My birthday was approaching and I had asked my mother if I could have a party. I was going to be six, or at least that's how I remember it. I'm not sure the sums quite add up, or even that it necessarily matters given that 1971 was over forty years ago, but for the sake of argument let's assume I have most of it roughly on the money.
I'd attended a couple of birthday parties by that point, which I suppose was how I came to decide that I'd like one of my own. Jeremy had most likely requested my presence at his party the previous October; and Paul Moorman - the kid who lived on the next farm along, the place with all the chickens - had invited me to one of his parties. It was a little odd because Paul's birthday fell on Christmas day, so he celebrated on an entirely different date just like the Queen. The guests had been just myself and Paul's elder sister - who kept her distance for most of the afternoon - and everything supervised by Paul's mum. We played a game, using drinking straws to remove hard frozen peas from a tea tray. The idea was to place one end of the drinking straw against the pea, then suck hard so as to secure the pea and lift it from the playing surface without directly touching it. I don't remember who won, but later we had jelly and cake and the like.
I helped prepare some of the food for my own party in so much as I made bowls of a desert involving lime jelly, whipped cream, half a peach and some kind of wafer. The peach half was supposed to represent a yacht afloat on a sea of green, with whipped cream as waves and the wafer for a sail; and I recall having made these following a recipe in Ursula Sedgewick's My Learn to Cook Book - probably with my mother doing most of the actual work - although rooting around on the internet I have found that the book in question contains no such recipe.
I sent out invitations to kids from school, although we were still enjoying the final stretch of our summer holidays. Someone who could have been either Tom or Matthew wrote a reply roughly equating to:
Thank you for inviting me to your birthday party. I would like to come but I can't because I don't like Andrew Brown. He pushes.
Andrew Brown was a skinny child resembling the espionage-prone television puppet Joe 90, due mainly to his spectacles. He derived amusement from all sorts of unorthodox sources. My mother once asked if we wanted some Treets - this being the brand name of a chocolate coated peanut confection which was eventually replaced by Minstrels. Andrew wheezed with laughter, insisting that she had asked us if we wanted some trees. On another occasion, as Paul Moorman told me, Andrew had greeted some stranger in the village with the words hello bloke, which must have sounded pretty odd coming from a small child. I'd been to Andrew's house in Ilmington just once, and remember this because his family had a colour television - the first I'd ever seen - upon which they were watching an episode of Lost in Space; and even as I was still reeling from this sensory overload, I was flashed by Andrew's little sister just out of the bath and wearing only a towel, although I was far too young to know what I was supposed to do with the information.
I knew Andrew to be strange and yet entertaining, and that his family were more financially blessed than mine, and that his sister was some sort of naturist, but I had no experience of his pushing. Maybe he just didn't like Tom or Matthew or whoever it had been on the alleged receiving end of his motive force. In any case, after a brief year or so at Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants he was moved to a fancier school, which at least reduces the likelihood of the birthday party to which I had invited him having been my seventh.
Anyway, Andrew didn't show and neither did Tom or Matthew or whoever it was. There was Paul, Jeremy, and Michelle from my class, and also Owen, a child from the year below. I didn't know Owen particularly well but had decided to invite him anyway. He was one of the five children - myself included - regularly ferried from surrounding farms and villages to the school by Mr. Collett, the owner of both the local garage and taxi cab service. Four of Mr. Collett's regular passengers had working parents who were otherwise occupied doing things to cows or sheep from before dawn to just after dusk, and then there was Owen who appeared to live with just his mother, and I don't think she owned a car. Nor did she own a television set, which unfortunately meant the rest of us were to Owen as was Andrew Brown to ourselves in terms of television hierarchy. His family had apparently stalled around 1940 or thereabouts, at least in respect of technology, dress sense, and spectacles of a kind once popularised by Arthur Askey and Harold Lloyd. This made him something of a target at school, his lagging behind the rest of us in terms of the industrial revolution, and seemingly belonging more to the era of Dick Barton than that of Doctor Who; at least I always assumed this to be the main reason that other children seemed to take against him. I suppose it might equally have been his somewhat lively personality which my mother generously described as boisterous, and which eventually began to get on even my tits. The crucial realisation - at least for me - came as Matthew and I stood in line patiently waiting to be let onto the playing field at the rear of the school. Owen, standing in front, turned to us, already lost in some bizarre routine of his own.
'Knock yourself into the ground,' he explained loudly, grinning and hammering himself on the head with one fist whilst bending incrementally at the knee so as to effect the illusion; and having knocked himself into the ground as far as seemed practical, he presented us with the culmination of the tableau, jumping up into the sky as though having manually powered himself through the centre of the Earth and out the other side.
What the fuck? was still a few years away from taking its rightful place in my vocabulary, but that would have been my reaction were it not so. Owen just seemed to rub people up the wrong way, and by the time we made it to secondary school, the two of us may as well have been strangers. This could have been either because Owen was noisy and abrasive, or because I was essentially a dick and terrified of associating with conspicuously unpopular kids in case whatever it was they had rubbed off on me.
Meanwhile back in September 1971, Owen was yet to knock himself into the ground and thus incur my disdain, and so I invited him to my birthday party, probably enjoying the idea of myself as the great philanthropist, welcoming the weird, bouncy kid into the fold.
Come inside, friend, and partake of the iced gems. We shall not cast you away, not like those others, for we are a more noble breed of child...
Owen gave me a toy racing car for my birthday, a pleasantly solid model made of die-cast metal with a spoiler at the rear. The body was white with decals spelling out the names of Castrol GTX, STP and other sponsors. It was sturdy and felt a good weight in one's hand. I opened the other presents and then we ate, I suppose.
Then, during a moment of untempered bounciness, Owen bust my plane. It was a toy plastic airliner my grandmother had given me, one with a transparent upper fuselage allowing one to view all the little rows of seats within. Truthfully I had found the thing a bit weird. The transparent fuselage seemed far-fetched, and I wasn't sure why anyone had made a toy from such a design, plus it seemed kind of cheap and crappy, although I knew better than to mention this to anyone. Within my personal toy hierarchy, the plastic airliner was some way down, but I was nevertheless outraged when Owen broke it. What the fuck? would have come in handy at that moment, but as I said, I was still a few years short of picking up that particular expression.
'But I bought you a racing car,' Owen wailed in his own defence, clearly regretting his reckless act of aeroplane destruction. I wrestled with the thought, weighing what was undoubtedly a quality piece of engineering up against my somewhat crappy former plane, but I still couldn't talk myself out of wishing I'd never invited Owen.
Over the next hour or so, my resentment grew until it came to a head in a field to one side of the road running past Mr. Harding's house. We were playing on a flatbed trailer - the sort which had only recently been piled high with bales of hay. We climbed on and off, doubtless yelping and screeching with all the excitement. Someone proposed the imposition of a narrative upon the activity whereby everyone stood upon the trailer had certain admirable qualities, whilst those still down on the ground were deemed in possession of less admirable qualities most likely pertaining to poo and related substances. Owen yelped and set one foot on the tow bar, leaping up onto the side of the trailer.
'You're not coming up here,' I told him with some venom, and pushed, my hand square against the centre of his chest. He fell backwards through the air, three or four feet to the ground and landed on his back. I immediately understood I had become the school bully, one of those kids I myself hated. Owen had probably broken his spine in two and would never walk again, and I was responsible. I had done that. I felt awful then, and don't feel particularly great about the incident even now, more than forty years later. I don't remember much else of the day, aside from that Owen clearly survived the fall, and cried as we trudged back to the house, fully sobered by what had happened.
Back at school, I guess we were friends again because I remember Owen coming over to the farm to play at least a couple of times, just as I went over to his house for tea. He probably should have told me to piss off, but I suppose children are fairly resilient, and he'd probably grown used to those he considered friends acting like complete wankers from time to time. Then eventually of course he knocked himself into the ground...
I was six years old on Friday 17th September 1971, and this has more recently achieved additional significance because my wife and I share the same birthday, although she is six years younger. If I'm right about the only birthday party I can recall having hosted being my sixth by virtue of how Owen and Andrew figure in its dating, this means I am able to recall the actual day on which my wife was born. As the sequence of events ran, first Owen broke my aeroplane, then I took a leaf out of Andrew Brown's book and hurled him bodily from the flatbed trailer as though I were an enraged gorilla, and about an hour later - five thousand miles away - the woman I would eventually marry was born in the town of Pearsall, Texas.
There's probably not much joy to be had looking for cosmic significance in any of this, and so I don't; and yet, aside from my terrible treatment of poor Owen, it's hard not to regard this simple concurrence as a small but wonderful thing.