I am fourteen years old today
The curious thing about a birthday is that you are suddenly a whole year older than you were the day before. There’s something about the sheer silliness of that that appeals to me.
After about 13, I stopped counting my age in halves and quarters. I was simply ’13’, or ’19’, or ’22’ right up until the day before my birthday. Or sometimes a few days after (because I was in denial). In fact, when I was 23, I decided that I was going to start subtracting a year from my age each birthday, so the following one, I turned 22 instead of 24, and so on, until at 21, I levelled with a younger friend growing older. And then I decided to stop ageing altogether. Maybe I will resume growing older when I am bored of being 21.
May 19, 19–
“This is my birthday. I am fourteen years old today. I wrote a letter ‘From myself at fourteen to myself at twenty-four,’ sealed it up and put it away in my cupboard, to be opened on my twenty-fourth birthday. I made some predictions in it. I wonder if they will have come to pass when I open it.
– ‘Salad Days’, Emily Climbs
It was maybe one of the most enduring beliefs of my childhood that I would never pass beyond whatever age I was. I used to think the Millennium was the end of the world, and that time would never reach the year 2000. The idea of even being 20 was impossible – ridiculous! – another universe in another world that happened to other people.
The only real time was Now. Now was a pair of lilac trousers I wore all the time; Now was hot days learning to ride a bike with my fearless and adored brother, tumbling in and out of abandoned (stolen) shopping trolleys in the concrete-and-grass complex that was our playground and our whole world. Now was impossible hair and cavalier curls and being shorn and playing with babies and watching them grow and watching stories inside my head, reading the same books over and over again and eating palm-sized squares of jam-bread, inventing bloodthirsty games of intrigue and murder and ingenuity and Now was not believing that Growing Up was real.
And then we grew up.
On her twenty-fourth birthday Emily opened and read the letter she had written “from herself at fourteen to herself at twenty-four”. It was not the amusing performance she had once expected it to be. She sat long at her window with the letter in her hand, watching the light of yellow, sinking stars over the bush that was still called Lofty John’s oftener than not, from old habit. What would pop out when she opened that letter? A ghost of first youth? Of ambition? Of vanished love? Of lost friendship? Emily felt she would rather burn the letter than read it. But that would be cowardly. One must face things – even ghosts.
This letter was, she sternly told herself, a foolish, romantic affair. Something to be laughed at. Emily carefully laughed at some parts of it. How crude–how silly–how sentimental–how amusing! Had she really ever been young and callow enough to write such flowery exultant nonsense? And one would have thought, too, that fourteen regarded twenty-four as verging on venerable.
“Have you written your great book?” airily asked Fourteen in conclusion. “Have you climbed to the very top of the Alpine Path? Oh, Twenty-four, I’m envying you. It must be splendid to be YOU. Are you looking back patronizingly and pityingly to ME? You wouldn’t swing on a gate now, would you? Are you a staid old married woman with several children, living in the Disappointed House with One-You-Know-Of? Only DON’T be stodgy, I implore you, dear Twenty-four. And do be dramatic. I love dramatic things and people. Are you Mrs. —— ——? What name will fill those blanks? Oh, dear Twenty-four, I put into this letter for you a kiss – and a handful of moonshine – and the soul of a rose – and some of the green sweetness of the old hill field – and a whiff of wild violets. I hope you are happy and famous and lovely; and I hope you haven’t quite forgotten –
Emily locked the letter away.
“So much for that nonsense,” she said scoffingly.
Then she sat down in her chair, and dropped her head on her desk. Little silly, dreamy, happy, ignorant Fourteen! Always thinking that something great and wonderful and beautiful lay in the years ahead. Quite sure that the “mountain purple” could be reached. Quite sure that dreams always came true. Foolish Fourteen, who yet had known how to be happy.
“I’m envying YOU,” said Emily. “I wish I had never opened your letter, foolish little Fourteen. Go back to your shadowy past and don’t come again – mocking me. I’m going to have a white night because of you. I’m going to lie awake all night and pity myself.”
Yet already the footsteps of destiny were sound-on the stairs – though Emily thought they were only Cousin Jimmy’s.
– Chapter 20, Emily’s Quest
Like Emily, inspired by her, I wrote a letter ‘from myself aged 15’ – the age at which I read her first – ‘to myself aged 25’, which I opened (kind of but not very) recently.
And this cracked me up. ‘On the event of my death’? Bad English much? I mean, I figure I wanted to say ‘in the event of my death’, and ended up mixing it up. So now it sounds like a Deathday party, or some kind of gala event.
But what totally finished me was ‘Respect the wish of a dead person’. Go on, read it again and tell me you don’t think it’s hilarious with all its EARNESTNESS and DRAMATIC SOLEMNITY.
Dear 15! I hope you learned to take some things less seriously, and other things more so.