WHEN I was a kid I never had a birthday cake. Not because I grew up in some grim orphanage or had horrible parents but because I had the misfortune of being born just after Christmas.
After the excess of the festive season the last thing anyone wanted – or more importantly, could afford – was more cake.
So every January my mother would slap some Royal Icing on a leftover manky Oxford Lunch and present it to me with a fixed smile, telling me just to be glad there was a cake at all. It became a running joke in our family and in fact when I got married, my Mam iced an Oxford Lunch for me for my hen night for the craic and we all fell about the place laughing.
It was no laughing matter in 1991 however, when I threatened to run away from home unless they got me an actual birthday cake from an actual bakery with my actual name on it. I was deadly serious and luckily the folks realised I was a woman on the edge and made with the cake. It was such a novelty in our house that they even took a photo of me with the cake. That’s me there below, wearing, inexplicably a jumper more suited to the cast of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Anyway, I always swore that if I ever had a kid, I’d make sure he or she always had a brilliant birthday cake – in fact I’d make it myself so I would. I made a promise to my future child that day that their birthday cakes would be creations of wonder, lovingly prepared by their doting mother. No manky Oxford Lunches for them, no Sir!
Fastforward 20-odd years and it’s about ten days until Seán’s first birthday and the panic has set in. You see, I can’t bake. No really, I’m useless. I’m not a bad cook now, but I don’t have the light touch you need to make cakes.
I’m dreadful at following recipes, preferring to fling in handfuls of stuff instead of weighing out the ingredients needed. I can’t knead, I don’t own an electric hand whisk and I don’t even know the difference between bread soda and bicarbonate of soda.
I attempted to make fairy cakes a while back and this happened:
Then I attempted to make a sugar free apple cake and it turned into this wet, stodgy, tasteless mess:
And don’t even talk to me about the time I attempted pretzels and took these oversized misshapen penises out of the oven:
I’m not so bad at bread now, I made a tomato loaf once and it was good. But I can’t serve this at a one-year-old’s birthday party, can I?
I feel like such a failure but I know what I have to do. I’ll be letting down my 13-year-old self but it has to be done – now, someone pass me the Royal Icing.
SEÁN’S having a pirate theme for his upcoming first birthday party.
Not because he’s ever expressed an interest in pirates or because I have any particular interest in pirates, but because that was the choice available in the Two Euro Shop when I went in.
It was either cut price Paddy’s Day paraphernalia or paper plates and cups saying ‘On Your Communion Day’ or the pirates. So I plumped for pirates.
‘Pirates?’ Mammy Dunne – who was with me – said, doubtfully.
‘Yes, pirates. We’re having pirates,’ I said tightly, shooting her my patented Don’t Even Think About It look.
Arriving home, I produced the bag with a flourish to Yer Man. ‘Look, Seán’s having a pirate themed birthday party,’ I said brightly.
‘Pirates?’ he said, doubtfully.
‘Yes, pirates. We’re having pirates,’ I said tightly, shooting him my patented ‘Not In Front Of The Ma’ look.
Other mothers wouldn’t have panic bought the first thing they saw, they would have looked elsewhere for something more suitable for their still-tiny innocent baby’s birthday party. Cups and plates and banners covered in animals or balloons or rainbows.
Better mothers. Sensible mothers. Good mothers. Like my sister-in-law for example who offered me table covers and banners and balloons in both a Mickey Mouse theme and a Toy Story theme.
‘I have them all in the party drawer,’ sez she, like it’s no big deal.
She has a PARTY DRAWER. A drawer full of party stuff – SUITABLE party stuff – that she can pull out at the drop of a hat, effortlessly decorating a room in a flash.
I don’t have a party drawer. I don’t even have a party pile. Or a party plastic bag. I have pirates. Lots and lots of pirates.
This pirate business isn’t the only thing I fall down on. I’ve outsourced the food as well. We’re having a tea party in the afternoon of his birthday, just for family, for an hour. I’m serving sandwiches and tea. With some jellies and goodies for the other kids there, Seán’s cousins.
The more I thought about it, the more I panicked about the food. It’s only sandwiches, but when was I going to get to make them? I had, after all, to clean this bastion of filth [our house] before letting anyone in here and that was going to take days. Weeks even.
Eventually, after being awake all night, tossing and turning, Googling ‘Can you freeze a cheese sandwich’ I threw myself through the door of the local cafe and begged the lovely man behind the counter to help me. Covered in shame I was. Covered.
No problem, he soothed, like it wasn’t the laziest thing he’d ever heard in his life. One platter of sandwiches and some scones with butter and jam as well, how’s that?
I could have kissed him.
In my pirate buying frenzy, I also picked up some pirate ‘Loot Bags’ which you’re supposed to fill with treats to give to the kids attending the party to bring home with them.
I looked at them with horror. How had I let that happen? I had no intention of doing party bags. None. But now they were there, looking at me. Taunting me, even.
‘Fuck it,’ I exploded, when I could take it no longer ‘I’ll do poxy party bags.’
I know most people fill the bags with jellies and sweets and little trinkets from the pound shop. Bubbles and dinky cars and pretend jewellery and what not. Yeah, I can’t be arsed with any of that. I’m filling mine with Lidl buns and a two euro coin. They can buy their own plastic tat themselves.
So the date is set, the theme, food and party bags are sorted. All that’s left is the cake. Now that’s a story for another day.