He peered around the door, his face a blend of anxiety and hope.
The boys were sitting on the floor, engrossed in ludo. They were laughing and chatting quietly. Come on Jake, throw a strop. Jake threw a six and Adrian cheered him on. What kind of younger brother cheers on his older brother? He continued to watch them and they continued to play amiably, absorbed in the game. Eventually, Adrian noticed him. Both boys waved. He pulled his right ear, which his regular readers would recognise as one of his long repertoire of worry signs, and with a vague smile, he mouthed “Hi” in their direction and retreated to his writing space, a.k.a. “The Yestershed”, “Timbertowers”and “The Sanctuary”.
He was about to brew a mint Colombian latte, using a machine which had provided many a counterpoint to stories in his columns, largely thanks to his refusal to read the instructions or buy the right brand of capsule, when he noticed the time on his computer screen. Perfect. Wife would be bringing Ned and Aislin back from school in 10 minutes and they were bound to come up with something. They had never failed him, from birth to now, they were absolute gold, and as for Wife, that was a rather tricky theatre of war and he had often kept the velvet curtains there closed tight while he skulked behind the potted plants in the foyer for as long as possible. He automatically scribbled ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre of Conflict’ and ‘aspidistra’ on yellow squares and added them to the wall on his left which was thick with words and phrases. The paper pelt of the Post-it beast was rarely sheared. He pressed the button on the coffee machine, not that he wanted a hot drink, but a mini-anecdote could be handy. The coffee pod split mid-brew and the shed filled with the peculiar smell of burnt artificial mint with an earthy undertow of hot grounds. He pushed a wad of kitchen roll, supplied by his wife at the start of the year with barely suppressed exasperation, in the direction of the hissing brown rivulets, reached for his fragile thesaurus and slowly typed three sentences on a keyboard stippled with food remnants.
His inability to learn how to type efficiently was another stalwart source of column inches. He was daydreaming about scheming Colombian drug lords being soothed away from the cocaine-white path of nefarious doings by the application of extreme mint therapy when he heard sounds from the house.
His wife was unloading fruit and vegetables from cotton carrier bags and being helped cheerfully by Ned and Aislin. No good at all.
“Hi guys,” he said.
“Hi Daddy,” said his little daughter, holding a cabbage bigger than his head. “Are you going to help us?”
Before he could say anything, his wife smiled and said, “Daddy’s working this afternoon. He can help us another time.”
That was unexpected. On every level. He sat down, unnerved, at the kitchen table and watched the sunlit Norman Rockwell scene unfold. As though choreographed, all the produce was put away, all the wrapping was placed in the correct recycle boxes – recycling mishaps had been another reliable fount of stories for the column – and now the three were preparing the table for making something. Promising. Ned gently moved his father’s elbow to make way for a bag of raisins. “Mummy’s teaching us to make bixits with ’aisins and macadamia nuts.”
Ah, the dinosaur effect, as featured in the column last year, how children can effortlessly pronounce multi-syllabled names, as long as the words are connected to the monstrous creatures which once roamed the earth, while the nippers stumble over “toothbrush” and other basics of the modern world. He could spin this one into ‘the Waitrose effect’, or ‘the Hoxton syndrome’, perhaps focussing on pasta names for one column, then moving on to other linguistic groupings. There was no need to actually visit a supermarket, he could simply rootle in the kitchen cupboards, when Wife was out of course, and ask Aislin and Ben about the most promising items. The exercise would double as keeping them entertained, a duty which was occasionally placed on his shoulders.
These possibilities cheered him and he observed Aislin make wobbling progress as she carried a large bag of flour across the tiled floor. Her little jaw protruded with concentration. Would the bag split? No, he’d used split for the coffee story, but what if the flour was not ordinary flour but spelt flour? Spilt spelt would be too good to resist. Would the bag burst under the pressure of her chubby arms? Would the flour cascade over the floor, a domestic Anish Kapoor? Would she reach the table, only for the bag to land in the butter? None of the above, as it happened.
“I have a few minutes to spare, you know, if you need an extra…” He mumbled this in as casual a manner as he could muster.
“You’ll have to wash your hands first, Daddy, they’re all dirty,” cautioned Aislin, displaying her pristine palms.
He looked down, as though surprised to own a pair of hands, and saw coffee pod smears in a shade which looked, well, faecal. Disgusted by the image, he fled to the downstairs toilet and washed away the offending streaks while reading, once more, his framed certificate for Columnist of the Year. He had only one child, Jake, when that was awarded. The further progeny, sundry pets and all their travails, misunderstandings and conflicts, not to mention Wife’s contribution to the theatre of war in the suburbs, yes, that theatrical metaphor would be very useful, had kept him going financially, but no more awards appeared.
He opened the toilet door, confident that he would be assailed and rewarded by sounds of fury from the kitchen. The soft murmur of contented bakers came cruelly to him on the fruit-scented air.
His wife breezed out of the kitchen and caught him looking petulant.
“They made extra-big biscuits for you Si, because they said you were looking sad. Isn’t that sweet?”
“Um, lovely, yeah. Look, what’s going on?”
“On? Life’s going on.” She laughed and stroked his cheek. Her hand smelled of vanilla.
“Isn’t that enough?”
“It’s just that, well, by now, normally….”
“Oh, that. We’ve given that up. Pointless and unhealthy. And it’s all thanks to you.”
His mouth dried up. “Me? How?” he croaked.
“Well, not you exactly, your magazine. I was having a clear out and found a box of back issues and I spotted another column, you know, the one by Tunstall Barclay.”
His face was a blank.
“You know, the one called ‘Think On’, with the smart graphics at the top. You must have read them – it’s the first thing you see when you open the mag from the back.”
He was about to parry with “Most people read from the beginning, and I’m at the beginning”, but curiosity and a complete ignorance of Tunstall Barclay held him back.
“And…?” he asked wittily.
“And they are really great, full of practical advice, backed up by studies, and easy to follow.”
“And they’re about cooking.”
“No, Si, they’re about psychology and behaviour, that’s why they’re called ‘Think on’. You are funny. Anyway, we’re trying out the advice and things couldn’t be better. It’s a revelation.”
This was a lot to take in and he looked around the hallway while his thoughts ran about whimpering and biting their knuckles. The hallway, he slowly realised, was not full of its usual trip hazards, broken umbrellas and mouldy cagoules. How had he not noticed the reappearance of the floorboards and the coat hooks?
“So, Hels, that means…”
She hugged him and rested her head on his bony chest. “It means, dear heart, that we are having a lot less strife and a lot more smiling in this household, at last.”
Fortunately, this was spoken into his flannel shirt, otherwise Helen would have seen the colour drain from his face, much as he envisaged his income swiftly trickling away if he had no regular flow of family squabbles to chronicle. He would have to, deep breath, make things up. Or, deeper breath, leave the house to find conflict to copy down in rib-tickling detail. He would have to work.
He weakly returned her hug and muttered about “checking on the boys”. He limped into the sitting room, hoping that this was all a nightmare and that board games had been working their infernal magic to generate vicious arguments and violence.
Ludo tidied away, the boys were now on their laptops. He crept up.
“Dad!” said Jake without turning around. “You’re going to love this! We’ve worked on it for a whole 40 minutes.”
“Hang on Dad,” said Adrian. “OK, I’ve finished the last sentence on part 3. We’re ready. This is for you Dad, it’s me and Jake’s new blog, inspired by your stuff, and the first one’s racking up the hits already.”
The boys leaned back and he leaned forward to read: “He pokes his head round the door. He looks like a mash-up of angsty and…”