I seldom enjoy New Year parties, the sense of obligation with which we gather together, counting down the seconds to the critical moment of feeling exactly the same. But in 2016, one proved an eye-opening experience. A married couple who had been pupils of one of my parents were there, along with their toddler, a girl not more than two years old. At the countdown, I was distracted by the sight of them all huddled together, their expressions and gentle touch creating a tenderer scene than any I’ve seen before or since. There seemed a mix of anticipation and growing fear in the parents’ eyes. They were welling up. Then, as Big Ben struck midnight, the little girl vanished. Disappeared completely, in an instant. I was bewildered, until the father, sniffling, told me that their daughter was born on 29th February 2012, so only exists in leap years.
It was here that I learned of nature’s law for all ’29-ers’. The theory is that they are born on borrowed time, and the universe re-asserts itself on them in the cruellest way. Any child born on the ‘Infamous 29th’ exists from the start of every leap year, only to be catapulted forward four years at the end of it. At the end of 2019, that married couple I saw will need to go to the same place where that party was held, to await their child’s reappearance. From then, they will nurture her through her third year. Such a practice proves difficult for many families, not least for the 29-ers themselves as they grow older. Progressing at such a slower rate, they can seldom form lasting connections with those around them, even their parents, and they go through more friends at school than even the most vapidly popular children.
Some argue their condition is a positive boon. A 29-er benefits from the increased experience of their parents each successive year they are united, especially if they have had other children to care for. Yet there are stories of parents who struggle with the emotional strain of keeping an empty room in their home pristine, a shrine to someone of whom they are effectively bereaved three quarters of the time. Every four years, they are required to look after a child with the boundless energy, though they themselves feel increasingly past such things physically. They form closer bonds with their offspring who are there every day, and, try as they might to hide that from their 29-er, the suspicion will always be there, and the resulting unspoken question creates further tension. Sibling relationships can be similarly unfulfilled and alienated when a 29-er enters the fray, a fact seen most starkly in cases of twins where one child is born at 23:59 on 28th February and the other a minute later. A partnership impossible from the start.
The only hope for 29-ers is to make friends with others like them, and there are support groups now running to facilitate this. As they grow up, and grow to understand the annual detachment from all the personal connections they have built up over the previous twelve months, fear can grow in the 29-ers’ mind. They seek companions who can remain with them throughout their journey, and what they dread most is falling in love with someone who doesn’t share the condition – giving into temptation and trying to settle down, only to catapult forwards to a time when they have been forgotten, outgrown or widowed.
Yet, in spite of these burdens, when they have come to terms with their ‘other’ way of life, and established the support network they need, there are many advantages the state of 29-erhood offers. Both to the 29-ers themselves and to wider society. Dipping into our continuum every four years, they can bypass the noise of the moment, and see much more clearly the changes of fashion, manner and thought, for better and for worse. All 29-ers have already shot forward from the EU referendum to a post-Brexit Britain, and will be able to see with greater clarity just what a disaster it has been, or will be. In that clarity may be the key to repairing the worst of the damage. 29-ers can also delight in being able to miss almost the entirety of the Trump presidency.
Their outsider’s perspective may prove invaluable as society yearns for guidance. 29-ers can, in their own way, be just as useful to the advancement of civilisation as their linear siblings. Admittedly, there are exceptions. In the second half of Year 8 and the first of Year 9 (2004), I had an elderly History teacher who had been alive officially since the mid-18th century, and spent most lessons screaming in confusion at the whiteboard. Fourteen years later, I understand why.
But for the most part, the view of the 29-er is much championed, and they are often looked to in the political sphere for advice. Their trouble lies in the limited ability to be elected to parliament, since within a few months of winning a seat they may vanish and trigger a by-election. By-elections are often the easiest way for a 29-er to be elected anyway, since no UK general election has been held in a leap year since 1992, and before then 1964. The avoidance is largely deliberate and serves party political interest. Harold Wilson needed to call a further election two years later to strength his hand, and John Major’s government became increasingly unstable up until Tony Blair’s landslide of 1997. It’s easy to see why Theresa May thought it might be a safer option to dodge the bullet of an election in 2020.
Yes, in spite of all the tragedy that might befall a 29-er, and their families, there is much to be said for their condition and its value to wider humanity. In a few decades, once she is able to speak, communicate and think independently, and cope with her perpetual expectation of loss, my parents’ friends’ daughter will have much to offer the world with her insight – if only she were around long enough to instil any real change herself.