how to mess up a relationship

Christopher Taylor's life was clean and ordered - then he moved in with his girlfriend...
THERE I was the other day, minding my own business, quietly trying to alphabetise my record collection within its current genre order when I found an early Kate Bush stuffed in with some mid-period Sonic Youth.

I immediately realised what had happened.

"Have you been playing my records again?" I asked my girlfriend, trying to conceal the irritation in my voice with a mask of sweetness. "Um, I think so. Yeah," she replied, looking up from her magazine.

"And what did you do with the record afterwards?" I asked, luring her into my trap.

"I don't know," she scowled, "I stuck it back up there. What does it matter?" I was, frankly, incredulous.

"What does it matter?" I grimaced. "Don't you realise that there is a finely-balanced filing system here? You can't just come along and stick in a Kate Bush next to a Sonic Youth. What if I'd needed to find it quickly? I'd have searched in vain in the female British singer/songwriter category, wouldn't I?"

She just looked at me as if I were mad and threw her magazine down on the floor with all the others.

Now please don't get me wrong. I am not an unreasonable man. I smile at small children, usually. I am polite to other people's grandparents, I have laughed at Bob Monkhouse.

But I just can't deal with my girlfriend's messiness. I love her with all my heart and I would gladly fall in front of a speeding train for her. But the piles of clothes, dirty and clean all mixed, the vast array of oozing bathroom products, the mountains of papers and books and shoes and make-up and letters and magazines and records ... Well, I have issues with them. And it's worse when she messes my stuff up.

Clutter, like beauty or the artistic merit of a Keanu Reeves film, is in the eye of the beholder. And, like most annoyances, it is defined by the person who is annoyed.

Now, when we moved in together it was fine. Of course I knew she was a bit messy, we used to joke about it when I stayed at hers. And she did try at first, but then it just seemed to evolve. The dirty cups behind the sofa, the socks in the sink. The mess grew like a creature in its own right.

Time passed and we eventually gave up the attempts to keep an enigmatic mystique in our relationship. We finally breathed out and broke wind, and both declared a point of principle. She was, she said, expressing herself, and if I didn't like it then maybe it showed I didn't really like her.

Was she expressing herself while creating ringmarks on the kitchen surfaces that I had to re-bleach in her wake? Was she expressing herself by skewing the geometric beauty of my magazines on the coffee table? And was she really expressing herself when she shouted at me for doing the washing up while food was still cooking? So what if the food was a bit cool, that's what microwaves are for.

Living together is definitely the thing which defines the potential success or failure of a relationship. Yes, good sex is important. Fine, having things in common will oil the wheels. But the ability to pick your partner's pubic hairs out of the plug hole with a smile on your face is the true test of compatibility.

So what could I do to save the relationship? I really couldn't fathom her slobbishness, but maybe if I could define what had made me a tidy person I could find some way of explaining to her. Thinking about it, I remembered that my mother was almost pathological about tidiness. Whenever I came back from a friend's house all she would be interested in was their decor. And friends were hardly welcomed at mine for fear they would find the place too untidy and send back negative reports.

Thursday was my day of dread, for Thursday was Cleaning Day. My mother hated that day but she went through the same ritual every week. She would be appalled and disgusted at the state of my messy brother's and sister's rooms. She would cry with frustration. She would boil with rage. And then she would visit it all on me, as I got back first from school. It made me feel that by being tidy I could try to stop her getting upset.

And anyway, I'd always had the smallest room in my house. It was a box and to have one thing out of place was to lose half of the things I had.

As I thought about it I realised that my tidiness was so much more than just each thing in its place; it was a state of mind. In such a small environment, clutter gave me terrible claustrophobia, and putting things in order calmed me down. And in a house with a stormy atmosphere, if I couldn't sort out the grown-ups I could at least sort out my room.

With a growing sense of worry I began to wonder, have I been too hard on my girlfriend? OK, she is untidy but maybe it's me that has the obsession. Here I am, after all, an adult male fighting the urge to arrange the glasses in the cupboard in size and shape order.

Maybe her mess really does express her sense of security. Maybe I should be thankful that she can be so patient with me. And maybe her piles of stuff are truly an expression of the thing that makes her who she is, the woman I love.

Ask me the next time I'm picking her pubic hair out of the plug hole.