There were balloons that day. There were orange balloons, red balloons, yellow balloons; floating like colourful rubber blimps above us all. It was my day. There were mounds of thickly iced, moist sponge cakes. The largest one caught my eye, speckled with candles like darts on a dart board, ‘Happy Birthday’ written in edible pinks and purples with a careful hand. There were beaming faces, broad smiles, blushing cheeks. Bright eyes. She arranged my presents to one side, the smell of home and familiarity blooming all around her as she discarded the wrapping paper and silently kept everything in order and in the right place. I never knew quite how she did it. He stood beside her, solemn but proud, and they watched me dashing about the place, giggling with friends whilst dodging waiters and waitresses who were hurriedly tending to impatient customers.
At once I remembered Peter, and sought him with my eyes only to find him sitting alone in a chair set next to the long brown table. At the tender age of seven, being the only boy at a party saturated with gleeful girls was so shameful it had brought blood to his cheeks. I mirrored him, colouring instantly at the realisation of my forgetful neglect and tiptoed awkwardly over to him in my shimmering green frock. He glanced up, saw me and smiled. It was a sheepish and cheeky smile, but a lonely one nonetheless. He was persistently tweaking the thumbs of each hand with the other, then pressing his fidgeting hands tightly together in his lap. His shirt was blue, his trousers black. I wondered if he had chosen to wear it, even picked it out in the shop, or if in fact his mother had dressed him for my birthday. The latter was the most likely. I blinked out of my reverie to the sight of him holding out a package. It was so close to my face that as I breathed the smells and textures of glossy paper and festivity filled up my little lungs. I wrinkled my nose and gently took it from him. He smiled again. This time it was much more genuine. I noted how two tiny dimples dipped into his cheeks when the corners of his mouth lifted, and I smiled back, curiously touching my own face but finding it dimple-free. He was watching me, and I realised I had to open the present. As I was burying my fingers into the paper, I absent-mindedly wondered how I should react if I didn’t like it. What if it was something I didn’t want? I would say I loved it, obviously. It was perfect. That was the only answer. The only thing I could do. That was it.
My fingers suddenly found soft fabric and the wrapping paper fell to the floor, scattered around my feet like fallen birds. I was left holding up a pair of beautiful cream tights. They were littered with gold blemishes, glittering in discreet and mesmerizing patterns up and down, up and down. Peter saw the reflection of gold in my eyes, and bit his lip. I thanked him. Instantly I turned and fled to her, and to him, clutching my precious new tights to my chest. Delight lit up my face. She told me how lovely they were, how beautiful they would look, and he told me I couldn’t accept such a pretty gift. As my parents pulled me to them and hugged me feverishly, I glanced back at Peter. His hands weren’t in his lap anymore. He had stood up, and was waving at me, shyly, with adoration. I flushed and turned back into their arms.
Weeks later, she told me I couldn’t wear them. “They are so pale,” she had said, “they’ll get filthy, save them for a special occasion.” How could an occasion be more special? I only attended friends’ parties and sporadic christenings. “They’ll get filthy.” Protectively I tucked them away in my drawer, and there they remained for months, for years. At times when I remembered, I searched for them in vain. They were gone, and I had never worn them. They were still perfect. “They’ll get filthy,” she said. As time passed I found I had not forgotten. Sometimes I wonder if he still remembers me.