On the 20th January 2015, I spent the evening in a piano karaoke bar in Charing Cross. The year before that, I was in a pub in Victoria, wrapped up against the typical January cold. The previous year, I could be found dancing to Balkan Electro music (yes, apparently that is a genre all of its own) in Battersea. Want to know what I was doing the year before that? I can tell you if you like. Along with every January the 20th there’s ever been, bar a few unmitigated exceptions. That’s because January 20th is my sister’s birthday.
My sister and I are best friends. She may be the only sister I’ve ever had but I’d be willing to bet that there isn’t a better one in the world. We used to get annoyed when people described us as ‘close’, not because we weren’t, but because it didn’t seem to do our friendship the justice it deserved. We weren’t just close like I’ll-let-you-borrow-my-favourite-skirt-if-you-braid-my-hair-close, we were close like I’d-rather-be-stranded-on-a-desert-island-with-you-over-anyone-else-close. People warned us that siblings can drift apart as they get older and their lives get busier, but we swore we wouldn’t let that happen: we weren’t going to be the kind of sisters who met once a year at Christmas, exchanged lack lustre gifts and indulged in a spot of small talk just to pass the time. So it came as something of a tragedy when I realised that I would be spending my sister’s 30th birthday on the other side of the world, in Costa Rica.
As 2015 drew to a close and her birthday build-up began, I started coming to terms with the fact that I’d be missing out on a pretty monumental milestone in my sister’s life. I was working hard, training to become a diving instructor, and feeling pretty isolated from the normal rhythms of family life. Speaking to my sister however, I learned that this wasn’t going to be a normal year; this time round there’d be no pub in central London or bevy of tipsy friends singing Happy Birthday over a flaming sambuca, no dilemmas over choosing an outfit that was both stylish and warm, no morning-after-the-night-before anecdotes about twisted ankles or self-inflicted concussions. This birthday marked not only the start of a new decade, but the start of a whole new chapter in my sister’s life. This year, she’s having a baby.
In somewhat dejected tones, my sister described to me her plans for the big day – a day off work, a lie in, a Jeremy Kyle marathon on the telly, followed by a nice home cooked dinner. She was convinced that her 30th would pass her by in an unceremonious fog, to go down in history as the the birthday that failed to go down in history. So adamant was she about the impending averageness of the day that she was prepared to simply scratch it off the calendar and reschedule for a time when she could be warm, free of crippling Christmas debt, and distinctly un-pregnant.
This would not do.
I umm-ed and ah-ed about the best way to revive my sister’s birthday spirit. What gifts could I send that would fill the hole of a raucous party? Can a pregnant woman fly out for an impromptu overnight visit to Costa Rica? Could I persuade Ronan Keating to jump out of an oversized cake? I threw myself into elaborate ideas to try and numb the guilty frustration I felt at not being able to celebrate in person. Christmas came and went and I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be missing out on this important event.
That is until I got a job. After a month of frustrating job hunting, I was finally able to anchor down some plans for 2016. Being offered a job as a diving instructor in Tioman, Malaysia was a real turning point for the new year, and allowed me to start grappling with the logistics of getting myself and my copious amounts of diving equipment from Central American to South-East Asia; whichever route I looked at, it was going to be a long old journey. After hours of fine-tuning my SkyScanner search in an attempt to fly across the world for less than £500, I was facing the prospect of a 48 hour layover in Denmark when it occurred to me that I could redirect my route via London. Or, more specifically, via my sister’s house.
Once the seed was planted, it didn’t take long to justify the cost of a few extra dollars to enjoy my sister’s birthday in her company. Knowing how pessimistic her plans were, the idea of surprising her on her doorstep filled me with a sort of fanatical sisterly glee that sustained me through a sleepless 24 hour journey and a painfully chilly return to English soil. As the thin Winter dawn started to materialise across a cold and cloudy January sky, I stepped off the plane at London Heathrow and bundled into a taxi. Pulling up outside her house, I instructed the taxi driver to remain silent, thanking him inside the car before gingerly removing my luggage from the boot as quietly as humanly possible. I’d informed my sister that I’d ordered her a present, that it would be arriving between 7 and 11 on the morning of the 20th, and that she’d need to sign for it. Ringing the doorbell, I jigged up and down on the spot, partly out of giddy excitement, partly out of the harsh reality that leggings and a hoodie are no match for an English Winter. Hearing footsteps coming down the hall, I filled my lungs with frosty air, ready to explode into birthday exultations. The door swung open to reveal… her boyfriend.
Strangling my ‘eep’ of excitement before it had even left my lips, I followed his covert, SAS-style hand gestures and crept back up the stairs. A soft glow came from the bedroom where my sister lay in sleepy ignorance. Inching the door open, I risked a sneaky glimpse before bursting into a shrieking HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
Her face, her reaction, her impromptu outburst of tears; I’ll remember these for years to come and treasure them like charms on a bracelet. We travel to experience new things, to broaden our cultural vocabulary and to open ourselves up to new, acute and powerful emotional responses. But sometimes, no matter how many miles we cover, the best things in live are lying at home, wrapped up in a duvet, waiting for you. I write this as I make my final preparations to leave for Malaysia, excited for what the months ahead will bring and confident in the knowledge that I am doing the right thing. I am not ready to come home. I am not ready to say goodbye to this adventure. But the opportunity to see my sister and to celebrate with her on such an important birthday reassured me that, when the time comes to hang up my fins and shut my passport for a while, I’ll have a wealth of happiness and adventure waiting for me at home.