I was sure knew what my family was planning for my birthday. I was so, so wrong.
It wasn’t the worst birthday. They woke me early — I was wretchedly hungover. We were going to get my birthday present, a bike. No one had explicitly told me this present was a bike, but all signs pointed to bike. I really wanted one. A bike meant freedom. I loved my young family, but I really loved the idea of owning a bike.
‘I wonder what my present will be?’ Me, joking, as we speed down the highway.
‘Guess!’ cries my son. We stop at the lights.
‘Aeroplane!’ I reply. We pull up opposite the bike shop.
‘No!’ My son’s as gleeful as can be.
‘Is it a puppy?’ Me, devilishly.
‘Ooh — can we change it to a puppy dad?’
‘No.’ My partner, also hungover.
Somewhere between me trying to cross the road and my son begging for a puppy, I’m grabbed by the elbow and led into... an aquarium.
‘Ta dah!’ the boys shout together, arms outstretched.
My birthday present was not a bike. It was an axolotl.
Mexican walking fish. You know, those smiling, frill-headed amphibians trapped permanently in the pre-metamorphosis larval stage. Hardly an emblem of freedom. Instead I had the gift of caring for a critically endangered creature that would never grow up.
‘What’s its name?’ my best mate, Em asked later over chat.
‘Well, he’s black. So I called it Barry. Barry White.’
‘More like Barry Not-a-bike,’ her reply.
Barry Not-a-bike. An odd, responsibility-laden present that spent the better part of three years on the verge of death. Barry Not-a-bike. He endeared himself to me as he aged, though he showed none of the remarkable regenerative powers of his species, and ultimately lost his will to live. I would put my hand in his tank and gently feed him bloodworms, until that final morning when he floated, belly up.
We put him with some water in a Tupperware in the fridge. Eventually Barry Not-a-bike was transferred to the freezer, where he awaited his funeral.
Some months later, my son and I sent him down the Cook’s River. We frisbeed him lovingly into a strong current and off he went.
He wasn’t a bike. But on that day, I like to think we both had a taste of freedom.