We have perfect spacing until the next birthday. For four lovely weeks a year, between the end of May and the end of June, we bask in the glory of some sort of symmetry. This is when the kids go down or up in twos. 13, 11, 9, 7, 5. We are that organised. Fair play to us. We love to be asked their ages during these weeks. We trip them off smiling, not stumbling like we do the rest of the year. We tease marque 4 for the impending skewing of our pattern by his hand. We do this each year and he finds it funny (we think!). 5, 8, 9, 11, 13. Now we’re mere disorganised incompetents again. Oh well. It gets worse. By November it’s 5, 8, 9, 11, 14. By January 5, 8, 10, 11, 14. Then the competence breather again in May-June. 6, 8, 10, 12, 14. Hurray!
The party decision looms and with the disaster in mind from one year ago we are keen to get it right this time. Last year I blindly accepted an invitation to share a ‘football party’ with two of his class mates. I accepted knowing that marque 4 has little or no interest in football.
I myself would be wondering what football has got to do with a party. However marque 4 is an easy going easily pleased chap most of the time. He’ll just muck in I told myself and the other mothers. I sold him a pup. I stood on the sidelines and watched his little world crumble. The high point of a football party, it seems, is that the birthday boy gets to be captain and pick his team. Except there were three birthday boys and, well, two teams. The keen as mustard football birthday boys were selected as captains and marque 4 stood by the wall waiting to be picked, his face clouding as the captains set about choosing the best players for their respective teams. As they were getting down to the last few the tears started to roll. He was neither captain nor player at his own party.
‘Oh dear’ this compliant mum said to one of the others. ‘He is upset now. Perhaps he should’ve been vice captain of one of the teams’.
The other mum cup-handed hollers to her birthday boy to hand over the reins of captainship to marque 4 until half-time. I knew then as I do now that it wouldn’t work. Marque 4 shares a trait with his mother. Once upset he retreats and recuperates inwardly. He was not about to run with the ball and pretend that it didn’t hurt. That the team he didn’t pick was his own. He tried for a minute, in fairness to him, but the tears just got in the way.
I stood on the sidelines chastising myself for the botched party I had visited upon him. Note to self: if your child doesn’t like an activity then don’t book him a party in said activity. I stood there thinking about all the fun things he loves and how anything, absolutely anything would be better than this. He was upset and humiliated at his own party. I thought about how his father can sometimes magic him out of himself when upset. Black humour – marque 4 has the best quirky sense of humour – and vicious tickling. In the absence of said father (the mothers were running this show) I didn’t think whipping him off the pitch and whispering black humour while tickling him in front of his class was really the ticket. It was an hour and a half later during food time when he re-emerged twinkling. One of the mums started a game of Simon Says. Simple as that. A fun old-fashioned party game where everyone’s in with a chance.
This year I get to choose. I consult with the birthday boy. We both agree it is to be an outdoor ‘Survival Party’ that we share with one other (their birthdays are one day apart at the end of term). The other birthday boy is equally pleased with it. Now we don’t know exactly what it entails but we’re due to meet at a mysterious woods to be told. The car is packed. Cake, candles, party bags, drinks, four brothers. Now we just have to get there. We set off in the sweltering heat (thankful for it!) to find these woods hidden in an estate somewhere between Dundrum and Lamb’s Cross. Except google maps seems to direct us off down the M50.
‘Oh, I recognise this road’ marque 3 pipes up. ‘We’re on our way to Galway’. Cheers. The clock is ticking. We are careering on in a seemingly intractable wrong direction.
‘Just get off the motorway’ I helpfully grunt – amongst other things – and he laughs as the one way system lures us on stretching endlessly ahead with no turn off in sight. I’m sure I’ve had a few nightmares about this sort of scenario. Inviting a truck load of seven year olds to a woods and failing to turn up. Panic is setting in. I snap my head around to see if it’s reached marque 4 yet. Yep.
‘It’s going to be as big a disaster as last year’ he wails and the tears are close by. I’d hoped he had forgotten all about last year.
‘We’re never going to get there’. Sob. While I feel like joining him and having a little wail myself, I hear a calm voice of re-assurance. We will indeed make it. We have loads of time. When what I’m really thinking about is how he cried through his party last year and this year he’s not going to show up at all. He doesn’t believe me, naturally, my reassurances are missing a certain something, and I’m out of tricks when I hear the father muttering some black humour followed by a golden laugh. Phew! Then he illegally talks to his iPhone asking for audible help to get us out of this mess. I’m close to hysterical laughter when a deliciously calm obliging robot takes over. The soothing voice directs us back through twists and turns we would never have guessed. We screech up at the woods with a minute to spare and only one waiting parent and child. We emerge from the car and smile the stress off our faces. We’re all set for the adventure ahead.
The party is wholesome, magical fun. The sunlight sparkles through the trees casting a mosaic on the forest floor. We watch the instructors deliver their fun messages, grateful to be outdoors, neither too hot nor too cool amongst the greenery. There is a team element for part of it. Two teams are set the challenge of building shelters to survive in. Marque 4 stands proudly and selects his three brothers first of all followed by his mates. He is delighted. As he has spent a large portion of his soon to be eight years making shelters/dens both indoors and out to play in, this is right up his street. The fun begins. They have to guard their shelters while constructing them. They can sneak out and catch people from the other team to be their slaves for two minutes. Squeals and laughter rebound about the woods. They swear blind that they can see a fox. Fingers crossed it’s not a wild rabid dog. Everyone is having a ball. The only real concern that I have is for the potential of gouged eyes. Sticks are a big feature when making and guarding a shelter. ‘Your son had a great time at the party, sorry about the missing left eye’. Nobody else seems too concerned so apart from my seizing of a couple of exceptionally dangerous looking long pointy ones, we can relax.
The party is topped off by gathering kindling for a fire. They rummage around to find the driest tiny sticks. They are competing together now to come up with the goods for the best woodland fire. They are quizzed about what might be needed to get a good fire going. I like it, using their heads too. Sticking their hands up with an array of ideas, oxygen getting a little clap. The fire gets underway and the birthday boys are the first to toast marshmallows followed by all the others. They sit in a circle toasting and chatting and laughing. More food is dished out. The candles are lit on two birthday cakes and the singing breaks out. Only missing the beer the parents jest amongst themselves. The birthday boys are awarded survival certificates for competence in shelter building and fire making in a woodland wilderness. Nice touch.
The fire and mud clean-dirty troop of boys dance down the forest path, loot bags in hand, and are collected by exuberant parents commenting on what a great idea for a party it is and weren’t we so lucky with the weather. Everyone seems to be smiling. Even marque 5 smiles as he rubs a dock leaf on an arm full of nettle stings. Keen not to let his new older survivor friends down he stifles any urge to moan about his bristling arm.
The bright-eyed energised survivors are safely home. A bottle of chilled Prosecco glistens and glasses clink in the evening sun. Cheers, to getting it right this time and to survival!