I became a sexagenarian today. As it’s a special birthday I hoped for something special. I wanted the last ten years back. But not all of the last ten years. I’m not greedy. I didn’t want all those wet Monday mornings when I had to go to work, or that day I had a bit of a hangover, or the day I became aware of the existence of Theresa May, or the day I had to eat boiled cabbage, or the day I had to go to Swindon. No, they can keep all those days, so it’s really only nine and a bit years that I was asking to have returned to me.
I also wanted there to be no fuss about this milestone and I’m pleased to say that I achieved that much. I don’t mind being a year older every November, or even being a decade older every ten Novembers, but the world’s determination to celebrate the anniversary of my transition from foetus to infant really makes my amniotic fluid boil. I don’t think it’s a reason for celebration at all as I really enjoyed my gestation period. It was one of the happiest times of my life; not having to worry about setting the alarm clock, paying the gas bill, feeding myself or the problems of war, famine and pestilence in the Third World. I was even oblivious to the football results so for forty consecutive weeks the news of Leeds United’s sad plight didn’t get me down at ten to five on Saturday afternoon.
Down the years, many of my birthdays have been uneventful and easily forgotten, which is fine by me. However, here are a few that I remember well:
1957: I was unable to support myself and I spent the day in hospital with my poor mother. I couldn’t walk or talk, things got a bit messy as I was unable to use a toilet and I vomited several times. Thankfully, I haven’t spent any subsequent birthdays in hospital despite occasional repetition of these symptoms.
1962: All the other children at my chimney sweeping job let me have a go with the new flue brush.
1967: The big one-oh. I went with my parents and my sister to see the newly released film The Jungle Book at a cinema in Belfast. Convinced that this was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in India, and having enjoyed it so much, I resolved to travel at the earliest opportunity. Ten minutes after the film had finished I found myself in the back of my dad’s Morris 1000 van travelling back to our home in Ballymoney. In anticipation of the 1968 Olympic Games to be held in Mexico City, Cadbury’s had just launched their new Aztec chocolate bar and my sister and I were each bought one for the first time to take the sting out of the monotonous forty-seven-mile, three-hour journey along the bog road in the dark. A taste of Southern Asia and Central America in the same day … how much more exotic could life get?
1972: Along with 31,599 other people (the best turn-out ever for my birthday) I went to watch Leeds United beat Sheffield United two-one at Elland Road. Allan Clarke scored both goals. I was glad that I was too young to go to the pub after the match as my earnings from my evening paper round were too meagre for me to be able to afford to buy everyone a pint.
1977: It was a custom at my student lodgings in Barry Island for birthday people to be taken down to the beach after the pub had closed and then to be thrown into the sea. As it was a wild November night and fellow students were concerned about the possibility of manslaughter charges, I was told I would be let off lightly and instead be thrown into the Celtic harp-shaped boating lake in the nearby park. I suppose I’ve always had this lucky streak in me.
1978: My twenty-first birthday was spent on a ship in the Gulf of Oman, en route from Japan to Bahrain. As we had been travelling due west, longitudinal changes made it necessary for us to adjust our clocks by thirty minutes every other night. The Captain thought it was a good idea to save two of these adjustments and use them in one go to extend my birthday by an hour. The day after my birthday he thought it was a good idea to fine me a day’s pay because I had been too hungover to do my job properly which made me a hazard to shipping. I’m sure I’d have been fine if it hadn’t been for that extra hour spent in the bar. The day after that he thought it was a good idea to scream at me when he heard me using quite uncomplimentary words to relate my opinion of him to some members of the Chinese crew, who didn’t speak English anyway. What a waste of bad language that was.
1982: I went with a load of my mates to see Frankie Miller, the Scottish singer-songwriter legend, performing live at the Fforde Greene pub in Leeds. He was brilliant and I shook his hand as he left the small stage at the end of the night.
1987: From the day I turned twenty-one I was aware that the next big birthday on the horizon would be my thirtieth. Thirty years sounded too old for a lad of my age to be so I decided that I would shoot myself when I got to my last day as a twenty-nine-year-old. I lived in Gillingham in Kent at the time where guns weren’t as easy to get hold of as they are now, which is strange because these days there are far fewer post offices for people to rob. In the world of micro economics this would be explained by the law of supply and demand. So I didn’t shoot myself. Instead, I started a new job two hundred and forty miles away in Harrogate in Yorkshire only a few days before my big event, feeling quite confident that nobody there would be aware of my advance into my twilight years, or possibly even of my presence. However, I had made the mistake of finding a job in the Pensions Department where the staff were sticklers for documentation to the extent that you couldn’t even have a Viennese Whirl with your mid-morning cuppa if you weren’t able to produce your birth certificate. Consequently, I had to endure the discomfort of opening a ‘Happy Thirtieth Birthday’ card and buying sticky buns all round on my first Friday in my new post. I drove back to Gillingham that evening to be with my dear wife and young toddler daughter as I celebrated not only my birthday, but also my success on the football pools. The £25 cheque from Littlewoods that landed on my doormat that very day enabled me and the missus to go out the following evening to a local restaurant and enjoy a slap up serving of the finest food in the district.
1997: I was ten years older than I had been on my thirtieth birthday and I was working in an office in Swindon. My colleagues were very kind to me.
2007: I was twenty years older than I had been on my thirtieth birthday and I was plying my trade as a Foot Health Practitioner, sorting out the muckiest and sweatiest of pedal extremities that rural Wiltshire had to offer. Dear old Betty in the village of Sutton Benger felt sorry for me. She gave me a packet of Rowntree’s Jelly wrapped in kitchen foil and told me to make sure I did something better on 6th November 2017.
So I took Betty’s advice and went to the seaside. I booked myself into a holiday apartment for four nights and here I am in the quaint little fishing town of Balchik on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. Hardly anyone in Bulgaria knew that it was to be my sixtieth birthday so I was sure that not a soul in this place 260 kilometres from my home would have any idea and that I would be able to enjoy today, my so-called ‘special’ day, in my own secret way.
This morning I was woken early by the sun shining through the finest East European, Socialist era blinds that money could buy so I got dressed and wandered down to the beach. There was nobody about and none of the shops or cafés were open. Many places had closed down for the winter so the town was pretty quiet anyway, but at this time of the day it was completely deserted. I walked for an hour along the front, enjoying the calmness of the sea and the warmth of the sun’s rays … on my birthday! I had never known the likes before on this day of the year. It was beautiful and it made me think that the Barry Island students from forty years ago would have been able to chuck people into the briny from the beach safely (well, almost safely) if they had lived here and the bad-tempered sea captain could have shouted at me all he liked because I hadn’t a care in the world.
I stopped and had a chat with Kristyan, an old man who collects things from the shore to make into pictures to sell to people who come here from Birmingham and Croydon in the summer. He arranged some of his stones on a bench to show me how they would become a sailing boat and a lighthouse. He said he felt sorry for the people of Birmingham and Croydon because they didn’t have real sailing boats and lighthouses where they lived and he laughed when I suggested that those places could do with a lighthouse to warn people not to go too close. He asked me if I would like to go for a cup of coffee. I said I would and then he told me I couldn’t because there was nowhere open yet. Kristyan became the first person in the world to make me laugh since I had turned sixty. Chuckling away to himself, he went back to his beachcombing and I walked back towards the town, determined to prove him wrong, which I managed to do as I tucked into my full Bulgarian breakfast on the terrace of a harbourside café … an hour and a half later.
It seemed as though anybody who was in Balchik today, for reasons of either business or pleasure, had nothing much to do and welcomed a stranger in town to have a chat with. Whilst the waiter took my order, brought the cutlery, chased away the stray cats and probably cooked my breakfast too, another man who I suspected was the owner of the restaurant sat and talked to me. I got all the usual questions like where was I from, why was I living in Bulgaria, were the police looking for me, more seriously was my wife looking for me and what would I do when the Brexit palaver was all done and dusted? The latter question is always easily answered. I just show interrogators the bit on my Bulgarian I.D. card where it says that my nationality is Irish which makes them smile and say ‘ah, no problem!’ But today there were further questions leading on from this. Todor (by then I had asked him a question too and learned his name) wanted to know if I missed having Guinness to drink and why I wasn’t in the Irish Rover pub just down the other end of the Balchik seafront. My responses were ‘yes’ and ‘because it’s shut for the winter’, though I was pleased that it was shut for the winter because from the outside it looked terrible and it was probably terrible on the inside too. Irish pubs in any country other than Ireland always are. My breakfast arrived and Todor left saying ‘Do skoro’ (see you later) as he walked back into his restaurant. He sounded quite sincere too, probably because of the lack of customers so I said the same back to him and he smiled and waved. For the next twenty minutes I spoke to no one as I concentrated on what I had calculated to be my 21,915th breakfast.
The view from the table where I ate my 21,915th breakfast.
Balchik is a lovely place, largely because of its lack of a long sandy beach making it less of an attraction for the hordes of cheap beer, crap rap music and sun-seeking holidaymakers from Western Europe that blight the other Black Sea resorts every summer. It has been a popular place for well over a century and during the period between the World Wars, when it was briefly Romanian territory, it was also a favourite destination for Romanian avant-garde painters, lending its name to an informal school of post-impressionist painters, the Balchik School of Painting. Queen Marie of Romania had her country residence here in the 1930s. She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain but she really upset the British royal family by turning down a proposal of marriage from her cousin, who eventually became King George V of Britain, and instead marrying King Ferdinand over here. This relatively modest palace, set in lovely botanical gardens on terraces cascading down the cliffs to the sea is only five hundred metres from where I am staying and is a really nice place to visit, even though I’m not a huge fan of regal abodes. This being the back end of the year the plants in the gardens are all dead, just like the members of the Romanian royal family, but luckily the plants are mostly perennials so, according to the lady in the palace café who poured me my birthday lunchtime glass of Kamenitsa (Queen Marie’s favourite), there would be much more sign of life if I were to make a return visit next summer. I told her I would do that and she said ‘Do skoro’, smiling and waving at me as I walked away.
In the afternoon I found the local long sandy beach at another resort called Albena, about fifteen kilometres south of Balchik. On the map it looks like a proper little town but in reality, it is a concrete maze of huge seaside hotels, restaurants, mini-supermarkets, tennis courts, crazy golf courses and kiss-me-quick hat shops surrounded by a big barbed wire fence and with security barriers at the solitary entrance. These barriers were the automatic sort that you’d normally find at a car park where you press a button, take a ticket, drive through and then pay at a machine to get out again hours later. This made me suspect that the place would be busy and I wondered if I would find an available parking space but luckily there were two or three thousand of them. I parked up and went for a walk along the beautiful white sands which stretched as far as my eye could see in both directions. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and there was no evidence of human life, though I’m sure that in the summer months the place would have been heaving. The only other people I saw during my couple of hours there were a pair of security guards, a man jogging and the lady who served me a coffee in the only café that was open. She came to my table by the window and talked to me for a couple of minutes but then disappeared back behind the counter, explaining apologetically that she was a bit busy. She didn’t even have time to say ‘Do skoro’. I had come here for seclusion on the day of my sixtieth birthday but I had never expected seclusion on such a grand scale. It was perfect! As I retraced my footprints along the beach to where I had left my car, I found a note nailed to an abandoned deckchair. It was from Robinson Crusoe. It said, ‘Gone home. Too quiet. Sod this for a lark!’
So I went home too, to my dear little Balchik. It was dark by the time I rolled into town so I went straight to Todor’s harbourside restaurant. In one corner of the room there was a party of about forty Bulgarian people who appeared to be celebrating a birthday. Surely not mine! I sat a few metres away from them just to be on the safe side. Despite the abundance of other customers, Todor still came over to chat to me while the waiter took my order. As the waiter walked away, Todor went after him and whispered something in his ear. I had ordered an ordinary beer to have with my meal but my new friend the restaurateur appeared from behind the bar with a bottle of Guinness which he poured lovingly into a glass and placed it in front of me on my table. I laughed, thanked him and asked him where he had got it. ‘Dublin’ he replied, which I think must be Bulgarian for ‘the big new Lidl out on the ring road’.
As I savoured my glass of stout the Bulgarian party people became more boisterous when a troupe of three local musicians arrived to play traditional Bulgarian music on their traditional Bulgarian musical instruments. They stood up, clapped, sang and shouted as the music got louder and faster. It seemed to me that the local people had known that today was my birthday and they were out to have a good time on account of it. But how did they know? Thinking back, I lay the blame on the old lady in the corner shop who asked me for I.D. when I bought a bottle of wine there on my first night in the town. Next year I’ll buy her a bottle too.