When I wake, sunlight is streaming through the bedroom window. I look at my phone to check the time: just after 6am. Then I see the date, and I have a sudden and overwhelming need to escape the room before my wife can wake up and wish me a happy birthday.
I dress silently, in the clothes from the previous day. For a moment, my wife seems to stir, but then settles. I step over the sleeping dog, squeeze past the door without opening it further (it drags noisily against the carpet) and creep down the stairs.
I lost interest in getting older about 30 years ago, but this is my first brush with genuine dread. I think: if no one says anything, then my birthday hasn’t happened yet.
The cat is sitting on the kitchen table when I walk in, as if it has been waiting for me all night.
“Meryl,” it says.
“I’m not Meryl,” I say.
“Eireann,” it says.
“Where do you get these names?” I say. “Is there like a website you go to?” The cat stares.
“Miaow,” it says.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Let’s dispense with formalities. After all, it’s just a day like any… ”
“Miaow!” the cat says.
“Fine,” I say. “Cat food it is.”
I fill the cat’s bowl with some vet-prescribed dry food specially formulated to promote renal health. It’s expensive, but it lasts much longer than ordinary cat food, because the cat hates it. I set the bowl in its usual place on the wide windowsill, where the cat regards it with contempt.
“You’re welcome,” I say.
The sun is already high enough to dry the dew off the grass. Outside the roses are in bloom, and the foxgloves stand as high as a man. It is, if nothing else, a lovely time of year for a birthday.
I open the back door, make coffee and sit at the kitchen table with my head in my hands, listening as the cat reluctantly cracks a few dry nuggets between its teeth. This isn’t so bad, I think. It would be nice if I could just stay like this for a little while, or for the next 10 years.
There is an insistent sound coming from outside, like a flag snapping in a stiff breeze. Then the sound moves inside, and stops. I lift my head from my hands to see a magpie the size of a chicken standing in the middle of the kitchen floor.
It’s not a phobia exactly, but I set strict limits on the amount of time I can spend in a room with a large bird: ideally, no time. I recognise this magpie, with its crooked tail, as the same bird the youngest one sometimes feeds from his bedroom window, but that relationship has nothing to do with me.
“You should go,” I say. The magpie appears to be thinking the same thing: he lifts off and flies straight into the back window, beating his wings against the glass for a few sickening seconds before falling back stunned on to the sill, next to the cat.
The cat cannot believe its luck. It pounces on the bird immediately, but the magpie has a considerable size advantage. It breaks free and flies straight up, banging against the skylight. A single black feather drifts to the floor.
“OK,” I say. “I can’t be here for this.” I back out of the kitchen and shut the door.
On another day I would not be above waking my wife to make her come down and deal with this situation, but not today. In the sitting room, I find a wooden lap tray with handles, which I hold in front of my face as I re-enter the kitchen, my heart racing.
The magpie is now perched atop the tall dresser where the mugs and glasses are kept. The cat and I watch as it eyes both of us, then the window, and the skylight, and the open door.
“That’s right,” I say quietly. “Work it out.” The magpie hops along the top of the dresser in the direction of the door and, after one final look around, flies off.
“Jesus,” I say, sitting down. The cat jumps up on to the table, walks across it, and sits down in front of me.
“Miaow?” it says.
“58,” I say.