‘Happy birthday dear Sa-am!’ chorused the tribe of snotty-faced infants gathered around the little table. ‘Happy birthday to yooooou!’
‘Now blow out the candles, Sam!’ chirruped Mrs Simpson, their teacher.
Sam’s six-foot frame was folded onto one of the tiny child-sized chairs, his knees somewhere around his ears. He rolled his eyes.
‘Come on Sam, blow out the candles and make a wish!’ encouraged Mrs Simpson from somewhere beneath her perm.
To put an end to the whole charade, Sam blew, and wished he’d been born on any other day of the year.
Sam Moore was 20. Except that, according to Statute 19b, a piece of ridiculous fifteenth-century local legislation that had never been rescinded by the town council, he wasn’t. Statute 19b stated that it wasn’t the number of ‘years lived’ that counted towards advancement through school and towards all the things that adults get to do, like vote, have sex, join the army and drink alcohol (and on days like today, Sam really, really wanted alcohol). No, it was the number of actual birthdays that mattered. An inconsequential difference to most people, but as Sam had been born on February 29, 1952, today’s birthday – February 29, 1972 – was only his fifth. He was, legally, just five years old.
Statute 19b was a tiny piece of legislation on the books of Upshott Creek, one of those tiny towns that appear on the map in even tinier writing, where not much ever happens, not much ever changes, and that’s the way people like it. And that was why, when Sam’s parents realised the implications of his birthday and protested to the council, they ran into a wall of officials and lawyers huffing and puffing about ‘the historical and cultural significance of older legislation’. They didn’t have the money for lawyers of their own, and so had to concede the fight. And now, a couple of decades down the line, here he was, a 20-year-old man at primary school, ‘celebrating’ his birthday with a load of stinky kids, and teachers who treated him as if he were also a stinky kid.
‘Now finish up your cake!’ shouted Mrs Simpson over the hubbub of a room of five-year-old sugar addicts. ‘It’s story time. I think we’ll let the birthday boy choose today’s book.’ She gave her best simpering smile. ‘What would you like, Sam?’
Sam considered a facetious response. A Clockwork Orange, perhaps? He liked that book, and often fondly imagined re-enacting some of its scenes on his teachers and local councillors. But in the end, he couldn’t be bothered. Instead, he just raised his middle finger at Mrs Simpson. She blanked it completely. After all, what five-year-old would know that gesture? So Sam, being five too, couldn’t possibly know it either, which meant that for her it hadn’t happened.
‘Not sure, Sam?’ she trilled. ‘Then let’s all read Stig of the Dump again!’
‘Hurray!’ shouted the class.
The other thing Sam hated about his life was that he had to stay in the same classes four years running, doing the same things over and over and over again before he was legally able to move up to the next one. By the time he was 24 (or six, depending on whether you looked at the situation sensibly (like he did), or like some sort of mush-brained idiot (like nearly everyone else), he’d read The Tiger Who Came To Tea more times than he could remember, although as the school didn’t expect him to be able to count beyond 20 or 30 ‘at his age’, it didn’t matter that he’d lost track.
On the positive side, he was consistently top of the class. His reading was perfect. His maths was exceptional. He took home all the gold medals on Sports Day and was always Joseph in the Nativity Play. His parents regularly received glowing reports on his work. They’d put these up on the fridge door. ‘We’re proud of you, son,’ they’d say, beaming at a sheet of paper giving him an A+ for colouring in. ‘It says you never go outside the lines.’
Despite these achievements, Sam chose not to rely solely on the school for his education, and spent hours in the library, desperate to get up to and beyond the standard usually expected of people his own, rightful, age. His shelves were stocked with Dickens novels and books on advanced physics, and he became a very intelligent man. But what, he mused, did that really matter when he spent eight hours a day finger-painting with people who still widdled in their underpants? He hoped, prayed, that things would improve as he got older.
And get older he did. Sam sailed through his primary years, winning spelling contests, athletics competitions, art prizes and more, leading the Headmaster to laud ‘the magnificent achievements of one so young’ during Assembly on the last day of his last term. Sam sat cross-legged on the floor, towering above all the children, not knowing where to look as applause thundered around his ears. Why couldn’t everyone see how ridiculous all this was? Never mind what the law had to say; he was a 44-year-old man! He was seconds away from finally snapping and having his say on the subject, loudly and pointedly, when the boy sitting next to him, Simon Potts, threw up all over Sam’s trousers.
The school didn’t keep a spare pair in Sam’s size, so the secretary had to call his mum away from work and get her to take him home in his boxer shorts.
Then he went to high school. It seemed to Sam that between primary and high school someone flipped a switch, turning children from acceptable irritants to pubescent sociopaths. The boys jumped on him in rugby, leaving him floundering in the mud, and occasionally ran off with his shorts. The girls would approach him with questions about chemistry homework and then say ‘Oops – sorry Sam, we thought you were one of the teachers!’, and then retreat, snickering loudly. And they would all laugh at his wrinkles, his belly, his graying hair, and that he ate couscous for lunch. He’d explain time and again that he needed a wholegrain, fat-free, low-sugar diet because of his diabetes, but they’d just call him an old prat and then stuff their faces with sausages, chips and fizzy drinks.
And the teachers were no help. ‘Would you like us to write a letter to your parents?’ they’d ask. No, of course he wouldn’t, his parents both died last year and now he’d been adopted – at forty-goddamn-eight! – by a thirtysomething couple, Liz and Tom, who called him ‘Sammy’ and sent him to bed at 8.30 at night because ‘you young people need your rest’.
He was praying for the day he turned 16 – or, in reality, 64 – and he could take his exams, get out of here, and finally start living his life, however much of it left there would be. He wasn’t sure what work he’d find, but anything – a supermarket job, a toilet attendant, the man who cleans the abattoir – must be better than this. He’d voiced these thoughts to the careers advisor. ‘Oh, I’m sure a clever young man like you could do better than that,’ had been the reply.
In the meantime, Sam could only keep his head down, do his work, eat his lunch, then go home and go to bed at 8.30, like a good boy.
And time moved on, too slowly for Sam. But, eventually, came the day of his last GCSE examination. After this, school was over forever. Many of his school frien… colleagues would be going on to A-Levels, then university, then wheelbarrows of debt and badly-paid jobs in coffee bars, but not Sam. He was 64, no matter what the law had to say about it, and ready, desperate, to claim the adulthood he’d been denied for way too long. Two more hours, then goodbye school forever. His last exam was in English Literature. An essay, of course. ‘Compare the role of the dual narrators in Wuthering Heights.’ That was an easy one.
He picked up his pen, ignored the needles of arthritis as he curled up his fingers, and began to scrawl his response. He glanced around. Some of the kids were scrawling too, others were staring into space in bafflement. Either way, they had a long and, given how they’d treated him, hopefully miserable future ahead. Sam didn’t know how long his future would last, but he was determined to make the most of it. He wasn’t able to legally drink or vote yet, but those things were in touching distance. And the other things he craved – a job, money, independence – they would be his even sooner. He could taste them.
The two hours flew by. Sam lay down his pen, and watched the other students hurriedly jotting down their final thoughts. His eye came to rest on the paper of the girl next to him. She’d spelled ‘Heathcliff’ wrong. And then the invigilator announced the end of the exam, and Sam’s spirits soared. He was finished! Most people spend 12 or 14 years at school. He’d been there for 60. And now it was over, finally, beautifully, over.
Sam stood up and strolled from the exam hall, joy permitting him to move with the energy of a man a third of his actual age. He shrugged on his coat, and cheered inwardly. He strolled through the school grounds beaming, the happiest he’d been in years. He stepped through the gate, his heart singing with optimism. He was ready, eager to embrace whatever life brought him now that he was free of school, free of teachers, free of homework, bullies and humiliation. From now on, he knew, life would bring him only good things.
And that’s when he noticed the school bus, on its way for the afternoon pick-up, suddenly jolt in his direction and skid towards him, out of control.
It was too late to get out of the way.