- The way one should cut a Kiwi Fruit in half (along its
length or across the middle).
- Leaving the kitchen door open (three times a day that
- The best way to hang up washing.
- Those little toothpaste speckles you make when you brush
your teeth in front of the mirror.
- I eat two-fingered Kit-Kats like I'd eat any other
chocolate bars of that size, i.e., without feeling the need
to snap them into two individual fingers first. Margret
accused me of doing this, 'deliberately to annoy her'.
- Which way - the distances were identical - to drive round
a circular bypass (this resulted in her kicking me in the
head from the back seat as I drove along).
- The amount of time I spend on the computer. (OK, fair
- First Born's name (Jonathan). Then, when that was
- How to pronounce First Born's name.
- Our telephone number.
- Which type of iron to buy (price wasn't an issue, it was
the principle, damnit).
- Where to sit in the cinema. On those occasions when we a)
manage to agree to go to the cinema together and, b) go to
see the same film once we're there. (No, really).
- Whether her cutting our son's hair comes under
'money-saving skill' or 'therapy in the making'.
- Shortly after every single time Margret touches my
computer, for any reason whatsoever, I have to spend twenty
minutes trying to fix crashes, locked systems, data loses,
jammed drives, bizarre re-configurations and things stuck in
the keyboard. There then follows a free and frank exchange
of views with, in my corner, 'It's your fault,' and, in
hers, 'It's a curious statistical anomaly.'
- Margret enters the room. The television is showing Baywatch.
Margret says, 'Uh-huh, you're watching Baywatch
again.' I say, 'I'm not watching, it's just on.'
Repeat. For the duration of the programme.
- She wants to paint the living room yellow. I have not the
- Margret doesn't like to watch films on the TV. No, hold
on - let me make sure you've got the inflection here:
Margret doesn't like to watch films on the TV. She says
she does, but years of bitter experience have proven that
what she actually wants is to sit by me while I narrate
the entire bleeding film to her. 'Who's she?', 'Why
did he get shot?', 'I thought that one was on their side?',
'Is that a bomb' - 'JUST WATCH IT! IN THE NAME OF GOD, JUST
WATCH IT!' The hellish mirror-image of this is when
she furnishes me, deaf to my pleading, with her
commentary. Chair-clawing suspense being assaulted
mercilessly from behind by such interjections as, 'Hey!
Look! They're the cushions we've got.', 'Isn't she
the one who does that tampon advert?' and, on one famous
occasion, 'Oh, I've seen this - he gets killed at the end.'
- Margret thinks I'm vain because... I use a mirror when I
shave. During this argument in the bathroom - our fourth
most popular location for arguments, it will delight and
charm you to learn - Margret proved that shaving with a
mirror could only be seen as outrageous narcissism
by saying, 'None of the other men I've been with,' (my, but
it's all I can do to stop myself hugging her when she begins
sentences like that) 'None of the other men I've been with
used a mirror to shave.'
'Ha! Difficult to check up on that, isn't it? As all the
other men you've been with can now only communicate by
blinking their eyes!' I said. Much later. When Margret had
left the house.
- The TV Remote. It is only by epic self-discipline
on both our parts that we don't argue about the TV Remote to
the exclusion of all else. It does the TV Remote a
disservice to suggest that it is only the cause of four
types of argument, but space, you will understand, is
limited so I must concentrate on the main ones.
1) Ownership of the TV Remote: this is signified by its
being on the arm of the chair/sofa closest to you - it is
more important than life itself.
2) On those blood-freezing occasions when you look up from
your seat to discover that the TV Remote is still lying
on top of the TV, then one of you must retrieve it;
who shall it be? And how will this affect (1)?
3) Disappearance of the TV Remote. Precisely who had it last
will be hotly disputed, witnesses may be called. Things can
turn very nasty indeed when the person who isn't looking for
it is revealed to be unknowingly sitting on it.
4) The TV Remote is a natural nomad and sometimes, may the
Lord protect us, it goes missing for whole days. During
these dark times, someone must actually, in an entirely
literal sense, get up to change the channel; International
Law decrees that this, "will not be the person who did it
last" - but can this be ascertained? Without the police
- We're staying at a German friend's flat in Berlin and he
brings out the photo album, as people do when conversational
desperation has set in. It's largely pictures of a holiday
he went on with Margret and a few friends several years
previously. And consists pretty much entirely of shots of
Margret naked. 'Hah! So, here's another photo of your
girlfriend nude! Good breasts, no?' I sat on the sofa for
hours of this - I think I actually bit through my tongue at
one point. Fortunately, though, everything turned out all
right because Margret, me and one careful and considered
exchange of views revealed it was, '...just (my)
hang-up.' Great. I'm sooooo English, apparently.
- See if you can spot the difference between these two
(a) "Those trousers make your backside look fat."
(b) "You're a repellently obese old hag upon whom I am
compelled to heap insults and derision - depressingly far
removed from the, 'stupid, squeaky, pocket-sized English
women,' who make up my vast catalogue of former lovers and
to whom I might as well return right now as I hate
everything about you."
Maybe the acoustics were really bad in the dining room, or
- She keeps making me carry tampons around - 'Here, have
these, just in case.'
'Oooooooh, why can't you carry them?'
'I've got no pockets.'
Then, of course, I forget about them. And the next time I'm
meeting The Duchess of Kent or someone I pull a handkerchief
out of my pocket and shower feminine hygiene products
- She really over-reacts whenever she catches me wearing
- Now, what you have to realise is that this was from
nowhere, OK? Don't think there were previous
conversations or situations that put this in context. Oh no.
Just imagine the, 'What the f...?' moment you'd have
been standing in if your partner had said this to
you, because you'd have had as much preparation as I did.
So, it's just after Christmas and Margret's moaning about
her present (I forget what it was, a Ferrari, I think - but
in the wrong colour or something), um, actually, let me come
back to this, that reminds me...
- Presents. Before every birthday, Christmas or whatever
I'll say, 'What do you want?' And Margret will say,
'Surprise me.' And I'll reply, 'Noooooo, just tell me what
you want. If I guess it'll be the wrong thing, it's always
the wrong thing.' And then she'll come out with that, 'No,
it won't. It'll be what you chose, and a surprise, that's
what's important,' nonsense. And I'll say, 'Sweetest, you
say that now, but come Christmas morning it'll be,
"What the hell were you thinking?" again, won't it?' And she
replies, 'No. It. Won't.' And I say, 'Yes, it will.' And she
says, 'Don't patronise me.' And the neighbours
freeze in their seats for a moment next door, before jumping
up and removing anything they have on the shelves on the
adjoining wall. And, in the end, Margret gets her way. And I
hunt around in utter desperation for two months for
something before finally finding the one item that will work
at 7.30pm on Christmas Eve for a cost of
twenty-three-and-a-half thousands pounds. And on Christmas
morning it's, 'What the hell were you thinking?' But anyway.
- Back at the previous item, it's just after Christmas and
Margret's going on about her present, which was, you'll
recall, a necklace of a single diamond suspended on a
delicate chain of white gold and sapphires. And this is what
I hear come out of her mouth - 'Why didn't you get me a
wormery, I dropped enough hints?' You what?
- I get accused of hoarding things by Margret. Now, this is
entirely unfair - electrical items never die, you see, I am
merely unable to revive them with today's technology. In the
future new techniques will emerge and, combined with the
inevitably approaching shortage of AC adapters and personal
cassette players, my foresight will pay off and the grateful
peoples of the Earth will make me their God. Anyway, never
mind that now, because the real point is that it's Margret
who fills our house with crap. And I'm not talking about
doing so by the omission of crap-throwing-away here, but by
insane design. While sorting out the stuff in the boxes,
these are some of the things I've discovered that Margret
actually packed away at our last house and brought to
our new one:
And yet, were I to throw her from a train, they'd call me
- A dentist's cast of her teeth circa 1984.
- Empty Pringles tubes.
- Rocks (not 'special ornamental rocks', you
understand, just 'rocks' from our previous garden).
- Old telephone directories.
- Two carrier bags full of scraps of material.
- Those little sachets of salt and sugar you get with
your meal on planes.
- Some wooden sticks.
- Last year's calendar.
- Look, if you don't understand the rules of Robot Wars
by now then I'm just not going to continue the conversation,
- Damn, damn, damn washing up. Now, in the normal course of
things I do all the cooking and washing up. (This is partly
due to a tactical error I made in an argument many years
ago. You know when you're so angry you start
blurring the line between masochistic hyperbole and usefully
hissing threat? 'Well, maybe I'll just microwave all
my CDs - look, look, there goes my Tom Robinson Band - feel
better now?' Been there? Splendid. So, several years ago
we're having this argument and somehow I found myself
inhabiting a place where saying, 'OK, OK, OK - I'll do all
the cooking and all the washing up all the
time, then!' seemed like a hugely cunning gambit. In fact,
though, this is not too bad a deal. You see, if Margret is
cooking turkey (unstuffed, three-and-a-half-hours) and oven
chips (20 minutes, turn once), then she'll begin putting
them in the oven at precisely the same time. If
Margret's preparing tea, then its style will be her
variation on Sweet 'n' Sour that runs Burnt Beyond
Recognition 'n' Potentially Fatal.) Can you remember
what I was saying before I opened those brackets? Hold on...
ah, right - washing up. Now, the thing is, if you're an
English male, what you do when you leave home is go to the
shop nearest to your new place, buy a Pot Noodle (Chicken
and Mushroom), feast on its delights slumped on the sofa in
front of the TV, swill out the plastic carton it came in,
then use this carton for all your subsequent meals until you
get married. There's a beauty of economy to it. Thus, when I
cook a meal for four, the aftermath left in the sink as I
carry the gently steaming plates to the table is a single
saucepan and, if I've pulled out the all stops to dazzle
visiting Royalty, perhaps a spoon. Margret cannot make
cheese on toast without using every single saucepan, wok,
tureen and colander in the house. Post-Margret-meal, I walk
into the kitchen to discover a sink teetering with utensils
holding off gravity only by the sly use of a spätzle glue.
'How the hell did you use all these to make that?'
'It's just what I needed.'
'What? Where did the lawnmower fit in?'
- Arguments. There are many arguments we have over
arguments. 'Who started argument x', for example, is a old
favourite that has not had its vigour dimmed by age nor its
edge blunted through use. Another dependable companion is, 'I'm
not arguing, I'm just talking - you're arguing,'
along with its more stage-struck (in the sense that it
relishes an audience - parties, visiting relatives, Parent's
Evenings at school, in shops, etc.) sibling, 'Right, so
we're going to get into this argument here are we?'
An especially frequent argument argument, however, is the
result of Margret NOT STICKING TO THE DAMN ARGUMENT, FOR
CHRIST'S SAKE. Margret jack-knifes from argument to
argument, jigs direction randomly and erratically like a
shoal of Argument Fish being followed by a Truth Shark. It's
fearsomely difficult to land a blow because by the time
you've let fly with the logic she's not there anymore. A row
about vacuuming gets shifted to the cost of a computer
upgrade, from there to who got up early with the kids most
this week and then to the greater interest rates of German
banks via the noisome sexual keenness of some former
and, 'When was the last time you bought me flowers?' all in
the space of about seven exchanges. 'Arrrrrrgggh! What
are we arguing about? Can you just decide what it is and stick
- The key to a successful relationship is communication.
That's the First Rule. Margret's corollary to the First Rule
is the Timing clause. This states that the best time to
initiate a complex and lengthy talk about, say, exactly how
we should go about a loft conversion is (in reverse order of
- When you see that Mil is playing a game online and is one
point away from becoming Champion Of The World, Mil is
racing out of the house to catch a train, Mil is in the
middle of trying to put out a kitchen fire, etc.
- During the final minutes of a tense thriller Mil has been
watching for the past two hours. Ideally at the precise
point when someone has begun to say, 'Good Lord! Then the
murderer must be...'
- Just at the moment, late at night, when Mil has finally
managed to fall asleep.
- In the middle of having sex.
- When Margret used to go shopping and she'd see, for
example, a pair of jeans in a department store, do you know
what she used to do? Try them on. I think you're all with me
here, but just for anyone who's joined us late, I don't mean
she'd go to the changing rooms and try them on. That
would be a preposterous idea wouldn't it? No, she'd just get
undressed there in the middle of the sales floor to try them
on. It took me some considerable time to persuade her that
this wasn't normal behaviour in Britain, despite what she
might have seen on Benny Hill. Even then, she only stopped -
amid much eye-rolling and, 'You and your silly social
conventions,' head shaking - to humour me. It rubs a tiny
circle from the misted-up window through which you can view
the tormented, horizonless landscape that is My World to
mention that I'd entirely forgotten about all this until
someone sent me a email yesterday that accidentally exhumed
the memory. With Margret this kind of thing just gets
drowned out by the general noise. I wouldn't be surprised
if, a few months from now, I'm here writing, 'Ahhh - that
reminds me of Margret's role in the John Lennon shooting...'
- Wherever I'm standing is where Margret needs to be
standing, and vice versa. Doesn't matter where we are - the
kitchen, the bathroom, Scotland - we each infuriatingly
occupy the space where the other one wants to be, urgently.
Over the years we've developed signals for this situation.
Mine is to stand behind her and mutter under my breath.
Margret's is to shoulder-charge me out of the way.
- Margret flooded the kitchen last week. Turned the taps
on, put the plug in the sink, and utterly forgot about it
(because she'd come upstairs and we'd got involved in an
unrelated argument). She goes back downstairs, opens the
door and - whoosh - it's Sea World. The interesting thing
about this is, if I'd flooded the kitchen, it would
have been a bellowing, 'You've flooded the kitchen, you
idiot!' and then she'd have done that thing where I
curl up in a ball, trying to protect my head, and she kicks
me repeatedly in the kidneys. As it was, however, there's a
shout, I run downstairs and stand for a beat in the doorway
- taking in the scene, waves lapping gently at my ankles -
and she turns round and roars, 'Well, help me then -
can't you see I've flooded the kitchen, you idiot?'
- There are certain verbal shortcuts to a lot of our
arguments. Sure, we could ease into things, build up
momentum slowly, but that's so wasteful when you can fit in
three arguments in the time the slow-burn approach would
take to brew only one. So, we often favour more of a
dragster-style, zero-to-argument in 1 second approach. Thus,
over the years, ways of ensuring a spitting, scratching row
with just one sentence have been polished to a high shine.
For example, Margret once said to me, 'Am I your favourite
woman in the world?' The world? I mean, really.
Other times she'll lay mines so we can explode into an
argument later with the minimum amount of run-up. She'll go
out and, over her shoulder as she closes the door, call,
'You can vacuum the house if you want.' I'll settle down on
the computer for a couple of hours. When she returns she'll
stomp up the stairs, crash open the door and growl, 'Why
didn't you vacuum the house?' I, naturally, will reply, 'You
said I could if I wanted to. And, after thinking about it, I
decided I didn't. Obviously, it wasn't a decision I took
lightly...' and we're already there.
Another dead cert is when I can't find something - the
TV Guide, a shirt, my elastic band rifle, whatever, it
doesn't matter - and the exchange goes:
'Gretch? Have you seen my sunglasses?'
'Have you looked for them?'
(Oooooooo, I, it, when, argggh! My teeth are gritted just
Margret, of course, has done the ultimate and discovered a
way of ensuring an argument using no words at all. The
technique is this:
She'll have one of her friends round and they'll be chatting
away animatedly in the living room - until I happen to walk
in, at which point Margret will abruptly and conspicuously
stop what she's saying, mid-sentence... Yep, one of us is
going to be sleeping in the spare room tonight.
- Margret's four-hundred-and-fifty-second most annoying
habit is to stealthily turn off the central heating (then
light the gas fire in the room she's in, natch). I'll
suddenly notice that, sitting typing at the keyboard, I can
see my own breath while from the bedroom one of the kids
will call out, 'Papa, I can't feel my legs...' And I'll
shiver down the stairs to find the central heating set to
'Summer/Hypothermia/Cryogenic Suspension,' and Margret in
the living room watching the TV in a door frame warping
- A Few Concepts Margret Continues To Have Trouble
- It's possible to stop buying plants.
- Can you please leave me alone, I'm on the
- Ikea is just another shop.
- I asked you if you wanted any, I asked
you - now stop eating it off my plate.
- One may have a thought and not say it. This does not
make me insular, it merely separates me from you and that
mad woman who's always shouting at the pigeons outside the
- They're just nail clippings. Nail clippings
must be the most inert thing on the planet, how can anyone
seriously have a problem with nail clippings? You might as
well freak out with, 'Bleuuuurrggh - helium!' Really -
just get a hold of yourself. So you've walked barefoot
across the bathroom and you find this has resulted in a
nail clipping or two sticking to the bottom of your foot;
well, simply brush them off into the bin - they're
just nail clippings.
- Just for reference; if Margret returns from having her
hair cut and says, 'What do you think?' and you reply, 'I'd
love you whatever your hair was like,' well, that's very
much The Wrong Answer, OK?
- 'Get your hands off me - you're freezing.'
happened at this point that nearly stopped me ever
updating this page again. You can read about it by
clicking your mouse on the words you are now reading.
Yes, these words, you fool.
- You may remember that one of the
manifestations of Margret's basket of madnesses is an urge
to fill our house with an internal Vietnam of plants. A
compulsive disorder whose origins I can't even guess at.
On an unrelated note, we just got back from staying with
Margret's folks in Germany. This
is a picture I took, representatively, of the top of the
stairs at their house.
Yes. It. Is.
- If you've clicked on the 'Why I nearly
stopped updating' link above, you'll know who Hannah is.
But, of course, you won't have clicked on it because you
felt it was too much of an effort, you Child Of The
Internet, you. So, let me tell you Hannah is someone with
whom I recently started to work - remotely, I've met her in
person once, for about ninety minutes. You now have all the
information you need. Phone me, I'll come round and scroll
for you too, OK?
Margret and I are going up a mountain, side by side, on a
drag lift in Germany. The white noise of the snow under our
skis is the only sound until Margret begins to speak.
Margret - 'This woman - "Hannah", is it? - what's she like?'
Mil - 'She seems OK.'
Margret - 'How old is she.'
Mil - 'About thirty, I think.'
Margret - 'What colour is her hair?'
Mil - 'Black.'
Margret - 'Does she smoke?'
Mil - 'Yes.'
Margret - 'YOU WANT TO SLEEP WITH HER, DON'T YOU?'
Perfectly put into practice there, you can see, Sherlock
Holmes's rule that, "Once you have eliminated the
impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must
be the truth."
- 'I'm nearly there.' Yeah. Right.
- I came home from work on Friday and, as I
wearily opened the door into the house, Second Born, Peter, heard me entering and poked his
head out of the living room.
'Hello, Papa - I've missed you,' he shouts. From within the
living room Margret's voice calls out to him 'No you
You're all up for testifying for me in court, right?
- OK, you tell me whether I'm wrong to be
starting to get seriously worried about this. OK? You
tell me. I shuffled out of bed into the bathroom this
morning to have a shower. I took my clothes off, innocently
pulled back the shower curtain and This
is what I saw. (Fortunately, the digital camera - 'For me? I
see - for me, is it?' - I bought for Margret this
Christmas was just in the other room to provide photographic
proof. Because I know you all think I make this stuff up.
Damn you.) Now, tell me, is Margret placing it there the act
of a rational human being?
You know what I think? I think she's having an affair with
it. That's exactly the shudder of realisation I felt as I
pulled back the shower curtain. I mean, it's not like the
clues weren't there, is it? I can perfectly picture myself
unexpectedly coming home early from work one day, walking
into the bedroom and, with a cold slap of shock, discovering
them in bed together - underwear and foliage flung
carelessly across the floor by their impatient passion.
'You! Of course - what a fool I've been!'
- I know from the emails I get that a fair
number of you are holed up in Wyoming basements surrounded
by automatic weapons, livestock and racks of cassettes
filled with analysis of the Book of Revelations you've
recorded off talk radio. If you have a moment, go and look
in your freezer. That's how Margret stocks our
freezer too. She doesn't buy one of anything. She waits
until she finds it, 'Buy Two - Get One Free,' and then she
buys nine. Moreover, she can't manage to suppress an
indulgent smile - as though I'm a father telling my teenage
daughter that her skirt might give boys all the wrong
signals - when I suggest that checking to see how full the
freezer is before she starts buying extra stuff for it might
be a good idea. Beyond the simply obvious - they'll have
terraformed Mars before our family runs out of oven chips,
for example - there is another consequence of this. The
sheer volume of food that needs to be crammed into the
freezer means it's only possible at all because Margret
employs two ruses.
The first is brute force. Basically, she just hammers things
into the drawers with the heel of her shoe. Which works, but
at the expense of horrifically deforming whatever she's
storing. We're all used to this now, naturally. Jonathan
pretty much expects his turkey dinosaurs to be a collection
of misshapen body parts: they're turkey dinosaurs, as
modelled on the scenes of carnage the day after the comet
hit Earth. It really only becomes an issue when he has
friends round, asks them if they'd like an Cornetto ice
cream and is then bemused by their expression of stark
horror when he returns holding something that looks like
it's been trampled by horses.
The second point is that she only has any chance whatsoever
of jamming all the things in if she throws away the
cardboard boxes in which everything's packed. The boxes
which, of course, bear the cooking instructions. Now, I know
you're not going to believe this, but I'm just the tiniest
bit anal. No, no, really - it's true. Anyway, one of the
symptoms of this - very slight - finickiness on my part is
that if the instructions say, 'Pre-heat the oven. Cook at
Gas Mark 7 for 23 minutes. Turn once at 13 minutes,' then
that - precisely that - is what I do. And I become
rather agitated if anything prevents this. (A regular
argument we have springs from my setting the oven timer for,
say, 7 minutes then going into the living room and pacing
backwards and forwards, additionally checking my watch,
while I wait. At about 9 minutes, and still not having heard
the beeper go off, my crackling nerves will take me into the
kitchen, where I'll find Margret has reset the timer to 45
minutes because she's using it to time some glue drying or
something. A discussion will follow.) Not having any cooking
instructions leaves me in a fearful swirl of uncertainty.
Even worse is when Margret decides the cooking instructions
are vital, so she'll cut them out, and throw them into the
freezer as she's loading it. I'll find them some years
later. There's no clue as to what they belong to, of course.
I'm merely left there with my shaking hands holding a slip
of cardboard that has instructions ending with - in bold - 'Leave
to stand for two minutes before serving,' and not the
smallest idea what it's referring to. I'd be happier, quite
frankly, if it read, 'There is a bomb somewhere in your
So anyway, I came downstairs at lunchtime on Saturday and
saw that the oven was on. Margret, in a worrying
development, was cooking something.
'What's in there?' I ask, as off-handedly as the situation
I make a lunge for the oven door. Margret becomes bellicose.
'I can cook a frozen pizza, you know?'
'No, it's not that,' I bluff, 'I just want to add some extra
ham. They never use enough ham.'
Margret taking on a frozen pizza is a chilling enough
prospect under any circumstances, but when you remember
she's flying blind here - no cardboard box bearing cooking
instructions to light the way - well, I'm sure you can
imagine my terror. I take the pizza from the oven. I add
extra ham. I return the pizza to the oven.
On a whim, I amend Margret's arrangement by removing the
polystyrene base from under the pizza before continuing to
- I tend to get quite a few men writing to me
saying, 'Think your girlfriend's a nightmare, well
mine's worse.' Now, this always surprises me. First of all,
I wasn't aware that I was giving the impression that Margret
is something of a trial to live with. I'm here merely
stating the facts, without bias or embellishment: a simple
camera pointed at the scene, recording it with complete
neutrality. I am, frankly, shocked and disturbed that anyone
might think I'm here to make the case that my girlfriend is,
say, as mad as an eel.
What surprises me more about the emails I get from these
men, however, is that they can in any way believe their
situations are similar to mine. Yes, of course, sometimes
you'll be sitting in McDonald's and your girlfriend will
say, 'You just deliberately dropped that napkin so
you could look up the skirt of the woman over there, didn't
you?' - everyone's had that conversation and it's perfectly
healthy. There'll be some loud, German invective, a degree
of storming out, perhaps mayonnaise may get thrown at some
point - we've all been there. The crucial thing to keep in
mind about Margret, though, is that she is playing by rules
no one else understands. Every exchange with Margret holds
the potential to result in my spending several weeks in
traction. There is no way of judging which will and which
won't, because the laws that govern her thought processes
have resisted all my analysis. Not even the tiniest thing
can be taken for granted, because it assumes one knows how
Margret's head works. The proof is in the details, not the
broad sweeps, so let me illustrate the, 'Do not fall into
the trap of believing you exist in the same universe,' idea
by the smallest moment, on the unremarkable Saturday that
has just past. We are sitting together on the sofa. I say
'Brrrr - I'm cold.'
- Our sink is blue and we're not talking about
it. It happened over a week ago; I was leaning over the
sink, brushing my teeth, when I noticed that there was a
sort of lazuline patina that had seeped over most of the
surface. Margret hasn't mentioned anything about this. Why
she hasn't is that she's obviously tried to clean the sink
with, well, I don't know, some fluid used for stripping
entrenched cerriped colonies from the hulls of submarines or
something (they were probably offering three bottles of the
stuff for the price of two at Aldi). She is waiting for me
to mention it. But I am a wily fox, and will be doing
nothing of the sort. I'm no wet-behind-the-ears, naive youth
anymore, not by a looooong way, and I can perfectly see the
spiked pit the seemingly innocent words, 'Did you know the
sink's blue' are covering. It would go - precisely -
Me: Did you know the sink's blue?
Margret: Yes. I did. I used a jungle exfoliant produced by
the Taiwanese military to clean it, and it discoloured the
Me: Oooooooo. K.
Margret: Well maybe, just maybe, if you cleaned
the sink once in a while...
You see what she did there? Now I'm facing a whole day of
'When did you last...?' Well, not this canny fellow - not
this time, my friends.
Our sink is blue and we're not talking about it.
- Because of my selfless desire to further the
vocabulary of medical science, it would delight me to the
toes if everyone could adopt the use of the phrase
'Margret's Syndrome'. This affliction being used to signify
a condition characterised by a profound and chronic 'point
blindness'. Allow me to give you a case study for diagnostic
I bought a mobile phone the other day. Yes, I'm aware that
this revokes my human rights and I won't disgust you further
by attempting any kind of wheedling justification. We all
become what we hate (raising the disturbing possibility that
one morning I'll awake to discover I'm Andie MacDowell, but
let's avoid looking there) and so I've naturally mutated in
that direction. Anyway, I spent the best part of an
afternoon entering the names and numbers of people I know
into the internal address book via the phone's keypad - an
activity that's roughly as much fun as performing emergency
dental surgery on yourself. The picosecond I'd finished,
Margret walked into the room and said, 'Let's have a look at
'Don't touch anything,' I replied with sombre
About two minutes later, when I returned from the kitchen
with a cup of tea, Margret glanced up at me and chattily
asked, 'Can you get back things that you've deleted?'
My lips became the thinnest of lines.
Margret doesn't know what she's deleted, but does
offer the solution, 'Tsk - you'll find out eventually if
it's important.' I have to admit that this phrase would be
rather good to recite repeatedly, singsong fashion, as I
danced around a swirling bonfire in the centre of which
Margret was staked. Now, had we handed out a simple
questionnaire to the population of the Earth, almost
everyone would have replied that the point - the point
- of the argument that was now racing through volume levels
was that Margret had deleted something, without even knowing
what it was, after I'd spent hours setting up the phone and
had specifically said not to touch anything. Margret's
assessment, however, was this:
'You know what the trouble is? You're a gadget freak.'
- Last Friday was Margret's birthday. I bought
her this oriental, geisha-style pyjama thing (Margret -
'Hey! I could have a go at that massage they do; I could
jump on your back.' Me - 'Walk, they walk on
your back.' Close call there.) while I was down in London.
She liked it. Simple. Clearly, I've been a fool and all I
needed to do to get Margret a present she likes was make
sure I asked nearly every single woman who works for The
Guardian newspaper what the hell I should buy. It wasn't her
favourite birthday present, though, not by a long way. There
were almost tears of delight when her best friend turned up
at the birthday party and surprised her with two bags full
of horse manure. I mean, it seems so obvious now, of course.
- The Terror Of Lids: Yes, the rewards are
high, but it's a game where the price of defeat is savage.
Sometimes Margret, after grunting with it herself for a
collection of 'hnggh's, will hand me a bottle or a jar that
has a screw top along with an impatient, 'Open that for me.'
If the gods lie content in the skies above England at that
moment, then what follows is a rapid flick of my wrist, a
delightful 'click-fshhhh' gasp of surrender, and my handing
the thing back to her FEELING LIKE A HERO OF NORSE LEGEND.
Generally, though, what happens is that I strain for a while
and strip the skin off the palm of my hands. Then I wrap the
lid in a tea towel and strain some more to equal effect. At
this point I'm on to using the jamb of the door as a vice to
hold the lid while I twist at the container; Margret will be
saying, 'Give it back here, you'll wreck the door,' and I'll
be swearing and twisting and saying, 'I'll repaint that bit
in a minute.' The fear is upon me. If it's a fizzy thing,
you can sometimes puncture the lid to relieve the pressure
and then get it open, but you're not often that lucky. 'Give
it back,' Margret repeats, reaching around me, trying to
take the item from my hands. I swivel away - 'Just a minute'
- and desperately twist at the lid again, now not even
attempting not to squint up my face as I do so. At last,
though, Margret will manage to get the thing back. This is
the darkest moment. If she tries again and it remains
fastened, then I am saved. 'It's just completely
stuck,' I'll say, 'It is. Stop trying now. Stop. Stop it.'
However, there are times - and my stomach chills now, even
as I write this - when she gets it back and, with one last
satanic effort, manages to spin the lid free. A slight smile
takes up home on her face.
'What?' I say.
'No - what?'
'I'd loosened it.'
'I didn't say anything.'
And I'll have to drag the tiny, damp shreds of my manhood
away into the reclusive garage until the slight, slight
smile disappears from her some thirty-six hours into the
- Hanging Things. Margret simply cannot stop
hanging things from every defenceless lampshade, rail or
drawing pin-able piece of ceiling space. Mobiles built from
small, wooden, peasant figures, baskets of plants or
vegetables or toiletries, angular crystals or tiny, twirling
shards of coloured glass, wind-chimes - oh, pale, waltzing
Lord, the wind chimes. Not just those tubular bells that
generate a sound like a modern jazz orchestra rolling
biscuit tins of ball-bearings down a stairwell either. No,
she actually found some evil outlet that sold her a
suspended helix of hollow clay doves. This produces an
arpeggio of dull, ceramics clungs when it's struck. And it's
struck, many times a day, by my forehead, whenever I pass
into the living room. My head is a Somme of wing-shaped
indentations. Where does she get this Drive To Hang?
Admittedly, I've sometimes looked at an empty bit of wall in
my computer room in the attic and thought, 'Mmm... Winona
Ryder would look good there.' Occasionally even, 'Mmm... A
poster of Winona Ryder would look good there.' - but that's
a hugely sensible distance from a compulsion to attach
dangling bits of pointlessness to everything, house-wide. I
have, for many years, tried to work out what lies behind her
behaviour in this area, but it wasn't until recently that I
was sure I'd found the reason for it. Thankfully, though, I
have now identified its cause: She's nuts.
- One of the many things I love about Margret
is her zest. You probably won't have picked up on this, but
in actual fact I am a sullen, cynical kind of character
(honestly, it's true), while Margret hisses with energy and
finds taut excitement in everything that passes through her
field of vision. Perhaps this is why, in a Garden Centre, I
just shuffle around sighing, 'Red pot, blue pot; whatever
you want - can we go home now?' yet Margret only has to walk
through the doors at Sainsbury's Homebase to achieve orgasm.
Anyway, this whippy outlook of hers can sometimes be a bit
wearing. As an example, yesterday, her brow creased with
anxiety, she said, 'I need a haircut, urgently.'
Now, I just can't imagine a world where people need a
haircut urgently. Quite possibly, this explains a
lot - those of you who have looked elsewhere on the site
will surely have thought, 'Christ! There's a man who needs a
haircut URGENTLY!' - but let's not confuse understandable
alarm with imperativeness. When Margret said this, it was
about eleven o'clock at night, and she really did look like
she expected me to dash to the phone right away. 'Hello?
Shapes? Prepare a chair, we'll be there in two minutes. Yes,
it looks bad. I... Oh my God, it's frizzing! Clear!'
Tch - wear a hat until the weekend.
- The quality with which I am identified most
closely is probably fairness. There's an almost breathless
speed about my disposition, when appropriate, to say,
'Margret, I am clearly in the wrong here. Please smash up my
stuff.' However, there are times when the Shield Of Justice
gleams on my arm and all of Margret's shouted accusations
merely strike it and fall, lifeless, to the ground. Averted
eyes and a slowly shaking head tell that I am in a place
where she cannot touch me. Yes, as you ask, I am thinking of
You don't know me, right? You're aware, perhaps, that my
hair's bright red, you know I've got some Web space, you
have a certain suspicion that in quiet moments I speculate
on what it must be like to be rubbed all over with a
Nastassja Kinski - but that's it. It's not like, say, we've
being going out with each other for something over sixteen
years and have had two children and decorated a landing
together. Given that, let me place before you a scenario:
You are leaving the house to go shopping for a number of
hours. Just before you go, you poke your face towards me (I,
hunched and unblinking, am playing a computer game of the
most frantic and intricate kind) and say, 'If it starts to
rain, get the washing in off the line.'
Now, you know what's going to happen, don't you?
You've never even met me, and yet you know what's
going to happen. So if Margret, with whom I've lived for
well over a decade and a half, doesn't bother to employ
painfully basic foresight to see what's obviously going
to happen... well, the Shield Of Justice is mine, I
- When I'm driving the car, Margret reaches
across and operates the indicator. How annoying is that,
ladies and gentlemen? At the distance from the turn that she
considers to be appropriate, she'll lean over and flick the
indicator lever on. Be honest now, would any one of you
prefer to be in a car with someone who did that over, say,
being trapped under rubble for four days with a person who
writes the verses for greetings cards? It's rumoured, in
fact, that certain people are working on the Being In A
Car With Margret Experience so that it can be
recreated in the punishment wing of Alabama jails.
That's not to say that she's a bad driver. She's a better
driver than I am, certainly. But a better driver in, um,
well, by the 'male' definition of better, let's say. If we
were in a rally, Margret would leave me in the dust. She is
never more alive than when reversing into a tight space.
Gears matter to her. However, I've only had one
crash, and that was indisputably not my fault (someone drove
through a red light into the side of me). Margret has hit
countless things. Hit them in England. Hit them in Germany.
(I was in a car with Margret in Germany once, when she'd
been back and forth between there and England quite
frequently. She's racing along the centre of a country road.
A car appears heading straight for us, and Margret shouts at
me, 'Which side should I be on!?' A nice moment. If I'd been
out to score points I'd have remarked that, if you're asking
that question, then perhaps slowing down at all
might be a thing to do also. I didn't say anything, however,
as at that point I was busy finding religion.) Margret has
hit stationary things - bollards, a public electricity
exchange, walls - and moving things - other cars, an
ambulance. (Yes, 'honestly'.) One time we hired a car
to drive up to Scotland. Margret doesn't so much ignore
speed limits as have trouble with them conceptually - 'What?
There's a speed limit here too?' She drove from
Birmingham to Carlisle (about 200 miles) flat out. And I
mean 'flat' 'out', her foot was on the floor the whole way.
The hire company obviously expected their cars to be driven
by the sane, and it just couldn't cope. The temperature
gauge strained against the end of the scale and Margret
eventually pulled over to let it cool down for a few
minutes. But the wind coming through the radiator grille due
to our forward motion was the only thing that had kept it
going. When she pulled over every single electrical wire
in the engine melted away. Fortunately, there was
rescue cover so we were picked up and given a replacement
car. Margret, clearly humbled, said, 'Oh brill! This one's
got a cassette player!'
So, Margret's a better driver than I am, and a better map
reader too, incidentally. I get there eventually and can
operate my own indicators, thanks very much... but I am,
sadly, far less likely to make my fortune endorsing airbags.
- Insomnia. The thing with - hold on, before I
start, look at this.
Guess which one of us hung that up at some point on
Friday, and which one of us walked into the bedroom sometime
later and said, 'Wow, that's really good. I've often thought
how not at all irritating it would be to have a bunch of
feathers dangling just in front of my face all night, and
I've also frequently been overcome with a sudden sadness
that I had no means of a casual arm wave as I slept somehow
entangling itself in ribbons and a suspended hoop so as to
bring a halogen lamp crashing down onto my sleeping face.
Yet, I've never thought of bringing the two together
- now, that's genius.'
Apparently, it needs to be hung over our bed - rather than,
say, outside, on a tree, in front of somebody else's house -
as it's a dreamcatcher. And there I was thinking that, once
I logged off the Net, I was safe. That, in my own bed, I was
beyond the sinister reach of Wacky Californians - what is it
with you people? What did I ever do to you? OK, apart from
that. (By the way, if you're a Wacky California who was all
set to write me an email suggesting some kind of family
therapy pioneered by another Wacky Californian, but who
finds yourself now even more compelled to write one
beginning, "In fact, the dreamcatcher is an old Native
American tradition. Nokomis, the grandmother, was watching a
spider..." then can I ask that you just don't, OK? In fact,
as a general rule, I tend not to take advice - 'consider the
source', right? - about life from people who choose to live
on a massive earthquake faultline.) As an aside, Wacky
Californians, there was a tiny piece in last week's Metro
newspaper, which I found interesting. I emailed the editor
to ask if I could put a scan of it up here but,
unfortunately, he said no - as he's perfectly entitled to
do, of course - but the gist was that a couple had their
application to adopt refused because they don't argue
enough. Maybe Margret and I should give classes or
So, as I was saying, 'insomnia'. The thing with insomnia is
you never know when to give in. Do you stay there, trying to
get to sleep, or do you give in and say, 'Well - not going
to get to sleep anyway: might as well get up and do
something.' It's a tricky one and no mistake. When I get
insomnia, I generally try all the standard things: I try to
relax, I try to clear my mind, I try to think of something
pleasant (often this turns out to involve Courteney Cox and,
in the 'encouraging a condition where sleep is likely'
stakes, backfires massively). If none of these works, I'll
quietly get up, go downstairs and read Pinter until
insomnia's spirit breaks. What I don't do is turn to
Margret and, at intervals precisely judged to be 'just long
enough to have allowed the other person to have got to sleep
again', keep saying, 'I can't sleep' and, 'I can't sleep'
and, 'Really, I just can't sleep' and, 'I'm still awake, I
just can't sleep' and, 'Pheeeeeeeeeeeeee - I can't sleep'
and, 'I don't know what it is; I'm tired, but I can't sleep'
and, 'I can't sleep' and, 'I can't get to sleep' and, 'I'll
be so tired in the morning - look at the time. But I can't
sleep'. Because that's the kind of behaviour that can
lead... to... someone... snapping.
- First Born cut his hair on Friday morning.
Apparently the casual notion that his fringe was too long
and didn't look sufficiently wicked strolled through his
head, so - without the use of anything as lame as a mirror,
naturally - he got a pair of scissors and cut his own hair;
he now looks like a tiny Howard Devoto. Except blond. And
without the spectacles. ("So, not very much like Howard
Devoto at all, then. Also, we were born in 1987 and have
entirely no idea who Howard Devoto is." - Everyone.)
Now, Margret and I don't do that widespread thing of
transferring ownership of the children depending on the
situation; 'My son is a neurosurgeon,' 'Your
son has just poured byriani behind the radiator,' that kind
of thing. We do another thing. Margret, who is the one to
spot Jonathan appears to be the first seven-year-old to be
suffering from male pattern baldness, marches into the room
where I'm sitting, reading the paper, and, looming over me
with her arms knotted tightly across her ribs says:
'Jonathan's cut loads of his hair off.'
I look up at her and, after a few moments of thought,
She's unable to find herself entirely satisfied with this.
'So, that's it then, is it? You're all parented out now?'
'What am I supposed to do?' I ask, bewildered. 'He's cut the
hair off. Do you want me to wrap it in frozen peas and race
to the hospital to see if they can do an emergency weave?'
'I think,' she replies, 'that you should go and speak to
And there it is. There is only one specific type of occasion
when Margret feels I should 'go and speak to' one of the
children, and that's when they have done something
forehead-slappingly idiotic. The implication she is making
is that Idiocy is my area. That only I can speak to
the children when they've done something comprehensively
crackbrained because, unlike her, I can speak The
Language Of Fools. 'Maybe you can get through to him,' she's
saying, 'Because you know how the asinine mind works.'
I drop the newspaper with a sigh, resigned, now, to the fact
that I'll never get to find out what Kevin Spacey's
favourite pasta dish is, and plod into the other room.
Jonathan is happily drawing a picture at the table.
'Don't do stuff like that. Your hair looks stupid.'
I see his eyes flick, for the briefest moment, up to my
hair. I'm dead in the water and we both know it.
'I like it,' he says.
'Oh, you like it, do you?' I laugh. 'So, it doesn't
matter that everyone else in the world thinks it
looks stupid? You like it? That's... Um, that's
really good, actually. That's good.' I ruffle (what's left
of) his hair.
Margret walks in behind me. Quickly, I furrow my eyebrows
and point a sharp finger at Jonathan.
'So? Is that clear?'
'Yes,' he replies.
I walk out past Margret. 'Let's not say another word about
Of course, next week he'll probably get into homemade
tattoos, and his defence will begin, 'Well, Papa said...'
I have my bags packed ready.
- We have shower issues. Today I had a shower
and she's put out some kind of weird cosmetic soap. I flinch
at the idea of guessing how much this soap must have cost
because it's utterly rubbish, which is usually a good
indication of knee-buckling expense (Cotton flannel - 50p,
Skin-lacerating wad woven from dried bark and nasal hair by
Amazonian tribeswomen who will use whatever money they make
from the sale to buy cotton flannels - £12.50). This soap
did not wash, but instead covered me in an iridescent film
of grease - and, sadly, I'd made a last minute change of
plans and decided to spend today sitting in front of the TV
rather than swimming The Channel. Tch - irony, eh? Anyway, I
had to have another wash to remove this oleaginous
soap from me. This was the Third Thing. I'll come to the
Second Thing in a moment, but the First Thing is the
ferocity of our shower. British showers are risible, this is
a fact. Most people's noses run faster than the average
British shower and one of Margret's longest held desires has
been to get a shower like those in Germany. Thus, she got
one fitted when we moved to the new house here and it is,
indeed, German. Now, as much as I'm against the feebleness
of British showers, I must ask if it's entirely necessary
that a shower should hurt? This thing has a setting
called 'massage' and it's not a massage. A massage involves
relaxation, the soft, enquiring hands of a 22-year-old
Scandinavian woman, and possibly an exchange of cash. The
setting on this shower ought more accurately to be labelled
'Jumped By Thugs', you could mount the thing on top of a
truck and use it to crush riots. This is all the more
horrific when we approach the Second Thing. Because not only
does Margret leave our shower set to maim, she also leaves
it on cold.
Margret has cold showers first thing in the morning. How
unsurprising is that? In fact, I could have just left the
rest of this page blank and merely put at the top 'Margret
has cold showers first thing in the morning' and everyone
reading would have been able to infer the rest. I, it won't
surprise you to learn, don't like mornings to begin with,
and definitely don't want to find a cold shower
lurking anywhere in them. Today, then, I stumbled
sleepy-eyed into the shower, wrenched it on, and was
immediately hit by a roar of icy water travelling at
twelve-hundred miles an hour. My 'O'-eyed, bared-teeth face
is going to be stuck like this for a week. Then, once I'd
scrambled the settings back to within human limits, I got to
cover myself in grease.
Words will be exchanged.
- It's getting worse. I've mentioned this, in
passing, before, but it's getting worse. We were watching
Hannibal on DVD the other week, and Margret was sitting
beside me, looking at the screen, right from the moment I
hit 'play'. This, incidentally, is because before we watch
any DVD or video we have this ritual.
Mil - 'Are you ready?'
Margret - 'Yes.'
Mil - 'No you're not, you're clearly not. Sit down here.'
Margret - 'I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm just cutting out this
magazine article and putting the kids toys away in an order
based on the psychological warmth of their respective
colours and making a cup of tea and wondering if we should
move that mirror six inches to the left, but I'm ready - go
ahead, start the film.'
Mil - 'No. I'll start the film when you're sitting here. If
I start the film now, you'll sit down in three minutes time
and say, "What's happened?" and I'll have to do that thing
with my mouth. Not going to happen. You sit here right from
[Margret makes an injured pantomime of dragging herself
over to the sofa and sitting down beside me.]
Mil - 'Thank you.'
[I press 'play'. The FBI copyright warning comes up and,
knowing full well it won't work, I repeatedly try to fast
forward through it for the annoying amount of time -
precisely long enough for me to fully hate the FBI and the
entire motion picture industry - it takes to fade. A logo
swirls around the screen. Darkness. A single, threatening,
bass note rumbles low. Swelling in volume as the first
image seeps into life.]
Margret - 'I've just remembered, I need to phone Jo.'
Margret - 'I only need to ask if she has a text book - carry
Mil - 'No. Make the phone call. I'll wait.'
[Three hours later. Margret returns; I am still on the
sofa, remote control poised in my hand, but now visibly
older and covered in a light film of dust.]
Margret - 'OK, done.'
Mil - 'Right.'
[I wind back four or five seconds to have the moody intro
again, Margret complains we've already seen this bit and -
as it's getting late now - there's no need. I reply it's
important for setting the mood, she thinks it's a stupid
thing to do, the exchange degenerates into a twenty minute
row about foreplay, and then we finally begin to watch the
So, that's what happens, every time, and thus on this
occasion as with all others, Margret has been sitting beside
me since the very beginning of the film. Which, casting your
mind back, you'll recall is Hannibal.
Titles. Silence. A face appears.
Margret - 'Who's that?'
Getting worse. I was watching the Davis Cup on TV and, as
the players are sitting down for a of change ends, the
camera idly pans round the crowd, pausing on a woman eating
an ice cream. Margret says?... Louder - I can't hear you...
Yes, yes she does.
I'm here to make an appeal for the population of the Earth
to wear name tags at all times, three tags if you're an
actor: your character's name, your real name and a list of
things you've been in before. Please, do it. They only cost
a few pence - please don't make me beg.
- What Margret and I have, essentially, is a
Mexican stand-off with love instead of guns. OK, yes,
sometimes there are guns too. The important thing is the
mindset, though. Sure, people can argue about important
issues, that's fine, good luck to them I say. But where, I
ask you, are those people when you take away the meaningful
sources of disagreement? Lost. Utterly lost. Let me
illustrate the common mistakes amateurs might make using
something that happened the other week. You will need:
A roast chicken.
We're having tea and on the table are the plates, a
selection of vegetables and a roast chicken in an incredibly
hot metal baking tray. Getting this chicken to the
table (see - if you're a Mailing Lister and can - 'cloth
taking-things-from-the-oven-thing', in the Thing-o-Matic
archive) has been an heroic race that ended only fractions
of a second short of a major skin graft. Due to this haste
it is, however, not sitting precisely centrally on the
coaster. Some kind of weird, hippie, neo-Buddhist couple
might have failed even at this point and simply got on with
eating the meal. Fortunately, Margret is there to become
loudly agitated that radiant heat might creep past the edge
of the coaster, through the table cloth, through the
protective insulating sheet under the table cloth, and
affect the second-hand table itself. She shouts and wails. I
nudge the tray into the centre of the coaster, but, in doing
so, about half a teaspoon of the gravy spills over the side
onto the table cloth. Outside birds fall mute, mid-song.
Inside, frozen in time, the camera swings around us sitting
at the table, like in The Matrix.
'What the hell did you do that for? Quick, clean it up - quick,'
insists Margret (where an amateur would have, say,
'No,' I reply (at the moment when another amateur would have
been returning from the kitchen with a cloth), 'I'm eating
my tea. I'm going to sit here and eat my tea. Then
I'll clean it up.'
'No, clean it up now.'
'No. I'm going to eat my tea first.'
'Clean it up now.'
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so a couple of
semi-pros might have worked this up into a shouting match.
But I am not about to stoop to childish
name-calling. Instead I lift up the tray and pour some more
gravy onto the table.
'OK?' I say, 'Now stop it. I'll clean it up after.'
'Clean it up now.'
I tip a little more gravy onto the table.
'I'm just going to keep doing it every time you say that.
I'll clean it up later.'
'Do it now.'
This continues until we run out of gravy.
I must make it clear that my actions here seemed perfectly
rational at the time. I've mulled them over since, of
course, and am relieved to find that they still hold up to
examination: it's pleasing to know I can make good decisions
under pressure. Anyway, we eat the meal from a table awash
with gravy. I am happy to have argued my point persuasively.
Margret has a smile fixed to her face due to the belief
(incorrect, yes, but it's only her enjoyment that matters)
that I've clearly done something hugely stupid that she can
bring up later in any number of arguments - possibly years
from now. Everyone wins. We eat, united in contentment. I
clean up the table.
Do you see? I want everyone to try this out at home and
write me a report for next week.
- This is what I have to do to get into
trouble: stand there.
We went to hire a van last week. Margret had phoned and
arranged everything and I was there simply because we
arrived in one vehicle but had to return in two. As I think
I've mentioned before, I am not interested in motor vehicles
and know less about them than the average four year old
child. If people ask me what car we've got I reply, 'A red
one.' I can drive OK, just as I can operate a photocopier
perfectly well but feel no need at all to be able to
recognise the make of each one from a distance or to look at
magazines full of pictures of the latest models. Margret, of
course, has an encyclopaedic knowledge and will point
excitedly at traffic and say stuff like, 'Hey, look -
there's the new-style, five door Fiat Tampon,' or something
while I sit unable to care less. So, anyway, we've gone to
pick up this van and the bloke there - open shirt, riotous
body hair, multiple gold chains - starts telling me about
it. Starts telling me about it, despite the fact
that Margret has gone in and begun the conversation, while I
just shuffled along behind her. He keeps talking to me about
'Yeah, this is the 2 litre model...'
'Mmmm...' I nod, noncommittally, as I have no idea what he's
talking about - ('2 litre'? What's that? The amount of
petrol it can hold?)
'There is a 3 litre, V6 version, of course - but...'
'Hahaha,' I echo his laugh weakly in response; my 'V'
knowledge having stopped at the Nazi WWII rocket the V2.
Margret keeps cutting in with questions about technical
things. He answers to me, without looking at her. I can feel
her starting to sizzle. (The sole question I've been able to
come up with has been 'Um... Eh... Has it got a radio?')
I'm completely innocent here. In fact, I'm terrified he's
going to corner me by saying something like 'Do you favour
ABS or not?' and I'll just burst into tears. I can see,
however, that Margret is approaching the point where she's
going to be unable to prevent herself from disembowelling
him before standing over his torn body with her bloodied
hands outstretched, howling to the sky. That's his problem,
but I sense she also regards me as his tacit accomplice. I
have to get Margret away before he sets her off and I get
caught in the explosion.
As we were in a rush, I managed to get out of the office and
put over 300 miles between Bloke and Margret as quickly as
possible (I'd have liked to insert more distance, of course,
but we were beginning to run out of Britain). Still, it's
gnawed at her stomach for well over a week now and the only
way it's been kept under control has been by constantly
rerunning variations of:
Margret: 'He was talking to you. To you -
Me: 'Yes, he was an idiot. Because he was talking to me. And
I'm an idiot. He revealed his idiocy by talking to me,
an obvious idiot. He was an idiot. Forget about him. The
idiot. He was an idiot. That's right... just give me the
- At 2pm on Wednesday afternoon I went to the
cinema with a friend of mine to see 'Battle Royale' (does
Kinji Fukasaku know how to tell a love story or what?).
Around 8.30pm I came downstairs from putting the kids to bed
and started flicking through video cassettes. Margret, on
the sofa, lowered the magazine she was reading on to her lap
and asked suspiciously, 'What are you doing?'
'Trying to find a movie,' I said.
Margret sighed and shook her head. With a mixture of
incredulity, anxiety and admonishment she replied, 'You've
already seen one film today.'
Phew. Lucky we caught that habit before it
spiralled out of control, eh?
Which reminds me; test your own self-control by reading this
and seeing if you can resist the urge to draw any telling
psychological insights from it:
Margret walked through the living room on Friday as I was
watching 'Band Of Brothers'. Absently, she asked, 'Is this
"Killing Private Ryan"?'
It's the nights I fear the most.
- Margret is sitting at this computer (which
is in the attic room, incidentally) typing something. I'm
flopped in a chair close by with a paper and pad, scribbling
away at a bit of work.
I pause and say to her, 'Tortoise and turtle is the same
word in German, isn't it?'
She stops typing, reaches over, pulls off one of my
Birkenstock shoes, throws it down through trapdoor (I hear
it thud below, then flip-flop down the stairs) and returns
to her typing. All in a single, silent movement.
Your guess is as good as mine, frankly.
- Have you seen 'Good Will Hunting'? Of course
you have. I was watching it with Margret the other day and
she squeezed my arm and said, 'That's how I'd like you to
'Ahhh,' you're all sitting there saying, 'But Mil, you're
already practically Ben Affleck's double.' True enough. But
Margret was talking about Robin Williams. Aged
45. With a beard. Kill me.
- Relatedly - in the sense that the rest of the
world's thought process is here, while Margret's is
standing just over there - we had some friends round
at the weekend. They'd just been on a skiing trip and took a
digital camera with them. Many of you will know what the
first thing you do with a digital camera is. Well, let's put
that aside; you can go off to the newsgroups if you want to
look at that kind of thing. The second thing you do
with a digital camera, though, is take pictures of just everything.
You know you're not going to have to pay to get the photos
developed, so you snap away constantly. Our friends had
taken loads of pictures. Huge vistas of oscilloscope-trace
mountain ranges misting into the distance, people hissing
down the piste at precarious speeds, glistening snow settled
into creamy piles on the aching branches of trees, and so
Margret is leafing through the photos when she stops
abruptly. 'Wow! That's beautiful...' Her eyes as big
and as shiny as CDs, she turns the picture round to show me.
It's the inside of a chalet. 'Just look at that
kitchen!' she breathes. Sometimes I have to reach forward
and touch her, just to check that my hand doesn't pass
straight through - 'Ah-ha! She's a hologram generated by an
invading alien race - I knew it.'
- The other day someone asked me, 'Is there
anything you and Margret don't argue about?'
I stared up at the ceiling and patted my lips with my index
finger, thoughtfully. A clock ticked. It snowed. The light
began to fade. Eventually, I had to go out to buy more milk.
However, just when I was about to give up and resign myself
to addressing another one of the backlog of thoughts I have
to deal with, I light-bulbed, 'Ah-ha! Money! We don't argue
about money!' and was tremendously pleased with myself for
the five or six seconds it took to realise that this was
demonstrably untrue. Oh, we don't have the standard, 'What
the hell are you doing? We're behind on the mortgage and
you've gone out and spent all our money on beer!' rows. In
fact, Margret doesn't drink all that much nowadays. We have,
however, found others.
One of them flows from the fact that Margret asks me how
much everything I've bought for myself has cost. Now, I'm
not one for the high life: I don't own a car, I'm not
interested in holidays in the sun, my favourite meal is a
Pot Noodle and the leather jacket I'm currently wearing I
bought while I was still in the Sixth Form.
(All this doesn't make me bohemian and fascinating, by the
way; people don't happen upon me and exclaim to each other,
'My! Imagine how intriguing he must be on the inside.'
That kind of thing only happens in movies. In real life...
well. Well, I was walking through the city centre a while
ago and Margret called me on my mobile. With all the noise
of people and traffic, it was hard to hear so I sat down
with my back against the wall of McDonald's, bowed my head
and, with the phone in one of them, cupped my hands over my
ears to try and listen properly. As I sat there - I swear
to you this is true - someone who was walking past
looked down at me and threw change. But anyway, back to the
So, I'm hardly what you'd call extravagant. Sometimes,
however, very, very practical demands mean I need to buy a
digital camera, say, or another guitar. I'll try and sneak
it into the house (Margret will discover it eventually, of
course, and say, 'Where did this come from?' but
I'll be able to reply, 'Oh, I've had that for ages,'
which - one day, I'm sure - will be the end of the
discussion), but often I'll get caught.
'How much did that cost?'
'It was on offer.'
'For how much… I'm just asking.'
'Look - it has a built-in clock!'
She simply won't give in until she's made me feel like she
and the children have looked up from their eighth
consecutive meal of lard to see me stride in with a handful
of magic beans. But recently the shoe swapped feet. Margret
bought a sideboard. A second-hand sideboard that cost at
least twice what I'd ever pay for a graphics
accelerator card for my PC.
'How much did that cost?' I asked.
'It's an antique. Well… not a proper antique. But I think it
was made in Poland.'
I take the moral high ground. From where I purchase the
Buffy Series 3 DVD set. Outrageously expensive, yes, but a
thing that, under the circumstances, I am not at all afraid
to reveal to Margret. (I revealed it via the column I write
in The Guardian, knowing she couldn't say anything because
of the sideboard.) (Surprisingly, I was wrong.)
The other money-related argument is about cash. That's cash,
specifically. Despite the fact that Margret's earning power
is comfortably twice mine, she never has any cash.
If you can conveniently pay by cheque or credit card, that's
fine, but otherwise it's, 'Miiiiiiiil - have you got any
cash? Only, I haven't and I need to go to the
hairdresser's/pay a builder/have The Mob carry out a hit for
me.' Every time - Every. Time. - I go to the cashpoint
she'll appear within minutes with her nose wrinkled up
pleading, 'Got any cash?' I'm just a courier; cash is only
ever in my wallet for the walk back home from the bank - I
think that the second I key my PIN number into the ATM
machine it texts her phone. The result of this is that now I
never have any cash, because Margret has it. Except, she
doesn't. Margret is chronically cashless to the size of two
- If I'm sitting on the sofa reading a book and
Margret enters the room she will say this: 'What are you
doing?' If I'm peeling potatoes in the kitchen when she
happens upon me, or pushing batteries into one of the
children's extensive range of screeching toys, or writing on
the side of a video cassette I've just pulled out of the
recorder, the same thing: 'What are you doing?' I mean, a
fellow likes to feel he's a bit enigmatic now and then, a
tad mysterious and deep, but how can a person see me, for
example, screwing a new bulb into a light fitting and not
be able to see immediately and with huge, reverberating,
chill clarity precisely what it is that I'm doing?
It's like living with Mork. It's not even as if I can use
these moments to exercise my impressively sardonic (yet, at
the same time, profoundly attractive and alluring in a
deeply sexual way) wit either. Because, as previously
mentioned, Margret regards large sections of what we on
Earth call humour as nothing but shameless mendacity.
Margret [spotting Mil picking with his fingernail at the
goo left on a CD case by the price label]: 'What are
Mil: 'I'm talking to Mark using Morse code - he's at home
right now holding one of his CD cases, picking up the
vibrations I'm making.'
Margret: 'No you're not, you liar. You're lying. Why do you
always lie? You liar.'
Mil: 'It works by resonance. You just have to practise for a
bit to be able feel the plastic quivering - go over and get
that Black Grape case, press it on to your nose, and we'll
see if you can pick up anything.'
(There's the briefest flicker of indecision in her eyes;
offering me, for one tantalising moment, the possibility
that I'm going to spend the next ten minutes - 'What about this,
then? Press it on your face harder.' - having quite simply
the best of times... but then she grunts.)
Margret: 'Liar. You're just a liar.'
Mostly, however, we've got it smooth and efficient now. We
don't have to think. She says, 'What are you doing?', I peer
at her with irritation and expel air, we go on about our
business. This morning, though, she came upstairs to the
attic here while I was sitting in front of the computer
doing some work on the net.
'What are you doing?' she asks.
Trying to concentrate on something, distracted and harassed,
I reply with some degree of acerbic aggravation.
'What does it look like I'm doing?'
There's a beat, during which we hold each others eyes,
It's immediately after this beat has passed that I realise
I'm wearing no trousers.
There is, it's opulently redundant of me to add, a perfectly
reasonable and innocuous explanation for why I'm browsing
the web alone in my attic with no trousers on, but you're
all busy people and I know you have neither the inclination
nor the time to waste hearing it. As an image, however, it
did rather undercut my sarcasm. Margret - in a brutally
savage reversal of tactics - didn't speak. She merely raised
her eyebrows and there, revealed, was a face that read, 'I
have been waiting thirteen years for this moment.'
I was watching Mission Impossible
and it was making me uneasy. Tom Cruise was doing
something - infiltrating, probably, you know what he's
like - and he was continuously describing the situation to
his distant support buddies via his headset radio. For a
while, I naturally assumed that it was simply Tom Cruise's
big nose that was unsettling me and tried, using soothing
visualisations and breathing exercises, to move myself,
mentally, to a place where it wasn't an issue. But then -
the realisation freezing my arm and abruptly halting a
crisp's journey from bag to mouth - I had a small
epiphany: 'Lawks,' I thought, 'This is my girlfriend.'
"Margret, your mission, should you choose to accept it,
is to wander around constantly articulating precisely
what it is that you're doing at that moment, as though
relaying it to an unseen control team somewhere.
Possibly, on an alien mother ship, secretly orbiting the
Earth. For example."
She does this all the time. 'Get some eggs from the
fridge... here's the butter... and now a frying pan...
What's in the cupboard? OK, we've got oregano... some
basil... I'll go for the mixed herbs... Now I need some
scissors...' Who is she talking to? It's certainly
not me: for one thing, I can see what she's doing - and,
further, am not interested - and for another, I sometimes
hear her doing this while she's alone in a room in another
part of the house. And - though, admittedly, there's often
a huge temptation to think she functions like this - I
don't believe it's because she simply has no idea what
she's going to do until it's actually occurring and I'm
merely listening to her keeping her mind informed about
what it is that her body appears to be doing right now.
Sometimes we'll be sitting down watching TV and she'll get
up and say, 'I'm going to the toilet.' Why would anyone
say that? Does she think I'm keeping a log for research
purposes? Is she intimating that she needs help? Does she
have reason to expect that she may be abducted halfway up
the stairs and thus wants me to at least be able to tell
the police, 'Well, the last time I saw her I know she was
on her way to the toilet.' What?
Surely, it can only be that she's an undercover member of
the M.I. team. Every time a van is parked near our house
now, I imagine Ving Rhames is in it; 'OK, the toilet's at
the top of the stairs - it's unguarded, but has a slightly
Oh, and the first person to say, 'Well, if she's doing an
impossible mission, then that'd be 'living with you',
Mil, wouldn't it?' gets a very slow handclap, OK?
The other possibility is that she's simply
talking to the air. 'But that,' you say, 'would make her
mad.' Yet, isn't there an idea that everything - water,
rocks, fire, etc. - has a spirit, that everything
is, in some way, 'alive'? Isn't that believed by some
people? 'Yes,' you say, 'mad people.' Well, I certainly
can't argue with you there (and don't wish to debate the
theory with any Californians who are reading either,
thanks), but I raise it as a possibility. Because, if
we're looking for a mystic answer, she certainly regards
the television as the Magic Box Full Of Tiny People Who
Can Hear Her. If an actress says - as actresses seem
highly prone to - 'I'm just going down into the cellar,'
she'll often call out to her, 'Don't go down into the
cellar!' Or she'll offer lengthy and detailed personal
advice: 'No, don't send him that letter. He's just using
you. Leave him and go back to Brian.'
I can watch a film many times. Margret thinks watching a
film more than once (even worse - buying the DVD so that I
can watch it whenever I want) is, well, I'm not sure
there's a word to describe it. If she discovers me
watching a film, says, 'Haven't you already seen this?'
and I reply, 'Yes,' and continue to watch, she looks at me
like I'd just confessed to being sexually aroused by
livestock. A swirling mixture of incomprehension, contempt
and with just a hint of, 'I knew it...' I realise
now that this might be because she doesn't feel she's
watching a film, but rather guiding the Tiny People
through actual ordeals - a strain she doesn't want to have
to endure twice.
I've tried telling her that TV doesn't work like that.
That the people are just actors. But she just doesn't seem
to get it. She throws back some nonsense about me
compulsively sitting there, flooded with adrenaline,
barking out the answers when University Challenge is on -
clearly unaware that this is exactly what has made
humankind so successful: the desire to test oneself
against oceans, mountains, one's own deepest fears, or a
selection of general knowledge questions. More
disastrously, she also completely misses the point and
starts going on about me shouting at the tennis on
television or something. Incredibly, it seems she's unable
to see the difference between her talking to actors,
recorded on film, and my shouting, 'Go down the line!'
while watching the television broadcast of a live
match when, of course, in those circumstances there really
is the possibility of my altering the course of play by
vocalizing the sheer focussed power of my will. She still
has an awful lot to learn about science, I'm afraid.
Margret was away with her friends the other
weekend. It was a hen party thing. I hesitate to mention
that, as English women on hen nights are quite the most
repellent spectacle it's possible to encounter - if we
happen across a group of hen night women when we're out
together, Margret will invariably point at them and dare
me to defend a culture that has incubated such an
embarrassment. So, let me stress that, though it was technically
a hen weekend, it wasn't the whooping, cackling, "Look! We
have a huge inflatable penis and an openly desperate
desire to have you think we're fearless unfettered rebels
so don't let the fact that we clearly all work at a local
building society and are trying way too hard!"
kind of affair that you'll often see congoing through
Brannigans in ill-advised skirts. It was still hen,
though, there's no escaping that. I stayed here with the
kids; if they asked where she was, I had planned - to
avoid inflicting on them the psychological damage of
knowing their mother was at a hen weekend - to say that
she was simply away serving a short sentence for
Before she went, she asked me to record a couple of
gardening programmes that were going to be on the TV. The
first night she was there she rang me. She'd had a row
with some bloke in a bar. He'd apparently pinched her
bottom and then, when she responded, um, 'unfavourably' to
this, had tried to smooth the waters by saying he couldn't
resist as she was the best looking woman there - a point
which Margret found really quite an insufficient reason
for being pinched by somebody; she expressed this concept
to him. Now, as I was a good two-hundred miles away and,
in any case, had a big pile of ironing to do, there wasn't
really very much I could do to support her. I did think of
demonstrating that I shared her contempt for him by
pointing out that the bloke was clearly also a calculating
liar: 'There's no way you could have been the best looking
woman there - I mean, what about Jo, just for a start?'
Some tiny alarm rang deep in my head, however, and told me
that not saying this would work out better for me in the
long run. She continued to talk for a while, and finished
by reminding me to video the gardening programmes.
The next day, right on cue, I forgot to video the
I can't quite convey to you the icing I felt on my skin
and the claustrophobic tightening of my chest that
occurred when I idly glanced down at the clock on my
taskbar and realised I'd forgotten to record them. I know
you think I should have set the timer on the VCR, but I
deliberately didn't. The timer on our VCR has poor
self-discipline and vague life goals and will often fail
to work, just for kicks. So, rather than risk giving the
job to a recidivist video recorder, I decided it was far
safer to do it manually. And to fill in the time until
that point by going up on the computer, entering 'Fairuza
Balk' in Google and, you know, just seeing where that led.
It was obvious I was going to have to tell Margret what
had happened and - although it was just 'one of those
things', for which no one was really to blame - I knew
very soon, and with a clarity of understanding that
bordered on the spiritual, that the best time at which to
inform her about the situation was while she was still
two-hundred miles away from me. Therefore, I
immediately texted her mobile - knowing she wouldn't have
it switched on, because she never has it switched on, but
that she'd see it before too long. Only, the second I'd
sent the message, I began to worry. I'd assumed that
letting her know now would give her a chance to cool down
before she returned. But, equally likely, it would just
give her a chance to work up a head of steam. And, if
Margret's playing a, 'The trouble with Mil is...' riff,
then the very worst place to ensure that it doesn't build
and build is in the company of a load of exclusively
female friends on a hen night. And she was in Manchester.
Manchester. She was going to come back
after a day and a half of, "...well, it's not for me to
say, Margret, but if I were going out with Mil,
then...", wired on crack, and carrying an Uzi.
That night, I slept under the children's bed.
We had an earthquake here the other week.
Surprisingly, I'm not being metaphorical. I mean we had an
actual earthquake: in the geological rather than the
emotional sense. It happened at about one o'clock in the
morning, we were pretty close to the epicentre, and it was
4.8 on the Richter scale. Now, I'm depressingly aware that
all you Californians are right now glancing up from your
crystals and pausing mid-mantra to snort, '4.8? Poh.
That's not an earthquake, that's just someone slamming a
door.' Well, yes, I suppose it's all relative, but here in
England where tectonics is less brash and showy, 4.8 is
easily vulgar enough to stand out.
The important thing is that just before 1 A.M.
the whole house shook. Naturally, this woke us up.
Cupboards rattled and banged, furniture shivered across
the floor, the bed struggled like it was possessed by the
spirit of a wild animal that was trying to get out. The
instant it ended, Margret's freshly woken face slid in
front of me. Her voice irritated and her eyes accusatively
thin, she hissed, 'Was that you?'
I better note this down before I forget it
again. I was reminded of it last week - apologies if you
were around at the point when my memory was jogged but,
before you start whining that you've heard me mention this
observation already, may I just point out that anyone
who's sitting around watching daytime TV probably oughtn't
to get too captious, eh? So, Margret and I were having an
argument (you'd think I'd have a shortcut key for that
sentence by now, wouldn't you?). I can't remember what we
were arguing about, but that doesn't matter here because
in today's lesson we're focusing on style, not content.
Say we were arguing about, oh, lettuce (even if we
weren't, it's surely only a matter of time):
Margret: You haven't washed all the lettuce.
Mil: I've washed the bits I'm going to eat.
Margret: And left the rest for me to wash.
Mil: If you wash it all, it goes off quicker.
Margret: So, we'll eat it quicker, then.
Mil: I don't want to eat it quicker.
Margret: But I do.
Mil: Then wash it yourself if you're
so bloody desperate to gorge on lettuce. What am I? Your
official Lettuce Washer?
Margret: My last boyfriend was taller than you.
Fairly standard stuff, clearly, but what you need to
realise is something that I can't get across on the page.
It's that, as the exchanges switched backwards and
forwards between us, there was a kind of bidding war going
on with the pitch. It's not just that each one of us upped
the volume a little for our turn, but that we also changed
the tone by raising our voices so that our reply was about
a fifth higher than the one that the other person had just
used. It was like two Mariah Careys facing off - pretty
quickly, we were having an argument that only dogs could
I've noticed that this often happens, and I reckon Margret
secretly initiates it as a ploy. She raises her pitch,
subconsciously luring me to respond. It's tactical. She
knows it increases her chances of winning the argument
because - when I come to deliver the final, logical coup
de grace with great imperiousness and gravitas - I
discover I'm doing so in the voice of Jimmy Somerville.
Margret bought a
jacket. The purpose of this jacket, its raison d'etre, was
not to provide warmth or woo the eyes or give employment
to jacket makers. The purpose of this jacket was to
demonstrate to me my place in the world. To provide a
medium through which I might gain knowledge - much like
the rustling of the leaves at the Oracle of Dodona being a
means for discovering the will of Zeus. Only, you know,
except with lots more polyester. Margret bought this
jacket and placed it on a hanger in the hallway. Later
that day, when she judged I had approximately 1,285 things
I'd rather be doing, she commanded me to view it.
She takes it down from the hanger, puts it on and says,
'What do you think?'
'Well,' I say, 'if you like it...'
I hear the fire alarm go off and briefly glance up the
stairs before realising that the noise is actually in my
'What's wrong with it?' asks Margret. Somewhat
'Oh, you know, nothing in particular,' I shrug. This is
factually correct. It is a comprehensively appalling
jacket; no particular aspect of its extensive dreadfulness
stands out as especially distressing.
'What... is wrong... with it,' Margret replies, filling in
the spaces with facial expressions.
'Um, well, it's shapeless.'
'No, it isn't.'
'OK, then, it's cylinder-shaped. Which is not a good
shape. For a jacket.'
'I like the shape.'
'Fair enough. Right, I'm going...'
'Did I say there was...'
'The material is unpleasant.'
'No it's not.'
'And the pattern is awful.'
'The pattern's nice.'
'And it doesn't appear to fit properly - look at the
'That's how it's supposed to fit.'
'Fair enough, then.'
'I like it. I'm going to wear it always.''
She places it back on the hanger, lets me know I'm a fool
and we go on about our business.
The next day Margret's friend calls round to drop
something off quickly. She drops it off (quickly), they
(quickly) talk for four and a half hours, and then she has
to dash. Coincidentally, I'm coming down the stairs when
Margret is seeing her out. As Margret is by the door she
says to her, 'Oh, look, I bought a new jacket. What do you
'Well,' the friend replies, 'if you like it...'
Margret returns the jacket to the shop, immediately.
Margret: 'Mmm... Is anything in the world
better than the feel of fresh bed sheets?'
Do you remember the thing about 'Shut up'?
It's not on this page anymore but, if you're an old-timer
(or, I suppose, on the Mailing List and have read through
the stuff that's no longer here) you might recall it.
Well, she's sort of at it again.
I was looking for something that should have been
somewhere, and wasn't. I asked Margret where it was, and
she said, 'It's in the bedroom.'
'No, it isn't,' I replied - having just come from
searching in the bedroom for about ten increasingly
'Yes, it is,' she repeated.
'It's not. I've looked there.'
An expression of amused indulgence came over her face the
subtleties of which I can't quite convey, so I'll have to
make do with the description of it as, 'absolutely
'How much,' she said, 'will you give me if I find it?'
OK, so this operates on two levels. The first is simple
sadism. Margret knows the agony it would cause me if -
after my prolonged, stomping insistence that it isn't
there - she calmly walks over and places her hand
immediately on it. Tauntingly, she knows that just the possibility
of this happening is quite probably enough for my nerve to
crack. She is well aware that if, just one more time, my
frustrated raging of, 'The nail scissors aren't here. See?
They're not bloody here. Do you understand? Not... Here...
Look! Go on! You try to find them then! Go on!
Where are they then? Eh?' receives the near-instantaneous
reply, 'Here they are,' and a pair of nail scissors, then
I'm simply going to have to run away to sea. Can you see
the other level, the one which ties it in kind with the
'Shut up' affair, though? Have a think.
That's it, well spotted: monetary gain. If I've maintained
that something isn't somewhere until I've had to jump up
and down, hold my breath and squeal that she's not my real
mom, then simple, human decency should compel Margret to
say, 'Yes, you're right,' rather than go there and find
it. Going there and finding it is what you'd expect a
Colombian Death Squad to do. What separates Margret from a
Colombian Death Squad - perhaps the only thing that does -
is subtlety. She's awfully keen to make that bet about
finding things, isn't she? Now... why could that be? Well,
obviously, it's because she's rigged the deck. The reason
I can't find what I'm looking for is that she's previously
spotted what I'm looking for, and moved it.
I have innate positioning instincts, you see: like a
salmon returning thousands of miles across unmarked
oceans, right to the stream where it was born. In exactly
the same way, when I've finished using it, I will place a
screwdriver on top of a bedroom radiator and - when I need
it again, perhaps eighteen months later - unerringly
return to that spot to retrieve it. Frequently, to
discover that Margret has, maddeningly, taken it upon
herself to transfer it to somewhere else. My instincts,
moreover, are incredibly precise. If I'm looking
for a pair of trainers that my astonishingly accurate
positional memory remembers putting down in the bottom
left of a cupboard, then I'm not going to notice them if
some fiend has moved them to the bottom right of
the cupboard during the intervening four and a half years,
am I? That'd be stupid. What's the point of having a gift
for such specific location if your visual perception is so
vague as to wander around all over the place? Eh? What's
more, I place things logically. Where are you most likely
to need carpet tacks and a hammer, for example? Precisely.
So leaving them on the stairs is simple ergonomics.
However, for some reason, Margret is unable to respect my
filing system. She spends her day roaming the house,
wilfully moving things from where I've deliberately placed
them. And that's why she's keen to make the bet.
She's hidden my stuff, and now she wants me to pay for her
to retrieve it. It's basically a form of extortion, isn't
it? Let's call a spade a spade: Margret has kidnapped my
stuff and is holding it for ransom. Really, ladies and
gentlemen, it's a sad state of affairs when your
girlfriend abducts your favourite underpants.
Simply odd. Odd. We're writing Christmas
cards at the moment, and Margret asked if I'd print out a
family photo to include with them. (I have many photos of
us, taken during every season and in numerous different
locations - all, however, show precisely the same
pose: Margret - beaming smile; Mil - solemn resignation;
First Born - looking down at a Game Boy; Second Born -
tongue out at camera, fingers pulling up to expose inside
of nostrils.) Now, I'm aware that including a family photo
with a Christmas card is not at all unusual in America,
and I don't want to appear to criticise this: I'm sure
it's perfectly lovely when an American sends such a card
to another American. It's simply a tradition and no more a
cause for comment, in its context, than any other of the
fine customs unique to that country, like... um... like
pie eating competitions, say, or religious snake-handling.
As an English person, though, the notion of sending out
pictures of ourselves strikes me as narcissistically
brash. I mentioned this to Margret and, though she had
sympathy with the concept that (non-American) people who
send out photos of themselves might reasonably be assumed
to be utterly dreadful, she said she thought that
sometimes it was nice to get a picture. She thought it was
nice for a very specific reason. '...because then
you can see what size they are.' Now, this is clearly
nonsense - 'Oh, look - they're 8"-by-4".' - unless people
are sending out photographs of themselves next to an item
of known dimensions. A bit like those kidnap photos where
the victim is holding the day's paper: Bill, Emma, Helen,
Matt and Blackie ensure that they're posing by a
regulation, roadside telephone CAB box, with their arms
linked to avoid tricks of perspective. More pertinently,
though - what the hell? 'So you can see what size
they are'? What on earth does that mean? Am I
expected to open a card, splutter out my mouthful of tea
in shock and call out, 'Quick! Take Ted and Sarah off our
list - I've just found out they're bleeding midgets!' It
is, as I say, 'simply odd'.
I'm off to Germany for a few weeks.
Apologies if my absence results in your doing any work.
Except, I have to pop back briefly to tell
you what just happened. I'm about to cycle into town and
Margret stops me as I'm setting off. 'Will you bring back
that filing cabinet from Argos?' she asks. Can you, ladies
and gentlemen, imagine a person cycling two miles through
Christmas traffic on a mountain bike carrying a filing
Right, I really must get packed for Germany now.
Right, I've just got back from Germany so I
have a huge backlog of stuff to get sorted - the
inevitable result of a short break away hissing around the
Allgäu, past numberless gasping locals, all swooning,
'Incredible! He skis like some kind of god!' You'll be
happy to know, however, that Christmas this year went very
well. As I think we've established by now, providing
Margret with Christmas presents that evoke joy - rather
than massive, brutal retaliation - is something that must
be bought at a terrible cost. The fearful, Faust-blanching
price of this ability is to - quite literally - listen
to everything that Margret says throughout the previous
year. I mean, Kung Fu monks (according to the
omniscient well of knowledge that is popular 1970s
television) only had to do a decade or so of training then
carry a red hot metal bowl for a couple of meters with
their bare forearms. I have to listen to everything
Margret says throughout the entire year. Endless,
endless, endless hours of stuff about the
comparative aesthetic merits of different Ikea storage
units, just so I'm there - prickling with alertness - on
those occasions when she slyly drops in a hint about what
she might like as a gift when the trial of buying one for
her confronts me again. As I say, though, last year,
twelve months worth of intelligence gathering paid off.
This Christmas morning she was so thrilled that she stared
at me - literally unable to form her thoughts into words -
for quite the longest time imaginable after unwrapping her
presents of a barometer and one of those 'Make Your Own
Oh, as you ask, I had a pretty uneventful
time over in Germany. Skiing, visiting friends, waiting
for the figure to turn green at pedestrian crossing lights
even though there quite plainly isn't any sort of moving
vehicle within a mile and a half, being shown photographs
of my girlfriend naked, etc., etc.
The Old Timers among you will be well aware that pretty
much every household in modern Germany contains at least a
couple of photographs of my girlfriend naked, and also
that this is a) "Not sexual. Tch - what the hell's wrong
with you?" and b) very much My Problem. So, I'm sitting in
a living room and - after tea and cakes - out come the
photographs of Margret naked. I hold one of the pictures
in my hand and sit there, radiating heat. Alerted,
perhaps, by the grinding sound I'm involuntarily making
with my teeth, Margret looks across at me and lets out a
long, weary sigh.
'Oh, for God's sake,' she tuts, 'OK - so I'm naked. But
you can't see anything.'
I glance pointedly at her, pointedly at the photograph,
and then back at her again - pointedly. She lets out an
even wearier sigh and rolls her eyes.
'OK...' she shrugs, '...apart from that.'
In what I can only assume was an impromptu
but gutsy attempt at the World Irony Record, the other day
Margret started to lecture me on how I could become
calmer. I mean, really, eh? It's like being
pitched Al Qaeda's Little Book of Love. Her
spontaneous proselytising was conjured from her now going
to yoga one evening a week.
'It's really relaxing when I'm there,' she says.
'Yes, it is,' I reply. (You see what I actually meant
there, right? Lord, but I'm arch.)
'Why don't you come to a session?'
There's a sucking, cultish gleam in her eye. The kind of,
'Join us! Join us - the spaceship awaits!' look that you
see on the faces of Moonies or people who are telling you
'But you really lose the tension.'
I consider mentioning that she always seems to find it
again pretty quickly once she gets back - maybe she might
think about getting a yoga instructor who 'loses her
tension' by some method other than 'hiding it in our
house', but I keep hold of this card for a while.
'I don't need to,' I say, 'I can achieve perfect
relaxation by sitting here and watching a Buffy DVD.'
'That's not the same.'
'Yes it is.'
'No it isn't: when you're watching Buffy the Vampire
Slayer,' (I promise you these are her exact words
that are coming up now), 'you're straining your mind.'
My face briefly collapses under the effort of trying to
map the internal reasoning of a psychology that could
incubate such a concept, but it's the logical equivalent
of falling infinitely into the Mandelbrot set and I pull
back, palsied and afraid. Instead, I reach for my ace.
'Well, whatever, the point is - this yoga is only relaxing
you for the precise amount of time you're doing it. Once
you get back home you're just the same. In fact, you've
been moaning even more than usual for the last few weeks.'
'No I haven't.'
'Yes, you have.'
'No, no - I haven't been moaning,' she says,
rolling her eyes and tutting. She reaches forward and
ruffles my hair. 'I've just been moaning at you.'
With that, she gets up and breezes from the room.
You know... I've been thinking about it for several days
now, and I still can't figure out who won there.
It's Wednesday the 12th of February. It's early evening.
Margret and I are sitting in the living room. Margret has
asked me to do something the following day.
Mil: 'I can't, I'm afraid. I'm going into town.'
Margret: 'Why? What do you need to go to town for?'
Mil: 'Oh, I have to get some stuff.'
Margret: 'What stuff?'
Mil: 'Just some stuff... things.'
Margret: 'What things?'
Mil: 'Various things.'
Margret: 'What things?'
Mil: 'What does it matter?'
Margret: 'What things?'
Mil: 'It's not important what specific things, is
it? I have to get things or I wouldn't be cycling
into town, would I? All that's relevant here is that I
have to go, not the details of the individual items I need
to get - there's no point wasting time giving you a big
list, when the only significant point is that I need
to go to town.'
Margret: 'What things?'
Mil: 'Oh, for Christ's sake... Pizzas. I need to buy some
Margret: 'We've got pizzas.'
Mil: 'We've got a pizza.'
Margret: 'So? How many do you need?'
Mil: 'Several. I want to have several in the fridge.'
Mil: 'So that we have a stock of them.'
Mil: 'So that we don't run out, obviously.'
Margret: 'What would happen if we ran out?'
Mil: 'I'd have to go to town.'
This flings itself out of my mouth while my higher brain
is still racing along behind it frantically waving its
arms and shouting, 'Wait! Wait!'
Margret responds with just the tiniest movement of her
eyebrows. Absolutely minuscule. Sufficient in
size, however, to make me wonder if I could get a UN
resolution to have her bombed.
Mil: 'I have to get other things too.'
Margret: 'What things?'
Mil: 'What the bloody hell does it matter? Why
can't I go to town if I want to, for God's sake?'
Margret: 'Why are you being secretive? What are you up
Mil: 'I'm not up to anything.'
Margret: 'Yes you are.'
Mil: 'Like what?'
Margret: 'I don't know.'
Mil: 'Because there isn't anything.'
Margret: 'Yes there is - I can tell.'
Mil: 'There isn't.'
Margret: 'You bloody liar.'
Mil: 'You bloody mad woman.'
Margret: 'Tell me.'
Mil: 'Stop talking now.'
Margret: 'Tell me.'
Margret: 'Tell me.'
I think we've both risen to our feet by this point (it
allows for better voice projection).
Mil: 'OK! OK! You want to know why I need to go up town,
you relentless harridan?!'
Margret: ''Yes! You lying swine!'
Mil: 'So I can get your Valentine's Day card! So I can get
your bloody Valentine's Day card and post it to here - so
it'll arrive as a nice surprise through the post!'
A tiny flicker. It's the merest stutter of hesitation,
though, then she's back on track before the beat is really
Margret: 'You don't need to get me a bloody Valentine's
(I can't imagine what makes her think she's going to get
away with this move - she must be getting old.)
Mil: 'Too bad! Because I'm getting you a
Valentine's Day card! And I'm posting it to you!
Tomorrow! When I go to town!'
Margret: 'THERE'S NO BLOODY NEED!'
Mil: 'WELL IT'S GOING TO BLOODY HAPPEN - GET USED TO IT!'
And, indeed, I do go to town, buy her a card, and post it.
Inside I write, 'Surprise!' She gets it on Valentine's Day
and says, 'Thank you,' to me, through gritted teeth. (She
gets me one too, by the way - it reads, "I'm not
interested in a nice, normal relationship... I like ours
Odysseus and Penelope? Pah - lightweights.
So, the thing was, I'd cut this picture of
PJ Harvey out of a magazine (yes, the 'Lick My Legs' one,
of course the 'Lick My Legs' one) and I was framing
it to put on my wall here. 'Who's that?' asked First Born.
'That,' I replied, 'is PJ Harvey.'
'Who's PJ Harvey?' he said. (Bless.)
'She's a singer and a songwriter,' I explained. Adding, as
I'm sure most people would, 'I used to
go out with her. You know - years before Mama and I met.'
Now, you'll never guess what happened next. Incredibly,
Margret goes through the roof. No, I'm not kidding - she
goes through the roof and starts ranting that I shouldn't
say I used to go out with PJ Harvey. Can you believe that?
I mean, for one thing, I don't tell her that she
can't watch gardening shows on the TV or go swimming or
whatever, so how come I can't tell people that I
used to go out with PJ Harvey? There has to be give and
take in a relationship, right? The main issue, though, is
why on earth she should object in the first place. Surely,
if anyone is well placed to take issue with my going
around saying that I used to go out with PJ Harvey, then
who is that person? Damn right. It's PJ Harvey. And her
record company, maybe. Also, possibly her legal
representatives have good grounds to intervene, perhaps in
a manner that leads, ultimately, to some kind of court
order against me. So, yes, all those people seem to be
perfectly justified in stepping in - but my girlfriend?
God - it's getting so I can't do anything.
Now, this is slightly scary and unsettling.
I know I'm inclined to say that quite a lot, but what am I
supposed to do about it? This is slightly scary
and unsettling. You're going to get to the end of this and
say, 'Ooo - that's slightly scary and unsettling, Mil,'
that's just the simple fact of the matter. OK?
The other evening we had some friends round. We were all
sitting in the living room and I was recounting something
Margret had done a couple of days previously.
Unfortunately, I can't remember what this thing was now,
but I do recall it had happened in the car. So, given
Margret and I stepping into a car together immediately
invalidates our insurance (a Zen branch of homologous
algebra states: Mil + Margret + Car = Small Child + Hammer
+ Land Mine), it could have been pretty much anything up
to and including some kind of western movie-style showdown
where - instead of being atop a train - Margret and I
scrambled for control of a Colt .45 on the roof of our
Vauxhall Corsa, as it careered, driverless, down the A5.
As I say, I can't remember. Anyway, whatever it was, it
was certainly (a) utterly outrageous and (b) utterly down
to Margret. This is borne out by the look of numb, stunned
disbelief that trembled on our friends' faces when I'd
finished telling them the story. One of them turned to
Margret and, incredulous, gasped, 'Did you really do
'Yeah,' Margret laughed back, with a shy, 'you know how it
is' shrug. Then she became pensive and her nose twisted a
little in thought. 'But,' she continued, half to herself,
'I don't know if I'd have done it in real life.'
"In real life"?
You're going 'Ooo - that's slightly scary and unsettling,
Mil' now, aren't you?
A question I get asked a lot is... Um,
actually, a question I get asked a lot is one I get asked
by those Litigations R Us-style firms - the ones that
encourage you to sue everyone you've ever met so they can
have a share of the settlement. Every single time I walk
through town one of their salespeople will leap out in
front of me:
'Hello. I'm trawling for business on behalf of a parasitic
company that happily feeds the
special and delightful sense of greedy, self-centred
victimhood that so elevates contemporary society. You can
be confident of my noble legal stature because - look -
I'm wearing a corporate waterproof jacket.'
Hold on, let me start that again. I think I may have
edged, just slightly, into editorializing.
OK. Fact: I cannot walk through town without one these
people heading me off. Their eyes shine the moment I
stumble into their line of sight - they'll push other
shoppers out of the way just to get at me. What does that
say? What kind of lift to your self-confidence does that
Salesgit: 'Excuse me. Have you had an accident within the
last three years?'
Me: 'No. I always look like this.'
I mean, it's basically someone coming up to you and
saying, 'Hi - you appear to be the result of some
terrible catastrophe,' isn't it?
Maybe I should reassess my haircut or something.
Anyway, as I was saying before you set me off on that
tangent, a question I get asked a lot is 'What's the most
frequent argument you have?' I can't imagine why people
ask me things like this. That is, I can't imagine why
people ask me this - why don't they ask other
people? If you want to ask about arguments, then ask an
argument expert. I can't claim to be an expert, because I
lack the vital aspect of depth - I can't provide a
balanced answer, because I've simply no experience of what
it's like to be in the wrong. I'd like to have that
experience, obviously. In some ways I even feel vaguely
cheated by my consistent rightness but, well, we have to
play the hand we're dealt, right?
However, though I can't really say what the most frequent
argument is, I can have a stab at the definitive one. This
argument illustrates a fundamental theme - a core issue.
Because of that, it can be used in all kinds of
situations. The details are unimportant; the following
example may be 'about' domestic chores, or shopping
arrangements, or 'sorting out of children', or any number
of things. Below those superficial, ephemeral points is
the true heart of the matter. The argument goes:
Margret: 'I cannot believe that you didn't do it.'
Mil: 'You didn't ask me to do it.'
Margret: 'Why should I have to ask you to do it?'
Mil: 'So I know you want me to do it.'
Margret: 'But I have to ask you to do everything.'
Mil: 'But I do everything you ask me to.'
Margret: 'But I have to ask you to do everything.'
Mil: 'But I do everything you ask me to.'
Margret: 'No - listen - the point is, I have to ask you to
Mil: 'Yes - and I do everything you ask me to.'
[Some hours later....]
Margret: 'I... have to ask.... you...
to do everything.'
Mil: 'And I... do everything... you ask
Margret: 'Arrgggh! Listen! I...'
And so on. You see the problem, yes? The problem is that,
for some reason, Margret is completely unable to grasp
point that I do everything she asks me to. You'd
think that'd be a simple enough concept, wouldn't you?
I'm not even going to try to dissect this.
Why tie up both our mornings on a futile hunt for
understanding, eh? I'm surely not going to be able to pick
out anything - my searching fingers are now too callused,
from running them along Margret's reasoning in an attempt
to identify the scar where it's been imperfectly welded to
reality. So, here we go, then.
I shuffle into the living room. It's first thing in the
morning; I'm still in my night clothes, the children are
circle-eyed and oval-mouthed - their faces distorted by
the gravitational pull of the television screen - Margret
is opening some post. I flop down on to the sofa.
Margret glances over at me. 'Have you got butter in your
ear?' she asks, casually, before returning to her letters.
Briefly, I wonder if this is dream... too close to call, I
decide - may as well just press on regardless.
I reach up and touch the side of my head. My finger
returns with some shaving foam.
'It's shaving foam,' I reply.
Without looking up, Margret nods. 'Oh, right. It's so
early - I didn't think you'd had time for a shave
She thinks it's too early for me to have had a shave,
everyone, yet easily late enough for me to have butter
in my ear.
Move along, now. Nothing more to see here.
The pre-eminently captivating thing that
Conan Doyle hit upon with Sherlock Holmes was, as you
know, Holmes's ability to infer a rich world into
existence using only the tiniest piece of evidence. A
chipped fingernail, a certain blend of tobacco or the
uneven wear on a heel would be enough for England's finest
consulting detective to arrive at an irrefutable and
revealing conclusion. Margret is rather like that. She too
can pick up a minuscule detail and tease a many-layered
story from it. In fact, the only real difference at all
between Margret and Sherlock Holmes is that all of
Margret's deductions are complete bollocks.
What do you mean, you want an example? I thought we had a
relationship based on trust, here?
For example, let's take a look at an incident that
occurred just the other day...
We are sitting around talking with some friends. The topic
is 'Yet another injury Mil has sustained through doing
something profoundly unwise on his mountain bike'. (I'm
drawn to ill-considered mountain bike actions with almost
blurring frequency.) 'You know why this is, Mil,' my
friend Mark says, grinning. 'It's your mid-life crisis.'
Everyone laughs, but through the noise Margret adds, 'No -
Mil had his mid-life crisis last year.' Glancing
at her, I see that she means it.
Now, I don't recall having a mid-life crisis last year
and, you know, you'd think I would, wouldn't you?
So, understandably, I stare at her in confusion and ask,
'What the hell are you talking about?'
'You had it last year,' she shrugs, casually.
'No I didn't.'
'Yes you did.'
'Never.' (How can I have had a mid-life crisis when I've
so clearly not yet breached the adolescence barrier?')
'No. No. I so did not have a mid-life crisis last
'You did...' Margret draws a breath at this point,
before sweeping on into the explanation - I wait; anxious
fascination keeping me unbalanced on the front of my chair. 'You started wearing T-shirts. You never used
to like T-shirts,' she says.
And that's it, everyone. T-shirts. There's no 'Well - the
first sign was...' here.
There's no 'Looking back now, it's obvious that this was
the start of the road that ended with Mil running naked
through the woods, his body smeared with pork fat and his
raw, feral voice howling, "I am Man and my seed is yet
vital!".' No, no, no - the thing, entirely, is 'T-shirts'.
Now, call me picky, but I think with this Margret might be
extrapolating beyond the point where even a Freudian would
begin to feel they were pushing it. In the total absence
of any supporting evidence, her whole case appears to rest
completely on wearing a T-shirt being widely acknowledged
as 'a crisis', right? And I'm not entirely sure
that it is. I've never seen a newspaper lead on a front
page filled with nothing but a photo above the stark
headline "Elbows!". Mad as he undoubtedly is, I can't
imagine even GW Bush issuing at executive order for a
Delta Force extraction team to be sent into Central
America where - the CIA has reported - a US citizen has
been seen wearing cap sleeves.
"You started wearing T-shirts." Jesus. Good job I didn't
buy a pair of unusual shoes or anything - Margret would
probably have been straight on the phone and I'd have
woken up restrained and sedated in a secure hospital.
As you know, this page attracts idiots. We
sit here in the gentle glow of thousands of work hours
being burned away, and passing idiots are bewitched by the
light. They fly towards us and peer in, only to become
disorientated and upset. They attempt to enter, but
succeed no further than repeatedly banging their poor,
bemused little faces against the glass: trying, trying, trying...
but never quite grasping the situation. These tiny, tragic
creatures - who missed the English lesson that dealt with
'subtext' because they were at home shooting beer cans off
a fence all that year and who can do no more than guess,
in panic, that 'irony' is probably the name of a character
in The Bold and the Beautiful - make many
embarrassing mistakes. One such mistake - interestingly,
one that brings together the otherwise disparate idiot
types 'Teenage Girl' and 'Bitter Divorcé' - is that I hate
Margret. (I'd like to imagine that they also think Catch
22 is a pro-war book - because, you know, it's about
the army - but I can't, as I have trouble with the bit
where I try to imagine them reading a book.) Now, in the
'Mil Making An Effort To Care What They Think' project,
the 'Idiots' are on hold right now, as I'm still working
on 'Anyone At All'. So, I'm sad to say that I won't be
replacing this page with 'Excellent Times My Girlfriend
And I Have Had Together' or 'Syrupy And Unfunny Things
That Are Great About My Girlfriend' any time soon. I am,
of course, deeply sorry about this. However, a thing that
came up this week simply begs to be said. But, let it be
understood that saying this unambiguously positive thing
about my girlfriend is in no way a capitulation to the
opinions of idiots, nor does it represent a change of
policy on this page. OK?
So, I got this invitation to a reception at Downing
Street. (I'll wait here while you, understandably, go back
to that a few times to make sure you've read it
correctly.) OK, so it's not an evening with Tony or
anything - it's a reception at 11 Downing Street. [For the
America readers, the UK Prime Minister's official
residence is 10 Downing Street - the Chancellor of the
Exchequer lives at Number 11. Downing Street is in London;
which is in England; which is part of Europe. Europe is a
continent roughly three thousand miles east of Buffalo.]
But, well, come on, eh? A letter flopping through
my door, out of the blue, inviting me to a reception at 11
Downing Street simply howls 'CATASTROPHIC
ADMINISTRATIVE ERROR', doesn't it?
They better discover their mistake pretty damn quickly,
though - because otherwise I'm going. How can you turn
down something like this? It's anecdote Nirvana. It'll be
worth it if only to see, as I begin to stroll up Downing
Street, every security man within half a mile frantically
begin to speak up his sleeve.
Whatever. I skip downstairs and cast the invitation letter
on to the table in front of Margret. She picks it up and
reads it, sipping her coffee. She finishes without having
said a word or changed her expression in any way at all.
But then, her forehead wrinkles. She reaches across, opens
her diary, glances at a page, and then closes it again.
Her hand moves over to the invitation letter once more.
She looks up at me, her finger tapping the page where it
gives the date of the reception. 'You've already got a
dentist's appointment on that day,' she says.
How could anyone not love this woman?
What are things? Are what we think of as
'things' objective 'things' in their own right, or simply
shadows, smudges or simulacra? Unknowables presented in
some kind of intelligible form only through the snake oil
mediation of our limited senses, prescribed understanding
and imperfect vocabulary. In a way, I'm talking about
solipsism, here. I'm talking about conceptualism. I'm
talking about thinking that spans the philosophical
alphabet, all the way from Aristotle to Wittgenstein. In a
much more real way, however, I'm talking about arguing
with Margret about the hoovering.
Margret, had gone out. (It doesn't really matter where as,
irrespective of her stated destination, she'll come back
carrying another bloody plant.) As she'd left, she'd seen
that I was sitting in front of the computer. If Margret is
leaving the house and, as she's doing so, she sees me
sitting in front of the computer, she will say,
'Do the hoovering.' - there's no way she can stop herself:
Her 'Do the hoovering' had been followed by the clunk of
the front door, the soft rumble of the car pulling away
and then nothing but a silence in which I sat, pensive.
I glanced around. OK, the carpets weren't immaculate,
that was true. They were hardly in such a condition as to
demand a hoovering, though. There's a clear point at which
a carpet is ready for hoovering, in my opinion, and that
point is "when it's crunchy". Even then, it's not what
you'd call vital. In lots of the places I've lived,
especially as a student, we never had a hoover at all.
Sometimes, yes, walking across the landing required snow
shoes - but no one ever died or anything. I glanced around
A few hours later, Margret returns.
After unloading around seventy-five new plants from the
car, she hunts me down; finding me, by a fluke, sitting in
front of the computer.
'Have you hoovered?' she asks, her tone swaying unsurely
between conversational and murderous.
'What do you think?' I reply. (Cleverly, here, I'm
indignant yet inscrutable - only my disdain for the
question is clear; I provide no clue at all of the answer
'Have you? Or not?'
'Well, what does it look like?'
'Just tell me whether you've hoovered.'
'No. That's not the point.'
'What? It's completely the point.'
'No, it isn't. You thought the house needed
hoovering. If you think it looks OK now, then you're
happy, right? Whether I've hoovered or not.'
'And what if I don't think it looks OK?' She
pauses for a moment, then adds, 'Or if I smash your laptop
to pieces with a tyre jack?'
'If I've hoovered, and you still think it doesn't look
hoovered... then there's no point my hoovering, is there?
There's a degree of glaring goes on here, but I hold my
nerve and continue. 'The only other possibility, as far as
I can see, is that you simply can't tell whether I've
hoovered or not. And, if you can't tell, then it doesn't
matter - in any real sense - whether I've done it
or not, does it?' I've one more card to play, but it's a
great one. 'That is, not unless the thing that concerns
you isn't whether the house has been hoovered, but only
whether I've been sitting here enjoying myself all this
time rather than slogging around with a vacuum cleaner.
But I'm sure that's not it. I mean, you'd be happy
for me to sit here idle for as long as I want, wouldn't
you, if there's no need for me not to? It's about the
hoovering, not about my sitting here idle, isn't it?'
Margret just stares at me.
I am triumphant. A choir sings. Cherubs
circle my head, scattering petals.
Shafts of golden light fan out from behind me. It's an
intoxicating three seconds.
'Clean out the fridge,' says Margret.
Before I start, I feel I ought to mention
how sad it is that the Texan readers are no longer with
us. As you know, the notoriously irresponsible Supreme
Court has seen fit to tear down the safety barrier
protecting society and thus Texas is now like a ghost
state. Machinery lies idle; offices are silent; the
streets of Dallas shimmer motionless in the summer sun. No
one goes to work nor chats with friends nor watches
television nor even browses the Internet. Because,
whooping atavistically that the police are now powerless
to stop them, the entire population of Texas has, since
last week, been ceaselessly engaged in endless consensual
homosexual sex in private so as to bring about the
extinction of the vital institution of marriage.
Oh, and let me make it clear that I'm not just some
dull-witted, homophobic idiot here by saying, "it's the
children I'm concerned about".
But anyway - my girlfriend is always trying to take photos
of me naked.
I don't mean that she walks around naked (though,
God knows, that's true too), I mean that she keeps trying
to take photos of me when I'm naked. Now, I'm sure
that all the women reading this are thinking, 'Well,
that's reasonable, Mil. You do, after all, have a
languorous sex appeal that frightens and yet, somehow,
still enthrals me - and your body would clearly have been
immortalised in marble many times by now were this ancient
Greece.' Also, quite possibly, a fair few of the men are
quietly turning pictures of their wives face down on their
desks, biting their lips and secretly wishing, 'Oh... if only
Mil and I were in Texas...' But I have to tell you that
you're mistaken. Incredible though it may seem, in the
flesh I'm cadaverous to the extent of almost appearing to
be on the point of actual disintegration - becoming
sexually aroused by the sight of me naked is a form of
paraphilia. So why does Margret, say, keep lunging into
the room with a camera when I'm in the bath? The answer,
of course - for those of you who apparently must have
dropped into this page from nowhere about five sentences
ago and have thus read not a single one of the previous
entries - is that Margret is some kind of lunatic.
Cut to: The back garden of our house. It's one of the
three days a year in England when it's not raining and
thus a Super Soaker water fight has broken out between
First Born/Second Born and me: a full-on and appallingly
ruthless conflict which I'm ashamed to say I provoked.
First Born - having five years more tactical experience
than his brother - is organising their attacks in such a
way as to turn Second Born into his shield. I, however,
have the advantages both of height and of preparedness
(having surreptitiously arranged a series of barricaded,
defensible positions before strolling over to First Born,
casually saying, 'Guess what?' and then immediately
shooting him in the back on the head from eighteen inches
away - a slightly ungentlemanly tactic that gave me an
early advantage, but which means I now dare not allow them
to take me alive). Anyway, in a turn of events that no one
could have foreseen, thirty minutes later all three of us
are utterly, utterly sodden. Squelching is a phase looked
back on with misty affection; everything we have on is now
so saturated it permanently streams water from every
trailing edge. To avoid flooding the house, I hang the
children's clothes over the line and then send them inside
to find some fresh ones and think about the important
lesson I've taught them this day. After that, I also strip
off and (Poof! - like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn) Margret
appears with a camera. Fortunately, I've still got my
underpants on, but - unfortunately - they are soaked and
clinging and are doing obscenely little to preserve my
modesty. 'Standing in the back garden in nothing but
dripping wet underpants' is never going to be a
particularly good look, is it? But it doesn't affect
Margret, who snaps away excitedly until I manage to escape
her probing lens by running off into the house.
So far, then, pretty much an average run of events.
But, about two weeks later, I'm lying on the sofa and
Margret glides into the room. She is grinning broadly, so
I know that, whatever's going on, something has happened
that's going to depress me.
She hands me a letter. It's from the company who develop
her photographs and it apologises that, due to some
internal mix-up, the pictures have accidentally been sent
out to someone else: they are attempting to track
While I try to make myself breathe, Margret sits down by
me and argues the case for this being the funniest thing
in the history of the world.
If there's a disagreement in a relationship
you should bring it out into the open: discuss the problem
and how you both feel about it, reach an understanding -
through compromise and negotiation - and thus resolve it
so it will never be an issue again.
Ha! People actually say stuff like that, you know? Get paid
to say stuff like that, in fact. Presumably their thinking
is, 'Hey - it always works on The Cosby Show.'
Well, I have far more respect for the honest intensity of
Margret's feelings than to think I could ever sing them to
sleep with the shrill, monotonous voice of Reason and, for
my part, I'm well aware that 'compromise' is nothing but
Machiavellian shorthand for my cleaning the toilet
sometimes. No, a good argument is immortal. Something to
be dug up time and time again over the years. Something to
be practised, embellished and refined. (What if the first
two people who ever played chess said, 'Well, white won...
no point ever doing this again,' eh?) Not only is this the
way real life works, it's also a moral responsibility.
We have a disposable society; a society addicted to
faddism, transience and waste. Do you think that couples
in small, poor, sub-Saharan villages are constantly fed
with new things to argue about? No television. No car. No
bathroom. No .mp3 player that, yes, I do mean I
"needed" it, actually - it's a removable media storage
device, so I can use it for transferring important files -
and it was on offer, very cheap... very cheap... "very"
"cheap", OK? No, not £5 - don't be stupid; it's 128MB,
flash-upgradeable and multi-file format - how could you
possibly get an .mp3 player like that for £5? Yes, more
than £5... yes, less than £500. No, no - oh no you don't.
I'm not going to tell you whether it was more or less than
that. Well, because, if I keep answering 'more than
or less than' questions then eventually you'll get the
exact figure, won't you? Doing that
is effectively my simply telling you the price of it, and
I am not going to do that because, as I've said,
that is not the issue. No, it isn't. No - it isn't.
Now, that's just insane - what do you mean "hiding it
from" you? That's... I was not... I was simply
keeping it there so it didn't get damaged, that's all... I
don't know - a few weeks, maybe... I can't remember - "a
few weeks", that's all I... I am not going to say
whether it was more or less than that, so you can stop
asking, OK? It's a removable media storage device that I
bought so I can transfer important files and... like, say,
drivers and work data and... well, yes, it's got nothing
but Nickelback on it now - that's not the
issue. God damn it! See, I knew you'd be
like this, that's precisely why I... No... No, I wasn't
going to say "why I hid it"... I wasn't... I wasn't...
I was going to say... that's... precisely... why I love
you.... See? I say I love you and you say I'm a lying git
- I just can't win, can I?
The couples in our small, poor, sub-Saharan villages
It's time we accepted that we are a very privileged
minority, and throughout most of the world people have to
adapt to their environments and recycle: in parts of Asia
couples have as little as three distinct subjects to argue
about per year, and yet somehow manage to row just as much
as the Baltimore wife who can draw on such elaborate
luxuries as 'an underlying feeling of nonspecific
dissatisfaction which is somehow made all the more bitter
on the tongue by the objective all-round and comprehensive
good fortune of her life' and her husband who's been
wondering whether he could pass it off as a joke if she
explodes when he suggests they might try a threesome with
this woman he's met in an AOL chat room. Thus, my friends,
as a display of solidarity with those on our
planet who are less fortunate than us, we are absolutely
compelled to repeat arguments over and over again. If ever
you are tempted to resolve a long-term disagreement, just
picture your mother chiding you at meal times and
remember: "There are people in Africa who'd be glad of
Which brief preamble brings me to the point. I know I've
mentioned Margret hoarding things before, but I was
tidying up the other day and I found a whole mass
of receipts. Receipts that are years old - and for
things for which it makes no sense at all to keep the
receipts. I mean, for God's sake, there was one for the
admission to Anglesey Sea Zoo in 1998. Never mind the fact
that she'd brought this the well over one-hunded-and-fifty
miles back to our house, never mind that - that's in the
past - let's just focus on what you could possibly
do with a credit card receipt slip dating back to 1998.
Are you really going to telephone Anglesey Sea Zoo
and say, 'Hello. Look, I've been thinking about it for six
years now, and I've finally decided that the tank of rays
you had wasn't really all that impressive. I'd
like a refund, please... Yes, I do have the
receipt, in fact.'? Gah.
- When you have two languages within a single
relationship there are always going to be moments of
unfortunateness. Such as the fact that, after she came to
live in England, it took me about ten months of pointing out
her error - time and time again - until Margret finally
sorted out in her head which way round the meanings of
'orgasm' and 'orgy' were. Ten months, I may add, during
which she made an awful lot of friends. For my
part... well - in German you often make a plural by adding
'en': ear/Ohr - ears/Ohren, republic/Republik - republics/Republiken,
etc. So, it's perfectly natural, then, that I would assume
the plural of 'Bus' (bus) was 'Busen'. OK, so, yes 'Busen'
does mean something else entirely - that is NOT MY FAULT.
However, there are times when, far from being assaulted by
language-based misunderstandings, I actually close my eyes,
knit my hands and call on a succession of gods to pleeeeeease
make what I just heard be, genuinely and completely, simply
an Anglo-German semantic quirk.
Would you like me to give you an example, or are you
impatient to go straight to the Guestbook
and write, "this is just, like, sad n stuff, like, y dont u
just split up n stuff if u dont get along????????!!!!!!!!!!?!?!?!?!
:-( ~~tammy~~ idaho"? Are you sure? Okey-dokey, let's do the
example first, then.
I was in the kitchen the other day, making myself a cup of
tea as a break from the intense and demanding effort of
having worked on a script for a full forty minutes before my
mind meandered away into counting the holes in the
ventilation grille on the front of my computer, playing
tunes by slapping the sides of my face while varying how
open my mouth was and, ultimately and inevitably, wondering
if Alyson Hannigan, wherever she was now, was naked. As I
fished out the teabag and made one, final effort to come to
a decision regarding the Alyson Hannigan thing, Margret
returned home from work. She dumped various bits of her day
about the place until she had only a carrier bag left. From
this bag she pulled a plate of cold, cooked meat covered
with cling film and moved over to put it in the fridge.
Before she did so, however, she peeled back the film and
folded a slice into her mouth. She offered me the plate - I
took a slice too. She made to turn to the open fridge once
more, but then offered me the plate again in a 'Before I put
it away?' fashion. I took another slice. She then put the
meat away and closed the fridge door. As I stood there
chewing, she swept off towards the living room, saying -
distractedly, without looking back - "Eat it whenever you
fancy. It's Pam's husband."
Yes, you read that correctly.
- Do you watch CSI at all? No? Well, in a
nutshell, it's this: William L. Petersen does the wonderful
Manhunter in 1986, has a miserable run for the next fourteen
years, and then returns as the head of a Vegas-based Crime
Scene Investigation unit with very watchable results. (One
imagines his agent weeping tears of frustration throughout
the latter part of the 80s and the whole of the 90s before
leaping into the air in 2000, phoning his client at 2am and
whooping, 'Bill! Bill! It's forensics, Bill! That's
what we've been missing. I'm calling Jerry Bruckheimer right
So anyway, in CSI you are presented with the aftermath of an
incident and you have to identify the guilty party or
parties. Are you up for trying this yourself? Now? OK, then.
Suppose there are three people in your house: your partner
(urbane, sophisticated - think 'David Niven in a Banana
Splits T-shirt') and two smallish children (blond, elusive,
cunning). Your partner is sitting in the dining room reading
a book, your children are in the living room playing a game
called 'Scatter every single toy we possess across the floor
and then go upstairs to jump on the bed'. After a few
minutes, you wander into the dining room, sigh at the chaos
and tidy up. You then go off to do something else. When you
return to the living room a short time later you discover
that the children have strewn the place with toys yet again.
You are William L. Petersen and you must apportion blame. Do
A) Get the children downstairs and tell them that if they
haven't tidied up the living room within the next ten
minutes then you're sending them to be raised on a farm in
B) Go into the dining room, stand in front of your partner
with your arms threateningly akimbo and roar, 'The children
have messed up the dining room - again... and you're
sitting there reading a book!'
Eh? What is it to be, William?
If you chose 'A' award yourself two points. If you chose
'B', award yourself 'insane'.
Now, the thing is - and, if you'll forgive me, I'll relate
this to Margret a little here - one might easily put this
kind of thing down to 'poor targeting'. One might think that
the discrepancy between whoever is responsible for something
and the person she's actually shouting at about it is merely
the artifact of some kind of loss of footing on her mental
walk from the crime to the culprit. The flaw in that notion,
however, is that she always ends up shouting at me.
If it were poor targeting, then - occasionally - it'd hit
someone else, right? But, nope, that's not the case. If
Margret had been in charge of the invasion of Iraq, every
single missile would have struck me in the face. In fact,
Margret is probably the only person to have attended both
pro and anti-war rallies in the run up to the
conflict. If you examine press photographs, you can
sometimes pick her out - off to one side, holding a banner
that reads 'Bomb Mil'.
The irony being, of course, that this still makes
her policy less ill-considered and asinine than the one that
actually advised the invasion of Iraq.
Ack - just lost the whole of the Midwest there. And I was
doing so well up to that point, wasn't I?
OK, I'm off on holiday, shortly. Well, I say 'on
holiday', but we're going to the west coast of Ireland, so I
probably mean 'to get thoroughly soaking wet and
wind-blasted'. In any case, do not expect an update until I
return. You'll all just have to do some work, I'm afraid.
- Everyone been productive in my absence? Yep,
that's what I thought, and I'm proud of you. See? You can
do it. Don't use me as a crutch - you have great reserves of
indolence within if only you have the courage to tap them.
Go up to your boss/supervisor/team leader/capo today and say
in an unwavering voice, 'I am on a sponsored slack, and
you're paying, and the charity is me.' You just need to
believe in yourself. Let go of my hand... and fly! Nothing
is beyond the power of love! Etc.!
Right, now that I've healed everyone's spirit, let me tell
you about my holiday and, flowing from it, the Doctrine of
Proportionality. I know many of you are high school
graduates, or read the Daily Mail, or have that copy of
Encarta that came with your computer somewhere in the house,
and so you are perfectly familiar with the selection of
notions that first began to be assembled under the heading
of the Just War Doctrine by St Augustine. So, please, don't
think that I'm being insulting if I explain what I'm talking
about a little. It's merely to bring the stragglers up to
speed - some of whom might be very young, were exposed to
high concentrations of lead in the womb, or be running a
large country. Basically, the DoP is a very old principle of
Just War which states that acts must not be out of
proportion to the provocation or the needs of the situation.
A very fine concept, I know you'll agree. And how do I know
you'll agree? Because you're not Margret, that's how.
I'm walking up a gravel track leading away from a beach in
Ireland when I'm called back down by First Born. 'Mama's
crashed,' he shouts after me - loudly, but strangely without
alarm or surprise. And, indeed, crashed she has. A car was
parked on the beach, and she's run into the side of it. It's
the only other vehicle on about two miles of near-deserted
sand. Given the desperate situation in Ireland right now
(because the Americans aren't visiting since September the
11th), it's probably not far off being one of only four or
five vehicles in the whole of County Kerry: and Margret's
managed to hit it. Quite frankly, the precision of this
makes landing a man on the moon seem very small beer indeed.
There's a dent in the door of the car, but it's nothing
drastic. There's no one around, however, so, rather than
risk leaving a note with our details under the windscreen
wipers on a very windy beach, we start searching for the
owners. Eventually we find Man, Woman and Small Girl.
Man is shirty and annoyed. 'How on earth did you manage to
hit it?' he snaps, 'there was enough room.' He clearly isn't
familiar with the philosophical concept of 'The bottle is
already broken' as applied to my girlfriend. The more
pensive of us there are calm because we are aware that, the
moment that construction of a vehicle pretty much anywhere
in the world is complete and it comes off the production
line, then it's going to be driven into by Margret. The only
question is "When?" Anyway, I'm not very taken with Man; as
with all of you, I'm sure, the two things that I find very
unattractive are bad manners and a superficial grasp of
aetiology. He appears to have the the arrogant belief that
Margret crashed into his car, specifically - rather
than Margret crashed into his car simply because it was
there. What state are we going to be in if everyone
Margret crashes into takes it personally, eh? Thus, because
Margret is offering to pay for the damage, and apologising
profusely, and it's only a very, very minor dent, and, well,
Margret is my girlfriend, I'm standing there trying to
support her and meet his graceless display with quiet
'Mil,' you may well be saying, 'you pretty much lost the
option of playing the "quiet gravitas" card the day you dyed
your hair fire engine red.' However, that's actually a minor
issue in this case. My failure is far more spectacular. The
reason I was walking back, rather than travelling in the
car, was that the beach was good for surfing so I'd been
body-boarding all afternoon and I am wearing a wet suit. No
one, my friends, can pull off gravitas while wearing a wet
suit. The simple fact is, there are only two occasions when
one can be completely naked except for a black, skintight
neoprene outfit into which (as everyone is unspokenly aware)
you have peed several times in the past few hours - partly
because a person has to pee, but also, as one must admit
when one truly looks into one's soul, because (as everyone
is unspokenly aware) of the delightful rush of warmth that
surges throughout the suit when you do so. One of these
occasions is a party at a particular private members club in
London which is well-known to the police, and the other is
My gravitas is way out at sea, frankly: and I'm left
standing there trying to impose my dignity on an angry
motorist while looking like the opening act at a gay disco.
Fortunately, however, there's Small Girl. One's children may
be thought of as a person's only chance at immortality and,
vicarious and tiny as it is, such a thing still comes at a
terrible price. Man is pointing at scratches on his car,
which are within a foot or so of the impact point, but quite
clearly date back to the twentieth century. He's trying his
luck, basically. 'Erm... I think those scratches were
probably there already,' says Margret. Man sucks in air
between his teeth. He's solemn and resolute. 'Oh,' he sighs
heavily, 'I don't think so.'
At which point Small Girl tugs on his trousers and chirps up
helpfully, 'Oh, yes they were, Daddy! Those have been there
for ages!' He glares at her, trying - without uttering a
word - to speak directly into her brain using the mystic
power of parental horror. She smiles back sweetly. I see
that, behind his eyes, he collapses.
The point of all this is that, at no time, do I so much as
tut at Margret for driving into the side of one of only ten
cars presently in Ireland. I inwardly note that the cost of
the holiday has probably just doubled, but there's nothing
to be done about that so there's no sense dwelling on it.
A couple of days later Margret provokes an episode that, I
believe, ran something like this:
Margret: 'Ah, Second Born, you appear to be a very young and
notoriously excitable child and, additionally, you are
standing above a broad expanse of utterly unforgiving
igneous rock... Here - let me give you your father's brand
new digital camera to play with.'
I wasn't there when this took place, as Margret had ordered
me to clean the shower. However, she came sheepishly into
the room, and I almost instantly knew what had happened.
'Sheepish' is a look so foreign to Margret that the mere
sight of it announced a truly catastrophic event had taken
place: I hoped for a second that she'd accidentally poisoned
to death six or seven of my friends, but deep down I knew I
was clutching at straws and that really what had happened
was that my brand new digital camera had been broken. She
handed it to me and I held it tenderly in my hands. Its lens
was wrenched off to one side at an ugly angle - like a
broken neck. Like the broken neck of some delicate,
beautiful bird that had shiny silver plumage, a smooth body
containing both internal and SD card memory and a 4x optical
zoom beak, or something.
The point of all this is that, at no time, did I so much as
tut at Margret for devising and, using Second Born as a
patsy, executing a plan that resulted in the murder of a
digital camera that was yet scarcely a week old. I inwardly
noted that the cost of the holiday had taken another leap
towards my having to run heroin out of Singapore to pay for
it, but there was nothing to be done about that so there was
no sense dwelling on it.
Seconds - and I mean seconds - later, Margret steps
into the bathroom and then almost immediately steps out
again grasping a fury to her face. 'I thought you were
cleaning the shower?' she fumes.
'I have cleaned it.'
'No you haven't.'
'Yes, I have.'
She disappears inside for a second and reemerges clutching a
small amount of hair between her fingers - partly in anger,
partly in triumph: like holding up for display the scalp of
a conquered enemy. 'And what's this then?' she roars,
shaking the scalp.
'I didn't see that.' (Well, I didn't. Anyone can
miss a few hairs in the shower, for God's sake - especially
if they really, really don't want to be cleaning the shower
in the first place.)
'You...' Margret begins to lay into me, but then catches
herself. She looks at the tiny scalp. I see her remember
that I didn't make any kind of an issue at all about her
crashing into a big, red stationary car that was practically
the only other motor vehicle in an area reaching from the
shores of Wales to the east coast of America. I see her
remember that I didn't express anything except fatalistic
acceptance just moments ago when she announced how she'd
been instrumental in destroying my pristine digital camera
when the boundless promise of its whole life lay ahead of
it. She looks at the tiny scalp once more.
'Considering things, I really shouldn't be going on about
this, should I?' she says, quietly.
I click my teeth and shrug in reply.
She sighs reflectively. And then really lays into me for
ages and ages and ages about leaving the hair in the shower
. For, you see, the Doctrine of Proportionality is not
something Margret recognises. The only two levels she has
any time for are 'Sitting having a nice cup of coffee' and
'slamming a fist down on the nuclear button'.
A tea towel left damp on a work surface is not a tea towel
left damp on a work surface, but a crucial representative of
a whole range of issues and concerns - some of which will
possibly include England, something I said three years ago
and my mother. I admire someone always committed to giving
100% like that; I respect that level of unjudgmental
intensity. So, if at any point in the future a hooded figure
is seen tipping Margret's drugged body over the side of a
ferry, then that person will certainly not be me.
- Before I leave our holiday completely behind,
let me just mention one other thing. We set off to drive
down to Swansea to get the ferry to Ireland in a car stuffed
by Margret with pretty much every article of clothing our
family owns. This is Margret's way: if I take the kids out
to the park, I will take the kids; if Margret takes them,
she will also take along four extra pairs of shoes, 'just in
case'. (And while, during my trip, they will be careful,
during hers they will fall knee-deep into a fetid duck pond
six times.) Anyway, in the back seat, wedged in between all
the garments, are First Born
and Second Born. First Born is
hunched over his Game Boy, his thumbs twitching, Second Born
is peering excitedly out of the window. Margret reverses off
our drive, goes to the end of the road, and turns left.
Second Born, having held it in long enough to attain a new
personal best, now says, 'Are we there yet?'
'No,' replies Margret. 'We have to drive for two and a half
'Two and a half hours?' Peter gasps, incredulous.
'What are we driving two and half hours for?'
'Knowing Mom,' First Born says, without looking up from his
Game Boy, 'it'll be to visit a garden centre.'
Sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, there is simply no need for
blood tests to know without any doubt whatsoever who
a child's father is.
- Right, I've returned from Sweden and, quite
apart from everything else I have to do, I naturally have
nearly a thousand emails to deal with - having indolently
not dealt with any new ones that arrived while I was running
around Stockholm and Gothenburg for four days. (My Swedish
publishers were charming beyond words, incidentally, so I'd
like you all to buy the Swedish version of TMGAIHAA - on view here. Even if, in fact, you
don't speak Swedish.) The email backlog is my fault,
clearly, but I do have to try to
make some impression on it before I leave again. Not for
Stockholm this time, but, even more excitingly, for Poole.
I'll update you Mailing Listers with extra Swedish tales
when I get the chance, obviously, but let me just quickly
pop by to mention this:
On the day that I had to leave for Sweden, Margret drove me
to the city centre so that I could catch my train. She
pulled up outside the station, and I jumped out and snatched
my bags off the back seat.
'Bring me back something,' she called through the open
window of the car.
'Like what?' I replied.
'Something typically Swedish.'
'What on earth... I mean, Sweden's famous for three things:
herrings, suicide and pornography. What do you expect me to
buy for you, exactly?'
'Well, not the pornography...' She waved
a hand dismissively.
'I prefer to watch that here, on my own, at the theatre.'
With which, let us say, 'Somewhat Intriguing' statement, she
slipped the car into gear and drove away. Leaving me
standing there outside the railway station; with a bag in
each hand and my head full of considerably more questions
Dear God, but the woman knows how to make an exit.
- What's the most terrible sound in the world?
The sound that crumples your soul, jerks fishhooks in your
nerves and makes you want to curl up in some dark, distant
corner with a coat pulled over your head. The banshee-like
squeal of your tyres as you fight with an unresponsive wheel
on the blur of a mountain road? The sudden creak of an
uninvited foot pressing heavy with psychopathic stealth on
the midnight stairs outside your thin bedroom door? The
first warning 'thum-thum-th-th-thm-thum' of the title music
announcing that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air is about to
start? All bowel-looseningly horrible, that's for sure, but,
for me, none can compare with this: my name.
'Ahhh, yes...' you say, nodding wisely and tapping your pipe
out on the heel of your shoe. 'I see. On account of your
having such a stupid name.'
An understandable mistake, but that's not what I mean, in
fact. I'm actually referring to the sound of my name, being
called from another part of the house, by Margret's voice.
It can happen shortly after she's returned home from
somewhere. It can happen abruptly; bringing to a halt some
activity - tidying, rearranging, etc. - she's been engaged
in. It can happen completely out of the blue; taking me down
without warning, like a sniper's bullet. It will always have
the same distinctive, chilling timbre, though.
'Oh - Miiiiiiil...'
Like Pandora's box, all the evils of the world are contained
within that 'Mil'. There's anger, disappointment,
frustration, accusation, wounded incredulity, choler and
sadness; it declares something bad discovered, and promises
something terrible to come. It's the sound of anguish mixed
with the k-chhk of a round being pumped into the
breach of an assault shotgun.
And the worst thing about it is the not knowing. 'Oh - Miiiiiiil...'
snaking into the room where I'm sitting carries with it a
realisation both dreadful and blind. Margret has happened
across something I've done. Or not done. Or done in a manner
other than the one she'd pictured in the fantastic, surreal
cinema of her mind. What can it be? Obviously, thousands of
possibilities instantly campaign for my attention. It's
fearful. Let me at least know my offence so I can prepare a
reasonably plausible explanation. Dear God, don't leave me
trying to guess which one of all the possible things I've
done you might just now have stumbled upon - the sheer
cruelty of that is unspeakable. But no. The simultaneous
poverty and excess of 'Oh - Miiiiiiil...' is all I'm
I sit there. Waiting. In my ears the air crackles - as
though it were grease-proof paper being crushed in a
clenching fist. Above its brittle music, I hear Margret
approaching. She'll be in the room at any moment - she's
swift seconds away, a single heartbeat, half a breath.
Should I affect not to have heard her? Be bowed over some
important thing on my lap that required my mind be an
opaque, impenetrable elsewhere? Should I look defiant? Or
imperious - above any trivial, mundane matters. Or maybe I
could make it out of the window? It's only about fifteen
feet. Yes! A good leap and I can halve the drop by landing
on the roof of the car. Skid off it and be away down the
street. I have my bank card. It's only a few miles to the
station. By nightfall I can be in Scotland - I'll shave my
head and grow a beard - adopt a Dutch accent - 'I am Jan.
You have room, pleesh?' - get a job on a farm - live a
simple-- oh crap, there's Margret!
She stands there, looking at me. I'm cornered. All I can do
now is hug a posture of innocent confusion. If Margret's
fuming, then countering it with a posture of innocent -
ideally slightly hurt - confusion is sure to work. It just
hasn't worked yet. And, as I've only been trying it
for about sixteen years so far, I've hardly given it a
proper chance, right?
'What?' I ask. Looking around, back over my shoulder, etc. -
to convey that I'm so guiltless and bemused I genuinely
believe that she might have come in the room to be angry
with someone else.
Margret lets the atmosphere hang there, twisting, for a few
excruciating seconds before replying with one of two things:
either 'Well?' or 'I don't believe it.'
It's the most dangerous moment of all. I have to hold my
nerve. If I start apologising for something, you can almost
guarantee that it won't be the correct thing, and I'll then
have multiplied my problems. It's foolish even to try to
work out what she's referring to. If I notice, say, that in
her hand is a pile of 8x10 glossies of Alyson Hannigan -
including that one of her in the suspenders and basque,
which only seems to be available in black and white, damn it
- I might start up with my defence. I might decide to say
how they were really cheap - nothing at all, in fact,
because, um, Another World, Wolverhampton, has just been
taken over by an entirely gay male staff and they paid me (I
was coincidentally passing) to remove all photos of Alyson
Hannigan from the premises because the chest-constrictingly
powerful female allure pouring out of the things was
confusing their sexuality; evoking in them feelings they
felt to be foreign and distressing. But it'll probably turn
out that she was annoyed simply with their being scattered
all over the floor of the attic - like, you know, someone
had been rolling around naked in them or something - and
hadn't even noticed what they were specifically. So, then
I'd still have the initial charge of squalor to contend with
but would now have unwittingly added any number of others.
She could even march into Another World and shout at the
assistants behind the desk, 'I'm not bothered that you're
all gay - but stop giving photographs to my boyfriend, OK?
He's easily led.' Which is the kind of thing I try to avoid.
So, as I say, it's essential that I don't break and start
volunteering explanations. Margret will push me as hard as
she can in that direction, though, simply as a fishing
exercise. We'll exchange words designed to say nothing -
engage in a kind of obstructive bidding war, in which the
crucial thing is to ensure that every bid is as valueless as
the preceding one.
Margret: 'Pffff... the kitchen.' [Easy to get drawn
into something like that, but it's a fatal mistake. How many things have I done in the kitchen - some
of which Margret MUST NEVER SUSPECT - could that refer to?
It could be anything at all. Perhaps the kitchen is on fire
because I've left something under the grill - if Margret
found the kitchen on fire because I'd left something under
the grill then I'm prepared to bet my legs that her reaction
would not be to put the fire out or to call the emergency
services, but rather to march into the room where I was and
say, 'Well?' I can't blink now. If Margret says, 'the
kitchen,' then there's only one thing to reply.]
Mil: 'The kitchen?'
Mil: 'What?' [I might add a look of utter, guileless
befuddlement here - you know, kind of: 'Hey, I want
to help... I just don't know how to.' - if I think
that doing so may infuriate her enough that she becomes
careless and starts making mistakes. I have to make this
decision on an individual basis each time, though. Feel
if the moment is right, based on instinct and experience -
it's an art, not a science.]
Margret: 'You know what.' [Tsk - she's flailing now.
Endgame, she's in a corner with only a rook for protection
and she thinks I'm going to be distracted by an exchange of
queens? Amateur stuff.]
Mil: 'No, I don't. I have no idea what you're
talking about.' [I've won.]
Margret: 'I'm talking about the inside of the microwave.
[No, hold on. I've lost.]
Mil: 'What about it?' [Perhaps she might be referring to
something other than the fact that, I now remember, a
sausage exploded all over the inside of it when I was
cooking it earlier in the day. You never know.]
Margret: 'Why didn't you clean it?'
Mil: 'I did.' [I'm aware that for this reply to succeed,
even in a tactical sense, it needs the addition of a
careering petrol tanker crashing through the front of the
house, rupturing instantly and causing a fiery, shattering
explosion which kills both of us before another word can be
uttered. (I glance quickly out towards the road, hopefully -
damn.) It's only left my mouth as a panicky substitute, you
see. My reflex was to reply - with great self-recrimination
- how I'd intended to clean the microwave, I really
had, but I'd become caught up in the work I was doing and -
regrettably - forgotten all about it. I'd wave a weary hand
at the vast pile of editing that's slumping like the weight
of a dead man on the computer screen in front of me. Except
that, as my lips were about to start down this road, I
happened to notice that the computer screen in front of me
was actually displaying this
and a string of emails to my mate Mark, all of which had the
subject line 'Waaaaaaaahhhhhh!']
I hold my head up for a couple more seconds, but then
collapse and slope off to get the Mr Muscle. And she'll
watch me clean it now, too. Which means it will never end -
I won't get away with just cleaning up this specific thing;
it'll be an unceasing progression. Like when I'm spotted
clearing away a little splash of milk in the fridge, and get
badgered into wiping the whole shelf. Then the entire
fridge. And so on until, the next thing I know, it's two
days later and I'm repainting the spare bedroom.
And it all begins for me with 'Oh - Miiiiiiil...'
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latest book, Mil! Show it to me! SHOW IT TO ME!
Living Someone Else's Life
(Now free delivery, world-wide.)
make you snort involuntarily with laughter;
others you have to put down for a proper belly
laugh, wipe away tears and then return to.
This is in the latter category... Like
(Millington's) previous novels, this relies on
humour to examine what is actually a poignant
situation. He perfectly captures
(something)... he’s pitch-perfect on
(something else)… a rip-roaring read that may
very well make you think about the choices
you’re making right now.” - Metro.
"Millington can sustain his talent... as his
hapless hero finds a way to make the best of
being grown-up.. his arch style will please fans
of his previous writing – as well as
43-year-olds." The Independent.
"A hilarious and occasionally touching
tale... it's a deeply observant work." Four
stars - Time Out.
"(The novel examines) feeling as if all your
life choices have been made, but the strength of
this book lies in Millington’s humour." -
"I haven't found another author who
can make me laugh to the point of hysteria.
You know when you're laughing so hard you're
almost sobbing? Things My Girlfriend And I
... had that effect on me and so did
Instructions For Living... Like Things...,
this book also contains a fair amount of
wise commentary on the nature of friendship
and, particularly, male/female
relationships. Millington is equally
disparaging about both men and women, but
with an undercurrent of fondness and
understanding... Aside from being funny and
wise, it's also inspiring... but
realistically... down to earth.. Highly
recommended. Rating: 5/5" - Trashioniasta
are brilliant and the plot zips along but the
theme is more serious than it seems." - Eve
off some marks, because it's so English." -
A woman from Seattle reviewing IFLSEL on BBC
Sorry, I've just turned up here - I'd
locked myself in the toilet. Show me your other
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