“I. Am. SO. Excited!” Larry’s face is glowing like a belisha beacon. It’s only 7am, and it’s not even his birthday until tomorrow, but he’s already so hyped he can hardly stay in his chair.
“Of course you are, big man,” I smile wanly and knock back an extra-large gulp of coffee. I feel as though I am observing the world from very far away. I woke up this morning with sinusitis, and my head is stuffed with something soft and achey. But being ill is simply not an option. Being ill is never an option when you have small children, much less when you have a Magical Birthday Experience to orchestrate. I haven’t felt this kind of pressure for a long time; possibly since my Cambridge finals, and at least then I knew that if I messed it up I’d only be letting myself down.
Larry has been mentally preparing for his fourth birthday ever since the day after his third birthday. We threw him a little party last year, and it was great fun, largely because he had no expectations of it whatsoever. We could have given him a packet of cheesy Wotsits and a party popper and he would have had the time of his life. That day, he realised that a birthday entailed not only presents, but also friends and cake, and the glorious penny dropped: it’s like Christmas! But just for ME!
The stakes have been raised yet higher by Other Parents, who selfishly insist on throwing splendiferous parties for their offspring, with scant regard for the fact that they are raising the bar for everyone else. Larry was invited to one recently at which there were at least fifty children, a bouncy castle, a cake shaped like an enormous Barbie Princess castle and a full-size trestle table laden with sweets. At another he was entertained for two whole hours by Captain Fabulous, an alarmingly cheerful drama-school graduate in a superhero suit who boasted a mobile disco complete with foam machine.
We can’t compete with that, so we’re not going to try. Curly and I are, for once, in full agreement: we’re keeping it simple, we’re keeping it trad. Six friends maximum; pin the tail on the donkey; musical statues; oven chips and sausages on a paper table cloth on the floor; cake, jelly and everyone home by five-thirty. Bish, bash, bosh.
So really, it’s not that much of a big deal, I tell myself later that morning, as I haul my throbbing, infected head around Sainsbury’s. Moe chomps happily away on a steady flow of biscuits as we work our way through the list: cocktail sausages, check. Radioactive-coloured chewy sweets, check. Icing sugar, Octonaut-blue food dye, jelly cubes, check.
It’s all going well until we reach the ‘Party Bags’ aisle. I peer helplessly at the towering wall of crap before me: shelves stuffed with tiny yo-yos, spinning tops, rubbery monsters, whoopee cushions... I hate it all. In a sane world, parents would all just get together and agree on a Plastic Crap Moratorium. We don’t want it, our kids don’t really play with it, the only people who benefit from flogging it are the fat-cats who run Sainsbury’s.
But the world is not sane, and four-year-olds expect party bags, and my overwhelming concern right now is not to send anyone home crying. On a good day, I’d think of an imaginative alternative – vegetable seeds! Yoghurt raisins! – but not today. I wearily load up the trolley with whoopee cushions. Surely, if I buy enough whoopee cushions, it will all work out fine.