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Tim Dowling: I wake up filled with dismay – it’s my birthday

On the morning of my birthday, I finally give in to dismay. Up until that point the weather had been good. It seems wrong to feel dismay when you’re lying on a sun lounger on a Tuesday afternoon, ignoring work calls.

But on the morning of my birthday the sky is slate grey, a cold wind is blowing raindrops against the window, and I am very, very old. I sit up in bed, thinking: what is this feeling? Is it dismay?

“Happy birthday,” my wife says.

“June,” I say. “I was born in June, in a country with a normal climate.”

“You’ve got two guests coming,” she says. “That’s all I could find.” I try to recall what guests would normally expect from me: matching socks?

“We might have to cancel,” I say. “Is the heating on?”

“Why are you up so early?” my wife says.

“I don’t know,” I say.

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I get dressed and go down to my office to find two birthday greetings: one from my computer, and one from a company I hired a car from six years ago. I am surrounded by the unfinished projects and doomed self-improvement attempts through which I had intended to turn the lockdown to my advantage: books I have not read, musical instruments I purchased but still cannot play. Outside the window I can see my half-completed mosaic table, swaddled in bin liners in a failed bid to keep the rain off it.

I now understand my mistake. I should have started with dismay. The correct response to enforced isolation was always faint-heartedness.

After an hour, I go inside to make myself another coffee. The oldest one is in the kitchen, sticking one stamp after another on to a padded envelope with a quizzical look on his face.

“Happy birthday,” he says.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Trying to send someone back their sunglasses,” he says. “I picked them up by mistake in the park.”

“Sunglasses,” I say looking out at the rain. “Huh.”

“Is this legit?” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever mailed anything before.”

“Just make sure it fits through the pillar box slot,” I say.

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“What if it doesn’t?” he says.

“Can’t remember,” I say. “I think we just used to give up.”

At 7pm my two guests arrive to sit shivering in the garden until it’s dark enough to go home. No one is really drinking, except me. Afterwards we have a takeaway and I open my presents: some shoes, some headphones. The middle one has sent me a package from America, containing grooming accessories for my runaway lockdown beard.

“Are you enjoying your birthday?” my wife says.

“It’s nearly over, that’s the main thing,” I say, squirting beard oil on to my face through an eye-dropper.

“There’s still cake,” she says.

“I’ve never oiled a beard before,” I say. “Is this legit?”

My phone pings in my pocket. I think it might be another birthday greeting, but it’s just a reminder from the language learning app I signed up to. At the beginning of lockdown they sent me messages that said, “You’re on fire!” After a while they said, “You’re in danger of losing your streak!” This one says: “These reminders don’t seem to be working.”

Just before bedtime I go out to the garden to rearrange the bin liners on the mosaic table, weighing them down with bricks against a stiffening wind. Then I head upstairs to stare at myself in the mirror as I brush my teeth. You should have restricted yourself, I think, to a single lockdown goal: visibly ageing. You’ve had nothing but success there over the last 14 weeks. In fact, you’re on fire.

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When I open my eyes the next morning, my wife is already dressed and downstairs. The day is, if anything, darker and colder than yesterday, but I am much more optimistic. I’m looking forward to this next phase – the bit where I attempt to sleep through whatever’s left.

www.theguardian.com

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