Margaret’s Birthday Present by Roger Haydon

Retired bus driver Henry tries to lead as normal a life as he can during the coronavirus pandemic; by Roger Haydon.

Henry's last trip to the surgery was two months ago to get the results of his tests. Danny offered to take time off work to go with him.

'Nah, you're alright son. I'll go on my own, it's fine, I can cope whatever the doc says and I need to ask her something a bit private.'

'What's that?'

'About taking a holiday. But never you mind, don't tell your Mam. You okay?'

'I'm doing good Dad.'


'No worries.'


'What about you though Dad?'

'Not to worry.'

The doctor always smiles, puts him at ease. He likes that she is good at making things clear. 'You'll need to be a bit careful.' she said.

'I'm always careful, I'm a careful man.'

'I know you are.' and she nodded. 'You're healthy for your age, just a couple of small problems. The arthritis drugs mean your immune system isn't going to work quite as well. If you get sick, you might need antibiotics, so follow the rules. You know, wear a mask, wash your hands and social distancing, it's especially important for someone like you.'

'I know, I'll do my best. I always do.'

'And your heart's strong but the other prescription is to make sure your blood pressure stays right. And stay away from stress if you can.' She wagged her finger at him, just like Margaret. Henry chuckled. The staff here are great, they care and they're kind. The foreigners at the surgery don't bother him at all.

Two weeks ago, on his regular retired old man's stroll through the park with Dick, his best mate since primary school, they talked about the pandemic for the first time since it all started.

'Dick, I do my best, stick to the rules. But I don't exactly know what they want us to do. Not a bloody clue.'

'Stop worrying man.' Dick just laughed it off. 'It's just posh southern twats throwing their weight around. They haven't got a bloody clue either, never have.'

'You know me, mate. I never worry. Life's too short.' Henry sometimes finds Dick a bit strange.

'George and Dragon for a pint?'

'I don't mind if I do.' Two is Henry's limit, except at Christmas.

'We'll drink to southern twats and tossers. May they fade away.' Dick laughed again, clapped his mate on the back and they headed for the pub.

The regulars see Henry as a big man, tall and heavily made with a shaved head, looking like a bruiser, but they know he's not at all like that. He's never made enemies, a lifetime as a bus driver taught him to be diplomatic, to play nice and make the world go round. But, since he retired and the allotment became central to his life, enabling him to help feed his family, slugs and snails have become hostiles, an obsession that makes his friends laugh.

Once, when he stuck his finger into the soil to see if his tomatoes needed watering, he pushed it through a large brown slug he hadn't spotted. He tells this story regularly to Bella and Sam, his young grandchildren. Each time, he adds wild variations and embellishments to expand and explain his unending, uncomplicated war with gastropod molluscs everywhere.

'Yeuk Grandad, that's horrible,' they say and giggle. 'But it's their home.'

Henry adores reading to them at night when they're in bed, when they stay with him and Margaret for their monthly sleepover. He can't do that now, though he still collects them from school to walk them to their home near the park every Thursday for Danny and his wife. If asked, he'd happily collect them every day of every week as long as the lockdown rules allow. But, no sleepovers any more for now because they're in a different bubble. At least that's what he thinks the rules say but, right now, no two people agree, and Henry is a man who likes to know where he stands with things.

'What in god's name is a bubble?' he wants Margaret to explain.

'It means you can't just do what you like.' Margaret tells him.

'I never do. Fat chance of that.'

Margaret gets cross when he tells her about killing slugs and snails. It's been a small but persistent bone of contention since he got the allotment. He says he doesn't grow stuff just to have the slimy invaders munch it all before his family gets a chance. His rules are clear: if he finds them anywhere on or near his serried ranks of veggie beds, it's curtains for them via his size thirteen, steel capped workboots.

'And I suppose you'd stand on the pigeons and sparrows if you could.' Margaret wags a finger at him. It's a conversation that gets repeated each year.

'Don't be daft, woman. I protect my crops with nets, keeps the birds off. Them and the cabbage whites. They don't bother me.'

'Henry, you should live and let live.'

'That's what I always do.'

Margaret looks at him. This is a man who works outdoors on his allotment whenever he can in all weathers, gets his hands covered in soil and god knows what other stuff and he's scared of house spiders. Henry knows that Margaret thinks he kills them as well but she never asks, life's too short to go looking for problems.

'Henry Parsons, out from under my feet. Since you retired, I never get a moment to myself. Haven't you got your football club committee meeting to go to?' Henry chuckles. He always chuckles when she scolds him.

'We're not meeting in the flesh. Pandemic rules, no more than six in one place so we're not allowed. We can meet outdoors.' Henry shrugs. 'I think. Anyway, we won't this time' cos it's raining.'

'In the flesh.' she says. 'Sounds like you're all sitting around drinking pints, nattering away, stark naked. It's disgusting.'

'Does that mean you don't fancy me then?' Henry comes up behind her and wraps his arms round her.

'I keep telling you, you're a bad man.' She grabs his right hand, kisses it twice and unwraps herself from his embrace. 'Let me get on.'

'You okay?' he says

'I'm just fine.'




He does this little three line ritual, short of the cuddle, with everybody. She's seen him do it ever since she first paid him her fare on the bus into town many years ago.

'We're doing a web video thing for the committee meeting. Danny showed me how.'

He collects their laptop from the dining room table to head upstairs to the study bedroom. Never mind the football committee meeting, Henry's got phone calls to make without Margaret listening in and he needs to check things with the bank without her knowing.

It's Thursday at the school gates and Henry chats as always to the other parents and grandparents as they mark time and wait for the bell. Today, they're all a bit puzzled and not a little hurt. They've always stood in the playground under the school roof overhang to wait, it's a social occasion. But, today, the gates are locked shut so they're out on the street in the wind and drizzle.

'That's not right,' says Henry. 'Something's happened.'

Cars keep arriving and jamming the parking spaces in the road outside the school. It's a lot less safe like that for everybody, in Henry's professional view.

'I'd ban it, paint triple yellow lines, I mean what's wrong with walking your kids home or using the bus? They're nearly all local.

'Can't use buses, Henry. It's not safe right now.' another parent says to him.

'Not if you wear a mask,' another says. 'And wash your hands, they say that's safe.'

'Nah, can't be bothered with a mask, can't breathe. Nobody's wearing them.'

'They are, it's just that some buggers like you can't be arsed.'

Henry is poised to engage but is halted by the school bell. Mrs Martinez, the Headteacher, emerges and heads for the gates without any children. She unlocks them and swings one back. The waiting adults start to move forward but she bars the way and holds up her hand.

'I'm so sorry,' she says, 'we have to do this differently now. Today I've had to send two staff home and three children. All coughing and unwell; we might have an outbreak. So, we're going to bring the children up to the gates in a line in the playground and send them out to you individually. Please forgive us but we have to be careful.' Henry has a lot of time for Mrs Martinez, likes the way she is with the kids, clear and fair. He thinks this foreigner is okay too.

The rain eases and the sun filters through the clouds as Bella and Sam emerge, run up to Henry and take his hands, one on one side and one on the other. He asks them about their day and all three of them chatter away as they start their walk.

'Grandad, we're going the wrong way.' Bella looks up at him, wide eyed.

'We're doing something different today.'

'Why?' says Sam. 'I want to go home.'

'It's a surprise.'

'Tell us.' says Bella as she bounces up and down. 'Please. What is it?'

Henry beams at them. 'Well, it wouldn't be a surprise if I told you, would it?'

'Is it a nice surprise?' Sam needs to be sure.

'Of course it is, it's the only kind of surprise I do.'

There's a small crowd, mostly wearing masks, at the gate to their front garden. Bella and Sam spot their Mam and Dad and Henry lets them race ahead. Their next door neighbours are there as well them from across the road. Some of Margaret's ex-colleagues from the hospital are there too plus Margaret's brother and Henry's sister. Margaret is standing in the front doorway, chatting to people, looking puzzled.

'Sorry we're late.' he says. 'Small problem at the school, nothing to worry about.'

Henry slips past Margaret, grabs the iPad from the kitchen and returns. He fires it up, goes online and brings up Charmian, their daughter, live in a WhatsApp window from Madrid, and passes the machine to Margaret. Standing on the path, he raises his arms and conducts the ad hoc choir in an out of tune but rollicking rendition of 'Happy Birthday'. Three cheers follow, the sun comes out and glasses of bubbly are filled and passed round. Henry's phone calls have worked, Margaret is happy, he's delighted.

'Here's my present.' He kisses her and hands her an envelope which she opens.



'You can't afford this.'

'Yes I can, I've been saving.'

'But it's three weeks. We've never been away that long before.'

'About time we did, Charmian says she'll look after us while we're in Spain. Happy, happy birthday.' He hugs her and the crowd cheers and starts to disperse.

'Henry, we need to talk about this. It's a lovely thought, a lovely idea, but we need to have a quiet chat.'

After the chat with Margaret, Henry storms out, slams the front door. He phones Dick and they agree to meet at the park gates, go for an evening stroll and a pint. The sun has gone again and the drizzle has returned and clamped down.

'Bloody hell Henry, this is a surprise, it's not the best weather for a stroll mate.' Dick says as Henry walks up to him.

'I need to talk.'

'What about?'

'Margaret says we can't go on the birthday holiday I got for her. We've fallen out.'

'Well why not, why can't you just go?'

'The rules.'

'What rules?'

'The pandemic. And our government. And the Spanish government. Their rules.'

'Hey, you don't believe all that guff do you? All them stupid rules? How many people do we know personally that have had this thing? None. That's right, none. Trust me mate.'

'So far.' Henry says. Dick snorts.

In all this time, he and Dick and the rest of their pals haven't talked about the pandemic and the lockdown. They have a rule: no politics, they don't want to seriously fall out with each other. Football, yes, golf for those who play it, allotments for those who've got one, families, the weather, but never politics.

'It's just southern tossers being arsey, I keep telling you.' Dick claps Henry on the back. 'Come on, George and Dragon for a pint, drown your sorrows.'

'Dick, don't. She says we can't go, that the rules say we can't and it may be ages yet. Here and in Spain. I think she's wrong, dead wrong. We've fallen out, and on her birthday too. Okay, I need a pint, come on then.'

They exit the park by the town hall. There's a large crowd including some of Henry's other mates too, members of their own gang of old white men. Nobody is wearing masks, only Henry. There are placards demanding an end to all lockdowns, against masks, opposing vaccination, opposing abortion, demanding freedom from any constraint, demanding control on immigration. The police are in attendance and there is noise and chanting and a platform with speakers haranguing the audience via a PA system. Henry is uncomfortable, he's never seen so much anger, hate and violence hovering out in the open like that. He's never heard xenophobia so explicitly expressed: hate for blacks, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, posh tossers and the rest.

Dick is tuned in to the speeches and wants to stop and listen. Henry can see him nodding as points are made, and he's shouting responses. Henry steps away, moves to the edge of the crowd and up to the park railings on the other side of the road. He waits to see if his best mate notices he's gone. The rain gets heavier, it's no longer a drizzle, he's seized by a coughing fit and Dick is still over by the Town Hall, in the crowd and connecting to the anger.

Checking his mask, Henry heads to the pub on his own for a quick pint, time to think and then home. If Dick turns up before he leaves, he's not sure about having a second one, not sure at all. But the decision is made for him. The George and Dragon is shut with a note pinned to the front door announcing its closure for a fortnight at least due to cases of coronavirus among the staff. He has a second fit of coughing, adjusts his mask again and heads home.

Henry slams the front door as he gets in and coughs again. He never slams anything, never shows his feelings like that. Margaret emerges from the kitchen.

'Henry, are you alright? Where have you been? I wish you'd told me.'

'A walk with Dick for a pint. Waste of bloody time.'

'Are you okay? You don't look well, you're out of sorts.'

'I'm okay.'

'Really? I heard you coughing.'

'It's nothing, stop worrying woman, leave me be.'

'Henry, you need to get a test.'

'Margaret, I'm sorry, but we're going on this holiday.'

She takes his hands in hers, looks him in the eye.

'We've been through all this, love. We can't go, it's not safe, we can't break the rules, surely you know that.'

'The hell with the rules, we're going and that's that, that's my final word.' He pulls his hands out of hers, turns on his heel and leaves the house with another slam. Margaret lets her arms drop by her sides and stands frozen in the hallway.

'Henry love, come back.' Returning to the kitchen, she picks up her phone and calls Danny.

'Hey Mam, happy birthday again.'

'Danny, your Dad's in a state. He's stormed out, I think he might have gone to the allotment.'

'It's near us Mam, I'll go and have a look.'

Margaret sits on a kitchen chair staring at her phone. Half an hour goes by in silence. It rings with "Climb every mountain", it's the ring tone she set for Danny calling.


'Mam, you need to come to the allotment, like now.'

Henry is sitting hunched up by the unlit pot-bellied stove in gloom of his man shed, with Danny kneeling in front of him talking to his father in a quiet voice. Margaret has never seen Henry weep like this, his whole body is heaving and he's coughing like he can't stop.

'Danny, look after your dad, I'm going outside to get a signal and call an ambulance.'

'It's nothing Margaret, stop worrying, I've been taking care.' Henry says between coughs and gasping for air. 'It'll be okay. You'll be okay. We'll all be okay, just wait and see, we will.'

Margaret returns. 'The ambulance is on its way, not be long, not be long at all.'

Danny moves aside, lets his mother wrap her arms around his father, try to calm him down.

'They'll be here soon, love, they'll take care of you.' she says

'Will you come with me?'

'Of course, I'll be right there beside you.'

'We'll go to Spain. Have the holiday?' Henry whispers.

'We'll go to Spain, love, it'll be a great holiday.'


  1. The pandemic has affected so many people's lives and emotions (all over the world) and this one short story does an amazing job of capturing many of them. Well written with especially emotive dialogue. I love that it let's the reader sort out Henry's emotions. Great story, well deserving of being Pick of the Month. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. I enjoyed reading this story, too. I was especially struck by the relationship between Henry and Dick. Few “friends” agree on everything any more. Maybe they never did, but it seems so obvious now. This comes through loud and clear in the story. And it’s sad to think Henry and Dick may never be friends again. I suspect that we have all lost a few friends in recent years. But the story also shows the importance of, above all, family. Well done.

  3. Well written character in Henry, and his world is skillfully constructed. I liked the story also as a morality tale for these times.

  4. Henry's struggle to cling to denial as the pandemic impacts more and more aspects of his life really hits home. A very timely and emotionally genuine snapshot of life in the early 2020s.

  5. This story captures so well what so many have gone through. Conjured up quite a few emotions, too, especially the ending.