Friday, 18 March 2011

85th Birthday Party

Hello, lovely to see you, how are you. You are looking well”.
Thank you, I am well. Are you well?”
Thank you for coming, may I take your coat?”

Greetings are effusive. Kisses are exchanged. The pre-lunch, drinks and nibbles, 85th birthday party is in full swing when we arrive, or should I say, gently swaying; ‘swing’ is quite definitely the wrong word; most of the guests are very elderly and their swinging days are long over.

“Would you like a drink?” The attractive dark haired women asking is the host’s middle-aged daughter. “What would you like? We have wine, sherry, juice?” She raises a black-painted, inquisitive eyebrow.

Glass in hand we enter the birthday room. The hostess, the birthday girl, is sitting in a comfortable armchair, looking frail. There’s so little left of her, you feel that the gentlest breeze could blow her over. Or perhaps her thin body would allow  unhindered passage through. She smiles a watery old woman’s smile, her manners are still intact. “Thank you for coming”, she quavers, “ I’m afraid I can’t get up, I don’t have enough blood to the brain, I get dizzy. I have been told that I must stay in this chair.” First things first, ill-health is a very important topic at these gatherings.

I can hardly believe that this is the same woman who, ten years ago, ‘volunteered me’ to serve on a very difficult and unpleasant committee and, even more astounding, that I let her bully me into accepting the office.

“Happy Birthday, my dear”, I say, bending over her, receiving and returning a delicate embrace.  “Glad to see you looking so well”, I lie and kiss her papery yellow cheek. Eighty-five is not an extreme age in these parts, but some weather less well than others.

As I look around I recognize many other faces, nod to them and exchange “how are yous”. If you can’t see their spouse, you ask after his/her well-being too. Unless you are quick at turning and politely smiling at the next in line you will receive up-to-the-minute information on the reason why the other half couldn’t be here. “He’s had the operation, but his knee is still bothering him, he finds standing very difficult.” I know what she means. “I’m sorry to hear that, do give him my love, won’t you.”

Platters and platitudes are being handed round in equal measure. I help myself to a mini meatball and choke on the spiciness. I search the area round my feet for a sign of the small white terrier whom I caught earlier stealing a cocktail sausage, including stick, from a plate left on the lower shelf of a serving table. He is back, his wet black nose exploring other delicacies. Shooing him away, and lifting the plates out of his reach, I surreptitiously drop my spicy meatball. Now it’s his turn to cough and splutter.

I‘ve done the required circuit of the room and find a space on the sofa next to two ladies in animated conversation. With a bright smile I interrupt them, they turn to me and very soon we are discussing the
rapidly ageing population of Valley’s End and the consequences this has for the social life of the village. 

“Social life used to be so much livelier”, we say; “when we first came here  - most of us at this gathering are incomers - there were parties all the time, we were always entertaining or being entertained; remember those lovely concerts we had in the summer ?” We remember them well.  “Of course, we are all so much older now and, frankly, I don’t have the energy”, my neighbour on the sofa says. We decide there and then that we must do something, that we must organize a party where everyone invited is asked to bring a plate and a bottle. The ladies look to me expectantly. Our house and garden are of generous size and I have had many such parties in the past. “Of course”, I say hastily, “winter has been so awful this year, the roads were so bad, nobody thought to do very much. Besides, these endless grey skies hanging over us these past two weeks have made everybody feel miserable and depressed”. The danger is not over yet, so I excuse myself and make for the dining room. I have two major dinner parties planned during the next two weeks and can’t possibly have a bring-a-plate event as well.
I make a mental note to review the situation later on, in April or May maybe.

The dining room is witnessing important business, by the look of things. Six or seven men are standing in a circle in the middle of the room, their faces serious, earnestly plotting parish politics. All of them have reached the end of long years of dedicated service; they find it hard to relinquish the reins and let younger men take over. As they are all conservative in outlook and political preference, they might be discussing matters of national concern. The cabal breaks up as I enter; I seem to have a knack today for getting in the way of established conversations. They know that I am one of these wishy-washy liberals, my opinions are definitely the wrong sort here; besides, these are gentlemen of a bygone age, serious talk must be kept away from ‘ladies’. The group breaks up, several leave the room to mingle.  Others turn to me politely. Well-bred, old-world charm takes over until the ensuing flirtatious banter makes my teeth itch and I welcome the attention of a pompous old chap, an ex army colonel, who has heard that I mess about on this internet business and write stuff for other people to read. “What do you want to do that for”, he barks, “and what have you got to say anyway? That you go for walks with the dog?”  “Something like that”, I reply. “Does anybody want to read that sort of thing?” He isn’t finished with me yet. “Oh, one or two”, I say. “Harrumph, what a lot of nonsense, if you ask me”. He is probably too polite to tell me what he really thinks. I beam my brightest smile at him. His eyes narrow and frown, he is clearly cross with me and a little unnerved.

I move on into the kitchen where I just catch the hosts’ daughter, granddaughter and niece discussing family matters; another member of the family recently confided to me that problems over an inheritance had caused bad feelings; the slightly forced smiles greeting me tell me that I am interrupting unresolved mild hostilities. Wrong place, wrong moment, again. I am not going to get it right today.

I give up, put my empty glass on the kitchen table and leave the room. At any rate, the party is almost over. I thank the hostess, hug her good-bye, wave to everybody else and make for the door. “Eleven to One” means eleven-thirty to one-thirty, it’s one-forty now and we can go. On the way out I see the one person with whom I would have loved to have a longer chat, catch her eye and we stand in the open door, blocking the way, and make a quick date for coffee.

If we discuss the party at all, we will say how nice it was to see everybody again and how well the hostess looked, considering.


  1. Platters and platitudes -- so apt for far too much of social interaction. Been there, seen that, but don't know what to suggest for a change. What if, oh dear, everyone just said what they thought? The mind boggles... but what a great idea for a story...

  2. 'Platters and platitudes'. Nice! And nice to think Shropshire harbours such a closely-observant closet radical!

    Whether this is reportage, fiction or a mixture of the two, it matters not one jot. Long live the liberals, the radicals and the 'Guardian' readers, that's what I say. Unusually (I believe), I'm getting more left-wing the older I get.

  3. You are an acute observer of those strange humans that I live among also.

    Your "dog walking and such" vibrate with the wisdom of the spheres, Friko. You touch me and teach me. And your friendship is valuable and real to me.

    Take THAT, Col.

    Warm Aloha to you
    from Honolulu!

    Comfort Spiral


  4. Wow, Friko, I am truly impressed with your ability to bring me into the conversation here. I am one of those "wishy-washy liberals" too, usually known as a bleeding heart liberal, but I'll take it any way at all.

    Love your description of the fogeys and their tribulations. Masterful!

  5. I hate parties so could appreciate this post Friko :-)

  6. Friko, bravo to you for negotiating all the twists and turns of that party. And an additional bravo for being able to contemplate two dinner parties in rapid succession. You really are something else!

    Thank you for your visit and kind words. I will try to find a way to show more of my home sweet home, humble though it may be. It's my sanctuary.


  7. Gee, what a wonderful recounting of the tale of the birthday party. I wonder if I will ever see 85 and have papery cheeks. I just got back from the doctor and he said my numbers were great but I need to lose weight. At this rate I will be the oldest fattest person on the planet. Dianne

  8. Out here in the sticks (just up the road from you) we know what we like but more than that, we like what we know. We meet the same old faces in the same old places - and it is curiously reassuring. Conversations pick up where left off - and in the party season (Christmas /NY) where we meet up daily this is very evident.

    I guess as something of an outsider. I miss something more erudite and cerebral but for second best I'm glad to be welcomed by this loving and enfolding community.

    If only I had the key to their longevity too.

  9. it would drive me absolutely crazy...i dont fit...well with my mohawk i would not be

  10. But at least none of them went Nordic walking or told you in detail about the Mayan prophecies .

  11. Some things cross all boundaries, and parties such as this are the norm here too. A birthday party, though, is a good reason for celebration - even if the celebration is a bit on the quiet side.

  12. Great story telling. I love the way you relay conversations and thoughts. Coincidentally I blogged about a 95th birthday.

  13. Such a slice of life and it's characters. Brava at how well you maneuvered yourself in and out of other people's mis-steps. Almost sounds like a MIss Marple event. Especially loved "a pompous old chap, an ex army colonel" and his comments about your blog writing - does he have a big sweeping mustache? Sounds like he was out east civilizing India back in the day.
    Great story.

  14. I think you got it right...and with grace.

  15. Love this... "Platters and platitudes"... Sounds like so many places I've been. Skipping conversation to conversation, looking for the one to carry forth with, embraced by it, rather than continuing this moments journey.

  16. I do admire you for continuing to attend gatherings like the one described here. I would be in hiding to avoid invitations!

  17. I admire your courage, Friko.

    Luckily for me, I rarely do 'social gatherings'. Therefore I am spared the torture of having to smile politely, whilst holding my tongue. A good trick, if you can do it.

  18. Friko, you can certainly do justice to a description. I inhaled the whole thing. Interesting that what we call covered dish, you call bring a plate.

  19. With my Mom having just turned 86 yesterday, your posting really struck a chord....I am dealing with an oft repeated phrase from her...we will do such and such "If I am still around..." I want to hug her and gently (very, of course) shake her at the same time...

  20. Terrific politics.. Well mastered to be able to skate through that with humor. As for retired soldier Blimp - some things are simply over their heads. ATB!

  21. I like your 'social occasion' posts. But I can't believe you gave that spicy meatball to the dog and let it suffer. Friko!!

  22. A brilliantly crafted and honest picture of this event! What particularly amazes me is how much telling detail you have been able to set out. I assume you didn't take notes at the time, so I wonder, how did you remember so much and so well?

  23. Since I love British TV I have seen a lot of 'village life' programs and I could almost visualize the people you wrote about. I was right there with you at the party.

    I am 85 (soon to turn 86) and I am not frail so someone can give me a swinging party on my next birthday. If I cross the pond, would you give me one since you are obviously a good hostess? ;-)

  24. There is (or maybe 'was') a program beamed into Canada from the US called 'Masterpiece Theatre' that broadcasta the best of (mostly) British drama. Your post reminded me of some of those - a sharply observant telling of the lives of others.
    But you're wicked. Poor dog. Made me laugh.

  25. A mayor nearby is 90. Hazel still runs a hug town. part of the GTA and she much admired. There are always new ways to see elderly. Many are gaining a new kind admiration as times change.

  26. Dear Friko,
    thank you for depicting your village life! Although I understand you feeling a bit depressed to see those people grow older (and changing their topics), but then I admire "stiff upper lips", "to do as if", I admire rituals (and also at the birthday party of a 45 year old you hear a lot of platitudes, or among very young mums: the topics for them are spicy - how often to feed their little ones, what to do when it coughs - but to me no longer - so, I think it is the question whether one is in the eye of the taifun.
    (Or a sweet breeze, in the birthday party above :-)

  27. Friko, I'm glad you ran into a real friend which made all the difference. I love your writing. This anecdote is so vivid and amusing!

  28. ach, was hast Du auch nur dort gemacht unter diesen müden Geistern... eine wahre Heldin bist Du wohl, dies alles mit so viel Ruhe hinzunehmen...
    Wenn der alte "müde" Herr wüsste, wie grossartig Dein Schreiben hier ist, würde er es sicher nicht mal bemerken, so voreingenommen wie er zu sein scheint...!

    Nun hast Du sicher auch gemerkt, dass Du zu den jungen hellen Geistern gehörst..!

    Einen schönen sonnigen Tag wünsche ich Dir und bis heute Abend!


  29. I have been doing a bit of catching up on your posts, Friko. What spectacular pictures of Ludlow, and what an insightful but sad picture of an aging community. I am dangerously close myself to that time when I will no longer elicit interest, only pity.

  30. (Thank goodness my delayed party yesterday wasn't one of this kind! LOL.)
    Your itchy teeth were certainly handed to us on a plate, Friko :)
    You are past master at being a fly on the wall, and could pass muster at any social gathering!!

  31. I relished the tale of this birthday party. "One or two" readers indeed! If only he knew that you could write volumes...

    Plus you have given me inspiration to host (in May or June or even July) one of those "bring a plate" events.

  32. I enjoyed this birthday party tremendously. Today is my birthday but there is no party in sight – I don’t know when I had a party last – decades ago maybe. You are giving two parties? Again I don’t know when I gave one last – I think it was for members of the Egyptian Air Force who were training at my work, and that was in the late 80s! I love the description of the old conservative men giving you a hard time on your blog – so typical.


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