The first one is the most obvious; we’d made no plans. The second is more prosaic: I’m useless at remembering birthdays, even those of my beloved parents.
And so bumping into my dad at a Black Country club on the day before a significant birthday was the best moment of the week. We chatted, happy in one another’s company. Just as we’ve been for the past 49 years. Lucky us. Not everyone has it this good.
And then I hit the road, leaving him to enjoy the rest of his evening. I spoke to my mother on my journey. She nudged me, the way mothers do.
“You remembered it’s your dad’s birthday tomorrow, didn’t you?”
It’s a standing joke in our family that I’m incapable of remembering birthdays. Usually my sister serves the function of a Google Calendar by providing a helpful reminder two days before. On this occasion, it had come from one place higher up the chain. Oh dear.
I called my friend. He was backstage at the club in which I’d met my father. He was standing in the wings, ready to go on stage.
“Would you do me a quick favour?” I asked. “At the end of the show, get the headliner to do a shout-out for my dad. It’s his birthday.”
My friend agreed. “Should we call him on stage? Make something of it.”
I laughed. “No. Under no circumstances. He’d be mortified. Just something simple, something unobtrusive.” And that, I thought, would get me off the hook.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And my 11th hour birthday surprise for hero, inspiration and all-round-good-bloke did precisely that.
At the end of the show, the star turn paused before taking a final bow. “Do we have a Stuart in the audience?” My dad would have recoiled. If there’s one thing he hates, it’s fuss. It was about to get much worse. I drove along the M54, oblivious to the unfolding embarrassment.
One hundred and seventy Bilstonians turned around, scanning the room for the guy who’d been singled out by the star of the show. Oops. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.
My dad, stung into action, raised a hand. People clapped. People cheered. He hoped the ground would open and swallow him whole.
The star turn wasn’t done. He decided it would be appropriate for his audience to join him in a tuneless rendition of Happy Birthday To You. It seemed to last forever. And at the end, my father smiled wanly before slipping into the shadows and vowing to kill his youngest son. At midnight, my phone blinked. There was a message from my old fella. It contained language not fit for a family newspaper. Evidently, he’d been wished a happy birthday by more people than had ever wished him a happy birthday in his entire life. My mother and sister thought it hilarious. My dad was still the colour of a crimson sunset.
We spoke the following day. He congratulated me on being responsible for the third most embarrassing moment of his life. I was a little disappointed – I’d hoped to go straight in at number one.
Apparently, that position was held by former colleagues at a place he’d worked some years ago. They’d decided to set him up with one of the girls in the office. Just before Christmas, they’d had a whip round and got everyone to donate to a collection. My dad had chipped in, generously paying for the strawberry creams. As Christmas arrived, gifts were distributed and everyone went home happy. And then the following Monday, the office girl in question came up to my dad.
“Thanks Stuart,” she purred, probably arching her back lasciviously and decorating his desk with her ample frame. My dad had no idea what she meant. She thought he was playing hard to get. “You know,” she continued. “For the little gift.”
She’d imagined it was a gentlemanly come-on. He had no idea what she was talking about. It transpired his colleagues had decided to send a loving Christmas card and box of chocolates from him to her – as a laugh – and she’d fallen hook, line and sinker. As my dad tried to explain that he hadn’t been responsible, she flew into a rage, ignoring him forever more and staying friends with the colleagues who’d set the whole thing up. Life is strange. And frequently unfair.
Next year, I promise not to get 179 people to sing Happy Birthday to my dad. I promise not to be responsible for the third most embarrassing episode of his life. Though I don’t promise to remember to send a card on his birthday – I’ll damn well forget. So I’m getting in early, to avoid any chance of misunderstandings: Happy birthday, old fella. Love you.