a birthday: child pirates to streetfights

A long birthday awash with people and places began at 10am, coffee with a once-made acquaintance in a café on Soho’s Golden Square.  A deep-thinking fellow freelancer who successfully divides his time between southern American states and London, he often provides engaging chat and food for thought.  I hadn’t expected it to be hugely constructive in any immediate business sense, and it wasn’t, but it still felt like an hour well-spent. 

Needing pirate fancy dress, I ducked into a likely looking arcade doorway on Leicester Square.  From the street it invited passers-by to an assortment of garish tourist shops, accessory stores, toy shops and an amusement arcade.  Escalators took me up a level and I quickly found myself circling a hellish labyrinth of arcade games with no Down escalators.  My frustration grew to a nightmareish backdrop of loud bleeping, tinny circus music, machine whirs, flashing lights and practically no people.  On finally finding a combination of frozen escalators and steps, I decided to give up on the costume mission and head over to Notting Hill for the coach out of town. 

A blissful few moments on the comfortable top deck offered me the chance to absently admire fluffy clouds, read and reply to birthday messages from seldom seen friends and listen to lulling new music.  Catching up on emails then exerted continued stress about work and my ongoing failure to secure much needed support. 

Lunch was being served as I arrived, my nephew glorying in the attention of his pirate-themed 3rd birthday.  We bid each other happy birthday and exchanged gifts before playing with his latest plastic.  Already there were both sets of confusingly named grandparents (I’m yet to completely memorise who’s Nan and who’s Grandma).  I opened my own gifts and cards before taking him around the suburban block on his new scooter.  When hoards of children aged from ten months to five years appeared in the house, I disappeared to take a work call.  Standing in a three year old’s bedroom as screams peeled from the floor below, I wore an ear-ring, false eye-patch, held a toy cutlass, but sounded consummately professional.  Back downstairs the children appeared to be multiplying.  I walked to the next room to see a previously unnoticed baby crawling along the floor, or a slightly older tot charging at precarious pace with a polystyrene sword.  There was a sprinkling if not directly proportionate number of mums now too.  It alarmed me how instantly the unknown children wanted to play with me, trust and distrust something not yet learned.  Frightening.  I almost wanted to teach them there and then.  I enjoyed a watery bland conversation with one of the mothers; she had friends near where I live, which was nice.  The kids ate their pirate party meal and the host parents spontaneously put on an elaborate pirate sketch where my brother played a scary evil pirate.  The children bought into it completely, terrified by his creepy leering as he suddenly appeared behind the patio window. 

Children and parents began to dissipate around half five and I was gone not long after.  A cumbersome cardboard box containing newly framed pictures offered a not inconsiderable challenge during my many-legged return trip: coach, walk, tube, tube, bus, walk.  By the end, it was on the point of disintegration, and my arm on the point of falling off.  Having returned to the flat, I immediately adorned my walls with the new, still intact pictures, opened the first beer of my birthday and admired their effect.  A half hour break from travel, then town summoned me again. 

A friend insisted on heading for the swanky bar of a client: it’d be cool, and good. It’ll probably be quite expensive but don’t worry, it’s your birthday so I’ll pay for the first round of drinks then we’ll go, he said.  We joined a short line outside the venue.  Twenny pand admission, a stony faced female doorwoman said once we’d advanced to the head of the queue.  Dyou wanna?  My friend asked.  Not much, my shaking head, flared nostrils and pursed lips told him.  Aw, c’mon! he persuaded.  It’ll be fun.  Hrm, if we must.  We entered and a cashier told him they didn’t take cards.  I gave her forty pounds.  Forty fucking pounds.  The bar was impossibly loud, ludicrously expensive and full of shiny young hipsters.  I realised I’d actually been there before for an equally ghastly work event and felt every single one of my years.  We chanced upon professional contacts and began impromptu networking.  A couple of drinks and many closely cupped ears later, the guys left us, I expressed my misgivings and we left. 

A cashpoint visit, payback and dithery squeltch around a rainy Soho later saw us settle on a marginally more sedate late license bar.  Here we chatted to a range of people, the first of whom were attracted by my eager friend’s fast-handed card tricks: attractive Australians, two female who we chatted with, two male who we didn’t; a pair of attractive but extremely cold young Norwegian girls – one looked permanently disgusted; and another pair of young, not so attractive locals.  By this time my energy levels were waining.  My friend was his regular supercharged, duracell bunny-style self, still rapidly talking in ebullient fashion to practically anyone.  When we’d met earlier in the evening he was closing a conversation with two elderly theatregoers on the street.  They’d considered him warmly on parting, although it was obvious their acquaintance hadn’t extended longer than ten minutes.  At 3am lights came on in the bar and we left, swaying up towards Oxford Street, coming dangerously close to the “I love you mate” cliché before parting with a manly clinch at my nightbus stop. 

Leaning sleepily against a shuttered shop front window behind the bus stop, two men approached at pace, cutting strangely skittish, bedraggled shapes.  Their short fight broke out under my nose in frittering flapping style, like birds competing over a breadcrumb.  None of those movie fist-to-face noises.  No shpucks, more like a large flag flapping in a strong wind.  People stepped back and away, nervous of the sudden violence.  I stayed leaning against the shop, rather too close, feeling tired, drunk and oddly removed.  The stockier, more confident man took the upper hand as his wiry rival fell, floored, taking more blows as he went and delivering few counters.  It was over, the winner was clear and he took a step back.  The loser managed to quickly rise and flee as his assailant accepted a fallen mobile from one of the three score of onlookers.  However, the device appeared not to have been his.  He held it high then smashed it down hard onto Oxford Street, yelling more threatening abuse as his vanishing competitor disappeared beyond Tottenham Court Road tube station.  Brief entertainment in what turned out to be a long wait, and even longer night bus ride back.  A couple of old school 80s punks with appropriately flamboyant hair had a falling out around Kensington.  The female became vocal and hit the window hard in frustration, stirring a number of passed out passengers from drunken slumber.  Her mohicaned partner looked away, head in hands, crestfallen.

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