Turning forty is a cliché. One of the biggest.
There are stock phrases and half-jokes (age is just a number, life begins…). Small talk, really, for politeness, and to be brushed off. But the combined weight of them, as it happens, feels like something.
At least it did to me.
I turned forty, and half my life had gone. That was a non-negotiable fact, because I won’t entertain the thought of any less than eighty. I’m a man who puts things in boxes.
Compartmentalised and manageable.
Four boxes of twenty years is how I manage death. Or managed, I should say. Now I’ve moved into my third box, and the balance has tipped. The slope looks downhill from here. The boxes thing worked for the first two, not so much for the last two.
I might start using decades.
As I was turning forty, a process that took weeks, I made the jokes, to friends, that we make. Pipe and slippers, mid-life crisis, aches and pains.
And they’d say: “Gosh, it’s actually affecting you, isn’t it?”
And I’d think: “No, I’m joking…this is how forty works. These are the things we say”
But they could see something. It was lurking behind the small talk and peeping out every now and again. In my mood, the way I walked, or how the horizon of my language had changed.
Sometimes nearer, sometimes further, but changed. Time squashed or stretched, but rarely real. I stopped, for a while, living in the moment. I became preoccupied and unhappy.
I didn’t spot that until later, when someone pointed it out.
The half-jokes and the small-talk that signify forty might be ephemeral and flyaway, but they’re culturally primal. They’re embedded, and however little notice we take, they have their say.
They are what made my third box a less pleasant place to be than my second box, until I’d come to terms with it. Imagine my fourth box. Could I reasonably add a fifth box, settle on a round hundred, and drag things out?
I don’t think I’d fall for that.
My kids are seven and four, and they spotted something lurking too. Or sensed it, maybe, as a tremor in the soil of their short lives.
“How old are you again daddy,” they ask, unprompted. “Forty?..that’s quite old, isn’t it.”
And we go through the usual script.
“It’s fairly old, but not very old. Most people live until they’re very old, about eighty, unless they have an accident or get very ill, but that’s unusual…yes, like that boy at school…yes, like so and so’s mum…but most grown-ups live until eighty, and me and mummy are very healthy…”
Expectations are reset – the kids have boxes to put things in too.