Flash Fiction: Birthday Cards

I pack the birthday cards away, one by one, into the frosted white storage unit. There are so many cards now collected over the years that the lid will only just click into place. I test it with just a handful of cards left to go. Who knows where I’m going to put next year’s.

It’s always been a habit, keeping birthday cards. Someone hands you one with love and affection only for it to be chucked in the recycling seven days later, what’s the point? When I was five and mum started packing up my birthday cards, pulling them off the mantelpiece in rapid succession, I burst into tears. My bottom lip wobbling, I managed to tell her that I wanted to keep them up on display forever and ever. Mum, being her usual tactful self, explained that I could keep the really special birthday cards in a memory box if I wanted, but they couldn’t stay standing across the living room furniture because it was my brother’s birthday only a month after mine and where would his cards go? Being five, I kept every single card from that birthday. The following year I did the same and after that it seemed cruel to pick and choose.

Every year a week after my birthday I pack up the cards and stack them on the dining room table. Then I read them one at a time before placing them neatly in a pile in my memory box, savouring every inch of affection they offer me.  This year mum told me I could keep the cards up for a while longer but I shook my head. Not this year. I only have three more to go. I pick up the largest of the cards, embossed with flowers and covered in poetic writing. I open the sturdy and obviously expensive card.

To our darling Charlotte,
Have the most wonderful birthday!
We can’t believe you’re all grown up – eighteen!!
All our love,
Auntie M and Uncle P xo

I place it on the pile. Only two left now. Soon my birthday will well and truly be over. Thank God.

Happy happy happy birthday babe!
I know now isn’t the best time but in a few months we are going to get so drunk!
Can’t wait, love ya,
Lacey xxx

Seeing Lacey’s name makes me flush with guilt. I haven’t spoken to her in ten days and the card was slipped through the letterbox without a word on my birthday. But how can I speak to her? I ask myself. She doesn’t understand. I know exactly what she’d say, something standard like, “it’ll get better in time” or “it’s okay to be upset”. Well, I’m glad it’s okay, I’d say, because I am fucking upset.

One card to go. I know what it’s going to say before I open it, it’s the reason I’ve left it until last. After my eyes scan over the words they won’t be able to read any more. My hands hover over the corner of the card, decorated with a smiling teddy bear. I wish I was young enough to hug my teddy bear and shut the world away. But I take a deep breath and fold the card back, opening reality.

Happy Birthday.
I know it’s hard, but try to smile,
Love, Mum xxxxxxxxx

I choke, blinking through thick, bubbling tears. They fall fast down my cheek and onto my neck, some crawling down my top while others fall onto the dining room table. There’s a lump in my throat which seems to be expanding like an airbag trapped inside me. I panic. Snapping the card shut, I press it on top of the pile and try to force the lid on top. It won’t close easily. So instead I sink my hands inside the box of cards, scooping them up in great heaps and throw them into the recycling bin behind me. I tip the contents of the box over the bin, shaking it so the cards lose their order, fluttering like a sea of dead birds until they land amongst Amazon packaging and old school books.

When the recycling is full I heave it into the garage so I don’t have to look at it. I just want my birthday to go away. I storm up to my bedroom where there’s no trace of my eighteenth. My pink pillows still line the bed and my stuffed animals still sit on the wardrobe like they have done since I was a little girl. I pull back my jumper drawer, aimlessly looking for something to wrap around my trembling body, when I spot the hidden card. This one isn’t for me. It has a football and a Chelsea player with big gold lettering that says Happy 16th Birthday Bro!

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