From David Maughan Brown in York: Of givers and receiver(s)

May 7th

So yesterday’s big birthday came and went, as birthdays do, and our children and grandchildren and Sue’s friends went to a great deal of effort, and did a brilliant technology-assisted job, of ensuring that even though we weren’t all able to be together, and we weren’t dining at the world’s purportedly best restaurant, Wolfgat, that didn’t leave a wolf-sized hole in the day.

We had breakfast with Brendan and his family in Cape Town, the breakfast provided by them with the able assistance of Anthony.  Our first British strawberries and cream of the season, orange juice, croissants with brie and fig jam, and an hour spent with them via Zoom made for a very good start to the day.  The presents bought to be given to Sue during our cancelled visit were unwrapped by the givers rather than the receiver (it is said to be better to give than to receive) and will have to wait an indeterminate length of time to be handed over on our next visit.  Louisa and Juliet showed us the elaborately decorated ‘banner-hug’ they had made:  a surprisingly long stretch of paper with a pencilled outline of six-year old Louisa’s head, shoulders and outstretched arms, its whole length elaborately decorated by the two of them, which Louisa thought would be long enough to encircle Sue in a giant birthday hug.

That was followed by a long Face Time call with Sarah and our two granddaughters in Sheffield (Andreas being at work in A&E) during which homemade cards were opened and presents unwrapped (mail-ordered to Anthony’s house and wrapped and delivered by him), this time by the receiver rather than the givers.  The presents included a large pack of biltong and a selection of Hotel Chocolat chocolates – essential supplies for an ex-South African lockdown.  School’s-out social isolation had allowed plenty of time for Hannah and Mia to produce spectacular lino-cut birthday cards, and for Sarah to paint an exquisite ink and water colour birthday card, which was accompanied by a linocut print and an ink and water colour painting which will have to await framing when our excellent, but non-essential, local picture-framer is permitted to open again.  A Zoom coffee-morning with a group of Sue’s friends took up the rest of her morning.

We opened our front door at lunchtime in response to an unexpected knock to find that our next-door neighbour, with whom we have never socialized beyond chatting across the wall dividing our terrace gardens, had very kindly left a bottle of South African bubbly in a beautiful silk bag and a potted starburst chrysanthemum on our doorstep, while her two teenage children had strung a large “Happy Birthday” banner along the front fence.  It would have seemed ungrateful to take it down, so the cat was well and truly sprung from the bag, and Sue had total strangers wishing her Happy Birthday whenever she emerged from the house for the rest of the day.

Part of the afternoon was spent enjoying our very warm and sunny allotment while Sue’s phone struggled to compete with the birdsong as it pinged away trying to draw attention to incoming messages.  The technologically enhanced part of the day concluded with a Zoom hour in the virtual company of the whole family and, severally, in the much less virtual company of four bottles of bubbly with which we toasted Sue.   All that was left then was to make the final heating tweaks to the preparation of an outstanding dinner that Anthony had deposited on our doorstep for us earlier – a dinner, in truth, that Wolfgat would have had to pull out a few stops to rival.   The first course was a seriously good cream of onion and Stilton soup, which we were very impressed to learn had been almost entirely prepared for us by our oldest grandchild, eleven-year old James.  That was followed, first, by a fillet steak with Dauphinoise potatoes and a pink peppercorn jus, and then by a ‘luxury’ eight-fruit fresh fruit salad with a lemon, honey and mint drizzle.  Apart from the qualifying drizzle, the ‘luxury’ bit, I assumed, related to the fact that the eight fruits managed to avoid including in their number any apple or banana, which seem to be the staples of fruit-salads in this part of the world.

The most poignant moment of the day came when our youngest grandchild, three year old Rosie, came with her mother and brother, Mattie, to deliver birthday cards and flowers after lunch and Rosie, very obviously desperate to rush in and give us a knee-high hug, had to force herself, visibly hesitating, just to put the card down on the front step, retreat and wave to us.  She came back later with Anthony and James when they came to deliver dinner and rather sadly sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Sue with a facility conditioned by the innumerable times she has had to sing it while washing her hands.  

There can be no doubting that birthdays are not enhanced by social distancing, and that it would have been preferable if we, at least those of us living in the UK, could have spent the day together.  But, as it turned out, a special birthday that I suspect we had both been secretly rather dreading as an unavoidable disappointment managed to be very special after all, thanks to the love of our children and grandchildren and the thoughtfulness of friends.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Lockdown Birthday

May 5th

Most of the time, the lockdown frustrations of not being able to get out and do our own shopping are relatively minor, and appreciation of the kindness of those who are doing our shopping for us, or delivering what we order to us, or ordering on our behalf, more than compensates for those frustrations.  So the excellent butchers in Bishopthorpe Road, about a mile away, and the greengrocers next door to them have both started home deliveries; our elder son, who lives in York, does a big shop for us once a fortnight or so; and one of our neighbours is always happy to add to her shopping list anything that has slipped through the cracks.  So we are being well supplied, even if sometimes with substitutes for the brands we normally use, as we stick rigidly to the social isolation guidelines.   The one mild frustration is with some of the fruit that is arriving on our doorstep.  I always like to choose my own fruit because none of the York supermarkets I have ever shopped in have ever had the first clue about much of the fruit they sell: not just about whether or not the fruit they sell is ripe, but even about whether it will ever ripen.   As a result most of the fruit advertised as “ready and ripe” is a flagrant, if probably unintentional, breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. ‘Ripen at home’ UK-grown plums and peaches, as well as mangoes, avocado pears and other imported fruit in our supermarkets, have often been picked so green that they will never ripen.  Where the latter are concerned, the answer, of course, is to boycott the air miles and avoid buying tropical or subtropical fruit.  But for those of us who have lived much of our life in Africa that is easier said than done.

So, ordinarily, there is relatively little temptation to ignore the guidelines and go shopping.  But birthdays are not ordinary, and decade-marking birthdays, by definition, only come around once every ten years. My wife, Sue, is due to celebrate what is sometimes referred to as a “significant” birthday tomorrow, and it has been intensely frustrating not to be able to get out to the shops, even to buy a birthday card and wrapping paper for presents that have had to be bought sight-unseen online (give or take the sometimes deceptive online photographs).

Regardless of the question of birthday presents, how exactly does one set about celebrating a major birthday, or any other birthday for that matter, when one can’t be joined by one’s children, grandchildren and friends?  A good deal of planning had gone into an early celebration in the week before Easter, which is one of the very few times in the year when the UK and South African school holidays coincide.   We had planned to spend a few days with my York son’s family, my Cape Town son’s family, and my Sheffield daughter’s family in a large house we had rented in Pater Noster, an improbably named fishing village around 100 miles up the West coast from Cape Town.   Tables had been booked for a celebratory lunch at Wolfgat, an even more improbably named restaurant whose name translates as ‘wolf hole.’  Most improbable of all is the fact that said wolf hole had recently been voted the world’s best restaurant.  That was always destined to be a hard act to follow on Sue’s actual birthday once we had got back to York, but we could, at least, have celebrated with two of our children’s families and our friends.  Lockdown birthdays will be being celebrated by isolated people and families all over the world, and are, even when they are “significant” birthdays, an infinitely trivial consideration in the context of the grieving that has been occasioned by a plague that has now killed very nearly 30,000 people in this country.   But that recognition won’t stop us wishing that, if Covid-19 had to arrive at all, it could have timed its arrival a bit more considerately.