This month, I came of age. That age. The age that Macca wrote and sang about. How did I get to be so old? My wife assures me that she still needs me and will continue to feed me – whenever it's her turn to cook. To supplement her birthday greetings, she presented me with a bottle of wine. A nice one, too. St. Emilion, bio, gold medal winner. There are no grandchildren on my knee as yet, although the Daughter is discovering that there's more to life than long hours in a fashion house and wants to have a family when the time is propitious. Knowing her, I doubt whether they'll be named Vera, Chuck or Dave. I'm sure she'll find some suitable equivalents.
How did I get to be so old? When I was my daughter's age, it seemed inconceivable that one day I would be 64. There were decades to go; I could rest easy in my big brass bed. But here I am and they've all gone. We're obsessed these days about keeping young and beautiful: whether it's a vigorous work-out in a gym or just a teeny-weeny injection of Botox or a little 'lifting' or the newly discovered ingredients of some elixir of life. But I don't think it's sour grapes on the part of this old codger to suggest that youth is an overrated commodity. When I think about Our Kid, somewhere near the first step on her career ladder, I'm rather glad that I'm not that young again. I wouldn't relish the idea of setting out once more on a road ahead, paved with hard graft, painful decisions and unsettling discoveries about human nature.
All that in exchange for what? A little more energy and vim, clearer vision and Iggy Pop's 'lust for life', which probably boils down to sex drive for mere mortals without the means for fast cars and wild parties. At 64, the body's still willing, it just recognises its limitations. This weekend I was helping some friends stack straw bales under a hangar, snug for the winter prior to building in the spring. I was chatting with a guy I hadn't seen for a while. He'd turned 60 in the interim and we were both pondering why we had to pause for breath so regularly. What had happened to our former energy and strength? In our minds, we were still the same age that we were before.
I wonder sometimes whether I've simply got the numbers round the wrong way. Like my wife's godmother, who's sneaking up on 96 in a very sedentary way. When Debs saw her last year, not long before her own 60th birthday, her godmother suggested that they were both the same age. 59. 'I think you'll find you're a little bit older than that,' my wife suggested. 'Oh am I? I don't know; I think they must have got it wrong somewhere,' her godmother chuckled.
We've just seen the old dear a couple of times during our recent stay in the Frozen North to mark the bitter occasion of my mother-in-law's 90th birthday. She, the godmother, slips in and out of reason these days. She recognised us both and even introduced us by name as husband and wife to her helper, but a few moments later she was questioning the whereabouts of her mother-in-law. 'I don't know where she can be,' she fussed. 'She's been gone a long time.' 40 years or more, to be precise. She took on the old woman when she married her deceased husband, the local butcher, in prehistoric times. Such was the deal that she ended up having to change the old woman's nappies. What with that and the stench of animal carcasses, married life can't have been a bowl of pot-pourri.
Back when she was turning 80, my mother-in-law told her daughter that she didn't want to live another decade and end up as a burden to her friends and family. So you can appreciate that the 90th birthday was something to be endured rather than celebrated. For all concerned. Things have moved on apace in 10 years, if that's the mot juste for entropy, slowing down and general deterioration. She's as deaf as a post, her knees are failing her, and the eyesight has faded to the extent where she's wary now of driving her car, her only feasible way of getting around the wilds of Cumbria, where the wind bloweth and the rain raineth seemingly every day (apart from the brief respite of summer).
It wouldn't be so bad if she were as innately idle as my dad, who is only too happy for others to do everything for him. My mother-in-law, however, is proud – and stubborn – to the point of hostility. And my poor wife is the one who has to bear the brunt of it. On the Monday morning, for example, while I was swanning about on Appleby's deserted golf course with a friend from my days in Sheffield, wrapped up against the wind but basking in some rare autumnal sunshine that lit up the Pennines on one side and the Yorkshire Dales on the other, the Good Wife was in conference with her mother and a young woman from some organisation linked to the local Social Services. Any helpful proposition about extra cleaning or converting a cloakroom into a walk-in shower fell apparently on determinedly deaf ears. Debs slept fitfully that night and shed tears of frustration and sadness for the passing years.
The birthday meal – cooked traditionally to order by my wife, who obediently put away her Yottam Ottolenghi recipe book – went not with a knees-up but a polite whimper. My mother-in-law drank just enough champagne to render her affable and pliable, and her three local friends all parted at an hour that left sufficient time for recuperation in the sanctuary of our bed. It was enough of a success to leave us feeling that duty had been done. Interestingly, though, in an age of ceaseless snapping and posting, not a single photograph had been taken. On the way back to our 'love shack', as we christened it, at the other end of the village, I expressed the wish that there wouldn't be a 100th birthday. Debs muttered something dark and un-filial about a 91st birthday.
Safely restored to our French home, a safe distance from the stark beauty of Cumbria, I can reflect on the week away and wonder when I the Visitor will become me the Visited. When will Vera, Chuck or Dave come to rouse their grandfather from his torpor? It's a daunting and not very salutary thought. When I turned 24, the thought of reaching 42 seemed like a fantasy. When I turned 46, the idea of being 64 seemed a bit whimsical. But if I add the factor of 18 to the same equation, I get 82. And that's no joke. I'm not even sure that the law of averages will permit me such an age.
I hope it does. It's a strange thing. Even though the world seems to shift monthly further to the right as the apparent majority denies the obvious inconvenient truths about life on planet earth, I'd still rather be here – gnarled fingers and all – than six feet under the sod.