Last week it was my fiftieth birthday. Hang on a minute, I hear you say, wasn't your fiftieth birthday two years ago? Well, yes, it was, technically, but I was so depressed two years ago, living under a fug of despair, that I barely remember it. I came home from a bash someone kindly threw for me and cried. I read books and cried. I listened to music and cried. I watched television and cried. I sat in the house and cried. I sat in restaurants and cried. In particular, I sat in the offices of Age UK listening to sad, lonely, elderly people on the telephone and silently... cried. I basically spent a whole year crying.
Last week my birthday coincided with a day at university and I didn't cry at all. I got to spend it with a group of wonderful people all day long, from 10am until midnight, interspersed with encounters with other wonderful people in tutorials and lecture theatres and I smiled, all day. Then I got to celebrate it all over again all over the weekend with family and friends which made me smile even more. So I'm going to call that my fiftieth birthday. Well it works for me.
Here's a little story below. We were asked to write something in class based on a map drawn by a fellow student of somewhere important to them when they were a kid. I got 'Bob's' map, then promptly lost it, and after eight weeks suddenly remembered we were meant to have written something and couldn't remember anything he told me except for one tiny detail. He doesn't come from Sheffield. My 'I know it's a bit crap disclaimer' is that I wrote it in half an hour.
He comes into the kitchen via the backdoor, quietly, so she might not hear. Where would she be on a Wednesday afternoon? Off spending his money somewhere, no doubt: Meadowhall or further afield at Crystal Peaks or Fox Valley. Well, all that will have to stop for starters. He puts his bag down on the formica, sits on the nearest chair to untie his boots. It takes a while because they’re wet, because it’s always fucking raining in this stupid part of the world. He pads across the lino to the formica top by the sink in socked feet and begins emptying his canvass bag, chucking away the sandwich he didn’t finish and the Yoplait yoghurt thing she always insists on giving him when he doesn’t even like Yoplait yoghurt. Then he takes out the thermos, unscrews the lid, and tips the last few dregs of lukewarm tea down the sink. On the plus side, he won’t be drinking tea out of a thermos for a while. He never liked it. Why doesn’t it taste like tea? Why does it just taste like thermos? As he rinses the thermos he wonders what the kid’s doing now, and if he realises.
Meanwhile, the kid in question is over the other side of the same city, also entering his house through the back door, and for pretty similar reasons: he doesn’t want his mother to hear him. It’s only two thirty in the afternoon and he should be in school: period five, P.E. He hates P.E. He’s bunked off again, went down Thornberry Fields to throw stones, him and Tommy Metcalfe. They often do this on a Wednesday because they hate P.E. That Mr Pinkerton, a fucking nut-job. He makes them do star jumps and squats up on the top field in all weathers, in fucking January, in fucking Yorkshire. They should call Childline on him, it’s tantamount to fucking child abuse.
After he’s unpacked his canvass bag, Bill (Bill’s the first guy) reads the paper, The Mirror, cover to cover, sitting in his kitchen, in his socks, legs stretched out under the table, wiggling his toes now and again because it’s nice to have them out of his boots mid-afternoon; it feels like a holiday. His feet are having a holiday. To be fair, he’s having a holiday, an impromptu one, probably forever. How the fuck’s he gonna tell her?
Bob, fourteen-years-old, bunking off school, in his kitchen, reaches up for a packet of Cocoa Pops in the high cupboard by the boiler, hungry because he hasn’t had any lunch and bunking off school throwing stones at bus drivers has given him an appetite. He reaches up, hears a key in the front door, and knows it’s his mother. He’s hoping he won’t have to tell her about the bus driver, that the incident won’t get traced back to him, but she’s going to catch him in a minute, in the kitchen, mid-afternoon, eating Cocoa Pops, that’s inevitable. He knows that, and now so do you.
Bill’s hearing a key in the door, too: his wife, home early from Tesco with five bags of groceries, including lots of Yoplait because she thinks it’s good for Bill, for his digestion. She always puts one in his packed lunch which she makes for him every morning because he’s the only earner in the household (and they have two kids) ever since she got laid off from her Lollypop lady job by Sheffield County Council, because of their stringent budget cuts. She doesn’t know this yet, but she won’t be needing to buy Yoplait yoghurt for Bill’s packed lunch anymore because Bill just got suspended from his job for leaving his bus unattended at the bus stop and chasing after two teenagers who threw stones, one that made a direct hit through the open door onto Bill’s forehead, but she will in a minute.
Bob’s mother, coming in from work (she works in the same Tesco, as it happens, the same one Bill’s wife just came back from) doesn’t know that very shortly there will be a phone call from Bob’s school because the bus company just rang to say a couple of boys, one fitting Bob’s description, were seen throwing stones at a bus driver. After she takes this call she’s extremely cross with Bob. So much so that he seriously considers ringing Childline, before realising he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
None of them know - that’s Bill, Bill’s wife, Bob, and Bob's mum - that Bill’s suspension turns into a permanent laying-off because the bus company needed an excuse to get rid of him anyway and Bob gets suspended from school and later expelled completely, which affects the rest of his life. He never gets any GCSEs so he doesn’t get a good job when he leaves school, just a series of temporary things, so he pretty soon turns to petty crime and gets nicked and does time in prison. And Bill, well, Bill never recovers from losing his job at the age of 54 and descends into depression with associated health problems: diabetes and high blood pressure, culminating in a fatal heart attack seven years later, at the age of 61, having never worked again. All because a couple of boys bunked off school and threw stones at a bus driver. So, think on, as they say in Yorkshire.
P.S. The one detail I remembered was that he once threw stones at a bus.