Fancy a cultural charabanc ride?

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The Independent Online
Am I the only single-parent father to have noticed that for all the good cleaning liquids are you might as well tip them down the lavatory? Run home from the Europa Stores with haddock-in-the-bag, open it up and you'll find it's a haddock more or less. A cleaning liquid, however - least of all if it's marketed as Mr Something - will no more remove limescale than play the Brandenburg Concertos. Mr Instant Sunshine, Mr Flush Fresh, Mr Happy Surfaces - Mr Bollocks, frankly.

No point these days in seeking a woman's advice on domestic mysteries, so I rang my friend Justin Fashinu. "Soda crystals, dear," he said. "Cheap and effective," - and he's right.

That said, you'll know this feeling, I expect: the flat's been cleaned; tapas for two and pollo Andalucia, provided by Los Dos Pequenos Caballeros (Putney High Street) is waiting to be served, the rioja already in a bucket; appropriate music (James Last's Tyrolean Strings) awaits a flick of a switch; you, yourself, move with nonchalance below the waist among the preparations, with, in the top pocket of your John Lewis Partnership blazer, two tickets to Florence (Bollom the Cleaners' special offer) with American Express's three-hour cultural charabanc ride included (10 per cent discount to Spectator readers.)

Then, as the seconds, the minutes, the hours, tick by, the heavy dreadful fact grips you with a pain like dysentery; you're the same age as the Bishop of Coventry; you wish you hadn't acquired the motor bicycle sitting in the hall; and the new love of your life isn't going to show.

You'll gather, perhaps, that, following a conversation with my friend Andy From The Sixties, I made a serious effort, while he was away on a skiing holiday, to come between him and his fiance, Michelle.

"She's driving me mad," he said. "She's vain, deceitful, spoilt, manipulative, feckless, unfaithful, unreliable. She can't cook. She can't sew. She isn't even on the telephone." She's the ideal woman, I thought - and a plan began to form in my mind as to how I might win her in his absence. Nor would I, on this occasion, make the mistake I made with my baby.

My baby was respectable from the tip of her head down to her smart pair of walking shoes. At the age of 14, and exhausted by her respectable parents' endless drunken brawling, she left home in the middle of the night and walked 100 yards down the road with her most cherished possessions in a suitcase (a childhood teddy bear, some seaside shells collected on a summer holiday in Devon) and moved in with her school friend Simon's parents, and with his grand- parents, Nan and Grandad.

And Nan and Grandad brought her up to be excellent at doing things - remembering people's birthdays, wrapping parcels, cooking, cleaning, playing tennis (her second serve was forever being reconstructed at the Mark Cox Tennis School) - and she had a large dog called Boris and she gave dinner parties and the thought of her presiding importantly at these broke my heart.

Aware of Sir Victor Pritchetts' principle ("In the long run, everyone wants to be respectable"), I clung to the hope that this could be reversed: that my baby, who was already respectable, might want to be disreputable. Nor was I disappointed. In no time, and in a parallel existence away from Nan and Grandad, my baby became as mad as a bag of snakes.

"How's the second serve?" I said to her one night.

"Bugger my second serve," she said. "Pass the pipe."

She's mine, I thought, but later she scraped herself off the floor and said she was off to spend the rest of her life with a nice man who had a house and a camcorder and, invariably in his top pocket, two tickets to Florence, cultural charabanc ride included.

I'd not make that mistake again. Michelle might be disreputable at the moment, but Sir Victor Pritchett had got it right: sooner or later she'd plump for a nice man with money in the bank. So I asked Andy From The Sixties - who won't mind me saying that he has enough money in the bank for all of us - what dispositions for it he had made should he, god forbid, kick the bucket.

"My boy Jack will inherit the lot," he said.

Simple, I thought, I'd ingratiate myself with Jack, take him on outings, buy him this and that - the upshot being he wouldn't in the years ahead forget his Uncle Will.

"Anything he'd particularly like?" I asked.

"A Harley Davidson motorbike," said Andy From The Sixties.

I bought the swine and then, having gone to work with soda crystals, I invited Michelle to dinner at 8 o'clock on Thursday.

And when, by 9.30, she hadn't turned up, I put the television on and there was the Bishop of Coventry, whom I'd known at Cambridge, being interviewed, and I thought to myself, you silly old fool, you're as old as him, you'll be dead as mutton long before Jack inherits and, even now, Michelle will, almost certainly, be doing something illegal with a chap who has his hat on back to front. And, mocked on all sides by my fat and flirty preparations, I'd have dragged myself to bed had not Michelle suddenly arrived with her hair in a bun and without her legs.

"Hellooo!" she said. "What's your news? Do tell! Speaking for myself, my second serve's a mess. I say! The place is spick and span. What do you recommend?"

Soda crystals," I said. "May I remark on how lovely you're looking?"

"Thank you, kind sir!" she said, and she did a little curtsey.

"An agreeable glass of rioja, perhaps?"

"I wouldn't say no," she said. "Delightful music, this. Do you by any chance have two tickets for Les Miserables? Or, better still, a trip to Florence, the cultural charabanc ride included?"

This will be boring. How do I get rid of her, I wonder.