21 Again – Birthday reflections

The Day

So…yesterday was my birthday. And very nice it was too.

I came to school only to find my first class had banned me from entering the classroom for a few minutes. Fine. When I was allowed in I discovered they had decorated the blackboard with ‘Happy Birthday Uncle Ken’ and pictures of balloons and so on. I was touched – especially as they had used a lot of their free time before school to do it. Then they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me and I was finally allowed to begin teaching them about the science of Light and Sound. Of course, I got side-tracked and showed them lots of optical illusions instead.

My next class – also science but with a younger group – was almost a repeat performance except rather than physically bar me from the room as my older students did, this lot scattered like ants with little screams of nervousness as I came in. Technically, scrawling all over the board is a crime punishable by death at our school but clearly the longer I teach my students the less they care. This less experienced class did more work though. That said, I did spend more time demonstrating how there is no life anywhere in the universe (Douglas Adams, I’m afraid) including here on Earth, why 9.999 recurring is exactly equal to 10 and why the numbers zero, infinity and the square root of minus one sends mathematics teachers into screaming fits with sobs of ‘no, no – leave me alone’.

I may have exaggerated to the kids a teensy weensy little bit.

I thought I got away with the whole fuss nonsense with the teachers though. I skulked around and avoided eye-contact with as many as possible but sooner or later one of them had to snitch. There were too many who are Facebook friends to keep the secret for long. I was collared by the Headmaster, during the break time, had another rendition of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song from all the staff.

Squirming, I was; but in a nice way, I’ll admit.

Memories of Youth

“…I was hotheaded in those days…”

This birthday marks of yet another of the ‘anniversaries’ taking place during this, our final, year in Bangladesh. It started with Thing II turning ten in February (double figures) and later will see Wifey turn the big four-zero while Thing I will finally become the teenager she stole the attitude from about two years ago.

My special day was turning twenty-one…again…as one very good friend of mine was quick to point out to her own amusement, I’m sure. I prefer to think of it as a special age because it represents – as all Douglas Adams fans know so well – the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything.

Still, the ‘twenty-one again’ thing got me thinking and dwelling on all those years gone by since I was twenty-one the first time. Gosh I was hotheaded in those days.

I remember falling out with one friend after my twenty-first birthday though I don’t think she ever realised I fell out with her. I have always been good at that – being upset with someone and they never realise. I withdraw completely when I feel someone has done me wrong rather than scream and shout. For her twenty-first I bought this friend a really, really expensive book of music. For my twenty-first she didn’t even get me a card. Not a phone call or even a week later a “my goodness I completely forgot – sorry”. She knew it was coming up – we’d talked about nothing else for weeks. Basically, she disappeared.

I felt bruised and never contacted her again.

Of course, I regret all that now and we did, years later, kind of become friends again in the I’m-very-pleased-to-see-you-again-how-are-you-keeping? sort of way. There was another friend I refused to talk to for years because she did a bit of stirring about me once. It was my own silly fault, looking back, and wasn’t intended maliciously but the result was we lost contact until only a few years ago. Now we’re friends again but only at a distance when we should have been, at this stage in our lives, lifelong best friends.

Thankfully, some friends survived my mean streak and, for my twenty-first, a good friend – who eventually became my ‘best woman’ at my wedding  – put on a surprise birthday party for me which touched me so much I still remember it even now.

When my parents moved our family from Wigan, in the north of England, to Coalville in the midlands, my birthday parties didn’t move with us. I was seven and had always been notoriously badly behaved at them. I now realise it was the ADHD kicking in as I was so excited to have my school friends in my house. It presented itself as running around, telling outrageous jokes, being loud and (when playing Pass the Parcel) nearly putting kids next to me in hospital as I punched them with the parcel every time it came around. I bet I was awful.

Inevitably, I got sent to bed as punishment and  ‘bed’ really meant ‘bed’ in those days. I was allowed to shout goodbye from the top of the stairs as my friends left an hour later at the end of the party but that was all. Can there be many kids who never attended their own birthday parties? I hope not – yet for me it was a yearly ritual.

So when we moved in the late 70s and my parents asked me if I wanted a birthday party I said no – and continued saying no every year after until they stopped asking. No party for my sixteenth or eighteenth. I think they did ask for my twenty-first but I said no again. Inside, I was screaming “but SURPRISE ME!” – they never did. Why would they? I had shown no interest in parties all those years.

So it meant so much to me when this true friend of mine gave me the very surprise I hoped for. She did it perfectly – all my good friends were there – and that was the most important gift to me; one you can’t buy anywhere. Good friends like that you have to keep and twenty-one years later her family and mine are still as close as can be.

Soon after all that, I went to university and immediately began teaching as a way of paying both my rent and my drinking bill (I enjoyed university life). So this year, as I come to the end of my teaching career, it is fitting that it should enjoy a ‘special birthday’ of its own having spanned twenty-one years too. Rest in peace, old friend, may you never need resurrecting…

The Evening

“If I’d have died then, I would have died happy”

Wifey pestered me for weeks about what I want for my birthday and every time I just nonchalantly grunted a “dunno”. I don’t do big parties and I don’t need expensive gifts – just as well considering we’re charity workers living on a pittance. Thankfully, here in the middle of nowhere, there IS nothing to do or spend money on so the desire for fancy things is at an all-time low for me.

My family worked out just what I did need even without me realising it for myself. The three of them had been busying away, whispering in corners for days and I was banned, for a period of time, from going in or near the kitchen. The ayahs looked on mystified by the family’s bizarre antics. Sometimes bideshis are just too strange to figure out.

After the chance to shower and relax for a little while, my family took me to LAMB’s Guest house. This place has many fond memories for us as a family. When we first visited in 2006, this was where we stayed; and again in 2007. We fell in love with Bangladesh there and so the little place will forever be linked to that love.

My family had prepared for me a dinner by candlelight on the roof.

It must have taken quite some effort. Suddenly they revealed we were eating Burgers and chips (fries for you Americans reading) – even wrapped in newspaper the way British chips are supposed to be! I was almost crying with delight. The chips tasted exactly like they do from a chip shop in the UK. I don’t know how the gang did it but it made my birthday very memorable.

We were joined by Chris – a good friend who basically IS family. She was also largely responsible for us coming to LAMB in the first place. Wifey came to visit her in 2005 and the relationship with Bangladesh began. Although Chris and her family left before we finally came to live here in 2008, they have continued to make regular visits back. I’ve blogged about her boys before – they’re the ones who do things like sponsored bike rides and swims for charity. Chips, if you like, off the old block. I don’t know anyone who is more giving than Chris. I would write a blog post about her but I think she’d kill me if I did.

For me – surrounded by very special friends including my family, eating chips and burger British-style sat on the roof where this whole adventure first began – this was a birthday that couldn’t get any better. If I’d have died then, I would have died happy. I’m not sure I’ve improved much since those days when I would give friends the silent treatment if they upset me or if I bounce any less annoyingly when excited than I did as a kid; but I know I am well-loved and I’m grateful for that. If an extra twenty-one years has taught me anything, it’s how little I deserve that love and how much I don’t want to lose it.

 

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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27 Responses to 21 Again – Birthday reflections

  1. Malou says:

    Happy birthday, Ken! Nothing beats a celebration surrounded by a loving family and special friends. Glad to know that you enjoyed your special day. 😉

    Like

  2. Ladygardenia says:

    Aah.. I’m happy you had such a lovely time!!! 🙂

    Like

  3. Pingback: Twenty one | Wit has all been done before.

  4. Ruby Tuesday says:

    Happy (belated) Birthday, I’m glad it was such a lovely one! And since I’m, well, me, I must point out that the ketchup sitting on that table comes all the way from my own hometown, the place I just was visiting.

    Funny little world, innit? 😉

    Like

    • Wow, you come from China?!
      Or do you mean India where that particular bottle was made? Or perhaps Ontario? Not…Ohio? 😛
      It is indeed a small world and I did, indeed, have a lovely birthday. 🙂

      Like

      • Ruby Tuesday says:

        Brat. That Heinz thing, it’s pretty big in Pittsburgh — which you of course would have no way of knowing. 😛

        But even the illustrious wife of this country’s Secretary of State, and one time presidential hopeful John Kerry — the very lovely Teresa Heinz-Kerry — totally classes up the Burgh!

        (And the Ontario thing was brief and so two weeks ago, Ken; up until Tuesday it was Pittsburgh, PA. . . Keep up, please! 😉

        Like

  5. Tracy B says:

    This one made me cry – happy tears AND sad tears! Maybe I’m just totally unrealistic, but I hate the feeling of having lost a friend, or , to have just gradually drifted until, as you put it so well, all you are is “I’m-very-pleased-to-see-you-again-how-are-you-keeping?” sort of friends. And it made me feel old … and wistful. And proud of how much you’ve achieved in 21 years since your 21st 🙂 … and made me doubt that I would feel as fulfilled by the time I’m 42 😦

    Like

    • Yeah, I’m with you on this one Tracy. I don’t like the fact that I’ve been a less than perfect friend to…well…everyone really – but that has resulted in not a few who I know longer have contact with and a handful who used to be close but now are only in contact ‘from a distance’. This world is a less than perfect one and, like G K Chesterton, I can say that I am to blame for that.

      I’m grateful for your love and your pride in me but I have to say that you could take almost any of it away from me and I would still be happy and content for just two reasons – here I call them Thing I and Thing II. You know their real names. You also have THREE reasons to be incredibly proud of yourself and feel fulfilled though I can think of more. When I think of the great influencers in my life you definitely end up high in that list. 🙂 x

      Like

  6. Lunch Sketch says:

    Happy Birthday Ken!

    Like

  7. A very HAPPY Birthday to you, Ken!!!!!
    🙂

    Like

  8. Rinth says:

    Loved this post!

    Like

  9. Ameena says:

    A belated Happy Birthday to you!

    Like

  10. jacqui7272 says:

    Sounds like the perfect birthday celebration……..and just to put the record straight, you do deserve the love and I’m sure that you never will lose it. Happy 21st again 🙂

    Like

  11. renxkyoko says:

    Oh, my goodness ! Belated HAPPY BIRTHDAY ! Be well, and always be happy.

    Like

  12. Happy Birthday Ken!

    Like

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