Tim Dowl­ing

Plus Coco Khan

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Tim Dowl­ing

I am jet-lagged, and ill, plumb­ing un­ex­plored lev­els of ex­haus­tion. I mostly man­age to go about my nor­mal busi­ness, but at least once a day I ex­pe­ri­ence an in­ter­val of all-en­com­pass­ing be­wil­der­ment. I’m I hav­ing one now, in the kitchen.

“Where are you go­ing?” my wife asks.

“Nowhere,” I say.

“Then why are you sit­ting there with your coat on?”

I look down. It’s not even my coat. “I guess I was cold,” I say. “Any­way, we should leave here no later than six,” she says. “For what?” I say.

“That thing,” she says. “I told you.”

“What thing?” I say.

My wife goes on to de­scribe some kind of lit­er­ary event. I think: whose coat is this?

“This is news to me,” I say. “I’m ill.” “Fine. Don’t come.” My wife has a very par­tic­u­lar way of say­ing these words.

At 6.15pm, we are in the car, on our way to the thing, with my wife at the wheel. “Turn left,” the car says in a man’s voice. “I’m not do­ing that,” my wife says. “Why have it on if you’re only go­ing to ig­nore it?” I say. “Re­cal­cu­lat­ing route,” the car says.

“I like a lit­er­ary event, me,” my wife says. “I do them all the time,” I say. “You never want to come.”

“I’ve seen your act,” she says.

A small pip sounds. A blue box ap­pears on the dash­board screen, ob­scur­ing the map. “It says you have a text from Jen,” I say. “Read it!” my wife shouts.

“On my way to Read­ing,” the car says. I be­gin to ex­pe­ri­ence a sec­ond in­ter­val of be­wil­der­ment.

“Why is she go­ing to Read­ing?” my wife asks. “She’s meant to be meet­ing us there.”

“I think she prob­a­bly wrote ‘on my way to read­ing’,” I say.

“Re­ply!” my wife shouts.

“What is your re­ply,” the car says. “See you there!” my wife shouts. “When did you learn how to do this?” I ask. “Re­ply sent,” the car says.

“Ages ago,” my wife says.

“It’s very dis­tract­ing,” I say. “You wouldn’t do it if you’d been on a speedaware­ness course, like I have.”

“I have been on a speed-aware­ness course,” she says. A blue box ap­pears on the dash­board screen.

“An­other mes­sage from Jen,” I say. “Read it!” my wife shouts.

The car an­swers.

“What was that?” my wife says. “Dunno,” I say. “Just non­sense.”

“Again!” my wife says.

The car an­swers again. Rain beats on the roof of the car. “Still noth­ing,” my wife says.

“He said, ‘light skin tone thumbs up’,” I say.

Four days later, I am sit­ting in the kitchen, still ill, star­ing in per­fect in­com­pre­hen­sion at a crossword puz­zle.

My wife walks in. “We should leave no later than 12.45,” she says.

“To go where?” I say.

My wife de­scribes a sec­ond lit­er­ary event. “Ac­tu­ally, let’s leave sooner and have lunch.”

This time, we take pub­lic trans­port. As I stare down at my news­pa­per on the train, my eyes be­gin to roll back in my head, but I pull back from the brink of sleep when the an­swer to 12 down sud­denly presents it­self. From there, I get 7 across. By the time we ar­rive, the puz­zle is more than half done.

We find our­selves in a large square sur­rounded by Christ­mas shop­pers. My wife points to an ad­ja­cent Boots. “I need some nico­tine gum,” she says.

“I’ll wait,” I say.

The sun ap­pears briefly, and I be­gin to feel vaguely hu­man for the first time in days. This time last week, I think, I was on a plane lis­ten­ing to peo­ple sneeze. I glance down at the news­pa­per in my hand and im­me­di­ately di­vine the an­swer to 14 down. I fish the pen from my pocket and care­fully write it in.

“You can­not do that,” my wife says, ma­te­ri­al­is­ing be­hind me.

“Do what?” I say.

“Stand in the mid­dle of a pub­lic place, in some­one else’s coat, do­ing a crossword. You look like an old man.”

Even as she says this, I re­alise that 14 across must be some kind of ana­gram.

“What are you talk­ing about?” I say. “I’m on fire.”

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