How? When? One moment I am on a boat, enjoying my fortieth birthday party, floating slowly down the Thames, black lace, high heels and champagne, and then, somewhere between Embankment Pier and the Thames Barrier, I blink, and when I open my eyes again, in a proper time travelling style, I find myself with full head of post-lockdown grey hair, firmly past middle age.
Not old, mind you, old age has been pushed back, again, and is currently estimated to arrive in mid- to late sixties, but no longer middle-aged either, because if I were still middle-aged at 56, I would need to live to 112, and I am pretty sure this is not going to happen, as only war veteran and senior Royals seem to manage to live that long.
Not young, not middle-aged, not old.
What am I? A half centenarian in denial sounds most accurate.
Fifty-six. I hate it when people my age say that age is just a number, because by the time we reach fifty-six, we know full well that age is very much not just a number. It is a message, a warning that each time this just-a-number increases, things are likely to start going wrong when you least expect them to. Sadly, nothing can be taken for granted any more. Our bodies and minds begin to betray us, often in the most unpredictable ways. Do not worry, I am not going to write about my post-middle-age-but-not-yet-old state of health; I am just saying that it is what it is, and what will be will be, and it will come sooner rather than later.
I do not feel fifty-six. I look at it, stare at it, but no matter which angle I squint at it, I feel no affinity with the number. The number might as well be 86, the disconnect is the same. I am not sure how fifty-six should feel, but I have a nagging suspicion I do not meet popular expectations. Despite outward appearances, I feel incongruously young a lot of the time, childishly mischievous on occasion, and I am no stranger to acting in an immature, irresponsible manner. The meaning of age-appropriate behaviour keeps evading me. Is crouching behind my car in the driveway for a couple of minutes until my next door neighbour goes into his house in order to avoid meeting him compatible with being a fifty-six year old mother of three and an experienced public service professional?
I am not remotely ready for the things that fifty-plus advertising expects me to be ready for. I am not ready for grandchildren. It still feels that it was only a brief moment ago, before I blinked on that boat, that my own children were cute little squishy things, and it sounds absurd that they could in theory become parents themselves in not massively distant future.
I am not ready to slow down, or to accept that if something had not happened by now, it probably never will. I am still expecting a lot to happen; I have places to be, shows to see, hair colours and cocktails to try, books to read and write, kitchens to replace, and newly-hatched turtles to rescue by carrying them to the ocean before seagulls eat them, somewhere in South America.
I am not ready to buy a funeral plan, even if the internet reminds me on most days that I should be thinking about it.
I was recently surprised to realise that I am not even ready yet to embark on the holiday aboard a six-storey cruise ship, which was the one thing I really thought I would be ready for by the time I am the age I am now. Sorry, Saga.
What else? Wisdom. I was supposed to have accumulated large quantities of wisdom by now, enough to luxuriate in it myself, and to dish it out to others, mainly to younger generations, who were, in turn, supposed to be interested in receiving it. To date this has not been worked out too well. Last time I looked I was still not in possession of a lot of wisdom to dish out, and the younger generations were showing little interest in me bestowing any of it on them.
It is true that I have acquired a few skills simply through living long enough. Living long enough has also led me to develop a certain age-related intuitions, a sort of sixth sense, which sometimes manages to impress younger friends and family members. ‘But how, how did you know this would happen?’, my daughters ask me whenever my intuition delivers the goods.
Other than that, I have not got much to show for my five and a half decades on Earth. Perhaps now is a good time to start believing that it really is just a number and see how this turns out.