Saturday 29 December 2007

A routine check-up

When I turned back from the nightmare traffic jam on Thursday, I’d driven several miles back north, looking at the poor, stationary suckers in the opposite carriageway, before I finally found a safe and convenient spot to pull off the road and ring my friends with the news that I wasn’t coming. I nearly got away with it: the answering machine was just picking up as the phone was snatched from its cradle by a human being. I was reminded once more that my friend’s social skills are massively greater than mine. If our roles had been reversed, I’m sure he’d have detected beneath my “Oh dear, that is a shame” the fact that I was silently shouting “Yippee!” and doing a little jig around my sitting room. He even tried to persuade me that I should persevere, until I pointed out that I had sat through the jam once and driven back to a point before its start, so there was no way I was going to do it all over again.

Shortly afterwards, he rang me back to leave a message on my mobile reporting that there were indeed two major blockages on the A1 in North Yorkshire, one near Harrogate and the other around the latitude of Wetherby. Since I was speeding in the opposite direction at the time, I couldn’t help wondering what had inspired this research. Could he just have been checking that the traffic jam wasn’t entirely fictional, suspecting that in reality I had never even left home?

My mind drifted back 22 years to a time when I was a rising 31-year-old PR executive, enjoying a passionate relationship with his 21-year-old PA. (I should qualify the word “passionate” in the previous sentence with “by my standards”, since I’ve just remembered that there was a certain amount of moaning of a decidedly non-orgasmic nature on that subject from my then partner.)

I was supposed to share her professional services with another director of our company, and she’d been recruited over his dead body. He’d wanted to appoint the reliable old boiler who could take dictation and achieve some phenomenal typing speed. Whereas I’d been strangely attracted to the gorgeous, pouting, young, blonde ex-air hostess who’d scored 100 per cent in answer to my key question: “Have you got a boyfriend?”

“Look,” I said, in the course of somewhat heated argument with my colleague, “she can serve a cup of coffee and swim 50 yards without a buoyancy aid. What more do you want in a secretary?”

What I wanted in a secretary was in place not too long afterwards. Oh come on, this was the 1980s. That sort of thing happened then.

The only snag about this beautiful and sweet-natured paragon was that she had the Mother From Hell, and still lived with her. I realized the full extent of my (heartily reciprocated) dislike for this woman the first time that I persuaded her daughter to go out for a drink or two with me on a night when she had promised Mama that she would be home straight from work. “Oh, tell her the train broke down,” I said airily, calculating that anyone familiar with the then Network South East would consider that a wholly plausible excuse. I’d reckoned without Mother, who went off and rang British Rail to establish that the train her daughter should have caught had run precisely on time, doubtless setting some kind of record in the process. This provided the kicking-off point for an all-evening inquisition and row from which I was mercifully absent, but was compelled to re-live the next day.

Some time after this, the daughter and I were standing on one of those north Norfolk beaches I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and a similarly beautiful blonde arrived with her husband and three perfectly spaced blonde children. They seemed to be having a wonderful time. I thought perhaps I had reached the age when I should be getting married and starting a family. Then I reflected that, while my wife would be ten years younger than me, my mother-in-law would be only ten years my senior. A glance at an actuarial table confirmed my suspicion that she would almost certainly outlive me. I just couldn’t face it.

So instead of proposing I gave up my job, became a Recluse and spent a year writing a long novel instead. It’s never been published. The three black ring binders containing it are my children. Though to look on the bright side, at least none of them has ever cheeked me, had themselves tattooed or pierced, or become a drug addict.

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