I had to go to the supermarket – the kids had gone and eaten the food again – and I decided to get some cheese to go with our spaghetti dinner. When you want a particular cheese, you really notice how many there are on offer, ranging from the absolutely inedible ‘plastic’ cheeses specifically designed to adorn burgers to rustically packaged Camembert that shows up with almost clockwork regularity on Come Dine With Me, accompanied by crusty bread they have bunged in the oven and pretended to bake. There were about 20 different types of Cheddar alone and I found it mildly intimidating, to be honest. And then there was the Quark. Before today, I thought that was just something I’d heard Brian Cox wittering about – the trendy physicist, rather than the versatile actor – or even an avaricious character from Star Trek. But now I know that it’s also pretend cheese.
There’s a back story to this cheese hunt. Recently, our household has been experiencing ‘birthday fortnight’; it’s like Wimbledon fortnight, in as much as it happens every summer, is ridiculously expensive and invariably ends in sweaty exhaustion. Sadly, there are no generous sponsors, no trophies and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe, but on the plus side, I don’t have to entertain any members of the royal family or maintain a pristine lawn and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe.
It isn’t really a fortnight, to be honest – it’s very nearly three weeks – but the structure is this: my birthday happens first and is ‘celebrated’ in an understated way with shop-bought cake and the possibility of takeaway food so I don’t have to cook. When I don’t cook, that’s a treat for everyone. Ten days later, it’s my daughter’s birthday and this is taken seriously.
There are birthday traditions in this house:
- I make a cake, based on something they like at the moment and the design is a surprise, which involves me making the cake two days before the birthday so I can decorate it the following day. This also means that once the decorating starts, the birthday child has to be kept out of the kitchen, which is an extra gift to them because it absolves them of tea-making duties.
- I make a card, based on something they like at the moment and featuring the birthday person somehow in the design. The acquisition of photo-editing software made this much easier than when I used to do it using scissors and paint. This also remains a secret from the birthday person, so they aren’t allowed within sight of my laptop screen.
- I make a poster, featuring them doing something odd-looking and with a ‘humorous’ caption. This goes on the living-room wall for them to see when they get up in the morning.
- I draw and write on a couple of balloons and hang them near the bed of the person in question once they’ve gone to sleep.
They seem to like these traditions. The youngest, who has just turned 13, certainly does, although the others may be humouring me on the last one.
So, as I said, it goes: my birthday, ten days later – elder daughter’s birthday. Three days after that is my father-in-law’s birthday, for which I don’t have to do anything except buy the present and the card, then wrap the present and tell my husband what we bought, so he won’t look surprised when it’s unwrapped. Since it’s almost always some DVDs, he’s unlikely to look surprised, but better safe than sorry. Four days after that, so one week after my elder daughter’s birthday, it’s my elder son’s birthday AND my younger daughter’s birthday. They are not twins. There is, in fact, 11 years between them and they were both born on a Monday. I’m considering hiring them out as proof that astrology is nonsense, since they’re very different people apart from the dry sarcasm that my children all, inexplicably, share.
You may have realised by now that the birthday traditions, as outlined above, become quite complicated when two of your offspring share a birthday, but are 11 years apart and don’t like the same things. I start making their cards and posters early so that the two days I spend, entirely in the kitchen, making and decorating cakes are not fraught with the added stress of knowing I have those jobs hanging over me as well.
But that’s not all. Two days after the double birthday is my father’s birthday. This year, he turned 90, which is quite special, so I made him a cake and a card. I didn’t sneak into his house and hang balloons by his bed, because I don’t think killing him with a heart attack is the ideal way to start his 90th birthday.
So … back to the cheese. I decided to make a cheese board, which isn’t a group of people who sit around making decisions about cheese as you might suppose, but a small selection of cheeses, arranged on a board – or a fancy tray that came with a garden candle – and accompanied by some crackers. Amongst these cheeses was a garlic roulade, which absolutely nobody wanted to eat, so I ended up sticking it in the pasta and it tasted quite nice. So that’s why I ended up in the supermarket, looking for cheese for the pasta. Which reminds me of the final birthday tradition – living on leftovers.