I found it hard working really long hours when I was my own boss. The boss kept giving me the afternoon off. Sometimes he gave me the morning off as well. Sometimes he’d say, “Look, you’ve worked pretty hard today, why don’t you take a well-earned rest tomorrow.” If I overslept he never rang me to ask where I was; if I was late to my desk he always happened to turn up at exactly the same time; whatever excuse I came up with, he always believed it. Being my own boss was great. Being my own employee was a disaster, but I never thought about that side of the equation.
On this particular day I was woken by the sound of children. I knew from experience that this meant it was either just before nine o’clock in the morning, when children started arriving at the school over the road, or around quarter past eleven—mid-morning playtime.
I rolled over to look at the clock and the little numbers on my radio alarm informed me that it was 1:24. Lunchtime. I had slept for fourteen solid hours, an all-time record.
I called it my radio alarm, though in reality it served only as a large and cumbersome clock. I had given up using the radio-alarm function long before, after I’d kept waking up with early morning erections to the news that famine was spreading in the Sudan or that Princess Anne had just had her wisdom teeth out. It’s amazing how quickly an erection can disappear. Anyway, alarm clocks are for people who have something more important to do than sleeping, and this was a concept that I struggled to grasp. Some days I would wake up, decide that it wasn’t worth getting dressed and then just stay in bed until, well, bedtime. But it wasn’t apathetic, what’s-the-point-of-getting-up lying in bed, it was positive, quality-of-life lying in bed. I had resolved that leisure time should involve genuine leisure. If it had been up to me there would have been nothing at the Balham Leisure Centre except rows of beds with all the Sunday papers scattered at the bottom of the duvet.
My bedroom had evolved so that the need to get out of bed was kept to an absolute minimum. Instead of a bedside table there was a fridge, inside which milk, bread and butter were kept. On top of the fridge was a kettle, which fought for space with a tray of mugs, a box of tea bags, a selection of breakfast cereals, a toaster and an overloaded plug adapter. I clicked on the kettle and popped some bread in the toaster. I reached across for that day’s newspaper and was slightly surprised as a set of keys slid off the top and clinked onto the floor. Then I remembered that I hadn’t slept for fourteen solid hours after all; there had been a vague but annoying conversation very early that morning. As far as I could remember, it had gone something like this:
“’scuse me, mate?”
“Uh?” I replied from under the duvet.
“Excuse me, mate. It’s me. Paper boy,” said the cracking voice of the nervous-sounding teenager.
“What do you want?”
“My mum says I’m not allowed to deliver the paper to the end of your bed any more.”
“Why not?” I groaned, without emerging.
“She says it’s weird. I had to stop her ringing Child Line.”
“What time is it?”
“Seven o’clock. I told her you paid me an extra couple of quid a week to bring it up here and everything, but she said it’s weird and that I’m only allowed to push it through the letter box, like I do for everyone else. I’ll leave your front door keys here.”
If anything had been said after that I didn’t remember it. That must have been the moment when I went back to sleep. The clink of the keys brought it back like some half-remembered dream. And as I flicked through the stories of war, violent crime and environmental disaster, I felt a growing sense of depression. Today was the last day I would ever have my newspaper delivered to the end of my bed.
Lightly browned toast popped up and the bubbling kettle clicked itself off. The butter and milk were kept on the top shelf of the fridge so they could be reached without leaving the bed. When I’d first bought the fridge and placed it in my room I had sunk to my knees in mortified disbelief. The fridge door opened the wrong way—I couldn’t reach the handle from the bed. I tried putting the fridge upside down, but it looked a bit stupid. I tried putting it on the other side of the bed, but then I had to move my keyboard and mixing desk and all the other bits of musical equipment that were packed into my bedroom-cum-recording studio. After several hours spent dragging furniture into different positions around the room, I finally found a location for the bed that would comfortably allow me to take things from the fridge, make breakfast, reach my phone and watch telly without having to do anything as strenuous as standing up. If Boots had marketed a do-it-yourself catheter kit, I would have been the first customer.
The only thing more self-indulgent than breakfast in bed is having breakfast in bed at lunchtime. There’s a decadence to it that makes lightly buttered toast taste like the food of the gods. I sipped my tea and, with one of several remote controls, switched on the telly just in time to see the beginning of one of my favourite films, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. I’ll just watch the first few minutes, I thought to myself as I fluffed up the pillows. Just the bit where he’s working in that huge insurance office with hundreds of other people doing exactly the same monotonous job. Forty minutes later my mobile phone jolted me out of my hypnotized trance. I switched the television to mute and removed the mobile from its charger.
“Hello, Michael, it’s Hugo Harrison here—from DD and G. I’m just ringing in case you’d forgotten that you said you’d probably be able to get your piece of music to us by the end of today.”
“Forgotten? Are you joking? I’ve been working on it all week. I’m in the studio right now.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to deliver it when you said?”
“Hugo, have I ever missed a deadline? I’m just doing a remix, so you’ll probably get it around four or five o’clock.”
“Right.” Hugo sounded disappointed. “There’s no chance that we might get it before then, because we’re sort of hanging around waiting to do the dub.”
“Well, I’ll try. To be honest, I was going to go out and get a bite of lunch, but I’ll work through if you need it urgently.”
“Thanks, Michael. Bloody brilliant. Speak to you later, then.”
And I turned off my mobile, lay back in bed and then watched The Apartment all the way through.
What I hadn’t told Hugo from DD&G was that I had in fact completed my composition four days earlier, but when someone pays you a thousand pounds for a piece of work, you can’t give it to them two days after they commission it. They have to feel they’re getting their money’s worth. They might have imagined that they wanted it as soon as possible, but I knew that they’d appreciate and enjoy it far more if they thought it had taken me all week.
The slogan the agency were going to put over my composition was “The saloon car that thinks it’s a sports car.” So I did a ploddy easy-listening intro which switched into a screeching electric-guitar sound. Saloon car, sports car. Easy-listening for the humdrum lives of all those thirty-something saloon-car drivers and electric guitar for the racy, exciting lives that they are starting to realize have gone for ever. Hugo had thought this was a great idea when I’d put it to him, so much so that fairly quickly he was talking about it as if it was his own.
Generally speaking I did every commission straight away, and would then phone the client at regular intervals and say things like, “Look, I’ve got something I’m really pleased with, but it’s only thirteen seconds long. Does it really have to be exactly fifteen seconds?” And they’d say, “Well, if you’re really pleased with it, maybe we should have a listen. But is there no way you can make it fifteen? Like, just slow it down a bit or something?”
“Just slow it down a bit! What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a composer.”
And then I’d pretend to find a solution and the client would hang up feeling reassured that I was still working on it and pleased that they had helped me get that much closer to completion. And all the time a fifteen-second jingle was already on a DAT in my studio. Whenever I had sent ad agencies work straight away, they were always initially enthusiastic, but then came back to me a few days later saying they wanted it changed. I had learned that it was far better to give it to them at the last minute, when they had no choice but to decide that it was great.
I had persuaded myself that actually I probably did roughly the same amount of work as many men my age, namely around two or three hours a day. But I was determined that I wouldn’t waste the rest of my life pretending to be working, flicking my computer screen from Solitaire to a spreadsheet, or suddenly changing the tone of personal phone calls when the managing director walked into the office. From what I could gather from my contemporaries, there were a lot of jobs where you arrived in the morning, chatted for an hour or two, did some really useful work between about eleven and lunchtime, came back in the afternoon, sent a stupid e-mail message to Gary in accounts before spending the rest of the afternoon in apparent total concentration while downloading a picture of a naked transsexual from www.titsandcocks.com.
The film was interrupted by adverts and I couldn’t help but take a professional interest in the music they employed. The jingle for the Gillette commercial claimed that the new twin-blade swivel head with lubrastrip was “the best a man can get.” I thought that this was a pretty bold claim for a disposable plastic razor. A new Ferrari maybe or a night in bed with Pamela Anderson might arguably have the edge for most men, but not according to this singer, no, give him a good shave any day of the week. Then The Apartment came back on and I thought, No, this is the best a man can get: just being tucked up warm and cosy, watching a great film with tea and toast and nothing at all to worry about.
When people asked me what I did I generally mumbled that I was “in advertising.” I used to say that I was a composer or a musician, but I found this prompted a level of fascination that wasn’t fulfilled when they discovered this meant I’d written the music for the Mr Gearbox ad on Capital Radio. I was a freelance jingle writer—although other people in the business were too pretentious to call them jingles—working at the bottom end of the freelance jingle-writing market. If the man who composed “Gillette! The best a man can get!” was the advertising equivalent of Paul McCartney, that made me the drummer for the band that came fifth in last year’s Song for Europe.
People always presume there’s lots of money in advertising, but I was beginning to sense that I was never going to make a fortune writing twenty-second radio jingles, even if I took it upon myself to start working an eight-hour day.
There had been a time in my life when I’d really believed I was going to be a millionaire rock star. When I’d left music college I had returned to my home town and formed a group that played in pubs and at university summer balls. Call me immodest, but I think I can honestly say there was a point in the late Eighties when we were the biggest band in Godalming. Then it all fell apart when our drummer left the group because of “musical differences.” We were musical, he wasn’t. Despite being the crappiest drummer I’d ever heard, he had been the most important member of the band because he had been the one with the van. I found you couldn’t fit many amplifiers on a moped. After that highpoint I had carried on recording songs and trying to form bands, but now all I had to show for those years was a box of demo tapes and one precious copy of my flexi-disc single.
I got out of bed and played this track again as I got dressed. I was still proud of it, and had never quite forgiven John Peel’s producer for saying they didn’t play flexi-discs. The journey to my place of work involved walking from one side of my bedroom to the other. Before I started I generally preferred to convert the room from bedroom to studio, which involved transforming my bed back into a sofa and removing any socks or underpants that I had left on top of my keyboard. As well as my Roland XP-60, the recording studio side of my room contained a computer, an eighteen-channel mixing desk, a sampler, a reverb unit, a midi-box, several redundant sound modules, amplifiers and tape decks and, behind it all, seven and a half miles of intertwined electrical cable. If you knew nothing at all about music I suppose all this gear might look quite impressive, but the reality was far more chaotic. The more equipment I acquired, the longer I had to search every time a mystery buzz made it impossible to do any work. Generally I relied upon the keyboard, with its built-in sound module and my multi-talented sampler, which would gamely have a stab at the noise produced by most musical instruments. Although there appeared to be a lot of state-of-the-art technology on display, the stuff was either several years out of date or would be by the time Pd worked out how to use it. Because I’d never got round to reading the manuals I was like the owner of a Ferrari who only drove around in first gear.
I lumbered into the bathroom and stared in the mirror. During the night the grey strands on the side of my head had fought their way to the front and a whole swathe of hair above my ears had acquired a silvery sheen. Those of the wiry grey variety were thicker and stronger than the wispy dark hairs they were gradually replacing. The greys were still in a minority, but I knew that, like the squirrels of the same depressing colour, once a few had got a foothold eventually all the indigenous hair would be pushed to the brink of extinction, with maybe a couple of breeding colonies remaining on either eyebrow and perhaps a few shy black hairs that would occasionally be spotted peeking out of my nostrils. On the side of my nose a large yellow-headed spot had ripened and was deftly milked with the dexterity that came from nearly twenty years’ practice. In my teens I think I’d presumed there would be a golden period in my life after my spots cleared up and before my hair started to turn grey. Now I realized that was hopelessly naive of me; in my early thirties I was already past my physical peak. The summer seems to have only just begun when you realize the nights are already drawing in.
At around four o’clock I finally strolled into the living room, where Jim had spent the last couple of years researching his Ph.D. Today this involved playing Tomb Raider with Simon. They both managed to mumble hello to me, though since neither of them managed to look up from the screen I could just as easily have been the creature from the black lagoon wandering in to put the kettle on. Jim and Simon looked like the “Before” and “After” drawings in the Charles Atlas body-building adverts. Jim was tall and muscular with the healthy complexion of a boy who’d been skiing every winter since he was five years old, and by contrast, Simon was skinny, pallid and awkward. If they made Tomb Raider any more realistic, Lara Croft would turn round and say out of the TV screen, “Stop staring at my tits like that, you little creep,” and blast him off the sofa. He had a promising career serving pints of lager in plastic glasses to students of the university from which he had graduated some years ago. He had got the job on the day he’d left and was hoping to earn enough money to one day pay off the debts he had accumulated on the other side of the bar.
At that moment the front door slammed and Paul returned home, dumping a pile of tatty exercise books on the kitchen table with a martyred sigh that was far too obviously intended to elicit concerned enquiries about his day and consequently received none.
“Dear oh dear,” said Paul, but we all still refused to bite. He put a carton of milk back in the fridge and took a couple of old tea bags out of the sink, tutting quietly to himself. His sighs not only announced his irritation that everyone else didn’t tidy up as they went along, but also his annoyance that it should be left to him to clear up when he had already done a full day’s teaching. It was as if he was implying that Simon’s evening job or Jim’s Ph.D or my composing at my keyboard were somehow less-demanding work. The fact that this was true was entirely beside the point.
The four of us had shared this place for a couple of years now. None of them had known me when I had first taken the room, and in some ways that was how I preferred to keep things. The flat boasted views across the splendour that is Balham High Road, and was conveniently located above a shop, where we could pop down and buy halal meat at any time of the day or night. But it was not the tatty run-down flat that you would expect four men sharing to wallow in; there was a strict cleaning rota, in which we took turns to leave all the clearing up for Paul.
Paul put what was left of a slab of butter into the butter dish and then folded the foil neatly before throwing it in the bin. Since talking to the entire room failed to get him any attention, he attempted to address someone directly.
“Michael, how was your day?”
“It’s been a fucking disaster,” I said.
“Oh no, what happened?” he replied, sounding genuinely concerned.
“Bloody paper boy woke me up at seven o’clock to tell me he’s not going to deliver the paper to the end of my bed any more. He said his mother thinks it’s weird. I distinctly remember saying to him when we first agreed on the arrangement that it would probably be wise not to mention it to his parents.”
There was a pause.
“No. I told his mother,” confessed Paul with the defiant air of a man who had been preparing himself for this confrontation.
“You! What on earth did you do that for?”
“Well, for a start I am not particularly wild about you handing out the front door keys of our flat to a thirteen-year-old delinquent.”
“He’s not a delinquent.”
“Yes, he is a delinquent, and do you know how I know that? Because I teach him. Troy is in my class. And the day before yesterday, at seven a.m., I walked out of the bathroom stark bollock naked to see Troy standing there on the landing staring at me.”
At that moment Jim laughed so much he had to spit his tea back into the mug. “What did you say?”
“Well, I said, ‘Hello, Troy.’”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Hello, Mr Hitchcock.’ He looked a little confused, to tell the truth. In fact, it was pretty bad luck on his part as well; he’d been trying to avoid me for a few days because he owed me an essay on the character of Piggy in Lord of the Flies. I think for a moment he thought I’d broken into this house at seven in the morning with no clothes on just to ask him for his essay.”
I was still irritated. “So you bumped into him on the landing. So what? Doesn’t mean you have to tell his mother.”
“I am his teacher. It doesn’t look too good, does it? BOY VISITS NAKED TEACHER’s FLAT BEFORE LESSONS. Besides, I do not appreciate having to tell my class that the correct pronunciation of my name is Mr Hitchcock, not Mr Titchy-cock.”
Jim’s tea had now been spat out so many times it was undrinkable.
“And so, at last night’s parents’ evening,” Paul continued, “I told his mother that her son had a key to my flat and that the previous morning he had seen me naked.”
“That probably wasn’t the best way to put it.”
“Well, with the benefit of hindsight I realize I might have phrased it differently. She went mad and started hitting me with her shoe. Had to be pulled off by the deputy head.”
Paul looked hurt to be the unwitting subject of such general amusement.
“Don’t take it personally, Paul,” I said, “we’re not laughing at you.”
“I am,” said Jim.
“Yeah, I am as well actually,” added Simon.
Paul settled down to do his marking, and his pupils got far lower marks than they would have done if we had been nicer to him. He was clearly one of those teachers who are unable to keep control in the classroom. There was just something about him that marked him out as the injured wildebeest limping on the edge of the herd. He always tried to play this down, even when one of the pupils sold his car.
I don’t know why they felt they needed to go to such lengths to wind him up when he seemed to get infuriated by the littlest things. He once told us that from now on he would only be removing his own hairs from the gunge that was blocking the plughole, since no-one else ever seemed to do it, and so we found him crouched in an empty bath trying to separate the red hairs from all the others. It wasn’t that Paul was petty, it was just that he got annoyed when anyone squeezed the toothpaste from the wrong end of the tube. In fact, all sorts of things about us aggravated him.
We sat around the kitchen table for a bit longer and then Jim announced that he was going to make a brew. Paul always declined Jim’s offer of tea because the way Jim made tea was the essence of what Paul found so irritating about him.
Jim’s tea-making routine was a triumph of day-dreaming inefficiency. First he would take the mugs from the cupboard and arrange them on a tray. Then he would stop near the sink and look a little lost for a while as he tried to remember what it was that he had been meaning to do. Then it would come back to him: get the milk out of the fridge. After the milk had been poured into each cup he would get the tea bags and put them into the teapot. And then, when he had done all that, when he had got everything ready and realized he’d got out one mug too many and so put it back in the cupboard, and then put the sugar bowl on the tray and decided that there was nothing else he had to do, then he would put the kettle on.
For Paul, this sequence alone made Jim virtually impossible to live with. And he didn’t just put the kettle on last, he also filled it right to the top so it took far longer than necessary for three cups of tea. And while it was taking an eternity to boil he would just stand there waiting, occasionally moving the mugs about on the tray. And all the while he would be completely unaware that Paul was about to explode with frustration at the impracticality of this order of doing things. Try as he might, Paul could not let Jim do things his way. I knew that within sixty seconds he would ask Jim why he didn’t put the kettle on first.
“Jim, why don’t you put the kettle on first?” he asked three seconds later.
“I was just saying, it would be a bit quicker if you put the kettle on first. You know, before you put out the mugs and everything.”
Jim gave an indifferent shrug. “Well, it wouldn’t boil any quicker, would it.”
He was as slow to see Paul’s logic as he was at making tea.
“No, but it would boil sooner, because you would’ve put it on earlier, and then you could do the tea bags and milk and everything while it was boiling.” He had to stop himself screaming the last four words in Jim’s face. Jim was bemused by his flatmate’s concern.
“They’re not in a hurry to go out or anything, are they? You’re not in a hurry to go out, are you, Simon?”
Simon looked up from the paper. “Me? No.”
“No-one’s in a hurry, so what does it matter?”
I could see Paul’s frustration rising; his face went bright red, which at least had the consolation of making his little ginger beard less prominent. “It’s just a really inefficient way to make a cup of tea.”
“But you’re not even having a cup.”
“No, I’m not, because it’s so annoying that you always do it wrong.” And with that he stomped out of the room. Jim looked completely perplexed.
“Have I been putting sugar in Paul’s tea when he doesn’t take it or something?”
Simon mumbled that he didn’t think so and Jim shrugged and stood by the sink for a while and after five minutes realized that he hadn’t pressed the “on” button on the side of the kettle.
When the tea was made, the remaining three of us drank it in contemplative silence. Simon was reading the “Dear Deirdre” column in the Sun, in which Deirdre tackled the sexual problems of members of the general public, which I was convinced had been made up by journalists in the next door office.
“‘My brother-in-law is my lover,’” he read out. “‘Dear Deirdre, I am an attractive blonde and people say I have a good figure. The other night, when my husband was away, his brother came round and one thing led to another and we ended up in bed . . .’” He broke off from reading out the letter. “They always say that: one thing led to another. How exactly does one thing lead to another, because that must be the bit that I’m getting wrong. I understand the brother coming round, and I understand that they were in bed together. But how did they get from the first stage to the last?”
“It’s easy, Simon,” said Jim.
“Well, what? How do you do it?”
“You meet a girl.”
“She comes back for coffee.”
“Yes, but then what?”
“Well, one thing leads to another.”
After my second cup of tea I felt I’d finally run out of valid excuses for keeping the advertising agency waiting any longer, and so I collected the tape from my room and headed towards Balham tube station. Thirty minutes later I was walking down Berwick Street, where a couple of French students with a disposable camera nearly got run over trying to recreate the cover of What’s the Story Morning Glory? I loved coming to Soho; it felt exciting and happening, and for a brief moment I liked to pretend I was part of it all. There were people here who earned a thousand pounds a day just for doing one voiceover for an advert, and then they’d blow it all by buying a prawn and avocado on focaccia with a café latte to go.
I glanced across the road and caught sight of Hugo from DD&G, staring at a shop window. That’s peculiar, I thought. Why is Hugo staring into the window of a wholesale Asian jewellery shop? Then he glanced up and down the road quickly and disappeared into a tatty open doorway under the glow of a dangerously wired red light. I was shocked. I approached the open doorway and looked in. The words “New model. Very friendly. First floor” were scrawled onto a piece of card that was stuck by the entrance with thick brown masking tape. I looked up the rickety uncarpeted stairs and wondered what lay beyond. Maybe Hugo was just going in to offer to improve their advertising, to suggest a professional copywriter who could produce a snappier slogan and spell “friendly” correctly. It seemed unlikely. I was part repulsed, part fascinated and strangely disappointed in Hugo, as if he had let me down personally.
I continued up Berwick Street and finally entered the reception of the grand offices of DD&G, where a certificate boasted that they were runners up for Best Investment and Banking Commercial at last year’s Radio Advertising Awards. Apparently, Hugo had just popped out to get his wife a birthday card, so the tape was left with the beautiful waif of a receptionist, who sat in the window framed by lavish arrangements of fresh flowers.
My work for the week was done. It was time to head for North London. In the rush hour I squeezed my way onto the tube with all the people who had spent the day at work. Hundreds of sweaty office workers pressing their bodies together and yet managing to give the impression that they were not the slightest bit aware that there was anyone else in the carriage. Arms bending into impossible angles to read paperbacks bent over at the spine. Necks craning to read someone else’s newspaper. Christians re-reading the bible as if they didn’t know it all by now.
Suddenly a seat became available and I moved towards it as quickly as is possible without revealing that I was doing anything as undignified as hurrying. As I sat down I breathed out a satisfied sigh, but any relaxation soon flipped over into anxiety. A woman was standing right in front of me, and from under her dress protruded The Bulge Of Uncertainty. Was she six months pregnant or was she just a bit, well . . . fat? It was just impossible to say. I looked her up and down. Why can’t she give me a sign? I thought. Why couldn’t she be carrying a Mothercare bag or wearing one of those naff sweatshirts that say, “Yes I am!” I looked again. The dress hung loosely everywhere else; it was just on her rounded stomach that the material was stretched and taut. Which was worse, I wondered, denying a seat to a pregnant woman or offering a seat to a woman who wasn’t pregnant but just looked as if she was. Maybe this is why men used to give up their seats to all women, to escape this embarrassing dilemma. No-one else seemed concerned, but I felt I had to do the decent thing.
“Sorry. Would you like to sit down?” I said, getting up.
“Why would I want to sit down?” she said aggressively.
Shit, I thought. “Erm . . . Well, you just looked a bit tired . . . um, and I’m getting off at the next stop anyway,” I lied.
On this understanding she took my seat, and I was forced to leave the carriage to maintain the deceit. I fought my way through the throng on the platform and rushed to get back on the train a couple of carriages further up. The not-pregnant woman had given me a very odd look, but it wasn’t as strange as the one she gave me when we both went through the barriers at Kentish Town station fifteen minutes later.
As I emerged back into the open air, my mobile phone signalled that I had a message. It was Hugo. He said he was sorry he’d missed me but that he had been in and out all afternoon, which was more detail than I needed. He was pleased with my piece of music and told me that I’d come up with something “pretty bloody special.” Although I generally found Hugo very insincere and of poor judgement I was prepared to make an exception in this case. I never felt confident that the snippets of music I wrote were any good. Whenever a decent tune came into my head I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t just subconsciously stolen it from somewhere, so any form of praise was eagerly gobbled up. Sadly, the track was only for a pitch and the agency would probably never use Hugo’s production company, so no-one would ever hear it. I had known this when I’d taken the job, but I knew I could do it quickly, it paid the bills and it meant I could afford to spend a couple of stress-free days in the cocoon I had created for myself.
I turned into Bartholomew Close. Tall, monolithic grey wheelie bins lined the street, like Easter Island statues waiting impassively for strangers. I walked up to number 17 and put the key in the lock. As I opened the front door I was hit by the chaos and noise.
“Daddy!” exclaimed my two-year-old daughter Millie with delight as she ran up the hallway and hugged my leg. There was a tape of children’s nursery rhymes playing on the stereo and Alfie, my baby boy, was jiggling his limbs delightedly in his mother’s arms.
“You’re earlier than I expected,” said Catherine with a smile.
I tiptoed over some wooden bricks that were scattered on the carpet, gave her a kiss and then took Alfie from her.
“Yeah, and guess what? I’ve finished the job and won’t have to work at all this weekend.”
“Fantastic,” she said. “Then it’s a double celebration. Because guess who wee’d in her potty today?”
“Did you, Millie?”
Millie nodded with extraordinary pride, which was only surpassed by that of her mother.
“And you didn’t get any on the floor, did you, Millie? Which is better than your daddy usually manages and he’s thirty-two.”
I gave Catherine an affectionate poke in the ribs. “Look, it’s not my fault the toilet seat always falls down.”
“No, it’s that idiot who fitted it,” she concurred, referring to the evening when it had taken me three hours to fit a new wooden toilet seat incorrectly.
Millie had obviously enjoyed the praise that had been heaped upon her, so she quickly found another way to get some more attention. “I done cat drawing,” she said, presenting me with a scrap of paper, which I took from her and studied carefully. Frankly, Millie’s drawing was rubbish. To represent our cat, she had taken the blue crayon and scribbled it up and down on a piece of paper.
“Ooh, Millie, that’s a super picture. You are a clever girl.” One day she would turn round and say, “Don’t patronize me, Father, we both know the picture is crap,” but for the time being she seemed to buy it. I loved coming home when I hadn’t seen them all for a couple of days; they were always so delighted to see me. It was the return of the prodigal father.
Catherine grabbed the chance to start clearing up the kitchen as I played with the kids for a while. I played hide and seek with Millie, which was made easier by the fact that she hid in the same spot behind the curtains three times in a row. Then I made Alfie giggle by throwing him up in the air until Catherine came back into the room to see why he’d suddenly started crying.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying not to look up at the metal chandelier swinging back and forth above her head. She took the crying baby back, and at that moment I thought she looked a little tired, so I said I’d take over tidying up. I slipped upstairs, gathering scattered toys as I went. I ran a big foamy bath, turned off the light and lit a couple of candles. Then I placed the portable CD player in the bathroom and put on Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
“Catherine, can you just come upstairs a minute,” I shouted. She came up and surveyed the instant sanctuary that I had created.
“I’ll take over the kids and load the dishwasher and everything. You get in there and I’ll bring you a glass of wine, and you’re not allowed out till the end of the final movement, “Shepherds Song; Beneficent Feelings After the Storm.’”
She leaned against me. “Oh, Michael. What have I done to deserve this?”
“Well, you’ve been looking after the kids on your own for a couple of days and you must need a bit of space.”
“Yes, but you’ve been working hard, too. Don’t you need a rest?”
“I don’t work as hard as you,” I said sincerely. After a few half-hearted guilty protestations she clicked on the heated towel rail and turned up the volume loud enough to drown out the indignant shouts of “Mummy!” that had already started to emanate from the kitchen.
“Michael,” she said as she kissed me on the cheek, “thanks for being the best husband in the world.”
I smiled a half-smile. When your wife says something like that, it doesn’t seem like the right moment to put her straight.