A few months into our relationship, some time around the end of 2005, my small, pushy girlfriend and I took a coach to the city of Oxford. A few months earlier she had informed me with characteristic charm that I needed to organise day trips, to think of places we could visit in order to stave off her becoming thoroughly bored of our association. This was to be my role in the relationship, it seemed. I was the entertainments committee. I was never quite able to pin down the nature of her contribution, but never mind.
I'd been planning to go and see my grandparents for a while. They lived in Clanfield, a village not too far from Oxford; and as the city had come up in conversation as being somewhere we both liked, it was an obvious choice. I found us a bed and breakfast because I was entertainments manager. I got hold of a National Express timetable, and phoned my grandparents to tell them we would be dropping in to see them.
We stepped off the coach in Oxford and Marian began to describe a previous visit when, travelling with a group of horticultural types, she had been to Waterperry Gardens and Garden Centre. This, she told me, was very near Oxford - although she was unable to remember quite where - and it was amazing. We would have to go. I listened as she gave further account of the wonders of Waterperry as I hauled her luggage along to the bed and breakfast. We checked in at around midday, by which time Marian had decided we must visit Waterperry that very afternoon. To do otherwise would be madness, plain and simple.
'But what about your grandparents,' she asked as though this spontaneous change of plan had been my idea. 'Do you think we'll get time to visit them as well?'
This was a familiar trap. Even the world's most optimistic moron would have had no trouble assessing the practicality of these options - two destinations in a single afternoon with Marian in tow, means of travel presently undetermined, and the location of one of these places as yet unknown. I offered a hopeful sounding possibly, knowing it was unlikely in the extreme. Marian did not respond well to no, or indeed to any conclusion which suggested she might have to tailor her ambitions in accordance with reality. Had I said no, I might still be there now, still listening to a speech about my negative attitude and the depths to which I would stoop in order to prevent Marian achieving her numerous goals.
It wasn't worth it.
We strolled back into the centre of Oxford as I pored over guidebooks and leaflets obtained from the tourist information centre, attempting to work out a route to this place so that Marian wouldn't have to do everything for herself as usual. Following what was apparently the quickest route, we took a bus four or five miles out of the city to the village of Wheatley, then walked across two miles of open field in the freezing cold to a large privately owned garden filled with plants that were either brown or dead due to it being November. It was dark by the time we made it back across the fields to Wheatley to wait an hour in the rain for the bus back into Oxford.
My phone rang. It was Madge, the woman who had married my widower grandfather back in 1977 and whom I had come to regard as my grandmother, roughly speaking. She'd been expecting us and wanted to know where we were, particularly as it was now dark. I explained that we were running a little late as though it was one of those things over which none of us had any control.
We eventually made it back into Oxford and went for something to eat in a restaurant. We were freezing cold, having stood in the wind and rain at a bus-stop for an hour. I ordered a mug of hot chocolate, and then phoned Madge to let her know that we wouldn't be coming after all as it was now eight in the evening. Marian had fallen quiet, but I was pissed off and not greatly concerned by whatever her latest imaginary problem could be. I'd just wasted an entire day visiting a patch of frozen organic mush in the middle of nowhere for no reason. Nevertheless after a little while she overcame her reticence, raging at my selfishly ordering hot chocolate, then drinking it in front of her in full knowledge of chocolate being forbidden by her current dietary regime. I had forgotten this detail as she seemed to change her diet every few weeks. It was difficult to keep track of what she could and couldn't eat from one month to the next, and on days such as this it was even more difficult to care.
That evening we managed to have a row over an unrelated matter. During the 1990s I'd written, drawn, and published a great many of my own small press comics. As a result I now had a sideboard packed tight with boxes of unsold copies of my work, with no idea of how, where, or to whom I might dispose of them, and I wanted my sideboard back. This was mentioned in passing as part of a meandering conversation in much the same way as one might make an observation regarding the weather.
'Well, what are you going to do about it?' Marian demanded to know in peculiarly stringent terms. I wasn't sure and said so, explaining that this was why I had raised the subject; I was thinking aloud. She didn't seem to understand this, but then I'm not sure she ever quite grasped regular human interaction outside the staples of bullying and appeasement, the currency of a power struggle. As subscriber to countless ineffective self-help philosophies, it seemed she was attempting some sort of intervention on me, some crap apparently born of the idea that the process of decision making is more significant than what decisions are made. She suggested I take all my self-published magazines to a paper recycling place. I said that given the work that had gone into producing this mountain of crap I found her solution unsatisfactory, which prompted an argument based on the question of why I'd bothered to ask her advice if I wasn't going to follow simple orders and change my life around completely according to that which had been sprung forth from the font of her wisdom. I'd had enough that day and for the first time in our relationship I was happy to let the bullshit evolve into a shouting match. It didn't go anywhere, but it felt okay.
We were only months into our relationship and I was still expecting things to settle down, even hopefully to improve at some point; but now, on some level, I understood that this wasn't going to happen. She had already told me to rearrange all of the furniture in my flat according to the principles of feng shui, and even though I knew feng shui to be the sort of mumbo jumbo to which only a serious simpleton could possibly subscribe, I did it because she had to get her way; and when she didn't get her way she would start on the tears and the blackmail about how she felt undervalued, as though her opinion didn't count for anything. There was no point in arguing, but sometimes it was nice to know that I still could.
The next morning I got out of bed and did my push-ups as I was then in the habit of doing on a daily basis. Marian, recognising an act of self-improvement, became excited as she sat up in bed and began babbling away like a small, hyperactive bird. The distraction was too much and my arm twisted behind my back in a moment of wrenching pain so profound that I screamed. It was agony, and months passed before I was once again able to do such exercises.
The rest of the day was spent in Oxford, visiting botanic gardens within the city, the Ashmolean Museum and Blackwell's bookshop on Broad Street, Marian as usual browsing for further self-help books. She had two shelves sagging with the things at home in London, but always seemed to need more, perhaps realising she was not yet perfect. I once saw her spend twenty-five pounds on a hardback entitled How to Spend Money More Sensibly or similar, naturally oblivious to the irony. The matter of visiting my grandparents did not come up again, and I said nothing because I'd realised I didn't want to subject them to Marian. She would only have made things complicated and unpleasant as she always did.
Later, once we were back in London she said, 'I feel like I'm partially responsible for the fact that we didn't get to see your grandad.'
I said nothing, and as it happens I never saw him again. He passed on about two years later.
There never was a happy ending to this one.