The Birthday Parties


Birthdays in the Durdle household came every two weeks. Or at least they seemed to.

Ray Durdle was born on October 10, 1932. His wife, Ettie May, was born on November 5 that same year. November 19, 1969, Ray Jr, came into the world. Eleven and half months earlier, on December 1, 1968, Winston was awoken from a sound slumber by a desperate need to get out of the cave, and now.

The exception was his grandfather, who had come to live in their home when Winston was 6. His birthday was in April and he arrived on the occasion of his 69th that April, bearing a gold-coloured kitten in a box (a gift to the family), along with his own possessions tucked into suitcases. His wife of 47 years had died two years previously and living with the other relatives wasn’t working out.

He put the cat in the box over by the mangle-washer, dropped his suitcases, and said to his daughter, “I’m here with you now, maid.”, ‘maid’ being a colloquialism for “maiden”. But in the subsequent years, one wouldn’t be blamed for assuming its more usual meaning.

Winston’s birth was on a Wednesday. It rained outside Grace Hospital, falling in a persistent, penetrating way that hit the skin on your face almost like a hail stone. You felt alive as it struck you as you condemned its very existence. One might even question why anyone would live in this God-forsaken part of the world.

The doctor who delivered Winston was married to the Mayor, a Mayor who regularly went on TV to announce one initiative or another and would start each address with the cheerful and direct salutation, “Hello Taxpayers!”

The number one song in the U.K. at the time of Winston’s birth was Hugh Montenegro’s theme to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Meanwhile, across the pond in the U.S. of A., Diana Ross and her group were reigning supreme with “Love Child”.

Most of the people who lived in New Chelsea did so as their forefathers did and if you ask around enough, one New Chelsean or another would tell you they were a direct descendant of the original crew and settlers who came over from Bristol with John Cabot when he discovered the Americas under the sponsorship of the Welsh merchant, Richard apMeryk in 1497.

Early settlers left out of fear and stayed because of it. They passed the fear down to generation after generation, dressing the wretchedness as patriotism. New Chelseans coveted their geography so much that they inverted the American dream.

If you’re from a small town in Wyoming or Colorado, you ask yourself and your country, “Where do I need to go to be all I can be?”

In New Chelsea, you ask, “What do I need to do to stay here?”

Winston displayed a bliss for indifference almost from the outset. It started at 3, when he first noticed the large 19-inch black & white RCA TV, encased a white plastic housing, set upon a small cabinet in the corner opposite the large white oil stove.. It was considered a “portable” model in those days, not like the floor model TV’s with their supporting legs and 24-inch screens which occupied a place of prominence in the front room next to the chesterfield.

The portable’s screen blinked, hummed and then flashed to life whenever it was turned on. One of Winston’s earliest memories was of a singer emerging from a course long and sheer curtains. He start to sing of how only the lonely knew how he felt. Even on that grainy screen, the black and white contrast of his dark sunglasses and pale skin leapt out, reaching across the chrome trimmed kitchen table to demanding Winston’s attention, which he gave it and for years after, never asked for it back. In New Chelsea during the 1970’s, there were only two televisions stations yet Winston never wondered what was on the other one.

He took life as it came. On his first day of Kindergarten, ambled into the classroom without a thought for why he was there or what he was meant to do while there. No one seemed to explain things. For the moment, he was enjoying the red blazer he wore with a yellow patch sewn onto the pocket, a patch displaying some sort of black horse rearing up and a word he couldn’t read but would later learn began with the letter F.

But when he settled in, Winston spent much of the first two years at school reporting.

“We got our electric bill today,“ he reported.

“Dad gave Mom a Toni last night,” referring to the home perm kit bought at the store.

On Mondays, he‘d offered that, “Mrs. Jarvis and Mrs. Reese were at the Temple last night, but Mrs. Dwyer wasn’t,” following the Sunday night service.

Winston wasn’t particularly bothered by what he reported. Telling his teacher that he got a new dinky or that his dad wasn’t allowed to get groceries at the store anymore until he paid his bill was all the same to him. The TV talked to him and never seemed to restrict itself. That’s how things must be.

One spring day in Grade One class, Mrs. Bickford was outside the room and the children were all settling back in their desks from recess. There must have been extra sugar about because most of the kids were talking loudly and over one another. Winston, for a change, wasn’t saying much at all.

Mrs. Bickford rushed back into the classroom looking very annoyed and she immediately grabbed the ruler she kept on the top of her desk. Winston had seen her hit other children with it and although he’d never done anything to deserve feeling the slap of its wood, the mere presence of the ruler was enough most days to keep him and most of other the children in line, unless they couldn’t remember a maths sum, or forgot a piece of homework.

Winston watched Mrs. Bickford rush towards his row. The other children were still talking, like they hadn’t seen her come in. Winston was wondering what was going on and who might be in trouble, right up until he felt the ruler come down across his knuckles.

“I told you all,” she said as she looked around the class, “Keep it quiet in here. I won’t tell you again.”

She didn’t look down at Winston, nor wondered how his hand looked.

For the first time in his life, someone other than his parents punished him for something but this was for something he wasn’t doing. Oh sure, his parents eventually admonished him for speaking up at school about things going on at home, but it was never this heavy-handed.

He told on his teacher when he got home, and his parents met with Mrs. Bickford who became all sweetness and light and assured them that she wished every student was like Winston, so polite and well-behaved. The ruler left no mark. Nothing to show what had happened earlier, so as far as Winston knew, the matter was done with.

But he stopped reporting.

All news was input only. The TV, a faucet of running water and Winston drank in whatever droplet on information came in next.

His world was now his own. The people above you and responsible for you could be against you. Depending on the day. Like Sunday.

By the time he was ten, Sunday was bifurcated between the lessons at the Salvation Army temple and the adventure offered by TV. Salvation Army services started at 7pm and dragged on ‘til 10. The Six Million Dollar Man came on at 9:30 and he wanted to be home for that.

Looking at the clock at the back of the church, he hispered, “Mom, can we go soon?”

“We can’t leave in the middle of testimonials,” his mother hushed.

Testimonials in the Salvation Army were like Catholic confessionals, except more open air in their deliverance. After the Major or Lieutenant gave the main sermon, the congregation was invited to read aloud a Bible passage that approximated their sin for the week.

No one left during Testimonials because everyone wanted to know what everyone else had been up to.

Most Sunday evenings, Winston got to see the second half of the Six Million Dollar Man. He missed the main plot points, but mostly he just was interested is seeing Steve Austin run around in slow motion, fighting the Sasquatch or the Martian Death Probe, making that slightly musical, slightly mechanical “tch-tch-tch-tch-tch” sound, that in 1970’s logic conveyed to the viewer that Steve was a cyborg, a bionic man, who was indeed running very fast or jumping very high.

From in front of the TV, he asked, “Mom, can I have a Six Million Dollar Man for my birthday?”

“What do you want to play with dolls for?” his grandfather quickly scolded. “When Ethel was your age, all she ever got was an apple and book.”

Since his wife died, Winston’s grandfather had taken to accidentally calling his daughter, Ettie May, by his wife’s name, Ethel. Winston wasn’t entirely sure who this Ethel was as he was more concerned with pursuing the prospect of a Six Million Dollar Man.

“He’s not a doll,” Winston flatly snapped back. “He’s an action figure and you can do all sorts of things with him. He can lift an engine block an’ you can look tru da special eye in his head.”

His mother chimed in, “Well, maybe Sanie Claus will bring it for Christmas”, she said in her own vaguely Irish lilt.

That was first time he heard that a gift was better expected for Christmas than his birthday. It became a pattern repeated for years after. Something he wanted to for his birthday would more likely be coming at Christmas. His mother said that they couldn’t afford to be buying two presents every year so close together. But to Winston, everyone else got presents on their birthdays. His brother, Ray, even had a couple of birthday parties with his friends from school. Winston always had to wait ‘til Christmas.

It was true that money was scarce in the Durdle home. Ray Sr, was a high school teacher and the family scraped by on his one income. Ettie May had been a telephone operator, but when her job was moved into the nearby city of Port John, Ray Sr didn’t want his wife commuting on the ferry each day, so she gave up the job to stay home full time with the kids.

Just before Winston’s own tenth birthday, his mother found a ten-er for him to go off and get a gift at Home Hardware for his father‘s upcoming birthday. Winston looked and looked around the shop until finally settling on the one thing he thought his father would like, mostly because Winston liked it too. He cast his gaze on a blue leatherette wallet with a big letter R embossed on the front of it.

His father had once passed on an important lesson about wallets. Ray, Sr had been frustrated by a couple of colleagues from the school where he was a teacher. They were going to come by and help him shingle the veranda but they never showed and Ray had to do the whole job himself.

That night at supper Ray declared, “My son, I’m telling ya. You’ve got one friend in this life,” pulling out his worn, ratty, black billfold. :”And when he’s empty, you’ve got no one.”

Winston thought this blue wallet might be a good friend.

That night, the whole family gathered around the kitchen table and sang “Happy Birthday” to Ray, Sr and Winston watched excitedly as the presents were opened. His mother bought him some new ties to wear in the classroom. Ray Jr, bought a new pair of overshoes to keep the mud off his work shoes. Winston was excited to see the reaction his wallet would get, but all he got from Ray Sr was a slight smile. The smile didn’t embrace the new wallet so much at it was an enigmatic punctuation. The smile said life hadn’t really given Ray Sr what he wanted, and this birthday would be no different.

Ettie May’s birthday was a little more joyous. Coming on November 5th, it always coincided with Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night as it was known in New Chelsea. Ettie May would always worry about the fires that got set in the field by neighbour-kids next door to their house and whether the flames would spread, but they never did.

Winston seemed to get his mother’s birthday a little more right. He took the 20 that his father gave him and he marched right back to the Home Hardware store. He rummaged around in the pots and pans and around the mats and rugs but in the section that could be charitably described as a bit of a “potpourri”, he found what he was looking for.

For a religious, church-going mother, it would have to be perfect.

“How much is that?” he said to the impossibly tall, dark-haired clerk and pointing to the object.

“$16.95,” she said.

“What’s that with taxes?” Winston asked.

“19-something, I think. Did you want it?

“Yeah.”

“Is it for yer mudder’s birthday?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright my ducky, I’ll wrap it up for ya.”

Winston watched at the lady from the store took his choice down from the shelf. He had spotted this picture in the store before but he felt quite chuffed to now be buying it for his mother.

It was a print of the painting, “The Last Supper”. Probably not an original.

More likely an imitation knocked off in an afternoon by an artist for hire somewhere in the world, who needed a few bucks that week. Thousands were printed, royalty free, and one of those prints were now in this small hardware store. It had been mounted on a thin sheet of press-board, covered over by a convex sheet of glass and then, for a fisherman’s last supper, fittingly framed by a row of seashells which had been glued and lacquered into place.

Winston reached into the pocket of his blue, army-style parka and pulled out a blue wallet with a large R embossed on it, which his father said he could “use for awhile.” He pulled out the crisp 20 and handed it up to the clerk. As he walked out the store with the wrapped parcel, almost too big for himself to carry, the clerk switched the sign on the door behind him, that they were closed for lunch.

His mother’s birthday supper was quiet but cheery. The only presents opened were from Winston and Ray Jr. Ray got her a new set of oven mitts and a dust jacket for her hymnal. She opened The Last Supper with a gasp and before nightfall, she had it up on the wall in the hallway that lead from the front porch, past the living room and around to the stairwell. The hallway wasn’t used much, but The Last Supper was the only thing that hung there.

When Ray Jr.’s birthday came ’round two weeks later, a few of his school chums were over at the house again and gathered for a few games and cake in the sun porch at the back of the house. The kids ran in and out of the back door to the small yard outside. Being a year ahead of Ray Jr in school, Winston didn’t know many of the kids from his brother’s grade. So he sat quietly in an old rocking chair his grandmother used when she visited. The arms of the chair were covered in a brownish-tan vinyl covering, matching the head rest of the rocker. The upholstery was a rough, gray, paisley print dominating the seat and the lower back area. Springs and foam bulked it up and made it comfortable to curl up in. Winston could sit in the rocker for hours and just rock back and forth, unconsciously so.

December 1st arrived on a Friday in 1978. The school week was over. He hadn’t told anybody at school it was his birthday. Not even his two friends, Reg and Bunga. He did have a birthday party once when he turned six. Many of his classmates were there. His father had put together loot bags filled with surprise candies. His mother played “Button Button-Who’s Got the Button” with the other kids. Winston got to put records on the Silvertone record player for the first time. He even got to lift up the big wooden lid that filled out the housing for the turntable. He loaded the changer stylus with four records. Bing Crosby Singalongs, Kitty Wells’ “Dust on the Bible”, Wilf Carter’s, “My Heartache, Your Happiness” and the Salvation Army Band “Performs Hymns of Praise”. The party ended shortly thereafter.

There wasn’t a party for his tenth birthday.

“How come Reg and Bunga couldn’t come over?” Winston asked.

“Sure, their parents don’t want them out on a cold night like this.”

“What about Brenda and Jimmy from next door?”

“Look the Carbages own the supermarket in Town Square. They don’t want to be bothered with the likes of you. Or us.”

Winston didn’t think too much about it. He just learned to accept how things were. He’d occasionally whine, but it never got him anywhere. If he had the money for a Coke and a bag of chips at the store, he did. If he didn’t, he didn’t. Money wasn’t something you planned to have. You just sort of got it, when you got it.

He had some that day though. Briefly.

They had stopped into Moore’s, the new dry goods store that had just opened next to Carbage’s Grocery in Town Square. Winston and Ray Jr ran in to see what they had. The dark, brown wooden floor boards creaked as they walked around. The dark brown walls seemed to the make the shelves with clothing, small toys or other household items seem brighter by comparison.

It was a tall circular wire rack that got Winston’s best attention. It had a sign on top that read, “HEY KIDS! COMICS!” Fours rows of comics around, five rows of comics up and down. Winston never saw a comic before although they looked a bit like the cartoons he saw on TV. One of the comics had a familiar figure on the cover. He’d seen Spider-man on TV and this was a book with him in it.

The cover depicted Spider-man fighting the Tarantula but that wasn’t what sold the book to Winston. Inside the front cover was a full page advertisement for a Six Million Dollar Man action figure. Steve Austin was in locked battle with his nemesis, the equally bionic, Maskatron. Winston remembered from the TV ads that Maskatron could put on disguises and fool Steve into thinking he was Oscar Goldman.

The side panels showed what the Six Million Dollar Man action figure could do like lifting “metal” engine blocks or “perform bionic surgery” in the Mission Command Center, or in his Bionic Mission Command Rocket, Steve could go into space and run around in slow motion up there.

If this ad couldn’t convince his mother that he needed a Bionic Man of his own, what could?

So, he turned to Ray Sr, and said, “Can I get this? It’s 30 cents. I have a quarter.”

“I suppose,” his father said. “But your brother has to get one too.”

Ray Jr wasn’t interested in the comic book rack. He was over look at the Police Rookie toy set on a far wall. That was almost 2 dollars, and that wasn’t going to happen today. So, Winston called over his brother and showed him the rack of comics.

Ray Jr did a lot of pointing and asking “What’s dat one?”

“That’s Archie,” was one response. “That’s Superman,” was another. “That’s Richie Rich.”

Not really knowing what he wanted, he settled on something that looked familiar. The TV show, “Emergency” had its own comic, so Ray Jr decided to get that one. Winston didn’t much care which one Ray Jr picked as long as he did, because that meant that he could have “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-man”, Number 2, with the Bionic Man ad on the inside.

He spent the whole car ride home showing the ad to his mother and trying to convince her of the wisdom and joy possible with a Bionic Man action figure.

“Luh, he’s got all these mission suits he comes wit. And that engine block. And then he fights Maskatron. Can I gets a Maskatron too? Oh, and I wants the Rocket Command ship too. You gotta have that to plug him into the mains so you can recharge the bionics.”

“Well, we’ll see if Sanie Claus will bring it,” Ettie May said.

Before supper, Winston had read Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-man cover to cover and several times. He was a bit bothered by Spider-man’s suit not being blue enough or red enough, so he grabbed the Bic 4-in1 pen he got last Christmas and started colouring in Spider-man’s suit with the red and blue pens.

He was sitting at the kitchen table in his chair. It was the one against the wall. Everyone had “their” chair. His father sat was by the archway leading into the front room. His grandfather sat close to the cupboards. His brother and mother sat with their backs to the rest of the kitchen and the oil stove.

He put the comic book and pens down when he saw the light in the kitchen has been turned out and replaced by the light from 10 candles flicking on a chocolate cake and coming towards him and the table. Winston didn’t like cake very much, but he liked the icing and he could see there was plenty of icing on this cake. Off to the side counter, he noticed the bowl with some icing left in it.

As his mother walked towards the table, she started to sing, “Happy Birthday to you” in her clear precise telephone operator’s voice, the one she reserved for answering the phone or talking to someone important or for someone she didn’t know. As he sat in his chair, Winston’s father jumped in on the second line with his flat tuning that was good-enough-for-church, but-not-too-loud. His brother was also singing meekly along now.

The cake was placed on the table and everyone seemed anxious to get a slice of it. Grandfather wasn’t. He hadn’t sung. He didn’t look happy. What he did next, he did very quickly.

He blew out the candles.

“What are ye at this for the likes of him?”

And then he got up and walked out of the kitchen.

Ettie May tried looking for the matches.

“Here, let me re-light them,” she said but the smoke from the extinguished ones caused her voice to strain. She always had that reaction to smoke of any kind. Even if someone was smoking on the other end of a phone call, she somehow knew it and her voice would sound like she was struggling for air. No one expressed shock over what Grandfather did.

A brief, “Oh my,” escaped from Ettie May’s lips. Ray Jr, just looked as if this was not unusual at all. Ray Sr. grabbed a knife and matter-of-factly said, “Here let me get you some cake.”

Nobody raised a voice. Nobody asked why Grandfather did that. Nobody wondered what to do next.

One gift was handed out. It had arrived in the mail from Winston’s Aunt Natalie and Uncle Fred.

“What is it?“ he asked.

“Aunt Natalie sent it,“ Ettie May said. “You remember them from the summer?”

Winston had admired a portable radio that Uncle Fred had brought to the house when the visited in the summer. When Winston opened the brown-paper wrapped box, he found a slightly smaller version of the same radio his Uncle Fred had brought around that summer. The logo said Candle on the front. It had one large speaker hidden behind a faux-wood finish. Two round silver plated plastic knobs on the left hand side controlled volume with a circle of numbers from 1 to 0 and tuning for AM and FM. He smelled it.

Winston finished up the fried chicken and french fries his mother made for him. He ate the icing off the slice of cake he had. Around 8 o’clock, he took his radio to bed with him. He smelled it again, taking in the aroma of the leather backing, the transistors and plastic, and the overall new smell it had coming out of the box.

He fell asleep listening to music and static from a slightly mis-tuned radio station.

It was the last time Winston would mark his own birthday.

But it was a good day.


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