Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

I crouched behind the sycamore tree. Was he talking about me, or was he having an affair?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Matthew has a morbid fear of letting fresh air in, a fear almost as acute as his terror of the countryside. Generally the only oxygen he will tolerate comes thickly imbued with cherry-flavoured pipe tobacco, which he believes provides efficacious exercise for the lungs.

To celebrate the opening of the office door and the onset of spring, I booked a holiday cottage in the Lake District for this coming weekend. Matthew, who unusually and, it has to be said, worryingly, has said he would like to come, can't join us until the Saturday because he has a live poker game on Friday night.

Piercing bossiness

Later, when I was weeding a flowerbed, I overheard a telephone conversation.

"She's incredibly domineering," said Matthew, "and I don't think I can stand it. It's her voice more than anything; the self-satisfaction, the stridency, the piercing bossiness of the tone. And the nagging never stops. I honestly don't know if I can take any more if it, which is why I have rung you."

I crouched behind the sycamore tree, waiting to hear more and wondering, since in fact I officially gave up nagging Matthew in 1992, after just the one year of marriage, who it could possibly be he was talking about, or if perhaps he had been having an affair that was just coming to an acrimonious end.

"The truth is," continued Matthew, "that I am only going to the Lake District to finally prove to myself that my relationship with this mad woman is finally over."

I didn't hang around to hear any more and since returning to the house I have been lying on the bed playing "Nothing Compares To You" by Sinead O'Connor "... it's been seven hours and 15 days, since you took your love away ..." I have also stopped speaking to Matthew, who returned to the house for his traditional two-hour bath just now. He has been increasingly curious about my silence, even mildly solicitous.

Sleepless night

The following morning, I told him I had heard him on the phone and that was why I had stopped speaking to him.

"Yes?" he said. "And what could you have possibly heard? Was it my conversation with my tobacconist, my conversation with the mail-order suppliers of my cigars, or the conversation with the man who runs the nut shop in the Uxbridge Road?"

"You know, the one thing I gave you credit for," I said, "as I rehearsed this scene over and over again throughout a sleepless night, was that you would have the decency to just come clean. You said I was domineering, bossy and mad. I have no idea who you were talking to. A friend? Or perhaps another woman? You tell me."

Firewood fiasco

"Her name is Jane," said Matthew. "And I have known her, if you can call it knowing, since yesterday afternoon.

"We first spoke at about 2.15pm, shortly after the end of The Archers, while you hid behind the sycamore tree. Jane works for the AA in a call centre. I'd guess from her accent that she comes from somewhere near Dunfermline. What you heard was an explanation of my Satellite Navigation phobia and that I find the voice of the sat-nav particularly disturbing. Jane kindly said she could e-mail me a map that would get me to the Lake District just as efficiently. In this way I am hoping to finally prove to you what a waste of time and money that machine is. That is my purpose in joining you this weekend."

He stood up and fetched a three-day-old copy of a newspaper, and showed me a story about people who were being directed by their sat-navs to a cliff edge in the North-east of England.

"It's the firewood fiasco all over again, isn't it," said Matthew morosely, referring to the time a few years ago when I caught him saying, "I love you, I only want you," into the phone, only to find after a two-day sulk that he was agreeing with the log man about how wonderfully a fine piece of yew will burn.

Yew logs

Louis, the dogs and I are in the Lake District waiting. Spring seems to have thought better of it, and winter is back, so we are sitting in front of a roaring fire of finest yew logs.

Matthew left Shepherd's Bush five hours ago. He should be here in about an hour. He should be, but he won't be. He rang a few minutes ago with a progress report. He says he has been consulting Jane's map while at the same time conferring with the sat-nav. He says it is part of his masterplan to prove the latter can't hold a candle to old fashioned map-reading. This is odd from a man who has previously always held that he suffers from cartological dyslexia and insisted that my main, if not only, purpose in life is as map-reader.

And while I can't quite understand how this navigational hybrid is supposed to work, it seems that neither can Matthew. "I'm just going through Northwich," he told me, and when I asked him why he had left the motorway at Manchester and was now in one of its suburbs, he said, "Yet again you wilfully mishear. What I said was I am just going through Norwich. The Colman's mustard factory is now on my left." I have no idea who will be jettisoned first; Jane or the sat-nav. But oddly, I am glad it won't be me.