She first saw him when she was wrapping up a toy for a birthday party. She didn’t want to meet his eyes (not that he was looking at her anyway – he was involved in the moment and nothing she could do or feel would have impinged upon him). Still, he made her feel uncomfortable, out of place and superficial in her own lounge. She didn’t want to think of him, she wanted to think of new red eco people carriers at bargain prices and family holidays in Finland, ideas for re-vamping your kitchen, and thoughts on the nature of celebrity. They get disappointed if they don’t win every time, so put a sweet in every layer. Next to a piece on Brit Art – did those people mind being photographed having sex? Turn it over so they won’t see. They are so quick anyway. They are just interested in the present. I like those wind up radios – if there’s a power cut or something worse then you’d be able to find out what’s happening. It’s got a light too. The parcel’s small so even without the ad it should cover it. Still, the Brit Art piece is really interesting – I should really keep it and read it later. Perhaps I’ll stick it in a scrap book. I must get a scrap book. Have we already – something big and yellow on the bottom shelf – check later. Put it aside. Buy that radio. It’s got a torch.
Next layer. Letters and comments and a television programme – didn’t see it – get on or I’ll never finish – another sweet. Some people don’t agree with them. Children need to learn that you can’t win every time. I see their point – but there’s only one prize, and they don’t understand. They think that when the music stops something nice is going to happen. Life isn’t like a party – but a party isn’t life. It’s only a sweet. Get on with the layers now – don’t look, don’t read, just cover and stick and place sweet and cover and stick and place sweet and cover and stick and place sweet and cover and stick and place sweet and cover and stick and place sweet and cover and stick and cover and stick and place sweet. Hang on – when was the last sweet? Was there a last sweet? Rip up the paper and find no sweet. Put the sweet in. Start again. How many layers? Lots. How many children? Lots – but some may not come – and then there are the brothers and sisters. What if they miss out on a sweet? Put a big box aside for unplanned prize winners. Maybe it’s a bad lesson. I don’t know.
And so they arrive, and balloons are pushed around and people stand shyly on first one and then the other foot, and give presents and see paper torn and cards with “Now You are Four”. Two had badges. And first there is hopping and running and searching in the garden and pinning tails on donkeys and then there is washing hands and “come down to pass the parcel” with “Be careful on the stairs”, and in the next room bright paper cups and plates are being placed for the birthday feast and helpful mothers pass food from cupboards whilst the music starts. And stops. And sweets are found and wrappers taken off whilst layers of newspaper pile up in the middle of the circle. A tidy mother with initiative and compassion hovers with a black bag and swoops at intervals, and the parcel makes its tightly choreographed way around until the end (miraculously the right number of layers) and the red people carrier and the weather forecast and - the prize emerges. Revealed, resented and rejoiced in, it is put to the side and the party continues, but she picks up the page and saves him from the bin.
She folds him up carefully and puts him in her pocket, and goes to the back room, where excited children suck lemonade through straws and giggle and show off and eat sausages and crisps and wait for the cake. And a match is struck and candles are lit, and a caterpillar cake with many different coloured shoes is carried in to a beaming four year old, whose face, lit up with happiness, is captured on a photograph. Then there are the party bags and the doorbell rings, and the “Good bye and thank you for having mes” and the tired crying and the parental snapping and the birthday night cuddles and prayers and tucking into bed with a kiss, and the “Thank God it’s over” cup of tea on the sofa watching nothing in particular on the television.
And then he appears again, the child, who up to yesterday was the same age as hers now, whose deathday was captured on camera and who will never have a birthday again, and her hand goes involuntarily to her pocket, where he is tucked up because she didn’t know where to put him, wanting, irrationally, to save him from the bin. And she knows she is being silly, and it doesn’t make any difference to him anyway now – and millions of images of him are being covered with chips, or straw, or burnt, or pulped and turned back again to make more news or to be shat on in the future, so what does one more or less matter? And she doesn’t really want to keep it in a scrap book with her Brit Art piece because it’s too sad, so they switch off the television and before they go upstairs to bed she’s sensible and takes it out of her trouser pocket and throws it in the bag with all the party things. And then she can’t bear it because she sees the picture get dirty immediately with the leftover party cake, so she can’t change her mind and take him out. And she says sorry to his mother in her mind. So she ties up the bag and goes to bed, because she knows she is tired and emotional, and takes one last look at her beautiful child asleep and prays for the little boy who is dead and whose image, dying in the arms of his mother, she will never forget. Because Life is not a Party.
About the author: Anne Booth is a 47 year old mum currently writing a novel for young adults dealing with the worlds of dogs, dementia and Nazi Germany. She has finished a novel for adults about nuns, the national lottery and levitation. After many different jobs, including lecturing, bookselling, working in a care home and teaching English as a Foreign language, she is supporting unwell elderly parents and staying at home writing, looking after her 4 children, 2 dogs and 4 hens and tweeting as @bridgeanne
Photo (c) The Ewan