For my 28th birthday in 1993 the rest of the family drove over to Bedford and we went out for a meal. We went to the Beefeater at the Priory Marina, once Mum had given my flat the once over and checked for dust and properly-ironed shirts. Our waitress was called Belinda, and she brought us a trayful of drinks while we decided what to eat. I eventually decided on tomato soup, mixed grill and profiteroles, but my eye was also caught by a separate section on the menu for the 'Emerald Club'.
Members of the Emerald Club could order two courses from a limited selection of items at a knockdown bargain price. The menu wasn't exciting, partly because it was cheap but mainly because these were the early Nineties and mainstream cuisine wasn't overly adventurous. But what intrigued me most was that membership of the Emerald Club was only available to those aged 55 and above. This seemed impossibly far away at the time, but it was nice to know there were certain benefits to getting old.
We went back to the Priory Marina Beefeater again for my 29th. A lot had changed in the intervening year - my grandmother had died, my brother had got married and his wife was expecting... we discussed possible names for the baby over the main course. What hadn't changed was my choice of tomato soup and a mixed grill, although I did switch to a chocolate fudge dream for dessert. A three course meal for five of us cost just £37!
The menu still included an Emerald Club section, indeed I noticed that my favourite tomato soup was one of the starters it allowed you to select. But its age-related benefits remained firmly out of reach. Admittedly my Dad had just passed his 55th birthday so reaching such lofty heights wasn't impossible, but I'd not be eligible for membership until well into the next century... in far-flung 2020.
Today that 55th birthday has arrived and I can finally claim my Emerald Card. Or at least I could if they still existed, but alas Whitbread stopped issuing them in 2006 when I was still in my early 40s. I understand that if you still have an Emerald Card you're still permitted certainbenefits within the Whitbread chain, but the Beefeater menu no longer has a special OAP section and all diners now get to pay full price.
Which is a shame, because there aren't a lot of other benefits to turning 55. Financially it becomes possible to start drawing funds from certain types of pension, but I don't have one of those and I wouldn't anyway. I see that the Odeon chain run special £3 screenings for over-55s, topped up with tea and biscuits, but the only Silver Cinema offering at Surrey Quays this week is a single matinee of Cats so I'll be giving that a miss. Of 55+ restaurant discount cards, not a whimper.
In reality 55 is just the midway point of one's fifties, halfway between the proper milestones of 50 and 60. Annoyingly, because of a Leap Day inserted last weekend, my 55th birthday is one day closer to 60 than it is to 50. I have already entered the second half of my fifties, so now round up rather than rounding down. The first time I have to tick a 55-64 box in an online survey I suspect it'll really hit home.
I certainly feel older than I did when I was 50. I have a handful of wrinkles. I have more grey hairs, even if they're nowhere near a majority. I ache in extra places, though nothing yet worth moaning about. Most annoyingly my eyes finally did that unfocusing thing everybody warns you about, although I haven't yet been prescribed bifocals for reading.
But 55 doesn't feel as old as I thought it would when I saw that Emerald Card menu in my late twenties. It turns out I'm just the same person as I was then, just more experienced and a little more worn on the outside.
While I was in Bedford to visit the Panacea Museum I also decided to go back to the Beefeater at the Priory Marina - the one place I shall always associate with a 55th birthday. The building had lost the sheen and sparkle it had in the 1990s, but then so have I, so I felt perfectly at home.
I knew they didn't do an Emerald Card menu any more, and I was a couple of days early even if they had, but I scanned down the list of cheap daytime favourites all the same. No mixed grill appeared so I plumped for fish and chips instead, but profiteroles were on the shortlist so I stayed loyal. It was all a bit unnecessary but entirely tasty and ridiculously inexpensive. My twenty-something self would have been amazed.