“You’ve booked the table?”
“8:30pm? And you told them that we want the one in the alcove. If we get that table near the toilets again, I’m not staying. I’m sorry, Grant, but I’m not.”
All the time she was talking, she hadn’t stopped moving. Her hairbrush in one hand, sweeping through her thick black hair as she walked.
“I asked for the table in the alcove. Just like you told me to. Everything is going to be perfect. Don’t worry.”
Grant was fixing his tie, pulling on the smooth-knit silk, hurrying away from the bedroom mirror before Pamela took her place there.
“Did you tell them it’s my birthday? You didn’t, did you? I don’t want a fuss. You know how much I hate the attention.”
She nudged him out of the way, playful but insistent and leant forwards towards the glass.
“You look great, Pam.”
“Do I look older?”
She raised a finger to just below her eye and traced it across her smooth, pale skin.
“You look as young and as beautiful as the day we met.”
“I’ll accept your cliched compliment, but only because it’s my birthday and I need to hear it.”
Grant grinned and stood behind her, looking over her shoulder into the mirror.
“Accept it because it’s true. You are perfect.”
“And I very much look forward to tonight, when you give me my perfect gift.”
Grant buried a kiss into her soft curly hair, hiding his facial expression.
Pam slicked on her lipstick, shook her platinum bangle onto her wrist, and added a spritz of Chanel eau de parfum to her pulse points.
“Happy three-zero, Pammy. I’ll be home by seven, and I promise, everything will be perfect.”
A quick swivel, and a firm kiss. Pam scooped up her keys and headed out to her car.
“Shit,” Grant muttered to himself, as soon as his wife had left.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
He ran his fingers through his neat brown hair and brought his hand to rest over his face.
Grant paced through to the living room and sat, legs spread, leaning over the coffee table, where his laptop lay open. It was too late for online ordering, of course. What he was looking for was inspiration. He clicked and scrolled and stared. Nothing. This was the same routine he had repeated almost every day for the past month. It was becoming a ritual for him; praying at the mercy of the great Amazon that he would be struck by a vision of what he should buy Pamela for her birthday. So far, he had remained unrewarded for his regular attrition.
Despite his inability to find the perfect gift, Grant had an indefatigable ability to schedule, and had booked this day off work many months ago. He hadn’t told Pam and had gone through the routine of preparing for work, dressing and making himself ready to leave the house as he always did. Plan B, the plan that he knew he would have to implement when his online searching failed and his hands were empty on this day, was to head into the city and shop until he dropped. Even the thought of spending the day in and out of the busy, bustling boutiques was enough to make him heavy a heavy sigh and repeat himself again.
Grant’s first stop was a smart, glass-fronted, minimalist store called Badger. Far from selling animals or furs, it was a high-end baggage and accessories shop. On one of his early Google searches of “what to buy wife for 30th birthday”, the lists that he had read suggested that bags were a great idea. He wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t that Pam didn’t like bags, but she knew what she did like, and despite the optimism of the list-writers, he was unconvinced that a bag was the must have birthday gift your wife will love. The list may have been produced by Badger themselves, for all he knew. Either way, he had found himself in their clinical store, and he stood on a white marble floor, eyeing the red leather tote bags.
The sales assistants hovered around the cash desk, trying to observe him unobtrusively, but he could feel their eyes upon him. He smiled nervously over at them and approached the counter.
“It’s my wife’s birthday. What should I buy her?”
He didn’t want to waste time, so kept it direct and to the point. However, the women were not prepared to let is pass so easily.
“How old is she?”
“What kind of bags does she like?”
“What’s her colouring?”
“What does she do for a living? What will she use the bag for?”
“Does she already own any items from our ranges?”
Grant stood, open-mouthed, as the questions ricocheted. This was going to be more complicated than he had expected. There were purses, wallets, embossed keyrings, satchels, briefcases, saddle bags, shoppers, even baguettes, which he was sure were a good item, not leather goods, but he realised, conclusively, that he was not an expert.
“I…I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t think this is the gift for Pam. Sorry to waste your time.”
He stepped back from the counter, smiled and almost tripped into a display stand, splattered with small colourful wallets, as he made his way to the door.
“Something personal. Something meaningful.”
Grant muttered this mantra to himself as he slowly picked his was through the people-packed plaza towards his next stop. He had an idea, and he hoped that it was a good idea. Either way, he was about to find out. He stepped into a side street, feeling the empty space rush over him after the dense pack of the congested square. After a deep breath, he made his way to the second shop.
Forster’s Books was a small, independent outlet with a green-painted door and friendly staff. It had been one of Pam and Grant’s regular ports of call during the early months of their relationship. They would walk down through the park, crunching bronzed leaves beneath their boots, glove in glove, on to the cosy warmth of the bookstore before finally snuggling into a corner in West Country Coffee. Since then, weekends had become busier, filled with social engagements; parties, tennis on a Sunday morning and dinner out in the evening. The simple pleasures had somehow been left behind. Grant stepped through the door of the bookshop, heard the tinkle of the bell above the frame, and was bathed in the wash of nostalgia.
“Good morning, sir.”
The voice rang as brightly as the bell.
“Do you require any assistance today?”
Grant shrugged and walked over to the counter, where the owner of the voice, the owner of the shop, was standing, smiling. As he approached the shopkeeper’s grin broadened.
“Ah, Mr Barker. It’s been a long time.”
He held his hand across the counter to shake Grant’s hand, as though they were old friends. Grant met his hand and returned the smile.
“Mr Forster. So nice to be back. It’s Pammy’s thirtieth and I have no idea what to buy her. She always loved to come here, so…”
“We thought you must have moved away. Thirty, is she? Do say happy birthday from us.”
Grant nodded and Mr Forster continued.
“She liked the romance books, as I recall. Traditional man meets woman and they fall in love type novels. Happy endings.”
“I’ve not seen her read in a while, but I’m stuck for a gift. I want everything to be perfect.”
“You can’t go wrong with Pride and Prejudice. An all-time classic. Romance, drama…mistakes made and corrected…”
“I don’t know. I’m not all that romantic myself. I’m not sure I want to encourage those kind of thoughts.”
Grant laughed, momentarily, and then stopped himself. The truth felt sour on his tongue.
“Ah,” said Mr Forster.
He tilted his head, and looked expectantly at Grant, but Grant didn’t know exactly what he was expecting. Was he supposed to keep talking, open up, turn this into a therapy session?
“I’m sorry, I mean, maybe that’s…”
Grant backpedalled, but Mr Forster had already turned to put Jane Austen back on the shelf.
“I think she’s got it already,” Grant said. “Maybe I’ll read it sometime?”
“I would recommend that, certainly,” Forster replied.
“I think that perhaps she already has all the books she needs.”
Grant looked around at the bright covers, bold fonts, captivating pictures, intriguing titles. He could have picked up any of a number of these and taken them home to Pam without having a clue about their contents. Pride and Prejudice was presented with a mostly black-coloured cover, with a dour-looking woman seated in the dull illustration. It wasn’t something he would ever have chosen for Pam, based on first impressions, but Forster was correct in his assessment that it was the perfect book for her.
“It’s good to see you again. I hope you and Pam will come back soon.”
Grant reached over and shook the man’s hand, promising that yes, they would return.
If there is one gift that you can judge by its appearance, it is jewellery. The ground floor of Merrigold’s was Grant’s next destination. A towering department store that promised to stock everything that the modern human’s heart could desire; if he couldn’t find the perfect gift there, there was little hope that he would find it anywhere.
Grant stood at the counter, looking down into the glass-topped display cabinet. There were a range of rings, from plain polished bands to heavily jewelled pieces. Diamonds, sapphires, rubies. The opulence was dazzling, and the burden of choice was overwhelming.
“Can I help you, sir?”
The sales assistant was a perfectly presented, preened lady. Her blonde cropped hair was poked straight, her black shirt and skirt were dark and unfaded. Grant realised that he was staring.
“My wife’s birthday. The big 3-0. I have no idea what to get her.”
The blonde smiled, and he could almost hear her flick the switch into sales mode.
“We have a fine collection of premium jewellery to suit the most prestigious of customers. As you can see our rings are…”
Grant waved his hand.
“I don’t need to hear the pitch. Thank you, though. The problem is, Pamela is definitely the most prestigious of customers. She is impossible to buy for. Impossible.”
The sales assistant didn’t miss a beat. She maintained her broad, fake smile and continued.
“I’m sure I can help you, sir. Maybe we can explore which pieces your wife – Pamela – already has, and we can select some co-ordinating items.”
He sighed and let her guide him through the collections. Bangles, bracelets, necklaces, even tiaras. None of them seemed like anything that Pam would wear. He shook his head at trinket after trinket.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to be buying anything today.”
As soon as she realised that a sale wasn’t forthcoming, her demeanour changed.
“Please do return to visit us another day for all your jewellery requirements,” she said, as though reeling off a script.
She turned and walked away, heading towards a couple, holding hands, blushing over a selection of diamond rings.
Rather than immediately heading for the door, Grant stood, looking at the young couple. They couldn’t have been much older than he and Pam had been when they were engaged. Back then he was a trainee solicitor, and she was an office junior. How things had changed. Pamela had worked hard over the past seven years to become one of the most sought-after creative designers in the city. He had qualified and found a lucrative role in the firm where he had worked as a trainee. They had married, bought the cheapest house in the best area and never looked back.
Grant smiled to himself. A warm glow radiated from the centre of his chest; the flutter of a distant memory. He left the jewellers with thoughts of Pam and their shared history flooding his brain with endorphins. The floaty feeling of first love filled him, and perhaps it was that which made him a little careless, slightly distracted, somewhat dazed. He stepped from the kerb, heading towards the clothes store across the street, missed his footing and stumbled like a newborn fawn, his ankle turning, his frame dropping into the street, into the path of an oncoming black Uber. The street faded to blackness.
The beeping sound woke Grant and let him know that fortunately he was still alive, and unfortunately, he was in a hospital. He squinted and saw a clock face above the white, clinical door. It was half past eight. He winced; a combination of the pain ripping through his left leg and the realisation that he was not at La Luna Italian restaurant with his wife. He had failed to find the perfect birthday present, and he had failed to actually be present on her birthday.
He tried to speak but that broken bark was all that emerged.
“Ssh,” came a voice from his left. “Ssh. Don’t speak. Try to rest.”
It was Pam. He felt her hand on his hair, stroking gently, and lovingly.
“Peurf,” he said.
He turned him head to face her and she smiled down at him.
“Fancy you going to these lengths to steal the attention on my birthday,” she said, and winked.
“The ambulance crew said that all you could tell them before you passed out was that you couldn’t go to hospital because you had to buy me a gift.”
Grant managed a pained smile back to his wife, but still couldn’t form words.
The beeping continued, the solid thud of his heartbeat, sounded aloud. As he smiled, his pulse quickened, the rate of the beeping increased. Pam looked over at the monitor.
“Maybe I’d better go if I’m going to over-excite you.”
She smiled, and lightly kissed his forehead.
“P…” Grant tried again to speak, but the pain and the medication choked back his words.
“Hush,” Pam said. “I’m going to sit right here. I’m going to hold your hand, and stroke your hair, and argue with the doctors if they don’t give you enough morphine. I’m going to listen to the sound of your heartbeat on that monitor, and, Grant, I’m going to be grateful that you are alive.”
He wanted to speak. He wanted to say so many things, but all he could do was to look at his wife.
“I love you.”
She bent to kiss him again, and then sat down onto the cold plastic visitor’s chair.
She looked at him, and he looked at her, both lost in unspeakable thoughts, until Grant slipped again into the blackness.