Birthday explosion: boom, baby!

Birthday explosion: boom, baby!

This post also appears on the Fairlady site.

Shit. It’s 10:20am; I was supposed to fetch Alet at 10. I glance at my reflection, run my fingers though my fringe and wipe a small smudge from my cheek before dashing to the kitchen. Cooler box filled with strawberries? Check. Two bottles of champagne? Check. Car keys… car keys… car keys… dammit, car keys? I slip my hand into my jacket pocket, relief! There they lie coldly glistening. Car keys; check! Right. Time to go. With much effort I manage to pick everything up and, in a complicated series of multi-tasking moves and a very controlled juggling act with the cooler box, my house keys, handbag, a blanket and a plastic packet filled with heavy champagne, manage to unlock the front door. I yell good-bye to my flat mate; she’s still lying warmly in bed on this wintery Sunday morning. However, that’s her choice. I have to hurry. The explosion’s in an hour and a half!

I’m all for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. My philosophy is the more the better before kicking the bucket (where did the phrase ‘kicking the bucket’ come from, anyway? It doesn’t make any sense. What bucket? Can you die from kicking a bucket? I would have thought a stubbed toe at worst.)

Do not, under any expectations, kick this bucket. PHOTO: maciek72/
Do not, under any circumstances, kick this bucket. PHOTO: maciek72/

Anyway, they’re not called several-times-in-a-lifetime experiences – they only happen once. That’s very close to zero. Too close. There’s something intense about an incident that stretches out of your control and spirals into thousands of other people’s lives. It becomes a moment everyone can refer back to: a communal memory, a bookmark into your life. Epic once-in-a-lifetime experiences remind me that I’m part of a constellation of people, and not a star shining bleakly alone in the night of life. Funnily enough, birthdays remind me of the exact same thing (and they really shouldn’t be once in a lifetime experiences).

How lucky was I then that this year the two merged? In some kind of very sweet but entirely unnecessary birthday gesture, Cape Town decided to blow up the Athlone Towers – a Cape Town landmark – as a rather monumental gift. Needless to say, I was flattered. Thousands from all over Cape Town and Stellenbosch were joining me – the Facebook event had over 8000 positive RSVPs. (The term you’re looking for is ‘delusions of grandeur.’)

Students at Mem Stone at UCT. PHOTO: Samantha Steele
Students at Mem Stone at UCT. PHOTO: Samantha Steele

However, the group of nearest and dearest drinking champagne from the bottle with me while looking at the (albeit slightly misty) towers from the colloquially named Mem Stone at UCT was a lot smaller. I’d actually already had my big birthday do on Friday with a party at Rafikis. It was a great night that started with birthday shots and ended wobbily very early Saturday morning with a lift home in a car filled with seven other people.

The blue skies were suddenly full of rapidly tumbling clouds. My brother Angus touched his arm and looked up before smiling sarcastically and saying, “Yeah, that was a rain drop. Great.” It was 11:30am – the explosion was set to go off in half an hour. “No!” I said, “It can’t rain now!” There had been dire warnings of a storm on Sunday all week, but since waking up to blue skies I’d thought we managed to dodge that bullet. Obviously though, I was wrong. You see, Cape Town is a temperamental queen. I’m from the far less fickle city of Pretoria. If Pretoria starts the day with a blue sky, chances are she’ll keep it that way. Cape Town loves to get you with your guard down and your umbrella at home before unleashing the hell storm on your naively unsuspecting head. And don’t even get me started on the wind.

Athlone Towers Explosion
The Athlone Towers before they were blown up for my birthday. So sweet. PHOTO: Samantha Steele

With the rain drops gathering speed, force and quantity, I decided to put my camera under my coat while futilely trying to keep the water out of my face with my hand. I stood next to Roeline who started to put a little waterproof jacket over her camera bag. I turned around to talk to someone.

Then, suddenly – “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” A stranger screamed.

My head whipped round and my mouth dropped open as the first tower crumpled majestically, in seconds, into a pile of dust. I shot the camera up to my eye and snap, snap, snapped. Almost immediately afterwards the second tower followed suit, collapsing almost gracefully – like a bride in a big dress sitting suddenly on the floor. Screams from the crowd overlaid with silence, then the deep explosive ‘BOOOOOM’ hit us. Then, there was dust. Then, nothing.

Expectations and reality almost never meet up. I know I wasn’t expecting the explosion to go off a few minutes early – that’s why I missed the first few seconds and why many people missed it all together. Expectations versus reality – unsurprising it’s pitched as a battle, really. Like for me – I turned twenty-four this year. Twenty-four suddenly sounds older, don’t you think? My reality is nothing like I expected. I never thought I’d be living alone in Cape Town; Joburg was the furthest I was planning on straying two years ago. But now here I was, surrounded by friends I didn’t have 18 months ago, at a place I’d never been to a year ago, watching a landmark I hadn’t known about 8 months ago, explode.

Things crumple, implode and disappear all the time – expectations, ideas,  relationships. We have little to no control over the monumental events that alter our inner landscape. All we can do is try to ride the waves gracefully and not get sucked under by the riptide.

And, I thought wryly, as Alet and I moved a cautious inch forward in bumper to bumper traffic, be careful what you wish for (as you blow out those birthday candles) because you just might get it. The amazing parking spot I’d begged St Otto (the patron saint of parking) for so fervently a few hours ago turned the ten minute trip home into a two hour long traffic death trap. But as Alet and I chatted I realised again that friends are why I look forward to my birthday – just friends, and nothing else.


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