Today is my grandmother's 93rd birthday. She was born at five minutes to midnight, and when the doctor asked her mother if she wanted to cross her legs for five minutes and birth a tiny Noelle, my very proper great-grandmother refused in no uncertain terms. She has a similarly feisty spirit, does my grandmother.
I'm talking about her 90th birthday today. After the family-party debacle of her 80th (warring relatives; star-cross'd siblings; a fight in a cloakroom) she decided that she wanted nothing more than a bingo party with her elderly friends. To my very great alarm, she invited my brother and me to come along. We duly turned up, only to realise that our presence was designed to pour and serve the drinks. We weren't social callers. So I did what I thought best, kept the cocktails a-coming and got those old ladies hammered.
After an hour or two of serious drinking and gossiping, the bingo caller started up the machine and the game commenced. The elderly players had all thrown some money into the pot, and competition was high. Conversation dropped to nothing, and the room throbbed with the fuddled concentration of the visually challenged fighting their double vision to see their bingo cards.
Suddenly, the door crashed open, and in filed about sixty people. They walked up the stairs and ranged themselves along the musicians' balcony and, when it was full, down the stairs. My poor grandmother, piss drunk and bewildered, stared around owlishly until she lighted upon a familiar face. It was my aunt.
Note: My aunt, and almost all her family, are self-satisfied members of the Fundamentalist Church of Fire and Brimstone. It was one of that side that caused the debacle at the 80th birthday, when the presence of a pair of homosexuals (who didn't even have the grace to be properly ashamed of their hellbound condition) proved too much to bear. Needless to say, they also disapprove of drinking and gambling, and had strolled unwittingly into a haven of both.
The obvious inebriation of the elderly guests did not deter the interlopers, and the pastor gave a short speech to the effect that their gift to my grandmother on her 90th birthday was their own carol singing group, for a few songs, to cheer the sunset of her life. Hollow-eyed children passed out lyric sheets and the singalong began. The chosen carols were the dirgiest available, and the little old ladies soon got bored and started whispering amongst themselves. My grandmother, party hat rakishly awry, made a truly heroic effort but even she was soon flagging. My brother and I stood back, observing, every fibre of our beings concentrated on not crying with laughter or betraying ourselves as non-singing Godless heathens ripe for the stoning. He's better at it than I am. I had to step out for a moment.
When I came back in, the carolling had stopped, and the pastor was explaining the planned grand finale: a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. However, the Fundamentalist Church of Fire and Brimstone eschews the normal words. They have a version with actions. The words:
Happy birthday to you
To Jesus be true
May all of God's blessings
Rain down upon you
Nice, no? But wait! There's more! The actions, in fact. And here they are, but for full effect you should do them. I hope you're alone. The obliging carollers performed the actions as the pastor explained them:
Line 1: point outwards with both index fingers in 80s stockbroker style
Line 2: extend right index finger to the sky
Line 3: extend all fingers on right hand, together, and bring hand down to approx. 45 degree angle
Line 4: screw line 4, you are making a Nazi salute at a room full of old ladies.
The sheer confusion on the faces of the drunken elderly will keep the cockles of my heart warm till I reach their advanced age myself. As the song was sung, and the carollers enthusiastically did the actions, I kept my eyes on my grandmother. Classy lady that she is, she bravely saluted along with the rest of them, and as the carollers finally, mercifully, filed out to inflict themselves on elsewhere, she beckoned me over and whispered, with admirable restraint: I keep a case of sherry upstairs in my bedroom. Go and bring it down. I think we're going to need it.
Happy birthday, grandmother. I love you very much.
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