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The suggestible woman

By Richard Glover

Living with a suggestible woman is a lottery. Especially if she's a big reader. For years, Jocasta's mood has been influenced by what she's been reading. These days, it tends to go a step further and she becomes whatever she's reading. Some nights I stumble home and find I'm living with Nigella Lawson. Other nights and it's Andrea Dworkin.

Monday and I spot Jocasta lying on the couch, looking combative yet kind of sexy. 'You, baby,' she says, 'are as sly as ten flies. Where have you been?'

I challenge her immediately. 'You've been getting into the Tennessee Williams again, haven't you?' I say, looking down at her. 'I thought we had a deal about that?'

'Well, honey, I just had myself the tiniest read. You know how fragile I've been feeling. And I can no more control those children than rule the storms of the sea.' And with that Jocasta swoons back on the couch, quietly sobbing.

I console myself with the thought: the Tennessee Williams phase might only last a couple of days. Jocasta is a fast reader. By midweek, she'll be onto something else. It could be an Elmore Leonard thriller. An Emily Brontė romance. More hopefully, a cookbook.

I quickly collect the plays, which she has left scattered on the coffee table next to an empty pitcher of mint julep. I search the shelves for something more robust. Maybe some Thea Astley or Fay Weldon. Some short stories perhaps, distilled and potent, so I can get the stuff into her real fast.

Wednesday we meet up after work and she's already found herself something new. It's a biography of the Dalai Lama: complete with tips on living a virtuous life. She reads out a few bits about restraint and tolerance and love. It's a wonderful book, she says. We head to a friend's place for dinner, me driving, and Jocasta giving directions. She notices a car with a flashing blinker. 'That fellow wants to turn into our lane. Why don't you let him?'

'Fellow'? Jocasta has never used a word like 'fellow' in her life. Jocasta's normal patois is located somewhere between a Sydney wharfie and a Chicago mobster. I slow down and let the guy slip in front of me. Jocasta rewards me with a little serene smile.

'Exercising restraint towards other road users can be a very pleasurable thing.' She gives another Buddha-like smile. 'Not that virtue needs any reward. It brings its own reward.' In the rear-vision mirror I can see my own face. I can't take much more of this. The car, for a start, has run out of sick bags.

Mind you, Jocasta is not the only one who is suggestible. I've got the same problem. Thursday and I'm halfway through an Evelyn Waugh book and am behaving like a floppy-haired aristocrat. 'Dinner, old chaps,' I yell to the old chaps. I tighten my cravat in front of the mirror, then hasten to the table. 'It's pretty good tuck tonight, by all accounts,' I say to no one in particular, the butler being unaccountably absent.

Jocasta, meanwhile, is getting into some heavy-grade Dashiell Hammett and is draped over the kitchen bench like a trash-talking blonde bombshell, looking sensational. 'What's a guy like you doing with a dame like me?' she purrs, uncrossing and then crossing her shapely legs. 'I'm nothing but a pile of leaves that just blew from one gutter to another.'

The thought strikes me: if I weren't a homosexual Brit with a teddy bear obsession, I'd really go for her.

Friday I walk in, wearing a pair of blue chinos, my muscles clearly outlined again my Buck Brothers shirt, a stain of sweat across my chest. I've been reading a lot of Pete Dexter, and I'm looking forward to sharing a meal with my woman. 'You are one gorgeous babe,' I tell her, to which she replies: 'I am alive - I guess - but how cold - I grow.'

I make myself a pledge: tomorrow I'll burn all her Emily Dickinson.

Saturday, I've shifted to a Tony Parsons book and stagger in, full of confused but rather delightful male energy. Plus a bottle of wine. Jocasta's been reading the Sex and the City book - the one I thoughtfully put in her briefcase the night before. She commandeers the wine and pours two glasses. I wrap an arm around her and nuzzle closer, talking in an amusing, snaggish way about our life together. This, I tell her, is the real us: me charming her with bon mots and little self-deprecating asides; her laughing girlishly, while slowly removing her clothing.

It's taken some work, and a little subterfuge, but finally we are momentarily united. I lead her to the bedroom, grateful that we are both at last on the same page.

When Sunday dawns the atmosphere has chilled. I've only just awoken after the frenzied delights of the night before, but I can see Jocasta is already reading. Inwardly I groan: it's Tolstoy. Even worse: Sunday is a pretty busy day - we've got to do the shopping, clean the house and take our two sons to their soccer matches. I cannot imagine the combination with Tolstoy will be a good one.

Jocasta swings herself out of bed, her eyes fixed to the book, and wanders out to the back porch. Some hours pass. I send Batboy and his younger brother, The Space Cadet, to check on her. 'She's just sitting there, Dad,' says The Space Cadet. 'Reading.'

I whisper to Batboy: 'Go ask her what time your soccer is and whether it's our turn to bring the oranges.' I watch Batboy as he goes out and speaks to her. It's good news. I can see she's saying something back.

'What was it?' I ask Batboy when he returns. He grimaces. 'She says Vronsky has decided to ride into St Petersburg, despite the winter snows.'

It's worse than I thought. I give The Space Cadet the empty Weetbix box so he can have a try. 'Tell her you're hungry and does she know if there's any more cereal.' I creep closer to the back door and listen into the answer. 'If the Samovar is cold,' Jocasta says to her son, 'then one must reheat it.'

I wonder what happened to my Tennessee Williams neurotic, my virtuous Tibetan and - most of all - my Sex and the City tart.

I march out to confront her, only to find that a certain Russian weariness has overtaken her.

'Here's what it's like in my head,' she says, pausing midway through a page, her finger marking the spot. 'I'm sick of thinking about forty-seven different things at any single time. I'm sick of thinking about really trivial and pedestrian stuff, like the way both the kids need new shoes. And that we need, by tomorrow, to buy a birthday present for Bryonii. And that nobody has rung up your cousin to say we're sorry her dog died. And that the ironing has piled up so badly it's spilling out of the baskets and onto the floor. And all this is before I even start thinking about my paid work.'

She gives me a look in which all the winters of Russia seem concentrated. It has the chill of a thousand snowdrifts, combined with all the merry bonhomie of a Siberian salt mine. I decide, much like the Germans in Stalingrad in 1942, to beat a hasty retreat.

Through the back window, I see her settling down to another chapter. Things are getting desperate. I must try and re-engage her with reality. I shout out to her: 'Do you know where the shin-guards are? Did we ever get them out of the car from last week?' To which she responds: 'In Moscow the trees on the boulevards are in leaf, and dust rises from the roads.'

Even the Emily Dickinson phase was better than this. I decide to channel some Dickinson myself. 'I fret - that we will die here - if this woman - will not move.'

I round up the boys, and we stand in a tight semicircle around her. 'Give us jobs,' I say. 'We'll all do jobs. As many as you like.' The boys nod eagerly. Jocasta looks up and finally speaks, not of Tolstoy, but of home. 'It's not the doing. It's the thinking. It's the working out and the remembering. Why don't you give yourselves the jobs?' She shoots out a look in which is contained all the ice of the Arctic Circle, and all the joie de vivre of a midwinter potato famine.

The boys and I creep away. We shall not only do jobs, we shall run her a bath so she may read her book in peace.

With the promise of a bath, Jocasta finally comes inside. She finds the plug, and the matches, and the soccer draw, and my car keys, and then climbs into the bath, while we polish off the other jobs.

Well, we plan to polish off the other jobs. To actually do them, we'll need some additional information. Such as the name of my cousin's dead dog. The age that Bryonii is turning. The location of the other street directory, since the one in my car has vanished. By the time Jocasta has finished her bath and empathised a little longer with poor, overburdened Anna Karenina, there should be quite a list with which to present her.

I shout through the door: 'Are you finished yet?'

Jocasta shouts back. 'Just a minute, if you don't mind. Here in Russia, there's a train on its way.'


First published in Desperate Husbands, HarperCollins, 2005.

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