My ex occasionally monitored my email account, in order, she said, to make sure I’m engaging with the world in a competent manner. This is how she came across a long chain of correspondence grouped under the subject heading “Writer’s Room”. Her conversation and mine went something like this:
“I see you’re planning to go off with your little friends on a jolly to Cornwall next month,” she says.
“A period of intensive writing,” I say. “With a pitch at the end.”
“On the same weekend as my birthday,” she says.
I examine the backs of my hands for a long moment. “I was going to speak to you about that,” I say, “because I could always leave early, or even…”
“It’s fine,” she says. “I really don’t care about my birthday. Birthdays are stupid.”
I take her at her word, but as the weekend approaches, I begin to doubt the wisdom of this.
“It’s my birthday next week,” she says to guest at supper one evening. “And I’m going to be all alone.”
“Why, where am I?” the dinner guest says.
“Her?” she says, flapping a hand in my direction. “She’s never here.”
“What are you fucking talking about?” I say. “I’m always here.”
“All alone,” my ex says.
In the run-up to my departure, my ex refuses to say what she wants for her birthday. I know from experience that when it comes to presents, she was not receptive to surprises. It was customary for her to escort me to a particular shop, point to the thing she desires, then watch me pay for it, but that year there had been no such excursion.
The day before my ex’s birthday, I am fretting my way through central London with time on my hands before my train leaves. Suddenly, a plan begins to develop in my mind. I locate a card shop. enter and select a birthday card: it has an alligator in high heels on the front. I convince myself my wife will not think the alligator is meant to be her. The woman at the till also sells me a stamp.
Outside, on the pavement, I scribble an appropriate sentiment inside the card, seal the envelope and drop it into the nearest post box. It’s a small gesture, but it’s so unlike me – consideration, aforethought, allied with timely execution; what I believe counsellors call a “caring action” – that my ex will be genuinely shocked. She’ll probably think I’m having an affair.
I call her from Cornwall late the next afternoon.
“Happy birthday,” I say.
“I can’t talk now,” she says. “Everyone’s here.”
“Who’s everyone?” I say.
She begins listing people. “We’re having a drink, then we’re going to a pop-up restaurant on the roof of a car park.”
“Oh,” I say. “Sounds fun.”
“Yes, bad luck,” she says. “And I got your card, which was lovely.”
“The alligator isn’t supposed to be you.”
“I couldn’t figure out who it was from,” she says.
“There you are,” I say. “A caring action.”
There is a pause at the other end. “What did you say?” my ex says.
“Nothing,” I say.
“A caring action? I’m going to put the phone down on you.”
“Anyway, I’ll let you go,” I say.
She doesn’t hear me, because she’s holding the phone away from her ear while she tells everyone what I’ve just said.