THE FIFTH COLUMN
I turned 40 last Saturday. I didn’t want to make a big thing of it but the gathering eventually swelled to 14 people — enough to force the waiter to use a pen and pad in the seafood outlet I chose for my coming of age.
Gifts streamed in. I accepted them gracefully, opened them on request and stored them underneath the table. But then I reached down for my favourites and gave them a second look. A very 30s thing to do.
I ordered Cape Malay Curry Fish. I was the only one to do so — and have never done so before. It was time for new things. The Cape Malay Curry stained my Egyptian cotton shirt, or rather, I stained my Egyptian cotton shirt — a gift — eating the curry with a chip the size of a saucer (a naan crisp?), another thing I hadn’t done before.
Many of the guests noticed and commented on the stain. I considered jokingly calling it a senior moment but bit my tongue. There was a very good chance it would have been taken seriously.
Conversation around the table was lively and substantial and age-appropriate.
I spoke at length about having finally figured out how to listen actively; to let someone speak without interrupting them. Dreams were discussed: lavish plans to go overseas; the hunting and buying and moving into bigger and better houses. Career changes: the amount of work it takes to run an Airbnb; writing and publishing books.
I was asked, many times, how it felt to be 40. I decided on a stock response and said, every time, “I was born to be 40.” Everyone laughed, at that joke and others, for no reason other, I realised, than it was my birthday.
After the main course, some of us got up to watch the kids of some of the others play in the pool. A very 40s thing to do. The kids swam and screamed and fended for themselves — it wasn’t their parents’ first rodeo. I complained about the roll of fat around my waist, visible even when I was standing up. Someone said: “Welcome to the soft middle years.”
When the bill came, it stuck out both at the top and the bottom of the bill folder. I excitedly floated an idea for an app to negotiate the splitting of the bill. With the app, I contended, you can order and pay from your phone. I added coming up with an app like that is how you become a billionaire at 40.“What about the drinks?” someone asked. “Wouldn’t that just be another bill to split?” It was a fair point. I let go of the idea.
To my great surprise, no one grabbed and mangled the bill to try to split it; I merely received wads of cash with the assurances that “that should cover us”. Again, a very 40s thing to do.
I was left, of course, counting the money, coming up short, summoning the waiter, learning the tip was included in the bill and sighing a big 40-year-old sigh.
Having gone over the bill multiple times, I noticed a single decaf coffee ordered as dessert. It frightened me. Why did my friends deprive themselves? Does life not begin at 40?