For my brother's birthday, I take him to the finest restaurant west of Cringleford. More accurately he takes me, because the outskirts of Norwich are best travelled by car, but I'm paying so it's definitely my treat. My brother's birthday coincides with Valentine's Day which makes finding somewhere to dine somewhat awkward, and when it falls on a Saturday doubly so. But on this occasion the perfect eating establishment has presented itself, in the lobby downstairs from the party venue, and lunch is in full flow.
At this restaurant there's no need to book - a table is always free. We step into the serving area and peruse the many choices available, squinting to read the smallprint lined up in front of the hotplate. The pasta option looks beguiling, and vegetarians seem well catered for, but my brother and I plump for the last two slices of minced beef and onion pie. Each is the size and shape of a small brick, with a thick pastry crust that reminds me somewhat of school dinners. The menu mentions roast potatoes, but these appear to be boiled, and the final scoop of peas is doused liberally with gravy.
My nephew has selected a cheesy-topped jacket potato, deftly grated and sliced, while my niece plumps for a plate of chunky chips fresh from the hatch. Our feast is completed by a single cup of cola concentrate in fizzy water, which a duplicity of straws enables us to share. At the till the sachets of ketchup initially prove tricky to source, but I get change from £20 which is possibly the best value birthday meal ever. We take our trays and grab a table by the cashpoint, then try to string out our banquet until visiting time begins.
The maximum number of visitors on the ward is two, so the party takes place in the day room down the corridor. There are just enough chairs for everyone, so long as two people sit in wheelchairs, one of them beside the window overlooking the car park. We're here because one of the most important guests has spent the last few weeks in bed nextdoor, this for planned 'getting better', rather than any unexpected 'getting worse'. They're looking well, and are more than pleased by the turnout, although other patients appear less than delighted when they find the day room is full.
Rather than risk wine we've brought three bottles of Shloer, poured out into plastic glasses sourced from a poundshop in town. Someone at work has baked a cake, a chocolate sponge topped off by icing and the contents of a box of Milk Tray, the spacing of which is ideal for portion control. We've remembered to bring a knife, and also some candles, although the latter stay firmly in the airtight container for fear of setting off the fire alarm. Slices of cake are doled out on paper plates, and youngest nephew finds various versions of Happy Birthday on Spotify so that nobody has to raise their voices and sing.
Out on the ward, two policemen are standing guard outside the room where a violent drunkard is detoxifying. The loud woman has gone home, or been sent elsewhere, which'll make sleeping much easier for everyone else tonight. The sisters wheel in a new patient to fill the bed someone died in unexpectedly earlier. And our party continues for the full duration of visiting time, perhaps leaning more towards conversation that merriment, but a celebratory gathering all the same. Some years, when circumstances dictate, you make the most of the best birthday party you can get.