Before I explain, let me tell you how peculiar it feels to meet your future father-in-law for the first time after you've broken up with his daughter - not that I have (met my future father-in-law, I mean). But I almost did.
In the six years I knew her, Penny, my beloved, always kept me and her family well apart, being ashamed, I supposed, either of them or me, but more obviously them since it couldn't have been me. (And this in itself struck me as a trifle odd, since her father, Bob, is a distinguished architect and her mother, who lives in Cornwall, appears in other respects to stack up well enough.)
Whatever. The fact is that, within hours of his daughter doing a bunk with her fat man in hardware, Bob rang me up and - for reasons which perhaps only the fathers among you will properly understand - begged me to tell him why a well-brought-up girl would ditch a man like me for a fat man in commerce.
Being a father myself, I certainly understood his anguish. I know how it feels to give a child the two best years of your life and then to stand by helplessly while he or she takes a disastrous turn: in my boy Charlie's case, headfirst into the alcohol culture, in Bob's girl's case, it seemed, the road to nowhere with a fat man who owns a sailing boat and who at 6pm says: 'The sun's over the yardarm, I see] Care for a wine and water?'
'We've never met,' said Bob, 'but I feel you could help. I'm at my wits' end, frankly. Is Penny making a huge mistake?'
Here was a poser. Hurt and bewildered though I was, I certainly had no wish either to kebab my beloved's beloved behind his back - that's not my way - or unnecessarily to wound her father. The seconds ticked by while I sought to compose a dignified and reassuring answer.
'Are you still there?' asked Bob. 'Speak up, for goodness sake. What sort of man has Penny gone off with? Is he all right?'
'Absolutely ideal,' I said.
Bob gasped with relief. 'Thank God,' he said.
'Ideal,' I said, 'for a wine bar waitress, or a displaced person seeking a British passport in return for an arranged fumble with the lights out. I thought Penny might have done better, but have no fears; she'll be quite happy, I imagine, learning how, after a regatta, to preside at a barbecue for provincial tradesmen and their disappointed wives.'
'A regatta?' cried Bob. 'A barbecue? My brave, extraordinary girl serving sausages to yachtsmen on a landscaped lawn? I don't think I can take it. Do you have a stock of valium by any chance?'
Pleased though I was to have been of help, I couldn't leave my once father-in-law-to-be in such a state.
'Pull yourself together,' I said. 'It's Penny who'll need the valium. And it could have been worse. He could have been a . . . a . . .' My mind went blank. I could think of no one worse.
'Could we meet for lunch?' asked Bob.
Here was an opportunity. OK, so Penny, my beloved, had embarrassed me and, worse still, embarrassed herself, but I might yet forgive her if she came back to me again; and lunch with Bob - who was bound to report to her on what a catch I was compared to her fat regatta man - could only help to bring about this happy outcome.
A rendezvous was arranged, I changed into my Christian Dior suit and then, quite inadvertently, caught sight of my reflection in a shop window as I waited for a taxi. I'd aged 10 years in the last three days. I couldn't, I realised in a second, present myself like this to my future father-in-law as was. But who to send in my place?
At that moment, who should come smoothing down the street but Jack the Actor. Jack the Actor is an old friend of mine I've never liked; a man of about my age, but with the matinee looks - the teeth, the tan, you'll take my drift - of a below-the-title, third lead in one of those dreadful films the English used to make (still do make, for all I know); who now lives on the fourth floor with one suit and a trouser-press but manages to retain certain aspects of a dancing man (posture, aplomb, a suggestion still of rhythm in the waltz). He'd do.
'Here's a fiver,' I said, 'to play me over lunch.'
I coached him in the part ('Naval man, remember, shoulders back, the toes turned out, and go easy on the hardware jokes; we'll not want my father-in-law-to-be to have me down as a spiteful loser') and popped him in a taxi - thereafter hearing nothing for the next three days. On Thursday I rang up Bob.
'A delightful lunch,' I said. 'Er, - have you heard from Penny?'
'Not since she dumped her fat man in hardware,' replied Bob. 'You were right about him, and no mistake.'
My spirits soared. It's an extraordinary moment when you're about to get everything you ever wanted.
'Where is she now?'
'With you, I thought,' said Bob. 'More accurately, with that nice young man who played you over lunch. Penny arrived unexpectedly from the West Country, and the two of them have been inseparable ever since.'
'Do you have a stock of valium, by any chance?'
'Try Penny,' said Bob. 'She'll not need hers.'Reuse content