Adrian Sturrock: ‘The best thing about the new 5p carrier bag charge is that the cupboard next to our sink is now worth £2,987.’

     ‘Stop!’ I shout, as my wife reaches into our kitchen cupboard and pulls out an old plastic Marks & Spencer bag to put rubbish into.

     ‘What?’

     ‘Don’t use that one.’

     She turns the bag over in her hand. ‘Why not?’

     ‘That could be a collector’s item, one day.’

     Nat looks at me, then back at the bag, before rolling her eyes and continuing to pour her rubbish into it.

     ‘You’ll regret it when our currency plummets and it’s only our carrier bags we have left to barter with.’

     ‘If we ever get to that stage,’ she says, ‘I’ll probably sell you for medical experiments and make up the shortfall that way.’

     Bag-for-life suddenly takes on a whole new meaning in my mind. ‘I see how it is,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

It’s all David Attenborough’s fault, of course. First it was plastic straws polluting the sea, then it was vast floating islands of carrier bags that could be seen from space, and now it’s the ocean of self-blame that I carry with me regarding how people I can’t control package my food.

     I care, but I’m frustrated. In fact, I’m frustrated because I care. We’ve just shopped, and the inside of our fridge has suddenly become a potential subject for a thesis on environmental morality. I open the door and the light comes on to display a vulgar grotto of plastic packaging reminiscent of a dystopian game show grand prize reveal. These days, I find that I eat to forget as much as to hide the evidence. You can actually measure my guilt in calories.

     ‘This is the downside of online shopping,’ says Nat, ‘You click the product but you don’t always see the wrapping until it’s too late. ‘

     She’s got a point, but why does every convenience in life have to come with a moral price-tag? It took me three years to get her to agree to trying internet shopping – mainly because she says she prefers to squeeze her own fruit before she buys it.

     ‘But what about when you send me to buy the fruit?’ I say. ‘You don’t get to squeeze it then.’

     ‘I trust your squeeze,’ she says.

     I suddenly feel a wave of pride from this statement, though I’m not altogether sure why.

     ‘But the shop people are professional squeezers,’ I say, ‘They squeeze for a living. I can’t even claim to squeeze as a hobby.’

     ‘Where is this conversation going?’ she asks me.

     ‘… I’m really not sure,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

A few days later, there’s a knock at the door.

     ‘Is that my package?’ I ask Nat, as she moves to answer it.

     She stops in her tracks. ‘… Hang on … nope, my telepathic ability doesn’t seem to be working at the moment, I’m going to have to actually answer the door, this time.’

     ‘Have you tried switching it off and switching it back on again?’ I ask.

     She leaves the room.

     She comes back with a large parcel. ‘What is this?’ she asks, handing it to me.

     ‘I found an online shop that sells paper carrier bags,’ I say. I thought we could split the package in half and keep a stash of them in the boots of our cars – a first step towards cutting down on our plastics consumption?’

     ‘Tree murderer!’ she says.

     ‘I can’t win!’ I say, smiling.

     The irony of the fact that this supply of ‘eco-friendly’ shopping bags comes rolled up in its own plastic packaging doesn’t pass us by. ‘Small steps,’ I say. ‘Small steps, if we are going to stay ahead of al-Qaeda.’

     ‘What? Al-Qaeda?’

     ‘Apparently,’ I say, tilting the news item on my iPad towards her. ‘Al-Shabaab, the Somali militant Islamic off-shoot of al-Qaeda has already banned single use plastic bags, citing them as a serious threat to humans, livestock and the environment – just like the group itself, allegedly. I guess this technically makes them the world’s first “eco-friendly” jihadist movement.’

     Nat just looks at me.

     ‘Yes, me too,’ I say. ‘These aren’t words that I had expected to have fall out of my mouth before 8am on a week day.’

     ‘It doesn’t seem to matter what day or time it is,’ says Nat.

     ‘I’d hate to think about how this group goes about enforcing its ban, though’ I say, ignoring her.

     ‘If you’re seen with a plastic bag, you’ll probably end up with your head in it,’ Nat suggests.

     ‘I like that you always manage to disturb me just a little,’ I say.

     ‘Thank you,’ she says, coyly.

* * * * * * * *

Later that day, I’m driving home when Nat calls to ask if I can pick up some things on my way. This is clearly a rhetorical question as she has already texted me with ‘a small list’.

     ‘Sure you still trust me to squeeze for you?’ I ask.

     ‘Always,’ she says, and hangs up.

     The car park at Tesco is full when I get there so I’m forced to park at the very end of it, far from the shop’s entrance. Just my luck, it’s a horrible day of high winds and rain. Apparently, someone at the Met Office who’s job it is to name the weather tells me that this is Hurricane Gareth. ‘Must be a strange day job to have,’ I think to myself as I run across the car park, narrowly missing two cars and a runaway trolley.

     As I emerge from the shop, the rain is coming down harder. I race myself and my shopping across the car park, soaking us both by the time I’ve reached the car, fumbled for my keys, and got inside.

     This panic is repeated at the other end of the journey, once I’ve parked outside the house. The heavens are now fully open and I can feel the heavy rain drops patting me forcefully on the head as I get out of the car. I grab the shopping bags, which are now getting quite soggy, and turn to make a dash for the front door.

     Suddenly, I hear a crash and one of my bags feels lighter. A neighbour walking his dog stops to look at me. I look at him and then down at my feet. One of my new paper carrier bags has got so rain-soaked that it has split and emptied itself across the pavement. I look back up at the man with a sad expression on my face. ‘’My wine,’ I say. ‘It’s my wine.’

     I pick up as much of the broken glass as I can and wrap it in the remains of my paper bag. ‘Dereliction of duty, that’s what this is!’ I shout at the soggy remnants of my pro-environmental attempt.

     The man with the dog clearly decides that this is the time to walk on.

     Later, I get a text from Nat: ‘Did you manage to get everything on the list?’

     ‘Bloody David Attenborough,’ I text back.

* * * * * * * *

 

* Image two from the collection, “Emotional Trash, by  Khalil Chishtee 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘In the battleground of past relationships, ex marks the spot’

There are two very important things above all else that I have learned in this life. I don’t remember the first one but the second one is to always write stuff down.

     ‘I think I’ve mastered the skill of anti-stalking,’ I say to Nat, as I come in through the door.

     ‘Anti-what?’

     ‘Anti-stalking. It’s where you learn someone’s daily routine in order to avoid them. Look!’ I present her with a number of Post-it notes with a list of ‘places to not go’ written on them.

     Nat looks down at my brightly coloured notes then back up at me. ‘Stalking someone in order to keep your distance from them?’

     ‘I’m pretty sure we’ve all done it to some degree,’ I say.

     ‘Ok,’ she says, looking a little uncertain. ‘Who are you trying to avoid?’

     ‘One of my exes.’

     ’The one with the fat ankles?’

     This is how women work. There is an inbuilt imperative to identify at least one imperfection in any female that they feel may be a threat – an Achilles heel … or, in this instance, a whole ankle. Two of them, in fact.

     If Nat had asked, I could have offered a whole list of imperfections where this particular ex was concerned, though not exclusively physical ones. Instead, I just say, ‘Yes, that one.’

     ‘I thought you were over all of that,’ she says.

     ‘I am,’ I say, ‘I just don’t want to spoil my day by bumping into her.’

     ‘Then you’re not over her,’ she says.

     ‘I am,’ I assert. “I’m absolutely over her … I’m just not necessarily over my need for revenge over her.’

     ‘Ah, yes,’ she says, ‘that was a bit of a messy one. I guess some things aren’t so easy to get over.’

    ‘Well, you said I’d never get over Phil Collins,’ I say, ‘but take a look at me now.’ I wait for a smile. ‘Take a look at me … now?’

     If a face could morph itself into the perfect exclamation mark, this is exactly the point at which Nat’s would have done so.

     ‘Phil Collins? Take a … Humph! I’m here ‘til Friday,’ I say, as I quietly leave the room.’ 

* * * * * * * *

Most of us have at least one ‘awful ex’ story. I have a few. I eventually got to the point where I considered that as I was the only common denominator in them all, the fault must, therefore, somehow lay with me. But then a friend suggested that it was equally possible that I was just crap at choosing girlfriends. I liked his idea best.

     ‘Tell you what,’ I said to him, ‘how about next time I identify a potential partner you interview her first? Maybe run her through a short psychometric test? It can’t be worse than my method.’

     ‘I guess not, being your method seems to be to pick them at random out of the Annual Directory of Psychopathy,’ he said.

     ‘That’s a bit unfair,’ I said, trying to recall whether I had, in fact, inadvertently done just that.

     ‘How exactly do you filter for girlfriends?’ he asked.

     ‘It’s a simple list. Essentials include petite, nice eyes, nice bum, not homeless. Desirables are mainly that they might like me back … a bit. You know, something to work on. Oh, and whether they can ski.’

     ‘So, fairly rudimentary criteria, then?’

     ‘I guess so,’ I said.

* * * * * * * *

Both Nat and I have had our fair share of what we affectionately refer to as ‘whack-cases’, in our pasts. In fact, our individual stories would make a comprehensive set of ‘Whack-Case Top Trumps’, with an impressive list of trumping criteria to choose from, including ‘Reality distortion factor’, ‘Cheat factor’, ‘Gas-lighting ability’, and ‘Speed at which they lose their shit’.

     Apropos the girl with the ‘fat ankles’, I eventually turned to sticking Post-it note reminders on the bathroom mirror regarding why I should stay angry at her. For some people, holding a grudge comes easy; for others, we have to work a little harder at it.

     When I eventually met Nat, both of our bullshit-antennae were fully extended. What I think we found in each other was a mutual realisation that life’s too short for anything less than peace. Peace seemed a good start-point; that and the fact that we quite liked each other. (Ironically, it was peace that my ex eventually left behind when she last drove away with most of my possessions.)

     ‘But what left me most angry after that relationship,’ I say to Nat, ‘was not so much what the other person did or didn’t do, but the realisation of how much shit I accepted during my time with her, without even realising to question it.’

     ‘We’ve all broken our own rules for somebody,’ Nat says, hugging me.

* * * * * * * *

Several years later, I’ve forgotten where I put those Post-it notes. I probably should have left myself a note to remind myself. As it is, I can’t really remember very much about my ex at all, I’m not even sure I could pick her out of a line-up after all this time. The little I do remember about her, however, leads me to also wonder whether anyone else has ever had to pick her out of a line-up. It wouldn’t altogether surprise me.

     ‘As far as my exes are concerned, ‘says Nat, ‘I prefer to be absolutely sure of not bumping into them ever again.’ She looks intensely into my eyes.

     ‘I … um … I did notice that the patio at your old house was a bit bumpy,’ I say.

     ‘Shh!,’ she whispers, placing her finger to my lips.

     I know that she is probably referring to the fact that she now lives three counties away from her previous life, but I think I’ll stay on best behaviour … just in case.

Ex marks the spot?

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘I notice her knuckles whitening around her wine glass as she surveys the batter and flour wasteland that used to be our kitchen.’

I’ve managed to get home early from work so I’ve decided to use my time constructively by doing nothing productive whatsoever. I’m not very good at this so I’ve decided that some self-discipline is in order.

     I’ve chosen a movie, which is sitting in its case on the kitchen unit beside me, and am currently making a quick snack to go with the cup of tea that I’m about to put my feet up with. As I prepare this, I flip on the radio. The DJ is playing a retro montage of ‘70s songs. At the moment, ‘How deep is your love?’ is filling the room.

     After a few choruses, I feel compelled to confront this quite frankly disturbing line of questioning. ‘Mr Gibb,’ I say, turning to address the radio as I take the milk out of the fridge, ‘I really don’t know how to answer your question. And, more to the point, I’m really not sure I want to.’ I leave a space for the significance of my words to sink in before adding, ‘Oh, and … Hashtag: ‘Me-Too?’

     His response is not unexpected: ‘How deep is your love, your love, how deep is your love?

     I fear he’s taunting me. ‘Does your wife know that you go around pestering innocent people with your inappropriate questions?’ I ask this as I pour hot water onto the tea bag in my cup. I’ve decided that I’m not going to shy away from his harassment a moment longer.

     ‘Who are you talking to?’ asks a voice behind me.

     I jump and spin around, pouring hot water across the work surface and onto the floor. ‘I … um … I didn’t hear you come in,’ I say.

     Nat looks at me and then down at the mess I’ve made. ‘Could have been worse’, she says, ‘I could have phoned you while you were ironing.’

     I subconsciously touch my ear as I reach for a cloth to wipe up the mess.

     ‘Anyway, hello,’ she says, before repeating, ‘Who were you talking to just then?’

     ‘Barry,’ I say.

     ‘Barry?’

     ‘Gibb. Barry Gibb. Off of the Bee Gees. He seems to have taken it upon himself to start asking me unbefitting questions. Quite honestly, he was getting a little creepy just before you walked in on us. I was just letting him know that I’m not that kind of guy and that I don’t appreciate his approach.’

     Nat rolls her eyes. ‘His “approach?” You do know that it’s not all about you, right?’ She smiles at me as she takes off her shoes.

     ‘That’s the problem with celebrity,’ I whisper, covering the sides of the radio with the palms of my hands, ‘It so often goes to people’s heads. To be honest, I think he might be stalking me.’ I remove my hands and continue to dry off the last of the water on the floor.

     ‘I bet he’ll have forgotten all about you by tomorrow,’ says Nat.

     ‘I hope so,’ I say. Would you like a cup of tea?’

     ‘Did you just say wine?’ she corrects.

     ‘I think I might have,’ I say.

     Barry eventually desists, and we go into the lounge, in order to … lounge.

* * * * * * * *

‘Why are you home so early,’ I ask, realising that my movie-watching afternoon is now seriously in jeopardy.

     ‘I thought I’d take a few hours off,’ she says, ‘so that we can make pancakes together.’ She points to a small bag of ‘stuff’ that she has brought home with her.

     ‘Pancakes?’

      ‘It’s pancake day,’ she says. ‘Shrove … thingy.’

     ‘Tuesday?’

     ‘Why not.’ She replaces my tea with a glass of wine and a smile.

     ‘Thank you,’ I say, returning the smile but keeping the wine. ‘What’s a shrove?’

     ‘It’s the past tense of “to shrive”,’ she tells me.

     I pause. ‘Nope … I’ve got nothing from that,’ I say.

     ‘It’s old English. It means to confess.’

     ‘So, once a year, on a Tuesday, we all confess our … pancakes?’

     ‘Exactly that,’ she says. ‘It’s a crazy, mixed-up world, isn’t it? But, these days, the “mixed-up” comes in a handy-sized packet.’ She pulls out a batter mix sachet from her bag.

     ‘Don’t you just love convenience,’ I say, admiring the wine bottle.

* * * * * * * *

Not everything is convenient, however. Apparently, the highest ever successful pancake toss was achieved in New York, in 2010, at 9.47 metres. Unlike New York, though, our kitchen has a ceiling. This ceiling comes in at just under 3 metres, which is why, as I explain to Nat, my pancake tossing doesn’t seem to be going so well.

     In her attempt to encourage me to take a full part in our ‘shrovery’ (I just made that word up), she says nothing, though I do notice her knuckles whitening a little around her wine glass as she surveys the mess I’m making.

      ‘Um … Not a problem,’ I say as I hand her the first of the pancakes that haven’t attached themselves to light fittings or kitchen appliances. ‘Fourth time lucky?’

     ‘Apparently, in medieval times, the first three pancakes cooked were sacred and were marked with the cross before being set aside to ward off evil.’

     ‘I’d clearly make a good Christian,’ I reply, ‘though other religions are available.’ I say this as another piece of pancake slips past us from above, and lands limply on the floor for the cat to survey. This is the point at which I realise that I will probably have to forego any idea of relaxing with a movie, in favour of cleaning up the batter and flour wasteland that used to be our kitchen.

     Behind us, through the radio, the familiar voice of Barry Gibb continues to harass me: ‘If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby, If I can’t have you …’

    ‘See,’ I say, ‘Absolutely relentless. He just won’t take no for an answer.’

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘My biggest shock was when I wiped away her tears … and her eyebrows followed.’

I’m relieved to say that I married one of those women whose eyebrows are already on when she wakes up in the morning.

     You may think that this is an odd thing to consider but it seems that twenty-first century brows are not something to be taken for granted. I lived with a previous partner for five years before I found out that hers were not what they pretended to be. I’m all for shaking up a relationship once in a while but ‘imposter-brows’ was never what I had in mind.

     Having said that, I’ve also met women whose eyebrows were not where I thought they were. It’s a strange thing, fashion. Women argue that it’s a misogynist society that forces females to strip themselves of their natural brows and then to paint them back on again – often in a different place – but I wonder whether this is an over-simplistic view.

     ‘You would do,’ says my wife, ‘you’re a man.’

     I’m offended. I have never in my life sided with the idea of macho, and the role of the white van driver is not something I’ll be applying for soon. In fact, my teen years were probably single-handedly responsible for keeping Boots’ Number 7 range in business. Mine was a music-related fashion, but there was undoubtedly more than a little of the anti-macho lurking in there somewhere – a two fingered solute dressed in ice-pink gloss.

     ‘I’m not suggesting that we don’t live in a society where gender politics creates unreasonable expectations and pressures,’ I offer, ‘but I’ve never heard a guy say, ‘Check out the eyebrows on her’… at least not until recently.’

       Nat decides that I’m currently not worth talking to and leaves the room.

* * * * * * * *

That afternoon, I’m sitting in my optician’s waiting room, wondering whether the recent deterioration in my eyesight is due to bad diet, late nights, or over-use of my mobile phone. The last thing I’m prepared to accept is that it might have something to do with age. (I’m going to ask my optometrist whether computerised implants is a thing yet, and whether I can afford them.)

     I’m skimming through the magazine selection stacked on the small table in the corner of the room. It’s almost all women’s reads. I’m tempted by a title that I’ve not heard of before – The Vagenda, but someone has stolen the inner pages, leaving only the outer cover behind. (I consider the metaphorical significance of this for a few seconds before confusing myself and letting the issue go.) I’m guessing that this is a feminist publication of some sort? Something for another time, perhaps. I settle instead for a safer title, covering lifestyle and fashion.

     A few pages in is a photo of the model, Cara Delevingne, sporting perfectly sexy, full eyebrows above ice blue eyes. I take a pic of her on my phone and send it to Nat with the words, ‘See, fake eyebrows not required!’

     ‘Stop perving at models in the eye shop,’ is all I get back.

     I put my phone away, but then take it back out again: ‘I used to keep fluffy caterpillars as pets when I was a kid,’ I write. ‘I collected them from the garden and kept them in jam jars filled with grass and twigs. Sometimes, I’d smuggle them into the house at night but other times my mum would catch me and make me take them back outside.’

     It takes a moment for Nat to reply: ‘Why are you telling me this?

     ‘I was thinking about eyebrows,’ I write.

     ‘!’ writes Nat.

     I persevere: ‘One time, when my mum made me take the jar back outside, it rained and the thing filled with water due to the air holes I’d made in the lid. By the time I got to check on my caterpillars, they were floaty.’

     ‘Sad,’ Nat replies.

     ‘I know. Poor things.’

     ‘I was referring to you,’ she texts.

     Soon, I’m called into the optometrist’s room. I ask about bionic eyes but I’m told they don’t do them yet.

     On my way out, I pass a young girl and her mum in the waiting room. The girl is around three years old and is drawing a big scribbly face on a large sheet of paper, using a variety of fat crayons that she is holding in her fists. I smile at her as she looks up at me. Her mum is sat beside her. I look from what the child has drawn on her paper to what her mum has drawn on her own face. ‘She has your talent,’ I say, as I pass them both.

     ‘Thank you,’ says the mum, smiling.

     ‘It’s not a compliment,’ I say to myself, in my head.

     That night, I dream of Nat taking her eyebrows off at bedtime and placing them into a glass of water beside her. I wake in a sweat and reach over in the darkness.

     ‘What are you doing?’ she says.

     I find myself touching her face, feeling for her brows. ‘Just checking,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘If love is blind, how come lingerie is so popular?’

It’s Valentine’s Day AND my wedding anniversary this week. This means I have to prove my love for my wife twice. And both in the space of a few days. This isn’t going to be easy.

     ‘Don’t worry about buying gifts,’ she tells me, ‘we’re off to Spain in a few days, we can celebrate together then.’ She doesn’t, of course, mean a word of this. She once told me that she wasn’t into birthdays. That didn’t end well for me.

     I’m sat at work, scouring the internet for gift ideas. ‘If love is blind,’ I think to myself, as I roam aimlessly from website to website, ‘how come lingerie is so popular?’ Valentine’s Day really does bring out the cliché in people. I’m trying to come up with something that is simultaneously original yet not so costly that it gets me punched out by my bank manager. 

     Choosing a card is the easy bit, though I’m stuck between one that says, ‘You’re my favourite pain in the ass’ and another that puts things far more simply: ‘You’ll do’. Then I remember that I’m going to need two cards, so I buy them both.

* * * * * * * *

Nine years ago, we took our honeymoon in a small town on the southern Spanish coast. Every year since, we’ve returned there to celebrate our anniversary. So far, we’ve had ‘Anniversary Part 2’, ‘Anniversary 3D’, ‘Anniversary: The Revenge’, ‘Anniversary: And This Time It’s Personal,’ and a number of others in between. This year, we even returned in December and had ‘Anniversary: The Christmas Special’, with a guest appearance by a waiter who looked very much like Vladimir Putin but probably wasn’t.

     We tell friends that our yearly trips are designed as twelve-monthly marriage summits – a little like the annual Davos’ World Economic Forum, but with fewer elites and only one item on the agenda: a full audit of our marriage to date. We tell people that, at the end of each series of meetings, we sign off on an agreement regarding whether or not we should pursue our relationship further or merely call it a day and move on. It’s surprising how many people take us at our word:

                                                  ‘How was the trip? … You guys still OK?’

                                                   ‘Yeah, following a completed appraisal, we have decided to give it another
                                                   year and re-evaluate from that point onwards.’

                                                   ‘Oh, … OK. Well, I’m glad you’re both good for now.’

     In reality, we’ve usually just chilled on the beach and shared some nice food and drink at local restaurants, all shoe-horned between sunshine strolls and siestas. In the words of Tanita Tikaram, it has become a ‘good tradition’.

* * * * * * * *

I’m running out of days. I’ve not got much time left in which to choose the correct gifts. Should they be things that she wants or things that she needs? Would she prefer a physical object or an experience? Or both? And what is the accepted ‘spend-to-love’ ratio? These things aren’t taught in schools. Teachers were happy to relate to me how frogs have sex, but few were prepared to impart any real world wisdom. This is what our taxes are wasted on.

     I receive a text from Nat later in the day, telling me that she will have to work late on our anniversary, as she has to present at some kind of safety audit meeting. This lowers my options even further. I scratch off ‘Go out for meal’ from my list of maybes.

* * * * * * * *

On the morning of our anniversary, Nat wakes me up by sitting on me, which results in ‘Umph!’ being the first word I get to utter on our special day.

      ‘Ha-ppyyyyy Anniversaryyyy’, she sings, tapping me repeatedly on the forehead with the card she is holding. She is clearly more of a morning person than me. And possibly more of a sadist.

     ‘Happy Anniversary,’ I croak back at her, without feeling it necessary to open my eyes.

     ‘Nine years!’ she sings at me. ‘Nine years! You’ve put up with me for Nine. Whole. Years.

     ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I have.’ I try to turn over.

     ‘Open your card,’ she tells me, tapping it on my forehead a few more times before pushing it into my hand and closing my fingers around it.

     I open the card and am obliged to read it, which requires having to open my eyes. It hurts but I do as I’m told. ‘Thank you,’ I say, and reach out to touch her face.

     ‘And your present,’ she says, ‘Open your present.’ She slips a small package into my hand.

     With my other hand, I reach into the bedside draw and pull out my card and gift for her. ‘Happy Anniversary back at ya,’ I say.

     I slowly sit up and we both open our gifts together.

     Turns out that my spend-to-love ratio is spot on. How do I know this? Because we’ve both bought each other exactly the same thing: perfume by Issy Miyake. We both like this stuff.

     ‘Thank you,’ she says, hugging me.’

     ‘And thank you,’ I say, hugging her back.

     We formally shake hands before jumping into action and racing each other to the shower. She wins, so I return to bed with a coffee. 

     ‘Pressure off,’ I say to myself. ‘At least partly.’ I’m now fifty percent out of the water for another year. Only Valentine’s Day to go. Wish me luck.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘My wife wanted a cat, but I’m the master of this house. So we got a cat’

Last week, the cat took it upon itself to use our bed as a litter tray. Being we‘ve been forced to buy a new one, we’ve decided to go king size (bed, not cat). I’ve since been informed by my wife that our new mattress has a better memory than me. I feel I’m being attacked from both directions.

     ‘I couldn’t help noticing that he went on my side of the bed,’ I say, sulking.

     ‘You’re just being paranoid,’ Nat tells me. ‘Perhaps he’s not feeling well.’ She picks him up and cuddles him into her lap. The cat sits there, protected by its owner, giving me that glance that sits somewhere between disinterest and ‘Screw you’.

     ‘I don’t think I’m being paranoid,’ I say, ‘I think he was making a point.’

     ‘And what point would that be?’

     ‘That he doesn’t like me; the same point he was making whilst peeing into my shoe the other week. And that he feels he can do whatever he likes, as long as he has you to protect him.’

     ‘Does he need protecting?’

     ‘Not so much from me as from my laminator at work,’ I say.

     ‘Don’t be horrible,’ she says.

     I think about the cat, spread flat, laminated, starfish-shaped, framed and hung on the living room wall. ‘A homage to revenge and Damien Hirst,’ I think to myself. It’s the first time I’ve properly smiled since the bed incident.

     ‘I can hear what you’re thinking,’ she says.

     ‘I bet you can’t,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

Nat has volunteered to pay for the replacement bed, being Maurice is, after all, her cat. I consider this only fair being I’ve already paid in so many other ways for agreeing to have him.

     ‘I know the bed thing was unfortunate,’ she says,’ but isn’t he cute.’

     ‘You do realise that ‘cute’ isn’t so much an attribute as a weapon of choice,’ I say.

     ‘But look at his little button eyes,’ she coos.

     ‘Think about how different living forms have evolved and mutated over time in order to exploit their environment,’ I say. ‘Certain monkeys have developed strong tail grip for climbing … Other animals … well, I can’t think of another example right now, but that ‘cute’ cat face evolved with only one intention – to manipulate free board and lodging from gullible humans.’

     Maurice has moved off Nat’s lap and is now busying himself carefully draping layers of hair over my side of the sofa. I glare at him. He stops what he’s doing, looks directly at me and, without losing eye contact, proceeds to lick his bottom.

     ‘Well I’m not going to lower myself by reverting to your tactics,’ I tell him.

     ‘I don’t think your spine would allow you too,’ says Nat.

     ‘Fair point,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

 

When the new bed arrives, it takes me an age to drag the enormous mattress up the stairs. It hadn’t occurred to me that the frame would arrive flat-packed and that I’d have to put it together myself. I had also not anticipated how many individual pieces a bed frame could possibly be made of. Did Nat also order a book case or something?

     Being she won’t be home for another hour, I decide to surprise her by having the whole thing up and running by the time she walks in.

     The cat is sitting at the top of the stairs, watching my struggle with all the pieces.

     ‘You’re banned from the bedroom,’ I inform him, as I shuffle various bits of bed past him.

     ‘Meow,’ he says.

     ‘Don’t think that I don’t know what you’re saying,’ I reply.

     I pour the entire contents of the bed frame into the centre of the room and stand back to stare at it all. I’m holding the instructions (for what they’re worth) in my hand – a four-page onslaught of tableaud mimes, designed to avoid the manufacturer having to go to the expense of printing clear instructions in different languages. They’re basic and badly drawn – ‘just like Donald Trump,’ I mumble to myself. I smile as I consider the possibility that I may have said something funny.

     I’m hoping the instructions aren’t going to throw up the need for too many tools. Toolboxes are things that other people’s dads have. I’ve never actually owned one. My entire tool collection comprises of the back of my shoe (for hammering things into other things) and duct tape – a leftover from my gigging days, used to hold crates together and to tape down trip hazards on stage – and not, as my wife has suggested on occasion, to keep the audience from being able to leave.

     Luckily, the only tools needed turn out to be two Alan keys (thank god for Alan!) and something resembling a child’s home-made spanner – both of which the bed manufacturer has included in the small plastic bag that is taped to the leg of the headboard. So, here we go.

     After much swearing and two bruised fingers, the bed is … bed shaped. I’m quite proud of my work. I push at it, to see if it rocks. It doesn’t rock. Success.

     I bring in all the other furniture that I’d left out on the landing to give myself space to work, and make up the bed with the new duvet and bedding that the cat had made it necessary to buy. Finally, I place a vase of freshly cut flowers on the bedside table, on Nat’s side, and a silver tray with a bottle of wine and two glasses in the centre of the bed.

     ‘Just in time,’ I say to myself, as I hear the front door open. ‘Hello’, I shout down to Nat.

     ‘Hello. Where are you?’ she shouts back.

     ‘I’m up here.’

     I hear Nat’s steps on the stairs and prepare myself for her admiration of my handiwork.

     ‘Hello,’ she says, as she enters the bedroom. ‘Ooh, I see you’ve …. Oh!’

     ‘It’s the new bed,’ I say. ‘I’ve put our new bed together.’

     ‘Yes, you’ve … that’s a very short headboard … compared with the …’

     I follow her line of vision. ‘It’s … it’s back to front, isn’t it,’ I say.

     ‘I think it might be,’ she says.

     I look around me. With all of the rest of the furniture now back in the room, there’s no space to rotate the bed the full one hundred and eighty degrees it needs in order for it to face the right way. Nat closes the bedroom window in order for the neighbours not to hear how proficient I have become at swearing over the last hour or so. She moves across the room and hugs me. ‘You’re my favourite idiot,’ she tells me, and holds me close.

    From over her shoulder, I see the cat sitting by the bedroom door. I swear I’ve never seen a cat actually smirk before.

* * * * * * * *

Adrian Sturrock: ‘If you find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, perhaps you could pick up a bottle of wine?’

My wife is hoping that it’s not going to snow tonight, in case she can’t get to work in the morning. I, on the other hand, am hoping that it’s going to snow tonight, in order to ensure that I can’t get to work in the morning. This isn’t because I’m lazy; it’s because I have a low boredom threshold – and because I like snow.

     There’s a word for people who don’t like snow (besides ‘boring’); it’s ‘chionophobia’. ‘Chion is, apparently, Greek for snow. My first reaction when I heard this was, ‘But it doesn’t snow in Greece. Why would they have a word for it?’ But then a friend of mine, who is Greek, pointed out that Greece has its own ski resorts. The subtext to this heads-up was, ‘I can’t believe you’re so ignorant.’ His words were kind; it was his face that gave him away.

     I went on to question how much protection the toga offers in sub-zero temperatures, though I have since found that the average Greek person does not wander around in a toga. I feel cheated and lied to by Hollywood.

* * * * * * * *

Nat keeps alternating between checking online weather reports and peeking through the curtains to see if there is any snow on the ground outside. According to the world of ‘online’, we are currently on Amber Alert; according to the real world, it’s all rather normal out there.

     It’s a strange tradition, this need to guess the weather. It’s like a weird form of gambling addiction, without the opportunity to win cash. If I was the Met Office, I think I’d simplify things by recording one basic message to play on loop: ‘It’s January, you’re in the UK, the weather is likely to be crap. Don’t forget your coat and your scrapie thing for the car.’ There really isn’t much else to it.

     ‘Should I take some extra warm clothes with me in the morning,’ Nat asks, ‘in case I get stranded?’

     I’m guessing this question is mostly rhetorical and that she is merely thinking aloud.

     I pull out a selection of my mountain gear from the back of the wardrobe while she’s in the shower and place it in a pile on her side of the bed.

     ‘Thanks,’ she says, as she returns to the bedroom and packs them into her small rucksack. ‘What are you doing?’ she asks, smiling at me across the room.

     I look up from behind my laptop. ‘I’m researching,’ I say.

     ‘Researching? Researching what?’

     ‘I’m researching at what temperature the human eye freezes.’

     ‘What? Why?’

     ‘I’m curious. It’s quite cold out there.’

     Nat seems to be waiting for a fuller explanation than I’m currently giving.

     ‘It says here that … Oh, that’s disappointing …’

     ‘What is?’

     ‘It says here that our eyes can’t freeze while inside our living body, no matter how low the temperature gets.  Apparently, they’re protected by a series of warm blood vessels and the heat from inside our heads.’

     ‘And this is disappointing because …?’

     ‘Because I was looking for a dramatic fact about cold weather,’ I say. ‘Sometimes, one would just like to believe in at least one good urban myth,’

     ‘Remind me again,’ she says, ‘I married you because …?’

     ‘… I’m lovely. Keep up.’

    She looks at me with her very specific frown. ‘If human eyes don’t freeze because they’re packed tightly against a warm brain, I suggest you don’t venture out until at least spring.’

     ‘Not even your tears would freeze,’ I continue, ignoring her, ‘because of the salt in them.’

     ‘Oh, there’s no worries there,’ she says, ‘there’s no tears in my cold black heart.’

     ‘That was my guess too,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

I’ve always had a thing about snow. I’ve also always had a thing about chilling at home while everyone else is at work. This could be my lucky week.

     I’ve even gone as far as to make a quick post-it note list of things I’d like to get done during my possible snow-day tomorrow. Why mess around with weather predictions when wishful thinking will do just as well.

     Meanwhile, Nat has trudged down to the shed at the bottom of our garden, in her pyjamas, to fetch our garden spade. ‘In case I’ll need to dig the car out,’ she says, pre-empting my question.

     ‘OK,’ I say.

     She stands the spade up in the hallway, next to her rucksack of emergency clothing. Later, I wander past her Shrine to Winter, and place my mountain trekking boots neatly next to her bag.

     ‘Thank you,’ she says, ‘but I probably won’t need those.’

     ‘Take them anyway,’ I say, ‘And if you do find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, perhaps you could pick up a bottle of wine?’

* * * * * * * *

The next morning, we both get out of bed together and rush over to the window to squint between the blinds.

     ‘Thank god’ says Nat. ‘No snow.’

     ‘Bugger!’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

UPDATE: twenty-four hours later:

SNOWMAGEDDON!!!

* * * * * * * *

Adrian Sturrock: ‘Nothing messes with your Friday more than finding out it’s Tuesday’

We’ve both had exhausting days in the land of work and noise. We’re now at home, beached on the sofa, too tired to move anything other than our finely tuned wine-pouring limbs. It’s a lazy evening. Nat has clicked her way through every TV channel we have before tutting loudly, conceding defeat and handing the buttons to me in the hope that I might find something that she’s missed. ‘Not even the idiot’s lantern is coming to my rescue this evening,’ she complains.

     I’m pleased to find that we are both able to agree that The One Show deserves an even faster click-past than the majority of cheap shots that currently fill our screens. We have both, at different times, described The One Show as ‘the place where journalism goes to die’.

     I can’t find anything interesting either; it’s mostly programs about other people doing their day jobs, which neither of us considers an acceptable proposition upon which to base a television programme – or an argument for the continued existence of a TV license … or a TV. ‘Whoever would have guessed that a documentary series about an environmental health inspector would one day make it to prime time television?’ I say. ‘Can you imagine the discussion at the scheduling meeting:

                        ‘So, what have you got for us?’

                        ‘Well, we’ve got a series on wheel clamping, a six part season based around 
                        two women cleaning other people’s houses, and a fly-on-the-wall, mostly
                        camcorder, thing about a guy who works for the council and catches vermin
                        …’

                        ‘Really? Is that it? We need something to slot between the news and Jeremy
                        Kyle’s ‘My uncle slept with my dog’ episode.’

                        ‘Umm, we do have this thing based in a tent where questionable celebrities
                        make cakes for no valid reason? I know what you’re going to say but we ran
                        out of budget after ‘Britain’s fattest People, and …’

                        ‘(Sighs) … My God! … Well, desperate times and all that … OK, let’s do the cake
                        thing, and … that thing about vermin – I loved Ratatouille when I took my
                        niece to the cinema that time. Rats can be rather cute … when they’re not
                        popping up from inside your toilet bowl, of course.’

                       ‘Well, this guy’s job is to kill them …’

                       ‘Oh. Well … throw it in the mix; I’m sure it ends well.’’

     Nat’s not listening.

     I continue clicking the remote. I’m on my second cycle of the thing now. Eventually, I give up; ‘Ah! What’s the point?’ I say, switching the TV off.

     ‘Is there anything interesting on our ‘saved’ list?’ she asks.

     ‘We’ve watched them all.’ I say. ‘Some of them twice.

     She picks up a magazine while I switch on the music system.

     I don’t like it when we don’t chat.  ‘… My gran used to knit for the mafia,’ I say.

     ‘No. Please don’t …’

     ‘She was known as scarf face.’

     Nat reaches across me for the TV buttons. ‘… There must be something on.’

* * * * * * * *

Do you ever get to that point where you’re too tired to actually make your own entertainment, but your overactive mind still needs something to occupy it? It’s a harsh realisation when it dawns on you that you’re this exhausted and the week isn’t even fully underway yet. Nothing messes with your Friday more than finding out it’s Tuesday.

     I’m bored, but even conversation is appearing a struggle this evening. We sit in silence for a few minutes longer …

      ‘… Turns out that humans can only distinguish between around 30 shades of grey,’ I say.

     ‘Uh-huh,’ says Nat. (I can tell that she’s not listening.)

     ‘That means that up to 20 shades are wasted every time.’

     ‘OK,’ she says. 

     ‘… I guess the trick is to figure out which twenty. I mean, I wouldn’t want to discard the wrong ones … you know, run out of stamina before I get to the shades that matter …?’

     Silence.

     ‘I’m just white noise to you, aren’t I,’ I say.

     ‘Uh-huh,’ she says, turning the page of her magazine.

     ‘… Of course, with this grey thing, the amount of nuances experienced can change, depending on things like lighting conditions and surface texture …’

     ‘Ask me what my favourite letter is,’ she says, not looking up from what she’s reading.

     ‘Why?’

     ‘Go on.’

     I ask her.

     ‘Tea.’ She says. ‘It’s tea.’

     I sigh to myself. ‘Would you like a cup of …’

     ‘Ooh. Yes please.’ She continues to not look up but points to the cup she’d earlier left on the side.

     I leave the room. ‘Every time,’ I say to myself. ‘I fall for it every time.’

* * * * * * * *

Supplementary (24-03-2019)

– this issue continues: 

 

Adrian Sturrock: ‘I’m not stupid, I know who the master race is in this house.’

‘Is there something you’d like to share with me?’

     My wife has followed me into the kitchen where I’m sat with my coffee cup and my magazine. Without looking up, I reach over to grab a cup for her too. She is holding a clutch of letters which moments earlier I had heard tumbling through our letterbox and onto the wooden floor where, predictably, the cat would have been waiting to scatter them further along the hallway.

     Already audited, those pieces of mail that my wife has identified as junk are efficiently poured into the recycling bin. These same companies that boast targets to lower their carbon footprints are, it seems, the same companies that continue to post the dead remains of murdered trees over our hallway floor, on a daily basis.

     ‘And good morning to you, too,’ I say. I watch the postman through the window as he wanders out of our drive and crosses the road to deliver an interesting looking package to number 33. ‘Why is it I don’t get interesting packages delivered to me anymore, apart from the ones I send myself?’ I ask.

     ‘Well?’ she persists.

     (Sometimes, I’m left wondering whether the words I speak are indeed articulated out loud, or whether I’ve merely thought them in my head.) ‘Well, what?’ I ask.

     ‘Is there something you’d like to share with me? Anything I need to be worried about?’

     ‘Always. Always be worried,’ I say, looking back down into my magazine. (I’m not trying to be dismissive, I’m just not sure what’s coming next.)

     She slips one of the letters that she has been holding under my nose, letting it flop onto the page that I’m reading. It’s from one of our utility providers. ‘I refer you to my previous question.’

     I look up at her. She is busy fixing me with one of her more ‘enigmatic’ expressions – one of the ones she keeps for what she considers to be ‘enigmatic’ times.

     I look back down at the envelope and glance more closely at the name in the address window. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I’ll leave it for you to decide whether ‘Arian Sturrock’ does indeed illustrate a more sinister change in my political leanings, or whether it merely reflects the overall illiteracy of our current electricity provider.

     Nat takes the letter back. ‘It could be either, to be fair.’

     I look back up at her. ‘… Yes. Yes, it could be either. Oh, and … um … Heil Thingy.’ I throw her a limp salute while looking back down into my magazine.

     ‘I knew it!’ she says, sticking her index finger into my coffee cup before wiping it across my cheek and quickly nipping out of the room again.

     ‘Oh, very grown up!’ I say, mostly to the now empty silence … and the cat.

* * * * * * * *

While she’s upstairs, I reach across the table for my laptop and quickly Google Arian Nations, mainly to find out exactly what my electricity company is accusing me of. According to Wikipedia, Aryan Nations (with a ‘y’) is an anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, white supremacist terrorist organisation, based in Idaho, USA. ‘Well, that’s rude,’ I say. I research further but they don’t seem to have a presence on Linkedin.

     ‘Who were you talking to?’ asks Nat, as she re-enters the room.

     ‘Did you know that Aryan Nations is …’

     ‘Yes, I did,’ she interrupts. ‘They were also the United States’ first nationwide terrorist organisation.’

     ‘… You really do know too much to just be an office manager,’ I say. ‘Is there something you’d like to share with me?’

     ‘Not without either having to shoot you or make you sign the Official Secrets Act,’ she says, and kisses my head before leaning across me to search for something in the fridge. ‘So what was your letter about?’

     ‘Nothing interesting,’ I say. ‘Usual end of contract thing where the provider attempts to encourage the customer to stay loyal through the medium of hiking the monthly direct debit up to an excessive amount. Hardly a sweetener. In ten days’ time, we’ll receive a follow-up letter claiming that they are sorry to see us go. Same shit every year – just different provider. They spend millions on recruiting new customers and blow it all on failing to develop a retention strategy. They’re all the same; I can’t see the logic in it.’

     ‘A bit like the average marriage,’ says Nat. ‘Money and effort poured into the initial courting ritual, followed by an irrational cocktail of complacency and inertia for the next forty years.’

     ‘Wow, that’s a bit deep/depressing – delete as appropriate,’ I say. ‘Is that how you see our marriage?’

     ‘When was the last time you bought me flowers?’

     ‘Friday, after work,’ I say.

     ‘So, there you go, perhaps we’re not the average married couple.’

     ‘And when was the last time you bought me any?’

     ‘Yesterday. Along with that bottle of wine you finished off.’

     I look over to my left, to the yellow roses in the glass vase and the empty pinot noir bottle on the side. ‘Good point,’ I say, smiling. ‘Your retention strategy appears to be working well – you’re stuck with me.’

     ‘Bugger!’ she says. ‘I didn’t think that though.’

* * * * * * * *

     Later that day, I find a note from Nat sitting on my laptop keyboard. It’s addressed to a Mr Arian Stomach: ‘I am writing to inform you that from February 1stthe unit cost of wife provision will be rising to 3 bottles of white (pref. Pinot Grigio) per week, and a meal out each weekend (at a time of our mutual choosing.) I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for continuing to use this service for all your spousal needs.’

     I turn the note over and write, ‘Dear Mrs Stomach – With regret, I write to inform you that from 1stFebruary, I will be securing the services of a cheaper provider. I would, however, like to thank you for the service you have delivered to date, and hope that  we can form a contract again in the future, when I am once more a new client and can therefore access less feudal terms from you. Yours unfaithfully …’

     Within minutes, I’ve lost my nerve and have removed my note. I’m not stupid, I know who the master race is in this house.

Adrian Sturrock: ‘Travelling at a moderate pace along a mostly deserted coast road – this is my first clear vision of 2019’

We’re at a New Year’s Eve party with a group of people we don’t know, wondering at which bottle of wine this situation became a thing. We’ve been roped into playing one of those weird parlour games in which we have to take turns offering up a Christmas or New Year related fact about ourselves that our partner did not previously know.

     ‘Ok,’ I say, ‘at the age of eight, I played the Angel Gabriel in the school nativity play. I was handed two monologues and the opportunity to see the majority of my school friends looking up to me while on their knees, dressed as sheep. This was quite probably my introduction to narcissism, something that I have continued to cultivate since.’ 

     ‘And he’s not even joking,’ says my wife, mock-accusingly (leaving me to assume that the ‘mock’ bit is implied).  

     ‘Was this a pivotal point in your life?’ asks a guy sat to my left, dressed in a white tuxedo. (Note to self: never assume that anyone could ever look good in a white tuxedo.)

     ‘Well, the following year, I played one of Bob Cratchit’s daughters in A Christmas Carol,’ I add.

     Nat looks up at me: ‘Really?’

     ‘It was an all-boys school,’ I remind her, ‘so, needs must.’

     ‘And how did you feel about that?’ tuxedo man asks. There is something resembling concern in his expression.

     ‘Well, in retrospect, I wouldn’t choose that particular dress again, but at least I did learn to walk confidently in heels.’

    In my periphery vision, I see Nat quietly smirking into the distance.

     ‘And were you a particular fan of Dickens?’ asks tuxedo man’s wife, clearly trying to step away from any cross-dressing reference.

     Nat discreetly places her head into her hands.

     I glance at the lady, accusingly. ‘Look, I was a struggling young actor; I had to eat somehow. And, anyway, what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.’

     ‘… And this is how a double entendre can be so easily fashioned into a single one,’ says Nat, to pretty much anybody who still wants to listen.

     This was the point at which the game seemed to fall apart a little.

* * * * * * * *

Nat and I have a code word for ‘Let’s get out of here’. I’m not going to tell you what it is, for obvious reasons, but it was designed to be notoriously difficult to slip into general conversation, thus adding a further level of fun to our escapes.

     Within minutes, we are out on the street, Nat having pretended to go to the loo, and me having made out that I was just popping into the next room to get ice.

     ‘How did that happen?’ I ask, as we zip around the corner and head for the beach area, where New Year’s fireworks are due to take place in just a few minutes.

     ‘Wrong place, wrong time?’ she suggests. ‘I think we were just taken by surprise while we were busy getting our drunk on.’

     ‘Well, I don’t know about you but, personally, I’m glad I had my drunk fully on. Imagine having to endure that party sober.’

     Down on the beach, crowds are congregating, Champagne bottles and flutes in hand, set to welcome in a better year. We have our 12 grapes to midnight ready, as is the Spanish custom.

     ‘Are you really going to eat a grape every time the church bell rings?’ Nat asks.

     ‘Or choke trying,’ I say. I hand her a small bag from my pocket. ‘And here’s yours.’

     ‘Oh,’ she says.

     No sooner have I passed her the bag than the bells begin to chime. Fireworks send colours into the sky, and the munching of grapes commences, followed by loud cheers and a band starting up on the staging area to our right.

     ‘Tomorrow’s going to hurt,’ I say.

     ‘It’s already tomorrow, today,’ says Nat.

* * * * * * *

I slowly come to inside a taxi that is taking us to the airport. We are travelling at a moderate pace along a mostly deserted coast road. The driver has the radio on low, presumably to keep himself awake at this early hour. The sun is rising over the Mediterranean, throwing off reds and golds across the horizon line. This is my first clear vision of 2019.