As threatened — I mean, promised — here is a little story from yours truly.
Please to note that this is not memoir! Because it's written in a voice very much like mine own, quite a few fellow students in my course thought that it was a real occurrence! Yes, I did faint at one of my early birthday parties, but the rest is purely invention. Mostly.
Well, my father, was known on occasion to dress in a frock. And he did give me my first wig. Let's just say that, in some ways, this apple did not fall very far from that particular tree ...
Oh, and this was published last semester in our NMIT limited-run student publication, 'INfusion 46'. We're soon to convert it into an ebook and release it on an unsuspecting public, so stay tuned.
‘It’s My Birthday
and I’ll Die (of Embarrassment)
If I Want To’
I fainted at my twelfth birthday party. Quite embarrassing, really. Strapping boys don’t faint. Fainting is for little old ladies in Miss Marple novels who have an ‘attack of the vapours’, as they used to call them. Men could faint in the olden days, but it was called ‘melancholy’ then.
I’m rather sure that my grandmother thought I was a melancholic child. She never said as much, but she never needed to. Old people can say a lot just by giving you the once over and narrowing their eyes. That’s why old people always say: ‘Come here, let’s have a look at you.’ They really only need to give you an x-ray stare for a moment and they have all the information they need. They don’t even have to ask you anything, and you certainly don’t need to speak. Old people have their ways. I know: my grandmother was one of seventeen children (well nineteen, if you count the two who died early), and so I grew up around many, many old people. Clever, old people.
The fainting thing: I remember that the cake had just come out — a fabulous iced rainbow confection. Rainbow: now there was an early irony. Ma had done a sterling job. It was a fresh sponge cake covered in mock cream; with not one, but two, layers of plum jam in the middle. Divine!
Does anyone make mock cream anymore? I’ve only come across it once or twice since I left my hometown. Ma got the ‘family’ recipe from Mr and Mrs Royal of ‘Royal’s Cakes’. Both of the Royals are now long gone, probably due in no small part to all of that mock cream. I remember Mr Royal well. He would go on to make my eighteenth birthday cake some years later, when Ma wanted something ‘fancy’. I remember him eying me up when I collected the cake. I was well on my way to the husky man that I am today — or a ‘man of heft’ as I like to call myself — but I still had some youthful muscle back then rather than just ‘pudge’ (as my boyfriend, Rupert, bitchily refers to it). Mr Royal took one look at me and I could tell he liked what he saw. I got a sizeable discount on the cake, I might add. I think I might have gotten a sizeable gift of other sorts, too, if his wife hadn’t been in the shop with him that day.
Back to the fainting: there were the requisite twelve candles on the cake. In the middle was this candle monstrosity playing ‘Happy Birthday’ in an off-key, Hammond organ tone. I was wedged at the dining room table, surrounded by scads of family. The air in the room was rather close, as I remember, and I was overly warm. Ma, in a Bex swoon — as she had been that day — had dressed me up. I wore a woollen skivvy, heavy flared denim pants and a knitted vest over the skivvy. I mean, this was the seventies, after all. There were too many people huddled around me, with too much alcohol in them and not enough fresh air. They’d turned the lights off minutes before the cake had begun its slow, stately procession down the hallway, so it was quite dark.
You know, I don’t think any photos of that birthday party survived. Good thing, really. My uncle Duncan, the family photographer, was lousy at chronicling our family affairs. He was always pissed (albeit in a good-natured way) and so the pictures from his Pocket Brownie were never really in focus. God, I remember my first Pocket Brownie. That was when the film cartridge could fall out of the camera; you would just pop it back in, and you wouldn’t lose a single photo. Not one. I’d had that happen plenty of times at the school Party Dances. All of my photos came out beautifully, though. Mind you, they say I had an eye for photography even back then. I was one of those ‘creative’ children, as my grandmother would say.
‘He doesn’t play sport. He doesn’t go on dates with the neighbourhood girls. But he can decorate the school Party Dance within an inch of its life, and he can whip you up a darling little diorama at the drop of hat.’ She was always narrowing her hooded eyes at my dioramas. Bitch.
The famous Birthday Fainting (unsurprisingly, they always capitalised it when they spoke of it years later). There were flickering shadows on the hallway wall as the cake began its stately progress to the dining room. I hadn’t eaten much all that day, not even at the party. Particularly not at the party. As the family fat boy, I didn’t want to confirm everyone’s long-held belief that I ate everything in sight. They were right, of course, but I refused to give them the satisfaction of confirming it.
So, recapping: too warm, too many people, not enough air, and nothing to eat. And half a glass of my grandfather’s Tawny Port and dry ginger ale, which I’d secretly sculled while he was fixing his hearing aid. It was a recipe for disaster. A recipe with lashings and lashings and lashings of frosting, it turned out.
Then suddenly there he was. The Main Event. My Father. All the ingredients for the scene were about to be mixed in.
Entrance: kitchen door.
Height: six foot nine, resplendent in six-inch stiletto heals. (Gorgeous they were: black patent leather, with a cunning little ankle strap, and diamanté clasp.)
Dress: well, a dress, of course. It was the colour of the old song, ‘Midnight Blue’. With ruffles from here to eternity, Deborah Kerr.
Face: heavily made-up. His close ‘companion’, Leslie, had done a marvellous job on his make-up. Clearly though, that had been several hours earlier, before Father had started on the margaritas (his favourite drink). Now his Max Factor was a little worse for wear. It reminded me of the hoary old line, that drag queens are like classic works of art: best enjoyed from a distance.
Gift: a medium-sized box, covered in white satin wrapping paper, festooned with ribbons that had been hand-curled with a pair of scissors. (My father, a former carpet salesman, who’d left the family home two years earlier, was then a ‘performer’ in his own ‘cabaret’ show and had always been handy with a pair of scissors. So, it turned out later, was my mother; a former florist.)
Apparently I took one, long, mortified look at my father and his maniacal smile (my cousin, Melinda, says she fully counted to five during this moment). Then in the best tradition of the theatre, I’m pleased to say my eyes rolled back, I started to tip, and I went down for the count. Right onto my grandmother.
And so it began. The rest I heard — in excruciating detail — from my many, many cousins in the following months.
I collapsed on Nana Patrice, who started shrieking for (a not unreasonable) fear of being crushed. Father’s smile started to slide, along with his make-up. Ma looked at the cake, looked back at my father, and took aim. The cake exited stage left — most of it onto my father’s plunging décolletage. Ma shrieked and took up the scissors. (She’d rather foolishly left them on the bureau earlier in the day when she finished trimming the flowers for the table decorations: once a florist, always a florist. She was very Mrs Dalloway.)
And she went after him.
Father, to his credit, made it into the back garden, but his gorgeous high heels were his undoing on the moist grass. Down he went, a bedazzled sack of potatoes. He managed to turn himself over just in time to see my mother, now with her own maniacal grin, bearing down on him. The shriek she uttered will apparently haunt certain members of my family — Sharelle, I’m looking at you, dear — to the grave.
Father — amazingly — only needed four stitches. Ma had only caught him high on the right cheek as she, too, went down on the grass, martyr to her own stiletto frou-frou slippers. I ended that day with a fair-sized grapefruit on the side of my head from where I’d hit my grandmother’s wheelchair frame. Nana displayed the bruising on her forearms for some weeks afterwards as her battle wounds, accompanied by an awful lot of her patented eye-narrowing, of course. The cake was the unluckiest of all, though. The family dog, Macleod, finished off the last of it from the front of my father’s dress.
And that is the story of the famous Birthday Fainting episode, starring Yours Truly.
© Aaron Hughes 2012