birthday girl

I was asked to deliver a cake to Enid, a woman who was born on Armistice day in 1918. The nursing home had put out a general call for help on social media: Enid had never had children, and as the years had gone by her friends and family had died or moved away, so now she had no-one, and the staff were worried she wouldn’t have enough cards. Plus it was one hundred years since the ending of World War One, so it seemed the right time to take action. There was plenty of interest locally. A florist offered to provide a bouquet and a cake maker a cake. Kath collected the flowers the Saturday before, but the cake wouldn’t be ready until eleven on the Sunday, so I volunteered to collect it and take both things plus a card to the home by about midday on the day itself. I put the radio on and pulled into a layby when Big Ben struck eleven. The rain had stopped, the sun was shining brightly. I was surrounded by yellow and golden leaves and everything seemed pretty peaceful and perfect, but to be honest I was preoccupied with thinking about the pick-up and where to drop it off and the timing of everything, so I can’t say I was overly focused on the war.

The baker lived in a cottage with a yellow door, white window frames and perfect red bricks, the whole thing looking like an immaculate self-build of gingerbread and icing.
‘Why did you lock your car door?’ she said, holding the cake box with one hand underneath and one to the side. ‘You’re standing right there.’
‘Habit,’ I said.
‘Well. I’ve only just iced the decoration so don’t do anything stupid.’
‘Okay.’
‘Put it in the footwell’ she said. ‘No sudden braking.’
‘No. I’ll be careful.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s fragile.’
I told her I’d be sure to wedge it with my coat, but she wasn’t reassured.
‘Granny driving only,’ she said. ‘Easy on the corners.’
‘Of course. Do you want me to take a photo of Enid with the cake?’
‘Nah,’ she said. ‘I already got some pics.’

There were lots of detours in place because of the big Centenary Armistice commemorations going on, so I had to take a cross-country route. When I got there I found a dozen people already queuing outside the door to the home, including a cub scout in uniform holding a large card with a poppy made of crepe in the middle and Happy Birthday Enid written in glitterpen.
‘Do you know Enid?’ said the woman, straightening his cap. I thought she must be his mum.
‘No,’ I said. ‘There was something on social media. I didn’t see it. I’m just delivering some cake and flowers.’
‘That’s nice,’ she said.
Someone else asked the guy nearest the door if he’d rung.
‘Yes,’ he said, but then self-consciously rapped the large brass knocker.
‘At least it’s not raining,’ I said to the cub scout’s mum.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘We’ve been lucky.’
Eventually there was movement behind the door: an orderly in a white tunic, who frowned at us all then stood aside just sufficiently so we could file in.
‘This is for Enid’ I said.
‘You mean Mrs Westerman?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Does it have to go in the fridge?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. It’s fresh to day.’
He took it.
‘The decorations are quite fragile,’ I said, but he was already marching off down the hall and shouldering backwards through a door marked ‘Kitchen’. I stood in the hallway with the vase of flowers and the other visitors, who – I found out – had all come to see Enid as well. We didn’t know what to do and certainly didn’t want to impose. After a while someone I guessed was a manager appeared. She had a brisk and efficient smile, and collected all our cards and flowers without committing to anything overmuch.
‘Enid’s had a busy morning and she’s just gone to bed,’ she said. ‘But I’ll make sure she gets all your presents.’
‘Wish her a happy birthday from us,’ said a guy with a camera round his neck.
‘Did you want a photo?’
‘Oh – no!’ he said, stepping back, horrified. ‘She needs to rest.’
‘Fine. Well. Thank you all so much.’
And she disappeared into the kitchen, too.
We all turned to go.
A man with two snappy dogs appeared, so abruptly it seemed as if the manager must have pressed a secret button somewhere. The first dog, the one that was urgently pulling on the lead, barked and snapped at the cub scout who drew back behind his mum.
‘Don’t do that!’ shouted the man, leaning over the dog. ‘How many times have I told you?’
The dog didn’t care though, and was already pulling him on, so the man passed along the corridor, throwing apologies over his shoulder as he spun round at the far end and was dragged off deeper into the home.

Sheepishly our little group retraced our steps back to the front door.
‘Isn’t there a button you push?’ said the guy who had originally been at the front to come in but was now standing right at the back. Maybe he was glad it was someone else’s turn to get the door stuff wrong.
‘There’s a pad,’ I said. ‘You need a code.’
We waited a while longer – so long I wondered if we really did need a code.
There was a fish tank right there and we stood and watched the fish for a while.
‘Look at the lovely tank’ said the mum to the cub scout. ‘All the lovely fish.’
A little while longer and the guy in the white tunic appeared again. He didn’t say anything, just came to the front and jabbed at the buttons whilst shielding them with his hand.
‘Ah hah!’ I said ‘Now I know!’P1120320
He frowned at me.
‘Know what?’
‘The secret code.’
‘You’re not supposed to know,’ he said.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I didn’t really see.’
‘Okay then.’
He opened the door and held it whilst we all filed out.
‘It’s no wonder she’s exhausted,’ said the mum, buttoning her coat and straightening in the fresh air as her son sprinted off across the car park. ‘All this attention.’

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3 thoughts on “birthday girl

  1. And the appreciation? It hardly seems fair that the well-wishers were treated in this way – especially given the nursing home had appealled for assistance in the first place.

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    1. I know! The only thing I can think is that they were so overwhelmed they didn’t know what to do. Maybe we were the last in a long line of people coming in that day, and it was disrupting the normal run of things. Maybe they just thought they’d get a few cards through the post, and ended up with boy scouts, dogs and a hundred cakes! (I’m just trying to think why it went the way it did…;) )

      Thanks very much for the comment, Anne!

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