Matthew has had his office at the bottom of the garden for 18 months now. He is very happy with it and he has become rigid in his habits commuting to it and from it. At 8.59am, he embarks on the 100ft journey down the path, and at 9.01am he phones home to report his safe arrival. He returns to the house at 5.30pm sharp for his first drink of the evening.
Admittedly today he was 10 minutes late, after experiencing what I told him was the sort of problem all commuters have to put up with now and then. He disagrees with this interpretation, blaming the fact that I inadvertently locked the back door, marooning him in the garden to beat his chest like King Kong and wail: "Because of you I am likely to suffer myocardial infarction!"
Oddly I am not trying to kill him, not even subconsciously. Nor was I trying to kill him when I left an Evian bottle full of anti-freeze on his desk and he came within a fraction of a second of swigging himself into intensive care, although he has never accepted this, just as he fails to accept that forcing someone to stand in the garden for 10 minutes shouting and chest-beating would be a foolish murder method. Especially when there are garages all over London selling anti-freeze at competitive prices. He wasn't remotely amused when I posited this argument, and noting his distress I have sincerely promised never to lock the back door again unless I know for a certain fact that he is not in his office.
Louis and I are on the outskirts of Bromley, on our way to visit Charles Darwin's house in the village of Downe, when my mobile rings. On the other end is what the missing link would sound like if it were alive today and cross about something. The noises Matthew (for it is he) is making are neither fully human nor recognisably ape, but somewhere in between. Eventually he becomes coherent enough for me to hear him accusing me of locking him out of the bloody house again. I immediately deny it and in response Matthew very slowly enunciates: "I am standing here on the back step turning the handle of the back door, and it is not opening. Who else could have locked it? One of Louis' geckos? The goldfish?"
"I do remember closing the door," I say, also slowly, "because it was freezing cold in the house, but I absolutely know that I didn't lock it."
"Oh, it's cold is it?" says Matthew, who has now evolved backwards from primate to Basil Fawlty. "I had no idea. I though it was rather balmy, but now you mention it..." I suggest that perhaps the wind made the door lock, and Matthew, whose tone is now icier than the weather, gives me two minutes on the impossibility of the wind outside the door achieving a locked situation. "Unless there was also a wind inside the door. So what you seem to be suggesting is that our kitchen in Shepherd's Bush has its own weather system?" I don't answer. Instead I offer to drive home and let him in. "No," he says, "You enjoy your day. I am going to find a way in if it kills me. Which is clearly what you want."
Stuck on the fence
Within the minute Matthew has called again to tell me he is stuck on the fence between our garden and next door. Again I offer to drive straight home, but he won't hear of it.
"Then why have you rung to tell me you're stuck on the fence?"
"I just want you to know what you've done to me," he says, "and to say goodbye. Tell Louis I love him very much. I'm about to jump."
We spent an hour looking round Charles Darwin's house, and the phone, which I turned to silent, recorded 12 missed calls in that time. Matthew is, by the time I call back, sounding cheerful. He says that he has broken 14 pencils trying to manipulate the key into a position where he can push it out. He intends, he says, that it should fall on to the newspaper he has pushed under the door.
From the manner of his speech and his demeanour, I would say that he thinks he is 007. I tell him to give up and go and sit in the warm in his office and I assure him that we will be home soon and that his ordeal is nearly over.
"You don't think after what I've been through that I'm going to take the easy way out now, do you?" he shrieked. "If I ever enter this house again, it will be by my own hand."
We have been home for an hour now, and it is starting to get dark. Just audible is the sound of Matthew scratching, whimpering, the occasional furious expletive and sporadic leaping around on the gravel; his repeated attempts at activating the movement-sensitive light by the back door. I have been down several times, but am always waved away imperiously.
Occasionally, though, he rings with a progress report. Just now I was informed that he had found a nail file in his office drawer and while he would have preferred tweezers he has high hopes it might be just the thing to push the key out of the lock.
I am going to bed with a book. If he hasn't keeled over with hypothermia, he'll still be there in the morning.
Glass of champagne
Half an hour later I am woken with a glass of champagne. Matthew is beside himself with elation for opening the back door in a few minutes under five hours. "That was the least Jewish thing I've ever done in my life," he says. "I took on the elements and a mechanical conundrum, and beat them both hands down."Reuse content