Collins Envelope

It was not my birthday, but, for a reason I still cannot determine, Patrycja pretended that it was. If I questioned her celebration, then she made out, with a playful smile, that it was I who was losing the plot. For as long as I can remember, my birthday has been the twenty-fifth of August, not the seventeenth of November; however, this year the latter had better weather than the former, so I played along. It would be wise of me to not fall into a trap of believing the seventeenth of November actually was my birthday, I thought, as the real date is a peculiar part of my identity, and to wave good-bye to it would feel like an amputation.

She set out before me, as she was often inclined to do. The fifteen minutes before our lunch-hour rendezvous were her own, a mystery to me, elusive behaviour yet to be captured on film. A pin on a map was sent, as well as an attractive shortcut for consideration, but described very loosely so that one had no real chance of finding it, and thus it would remain a secret shortcut, a hidden crevice of London she alone picked at with long strides.

I walked along in the shade of streets beneath a bright blue sky. It had been many years since I had been down Long Lane, and it reminded me of a woman who has since gotten married and was – I later learned – at that exact moment giving birth to her second child. As it had been so long, I was inclined to pause every now & then, to peer into the dark recesses of new restaurants, or to remark upon a pub’s stained glass windows, to regard an alleyway as though it were a portal into some faraway world. When I approached, she spotted me the same moment that I spotted her, sat with her legs crossed on a small circular table outside, with two wrapped presents in front of her and a pair of muffins with candles. She smiled and I rolled my eyes, walked past, she laughed, and I stubbed my cigarette into a bin. When I came back, she had produced a lighter from her pocket and was lighting the candles. ‘Quick,’ she hurried me, her hand curled around the wobbling flames. I managed to blow out one, Long Lane wind the other. I was chuckling. I opened the presents as she explained that it was part two of my presents, that part one was in the office, as she had forgotten it.

I told her—‘But it’s not my birthday!’
‘Yes, it is!’ She was amused.
‘I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this.’
‘It’s nothing to do with deserving it.’

A drop of wax from the candle had fallen on the muffin, turning from warm to cold, from gloss to matte. She looked at me, which I returned and laughed, shaking my head, unable to make much sense of things, but I supposed that I should not try too hard. Indeed she often left me confused, inadvertent reciprocity after she had told me the evening before that I brought her ‘joy and confusion’. She asked me if I wanted to sit inside. I said I did. I took my presents with me, holding them like a child.

The restaurant was busier than the street. Outside it was cold and quiet, but inside it was warm with the steam off food and conversation, the scent too; table after table of businesspeople talking. It was an Italian restaurant and there were props scattered around to remind one as such: baskets of durum wheat, piles of dry pasta, an old bicycle stuck in the middle, paintings of hilly coastlines, black & white photographs of people kissing. ‘A table for two?’ she asked the waiter who greeted us, as he bent down to pick up some cutlery. When he hurried off to check, she told me—‘I am paying.’ Maybe my birthday really was the seventeenth of November! I imagined! a life of lies, of premature occasions, a ruse by my parents to get me into an earlier school year! The twenty-fifth of August seemed to me like a very solid number, reliable, structural; the seventeenth of November was jagged, freeform, it was all over the place, it was jazz. The waiter returned—‘Please follow me.’ She followed he, I followed her. As we meandered through the close-knit tables, I looked down. Between her trousers and shoes were her exposed ankles. Never before had I had an opportunity to examine her ankles. I watched them flex as she walked, watched them contort, the achilles so immense, golden from Portugal, a small portion of her not yet offered up to me, but finally there for my struck eyes, tight like an E-string then plucked and loose. I was staring through the peephole. I excused myself off a gentleman who had bent down to retrieve something from his briefcase. Her ankles, one-two, one-two, moving away from me, cloaked in a shadowy network of chair legs and hung coats.
We sat down. ‘I saw the specials,’ she told me; to the waiter—‘I already know what I want – the langoustines, please.’ The waiter wandered off. When he returned, I gave him my order – wild boar ragu – and a beer; a large chianti for her. We talked. My presents were in a canvas bag next to me. I kept checking they were there, paranoid that someone might steal them. Really, I was unsure of the situation, for it had never happened to me before. Over and over I told myself to relax. Curse my mind! it becomes terribly agitated at the silliest things. Beck had invited me to lunch—‘Or are you out on a date?’ I told him I was going out with Patrycja. He called me—‘We’re in the Ragger’s. Where are you?’ I told him I was on a date, and hung up mid-guffaw. She was only three days back from Portugal. Her skin still held an unseasonal glow that accentuated her blonde hairline, dark lashes, her dark blue eyes, the hesitations of her lips as she slid over English words with an alien lilt. She gesticulated, leaning forward and back. When we cheers’d, I observed whether she made eye contact; she did not; becoming anglicised.

‘I have a meeting at two,’ she told me. Ah, yes, work, that great inconvenience! How wonderful it would have been to sit there another ninety minutes, to order gelato, limoncello, an espresso to see us through the afternoon. Instead she leapt up and rushed off to pay the bill.

We made our return to the office through the backstreets. It was still sunny. The air still did not feel like November. She led the way, pointing out the shortcut, a sedate weave through alleys and courtyards, round the back of expensive houses & offices, gardeners tending their plots, the sound of silence so unlike a city, the capillaries of the Barbican. ‘Are you going to volleyball tonight?’ I asked. We are both aware of the other’s appointments. She said she was and I warned her not to damage her thumb again. She said she would try not to damage her thumb again. As well as the danger it posed to her position in the team, I thought it also imperative that she safely consider her immaculate hands. I imagined that only eighteenth-century French royalty could compare their hands with hers. ‘Hands are important to you!’ she said, as we got closer to the office. ‘Very,’ I said. ‘I used to see this girl and she was beautiful in every way but she had the most ugly hands! She was beautiful and elegant yet on her hands she had these stubby little fingers. It was really strange.’ Patrycja laughed—‘It is good when they have fetishes. Like with feet. It is such little work. You just put your feet in the right place and poof!’ she laughed as I thought about my cum between toes like liquid soap out an eager dispenser.
Beck was not back from the pub. I sat down, sighed and watched as Patrycja went off for her meeting. I put my presents carefully into my backpack. How much longer till I could go for a coffee? How much longer would the taste of our lunch remain on my tongue? The wild boar hooked itself into the gaps between my teeth; I nudged at it with my tongue. ‘Ready for part I? You have to look for a word birthday in Collins Dictionary that is on my desk?’ she messaged when she returned but by then I was in a meeting of my own. I looked at her; Patrycja was a few desks away, with better posture than me as I drank ice cold water to keep myself awake while others spoke through my headphones. ‘I have to go now… dictionary is on my desk. Enjoy!’

After my meeting finished, I walked over and found the word birthday – Countable noun – Your birthday is the anniversary of the date on which you were born. It stood out from the envelope within. On the envelope was scribbled PART I in large writing. I slid it into my bag. My phone read—'PS. Hope you can take the envelope in a discreet way. I really want to avoid the gossips. Thanks.’

‘I got it! I dunno how discreet I was’
Yhym. Are you being economic with the truth now?’
I mean, I wasn’t dressed as a ninja but I did crawl under everyone’s desk to get there’

On the train home, I resisted the urge to open the envelope. In my backpack, sandwiched between a laptop and a month-old issue of the New Yorker, it called out, tempting me like a snake with an apple. The longer I withheld, the more excited I became. Even when the carriage emptied, still I resisted. It was not until I arrived home, relaxed and ate dinner that I felt it was time. Locking myself in the bathroom and washing my hands, I delicately opened the envelope along the short edge. The card caused me to smile, for it was the same design that my parents gave me for my birthday. And inside… that is between me and Patrycja.