This week it will be two months since we took over the tenancy of our Dorset cottage, and in that time Matthew has become to the people in this village what Maris Crane is in Frasier, what 'Er Indoors is in Minder and what Rebecca is to fans of Daphne du Maurier: he has been spoken of but never seen. People clearly suspect that I am in fact a single mother who for misplaced reasons of pride has invented a husband.
The truth is that I have been so determined to have all his needs in place here – Sky+ and broadband, wine stocks, lime pickle, Sherbert Fountains, the list goes on – that I have hardly been encouraging him to make that journey down the M3. It is crucial, I believe, that I do all I can to avert any head-shaking, tutting, tearing of hair and general anguish, because that would deflate every last air pocket of joy that I derive from this cottage and this village.
Matthew, meanwhile, is enjoying what he believes to be his new status as an object of mystery. Half of him expects, and in fact desires, a grand welcoming party involving bunting, a brass band, schoolchildren singing a song written specially for the occasion by Mike Batt of The Wombles fame, a hog roast and, for reasons I haven't yet been able to fathom, a display of hot air ballooning.
The other half of Matthew, the "Jewish gentleman" who finds himself in a small Dorset village, anticipates some kind of pogrom. "It'll be WH Smith in Tavistock all over again," he said to me the other day on the phone. He was referring to the time he went in there to ask for the Jewish Chronicle. He was greeted with a blank look. And then, he says (though I don't actually believe him), he asked the shop assistant: "You do have Jews here in Devon, don't you?"
"Oh yes, my love, we certainly do," she (allegedly) replied. "We have a dew early in the morning, and it is very 'eavy sometimes."
So, lately, whenever we have discussed Matthew's village debut, he has given the same answer. "I plan to arrive on 5 November. That way we can get the party and the burning out of the way at once." During our Friday night phone call, however, the script changed. "I am coming tomorrow evening," he said, "ready or not."
The reason for the sudden decision to visit was that a friend of ours from America who has family in the West Country had called in to spend a night with me on her way back to the airport. If Matthew had not come to the cottage, he would have missed her altogether.
However, because there was no time for the villagers to freshen up the bunting (thankfully, he had forgotten the pogrom possibility), he was adamant that he could not possibly arrive in daylight. His visit, he insisted, must be a secret one. "I am sure it would break the people's hearts if they were denied the chance to greet me properly," he said during one of the 17 phone calls we had to discuss the fine details.
"Your standing in the village would plummet," he continued, "and you would almost certainly be dropped as steward for the flower show, and we can't have that." For some reason, he finds my appointment to this post hilarious.
The problem with this "under cover of darkness" arrangement is that it doesn't get dark before about 10pm, and our friend was leaving at the crack of dawn on Sunday. "No one has the first idea what you look like or what kind of car you drive," I pointed out when he suggested either wearing a burqa or arriving in the boot of his car, as Prince Charles did when visiting Camilla Parker Bowles's cosy Cotswold kitchen.
"And anyway," I asked, "how would that work? Even if you did manage to drive the last bit by psychokinetic power, how would you get out of the boot when you got here?" Louis suggested lending him his sonic screwdriver.
In the event, as we witnessed from behind a curtain, Matthew arrived in entirely conventional attire, driving in the traditional position, behind the steering wheel. Just before reaching the cottage, he passed a woman who was pinning a notice to a board, and she smiled at him, but he ignored her, later telling us that he thought he had got away without early detection. The most worrying incident, however, unfolded right in front of the cottage, just as Matthew was walking round to the boot of his car to get his bags. A dog walker did what everyone round here does, and called out: "Good evening." And because in 20 years of living in Shepherd's Bush no one has ever offered a neighbourly greeting of this sort, Matthew was clearly distressed, believing that his cover had been blown.
"A very good evening to you too," he said, and while I found myself sighing with relief as he failed to append a cheery "my good man", it then got so much worse: "And mum's the word. Let's say no more about it, eh? You didn't see me, OK?" I could no longer look, but Louis insists that Matthew did then actually rub the side of his nose as he repeated: "Mum's the word." Then he looked over both his shoulders to check that no one else has spotted him, put his index finger to his lips and strode into the cottage.
The first hurdle, as it were, was successfully cleared.Reuse content