It is my birthday. This is always an uncomfortable occasion.
I don't really like birthdays. Firstly, the people I know expect something special to happen and I am required to come up with a fun event that everyone will enjoy. Secondly, it involves gifts.
Presents are a source of immense anxiety for me. People give you something they have bought you, and they expect you to open it in front of them, and they watch your face. If you don't like it, they know. When someone likes me enough to take the time and trouble to buy me a present it feels like I'm rejecting them and their friendship when I don't like their gift. This is made even more problematic by the fact I dislike owning objects unless they are a) beautiful (which is a subjective perception and difficult for others to get right) or b) useful (which is also subjective). Ideally I like them to be both.
Objects are a nuisance. They need to be displayed and taken care of and packed up when you move house. Too many objects in a room, crowding each other on all the surfaces, clamouring for attention and cleaning, make me feel closed in and - in certain particularly cluttered places - even induce something close to a panic attack.
Sometimes I dream of being the kind of person who can own four outfits, a mattress, a box with the minimum kitchen equipment and a bag with soap and a sponge.
Of course I own a lot more than that, because this is a first world country in the 21st century and we all have too many objects. Piles of objects. Mountains, rivers, deluges of them. Some objects that we don't even look at, touch, or use from the beginning of one year to the end of the next. Objects which have no function and are not aesthetically pleasing or well made. Pointless objects like pizza wheels and garlic presses. Clothes we have bought and never worn. Ornaments we were given. Jewellery that doesn't suit us. Nests of inexplicable cables. Old things. Broken things. Half-used hair products and moisturiser and medication. Bags of weird ingredients, bought for one recipe we tried once which didn't work, which quietly go off in the kitchen cupboards. Hair slides belonging to people we don't know any more which make us sad whenever we find them behind the sofa.
Over the years, I've shed a lot of stuff. I don't have so much now, and the things I do have tend to be possessions I've consciously chosen or chosen to keep. I can pack up the flat in two days if I need to.
In previous years, I've had a big party at the flat. This year, I didn't really feel like it. It upsets Rammstein and involves a lot of cleaning up and there are always people there who I don't really know and I get stressed for days beforehand.
This year, I've decided to go to a restaurant. It's rather an elderly middle of the road crowd here, and Amanda's short purple latex dress has been much stared at, as has Sally's black veiled hat and plunging cleavage. Amanda and Sally are sitting next to each other, which surprises me; they tend to treat each other with the elaborate courtesy of two cats who have had to call a truce due to proximity and I strongly suspect they don't really like each other. Gin is eating asparagus, dipping it in hollandaise, and talking to Jena about her break-up with Jason.
I look at the pile of neat packages in front of me. A square box from Sally, wrapped in a length of grey lace and tied with a perfect bow of silver ribbon. A book-shaped package from Amanda, wrapped in untidily sellotaped pages from an old issue of X-Men. Gin has got me something large and round in pink paper printed with Hello Kitty. Jena has contributed a small blue package.
These turn out to be (in order): a set of vintage 60s shot glasses in their original box. A copy of Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip. A 20-inch plush replica of an Ebola virus. A diamante choker.
I like all these presents. I'm touched by the thought that has gone into them.
We eat. We move on to a bar. Everyone gets drunk. Gin and Jena decide to go shopping together and swap mobile numbers. Amanda tries on Sally's hat and Sally tries on Amanda's green high heels. Sally tells us all the story about the time she fell over in front of Marilyn Manson. Everyone puts on Gin's bright pink lipstick. Amanda has a long rant about a man who asked her for a mobile number and then contacted her by texting her a picture of his erect cock ("I was eating breakfast!") and we agree that we have all had similar experiences and there is an epidemic of cock-texting which needs to be firmly discouraged. Amanda and Jena then join drunken forces to interrogate some of the better-looking men in the room about whether they would text a picture of their cock to a woman. Personally I feel this question is open to misinterpretation and will probably result in exactly the situation they are trying to avoid.
Gin is lying on the sofa with her head in my lap. "Happy birthday, Alice!" she says, and smiles up at me.