must have a word with Susanna about her morning breath.”
That is my first thought emerging into consciousness. Though the kisses on my neck are tender, I am registering bouquet of Scotch eggs with top notes of stale fish.
“Don’t be churlish,” my thoughts continue, “just let her finish and then quietly suggest stronger toothpaste.”
I open my eyes to a glistening black snout. I pull the dog from my face and hurl her across the bed. Susanna’s side is empty. I hear a kettle, the desultory movement of crockery in the kitchen and text her to bring me up a cup of tea.
“Can’t,” comes her immediate reply, complete with a sad face emoji. “I am in London.”
It is the children I’ve heard downstairs. Susanna has already travelled 120 miles to the capital city.
She thinks nothing of a 5.30am start. I have more traditional circadian rhythms. I wake at 7am but I stay up much later. I like to work late then slip into the back garden at midnight and get a good look at our fox or admire the circling police helicopters. Last week their searchlight caught me as they scoured the back gardens for a baddie. I raised a glass to the guy with the infrared goggles, my most meaningful human interaction of the day.
That’s because Susanna and I barely see each other. According to my Venn diagram, our paths cross for 28 minutes each evening. Twenty-eight minutes. That’s not a relationship. That’s a Downton Abbey ad break.
And in that 28 minutes we have to pack a lot in. Who is going to pick up the thing from the Post Office? Where are Tommy’s shin pads? Why is the tiny screw for the bathroom door knob which has dropped off been left on the landing carpet?
I reel off answers like an anxious contestant in the spotlit Mastermind chair. And then I half expect Susanna to say, “At the end of that round, Michael, you have scored 10 points – although the bathroom door handle is actually on the list of things you said you would fix.”
But then comes the really tough stuff. The invitation round.
“Ok, so we need to make a decision about Prague,” Susanna says.
A friend is having a 50th in Prague. They live down the road but the celebration will be in the Czech Republic. Why? Because in a world of increasing homogeneity everyone needs to work harder to feel special.
“We also need to make a decision about Nepal,” she continues.
There is a school trip to Nepal. The children will trek through a forest. Or build a school. Or climb Everest. Something. I can’t remember. But first they have to raise £4,000. Can a child raise £4,000? No, they can’t. I look out of the window hoping to God that job doesn’t end up on my list.
That’s the thing about modern relationships: you have to fight for them against the proliferation of micro-choices. Sometimes you have to run from the Stuffalanche.
“We need to make a decision about Christmas,” Susanna persists.
“No,” I say. “Stop. Just be in the moment. Just for five minutes.”
Susanna has many qualities but being in the moment is not one of them. She would rather organise the moment in three months’ time when a turkey will need basting while a fight breaks out in the hallway over Santa hats.
“I just need a provisional yes or no. Are people coming here?” she asks.
“Look at me,” I say. “This is us. Here. Now. Forget Christmas.”
It is the first time we have had direct eye contact that day. Sometimes I think Susanna doesn’t like eye contact.
“If I had a flat face like an iPad where you could swipe away the features you didn’t like, you’d prefer that wouldn’t you?” I say.
“Don’t be self-pitying. What are we going to do about all this c---?”
I estimate we are in the moment for a maximum of five seconds before her phone begins pinging relentlessly with updates from the corporation which exercises full rights over her attention span.
Later we are in bed. I kiss her neck like the dog kissed mine this morning, but Susanna is looking at holiday cottages.
“If we’re not going to miss out on the good places at Christmas like we always do, we should book now,” she says. I point out that even during the original Christmas some of the major players couldn’t find accommodation, yet they managed.
“They’d have had a good laugh walking along with that donkey,” I say.
“I’m not sleeping in a barn. I need a proper holiday,” Susanna says, stabbing at her tablet.
“Look at me just one moment,” I say. “Breathe.” Susanna considers my face hard. “You need to make a decision about your glasses,” she says.
First-world problems: will the children go to Nepal? Will the family get a good place at Christmas? Will Michael get some new glasses?