Issue 11: Bloody Birthdays

10 Dec

Celia and Emily invite you to join them for a special birthdays issue.  Celia was born 9 years to the day after Emily, who was born 9 years after our regular contributor Jim.  To celebrate this odd coincidence, we have come up with a selection of birthday fun from these three plus a  brand new contributor, Dean. Toast us with your tipple of choice as we take you though the dark side of anniversaries,  adolescent drinking, the politics of childhood parties and as often on these pages, an exploration of mental fragility and family tensions. Many Happy Returns…

Our next Issue is due out in early February.  If you’d like to write a piece, the theme is Bloody Kids, and we’ll need it by the end of January.

Celia and Emily would also like to invite you to a regular writing group.  We often write together in a cafe and would love others to join us once a month for writing, tea, vegan cake and feedback.  If you’re London based and fancy joining us, please email Emily at



Grief Part Three: Lilies – by DEAN

If the Bomb Falls – by EMILY

The Birthday Party – by CELIA

Never Quite the Sane – by JIM




I’m holding your birthday Lily in the palm of my hand, no present to adorn with it and no grateful kiss in reciprocation, unrequited love is the constant for a grieving heart.
The winter evening closes in on a person at this time of year, just moments ago fine late autumnal sunshine coloured the living room wall, now a naked tree’s veined silhouette is projected from the toxic orange street light.
Your glasses collect dust under the cherry red lamp on the side table, there is something particularly affecting about this. A pair of glasses come as close to a living appendage an object can, seeing all we see, changing our appearance and shaping the world around us. The square of light reflecting on their lens has my mind wandering back to candle lit evenings of our youth.
When true love takes a grip on the heart, it does so by moulding itself to one’s form, like a deep red silk sheet falling upon the body, softening each contour, covering everything in the softest of hues while suffocating those foolish enough to fight against it. All previous love seems sharp, harsh and hurried, permeating little more than the outer shell, inspiring spectacular yet short lived withdrawals.
I often pause here at the bottom of the staircase, still expecting to see you at its top, smuggled under that pale, spearmint blue dressing gown which looked as flammable as it did static filled. I’m not sure which thought scares me more profoundly, the shock of seeing you there or the little deaths of not.
I don’t sleep in our bed any longer; it has grown in your absence and refuses to warm my body. It’s as if its circuitry is faulty — but I can’t seem to relinquish my hold on anything between these life scorched walls.
I’m peering out of our bedroom window to the distant sight of a couple kissing under a lamp post on the corner; winter is the season for lovers, encouraging the warmth of intimacy. Their breath dances vividly upon each kiss, drawn to the sky, lost forever. The cruellest part of love is that each moment is fleeting, a kiss cannot be held within cupped hands or on the lips of those who sire it. Like attempting to catch yourself sleeping, it is destined to be lost unless you are.
I’m sat on the edge of the bed, looking through old pictures I know as intimately as my own skin, often catching myself staring longingly at old wallpaper or glimpses of furniture; it’s amazing how evocative the small details in a photo can be. This particular one is from a Christmas which I cannot place; it has that old wooden clock we both disliked standing over you, which now seems like a kindly protector in the sepia tones of decades old photographs and I miss it like an old friend.
A singe tear criss-crosses my cheek, forming a pattern akin to the crack on your favourite tea cup — I cry without sound or expression recently, to make a fuss only exhausts me further.
Steadying my heartbeat, I make my way downstairs.
The bannister still holds several jackets of yours, hidden under the heavy grey overcoat you insisted on buying for me last year. In the stark shadows of winter, this pile of stitch and cloth adopts the ominous posture of a Victorian Hunchbacked Villain.
I wrap myself in the familiar scent of feint dampness and step out onto the frost sparkled street.
With renewed focus and a single Lily between my gloved fingers, I’m making my way to your favourite bench, up the steep incline you found so difficult to traverse in the last months, practically carrying you the last painful steps but it was wondrous to see your sallow skin sun tinted and the translucent blue of your eyes catching sight of swaying tree tops once more. Summer seems a life time ago now.
The wind carries daggers which invade my bones as I take my place on our bench’s left side; you were always drawn to its right. How peculiar these habits of territory are, cultivated without thought and carved out over time like the melted form of steps at a busy underground station.
I’m clasping The Lily tightly in the absence of your hand.
Passing night time clouds like black smoke drift past a liquid full moon, with which my breath seems impatient to join — everything is busy going somewhere.
I place the Lily beside me, my hand dwelling on it briefly before departing back to the skeletal pattern of streets below. I don’t think I’m ready to dwell in thought at home yet; I’d rather walk the back streets and talk for a while if that’s OK with you?
I can feel your arm linked in mine, carrying ME this time, easing my gait and lifting my spirit. I can smell the Lily’s scent upon the tips of my gloves as I breathe hot air into my stiffening fingers and I’m lost in memory once more.
Anniversaries are superfluous reminders in truth, it’s in silence and the mundane that you invade thought, finding energy in my stillness, something I would not change for the world.
Happy birthday Lily, may your scent remain on my fingertips and your memories remain in my heart.
Copyright © 2012 Dean Stephenson
043The traditional argument about leaving the table early to go and watch Top of the Pops was over much quicker than usual, and Dad let us take the remains of the mashed potato cakes he’d made us for tea into the front room.  Louise and I raced for the seat nearest the gas fire; she won, so I switched on the huge television in its wood-effect formica box.  I wonder why he’s in such a good mood? I said.  Louise shrugged, her eyes already glued to Banarama’s latest video. Louise was incapable of conversation when the telly was on, but I continued anyway.  Perhaps he’s cheered up a bit? Or maybe he’s just looking forward to his birthday?  That would be weird, for someone so old, though, don’t you think?
Dad washed up while we watched Eastenders, and came in when he heard the theme music ending, and switched off the television.  Caught up on you pop and soap? He asked, but without having a go.  He didn’t understand that we wouldn’t be able to join in any conversations at school tomorrow if we hadn’t watched these essential BBC Thursday institutions, but he seemed to have given in to his unfathomable adolescent daughters.  I’m thinking of having a party, he said.  What, really? Louise said.  We looked at each other.  Dad never had parties.  Hadn’t had a party since he moved out of the family home.  I couldn’t even remember the last party he and Mum had had. In fact Dad hadn’t done much apart from go to the pub and on our classic arrangement of alternate weekends, often took us to see his old friends in remote parts of the country.  Whether we went away or not, he’d often cry. But it was true.  He’d decided to celebrate his 45th birthday properly, and wanted us to be there too.On the day of the party, the three of us got on well, which was strange and nice. We went shopping, prepared food and got out all the glasses.  Louise and I tried to make the flat look nice.  This wasn’t easy; the overpowering woodchip wallpaper couldn’t be even temporarily disguised, and there was no getting away from the odd assortment of heavy second hand furniture in shades of 1930s brown varnish. Stale cigar smoke clung to the curtains, sofa and carpet. But we unfolded the spare canvas chairs, placed cushions and tidied away the piles of papers and newspapers. It will be fine when lots of people are here, Dad said.  Thanks for your help, girls.Getting ready, I wondered which of Dad’s mates I’d know.  Whether I’d have to answer the usual questions about school.  I put on my new batwing tee shirt and tube skirt and looked in the mirror of my dressing table – positioned too low to see my head.  It was obviously one of the least flattering outfits ever assembled, but I had it on good authority from Just 17  magazine that it was fashionable, and that was all that really mattered.  I knelt down to see my face in the mirror and applied several coats of electric blue mascara. Louise came in in leggings and a baggy tee shirt, asking to borrow my make up.  No! I shouted, buy your own! Having a day without conflicts with my sister did not make me feel any more charitable than on days when we fought and argued relentlessly. But I thought about it as I put on my powder, deciding to let her use some Constance Carol lipgloss that I’d bought from the market and followed her down the hall to hand it over.

Dad had asked us to help people to drinks when they arrived.  Having been drunk once before, I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to revisit that hazy world of silliness where things didn’t  matter any more.  People started arriving with bottles and cans, which began to fill the kitchen table.  Want a drink, Lou? I asked my sister.  I started her off on cider, but as we helped the guest to drinks, we sampled the contents of each bottle, had to spit some of it out, but soon refilled on the more palatable types of alcohol. Some of Dad’s friends we knew, and they seemed to find it amusing that his two slightly tipsy daughters were in charge of the bar.  We answered the obligatory school-related questions as we handed round peanuts and crisps. We pretended to be bar maids, and the more we drank the stupider we became, putting on silly voices and becoming slightly hysterical.  I loved the warm, lightheaded feeling, all the harsh edges of existence blurred.  Louise was starting to sway, and her swaying made me laugh, which made her giggle until she collapsed on a heap on the kitchen floor.  We hadn’t laughed like this together for years.  Enjoying getting pissed? I asked her. It’s brilliant! she said. Cheers! The adults were all in the sitting room, so the kitchen was ours, and we seemed to be getting away with getting drunk.  I couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand this music any more, I said to my sister.  I headed to the sitting room to sort this out, and it was filled with people laughing, talking, smoking and even dancing. Dad was amongst them somewhere but I couldn’t see him.  I had to get to the hi-fi without seeming drunk, so I thought it best people didn’t see me at all, the solution was to crawl on hands and knees, and I made my way through dancing legs to hit the stop button on the tape deck.  There was a cry of Oh by the people who had been dancing to Free Nelson Mandela.  It’s OK, I said, I’m just putting something better on.  The adults laughed.  It took some time but I eventually found a Police LP; it was the best I could do.  While I was there, I turned up the volume. The Da-da-da blaring out of the speakers, I felt confident enough to stand up and walk back to the kitchen, feeling able to walk straight..  This is better, said Lou.  By now she was slumped against the table leg, a glass of Martini Rosso and bitter lemon in her hand. I staggered a little and crashed into the table, spilling a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. That had been one of our rejects so I didn’t care. Louise started laughing again which set me off.  Are you OK girls? Dad had come in for a top up.  Yeah, we’re fine! I said, and Louise just smiled, her eyes not focusing.  I think you’ve had enough now, he said.  Why not come and have a dance?  I said we’d be through in a bit.  I felt almost drunk enough to dance, even in a room full of grown-ups.

Gonna be sick, Louise said, soon after Dad had returned to his mates.  I said Oh shit, come on, and tried to pull her up.  I grabbed both her hands, got her to her feet, and gave her the washing up bowl just in time.  I did not want Dad or his friends seeing this.  I would be in so much trouble for getting my little sister drunk.  I tipped the sick down the sink and pulled Lou to the toilet, where she knelt by the bowl.  Oh God, she was saying.  Seeing her, and hearing her retch made me want to throw up too.  But there wasn’t room, so I sat on the lino, my feet resting on the skirting board of the opposite wall, held my head back against the woodchip and closed my eyes.  I thought if I didn’t move at all, everything might be OK.

I opened my eyes and looked up at the CND poster on the toilet wall. Where other peoples’ parents might have displayed a copy of the Desiderata, a scorched hand reached out across a black background towards a melting telephone.  If the Bomb Falls, Don’t Call the Doctor. The threat of nuclear war used to give me terrible nightmares. This poster had sent a shiver down my spine every time I’d been to the toilet at Dad’s for the past three years.  I read it out to Louise, who seemed to have stopped puking, and was now resting her head on the toilet lid.  Because he’s dead! she said, and we looked at each other and laughed, then she started crying.  I put my hand on her shoulder. We stayed there until someone started hammering on the door.


Birthdays nowadays involve binge drinking and friends offering little bags of white powder which I decline because I’d need about four days in bed to recover. When I was younger, birthdays really were something to look forward to. To attend Femke Tannenbaum’s birthday party, I was allowed a pair of ‘party tights’: thick black tights with tiny crystals stuck on at the ankle.

Femke was one of four sisters and each of them had been allowed to invite their whole primary school class round. Their house was enormous, although not in a palatial way. The upper floor was rented by a couple of lodgers. Another room housed an elderly great-aunt who we never saw, but could hear her occasional moans and deep phlegmy cough echoing in between gaps in the music.

Femke Tannenbaum’s dad was from London and rode a bicycle with a basket on the front to his job at the university. He always wore an old anorak, tracksuit bottoms with a hand knitted woolly jumper which had shrunk and his hairy stomach could be seen spilling out of the bottom.

The partygoers were allowed to roam wherever they wanted to in the house. They sat emptying board games into the flowerbeds or asleep on the bathmat. The older children were ushered into the living room to play party games directed by Mr. Tannenbaum. The first game we played was the ‘Yes or No Game’. In this game, a child was called forward to sit on the piano stool above the rest of the group who sat cross-legged on the floor. Mr Tannenbaum then fired questions at them until they broke and replied ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Then Mr Tannenbaum decreed loudly that they were ‘out’ and the child had to sit back down on the floor looking flushed and unnerved. I had never come across this game before and therefore had no strategy other than to remain completely silent as the questions were fired. I gave a twitch of the head which was interpreted as a nod for yes and was rapidly returned to the floor. I held tightly on to the bottom of my skirt to stop me from crying.

Then it was time for birthday tea. Mrs Tannenbaum was Dutch so we had bowls of liquorice, ginger biscuits and strange sweets which tasted of herbs. Mr Tannenbaum had prepared a vegetable soup which he ladled into sturdy plastic cups. I could see that none of the vegetables had been cut up, one child ended up with an entire carrot sticking out of their cup and I could see a whole onion bobbing around in the pot. I remembered Natalie Jones’s party nostalgically where her mum had gone out to the new McDonald’s Drive Thru and returned with boxes and boxes of Chicken McNuggets and plastic containers of brightly coloured sauces. At Paula Davidson’s party, whoever agreed to kiss the giant hamburger man had been permitted to go into the kitchen and actually see the food being made. I declined as I was too scared.

There was a stampede to the living room when Femke’s Dad announced that Pass the Parcel would begin imminently. It was rather a lengthy game as every layer of parcel contained a forfeit, usually involving a sum or spelling to answer. Eventually the final layer was here. The children held onto the parcel for longer, knowing with each pass went their chance to claim the prize. They looked at it longingly as it made its way from them around the giant circle.

I was delighted when the music stopped and I had just been handed the parcel. I could feel the shape of the prize through the final layer of newspaper. Inside were the most wonderful gifts: a black heart-shaped eraser with a tiny piano keyboard pictured on the top and a beautiful new pencil which glittered in silver and pink.

Suddenly the sound of wailing filled the room. I looked up to see Femke’s two younger twin sisters, Nanda and Anika,  red faced and sweating and with tears rolling down their faces, come towards me, grabbing for the eraser and pencil with their sticky paws.

I fell back as I lost the pencil to one of the twins who had grabbed it from my clenched fist and was brandishing it above her head. I clasped the eraser in my hand tightly and locked my hand between my legs so that the other twin, who had now clambered on top of me, could not wrestle the eraser from my hand. Nanda, who refused to give up the pencil, remained smug for the rest of the afternoon. Anika, having been lifted off me by her Dad, was inconsolable and had a heaving chest and red face all day, even by the time we were all made to go out to the garden and rest on homemade blankets for the remainder of the afternoon.




It’s always nice to receive a home-made birthday greeting, just not so good if it’s wrapped round a brick that comes flying through your living room window, and I’m afraid that’s how I conveyed my best wishes to the brother Stewart on our last one.  Yes, he and I are twins, always have been, funnily enough, and, bizarrely, we are very alike – physically, that is.  In all other ways we’re about as different as two people with the same DNA could be, and for some reason our birthday celebrations tend to emphasise that fact.

I thought taking the new girlfriend home would balance things out, because Stewart turns up to birthday and Christmas dos with his missus these days.  I met Dee Dee at Link-up and we’re both nutters.  Well, I’d say I outclass her in that department, because I’ve got bi-polars, whereas she has a mere personality disorder.  She’s ballsy, with lots of piercings and tattoos, so I thought she would shake things up and give me an ally for a change.

That week I was on a real high, which is normally bad news, because anything can happen.  The day before the birthday, I walked, half naked, out of a training scheme for the long term unemployed, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been snowing a blizzard.  It was the bit about opening envelopes that had really annoyed me, or Receiving Incoming Mail, as they called it.  Avril, the trainer, had a diagram of a paperknife up on the projector screen and was explaining the technique: slice open both ends and then compress the envelope into a tube in order to ensure all contents have been removed.  Avril was looking at me through her tube when I snapped.  I was actually thinking about the speech the course co-ordinator had made on Day 1 about Billy Bremner, the fiery football captain with a never say die attitude.

“What would the Billy Bremner approach to this one be?” I asked, using my own tubular envelope as a megaphone.

“A sliding tackle!” said one guy.

“A tantalising miss from close range,” suggested another.

“No,” said a man at the back. “He would throw his shirt at the ref and stalk off in a huff.”  Right enough, this was how Billy had expressed his disgust whenever a referee sent him off unfairly, which used to happen to him every week. I started to strip off my top layers and some of the women whistled.

“Wooah!  Show us yer boabby!”

I threw my hooded top towards the big paperknife picture, but, as I headed for the door, Avril shouted me back.

“Sign out,” she said.


She held out a clipboard.

“If you’re leaving, you’ll need to sign out.”

“Fuck off,” I said, and strutted out to massive applause.  I soon realised my mistake, but didn’t want to spoil the effect by going back in for my stuff.  Exhilarated, I jogged as far as the Pond Hotel with it’s entourage of miserable, frozen swans, stopped and hooked my fingers through the fence.  I was  remembering a birthday when Stewart hadn’t been there, due to an important football match.  For once, my birthday present had been every bit as good as his.  It was a model speed boat and Dad had taken me to the Pond to try her out.  High on the memory of that special moment, I cantered along Great Western Road, parting the pedestrians and their umbrellas. Realising I was shaking violently, I wiped the snow from my face and laughed. A girl in a green coat and red lipstick I recognised from Philosophy gawped at me, almost staggering  in front of a bus.  I waved and wove between her umbrella and another, jumped on and off the kerb, dodged a growling taxi but collided with the outstretched trilby of the guy who was always outside Tesco with his filthy car coat and apologetic smile, like a football manager trying to laugh off the worst run of results in history. Fifty pence in the bunnet.  “That’s dangerous mate, you better get wrapped up.”

When Dee Dee came round she was proud of what I’d done, but worried about hypothermia and gave me a big hug.  Then she took me, properly dressed, to Next to get Stewart a present. I couldn’t believe she was up for facing my family and she played even more of a blinder than I had hoped, coming out with some crap about being able to read palms.  Making an educated guess about all their deepest hopes and fears, she proceeded to predict the patter of tiny feet for Stewart and wife, a financial windfall for Mum, another promotion for Stewart and an accident at work for Dad, if he didn’t watch himself around machinery.  Things only really got out of hand when it came to the presents.  Me and Stewart played out our usual score draw with the checked shirts, then, as is often the case, my gift from mum and dad proved to be a mamby-pamby version of Stewart’s, like when we both got Action Men but his came as a stormtrooper while mine was a Buckingham Palace guard – talk about a sitting duck.  On this occasion we were both given silk ties, his businesslike and smart and mine with a weird and wacky design.  Mum said it was because we were both office workers now.  That’s when I told them I hadn’t actually been working, just doing a training scheme which I had now dropped out of.

“What are you talking about?” Mum’s face was settling into a familiar look of  disappointment, while Dad was doing his James Bond eyebrow thing.  “You mean  you’re still unemployed after all those computer modules?”  Sadly, Mum thought having a SCOTVEC certificate in Clerical Procedures made you a yuppie.  “And on top of your degree?”

“You have a degree?” asked Dee Dee.  Actually I didn’t, but I had never spelled this out to my parents, who just thought I hadn’t been into the pomp and ceremony of graduation days.

“I probably just need a bit of space and time to figure out what I want.”

“You’ll never know what you want,” Mum said bitterly, and left the room with her eyes watering.

“Why does she get so upset?” I asked Dad, but it was Dee Dee who answered.

“Maybe she doesn’t like you throwing your life down the toilet.”

My jaw dropped as she laid into me.  “Jeez, a graduate and you’re doing courses in photocopying?  Give me a break!”

“It’s difficult to argue with that,” said Stewart.

I looked round at the embarrassed faces and knew I was about to throw up.

“Going for a walk,” I managed, struggling to my feet.

It felt better in the cold air, trudging up the moors towards Sammy’s place. He was the oldest regular at Link-up, a schizophrenic, though he reckoned his problems had started during his drug-taking days in the seventies.  “I don’t remember anything after Led Zepellin 4,” he liked to say.  Sammy lived in a hut on top of a mound, well hidden in the middle of some woods, and it was getting dark by the time I found it. Sammy wasn’t there but I knew where he hid the key.  I lit the stove, got myself under a blanket and started to review all the times in my life I had done a runner.  One of the biggest was after stabbing Stewart with the scout knife. I hid under the rhododendrons behind the school, but was caught when I broke cover to buy Irn Bru, a roll and some crisps at the shop.  That was when they sent me to the psychologist, a young guy in a combat jacket who played headies over the clothesline with me, then asked where I would most like to go in the world.  Australia. Why?   Because it was the furthest distance I could get from Stewart.  And why didn’t I want to be near Stewart?  “Cos I don’t want to be a spastic.”  I recited the words into the flames of Sammy’s stove, welling up with fellow feeling for my smaller self.  “So are you totally mad?” my classmates had asked.  “A wee bit,” I confirmed, quite chuffed to have been marked out as different.

I  looked round at the slatted walls of Sammy’s hut, with its pictures of pyramids and temples.  It was an upgrade from squatting under a bush in the school grounds, but I was still playing hide and seek with the authorities and it was going to have to stop. I closed the door of the stove and walked out, stood for a moment in the pitch dark, then missed the first step and somersaulted to the bottom of the hill.  It wasn’t going to be such an easy trip home, I realised, and  I was soon properly lost, crashing through branches and finally stumbling into a marsh.  Wading with increasing desperation in the blackness, I cried out “Fucking help me” and was immediately caught in a set of headlights.  As I waved with both arms, the car slowed and came to a halt about fifty yards away, but no one got out. I staggered and plunged my way through the swamp in the beam of the lights until, finally, I was scrambling up a bank towards the car.   The windows rolled down and the heads of two teenage boys emerged.  “Bog man!”  they shouted, before disappearing in a cloud of exhaust, with me screaming “Bastards!” and hurling a handful of sludge after them.  But  I could smell silage and knew, if I stayed on this road, I would skirt a golf course, then a farm, and be on the way home.

After half an hour of squelching in waterlogged shoes, I came to the front of the house.  The curtains were still open and they were all sitting around listening adoringly to Stewart, especially Dee Dee.  It was like a love-in.  Why was I only allowed to have anything that was a shit version of his?  Why did anything decent of my own always get taken away?  That’s when I cast around for a missile and picked up the brick.  I looked in Dad’s van for his joiner’s pencil and a scrap of paper, wrote Happy Birthday on it, then wrapped it round the brick and hurled the lot through the front window.  There was screams and shouts and, at this point, it might have been normal for me to split, but I was exhausted.  I slumped onto the garden wall as Dad and Stewart came piling out, saw me and stopped dead in their tracks.  In the light from the front door, I realised I looked like I’d just emerged from an underground explosion – black from head to foot, with streaks of blood from the scratches on my face.

By the time I was out the bath, Dad had boarded up the window.  Dee Dee put her arms round me and apologised for giving me a hard time.  On his way out, Stewart said that next year a card would be nice and Mum cracked a joke about letting me pick my own ties in future.  Everybody was hyper-reassuring and Dee Dee  revealed that we had been invited to stay for a few days, just to make sure I was getting my rest.

“No thanks.  It’s a girlfriend I want, not another carer.”

I set off across town alone, deciding that this birthday was going to be the beginning of a new era for me.  It was a downer about Dee Dee, but you’ve got to watch your back.  As soon as I got home I would unfriend her on Facebook.


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