365 days and I’ve managed to fix the door of the freezer shelf so it doesn’t fall off when the fridge opens. 365 days and I can now do the Times Quick Crossword in five minutes and 37 seconds, an improvement of 78 seconds. 365 days and I’ve still not quit smoking – or even tried. 365 days and I’ve been to 187 weddings. 365 days and just one card, inside which is written:
Love Mum (and everyone at Sunrise Nursing Home)
I balance this on the mantelpiece so the blue dog with floppy ears stares blankly back at me; hardly appropriate for a 41-year-old but then the doctor tells me that mum’s dementia is so bad now, she thinks I’m a little boy again.
I also have one gift: a hardback of Tom Bower’s biography of Gordon Brown; an early birthday present to myself. Personally, I find it’s better to splash out on hardbacks as the spines of paperbacks always get so creased. This shouldn’t really matter but it’s just something I care about. Like the dust fluff under the sofa.
This year my birthday falls on a Saturday. For most people this is a good thing, because instead of working they can spend the day getting drunk with friends or opening the card their two-year-old scribbled in. However, such activities don’t appeal to me; and even if they did, Saturdays are our busiest time – especially at the moment.
I have 10 weddings today, but no invites to any of them. As Second Registrar of Kenwood Town Hall, Essex, my job is to sit discreetly in a reproduction Chippendale chair and make entries into the Marriage Register, as my boss leads the couple through their vows. My role is so important that it is legally required under section 45 of the Marriage Act 1949. In fact, it takes all of five minutes. For the remainder, I am a glorified DJ, making sure the correct piece of music comes on at the right place and preventing the ceremony from over-running its allocated slot – a 25-minute service plus five minutes turnaround time. Of course, as our website explains, Kenwood Town Hall prides itself on a “professional but personal service”. There might be 10 weddings today, but as far as the couples are concerned, there is only one.
We are a popular wedding venue thanks to the town hall’s sandstone neo-classical façade, designed by John Stuart in 1806. It’s controversial to say but façade is definitely the right word; the four enormous columns at the grand entrance hide a jumble of marble hallways and a mish-mash of council departments. If people don’t follow the signs, they end up at the Council’s Mental Health unit. At least they can get their head checked before tying the knot, I suppose. If they do follow the signs they come to the central courtyard, which doubles as a mini roundabout and is the location of my lunchtime cigarette break with the superintendent registrar, aka my boss; aka Nicola.
Today she is sucking in on her Marlboro Lite as if it contains the last bit of air on Earth; a sure sign of stress.
“Bloody Linda in the office has buggered up the schedule,” she tells me. “10 bloody weddings. We’re not a fucking factory. She booked in this Egyptian couple yesterday… Didn’t even bother telling me…” She gesticulates in front of my face using her cigarette and all the technique of a mediocre actress. “I mean, what if they bring the music on an iPod? We’re only set up for CDs.”
I stab out my fag on the stairs and let it fall down onto the top step, which is already littered with the morning’s detritus. When it’s windy, like today, the confetti is picked up and swirled around in tired little eddies. I wonder if I should tell Nicola it’s my birthday. Last year her divorce had just come through and she frogmarched me over the road to the King’s Arms.
“I’m rid of that shitface and you’re turning the big 4-0. Let’s celebrate,” she shouted, before downing the first of seven shots of Absinthe. I had to carry her into a taxi, but not before she’d tried to thrust her hand down the back of my favourite corduroy trousers. It was all very embarrassing. Better not to mention my birthday this year.
I can sense Nicola is reaching the end of her rant now; her pace is slowing and, instead of wild hand movements, her fingers are twisting at the baby hair that has escaped from her otherwise neat auburn bob.
I know it’s not the weddings stressing Nicola out. It’s her Match.com profile, pointed out to me by our admin assistant, Linda, last week.
“Took me half an afternoon to find it,” Linda said, smirking. “Didn’t recognise the picture, did I? It was obviously taken a few years ago.”
Nicola has sucked the last bit of nicotine out of her cigarette and is crushing it under her 5ft 9in frame. “You given any thought to doing Match.com?” she asks me, keeping her eyes focussed on the process of grinding the fag butt out with her grey stilettos.
“Not sure it’s really my kind of thing. How are you finding it?”
“Good. Had a few nibbles. Not found the love of my life just yet but, who knows, maybe tonight ‘Ron, plumber, 53’ might be The One…” Then she looks up so I can see the specks of brown in her green eyes. “You never go out with anyone, do you?”
“Not really. Too busy tying other people in knots.”
I am not unaware of the irony that I spend all day cementing other people’s relationships when I have no intention – or even inclination - of entering into such an arrangement myself. I’m happier alone; I’d maybe even go as far as saying. Sex is different, not that I get much of that either. In fact, if you don’t include my next-door neighbour’s West Highland terrier, who humps my leg on a regular basis, Nicola is the only person to offer me anything verging on intercourse in my 40th year.
We hold the marriage ceremonies in the West Room, capacity 25. I wish they’d change the colour; the walls are painted an expensive shade of green, which starts to feel claustrophobic after three hours and twelve nervous “I Dos”. The old central heating system caused the paint to peel in several places last year so now we’re forced to look at strategically-placed Monet prints of blurry couples dancing and picnicking.
Nicola is at the front, re-arranging the seating after the morning session. I wonder if I was hasty in rejecting her advances. If you ignore the approaching wrinkles, she does have very good skin and her bone structure is striking if looked at from the right angle.
“Stop day-dreaming, Brian,” she shouts over to me. “Have you got all the music sorted for this afternoon?” I go through the pile of CDs: Pachelbel’s Canon in D major for the two o’clock; Celine Dion for two-thirty; Mozart’s Wedding March next and Pachelbel again at three-thirty. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Another packet of cigarettes is the only thing that is going to get me through this afternoon so I make a dash for the shop over the road. I have an amazing ability to ignore “Smoking Can Kill” warnings, whether they are plastered on cigarette packets, the tube, or on 15-foot billboards. But this is the first thing that comes to mind as a Golf GTI turns the corner and 1,400kg of metal and a 14-stone Egyptian bride in full wedding regalia crunch over the bones in my foot. It hurts a lot, at least for the five seconds before I pass out.
When I wake up, an acne-pocked hospital doctor is shining a miniature torch directly into my pupil as if he’s trying to add blindness to my list of ailments.
“You’re doing fine,” he tells me chirpily. “Just stitching the wound up.” He looks too young to have passed his medical exams, his voice doesn’t sound like it’s broken yet and he smiles too much for someone who holds the fate of three of my metatarsals in his hands.
A harassed nurse, Staff Nurse Morgan, according to the tag crocodile-clipped to her top pocket, is also by my side, asking questions with an efficient brushed-silver clipboard. “Mr Burner, can I just get your date of birth? It’s not in your notes.” Her voice is high and squeaky, and I’m worried she might pass out if I don’t answer in less than five seconds. She has a gold locket – Nicola has a similar one, which she fiddles with while she’s not writing and which gently bangs against her clavicle while she is.
“It’s Mr Turner actually,” I say, before telling her my birth date and waiting for the inevitable congratulations. Nothing comes. Instead her bleep goes off.
“Man in Ward 6 needs a defib doctor,” she says, rushing out.
The thing about birthdays is they’re supposed to be a turning point. A marker. You tuck into your cake and unwrap your presents and people sing at you. But what it’s really all about, what you’re really celebrating is surviving another year. You might be that bit nearer death, but you’re not there yet. Well done.
“Do you think I could take a quick look at your wrist band?” asks the nurse, who has returned from treating the nameless gentleman in ward 6. Her hand shakes as she jots down the seven-digit patient number scrawled on the plastic bracelet. My entire life can now be summed up as 7890463. That’s everything: my name, age, address, the tonsils I had taken out at 13, my genetic pre-disposition to getting Alzheimer’s and heart disease (high), the number of cigarettes I have a day. Everything.
“Right. You’re done and dusted,” Dr Man-Child tells me, cutting the thread coming out of my ankle as if it’s a ribbon at a new ward opening. “I’m just going to give you some more morphine.” I’m still desperately searching for some kind of stubble on his baby face. “Don’t worry, you pay good money for this down the Dog on a Saturday night.” I see; he’s joking now. I am not laughing; I am in pain. It feels like a pin is tunnelling up through my leg. But…then… a wave of pleasure spreads through my body and I wonder if this four-year-old has just given me the best birthday present ever.
My bed isn’t by a window, and the nurses insist on keeping the curtain drawn back, so all I have to look at is the rest of the ward. The other patients scare me, not least because we are all dressed in the same mint green, machine-washable gowns and lying on beds with PVC mattresses that give out an embarrassing squeak each time you move. And maybe it’s just the painkillers doing their job, but everyone seems a bit slow and moronic. They just lie there staring at the ward’s TV screen, currently showing a countdown of music videos featuring ‘the Top 50 Celebrity Cameos of All Time’. They are at number six but I don’t know the song or the alleged ‘star’ who’s gyrating to it.
Even with the morphine, this is officially my worst birthday ever. And I’m trying not to even think about how pissed off Nicola is going to be. The bride and/or groom are literally the only people who can call off a wedding and finding a free registrar on a sunny Saturday in July is like finding a bride who’s still a virgin. Remember children, smoking doesn’t just kill, it also gets you fired.
“Are these all your personal items?” asks Staff Nurse Morgan, pointing down at the sad little plastic bag that holds my clothes, mobile phone and wallet.
“Yes. That’s all I had when I came in.”
“We’re going to have to move you. We need this bed for someone else.” She signals to the hovering orderly to come over and he gets a grip on the bed’s steel bars.
“But I don’t want to move,” I protest. The bones in my foot have been “smashed up like eggshells” (the doctor’s words not mine); surely that warrants some peace and quiet? For a flicker of a second the nurse’s eyes meet the orderly’s. “He’s going to be a difficult one,” she tells him via a quick stare, before crouching down next to me.
“I’m sorry but we need this bed for someone who is sicker than you. Hospital policy, I’m afraid, sir.”
I give in, although her quiet patronage makes me slightly nauseous.
I’m stifling hot in the corridor now, pretending to sleep as I wait for the doctor to come back from his play group and discharge me. Noise bounces off the shiny, laminate flooring so I can easily hear Staff Nurse Morgan’s high-pitched conversation around the corner.
“Today’s been hell,” she squeals. “They just keep coming in and we haven’t got anywhere to put them.” I can almost see her gasping for breath.
“It’s the front desk; they just keep sending them through,” says the other nurse, who has an accent that is tricky to place. It sounds like a cross between Scottish and the East Midlands. I bet she has a tattoo. “I was going to go to watch that new 3D film tonight. Barry wants to see it but I’ve texted him; there’s no way I’m getting out of here by eight.”
“Me neither. I think even the patients know something is up. Mr Burner wasn’t happy about being moved.”
“Which one’s he?”
Here her voice drops to a whisper
“With the foot, with no …” And I know what she is mouthing; I haven’t had any hair since I was in my early thirties. I’m fine with it.
Then I hear another sound: a familiar clip-clop that I can’t place. It keeps stopping, then gets closer. A curl of perfume finds its way through the chemically clean air.
“Brian - you’re here. This place is worse than the bloody town hall for finding your way around.” Damn. Nicola; come to kill me; to finish off what the Golf GTI started.
“Now don’t go blaming me for all this,” I say. “You predicted that Egyptian couple were going to be trouble.” She raises one pencilled in eyebrow.
“I wasn’t going to blame you. I actually came to see if you wanted a lift home. Save you some money on a taxi.”
Call me cynical, but, in general, I find it very easy to predict how people behave in most situations. It’s a bit like a maths equation: take person A, add situation B and the result will be C. So I’m a bit taken aback by Nicola here. I’ve spent the last half hour practising feeble excuses; time wasted, it seems, as, even after two years, she still has the capacity to surprise me.
I notice she is wearing red lipstick and has changed out of her work clothes into a low-cut sequinned top.
“Haven’t you got a date tonight?” I ask, remembering Ron, plumber, 53.
“Cancelled it. I was exhausted anyway.”
“Yeah I guess today would have been pretty hectic.” She doesn’t look tired though; she looks good.
“We found another registrar, just about… Right, where’s the doctor? Let’s salvage what’s left of your birthday.”
“You remembered?” I gulp. She’s surprised me again.
“Course. But maybe I’ll stay off the Absinthe this year.”