For he’s a jolly good fellow…
The sparkly banner hung on the wall read ‘Happy Birthday’ in glittering blue and silver letters, swaying ever so slightly in the faux breeze of the air-conditioner. Frank glanced nervously around the room, once, twice, not taking in any of the furniture. His eyes darted to the window. It was sunny outside, a glorious day filled with light and laughter.
Sweat beaded his forehead and he pulled at the stiff fabric of his collar. His tie felt too tight, as though it might at any moment turn into a python and begin choking him. He desperately wanted to open the window, but he couldn’t.
Back of his neck prickling with nerves and stomach churning, Frank’s eyes lit on the small pile of presents, mostly obscured beneath a veritable forest of flowers. It seemed that an entire meadow must have been picked clean to supply those flowers, as though every flower in the city had been pulled up and crammed into the cheap vases perched on the chipboard table. Their heady scent made the room seem even smaller. His throat tightened, and he resolutely focussed on the presents.
It had been hard, finding them himself. He had… It wasn’t that he didn’t care, because of course he did, but he had never had the knack for finding things that Alice did. On their third date, twenty years ago now, she had dragged him into a dingy second-hand bookstore without any warning and they had walked out with a book he had only half-remembered but had mentioned briefly in passing on their first date.
Through the Glass Darkly
Supposedly for young adults, but something about it had stuck in his mind, even if the title had slipped from his brain like a fish through dark water. He asked how she had known it was there, and she had just given him her brilliant smile, radiant like the North Star, and said she had had a good feeling about the store. Alice had the knack for finding things, and she knew exactly what people were looking for, sometimes before they themselves did.
Frank choked back a sob. It wouldn’t do to cry, not today. Not on his son’s birthday. He had to be strong for him.
Still, he had to wipe away the tears that slid down his cheek, a surreptitious movement even though nobody was in the room that could see him.
Hopefully he had done a good job, with the presents. He couldn’t ask Jacob now, of course, he should have asked him sooner, but like a speeding truck barrelling down the highway and around a blind corner, hogging the middle of the road, the date had crept up on him until all at once it was there. Here. Now. And it was too late to ask, but hopefully he had remembered correctly Jacob’s eager ramblings, his bubbly enthusiasm over items that made no sense to Frank but sent his little boy into paroxysms of delight.
With a heavy sigh, Frank turned to the cake. Six glittering candles, bright even without their crowning flames, stood proud around the edges, three on each side. Pale blue icing, delicate marzipan flowers in royal blue, teal and deep purple clustered around the central candle. Huge, it towered over the others, dwarfing them with its mere presence. The other candles must have felt inadequate beside it, hardly worth mentioning. Nothing special.
He was nothing special, too, not compared to his wife. He still wondered at that, the way she seemed convinced, utterly and completely convinced that he was unique. She would smile at him and hold him close and show genuine interest in his day, in the mind-numbing details of his research and his writing, even though they were mundane. Everyday, boring, much like him. Even Jacob thought he was amazing, staring up at him with wide eyes, and Frank didn’t understand that, either.
Jacob was the marvel, and Alice too, the two people who made his life more than drudgery and sullen, unproductive genius funnelled into banal problems. And so Frank had searched high and low for presents, had spent hours on YouTube looking up how to make a cake. Cookies, muffins, bread; he could make those, but this cake had to be perfect. It was for his little boy, after all. Alice had never told him where she normally bought the cakes, and if he couldn’t find the place that sold those marvellous confections he wasn’t going to settle for second-best. If he had made it, then at least he wouldn’t compare it to Alice’s cakes, because he knew it could never compare. It was different. Everything was different.
With a trembling hand, Frank lit the candles on the cake. It had been a struggle, sneaking the matches in, although to be honest most of the problem had been his own nervousness at the idea. No-one had searched him, had confronted him, even though he could feel the sharp corner of the little cardboard box digging into his leg as he walked through the halls. They hadn’t even met his eyes, glancing at the cake and the bag of carefully wrapped gifts and looking away as though stung. The wrapping was the only thing he knew he was doing right. It was a methodical, calm kind of task that soothed his battered soul. It was something he could do.
The last candle flickered to life, crowned with gold, and Frank took a deep breath and turned to face the bed. He sang his way through the strains of ‘Happy Birthday to You’, his voice watery and weak, almost drowned out by the stifling silence of the ward, the oppressive weight of the recirculated air. As the final words faded away, he choked on the first ‘hip-hip-hurray’ and fell silent. Jacob’s respirator whirred quietly, like a crowd cheering from far away, as Frank sank down into the chair by the side of the bed and grasped his son’s limp hand.