The birthday begins on Thursday afternoon at 4pm, when The Ex informs me that F wants cupcakes to bring into class the next day, and can I bake some that evening?
“No,” I say. “I can’t.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I can make them, then, and bring them to you when I drop him off.”
“Oh. Okay. I thought I’d give you the chance to do it, you know, because you do it every year.”
“He’s in Year Three now. They don’t do that anymore. I’m not baking him cakes to take to school on every birthday for his whole life.”
“Okay. It’s just ... he wants them. He’s asked about it.”
“Well, he should have asked earlier. He can’t just ask for things the night before. I have work to do tonight. I can’t do it.”
“It’s fine. I’ll bring them in.”
F is dropped off on Swanston Street, below the blue fairy lights of the Arts Centre, at 7.30pm. He slithers out of the car, feet first, as his father passes two bulging supermarket bags through the open door; each tied in a filmy white bow.
“Here are the cakes and the icing. It’s all there. All you have to do is ice them!”
“But I don’t have time! I told you that.”
“The icing is made! It’ll take you no time at all.”
“Well, I can’t. I have work to do.”
We glare at each other as I close the door and back onto the footpath, pulling F with me. He chases the car along Swanston Street at a leisurely jog, easily keeping pace with the sluggish traffic. He skips off the kerb and onto the road to tap at the window of the crawling car. I scold him and pull him back again. (“You could get yourself run over!”)
“Bye Dad! Bye Dad!” he sings, dancing along the footpath now, against the tide of slickly suited office workers and carefully groomed theatregoers.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” I tell him, throwing out my words in cross little bites. I explain that I have to prepare and practice for a big talk I have to give tomorrow, that he can’t ask things at the last moment, that I told Dad I couldn’t do it. My thoughts whirl furiously as I talk, an undertow of resentment: I’m already here picking F up from the city so that The Ex, whose car is at the mechanic’s, won’t have to catch public transport from the inner south to Yarraville tomorrow morning. This is one favour too many. As F accepts his fate, that he will bring naked cakes to school tomorrow, I realise with a twist of the stomach that I will, of course, ice the bloody things.
“You are a good mother,” hums The Husband, watching from the couch as I untie the bags and wrestle with the plastic containers of icing. One is gluey-white; the other iridescent blue. I dip a tentative finger into the blue and lick it, recoiling at the chemical assault on my tongue. It must have been just as vile when I made blue-and-yellow cupcakes last year, when he barracked for the West Coast Eagles. Maybe it tastes worse when someone else makes it. I cross the room and extend a blue-tipped finger to The Husband. He squints at it.
“Just a little bit?”
“Yeah, I know it will be. It’s bloody bright blue, for god’s sake.”
I scrape the knife across each cake as quickly as I can, working my way through the bag and arranging them on a plastic tray. Do I have to do all of them? There’s not going to be enough icing anyway. There are 30 cakes.
“F?” I’m at the doorway of his darkened bedroom.
“How many kids in your class?”
I’m pretty sure he is making it up, to make sure I ice all the cakes. I’m pretty sure there are 24 kids in his class. Or is that 26? The icing runs out at 26.
It’s 9pm when the plastic-wrapped tray of blue and white circles is finished, and I can start work.
It’s Crazy Hair Day today. The pharmacy at Flinders Street station was closed last night, and by the time I finished the cakes, the last local one was, too. It’s an early start, so we can take a slightly different route to school and buy the obligatory coloured hairspray on the way. First, I smother F’s hair in surf wax and tease his hair upright. He looks like a sandy-haired Robert Smith from The Cure, in school uniform.
“I look SO crazy!” he shouts at his reflection. “I will DEFINITELY win the prize for craziest hair! Yeah!”
He poses, perched on the rim of the bath, plucking at the strings of his imaginary air guitar.
On the footpath outside our house, he bends to waggle his head at his shadow, a miniature Narcissus at his bitumen looking-glass.
“I’m a PUNK, Mum!”
“You certainly are.”
At the pharmacy, we tie Snuffy to a yellow pole in the carpark, away from the glass shards that stud the gravel. There is only one can of coloured hairspray left: orange.
“There must be a school sports day or something,” apologises the bemused sales assistant.
“It’s Crazy Hair Day!” beams F.
“Ahhh,” she smiles. “Well, your hair certainly is crazy.”
“I know! It’s my birthday, too.”
She nods at the tray of cakes as she hands me my change and says something complimentary about them.
“Yes! All the kids always LOVE my Mum’s cakes. She makes the BEST cakes!”
Weirdly, I am touched even as I remind him that his dad actually made them. Snuffy watches, wide-eyed, as F dips and twists his head and I attack it with a sticky, hissing mist of fluorescent orange. His ear is streaked orange, as are my hands. I spit into a crumbling tissue from my jeans pocket and clean his ear. My hands remain stubbornly bright.
F bounds alongside Somerville Road and its growling chorus of trucks and cars. He practices leaping, in a kind of flying crouch, landing with his feet wide apart, his tongue firmly protruding in a defiant pink arrow. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!” It’s a sort of unconscious perversion of the Maori haka. He is especially delighted when the first uniformed kids emerge from a cross-street, their longish hair defying gravity with the help of tightly woven pipe cleaners. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!”
“Oh, hello F!” laughs their Dad. He looks at the cakes. “Is it your birthday?”
“Yes! It is!” He turns to me, suddenly serious. “Can you come to assembly today?”
“Sorry darling, I can’t. I have work to do. My talk today.”
“Please? They’ll give me my birthday card. I’m going to achieve my dream today – to get up on a stage in front of people looking like this.”
“It might not be until next week.”
“No. My name was in the newsletter this week.”
“I’m so sorry, darling, but I just can’t. I have to be in the city to give this talk at 12.30pm and before that I have to have a shower and wash my hair and get dressed and practice again.” I appeal to his finely developed sense of logic and justice. Then I appeal to his sense of humour, for good measure. “I can’t get up in front of people like this, can I?” I am wearing jeans and sneakers, with a hooded tracksuit top. My hair is scraped back in a greasy ponytail.
“Sure you could.”
We’re at the school gate now. I hug him tight and wave him off as he leaps into the schoolyard, tongue flickering, tray of cakes held before him. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!”