- 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 one, minimum).
- 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 enough.)
- First Born's name (Jonathan). Then, when that was settled...
- 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,
- 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 words.
- 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
'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
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
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 statements:
(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 something.
- She keeps making me carry tampons around - 'Here, have these, just
'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 everywhere.
- She really over-reacts whenever she catches me wearing her underwear.
- 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
- 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 the
- 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
- 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, OK?
- 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 girlfriend, those-are-hair-scissors-don't-use-them-for-paper
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 to it?'
- 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 preference):
- 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
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 typing that.)
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
- 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 furnace.
- A Few Concepts Margret Continues To Have Trouble Assimilating:
- It's possible to stop buying plants.
- Can you please leave me alone, I'm on the lavatory.
- 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 supermarket.
- 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.'
thing 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
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 haven't, Peter.'
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 house.'
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 allows.
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 cook it.
- 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 - like this:
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 surface.
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 your phone.'
'Don't touch anything,' I replied with sombre gravity.
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 future.
- 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
- 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!
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 something specific.
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 reckon.
- 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
- 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...
- 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, naturally reply:
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 him.'
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 this, then.'
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 the beginning.'
[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
Margret - 'I've just remembered, I need to phone Jo.'
Mil - 'Arrrrggghhheeeiiiiiieeeeerrrrgghhhhhhhhgkkkkk-kkk-kk-k!'
Margret - 'I only need to ask if she has a text book - carry on.'
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 film.]
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
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, shrugged).
'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
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 stuff.
'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...' He laughs.
'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 - it's unbelievable.'
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 fork now.'
- 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
Phew. Lucky we caught that habit before it spiralled out of
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
Margret walked through the living room on Friday as I was watching
'Band Of Brothers'. Absently, she asked, 'Is this "Killing Private
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,
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
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 look.'
'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.
- 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
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 point...)
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
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 people.
- 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 you doing?'
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, unblinking.
It's immediately after this beat has passed that I realise I'm wearing
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 bent hinge...'
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 shoplifting.
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 gardening programmes.
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
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 hear.
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
'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 head.
'What's wrong with it?' asks Margret. Somewhat challengingly.
'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
'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 arms.'
'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 think?'
'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
'No, it isn't,' I replied - having just come from searching in the
bedroom for about ten increasingly tantrumy minutes.
'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 bleeding infuriating.'
'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
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 cabinet?
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 Will' kits.
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
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 about homeopathy.
'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
'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 pizzas,
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,
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 to?'
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
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 lost.
Margret: 'You don't need to get me a bloody Valentine's Day card!'
(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
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 better.")
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
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.
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
'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,
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 provide, eh?
Salesgit: 'Excuse me. Have you had an accident within the last three
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,'
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
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 do everything.'
Mil: 'Yes - and I do everything you ask me to.'
[Some hours later....]
Margret: 'I... have to ask.... you... to do
Mil: 'And I... do everything... you ask me to.'
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
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 already.'
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 year.'
'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
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
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 some more.
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 to it.)
'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
'If I've hoovered, and you still think it doesn't look hoovered...
then there's no point my hoovering, is there? Ever again.'
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
'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
But anyway - my girlfriend is always trying to take photos of me
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 them down.
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
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 aren't.
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 that."
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
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 now.')
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 you:
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 Iowa.
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
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,
- 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
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 gravitas.
'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 when
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 hours.'
'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
- 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
'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 than answers.
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:
'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
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 given.
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
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.'
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
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
and a string of emails to my mate Mark, all of which had the subject
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...'
No, not on this page anymore. It's just the Mailing List from now
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new book, Mil! Show it to me! SHOW IT TO ME!
for Living Someone Else's Life
(Now free delivery, world-wide.)
books 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.
hilarious and occasionally touching tale... it's a deeply observant
work." Four stars - Time Out.
examines) feeling as if all your life choices have been made, but the
strength of this book lies in Millington’s humour." - TheLondonPaper.
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
"The jokes are brilliant
and the plot zips along but the theme is more serious than it seems."
- Eve magazine.
"I took off some marks,
because it's so English." - A woman from Seattle reviewing IFLSEL
on BBC Radio Solent.
I've just turned up here - I'd locked myself in the toilet. Show me your other books.
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