31 January Archie has the same level of intelligence as an octopus. That’s what Professor Brian Cox says on The Wonders of Life. Well, what he actually says is that an octopus is as an intelligent as the average dog. So Archie is probably nearly as intelligent as an octopus. However, unlike an octopus, he has nowhere near the same ability to camouflage himself so that he disappears into his surroundings. He thinks he has, though.
Mr Young and I are having breakfast and Archie is standing guard as usual in front of the French windows, ever on the alert for a dangerous pigeon or an aggressive falling leaf. Then, oh so subtly (ironic), he slinks to the other side of the room and does his dainty (also ironic) leap up at the door handle so that he can escape from the kitchen and spend the morning on the sofa in the TV room. Like an octopus concealing itself in a clump of seaweed, Archie believes he is safely hidden from view amongst the sofa cushions. How very wrong he is. Our sofa cushions are velvety, pastel and smooth. Our dog, about as sharp-witted as an octopus after nine pints of Guinness, is sprawled across them. He blinks at us, clearly under the impression that we can only see sofa cushions and not five stone of English bull terrier, and is amazed when we spot him immediately and haul him back to the kitchen.
2 February Mr Young has become a Master Baker (don't read this out loud quickly because I did, and it made me feel slightly queasy), having worked his way at his usual steady pace through his self-imposed apprenticeship. His bread is now the stuff that dreams are made of – my dreams, anyway. Endless slices of fluffy white bread, toasted or untoasted, virginal or lathered with slabs of creamy butter. Or peanut butter. Plus a topping of drool if it’s just out of the oven and still warm. To pay Mr Young the ultimate compliment, I am turning into a cottage loaf, with a fat little bread head topping a large doughy round bottom.
“Come and try this,” Mr Young says on a daily basis, and I run into the kitchen (squeezing my freshly baked doughy bottom through the kitchen doorway). “What do you think?” It’s delicious as always, of course, but Mr Young is frowning. “I think I should have left it to rise another half an hour/put less yeast in it/tried mixing it with some wholemeal flour,” he says, chewing thoughtfully. I pretend to deliberate along with him. I can put up with as many bread-making experiments as he feels he needs to conduct before he comes up with the perfect loaf. That’s why elasticated waistbands were invented.
6 February I am off to Norfolk for a few days, to stay with my parents. Their house is the most peaceful house in the world, probably in our galaxy. Not only is the house itself in a completely tranquil spot, it is also double-glazed and insulated throughout. Even the toilet cisterns are lagged so that they flush noiselessly. (They’re not really. That would be ridiculous.) In Peterborough, I don’t think of our own house as being noisy, but whenever I get back from Norfolk, I am aware of the constant cacophony; Archie’s pantomime-loud snoring and farting, the squeaking floorboards on the landing (which Mr Young has been promising to fix for ten years – it’s now impossible to sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to test another slice of bread without the landing floor shrieking with every tiptoe), the sound of Arsenal trying to score a goal and Mr Young’s inevitable groans of disappointment, the distant clatter of East Coast trains and the rain and/or wind crashing against our non-double-glazed windows.
Over in Norfolk, though, I live temporarily in cocooned comfort. Time passes luxuriously slowly. My father and I spend an hour staring blankly but hopefully at the Times crossword, and it takes an entire morning to re-fix a roller blind in the kitchen. This is physically demanding work, given the sub-tropical conditions, and we need a Belgian chocolate biscuit to top up our blood sugar levels by the time we are finished. The biscuits are from Aldi; my father has recently become a devotee, and at every opportunity presents me with some new food stuff which he then reveals, smugly, is an Aldi product. Who’d have thought? he marvels. In return, I have to feign surprise that such a delicious item could possibly come from Aldi, and at such a ridiculously low price too. Fortunately, I am quite good at feigning surprise.
After a much-praised lunch (from Aldi), we gaze blankly at the Times crossword again, and then my mother and I rebelliously head off to the new Sainsbury’s superstore (leaving my father shaking his head pityingly). The new Sainsbury’s at King’s Lynn is an entirely separate retail country. We collect our trolley and go through customs, and are exhausted after a gruelling trek through the foothills of BOGOF and Half Price. Three hours later, we reach our pet foot destination and have to get our breath back before my mother can choose some teeny tiny tins of luxury cat food for Jake, who is the most spoilt cat in the world. His total daily exercise is prowling from the bed to the airing cupboard, with occasional treks down the stairs to turn his nose up at the extravagant dishes of food provided by my mother. Today, she can’t decide between the trout fillets marinated with herbs and salmon simmered in a white wine sauce, so I march her over to the dog food section and show her a can of Dog Food – Tripe Mixture. That’s what pet food should look like, I tell her. No nonsense. Does what it says on the tin. Of course, Archie does actually eat things marinated in herbs – namely stray fox turds that he finds underneath the rosemary bush in the garden – and he quite often has a jus with his supper (I guess left-over gravy just about qualifies as a jus).
11 February I wake up having a dream argument with a security guard in M&S; he is outraged that I am using one of the sinks behind the checkout counter to wash the freshly-peeled pear which I’ve just dropped on the floor. “You’re not supposed to be doing that without a member of staff present,” he shouts. “It’s a health and safety issue.” “But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “It’s just a bit of water. Surely if I ate the pear, which has been on the floor, that would be hazardous to my health?” “I can’t help that,” he says. “It’s our health and safety policy. It’s the rules.” “Well, it’s a stupid policy,” I say. By this time, I’m aware that I’m awake and talking to myself in an empty bedroom, but feel satisfied that I’ve won the argument. Also, I’ve now finished washing my dream pear, so have effectively got away with breaching the M&S health and safety policy. It’s political correctness gone mad. I might even write to M&S and complain.
14 February Not only is it Valentine’s Day, not only has Mr Young bought me red roses and given me a card, not only am I cooking him a delicious meal – we are also going to open our first bottle of wine since the New Year. It was our joint resolution to not drink any alcohol at all until today, and we have managed it. Much to our surprise. Mr Young has lost an impressive chunk of weight. I’m sure I would have also lost an impressive chunk of weight if Mr Young had been more considerate and not spent the past six weeks force-feeding me freshly baked bread. Not to mention my father’s Aldi chocolate-tasting marathons.
So tonight, we have a bottle of claret all ready to drink in celebration of our fulfilled pledge. We will jointly jump off the wagon and wet our whistles, although probably not both at the same time as this definitely would be a health and safety issue. I’m feeling slightly nervous. Such a prolonged abstinence might mean that just one glass could lead to goodness only knows what. Two glasses and Archie may well succeed in concealing himself among the sofa cushions. Three glasses and we even believe that Archie has a twin brother.