My girlfriend is a geotechnical engineer. Which means, in brief, that she tells the ground what to do. This is no easy task. The ground, you see, is used to getting its own way. A bed of limestone that has spent many happy centuries as a bed of limestone would like to carry on being a bed of limestone, and reacts poorly to the suggestion it should embrace its new identity as a multi-storey carpark. Even if its cooperation can be secured, constant vigilance is needed. Because for an entity that is to the uneducated eye predominantly dirt, the ground can be surprisingly prissy. A rude word from a retaining wall, and four lanes of motorway suddenly become navigable only by trowel. A soupçon too much moisture for its liking and Westminster station needs to be bailed out with a bucket. Dig a hole in the wrong place and, well, prepare for the channel ferry to commence boarding at Watford.
This is the sort of capricious entity that my girlfriend is skilled at subduing. She knows where to dig and how far, how much pressure to apply and how much pushback to tolerate. Millions of tons of London clay are like putty in her hands. If she should ever find the moral high ground slipping away from her, she knows just where to drive the sheet piles needed to keep it in place.
It has been a long time, in other words, since I last won an argument.
Take the other day, for example, when she came home with an Idea. “Why don’t we get rid of some of our clutter,” she said. “Or, better yet, impose a rule: for every new thing we bring into the house, one old thing has got to go.”
Like a layer of Silurian mudstone which, so Wikipedia informs us, has survived beneath the South of England for two hundred million years without complaint, I took this latest development on the chin. I contented myself with inquiring, acidly, whether my six-month residence entitled me to Old Thing status or whether, as a New Thing, I needed to throw out the sofabed in order to stay.
“It applies to my stuff as well as yours,” she said, ignoring me. “I just thought it would help keep the place tidy. Wouldn’t that make you happy?” In this, may she be cursed by having all her future digs held up by the discovery of priceless Roman mosaics that spell out, in 16-point Latin, the words “you’re the absolute worst”, she had a point.
“All right,” I said. “Fine.” I went over to the bookcase. “I suppose you’re right.” I picked up, with trembling hands, the first edition copy of 1984 my grandfather had given me before he died. The title lent the moment a pleasing if unintended subtext. I heaved a dramatic sigh and approached the bin. Oh yes, we layers of Silurian mudstone can play dirty when we want to. On my way, taking care to remain within eyeshot, I picked up a hand-crafted ornamental heart my niece had made for us the last time we visited. I shot her an empathetic, lingering kind of a glance. “What can I say. It’s for the best,” I said, hinging open the lid.
“Those can go in the recycling,” she said, flopping down on the couch.
Silurian mudstone may be tough and impossible to wear away, but it’s also remarkably easy to walk all over.
Anyway, I thought to myself from a chair in the spare room, perhaps she had a point. I gazed ruefully at my half-dozen identical pull-up banners, seven feet tall at the most, advertising an event I had organised four years before I moved them in. Perhaps there was some excess baggage I could throw out. Slipping into my favourite indoor waistcoat, I resolved to tell her so.
Her idea – note the lower-case i – crossed my mind again today. I was tab-shopping on eBay (a useful alternative to window-shopping when you don’t want to forget all the things you don’t want to buy) for something important, I can’t remember what – like an iPad-compatible typewriter or a ruler for measuring the height of a ping-pong net – when I was reminded of our conversation. And it got me thinking about my pens. Yes, beloved Freudians, my pens.
My obsession with pens – ballpoint, gel-tipped, fountain-nibbed, or calligraphy – is matched only by the speed and illegibility of my handwriting. Never before has a man been equipped with so many tools his character renders him so unfit to use. Or at least, not since Donald Trump secured the Presidency.
I would call my stylomania a crutch, but crutches at the very least help you to walk. No matter how many pens I trick myself into buying, they don’t seem to help me write. I have pens that advertise companies long since gone into receivership. Pens that dried into chopsticks before they were first uncapped. Pens that spring leaks in so predictable a way I know just how to hold them to avoid getting stained. And yet, for all that, as crippling a case of writer’s block as ever struck anyone too proud to call it sloth.
Surely, then, they would be the perfect things to throw out first. Not only would that spur me on to greater feats of linguistic invention, but a single drawer-full of pens, disposed of wisely, would be my ticket to as many ping-pong-net measurers as I could possibly want. At the going rate of one-in one-out, I could even bag myself a table. And a net!
Ah, how I wish I could paint this as a redeeming moral parable. Get the necessary planning permissions to tear down the fourth wall and reveal a sober, disciplined writer, using his one and only ping-pong table for extended bouts of composition, assisted by his one remaining pen. Alas, how I hate to disappoint. This was written on my iPhone.