Plum Pudding Log Fires and
She’d resigned herself to a lonely birthday, but life is full of surprises
There’s something wonderful about the Northumberland air in winter – its sharp bite, the subtle smell of the sea, the memories it evokes.
As I stand on a deserted beach, I’m wearing sunglasses to fend off the winter sun, but I know my cheeks will be red from the bitterly cold air. My neck feels hot from the thick scarf tucked beneath my coat
but my fingertips are cold. I’m wearing Wellington boots.
This is the irony of winter. It can give and take away at the same time. The beach is long and clean, but I can’t feel the sand between my toes. The sound of crashing waves is relaxing – enticing, even – but I can’t swim because the
water temperature is less than two degrees.
Fitting, really, since today is my birthday. It’s a reason to celebrate – I have, after all, survived another year of life’s lemons – but I’m here alone, and my birthday is a stark reminder of that.
With my hands tucked into my
pockets, I walk the shoreline, as I have on this day every year since
I was 6 years old. People have
come and gone. As a girl, I’d walk with my parents and, sometimes, my grandparents.
We’d play I-Spy as we ‘moseyed along’, as my grandfather used to say.
When I was a teenager, despite never wanting to be seen with my parents on most
occasions, we still came for
‘Not for the first time today, I cry. But these are happy tears’
our annual trip. When I was
old enough, I’d be allowed a half-pint of lager with lunch.
After my mother passed away, my father and I would come along for the weekend, just the two of us and the dog
he’d adopted for company.
We’d throw sticks for the dog,
and slip chunky chips from our lunchtime sandwiches under the table for it to eat.
I met my first husband when I was 20. For the next 12 years, although we’d migrated south, we still honoured the family tradition, taking it in turns to choose
tape cassettes for the long car journey north.
When we had our son, he’d come along too. He was strapped to my husband’s back as we walked at first. Later, he’d hold our hands and, later still, he’d run on ahead of us.
After the divorce, there were a few years where it was only my son who came along. He didn’t want to – it was uncool to
take a trip with your mother, after all.
For the last 10 years, my second husband
has filled the gap, and my son has come along for part of the long weekend, with a new girlfriend each time.
✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ Now I walk alone to the next coastal village, where I’ll sit
by a log fire in a pub with
a steak-and-onion sandwich
and chips, as always.
I am divorced again. My son has a professional job these days and can’t take the time off. I will see in my 46th year alone.
The heat of the log fire strikes me as soon as I step into the pub. It’s delightful and painful, making the tips of my fingers sting. The walls have had a lick of paint since last year but, otherwise, The
Fisherman’s Inn is the same. It
has the kind of upholstery my grandmother used to decorate her home with when I was
a child – 70s, velour, floral. Solid oak tables are set with beer mats, buckets of cutlery and trays of condiments.
Old beer taps poke up from the bar, and the regular, hardened-looking barman says, ‘Hiya, pet.’
‘Nowhere does pubs quite
like the north,’ I think, as
I peel off layers and take
a seat at a corner table.
As memories of the past threaten to fill my eyes with tears, I pretend to read the menu, which is chalked onto a blackboard hanging from a wall. Of course, I already know what I’ll order.
Minutes later, I rest back in my seat with a half-pint of lager, topped with the perfect
amount of froth, and listen to The Beatles playing over crackling, vintage speakers.
My sandwich arrives with
thrice-cooked chips. Despite
being full, I eat the last few out
of respect for the dying art of
‘Another drink, flower?’ the barman asks.
He brings me a drink and clears away my empty plate. ‘Any dessert?’
I smile. ‘Oh, yes. Plum
I may be turning 46 on my own, but at least I have plum pudding. Small mercies!
✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ With a full belly, I make my way back to the guesthouse where I always stay. Halfway back, the darkening sky and
post-lunch sugar slump bring back my sadness.
‘This is life now – you have to get on with it,’ I tell myself.
The sky bursts with rain when I am minutes from the guesthouse, forcing me to
run. I push through the doors
to the lounge bar downstairs
and pull down my hood,
shaking out my hair.
When I look up, I see a gathering of people. Before I can process faces and
names, I’m blown away
by shouts of, ‘Surprise!’
One by one, I take them in – my son, his girlfriend, my three best friends and their families. Not for the first time today, I cry. But these are happy tears!
I am 46 years old today, and I am surrounded by my family and friends.
THE END Laura Carter, 2019