Office birthdays confuse me. Ordinarily, they go like this: I am at my desk, in our open-plan office, when I spy a cake-carrying colleague by the door. She takes a deep breath then starts the slow 'happy birthday' march. Suddenly gripped by some primeval instinct, I drop what I'm doing, rise and join the song. From the corners we converge on the birthday person, creeping forward, singing as we saunter. The cake carrier is always trailed by a small retinue - the helpers - those who, despite having only arranged a few candles, are awarded some small birthday credit.
In my workplace we celebrate each other's birthdays with an energy we rarely apply to our work. The events are spoken about weeks in advance - plans are laid, presents are discussed. We even have a birthday rota keyed into our outlook calendars. Each one of us is mandated to buy another's cake and card. The system should make it all seem easy, but it doesn't. I suppose it is because our birthdays are unhelpfully bunched up. Through some quirk of biology, the team's birthdays are all jammed into the same summer months. As a result, what should be a joyous season is a time of confusion - an unpleasant whirlwind of supermarket-cake, tuneless singing and kooky gifts.
One of the problems is I am never entirely sure whose birthday it is. And the more junior the team member, the less likely I am to know. This is one of my development areas, as they say. Despite the calendar pop-ups, the birthdays catch me off guard. Given I don't know what I'm doing, it is difficult for me to maintain the tight, mirthless smile as I dispense good wishes. My sentiments are generic. As we hand over the card my mouth is offering pleasantries, but my mind feels puzzlement.
Usually, I can turn it on - embrace the good cheer with a stuck-on grin. This year, however, I have shuffled between the birthdays with minimal enthusiasm - like some kind of dead-eyed birthday zombie with only its fundamental mechanisms intact. Emotionless, gouging on cake like so many warm brains. It seems my enthusiasm for office birthdays is spent.
During this season I frequently arrive at my desk and find a card facedown. I know the drill. Glancing at the name, I tailor my message accordingly. As a rule, the more senior your rank, the more space you are obliged to occupy with your birthday message. Department heads, for instance, always write a large, exuberant sentiment occupying approximately 25% of the card.
The position of your message also carries significance. The administrators, I've noticed, tend to confine their birthday wishes to the corners; a squished, concise blurb wedged into an undesirable space. The managers in our team (I am one) head for the centre of the card. That prime spot just below the factory stamped greeting. Have a wonderful day! I scrawl every time, unthinkingly - the obligatory exclamation mark intended to add jauntiness. We park our tanks on the high ground. That's the way it's meant to be. It would be unseemly for a manager to hold the outlying regions.
Then we have the birthday collection. Just put in what you can - is the perennially vague instruction. I understand the desire to sound reasonable, however, when someone is standing before you jangling an envelope it is hard to be stingy. Unless I am asked for a specific amount, I put in two pounds. This seems appropriate somehow. But I've noticed there are ploys to extract more cash. The classic is to mention the worth of the pre-bought gift while collecting. A recent collector told me she'd bought our boss a handbag. Brilliant, I thought, a stunning move. My colleague was working backwards for maximum returns. Were it down to me, our dear leader would have ended up with a smart, yet austere, stationery set.
Let's face it, the office is no place for celebrating birthdays. The compulsion to down tools and break into song is dreadful. Signing cards with forced sincerity is ridiculous. Remarking favourably on the supermarket cake (as if the buyer had baked it themselves) is ludicrous. I have to admit, I'm just not up to it. Next year, I'm taking the whole summer off.