In one of my first letters from Magteld, a couple of months after we met, she asked when my birthday was. The missive arrived on August 31st, the morning after my 19th birthday, so I was recovering from a late night in a campsite bar swilling cheap Italian lager by the bottle. She told me hers was March 5th, and I realised that we were separated by almost exactly six months. Every horoscope I ever glanced at on the train warned me that our two star signs were cosmically mismatched, but I relished the strict rhythm our dates bestowed on the yearly cycle, like an army marching in step.
In those early years birthdays were among the few occasions when we permitted ourselves a phone call, in that not so distant time when talking across borders was prohibitively expensive. Mostly we made do with handwritten letters, so her voice on the phone took on a decadent and exotic timbre. For her 20th she visited me in Edinburgh, where we were already making plans to live together the following year. It was inconceivable then, but she was already into the second half of her life. Her 21st was an impromptu night out at the Filling Station, rustled up by her friends the day before after she let slip that her birthday was looming. Magteld was not the ceremonial type: as a child she had a reputation for drifting away from her own birthday parties. For her thirtieth I told her we were spending a quiet weekend in a B&B in Edinburgh. I drove along the M8 motorway, strained with nerves, fighting through roadworks to meet the agreed rendezvous time of two o’clock. When we got to the house asked her to knock on the door while I got the children out of the car. For a moment I feared she would refuse, but eventually she consented, with a bewildered shake of the head, and a moment later I heard a squeal as her father opened the door from the inside. It had taken months of scheming, enforced silence and under-the-radar emails to fly her whole family over for the surprise weekend. Weeks of tension evaporated in the blast of joy as she stepped into the hallway.
Early March is a capricious time, especially in Scotland, and that weekend in Edinburgh saw a late flurry of snow. We flung snowballs in the Meadows and watched Euan, less than three years old, totter excitedly across the crispy white grass. The year before we had gone to Ardaneiseig, a stubbornly hard to reach but beautiful spot by a Highland lake, and drove between snowbound peaks on a freakishly still day, when the sky was so piercingly blue it looked as if it might shatter. We had left Euan behind with his grandmother; when I came home and took the bins outside he followed me in a frenzy, terrifed I was about to vanish from his life again. It was one of the last times we went away with the two of us, but in fact we weren’t alone, because Adam arrived around seven months later. As Magteld stepped out on that bright morning and breathed in the sharp air, did she felt the first twinge of life inside her?
Two years ago we were back in Edinburgh for what we knew by then would be, in the absence of miracles, her last birthday. We booked a night in a five-star hotel, wandered down to the Grassmarket and had lunch in The Last Drop, a staple of our student days, and basked in the serenity of the National Galleries. We were living ghosts passing through all the places we were about to quit, indulging ourselves in a farewell tour of the city where our lives had fused. When we returned to Glasgow our nephew had been born, exactly thirty-eight years later than Magteld. Thirty-eight years, an entire life. She got to hold him once, in her prematurely frail arms, in the hospice, and in the photograph I have they both look so vibrant and alert that it’s almost obscene to think that each of them was just over a month removed from non-existence.
She should have been forty today. It’s meant to be the halfway point of your life, when the sun is still high in the sky but the shadows are starting to lengthen, when you look back and reflect on how you got here, and feel the hot breath of time on your neck. There is still enough light for a few more dances and adventures, but your step is heavier and it’s becoming harder to get up again when you fall.
There are still a handful of people alive who marked their fortieth birthday in wartime; plenty more who saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in their forties and are boldly prevailing in their eighties or nineties. Magteld left behind not just two children, but two grandmothers, in a violation of the laws of time. You’re as old as you feel, they say, but my sense of age has gone numb; it feels as if I’ve skipped my forties and am in a kind of limbo, waiting for the clocks to restart somewhere in my mid-fifties when the children have released me back into whatever remains of civilisation. There are days when I feel like an intruder in everyday life, snatching what provisions I need before retreating to the desert of widowhood, that cold dark comforting place where no-one can follow you.
Forty is a curious age. It’s an age people dread when they’re young, but often look back on fondly as the high point of their capacity: the energy of youth combined with the wisdom of knowing how to use it. Look closely at a forty-year-old’s face and you can still see traces of their twenty-year-old self, but also the first hints of what they might look like at sixty.
A strange time to be alive. But the alternative is absurd.