From the metronomic yet oddly plaintive sound of slippered feet on the floorboards above our heads, it is immediately obvious what has happened. Matthew has taken to his dressing gown. He does it every January and, any minute now, he will make his way very slowly down the stairs, holding the banister in an entirely unnecessary way, in order to question the very meaning of human existence.
I am afraid that I have no answer for him on this one and, while Louis certainly knows his own father, he is no more gifted an existentialist than most boys of nine. All we can do, therefore, is to sit back and wait for the magnolia (the only tree Matthew is able to name) to point its buds skywards, at which juncture his spirits will simultaneously lift. We have global warming to thank for the fact that the dressing gown is coming off earlier each year and are pinning hopes on the first week in February.
"What in the name of all the saints is the point to being alive?" asks Matthew. I ask him if he would like to pass a little of his apparently worthless life by drinking a cup of coffee, and he says, "yes, I will, but only because I imagine we have run out of Twining's breakfast hemlock." And then he sits down at the table and tells Louis that he is sorry to be so gloomy but he's never at his best in the new year. Louis, who has inherited his father's ability to mutter in a way that renders only the most pertinent words audible asks rhetorically "like... know... part... year... you... at... best...? " and returns to his Doctor Who magazine.
This year the "midwinter festival for the depressive in the dressing gown" seems markedly murky because we have just enjoyed a Christmas of such historic peace and goodwill - no arguments, no threatening to spend the next one in isolation on an atoll - and even Matthew senses that the sudden change in mood could be a bit shocking. So he takes the trouble to preface his, "what is the point...?", questioning with the words, "I don't want to seem unduly suicidal in front of a child, but..."
"I don't want to seem unduly suicidal in front of a child, but," says Matthew, sipping his coffee, "can you please cite me one compelling reason not to return to bed immediately and stay there until the Thames Barrier is breached by the melting ice-caps and the torrent sweeps the house off to damnation?" "Yes," I say, "I can cite you a very compelling reason. We have our first weekly diary meeting of the year this afternoon." The sound that follows this sentence is so startlingly loud that both dogs leap from their respective chairs. It is the sound of a forehead slapping into the palm of a human hand.
I have instigated the weekly diary meeting after a recent disaster when Matthew failed to remember an unbreakable lunch-date with friends. He, who ritually claims that we have no friends at all (hence the pointlessness of not just life but also diary meetings), insisted that he had made another lunch-date for the same day with some other friends and that his arrangement was just as unbreakable as mine. The result was that we had lunch at noon in Knightsbridge and then again at 2pm in Holland Park.
As a result we now both have exquisite new, Portobello diaries from Smythson's. The first-ever diary meeting is scheduled for 5pm, leaving 15 minutes for a full and frank exchange of engagements before The Weakest Link comes on. At the appointed hour I will make my way down from my office at the top of the house, and Matthew will shuffle in from his shed at the end of the garden. We will meet in the sitting room over tea and warmed, stale, mince pies.
Louis has been asked to sit in and act as an arbitrator for any disputes that may arise, and he is insisting that my tortoise, Miles, joins us as an impartial witness (we recently watched a report about the United Nations' role in Third World elections.)
I arrive early with tea and pies and witness the entrance of a clearly deranged man who is scowling, shaking his head, and hugging a shiny black Smythson's diary to his dressing gown.
The first eight minutes of the inaugural diary meeting are a shade fruitless. Perhaps that is a bit harsh. Miles does manage to pee on my Portobello, the 11 January entry, and the stream of tortoise urine dribbles onto the 12th, smudging Matthew's sister's birthday. Matthew contrives to spill tea on his 23 January, smudging his godson's 16th. Other than the designation of the 10th for the dinner at the start of the dieting contest between Matthew and a friend, neither of us can recall any engagements.
"Well," says Matthew, "This is tremendous fun and while I'm all for acting out the scenes Harold Pinter couldn't be bothered to write, all good things must come to an end." Then he stands up to rearrange the lie of his gown, grabs the remote and on comes Anne Robinson.
Halfway through The Weakest Link my friend Gerri rings to remind me of our theatre date which, she insists, is and always has been the 10th. She says that she has the tickets to prove it and, if I don't stop arguing with her, she is going to take someone else.Reuse content