‘‘I am SO excited!” Larry’s face is glowing like a Belisha beacon. It’s only 7am and it’s not his birthday until tomorrow but he’s already so hyped that he can hardly stay in his chair.
“Of course you are, big man,” I say, smiling wanly, and knock back an extra-large gulp of coffee. I woke up this morning with sinusitis and my head is stuffed with something soft and achey. But being ill is simply not an option when you have a Magical Birthday Experience to orchestrate.
Larry has been mentally preparing for his fourth birthday ever since the day after his third birthday. We threw him a little party last year and it was great fun because he had no expectations of it. We could have given him a packet of cheesy Wotsits and a party popper and he’d have had the time of his life. That day, he realised that a birthday entailed not only presents but also friends and cake. The glorious penny dropped: it’s like Christmas! But just for ME!
The stakes have been raised yet higher by other parents, who insist on throwing splendiferous parties for their offspring with scant regard for how they are raising the bar for everyone else. Larry was invited to one recently at which there were at least 50 children, a bouncy castle, a cake shaped like an enormous Barbie castle and a full-size trestle table laden with sweets. At another, he was entertained for two hours by Captain Fabulous, an alarmingly cheerful drama school graduate in a superhero suit who had a mobile disco, complete with a foam machine.
We can’t compete with that, so we’re not going to try. Curly and I are, for once, in full agreement: we’re keeping it simple, keeping it trad. Six friends maximum; pin the tail on the donkey; musical statues; oven chips and sausages on a paper tablecloth on the floor; cake, jelly and everyone home by 5.30pm. Bish, bash, bosh.
So, it’s not that much of a big deal, I tell myself later that morning, as I haul my infected head around Sainsbury’s. Radioactive-looking chewy sweets: check. Icing sugar, Octonaut-blue food dye, jelly cubes: check.
It’s all going well until we reach the “party bags” aisle. I peer helplessly at the towering wall of crap before me: shelves stuffed with tiny yo-yos, spinning tops, rubbery monsters … I hate it all but my overwhelming concern right now is not to send anyone home crying. On a good day, I’d think of an imaginative alternative – vegetable seeds! Yoghurt raisins! – but not today. I wearily load up the trolley with whoopee cushions. Surely if I buy enough whoopee cushions, it will all work out fine?