, and rolling deep with the full squad on a Saturday in my parent’s living room. Bliss.
Once all the boys had arrived, there was a final knock at the door. Dad answered it, proudly wearing his laminated tie, and there was Tanya and her mother, framed in the doorway. Tanya looked at the floor, while her mother beamed politely, standing side by side like the before and after photos for a product that ages you thirty years. Dad invited them both in, ushering Tanya towards myself and the other attendees, while splintering off with Tanya’s mother to explain the story behind his tie, and the subsequent decision to use womens’ magazines instead of newspaper for pass-the-parcel. He explained that the increased overheads due to this meant no party bags for the children. ‘I understand that most birthdays have party bags, but most games of pass-the-parcel don’t have the opportunity for a free sample of Opium by Yves Saint Laurent.’
Yes, I had invited Tanya. I knew that Richard would be confused by her being there, and threatened by the idea that she was there at my request. I didn’t particularly like her, and in fact disliked her, especially given the fact that she had now turned up to the separate birthday parties of two brothers, the youngest of whom was 3-4 years her junior. My juvenile mind assumed she must have had no life of her own, attending every event that would have her like a social virus. This girl would fall over herself to make it to the opening of an envelope.
The party was going well, and I enjoyed the tensions I had created. The party games started, and I allowed myself to relax, knowing that if my brother had any kind of payback planned, it surely would have happened by now. Musical chairs went off mostly without a hitch. Dad’s lack of bias with pausing the music was admirable; a Swiss random number generator couldn’t have seemed more impartial. I lost with grace and humility at four players left, Tanya eventually coming out as the winner. I chalked this up to the boys being too afraid to shove her around as they had each other. In every round she drifted round the remaining chairs like a purposeful leper. Women must have it easy, I remember thinking.
The final game was pass-the-parcel, a game which I understood had a tradition of allowing the birthday-boy/girl to win the ultimate prize, while giving smaller prizes on the way to the also-rans of the affair – a chance for everyone to feel involved. Just before starting, Dad was called off to the kitchen by Mother, and as Richard volunteered to step in, my face dropped into realisation with the slow slide of warm wax. The glossy bundle of Vogue and Cosmopolitan pages was handed to me first to begin the passing, as I stared off towards the kitchen, hoping Dad would return quickly. Surely this whole game wouldn’t be left in the hands of my vengeance-seeking brother? A click, and the S Club 7 CD signalled the game was afoot. I eyed Richard throughout, wondering how he might try to corrupt the purity of this beautiful game.
The music stopped for the first time. I was holding the parcel. Interesting, and oddly charitable? I tore open the magazine pages, finding a small pack of Fizzers between the layers. Clearing off the rest of the first layer ready for round two, the edge of one of the pages sliced a tiny paper cut on my right index finger. I masked the pain, and when the music continued, bravely passed the parcel as the rules dictated.
The parcel completed two full circuits, Richard was really toying with our anticipation. The music stopped again. And again I was holding the parcel. Suddenly I understood. I felt as though my stomach had been filled with the blue liquid of an ice pack, while my face flushed hot. I knew his game. He would force me to win every single prize in pass-the-parcel, creating the illusion of a corrupt cabal in my house, where the rich get richer, and the visitors get to watch, irreversibly turning all of my friends against me. I dutifully unwrapped again. A Chupa Chups lollipop. The bastard.
The game continued as I had predicted, sometimes with three full revolutions before stopping the music on my possession once again. I pictured the other parents gathering on our driveway later, furtively condemning my selfishness, and vowing never to allow their child to suffer such barbaric hosts again.
The game continued, each time I unwrapped to reveal a small piece of confectionary, and an accompanying paper cut. I panicked at the thought of my fingers being peeled back in flaps and points, like the curled brown skin of a pineapple. My ill-gotten bounty of sweets at game’s end would be beyond my grasp, my damaged hands preventing me from enjoying the fruits of my labour. I was King Midas, but instead of gold, everything I touched would turn to a blood and finger-flesh covered version of itself.
This was hell.
End of part 2