A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times

PENNYWISE



The phone rang. It was her husband eager to tell her he had just bought a new car. For many women, this would have been a moment of some excitement, of some anticipation. But she had to admit her heart sank.

Not for them, the mid-life crisis convertible or the ubiquitous 4x4. Oh no. The car causing all the excitement (his, not hers) was a £300, 13-year-old Rover Ascot 100.

Never heard of it? Neither had she, but Tom filled her in. It's a version of the Mini Metro and this one has only had one female owner. 'What a bargain!' He declared. 

Later that afternoon, Tom arrived home in said vehicle. It was a car to make Noddy's wheels look positively macho. Ugly didn't even begin to describe it, with its metallic green finish and velour seats. And it was anything but a pleasure to drive.

Of course, Tom shrugged his shoulders when she pointed out all of the above. Instead, he congratulated himself on all the money he had saved and walked away, to study the logbook, which he discovered, had been fastidiously completed.

'There's a record of every journey. But, get this, she worked out exactly how much each trip cost,' he muttered, awestruck. 'You wouldn't believe how many miles a gallon this baby can do.'

Now, she didn't want to sound ungrateful. And she was well aware that her husband had the higher moral ground: who really needs a car that costs more than the national average salary? But at times like this she couldn't help wondering whether his financial prudence was really to be admired (this was their second car after all). Or whether he was just a miserable old skinflint.

Either way, much as she admired her husband's determination to ignore the testosterone-fuelled one-up-man-ship of motor vehicle ownership, it was still embarrassing to rock up at the school run and park alongside the pristine Land Rovers, BMWs and Mercedes. She should have known that life with Tom would have turned out this way.
  
This was the man, after all, who once bought her a duvet for her birthday (naturally, the fact that it fell in June didn't deter him from buying a 12.5 tog duvet, which was heavily discounted).

Only that Christmas, he was caught buying a set of kitchen scales by a neighbour who looked incredulous when told this was her present.

'Maybe you should get your wife something else to go with it?' she suggested. So he did - a breadboard. 

Their day-to-day existence was straight from the pages of Austerity Britain. They did not have a tumble dryer and the washing line was a string tied between two trees. There was never anything in their fridge other than meat, milk and a few jars of pickles. 

She started salivating when she opened a friend's fridge recently and discovered smoothies, freshly stuffed olives and delicious charcuterie. On a weekday too!

That would happen in their house only if they were hosting a dinner party. And even then, they always argued about whether she should make a pudding. 'But I've spent a fortune on the cheese,' Tom would say.

As for ready meals - what's wrong with leftovers? Biscuits and crisps? They're for children's parties.

It was only since they’d had children that he had stopped considering yoghurt a luxury item.

In the summer, they grew their own vegetables and Tom delighted in telling her how much she must have saved on lettuce even though it was probably no more than a tenner. She was also forbidden from buying potatoes and must eat only home-grown.

Did I mention that pasta and rice were also off the menu until they got through their mountain of spuds?

Central heating was another luxury denied them. Even during the Big Freeze, they had to stick to their winter allowance of three hours a day. The children were pretty hardy as a result, but the babysitter had taken to bringing a blanket with her and she often had to go to bed with a hot water bottle and socks.

Over the years, she learned to put up with the perishing cold (she’s got a drawer full of lovely thermals) and the lack of snacks (great for her waistline). 

But what really drives her mad is the response she gets whenever she suggests some minor outgoing. Something as simple as 'Can we replace the vacuum cleaner?' Is enough to cause manic eye rolling. When she suggested that they turn the pond into a swimming pool, his poor little head nearly blew right off his shoulders.

Indeed, her darling husband had spent much of their married life battling against her profligate ways.

Whilst she was responsible for the antique French bed and the pale green chaise longue, his purchases had been purely perfunctory: an IKEA desk and a flat-screen TV.

He bought his eldest daughter a ball of string for Christmas (so that she could play cat's cradle). Her friends got Nintendo DS’s.

To begin with, she thought Tom thought that the recession was something of a godsend. Maybe now she would see sense and stop spending. For months, their mornings had started with a lecture on how the country is on the brink of financial Armageddon, so no, they wouldn't be going on holiday this year. The trouble is that she just didn't buy it. 

While she was willing to cut back on expensive nights out and she’d go along with the birthday present amnesty (the children were exempt, much to their relief), she just couldn't resist buying a new dress for a friend's 40th birthday party recently.

To be fair, she knew what she was getting herself into. Tom came from a long line of frugal Englishmen.

The first time she met his father, he was seated in the drawing room of his Somerset pile in a winter coat and hat. It was early March and the heating had been off for more than a month.

Her first Christmas at the in-laws was also telling. The festivities included passing round a box of dates from the Co-op and the presents, all immaculately wrapped in recycled paper, were a bar of soap or a pair of socks. His mother delighted in a family tradition whereby she and her two other siblings ritualistically exchanged a £10 note in lieu of a gift.

Compared to the Christmases she was used to – she had four siblings and a shopaholic father - this was positively Scrooge-like.

She knew. She should have sat back and learned how to enjoy the simpler things in life. But she was too cold to philosophise.

Another role model was her husband's best friend from school. He had his house re-floored with office grade carpet tiles and his cutlery draw contains four knives, four forks and four spoons to cut down on washing up and to rule out dinner parties. When the two of them ever got together, the rest of them would put bets on who will get the wallet out last.

So were there any upsides to living with a man who was tighter than a pair of Spandex underpants?

Well, there was lots of room in their wardrobe - as Tom hated buying clothes.

There were shirts hanging in there which he had had since university and he recently discovered a scraggy old T-shirt, which he proudly announced pre-dated their first meeting in 1993.

Tom went shopping every five years and when he did the transactions were conducted in a single shop and for a length of time that lasts no longer than 30 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, it all made her feel ever so slightly guilty when she ever bought something new on a whim. unfortunately, the classic 'this old thing?' excuse rarely worked on her husband. He seemed to have a photographic memory when it came to her swelling wardrobe.

If he had his way, she would be wearing the same clothes she had on when they first met. After all, he hasn’t changed. But sadly, after three children, none of her clothes would fit anymore.

Or that was her excuse, anyway. The truth was that she liked shopping and Tom hated it. Oh, how he used to rant about the evils of Sex And The City. 

'What's wrong with you women? Why can't you ever have enough?' he would say. He despised It and Top Shop bags and as for catalogues, they went straight in the bin if she ever left them lying around. 

Really, she should be grateful. It was thanks to Tom, after all, that they lived in a beautiful house. If she were in control of the family finances, they would have never have saved a penny. He had also done most of the home improvements (he nearly fainted when he saw a bill from a workman once) and he was a dab hand at gardening.

Also, the fact that he counted his pennies meant that when he did do something generous, she knew it really meant something. For their tenth wedding anniversary, he surprised her with the most wonderful painting of Brighton, the city where he’d bought her engagement ring.

Mind you, that was another case in point. You are traditionally meant to spend the equivalent of a month's salary on the ring, but Tom cunningly made sure to guide her towards the cheaper rings.

He could barely conceal his relief when she settled on a beautiful sapphire cluster, which cost only a few hundred pounds.

Even so, at the time, it was the most Tom had ever spent in one go and she now recalls how pale he looked as he wrote the cheque. Yes, there are times when she wished Tom would splash out on a few little luxuries. The occasional box of chocolates, say. But she had also come to admire his ability to resist temptation. 

She knows her consumerism drives her mad and she makes him even more determined to make savings. And if he didn't play Scrooge, they wouldn't live the life they did. Besides, she was growing rather fond of his monastic ways.

When she watches him happily pottering about the garden in his threadbare jumpers and tatty old shorts, it's almost enough to stop her heading out for the shops. But not quite.


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Its my own fault really, its all about what I see in the world, and how it all translates for me.

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