Days Like These: 'I identified the sound of Matthew's head banging against the steering wheel'

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The Independent Online

The phone was ringing when we arrived at the Dorset cottage that frosty, Friday night. And from its insistent, furious tone I knew who it was. Matthew didn't speak immediately but I could identify the sound of his head banging rhythmically in frustration against the steering wheel. He was clearly stuck in traffic in London, where he was remaining for the weekend.

I whistled sharply down the phone, straight into his Bluetooth earpiece, and that stopped him.

"Oh, there you are!" he barked. "and don't you dare talk to me about traffic. I've been out to collect a tandoori takeaway and it's bloody gridlock. So, for God's sake stop wittering," he instructed, "and turn on BBC2. Heller's on Mastermind. You'll have to be the eyes on this one, but if you put the phone next to the screen I might just be able to hear." The Heller that Matthew refers to is a very old very clever friend of ours.

"Heller?" I said, "But surely, Heller has been on Mastermind before, is he allowed to go on it again?" "Yes, yes," says Matthew, "I know, he came second to a vicar in the Magnusson days, but given that there's no double jeopardy with quiz shows in this odious country, he should be fine. Now, tell me what's going on."

Despite the fact that I was tired, that I had just spent three-and-a- half hours in traffic, in icy conditions in the dark, that I had managed to take my coat off while holding a phone to my ear, turn on all the lights and the central heating in the cottage, I had also managed to fire up the television and select the correct channel.

"Oh my God," I cried out, suddenly rejuvenated by the sight of Heller, "He's got a moustache."

"A moustache?" queried Matthew, "What kind, a Hitler moustache? A long, thin, twirly, Dick Dastardly moustache?"

"No, no, its more of a South American junta, Il Presidente..."

"Well, I'll be..." said Matthew, but I interrupted him because Heller was walking towards the black leather chair... he was announcing his specialist subject; WC Fields.

"Oh, Heller," sighed Matthew in awe. "WC Fields. What a brilliant choice. The man's a God."

"Who?" I asked, "Heller or Fields." "Both." said Matthew.

John Humphrys asked the first question, Matthew screamed the wrong answer'; "My Little Chickadee" down the phone and Heller gave the right one.

"Pause! Pause! Pause!" yelled Matthew, "Pause the show – some ape in a Vauxhall Vectra is trying to cut me up and I shall have to have words with him."

One of the marvellous things about Matthew not joining us in Dorset that weekend was that I hadn't had to suffer a car journey as his passenger – often we drive in convoy to avoid friction but every so often the waste of petrol and the environmental consequences get the better of us and we share a vehicle. That weekend, however, I had thought I had an absolute 100 per cent cast-iron guarantee that no motoring-related bickering could break out – until I heard, down the phone, that familiar sound of Matthew winding down his car window and embarking on a brief but toxic shouting match with his chosen victim. Then the window was wound up and he said smugly to me: "Never give a Vauxhall driver an even break. Now recommence the programme."

Heller scored 14 points in the first round and Matthew became very anxious when the next contestant made 18. "Be my eyes," he said, "what is she like, this impostor? How dare she beat Heller." I told him that she looked young and he was pleased. "Good, Heller will take her down on the general knowledge round."

Several minutes later, during which time I was allowed to shut the cottage door and put the kettle on, Heller returned to the chair and was charmingly droll during John Humphrys' friendly chat moment – they discussed Heller's brief career as a Hollywood scriptwriter creating Zombie Killers Versus Cycle Sluts, which was interesting, but the phone signal was weakening and I had to repeat everything to Matthew.

"Oh, bloody hell, this is hopeless," he said finally, "It's no good anyway not being able to see Heller's grimace."Finally, he pointed the car in the direction of the West Country and three hours later was settling down in front of the television with a very cold, very expensive tandoori takeaway.

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