It all started on my birthday on December 11th.
I didn’t get a single card. I just could not believe it.
I always used to get twenty, or thirty, cards… OK that was when I was in kindergarten… and in recent years I admit the numbers have declined fractionally. (All right, so last year I got three cards… but that’s a fraction of thirty isn’t it?)
But not to get one? Did my family think I was dead?
Despite being just a little depressed, I said to myself ‘Peter, you are a grown man- carry on for the rest of the day as normal, and under no circumstances let anyone see that your feelings are hurt.’
“I just can’t believe it!” I said five minutes later to my local newsagent. “It’s my birthday today and I didn’t get a single card!”
“Not a single card. That is very bad, Sir.” he said.
“Well, it’s not good is it?” I said, as I paid for my newspaper.
“Are you quite sure about this, Sir… not even one card… not even a postcard?” he asked. “Not one.” I said.
“Maybe in the second post.” he suggested.
I ran out of the shop and all the way back to the house.
There were three envelopes waiting for me in the mail box. I tore them open. They were all from estate agents wanting to sell my flat.
My bad news must have spread round Maida Vale like wildfire.
Clearly they thought a MAN WHO DIDN’T GET A BIRTHDAY CARD would want to sell up immediately and move to another part of town, make new friends, start a New Life. One suggested I might consider a new development South of the river.
The way I was feeling I ‘d be lucky to get half way across.
But surely my daughter had sent me a card?
I drove over immediately to Notting Hill to question her.
“I made it myself Daddy!” she said “Mummy posted it with me yesterday. What have you done with it, Daddy? Daddy, have you lost my card?” she asked accusingly.
I looked into her six and a half year old brown eyes. She was telling the truth.
Later that morning the phone rang. It was my mother. “Happy Birthday!”
“Ah! So you’ve finally remembered have you?” I said.
“Didn’t you get my card?”
“No, I did not.” I said.
“I must stop it.” she said.
“You already have.” I said.
“No! The cheque… I put a cheque inside it!” she said.
A few days later, when I didn’t receive my first ever tax refund, I rang my new local tax inspector, in Cornwall. (It makes perfect sense to me; I live in West London.)
He told me he was sorry but there was nothing he could do. They had sent me a cheque five days earlier and if I hadn’t received it, it was not their fault. I should contact the Post Office.
“But if I haven’t got my tax refund, who has?” I asked.
“How do I know, Sir? It could be anyone. There are thirty five million other tax payers. You aren’t the only one you know.”
When I added that I hadn’t got any birthday cards either, he said he was sorry- but somehow I had the feeling he didn’t really care.
It was only when I came home a couple of weeks ago from my month away over Christmas, to find no mail at all waiting for me, that I realised that something was wrong! This wasn’t any longer just a case of The Man Who Got No Birthday Cards….
(Like everyone else, I usually get four or five letters every day. O.K. when I say letters- I mean bills. To go away for a month and get no bills? This was an impossible fantasy.)
…SOMEBODY WAS STEALING MY MAIL!
I rang a private investigator. I found him in the Yellow Pages… next to Pretzel Manufacturers…
I told him the facts. What did he think?
“You know what I think?…” he paused.…
“Yes?” I said.
“I think nobody sent you any birthday cards.” he said.
I rang another private investigator.
My new Private Eye told me not to worry, he was going to catch the thief.
“I’m going to send you a letter, but under no circumstances must you open it.” he said.
“Why not?” I asked. “Remember, when you were a kid… how you dangled half a pig on a line to catch a crab?” he said.
“Yes… I remember.” I said. “But how will you get the pig into the envelope?” I asked.
He explained it was a metaphor… inside the letter would be a sheet of paper painted with an invisible permanent dye called Violet Crystal: when the thief opened it, his or her hands would turn a bright luminous violet colour.
“We will catch them Violet Handed!” I said. (I couldn’t resist it.)
“We use it in kidnapping cases all the time.” he said…
“We mark the million pounds in ransom notes with it.”
I didn’t have a million pounds on me at the time, so I sent him a twenty-pound note.
“You do realise don’t you, that either a total stranger is breaking in just to steal your letters, or… it’s one of the other people living in your house?” he said.
(I had told him there were five other flats in the house.)
“That’s impossible,” I said, “they are all very nice honest people. Why would they want to steal my letters?”
“Have you ever had any trouble with any of them?” he asked.
“Of course not.” I said.
“Are you absolutely sure?” he asked.
“Well, they weren’t exactly happy when my flat burnt down a couple of years ago.” I said. “I live on the top floor…but it wasn’t my fault…my phone caught fire.”
“Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.” he said.
The violet crystal letter arrived on Monday. I left it on the table in the house hallway.
It’s been there all week… I was about to give up… until this morning!
Overnight THE LETTER THIEF had struck again! It had gone!
I have spent all day knocking on my neighbours’ doors, so I could get a good look at their hands.
“Good morning!” I said, holding out my hand and shaking theirs whilst studying it closely. (If their other hand was hidden behind their back I said “Let’s shake hands twice, once with the left hand and once with the right… it means ‘Happy New Year’ in Vanaatu, you know… It’s an island in the South Pacific.” I explained.)
But I couldn’t keep shaking both their hands and wishing my neighbours Happy New Year ten times a day, they would finally get suspicious; so on my follow up visits I asked them how would they feel if I decided to turn my flat into…
1) A Polish Mexican Zimbabwean fusion restaurant.
2) A health club with a late night lap dancing licence. or
3) A nuclear shelter, internet café, sushi bar combined.
I don’t think anybody thinks there’s anything unusual going on so far; but there’s not even a Violet fingernail, let alone Violet hand, to be seen in the house yet, and I am rapidly running out of sensible excuses to knock on their doors.
I’ve just rung The Private Eye.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “when the guilty party showers, their entire body will turn violet.”
Tomorrow morning I am going to hide behind a tree outside the house and watch to see if any of them have turned violet overnight.
Interfering with the Royal Mail is no laughing matter.
Of course I knew all along that I’d been sent some birthday cards!… there were probably dozens …possibly hundreds of them.
Copyright Peter Rosengard 2002. All back columns including those that first appeared in The Independent 1993/1995, are now up on the site. Please see The Saturday Column Archive.