Is there any writing task as simultaneously agonising, stressful and rewarding than trying to think of the perfect message to write inside a greetings card?

The ratio between time spent by the sender fretting about what to write and the time spent by the recipient reading the message must be enormously off-balance, like a hippopotamus playing on a see-saw with a mouse.

I remember once being on the tube and watching the man sitting opposite me. He was writing a message in a birthday card. So far, he had written:

Happy birthday Seb

He was stuck. He couldn’t think what to write next. He looked around, twiddling the pen in his hand. He read the adverts above where I was sitting, looking for inspiration. He clicked the pen several times. He scratched his ear. He looked at the picture on the front of the card. He clicked the pen several more times. He drummed his fingers. He looked at the picture on the front of the card again.

Then, he made a tiny movement, a slight gesture, and I knew instantly that he’d decided what he was going to write in the card. It wasn’t a decisive nod or the eyebrow flick of sudden inspiration, it was a slight shrug and tilt of the head. He hadn’t thought of the perfect message, he had simply thought of something that would fill a bit more space on the card.

Carefully, in big cartoon-y writing, he drew the outline of the number 21. He signed his name at the bottom of the card and closed it.

Then he thought about it for a second. This was Seb’s twenty-first birthday. Just drawing a blocky number and writing “Happy birthday Seb” isn’t good enough. It needs to be special. He drew a circle around the 21. He started to close the card, but he still wasn’t happy. This time he drew a second circle around the original one, creating a ring. This was enough. This will do. Happy birthday Seb.

If you’re stuck for greeting card inspiration this Christmas, perhaps this song by Rhodri for The Malcontent can help:

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