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The Post-Birthday World, Page 1

Lionel Shriver






  For J.


  “Nobody’s perfect.”






  WHAT BEGAN AS COINCIDENCE had crystallized into tradition: on the…


  AT THE RATTLE of the key in the lock, Irina…


  TO IRINA’S MIND, it was the most underrated of symphonies:…


  SPURNING HER FEW MINUTES’ lie-in, Irina was first out of…


  THE BEDCLOTHES WERE SEDUCTIVE, but, with Lawrence up, the swaddling…


  ON ONE MORE EXASPERATING afternoon in August, Irina thumbed through…


  THROUGH THE BUCOLIC AFTERNOONS of August, Irina labored diligently in…


  BY THE TIME SHE got to the corner of what…


  BY THE TIME LAWRENCE would be getting to the corner,…


  FANTASIES WERE ONE THING. But throughout months of frustration and…


  AFTER RETURNING WITH LAWRENCE from the Grand Prix in Bournemouth,…


  THE BRITISH OPEN WAS played in Plymouth across the Easter…


  ONCE THE GOOD FRIDAY Agreement was signed, Lawrence…


  FOR RAMSEY, PLAYING WAS work. Summers, he worked…


  THIS YEAR, IT WAS Irina who reminded Lawrence of Ramsey’s birthday, and Lawrence…


  IF IN THE PREVIOUS year Irina had gloriously overthrown the tyranny of her…


  THE NIGGLING SENSATION OF something being wrong or changed that…


  IRINA TOLD HERSELF SHE could use the constitutional, but her…


  IT WAS AT IRINAs’S urging that she and Lawrence watched the 2001 championship…


  AFTER SHE AND RAMSEY had gone at it hammer-and-tongs while oblivious to…


  IN THE PENUMBRA OF 9/11, everything seemed stupid. Dinner seemed stupid, and…


  “I JUST MET RAMSEY’S parents for the first time,” said Irina, twirling…

  About the Author

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  About the Publisher


  WHAT BEGAN AS COINCIDENCE had crystallized into tradition: on the sixth of July, they would have dinner with Ramsey Acton on his birthday.

  Five years earlier, Irina had been collaborating with Ramsey’s thenwife, Jude Hartford, on a children’s book. Jude had made social overtures. Abjuring the airy we-really-must-get-together-sometime feints common to London, which can carry on indefinitely without threatening to clutter your diary with a real time and place, Jude had seemed driven to nail down a foursome so that her illustrator could meet her husband, Ramsey. Or, no—she’d said, “My husband, Ramsey Acton.” The locution had stood out. Irina assumed that Jude was prideful in that wearing feminist way about the fact that she’d not taken her husband’s surname.

  But then, it is always difficult to impress the ignorant. When negotiating with Lawrence over the prospective dinner back in 1992, Irina didn’t know enough to mention, “Believe it or not, Jude’s married to Ramsey Acton.” For once Lawrence might have bolted for his Economist day-planner, instead of grumbling that if she had to schmooze for professional reasons, could she at least schedule an early dinner so that he could get back in time for NYPD Blue. Not realizing that she had been bequeathed two magic words that would vanquish Lawrence’s broad hostility to social engagements, Irina had said instead, “Jude wants me to meet her husband, Raymond or something.”

  Yet when the date she proposed turned out to be “Raymond or something’s” birthday, Jude insisted that more would be merrier. Once returned to bachelorhood, Ramsey let slip enough details about his marriage for Irina to reconstruct: after a couple of years, they could not carry a conversation for longer than five minutes. Jude had leapt at the chance to avoid a sullen, silent dinner just the two of them.

  Which Irina found baffling. Ramsey always seemed pleasant enough company, and the strange unease he always engendered in Irina herself would surely abate if you were married to the man. Maybe Jude had loved dragging Ramsey out to impress colleagues but was not sufficiently impressed on her own behalf. One-on-one he had bored her silly.

  Besides, Jude’s exhausting gaiety had a funny edge of hysteria about it, and simply wouldn’t fly—would slide inevitably to the despair that lay beneath it—without that quorum of four. When you cocked only half an ear to her uproarious discourse, it was hard to tell if she was laughing or crying. Though she did laugh a great deal, including through most of her sentences, her voice rising in pitch as she drove herself into ever accelerating hilarity when nothing she had said was funny. It was a compulsive, deflective laughter, born of nerves more than humor, a masking device and therefore a little dishonest. Yet her impulse to put a brave, bearable face on what must have been a profound unhappiness was sympathetic. Her breathless mirth pushed Irina in the opposite direction—to speak soberly, to keep her voice deep and quiet, if only to demonstrate that it was acceptable to be serious. Thus if Irina was sometimes put off by Jude’s manner, in the woman’s presence she at least liked herself.

  Irina hadn’t been familiar with the name of Jude’s husband, consciously. Nevertheless, that first birthday, when Jude had bounced into the Savoy Grill with Ramsey gliding beside her—it was already late enough in a marriage that was really just a big, well-meaning mistake that her clasp of his hand could only have been for show—Irina met the tall man’s gray-blue eyes with a jolt, a tiny touching of live wires that she subsequently interpreted as visual recognition, and later—much later—as recognition of another kind.

  LAWRENCE TRAINER WAS NOT a pretentious man. He may have accepted a research fellowship at a prestigious London think tank, but he was raised in Las Vegas, and remained unapologetically American. He said “controversy,” not “controversy”; he never elided the K-sound in “schedule.” So he hadn’t rushed to buy a white cable sweater and joined his local cricket league. Still, his father was a golf instructor; he inherited an interest in sports. He was a culturally curious person, despite a misanthropic streak that resisted having dinner with strangers when he could be watching reruns of American cop shows on Channel 4.

  Thus early in the couple’s expatriation to London, Lawrence conceived a fascination with snooker. While Irina had supposed this British pastime to be an arcane variation on pool, Lawrence took pains to apprise her that it was much more difficult, and much more elegant, than dumpy old eightball. At six feet by twelve, a snooker table made an American billiards table look like a child’s toy. It was a game not only of dexterity but of intricate premeditation, requiring its past masters to think up to a dozen shots ahead, and to develop a spatial and geometric sophistication that any mathematician would esteem.

  Irina hadn’t discouraged Lawrence’s enthusiasm for snooker tournaments on the BBC, for the game’s ambiance was one of repose. The vitreous click-click of balls and civilized patter of polite applause were far more soothing than the gunshots and sirens of cop shows. The commentators spoke just above a whisper in soft, regional accents. Their vocabulary was suggestive, although not downright smutty: in amongst the balls, deep screw, double-kiss, loose red; the black was available. Though by custom a working-class sport, snooker was conducted in a spirit of decency and refinement more associated
with aristocracy. The players wore waistcoats, and bow ties. They never swore; displays of temper were not only frowned upon but could cost a reduction of one’s score. Unlike the hooligan audiences for football, or even tennis—once the redoubt of snobs but lately as low-rent as demolition derby—snooker crowds were pin-drop silent during play. Fans had sturdy bladders, for even tip-toeing to the loo invited public censure from the referee, an austere presence of few words who wore short, spotless white gloves.

  Moreover, on an island whose shores were battered by cultural backwash from the States, snooker was still profoundly British. The UK’s late-night TV may have been riddled with reruns of Seinfeld, its cinemas dominated by L.A. Confidential, its local lingo contaminated—chap and bloke giving way to guy. But the BBC would still devote up to twelve hours of a broadcasting day to a sport that most Americans didn’t know from tiddlywinks.

  In all, then, snooker made a pleasing backdrop while Irina sketched the storyboard of a new children’s book, or stitched the hem on the living-room drapes. Having achieved under Lawrence’s patient tutelage a hazy appreciation for the game, Irina would occasionally look up to follow a frame. More than a year before Jude ever mentioned her husband, Irina’s eye had been drawn to a particular figure on screen.

  Had she thought about it—and she hadn’t—she had never seen him win a title. Yet his face did seem to pop up in the later rounds of most televised tournaments. He was older than the preponderance of the players, who tended to their twenties; a few severe lines in the long, faceted face could only have scored it beyond the age of forty. Even for a sport with such an emphasis on etiquette, his bearing was signally selfcontained; he had good posture. Because to a degree snooker’s rectitude was all show (Lawrence assured her that away from the table these gentlemen didn’t incline toward Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches), many players grew paunches, their complexions by thirty hard-living and haggard. In a game of finesse, their arms often went soft and their thighs spread. Yet this character was narrow, with sharp shoulders and slim hips. He always wore a classic starched white shirt, black bow tie, and distinctive pearl colored waistcoat—a signature perhaps, intricately over-woven with white silk thread, its filigree reminiscent of certain painstaking fills in her own illustrations.

  When they were introduced in the Savoy Grill, Irina didn’t recognized Ramsey from TV. He was out of context. Brilliant with names, faces, dates, and statistics, Lawrence quickly put to rest her nagging puzzlement over why Jude’s husband seemed familiar. (“Why didn’t you tell me?” he’d exclaimed. It was a rare day that Lawrence Trainer was obsequious.) Ramsey Acton immediately pulled down a whole file on a man apparently an icon of the game, albeit something of a holdover from the previous generation. Borrowed from American basketball, his handle on the circuit, “Swish,” paid tribute to Ramsey’s propensity for potting so cleanly that the object-ball never touched the jaws of the pocket. His game was renowned for speed and fluidity; he was a momentum player. A professional for twenty-five years, he was famous, if one could be famous for such a thing, for not winning the World Championship—though he had played five championship finals. (By 1997, that was thirty years, and six finals—still no championship.) In no time Lawrence had nudged his chair closer to Ramsey’s, engaging in an exultant duet that would brook no intrusions.

  Irina had mastered the basics: right, you alternate potting a red with potting a color. Potted reds stay potted; potted colors return to their spots. Reds cleared off, you sink the colors in a set order. Not so difficult. But if she was always a little unclear on whether the brown or the green went first, she was unlikely to engage a pro in engrossing speculation on this matter. By contrast, Lawrence had mastered the game’s most obscure regulations. Hence as he waxed eloquent about some notorious “respotted black,” Swish bestowed Lawrence with a handle of his own: “Anorak Man.” Literally an unstylish windbreaker but figuratively British for geek, anorak was shorthand for train-spotters, plane-spotters, and anyone else who memorized the top ten ranking international darts players instead of getting a life. Yet the gentle pejorative was clearly coined in affection. To Lawrence’s satisfaction, Anorak Man would stick.

  Irina had felt excluded. Lawrence did have a tendency to take over. Irina might describe herself as retiring, or quiet; in bleaker moments, mousy. In any event, she did not like to fight to be heard.

  When Irina locked eyes with her friend that evening, Jude’s rolled upward in a gesture a mite nastier than Oh, those boys being boys. Jude had met her husband during her journalism phase, when she’d been assigned a puff piece for Hello! in the 80s, and Ramsey was a minor pinup star; in the interview, they’d gotten hammered and hit it off. Yet for Jude what had probably started out a meager interest in snooker had apparently slid to no interest in snooker, and then on to outright antagonism. Having made such a to-do about how Irina must meet Ramsey Acton only to display such annoyance, Jude must have routinely hauled her husband out and plunked him next to the likes of the adoring Lawrence in order to get her money’s worth, or something’s worth anyway.

  Lawrence utterly neglected the woman he called his “wife” to others but whom he had never bothered to marry; Ramsey was better brought up. Shifting toward Irina, Ramsey firmly turned aside any more snooker shoptalk for the night. He commended her illustrations for Jude’s new children’s book, extolling, “Them pictures was top drawer, love. I were well impressed.” (That was, wew impressed. Especially since his voice was soft, the thick South London accent took some getting used to. Ramsey apologized that the fish mousse was awfoow, pressed Irina to accept more wine because on his burfday she needn’t beehive hersewf, and demurred that he dint fancy a pud neevah. “Think things through” came out fink fings froo; a word like “motivated” was full of tiny silences, like a faulty digital recording: mo’ i’ va ’i.) He had a way of looking at Irina and only at Irina that no one had employed for a very long time, and it frankly unnerved and even discomfited her; she constantly cut her own gaze to her plate. It was a bit much for a first meeting, not presumptuous in a way you could quite put your finger on but presumptuous all the same. And Ramsey was lousy at casual chitchat; whenever she brought up the Democratic convention, or John Major, he plain stopped talking.

  Quietly, Ramsey picked up the tab. The wine, and there had been a lot of it, had been pricey. But snooker pros made a mint, and Irina decided not to feel abashed.

  That first birthday, his forty-second, as she recalled, he’d seemed perfectly nice and everything, but she’d been relieved when the evening was over.

  IRINA COLLABORATED ON A second children’s book with Jude—the overt manipulativeness of the first, along the lines of I Love to Clean Up My Room!, appealed to parents as much as it repelled children, and had ensured that it sold well. Thus the foursome soon became established, and was repeated—often, for London circles—a couple of times a year. Lawrence, for once, was always up for these gatherings, and from the start displayed a proprietary attitude toward Ramsey, whose acquaintance he enjoyed claiming to British colleagues. Irina grew marginally more knowledgeable about the sport, but she could never compete with Lawrence’s encyclopedic mastery, so didn’t try. Tacitly it was understood that Jude was Irina’s friend and Ramsey Lawrence’s, though Irina wondered if she wasn’t getting the short end of the stick. Jude was a little irritating.

  The dinner that began the second year of their rambunctious foursome landed once again on Ramsey’s birthday. For secular Westerners ritual is hard to come by. Two birthdays in a row sufficed to establish standard practice.

  Self-conscious that Ramsey always footed the bill on his own birthday, the fourth July, in 1995, Irina had insisted on hosting the do. In the mood to experiment, she prepared her own sushi-sashimi platters, to which she’d noticed that Ramsey was partial. Unlike those precious restaurant servings of three bites of tuna and a sheet of serrated plastic grass, the ample platters of hand rolls and norimaki on their dining table in Borough left no room for the plates. She wo
uld have imagined that someone like Ramsey was used to being feted, and worried beforehand that her hesitant foray into Japanese cuisine wouldn’t compete with the flash fare to which he was accustomed. Instead, he was so overcome by her efforts that for the entire evening he could hardly talk. You’d think no one had ever made him dinner before. He was so embarrassed that Irina grew embarrassed that she had embarrassed him, exacerbating the painful awkwardness that had come to characterize their few direct dealings with each other, and making Irina grateful for the boisterous buffering of the other two.

  Ah, then there was last year. She and Jude had had a huge row, and were no longer speaking; Jude and Ramsey had had a huger row, and were no longer married. Though seven years was brief for a marriage, that was still a mind-boggling number of evenings in the same room for those two, and they were surely only able to stick together for that long because Ramsey spent such a large proportion of the year on the road. Had it been left to Irina, at that point she might have let their fitful friendship with Ramsey Acton lapse. She’d nothing in common with the man, and he made her uncomfortable.

  Yet Lawrence was determined to rescue this minor celebrity from that depressing pool of people—sometimes an appallingly populous pool, by your forties—with whom you used to be friends but have now, often for no defensible reason, lost touch. He might have slipped in the rankings, but Ramsey was one of the “giants of the game.” Besides, said Lawrence, “the guy has class.”

  Shy, Irina pressed Lawrence to ring, suggesting that he make a half-hearted offer to have Ramsey over; it was pretty poor form to ring someone up and ask him to take you out to dinner on his own birthday. Yet she expected Ramsey to decline the home-cooked meal, if not the whole proposition. A threesome anywhere would feel unbalanced.