It was my birthday last month: thirty-nine. I suspect I say this every year now, but it feels old in a way that the previous birthday never did. At thirty-eight you can still fool myself that you're in your mid-thirties - and frequently I almost did – but to say so at thirty-nine would be to try and perform a combover with time, and getting old isn’t a bald patch you can conceal. Now I’m in my late thirties, no denying that. If I have my way I’ll remain there until I turn forty-four.
I didn’t do anything special on the day. My wife suggested restaurants, offered to take me out - somewhere fancy if I wanted, somewhere cosy if I didn’t want to make a fuss. I declined, partly because I didn’t see much cause to celebrate and partly because I had a stinking headache and didn’t particularly feel like going anywhere. Instead I got home, we changed into our pyjamas and we reheated something from the freezer. It’s been the longest, nastiest winter I can remember – a dreary smear, cold, grey and dark every evening when you get home, and I just wanted to drop the blinds, shut the world out and hibernate.
So instead we watched movies. The Devil Wears Prada first, for no other reason than that it was on television and my wife liked it. Isn’t it funny how that works? To deliberately go out of your way to watch a film it has to meet a certain standard, but to watch it on the television, when it happens to be on, the bar is set much lower. There are some films that sneak up on you, you have them on in the background and you tell yourself you’ll change the channel but then you get sucked in and you never do. This is why I have a box set of Eric Rohmer films I’ve never seen, and yet I’ve sat in front of Short Circuit, The Goonies, Up Pompeii, Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head dozens of times. Convenience always wins; I’m convinced that we would all be so much better people if it weren’t for that.
Anyway, I didn’t mind. I enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada, with its subversive message that fashion and superficiality are forces for good which make the world a better place, and its cute points about sexual politics that teach us that eventually a dead end boyfriend who disapproves of all your lifestyle choices turns out to be the one for you. Besides, because it was my birthday I was allowed to say exactly what I thought of Emily Blunt, which the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year is entirely verboten: many happy returns to me.
After that, I got to pick something from the DVD shelves. Because it was my birthday, I was allowed to choose anything I liked, but because I intend to remain married, I appreciated that this offer came with terms and conditions that I didn’t need to read. So we watched Catch-22, because I read the book recently, have always wanted to see the film, bought the DVD a couple of years ago and have never had a good excuse to force my wife to watch it with me. “Thank god.” she said when I returned clutching the DVD. “I thought you were going to pick a Woody Allen film, and I didn’t fancy watching Love And Death again.” (She knows me far too well; my hand hovered over Love And Death for several seconds.)
So we sat on the sofa in our pyjamas, under a blanket and we watched Catch-22, a bleak, funny film of a bleak funny book, full of bureaucracy and senseless death, chaos and indifference. I opened a bottle of Pauillac and it was very nice, but we didn’t drink it all. I wasn’t up to it; not with my headache. There was some chocolate, although that didn’t mark it out as my birthday either because there often is. I’m not sure I’ve ever celebrated less.
The next day, my colleagues asked me how my evening was.
“Where did you go to eat?”
(There is an assumption that I ate out. This is because I do that a lot.)
“Oh, we didn’t go out in the end. We just stayed in, had a bottle of wine, watched a couple of movies.”
“That sounds lovely.” I think some of my colleagues thought it sounded lovely because it was very similar to how they spend most of their evenings, but that’s okay. They have given up on ideas that I’ll join them by having kids, getting pets, moving out to the suburbs, but they probably like knowing that I still visit their world from time to time, even if I’m determined never to set foot in a garden centre.
“Yes, it was actually. It was just what I needed.” I said.
And you know what? It was.
I figured out recently that everything that is wrong with me is from the neck up. The neck is where it all begins. Floaters, dancing in front of my eyes, changing my window on the world into a windscreen that can never be wiped clean. Tinnitus, that almost metallic whine that’s neither completely inside my head nor completely external, white noise that can transform the sounds around me into a radio, not quite tuned in right. Headaches, big smudging pressing headaches that blot out everything else.
At the moment, recovering from a cold, I am deaf in one ear. This happens every year and lasts for about a month. I feel like I am shouting to be heard and yet my voice, when it comes out, is quiet and mumbling. My wife is forever asking me to repeat myself, and I am forever asking her to. We have every conversation in triplicate, listen, repeat and finally understand. I have to stand to her right so I have a fighting chance of making out what she says, I have to pick my seats carefully in restaurants and pubs. The frustration is enormous.
“You’ll have to speak up. You keep forgetting that I’m deaf in one ear.”
“You’ll have to… Oh. I wish you’d stop doing that joke.”
“It’s always funny though, isn’t it?”
Yes, I have to admit: it’s always funny. Some jokes are always funny, like that one, or like saying “pardon me” after you hear a car horn, or a rumbling noise, or someone moving a chair in a restaurant. Jokes don’t stop being funny just because you are the butt of them, painful though that is. My wife told me she’d researched ear trumpets online in the run-up to my birthday. I pretended I hadn’t heard that even though, for once, I had.
Nighttime has become a parade of pills. One for acid reflux, one for high cholesterol, one for tension headaches. If you shake me I rattle, if you ask me if I’ve been under the weather I rattle on. This must be, I realise, what being properly old is like. Perhaps I should get somebody to hand them to me in a tiny paper cup, get ahead of the game.
Everything that is wrong with me is from the neck up. The latest one is that I grind my teeth. The medical term is bruxism, which I rather like. It is a word begging to be capitalised: finally, an ism I can belong to without all the unpleasant associations most isms have these days. It sounds to me more like an art movement than an illness. Maybe I could become one of Britain’s leading, most influential Bruxists. I could win prizes for my worn down molars, be feted on BBC2 and discussed by dozens of pundits. It’s nice to imagine a glittering career ahead of me.
They don’t fix bruxism with pills, though. The solution is less convenient - they make you wear a mouthguard. But first they have to make it: I went to the hospital at the start of the year and they made me bite into something a little like Blu-Tac for what felt like an age but was probably only a couple of minutes. I sat in the chair, fully aware of how ridiculous I must look, feeling like I was eating ectoplasm in very slow motion.
“All done.” said the specialist when I finally unclenched my jaw. “We’ll make an appointment for you in six weeks to come and have it fitted.”
I said thank you, enjoying the fact that there was finally space in my mouth once more for the words to escape from. On my walk home, I was conscious of the cold air whistling through the gaps between my teeth.
A few months later I returned and I sat on the same chair, waiting for my newest accessory to arrive. I was expecting some ceremony, a grand unveiling, a gift box or presentation case. Instead, out came a ziplock bag. On it was a plaster mould of my top teeth and, resting on that, the clear, colourless mouthguard. It didn’t look like a mouthguard though, not really. It looked like a jellyfish that had been washed up on a clump of rocks that happened to be exactly the same size and shape as my teeth. Looking at it was an odd experience: were my teeth really that small? Did they really tilt in that way? Every little detail was the same – the receding gums, the little dents and chips. In another few years, I thought, they’d probably use a 3D printer. Maybe they could replace the rest of me while they were at it.
“You need to wear this every night for three months.” said the specialist. “Then you can come back and see us again.”
Everything that is wrong with me is from the neck up. The irony of it isn’t lost on me: my head is the only part of my body that I really properly use, and it’s the part with all the problems. The rest is just a convenient vehicle, a car I don’t treat very well and never service. Even the engine is temperamental – some days it won’t start, or it runs too fast, or it overheats. The gears don’t work either, the way I wish they would, and sometimes I can’t change up, or change down. I think about myself, stalling and kangaroo hopping through life. I wonder if all the other drivers can tell.
A couple of Saturdays ago, it was the first sunny day of the year and I spent my morning shuttling from pharmacy to pharmacy. The branch of Boots in the station didn’t have my prescription, the drugs that stop my body making so much acid that I can’t function, can’t sleep, feel like I’m burning from the inside out. And I had run out of drugs, so I had to do something I didn’t want to do and ask nicely at the big branch of Boots in the middle of town. I hate transactions which involve asking people to do something out of the ordinary. I hate most transactions in shops which don’t involve exchanging money for goods. I can’t take things back, ask questions, request refunds, say “this isn’t good enough”. I’ve always been like this – so good at finding fault, so bad at expressing dissatisfaction about it. It’s an English disease that eats you up from the inside every bit as much as acid reflux does.
“Can I help you?” said the lady behind the counter. She was one I didn’t recognise, which paradoxically made it easier. One of the women behind the counter at that branch of Boots knows my name without being told, which either means she thinks I’m attractive, or that I go there a lot, and unfortunately have a pretty good idea which one it is: the one that isn’t good news.
“I’m really sorry.” I said, which is my default introduction to any conversation in a shop which doesn’t involve the exchange of money for goods. “But my prescription is held at the branch in the station and they don’t have my medication. Is there anything you can do?”
“What’s the medication?” she said.
“Oh. Give me a second.”
She wandered out of view, past the giant rolodex of cardboard boxed, blister packed illness dressed up as medicine. I’ve always been loath to look too hard at it, seeing it as a compendium of all the help I don’t need yet. Walking round hospitals has always had a similar effect on me, the names of all the departments just a giant bingo card of illnesses I’m yet to contract. The woman returned. She was matronly, but with a hint of softness. All my life I’ve sent out signals that I need looking after, conscious and unconscious, and I think she must have picked up on them.
“You’re in luck! We have one box, but we can’t dispense it to you here because your prescription is held at the other branch.”
“But what I’ll do is I’ll ring the other branch and get them to send someone across to pick it up. They’ll probably be glad of the walk in this weather. Don’t worry,” she said, smiling at me, “I suffer from acid reflux too, I know how bad it can be.”
“That’s really kind of you, thank you.”
“Don’t worry. Give it half an hour and it will be available for you to pick up.”
I still felt awkward, walking into the other pharmacy half an hour later. I expected hard stares, for them to recognise me as the man who made a fuss. I got to the front of the queue, again dreading a conversation which didn’t entirely involve the exchange of money for goods. This woman was younger but, apart from that, pressed from the same mould as the previous one. I suppose the job must attract a certain kind of person.
“I’m really sorry.” I said – that phrase again. “But I’m told you’ve sent someone over to the other branch to pick up my prescription.”
“You’re Mr Evans!”
I felt as if I was being recognised all over again. It’s like the worst kind of fame. You want to be recognised in restaurants, or in the street, or getting out of a limousine at a film premiere, not in a tatty branch of Boots picking up yet more medication.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“It was me who picked it up. I went over and got it for you, in fact I’ve just got back. Give me two minutes.”
“Thank you ever so much.” I said. “I know it must have been an inconvenience, and I normally wouldn’t ask, but I’d run out. Lesson learned for next time.”
“Not at all! It was nice to see the sun, get out of this place.”
That smile again, the same smile as the one in the previous pharmacy. I must really look like I need looking after. She got me to fill out the form – I have a prepaid card for prescriptions now because I seem to need to many, like the Nectar Card of infirmity – and she initialled the label and slipped the box into a bag and I was ready to go on my way.
“I really appreciate you doing this. Have a good rest of your day, I hope there’s some of this sunshine left when you finish.”
One thing many people are surprised by about me is how unfailingly polite I am in real life. I was pondering this as I made my way home from the pharmacy. I say thank you a lot. I say please. I tell people to have a good day, or a good evening, or a good weekend and I always mean it. I say hello to the bus driver. I ask nicely. I can’t stand people who are rude in shops, or in restaurants – especially in restaurants. When I was in the café earlier that morning, I held the door open for the waitress as she struggled through it, plate stacked with salad in one hand, cup full of coffee in the other. She said thank you and I said “it’s nothing”. I smiled at her and she looked back with an expression that said “what a nice man”, or words to that effect. It’s usually women who give me that expression: the women in the pharmacy, the waitress in the café.
I strolled through town, past the crowds of people rejoicing in the first sight of sun in a long time, emerging from the shadows, braving lighter coats and I realised that I am becoming someone else. Slowly, surely, I am morphing into the twinkly, avuncular, unthreatening middle-aged man I never wanted to be. I have a beard. I could do with losing some weight. I am pleasant. I have a card which means that I can have as much prescription medication as I need, without having to pay for it.
I wonder, I wonder, if this is how midlife crises begin.
There was time for one last unveiling.
“Come on!” she said from the bedroom. “I want to see.”
Standing in the ensuite, I lifted up the plaster mould. On the bottom, my surname was written in jagged block capitals: EVANS 7/1/13. The mouthguard came away smoothly, the jellyfish prised off the rocks. It wobbled in my fingers. It was disturbing, too, how easily it slipped over my teeth. Opening my mouth, I almost couldn’t see it was there at all, but closing it I could see how my top lip was pushed out slightly. I felt foolish, ashamed. I didn’t want to go back into the other room, but I made myself.
“Oh! You look so cute.”
Cute, another adjective to add to twinkly, avuncular, unthreatening. Another nail in the coffin, another pill in the tiny paper cup.
“Don’t laugh at me.” I said. It didn’t sound like my voice. I wasn’t sure whose voice it did sound like – she told me later it was like my voice but with the edges knocked off, just like my teeth now had the edges protected. It was hard to say certain sounds – the letter T, where your tongue leaps up and high-fives the roof of your mouth, was especially challenging.
“I’m not laughing at you, honestly. You look adorable.”
All my life I’ve sent out signals that I need looking after. I already told you that.
“Yes. You wouldn’t even know it was there unless you were looking.”
“I’m not going to keep it in next time we make sweet love, so don’t even ask.” I said. She gave me a sly grin.
“We’ll see about that.”
“I guess I’m not going to be able to do that Dick Emery impersonation either.” I said. She should have been touched by that – saying that whole sentence was probably the most difficult thing I’d done all day.
“I’ll live. Anyway, stop talking and read your book. It’s bedtime, and you never learn. We always have this conversation around bedtime! You need to learn to switch off.”
I took my adorable face and buried it in a disappointing hardback, and I tried to forget about the discomfort. And I thought that life isn’t all that bad, however old you get, when you find someone who can overlook you having a jellyfish clamped to your teeth.
Anyway, let it pass because I knew there was more to come. She snores, especially when she has a cold, and some nights she comes to bed with a strip taped across the bridge of her nose, flattening it out, like a bone through the nose of a tribeswoman. She hates it, feels embarrassed, but I happen to think it’s sweet beyond words. I just know that one of these days, before too long, we will settle down together, me with my mouthguard in, her with a strip on her nose, me enamoured of her imperfections and her enamoured of mine and we will fall asleep together, me not grinding my teeth and her not snoring. Love’s young dream: no longer young, perhaps, but still dreaming.