A short story about obsession, revenge and beer mats

Miles Kington
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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE OFTEN complain to me that novels are far too long these days. Not today they aren't! Here, for your reading comfort, is a COMPLETE modern novel called `The Beer Mat Lover' which is less than 1,000 words long.

"SOONER OR later you're going to have to make up your mind which one you like better - is it your wonderful collection of beer mats or is it me?"

That was the question that my wife fired at me one day about two years ago. People talk about men popping the question before they get married, but they never talk about the question that women pop after marriage has taken place, and that is the question. All men will recognise it. It is the wife gradually realising that there is something else in a man's life apart from her and deciding to challenge it.

In your case it may be sports cars or antique guns. In my case, it's beer mats. All right, call it a silly hobby if you like, but it's no worse than collecting toy cars or theatre programmes, which plenty of grown- ups do. I once saw Dr Roy Strong, director of the Victoria & Albert as he then was, talking about the museum's collection of 16th-century watches on TV, and I remember thinking to myself - OK, it's old watches with you, mate, with me it's beer mats. But what's the big difference when it comes down to it?

In any case, beer mats teach you a lot, about geography, and about advertising, and about... well, about the different ways in which people mop up beer stains in different countries. All right then, beer mats don't teach you anything, but George VI collected postage stamps and what did that ever teach him? I rest my case. In my case, my wife chose a startling strategy - she decided to pretend that I really had changed and had really got rid of my beer mats. She then moved on to the task of turning me into a new man.

"What you've got to do now is get in touch with your own feelings," she would say.

One day I had nothing better to do, so I did get in touch with my own feelings. It was a revelation. I had five main feelings: fear, insecurity, jealousy, love of beer mats and revenge. I thought I would deal with the feelings of revenge first, as they sounded more fun.

"I've been in touch with my feelings," I told her. "So what do I do now?"

"Examine them honestly and deal with them openly," she said.

I examined my feelings of revenge and found that they centred mostly on a boy called Johnson who had bullied me at school. In the years when I was getting married and having children and collecting beer mats I hadn't thought about him much, but every now and then his image would float in front of me and I would feel rage and impotent fury well up, and I would have to breathe deeply till it went away. My first wife got to know the symptoms well. Whenever I started breathing audibly, she would say: "Stop thinking about Johnson."

"I can't help it," I would say. "Now that I"m big enough to hit him back, I really want to do it."

"He's probably rich and powerful by now and got a minder to stop you doing it, so don't bother."

That was the difference between my first wife and the second. My first wife told me to forget about Johnson. My second wife told me to examine my feelings of revenge and do something about them. That meant, search out Johnson and punch him. Of course, she didn't know she was encouraging me to do exactly that, but I felt sure she was right.

By an extraordinary coincidence, I bumped into an old school friend who still kept in touch with Johnson and told me where he was. While the heat of revenge was still on me, I went round to Johnson's office and demanded to see him.

"Yes?" said Johnson, looking up at me as I entered his office. He had gone grey and looked a little frail. I reckoned I could clear his desk and start punching him within five seconds. I just needed to taunt him a bit first.

"Remember me?" I said.

"No," said Johnson.

While wondering what to say next, my eye fell on his desk. I couldn't believe it. There was a beer mat lying there.

"My God!" I said. "You've got one of the early Thomson & Wootton Kent Brewery beer mats! I've never seen one in the flesh before!"

"I collect them a bit," said Johnson. "Are you interested?"

The upshot was that instead of punching him, I asked him home to dinner to look at my collection. He and my wife got on very well. In fact, they are now living together somewhere near Amersham in Berkshire. She probably thinks she can make something of him. But once a bully, always a bully, I say.

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