This was nothing to do with me.
Left in my hands, we wouldn’t celebrate birthdays at all. I mean what’s to enjoy about getting a year closer to death? (I’ve always been the happy-go-lucky type.)
But Mrs Canavan gets incredibly excited by birthdays, and specifically the children’s.
Indeed, had Sir Douglas Haig drawn up his plans for the Somme with the same intensity and thoroughness that Mrs C put into Mary’s birthday, I’m pretty certain the Brits would have suffered no fatalities and won the war by the end of 1916.
In the months leading up to Mary’s birthday (she was four by the way, on the very off-chance you’re interested), Mrs Canavan would wander into the lounge almost nightly, holding her mobile phone in the air, and say something like: ‘Do you think Mary will like this balloon on her birthday?’
This puts me in a tricky position, for, like any man, I’d like to reply – without taking my eyes off Jermaine Jenas’ analysis of Tottenham’s back four: ‘No offence, but I have absolutely zero interest in what you just said.’
However, very rarely in a marriage can you say what you’re thinking (I learned that early on when Mrs C asked if I liked a floral dress she’d purchased and I replied: ‘It’s absolutely awful and does nothing for your hips – did you buy it as a joke?’).
So instead I have to look up and reply: ‘Yes, I’m sure she’d like that lovely balloon’, before noticing the balloon (normally some hideous pink unicorn-shaped affair) costs £12.99 and, hastily altering my answer, add: ’That said, it’s a little garish. Maybe we should go for this one instead?’ and point to the small plain round balloon next to it that costs £1.50.
Astonishingly, Mary had three birthdays.
The first was at nursery.
My role in this was to buy a caterpillar cake from Aldi, which she was to take in so the staff could cut it into pieces and give each child some.
‘Becky says we need two cakes because there’s 23 children,’ said Mrs Canavan. ‘So get two’.
‘Did you hear that?’
‘Ten past six,’ I replied.
‘You’re not listening are you?’ Mrs Canavan correctly observed, before sharply repeating the instructions.
I traipsed around Aldi twice, looking in vain for the cake section, before asking a member of staff.
‘They’re by the cereal,’ he replied.
Of course, because I always eat cake and Shredded Wheat together.
Anyway, I found the correct section but there, behind a sign saying caterpillar cakes, was an empty shelf, so I sheepishly approached the same staff member and said, feeling a right wally: ‘You don’t by any chance have any spare caterpillar cake do you?’
He made a play of checking his pockets and said: ‘No, not got any’.
I stared at him – unsure if this was humour, rudeness or he genuinely thought he had a leftover slice in his overalls – before he smiled and laughed and said, like some friendly cockney in an East End pub: ‘Only kidding guv’nor – I’ll see if there’s any in the back.’
‘They sell it in Marks and Spencer across the road though,’ he said.
So I trudged over and found he was right – M&S did sell caterpillar cakes, but they were £7 each, which seemed a lot.
I rang Mrs Canavan and asked if it was necessary to buy two. ‘Yes,’ she said, with slightly more hostility than required.
We took them to nursery the next day and, returning later to pick Mary up, the girl who looks after our daughter gave us back an unopened cake. ‘We only needed one,’ she said. I shot Mrs Canavan a dark look.
Birthday number two happened on Saturday when Mary had a Zoom party with a few of her friends (nothing says 2021 like a Zoom party). This involved lots of harassed-looking mothers attempting to get their toddlers to sit in front of a computer screen for more than a few moments at a time without them having a tantrum because they couldn’t watch Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom. It was great fun.
And then casually, that evening, as I lay exhausted on the couch thanking god and Allah and Buddha that it was all over, Mrs Canavan remarked: ‘I’m getting an early night – it’s soft play tomorrow’.
I choked on my Scotch pancake. ‘Beg your pardon,’ I replied.
She told me she had – for the cost of £30 – ordered a selection of soft play items that would be dropped off at our house at 8.30am.
I made a groaning noise, similar to the noise the cat made when it was run over by a Volvo estate, and began to plead for her to cancel, but she’d already disappeared.
Sure enough the next morning a very nice lady knocked on the door and began unloading a transit van full of ball pools and slides and all sorts of soft squashy stuff.
Mary bounced around squealing hysterically and repeatedly shouting ‘best day ever!’ W hich lasted about eight minutes, then, getting bored of jumping in balls, said: ‘Can we go upstairs to my room and play mermaids?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘we paid 30 quid for this so we’re bloody well using it.’
She ignored me and went upstairs to play mermaids.
Thankfully she did return later and I can safely say that by the end of the day, after playing with Mary and her two-year-old brother for around six hours straight, I was royally cream-crackered.
I have since been online and booked, to coincide with Mary’s next birthday, a two-week trip for one to a remote island in the Outer Hebrides. If I’m feeling flush, I might even take a caterpillar cake with me to nibble on the journey.