Monday, December 01, 2008

Where Are You?

Me: ‘I’m on a felucca on the Nile. They’re having trouble getting the stove working for tea and the captain’s slapping a lot of heads. I’ve been asking if they’ve washed the fruit in clean water but they’re cracking on that they don’t understand. ‘

Maude: ‘Where are you really?’

Me: ‘Lidl’

Monday, November 24, 2008

A man is nothing without regimentals

I could hear the sound of Elgar with a Dimbleby voiceover – it could only be the television coverage of Remembrance Sunday. I came downstairs from some of my chores to find Maude marching Aurora up and down the living room in time to one of the slower movements of ‘Pomp & Circumstance.’

‘I do love Remembrance Sunday! It should be compulsory in schools. Never mind ‘Lest we Forget’, most of them don’t know anything about it in the first place.’ Aurora mimicked Maude as she saluted the Chelsea Pensioners.

‘We really must take Aurora to the Menin Gate when she’s older. Oh, and bring back plenty of cheese and coffee of course….’

Maude enjoys a bit of military pomp. I joined her and Crawford on a pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Tattoo a couple of years ago. All went well until Crawford got over-excited and showed his enthusiasm for the Royal Irish Regiment by discharging his Luger into the air. The police didn’t press charges – Maude successfully argued that her father had exposed their woeful approach to stadium security. I had only previously seen the Luger when I asked for Maude’s hand in marriage. Augusta assures me to this day that Crawford only fired into the fireplace on that occasion to express his delight at the prospect of my joining the family.

‘Men look so splendid in uniform don’t they?’

I guessed that this was rhetorical and left my wife to her reverie.

‘All of them. They all look so…..impressive.’

I smiled across from the Norton Recliner – happy that Maude could derive so much pleasure from such simple things. In my peripheral vision, however, I could see that her attention was breaking away from the television and turning towards me.

I was still in my dressing gown and sandals (I couldn’t find my slippers). My fungal big toenail was, sadly, visible. I knew also that I had not found the time to remove the porridge that Aurora had rubbed into my hair earlier: the little poppet had shown off her dexterity by tugging Daddy’s hair on end with porridge as ‘product’. I looked like Stan Laurel relaxing. Maude’s gaze grew heavier and more discomfiting – I could tell that she was about to speak. I suddenly felt tense and returned the recliner to its upright position.

‘Couldn’t you at least join the TA?’

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Where Are You?

Me: ‘Well I’m actually abseiling down the east face of the Palace of Westminster. Got a great view of the London Eye and the police are waving. I met these really nice guys from ‘Fathers for Justice’ in the pub and, well, we got talking and it would have been churlish not to join in after that.’

Maude: ‘Where are you really?’

Me: ‘I’m on the A1, near Washington Services.’

Friday, November 07, 2008

Idle Eric

Our house is not overlooked, it faces a dene with a babbling brook and energetic squirrels. This vista is spoiled, however, when we descend our front steps. To the left of the dene is Eric’s house. Most of the houses in the neighbourhood are rendered and painted white and gardens are colourful and well-tended. Eric’s house is painted grey and he has paved over his garden. We have lived in close proximity to Eric for a full three years and nothing – smiles, offers of ‘good morning!’, even the birth of our child – has ever elicited a word from him.

As I locked the house on Tuesday morning, I noticed that Eric was in his front garden/yard, gripping his picket fence. There was nothing unusual about this – he does take occasional breaks from watching the television to put pizza boxes into his wheelie bin, or watch his wife carry the shopping in from the car.

‘Excuse me!’ I was amazed to hear Eric’s voice for the first time.

‘Morning!’ I took this as neighbourly contact of some sort. Unfortunately Eric then launched into a tirade about thoughtless parking blocking his gate on a regular basis and insisted that he should be treated with a little more respect as the street’s resident of longest standing. I offered an apology and vowed to be more thoughtful in future. This did not placate him and he began to literally jump up and down and wave his arms in rage. I didn’t think he had such energy and his animated form reminded me of an old public information advertisement in which a hopping mad farmer is viewed through binoculars by some litter louts from the city. If I remember rightly they mistake his rage for ‘country dancing’. Eric’s ‘country dancing’ was followed by some incomprehensible mutterings as he stormed out of view and back to his TV.

I drove away through the leafy bends of The Villas, but my morning had been tainted by such unpleasant intercourse. I turned back and gave Eric’s door a firm, but unconfrontational, knock.

He seemed a little taken aback and instinctively raised his fists and assumed a boxing stance. His SKY remote control fell from its holster at his hip and spilled its batteries. The batteries rolled off the step and came to a stop on the paving.

I picked the batteries up and handed them back to their owner.

‘Eric, I really don’t want us to fall out about parking. Let’s talk about it.’

Eric had clearly not shaved for a couple of days and I felt a bit sorry for him. He relaxed a little and seemed happy to have a chat. I was soon apprised of the parking crimes of the last 20 years on the street. I assured him that we were accidental offenders and never intended to cause him any upset. I toyed with the idea of asking him if he remembered the public information film with the hopping mad farmer, but thought better of it.

Yesterday morning I was in the usual hurry to get Aurora to the childminder. I wished Desmond good morning and he said some kind words to the baby. I couldn’t help noticing that the nose of Desmond’s van was just encroaching on Eric’s drive. I presumed that Eric was not at large and that a resident of Desmond’s long standing might be able to impose a little.

I installed the baby in her car seat and got into the driver’s seat. As I did so I heard the rumble of a wheelie bin – this was strange as our rubbish is collected on a Tuesday. The noise was coming from Eric’s drive and I adjusted my rear view mirror to see the poor man flying down the slope towards Desmond’s van. Eric had smeared his face with dirt and was wearing a bandana – he was pushing the wheelie bin as a makeshift battering ram.

Desmond is a little deaf and didn’t notice a thing.

Desmond waved a little wave at Aurora as he pulled out into the road and made off for another day of cheerfully fitting carpets. Eric’s momentum took him across the road and into Desmond’s garden wall. He didn’t appear to lose consciousness. I thought it best not to draw attention to such indignity. Aurora and I set off with our usual sing-song start to the day:

‘The wheels on the bus go round and round…..!’

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

'Ring of Fire'

We had a barbecue on Saturday. Friends and babies milled around the kitchen. The babies took to the floor for a crawling competition and created the added bonus of an assault course for adults moving to and from the barbecue on the terrace with plates full of piping hot food. The barbecue was sat on bricks from an aborted bricklaying project of last year. (I had read a Sunday supplement piece about the joys of raised beds for growing your own vegetables. Deluded by the memory of a day’s bricklaying on a conservation holiday twenty years ago, I’d ruined the Mazda’s shock absorbers with a load of cheap bricks.)

Between the barbecue assembly and the fence was a shelf of small gardening equipment. I had looked at it earlier in the day and dismissed it as innocuous: terracotta pots; twine; unplanted seeds in sachets; a highly combustible plastic propagator.

The whole neighbourhood seemed to be enjoying the sunny day. I could hear Desmond and Celia giggling on the other side of the fence and the sound of splashing water suggested a water fight. We have often admired the youthfulness of Desmond and Celia. Whenever Celia does get out of her rocking chair they get along like teenagers.

Maude was enjoying the company and waving away the praise for her marinade.
Chad had, once again, 'forgotten' to bring any wine. Maude had set him to work on chores as a penance. I looked in to see him shelling peas. I was surprised by this, as peas were not on the menu. When Maude looked in his direction he laughed his theatrical laugh or beamed a smile back at her. As soon as she looked away his bottom lip obscured the peas he was trying to shell.

The propagator explosion was much louder than one could have imagined – even if one had been aware of the hazard. Maude screamed and jumped into the air with such force that her glasses were skew-whiff when she landed. Aurora followed suit and set off a chorus of screaming babies. Not wanting to be left out, Chad fired a shower of peas across the kitchen as he screamed too.

It was then that I realised that the explosion had blown an almost perfectly circular hole in the fence and had sent burning debris flying onto our neighbours’ property – more accurately, onto our neighbours. Celia was screaming. I looked through the burning aperture to see Celia stood naked in a newly acquired hot-tub. Desmond had the look of a man desperately bailing out as he scooped water onto her rear and burning splinters sizzled on the water’s surface around her.

It didn’t seem like a good time to offer an apology.

I extinguished the fence with the watering can and closed the French windows behind me as I went back into the house. The room fell silent as I calmed Aurora in my best Max Wall voice:

‘It’s alright dear, Daddy’s put the fire out.’

Monday, July 14, 2008

Making an Impression

Last week I was back at the theatre where I used to work. I’d arranged a meeting there – thinking that I would get preferential service as a former employee. The Duty Manager welcomed me with a big smile and I felt the warm glow of a kind of homecoming. It was only when he said ‘It took a minute for me to recognise you without your fedora’ that I suspected a case of mistaken identity. I have never worn a hat in my life.

I let this pass and enjoyed the fact that the man’s voice was almost identical to that of the late great Max Wall. When Maude was carrying Aurora she would often ask me to speak to the baby:

‘All the books say that the father should talk to the baby in the womb. That way you’ve partially bonded even before birth. They come out knowing their father’s voice.’

I felt self-conscious about speaking to an unborn baby and decided to do my Max Wall voice.

‘Hello, are you in there? It’s your father here….’

As usual, Maude was amused at first and then annoyed.

I argued that the deep resonance of the ‘Max Wall’ voice probably made for very comforting vibration by the time it reached the baby. Maude changed her position on the sofa at that point – placing the bump out of the reach of ‘Max’.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Larry has left the building

Maude and I went on a date last night – to a 'gig' in Newcastle.

We hadn’t seen Larry since Maude’s birthday back in December and just presumed that he had hibernated for the winter.

‘Perhaps he’s having an extra long sleep this year. Perhaps he’ll burst out into the world with more energy than ever and, well, a direction.’

Maude is always admirable in her optimistic take on her friends’ capabilities and motivations.

There was the usual long gap between the moment when the support act finally succumbed to boos and groans and left the stage and the moment when the main act deigned to appear. It was during this window that the familiar figure of Larry came into view through the chattering crowds around the entrance to the hall. Maude had inadvertently spilled her drink on a huddle of sixth formers to create some space for us at a rail on the mezzanine. We could see the stage and the door from one vantage point.

Larry has a distinctive gait – part shuffle, part swagger. He rarely looks where he is going – preferring instead to scan the room for familiar faces and pretty girls. On this occasion, though, he seemed fixed on a point in the distance and his movement was more shuffle than swagger.

Maude waved. Larry, however, didn’t respond or deviate – instead he maintained a steady pace in his shuffle into the room.

‘The idle swine is ignoring me.’

I tried to reassure Maude that Larry didn’t seem to be himself. Maude rapidly called Miles, a mutual friend.

‘I just saw Larry in a public place and he ignored me! Have you spoken to him lately?’

I detected something slightly odd about Larry. As he drew closer I could see profound irregularity in his outfit. Larry habitually wears black – he expends less energy on choosing outfits that way. Tonight, he was a riot of stripes.

Maude nudged me. ‘Miles wants to know what he’s wearing…’

Larry emerged through a wave of dry ice and came into clearer focus.

Maude passed the phone to me:

’The last time I was fixing Larry’s Teasmaid', Miles said, ‘he told me about the ‘pyjama caper’. Whenever he needs to get into a club, a gig - or anywhere really - without paying and he can’t get Dink or Helmut to pay, he puts on pyjamas and ‘sleepwalks’ in. Glazed eyes, pyjamas. While the bouncers are laughing and pointing he's in past them and runs into the crowd.’

‘Yoo-hoo!’ Maude was unfazed by the cool attitudes of those around her and thought it best to adopt her grandmother’s way of attracting the attention of a passer-by.

Maude’s cry roused Larry from his ‘sleepwalk’ and queered the timing of his routine. The house lights dimmed. As the crowd began to show its appreciation for the imminent arrival of the main act, Larry’s muffled whimpers could just be heard under the weight of a heavy man who had proved himself to be deceptively light on his feet. The conqueror rose to his feet and a broad back showed the legend ‘STEWARD’. Larry was leaving the building - with his head held high, and his feet held higher.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A bit of a cheek...

I have a mystery ailment. Every once in a while I will get up, look in the bathroom mirror, and see that my right cheek has swollen to make me look battered – or slightly more battered than usual.

‘Perhaps it’s stress related.’ Maude does her best to be sympathetic. I pointed out that if stress were at the root of it, then it would be a permanent fixture.

‘Oh, is it not?’ Maude doesn’t actually look at me much these days.

The doctor was sympathetic, typed a great deal and looked perplexed, but didn’t actually have an inkling as to what the problem was.

‘Perhaps you should try the dentist – it is near your teeth.’

Heartened by such thorough attention to my ballooning face, I made my exit through the guard of honour of coughing pensioners in the surgery waiting room. The dentist referred me on to the Dental Hospital in the centre of town. in the waiting room some had similar swellings to my own and some had teeth so protrusive it was hard not to look at them. It was also hard to imagine what on earth an x-ray could reveal that wasn’t on show to the world.

My turn came and I realised that I was being shown into a room full of students, who were about to observe my x-ray experience. Apparently I had signed a form which included my consent to this. They all looked very young and slightly bogus in their white coat & trainer ensembles.

The qualified radiologist smiled at me and nodded towards her acolytes.

‘We’ve got company this morning.’

The radiologist trainer was one of the smallest women I have ever met. The x-ray machine was vertical and designed to work as the patient stood.

The tiny woman turned to her students:

‘Hey, we’ve got a big one here! How’s little me going to manage?’

The radiology expert then rummaged in a low level cupboard and produced a footstool.

‘Be ready for every eventually when x-raying.’

It struck me that a resourceful boy scout could perform x-rays if this is the level of expertise required.

I tried to smile as the little woman teetered on her footstool and raised the height of the machine to its limit. I stepped forward and the top of my head still hit the frame, just.

‘I could stoop ever so slightly’, I offered.

‘No, I’m sorry sir. Stooping would affect your posture and impair the x-ray.' She then turned to the students to reiterate this last point: 'Stooping, not good'.

The room fell quiet for a moment as the students made zero useful suggestions and the little woman’s brain whirred as her resourcefulness was tested once more. I then saw her expression brighten as an idea struck her. She lowered the apparatus to the level of my groin. I was perplexed by this and thought I caught a titter from one of the male students.

‘One sec!’ The radiologist darted from the room with some purpose.

I stepped away from the x-ray machine and briefly put my hands in my pockets to try and look relaxed and unembarrassed. I thought better of this and took my hands out – only to send a pound coin skidding across the buffed floor. One of the students trapped it under his trainer and offered it back to me in silence. I thanked him and he nodded slightly. I guessed that the ‘communication with patients’ module was later in their course.

It was then that the silence was challenged by a regular squeak in the corridor. The squeak drew closer. The double doors then flew open and the tiny radiologist entered the room with an expression of triumph and a battered wheelchair.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Father of the House

A common feature of Friday afternoons in the office is the arrival of one or two ‘goodbye everyone’ emails. No, these messages are not electronic suicide notes from the more highly-strung members of Arts Council staff. The organisation has an all staff email facility and leavers are apt to share their glee and remind everyone of their existence in a final message peppered with exclamation marks and usually featuring phrases like ‘wonderful experience’ and ‘Ciao everyone!’ Most of the time, the message is the first one I have ever had from the person concerned and reading it feels a little bit like reading a newspaper obituary for someone whose name and achievements had never reached one’s consciousness while they lived.

Today was unusual in that I knew one of the liberated. Monique had been with organisation since its inception and like me had become a knowing old hand at all staff events, smiling at the naïve enthusiasm of all the Johnny-come-latelys who were avidly attentive and asked perky questions on the intricacies of our programme and vision.

It was at such an event last year that a meeting organiser decided to put a new spin on the convention of all attendees announcing who they were and which team they represented. He decided to compound the ignominy of reciting name, rank and number by arranging us in order of time with the organisation. As we consulted and arranged ourselves I realised that I was moving very near the front of the line – when the dust settled I was in second place.

Monique had started a month earlier than me and she stood at the head of the line. The whole manoeuvre happened very quickly. I could see that Monique’s eyes were slightly moist with tears - as though the music had stopped in a game of musical chairs and she had been left chairless and exposed. The whole room looked at her, waiting for her to once again tell everyone who she was and how long she had been lucky enough to work as an ‘Operations Manager’. I felt for her – I could almost empathise. A part of me, however, thanked God that she had been placed in that searchlight of everyone’s attention.

I digested Monique’s email and the significance of this particular departure.

‘God, Monique’s leaving. She’s been there for, like, forever’ observed Original Susan with characteristic tact.

I didn’t respond and then a second email from Monique landed in my Inbox. Monique’s last act as an Operations Manager was not to be her valedictory email to ‘all the wonderful people’ she had worked with. Instead, it was an email specifically to me:

‘Head of the line sucker!’

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Send Only

If I go straight from work to the house I find that I have been handed the baby before I have even had the chance to remove my coat. I took my seat for dinner on Wednesday after the baby was asleep, for instance, without realising I was still wearing my coat and hat. Maude giggled until pudding.

‘Me time’ then is very hard to come by and, when it occurs, I savour it. I sat in a layby yesterday doing a crossword. Passers-by must have wondered why I smiled so broadly from such a simple pastime – not knowing that it was the joy of being off- radar that gave me such a rush. I then set to work on a task I had been meaning to get around to for some time – my text message templates. I tire of texting the same things over and over again – so templates seem the way to go.

I began with a few templates for Original Susan:

‘Probably working from home today, trouble with the old boiler – plumber called.’

‘Running late – childcare issues. Hope you don’t mind holding the fort.’

I then began work on the template messages for Maude.

The practical:

‘Traffic v.heavy. Feel free to hand over baby in hall on my arrival.’

The contrite:

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I’m so very sorry – forgive me.’

‘I am more sorry than I have ever been – please let me back into the house before the frost sets in.’

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Woman's Touch

Maude and I called to see Benny this afternoon. Benny was keen to show Maude the progress he has made in his DIY efforts. His living room has improved tenfold – with shelving, a rug – even a new pouffe with internal storage.

Maude flattered Benny on his achievements, but I could tell that she was unsure about some of Benny’s general approach to décor.

‘You’ve done remarkably well Benny….in the circumstances. I do think the place could do with a few small touches though. For instance, what about the fire?’

Benny has a new fireplace. A local carpenter made the surround and a new hearth was fitted at great expense. Benny, however, has shied away from setting a fire since his elderly neighbour, Florence, expressed her fears for the safety of his property and of hers. In fact, when she spied Benny with a box of matches at hand she called the Fire Service.

Maude suggested that Benny made a pot of tea. As he left the room Maude caught his heel as she closed the door behind him and held it shut with the pouffe.

I could hear Benny’s voice in the hall – it had the quality of a cry from someone trapped down a well.

‘What are you doing Maude? It is my house you know.’

‘Don’t worry Benny – you’ll thank me.’

Maude likes to hang pictures and keeps a small stock of tacks in her purse. Benny had received a couple of small landscape prints from a well-meaning sister at Christmas. He had been using them as tea trays, so Maude took the opportunity to make them focal points on either side of the dormant fireplace. Using a heel as an improvised hammer, she made light work of the job.

I then helped Maude as she repositioned most of the furniture. Benny could hear the movement from the hall.

‘Tea’s ready. Can I come back in now?’

‘Not just yet dear.’ Maude pressed on and found a new spot for more or less everything in the room. The movement of the furniture revealed lost socks and mislaid Y-fronts. Maude looked away. I felt obliged to protect Benny’s dignity and swiftly found a temporary home for the smalls in the new pouffe.

I was then sent out into the hall to prepare Benny for the ‘reveal’. My friend was sat on the bottom step of his own staircase like a banished naughty child. I reassured him that there was nothing to worry about and he agreed to wear my cravat as a blindfold as I led him back into his living room.

‘Ta-da!’ cried Maude as I uncovered Benny’s eyes.

Benny was a little disoriented and remained silent for a minute as he surveyed the changed environment. His expression was inscrutable, until his face gradually warmed into a smile.

‘It’s wonderful Maude. I needed a woman’s touch.’

‘Quite,’ said Maude.’I also thought that it was time for you to ‘put away childish things’ – so I got your fire going with that balsa wood Messerschmitt from the shelf. It really didn’t go with those books anyway.’

Benny looked a little stunned. We heard the model crackle in the grate and I could see the flames reflected in Benny’s glasses.

‘You just need to keep it tidy dear – we found lots of newspapers and ‘bits and bobs’. If the place gets untidy, you don’t necessarily need a woman’s touch, you could just dump your mess in the pouffe.’

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sympathy for the Devil

Our organisation had another all-staff get-together last week – in Sheffield. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself at the Hilton – not the Sheffield equivalent of the Liverpool Adelphi. My room had a sofa, an ‘executive’ swivel chair and so many high quality toiletries and speciality teas that I had trouble closing the zip on my holdall when I left. I even got to swim in the basement pool as part of the deal.

The event followed the usual format – eminent keynote speaker, coffee, another eminent speaker. It was only when the second speaker got going that I realised how polished the first one was. The second speaker droned on about the importance of creativity – but did so in such a monotone that I began to nod off. I was jolted back to consciousness by feedback. The speaker was playing a recording of her own 8 year old singing. It was on her mobile phone which she held next to the microphone to share her ‘evidence’ of how creative some young people could be. I recently recorded Aurora blowing raspberries, but I don’t have any plans to share the noise with a room of 200 people.

When the speeches petered out, the master of ceremonies reappeared. The MC used to work fulltime for the organisation until the National Director ‘deleted’ his role by email. He returns, nonetheless, on a freelance basis from time to time. He is well-dressed and moderately handsome – so he is often drafted in as a host. His hosting is always punctuated by ‘witty’ remarks which are indulged on account of him a) being handsome and b) having had his job ‘deleted’.

‘Hello again everybody! Are you sitting comfortably? Well, let’s put a stop to that and get you all moving around. The next segment of the day is the ‘table discussion experience’ and you can’t just sit on a table with your friends for that – we need to shake things up a bit. I want you all to move around the hall and sit at a completely different table! It might be a bit chaotic, but, hey, we’re creative people!’

I walked a full 3 feet to the neighbouring table. My notepad clattered on the table surface. I scanned the room to see which nightmare colleagues were gravitating towards my space. The hall was indeed chaotic – it was one big fuss of unconditioned hair and handmade jewellery. I then focussed on the National Director – he was pulling back a free chair directly opposite me.

‘Hello!’, he said. I could feel myself instantly hiding my scowl and turning on my arty/liberal/caring smile. I was momentarily sickened by my own insincerity, but didn’t stop.

‘Oh hello, what a great opportunity to share some ideas with you.’

Most of the other people at the table were similarly horrified at being thrown into close proximity with the man who deletes posts by email. It felt like a job interview masquerading as an inclusive forum. A creative programmer from the North West was sat next to me. He had a tiny dress beard on the tip of his chin. This surprised me – as he only looked about 14. He was mustard keen to impress the Director – so I took every opportunity I could to talk over him.

I think the boss was quite impressed with my contributions. He even took notes when I spoke (although he might have filed them in the bin shortly afterwards). When MC Handsome announced lunch I had an attention headache. I had to forsake my usual place at the head of the buffet queue to get some Nurofen from my bag in the cloakroom.

That evening was taken up by dinner, followed by a quiz hosted once more by MC Handsome. I usually enjoy quizzes, but was disappointed to learn that there was a theme to this one: the organisation. Questions covered: ‘hilarious’ quotes by members of staff, the square mileage of our Cumbrian team’s territory and the amount of money raised in the London Marathon by a member of the management team (I guessed at 35p).

I was then surprised by the revelation of the National Director’s involvement in radical culture.

‘Which Jean-Luc Godard film featured our National Director?’

The room fell quiet. It was multiple choice. The answer was ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. A clip was shown when all the quiz answers were revealed. Our Director (aged about 10) was shown slapping other boys’ faces in a bookshop, before giving a Nazi salute and leaving.

Someone at my table (at grave risk of ‘deletion’) whispered:

‘Not much change there then’.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

'That was a man thing!'

My best man, Miles, called unexpectedly last night.

‘Could you email a few of your wedding pictures to me?’ he asked. ‘Only I was telling Delilah [his new girlfriend] about your wedding and how Maude gave me a really hard time about my haircut. I just wanted to prove that it wasn’t that bad.’

I said I’d be happy to scan a few images as soon as I got the time.

‘She did give me a hard time you know.’

I was surprised that a grown man was still smarting from a throwaway reprimand of years ago from Maude – the kind of remark I weather on a daily basis, strapped to the mast of matrimony.

‘I think that she was actually more critical of the fact that you hadn’t shaved. Oh, and of the option that you presented to me as we entered the church.’

‘But I offer that to all the grooms I serve and, anyway, you shouldn’t have told her – that was a man thing.’

Miles has been a Best Man on several occasions and stood out as the most capable candidate when Maude and I were planning our wedding. He has a certain charisma and the ability to work a room without showing signs of his massive recreational drug consumption. I did consider Archie, but suspected that the little chap would be mistaken for a pageboy. Larry too was ruled out – his narcolepsy is quite unpredictable.

Miles has a checklist of what he believes to be his duties as a Best Man. He composed the list on a beer mat some years ago and carries it in his wallet. I recall our approach to the church gates on that fateful day. Miles turned to me and raised his hand in a ‘STOP’ signal.

‘Woooah, bonny lad!’

I stopped and said nothing. I thought perhaps he was about to issue some last minute words of advice, or to wish me many years of happily married life. Instead, he reached into his back pocket and produced his wallet. As he opened it I shielded my eyes from a possible outpouring of trapped moths. When I looked again Miles was really concentrating (I could see his nostrils flaring). He was consulting his checklist. He took a small pencil from behind his ear and carefully ticked off the items he had achieved. Miles’ handwriting has always reminded me of ransom notes – I couldn’t read any of the bullet points apart from the very last one on the list. His pencil hovered, as he opened his mouth to speak – it read:


Thursday, January 10, 2008

'Good carrots ruined!'

Maude’s father, Crawford, has a very fixed idea of Christmas. The details of his Christmas should not be tampered with – as any deviation from his template has the potential to spoil his entire experience.

It was Christmas a decade ago when Maude’s sister, Lucia, last ‘tampered’ with Christmas. Lucia is a gifted chef and took responsibility for the Christmas lunch dessert – deciding that a departure from the traditional steamed pudding was long overdue. It was to be a surprise for Crawford and a surprise it certainly was. The lights were dimmed and Lucia brought the chestnut mousse into the dining room with some ceremony and not a little pride in her efforts. The rest of the company smiled its approval and a gentle ripple of applause greeted Lucia as she processed to the centre of the table. Crawford was conspicuously quiet until he was served. His assessment of Lucia’s efforts was a little harsh and was issued at the top of his voice:

‘That’s a piss poor excuse for a pudding if ever I saw one!’

Lucia burst into tears, Augusta cast a withering look at her husband and left the room. I turned to gauge the reaction of Maude’s twin brother, Roddy, only to hear the sound of his ignition in the yard. Maude put an arm around Lucia’s shoulder and led her, sobbing, from the room. Maude paused briefly at the door until she was sure that the scene was imprinted on her father’s memory and then comforted her sister back to the quiet sanctuary of the music room.

That memory had seemingly receded this year. Augusta had allotted Christmas Day tasks by handwritten memo. I was asked to look after the baby and make sure that the log fire didn’t fade, while Maude took responsibility for the preparation of the vegetables. As I was carrying Aurora from the kitchen, I noticed Maude ransacking her mother’s larder after some culinary inspiration.

‘Brilliant! Fresh ginger for the carrots.’

I had a sudden flashback to the mousse incident and tried to attract Maude’s attention while she was ushering me out the kitchen.

‘But darling, don’t’ forget about (at this point Maude closed the door soundly behind me) ….the mousse.’

Christmas lunch was not very old when Crawford and I found ourselves alone at the table – as we had ten years earlier.

‘What did I say?’ Crawford straightened his paper party hat and pushed his carrots to the edge of his plate. As he tucked into the remainder of his turkey he looked across at my turkey leg.

‘Do you not want that? There’s a wild load of meat left on it.’