Michelle's pratfall for Mr Pratley Lethal woman turns tame

WILLIAM DONALDSON'S WEEK
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I had always assumed that the class of all Pratleys was exclusively male, its members men who have mobile phones and take their jackets off, who ring at the wrong time with portly wine-bar constructions ("Methinks the lady doth protest too much!") and vaguely Spectatorish bookish waffle ("Leavis never realised that accessibility of thought is a branch of good manners, but then he was notorious in his lifetime for his cultivated social awkwardness.")

Further to my piece last week, however, about surfaces and soda crystals - in which I established my credentials, I think, as a single-parent father and a victim of the crisis in masculinity - I can now see that this view was rampantly sexist and condescending. The class of all Pratleys certainly contains one woman (Michelle, to be precise) and quite possibly others. More about that in due course, however.

Meanwhile, Mr Amis's current search for an objective theory of accessibility must be shared to some degree, I think - though on a less exalted level - by columnists. Certainly, I have paddled away conscientiously in search of the mainstream, but have been disappointed on the whole by my inability to find it.

I have envied, too, distinguished colleagues such as Mr Christopher Booker, who, when he reports that Mother Mortimer's Ye Olde crap English Tea-room in Ashby-de-la-Zouche is to be closed down by Euro-edict no. BS785T, receives 976 letters of support for the mad old tart and her home-made damson jam.

Nor have I been comforted by the belief that the Euro-edict arrived in the nick of time since Mother Mortimer's damson jam is almost certainly an outrage; or by the belief that Mr Booker's constituency consists just of the 976 beef-brained yokels who are still unconvinced of this obvious truth: that the sooner our arrangements are ordered in Brussels the better; who still haven't twigged that the only things our fellow Europeans don't do better than us can be found in those areas - irony, humour, the arts, cuisine, manners, philosophy, sport etc - where America prevails. (That said, I must admit that my friend Sir Forte's sausages at his excellent airport Grill and Griddles take some beating; further, that while our television is, obviously, the worst in the developed world - and this can be asserted even before the start of the new Lenny Henry season - our television criticism is the best.)

That, anyway, is how it was. Not anymore, however. The response to my piece last week on surfaces and soda crystals has been overwhelming, my postbag on Monday morning enough to turn Mr Booker green with envy. From far and wide, single-parent fathers have written in lauding this cleaning liquid over that (Mr Norman Bell of Hull argues for spirit of salt against soda crystals, while Mr Arthur Finch of Bath advises caution in the application of the former, pointing out that spirit of salt on a microwave will melt it clean away) and urging me to turn this space into a single-parent fathers' forum.

And so I would have done. Indeed, I had planned this week to discuss a prevailing dilemma unique to our condition: how not to feel threatened by the Chippendales or by the new advertisement for Glint shampoo, which, above a photograph of a predatory woman, features the slogan: "I like my hair like my men. Great looking and easily changed"; how, after a long day slaving over a hot word-processor, cooking, ironing and finding quality time for the kids, are we to feel desirable enough to please our partners?

In the event, however, a larger concern demanded my attention: specifically, how to get rid of Michelle. Since she moved in, the change in her has been extraordinary. Once she was the ideal woman - vain and elusive, uncaring, petulant and spoilt. Spontaneity and negligence, those were her areas of expertise. She possessed no code, only instincts, and sudden desires, suddenly over. Everything had to be on the spur of the moment - sleep, food, friendship - everything suddenly or not at all. She'd disappear for days on end and then pop up with unnerving, spontaneous demands. And all her compassion was directed towards strangers with only one shoe or animals in distress. At close quarters she was unforgiving, absolutely lethal.

But now she's always there, ever-present, sitting demurely on the sofa amid competing brochures (some for barbecue installations, others for gourmet breaks in Tuscany), with her hair in a bun and with her legs tucked under her. In desperation and in an audacious reverse play (bearing in mind that my previous plan had been to kill Pratley by confronting him suddenly, and when his blood sugar was low, with Michelle and her friend, Fat Pat), I decided to ask Pratley to dinner. He'd fall for the new Michelle and take her off my hands.

When Pratley arrived, Michelle ran into the room in an unbecoming party frock and did a little twirl.

"Voil!" she cried, landing almost on her arse.

Pratley was instantly undone, dug deep into his stock of curricular English quotes. "`Her arms,'" he burbled, "`across her breast she'd lay. She is more fair than words can say! She is more beautiful than the day!'"

"Flattery will get you everywhere, kind sir!" twinkled Michelle, and she curtsied into the coffee-table, spilling her Chardonnay '93.

Had Mr Rod Ellis been here, he could, by taking notes, have completed his anthology, How To Tell If Your Parents Aren't On Drugs, by the end of the evening. This would be a piece of cake.

"She'd be an ideal Mrs Pratley, wouldn't she?" I said. "She wouldn't let you down in Florence or at Hitchcock retrospectives at the NFT."

"Indeed," said Pratley. "But what happened to Fat Pat? She'd be great for a roll in the hay, unless I'm much mistaken. I've already got a Mrs Pratley."

And I'm still stuck with Michelle.

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