Twisted Fire Starter

Drama at my Uncle Stephen’s house this week after his neighbour set fire to his runner beans!

‘He’d been nurturing those beans for months,’ said my mother, recounting news of this terrible incident. ‘He’d grown them since they were little seedlings.’

It emerged that Uncle Stephen – quite the eccentric himself – was tucked up in bed when his pyromaniac neighbour decided to strike.

But having taken out his hearing aid, Uncle Stephen was oblivious to the fact his prized vegetables had gone up in flames.

‘I was in me jim jams snoring my snout off, when I heard lots of banging,’ recounted Uncle Stephen.

‘I peered out of the window and the whole street was full of people.

‘They all waved back at me!’

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This isn’t the first time Uncle Stephen’s crazy neighbour has started a fire. On five separate occasions, she’s burnt down her garage, her back wall, wheelie bins, compost bins, and a row of conifers.

With his runner beans and bins reduced to ash, Uncle Stephen now fears for his onions and Brussel sprouts.

‘She’s a tiny woman but she does a lot of damage,’ said Uncle Stephen.

‘And when you tell her off, she just shrugs. She’s barmy!’

Living next door to a pyromaniac is real worry, mused my mother.

‘Mrs Smith, the neighbour, wants to remove those other conifers,’ she advised. ‘They’re too tempting for a local arsonist.’  (see video clip below!)

‘You’d think her husband would come round and apologise,’ my father chipped in.

‘For emotional damage as much as anything else!’

‘Her husband’s ugly as sin,’ said Uncle Stephen. ‘He’s the ugliest man I’ve ever seen.’

Banned Designs Revisited

This time last month, I was contemplating a Sharon Stone-style seduction attempt on our local planning officer Peter Grant.

Peter Grant was the only thing standing in the way of our plans to create an extra bedroom and kitchen diner on our recently-purchased house.

I’d already met Peter Grant down at the planning offices and we seemed to hit it off. It was a glorious sunny Friday; jokes were flying, big words were being banded… basically, it was smiles all round.

Peter’s predecessor Laura Hogg – a peevish planning autocrat, hell bent on enforcing her silly green belt law that we couldn’t extend the property by more than 30 per cent – had already given our plans the heave-ho – and nothing in the way of a solution.

But Peter Grant had yet to cotton on to this; in fact, he thought our rear extension to replace the garish blue conservatory would be an enhancement. Could it be possible that he would pass the plans without getting wind of the green belt rules?

Of course not.

The following week I received an email that started, ‘I’ve just had a very interesting conversation with Laura Hogg….’

We were back to square one. And it was left to muggins here to find a solution.

Much Googling later revealed that we could build a 4-metre deep single storey extension across the whole rear of the property under something called Permitted Development – a government initiative that gives home owners the right to extend without seeking planning permission.

I had a light bulb moment. Why not split the project into two parts? We could put all of the volume from the existing conservatory into a smaller two-storey extension, and then create the remaining single-storey kitchen diner under permitted development rights.

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I excitedly rang the architects. They agreed this was a good idea and dutifully drew up the new scaled-down plans to send them off to Mr Grant.

So buoyed by my own ingenuity, I told the husband that I was seriously considering a career change to Planning Troubleshooter.

But things went from bad to worse.

Peter Grant said that even though the conservatory was technically existing volume, we couldn’t use it in the replacement extension because it had already gone over the 30 per cent rule when it was built in 1995 (when no such rule existed!). No way! Now he was trying to take volume back off us. I began to imagine Peter Grant like a giant rodent taking bites out of our house.

I tried to call him. But like a jilted lover, he refused to take my calls. He then sent an email saying that he would accept the reduced plans but would be instantly refusing them. Grant by name but not by nature!

 

I decided to leave the plans for Peter Grant to refuse rather than withdraw them. A refusal meant that we would be able to appeal.

In my new role as Planning Troubleshooter, I was actually quite looking forward to going to war with the council. It might even involve an appearance in the Supreme Court. Naturally, I would be representing myself. In my mind, I imagined travelling down to London on the train, leather briefcase in hand, glasses donned whilst studying a sheaf of papers earnestly.

But then just as was preparing for battle, there was some astonishing news – in  the form of an email.

‘Peter Grant has decided to grant planning permission to the reduced extension,’ it stated.

It was the ultimate U-turn – at the eleventh hour!

Basically, in 9 months of planning hell, we have managed to secure a reduced 4 metre by 4 metre extension, which will give us (drum roll)… an extra bathroom. Oh, and a porch (which I drew myself).

I’ll never know why Peter Grant changed his mind on the decision day itself.

What I do know is that we definitely won’t be fulfilling our original dreams of a double side extension, a double garage, a basement ‘media’ room or a master bedroom over-looking the garden.

Still, it’s a small victory. And right now, it tastes quite sweet.

The Return of the Nosy Neighbours

Regular readers (ie. my sister) might be wondering what ever became of our bothersome neighbours Susan and Dick, aka SuDick.

I am pleased to report that SuDick are very much still a feature in our lives. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t have an email of some kind from them cluttering my inbox. I estimate that 90 per cent of Susan’s life is dedicated to keeping tabs on the movements of all residents, while trying to evict the management company of our apartment block – as yet, to no avail.

She even sent out an email the other week stating: ‘Just seen Isaac from Apt. 14 take delivery of a Dominos pizza at 11.30am’.

I promise I am not making this up.

In fact, no-one can leave the compound without ever-watchful Susan peering at them from her perma-perch in the window. I emailed her recently, simply to ask what the new code for the electric gates was. And this is what she replied:

Hallo Katy,

The vehicle gate is 2958. The pedestrian gate has been failing to open using the code and remote for about 10 days now – not consistently, but intermittently, enough to cause problems to a number of residents (incl Isaac and Julia) and visitors.  (This is in addition to the gate staying open, opening and closing repeatedly, opening only half way, etc) I reported it to the management on Monday of last week but got no acknowledgement.

I have had enough of reporting things to them and getting no reaction or an ignorant, dismissive response. I keep my contacts with them to a minimum. I actually prefer the inconvenience of a gate not opening, etc etc to the incompetence and expense incurred when they send a contractor. I won’t be contacting them again.

Susan

Obviously, her pledge to never call the management company again lasted approximately 12 hours and before long, she was back on the blower – complaining about a whole litany of problems, from squeaky door hinges to ill-fitting bin lids.

When she’s not on unofficial neighbourhood watch or pruning her roses as she observes the comings and goings, crabby Susan occasionally heads to the shops with her trusty shopper.

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Under-the-thumb Dick is a lesser-spotted beast: last seen pilfering blackberries from the neighbours’ hedgerow, while Susan looked on in glee.

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But this weekend… drama! SuDick had a new focus in the form of Troublesome New Tenants at Apartment 4.

Said tenants had a loud and raucous party on Saturday night which went on well into the early hours, disturbing both us next door and Belligerent Bill below. As I lay awake listening to their partying, all I could think was, ‘Bill is going to go NUTS’.

I briefly wondered if SuDick had heard, being on the opposite side of the building. But of course they had. How foolish of me to even question such a thing. No sooner had I sent out a general email to all residents, asking if anyone else had been disturbed by the late-night revelry, a reply came through from ever-vigilant Dick.

Hi Katy,

Some voices and light were noticeable in our (rear) bedroom. I went and listened outside 4; we heard the loud noise inside clearly. We were going to ring on their bell at the outside door, but ran into two women coming in the side door with shopping bags (midnight by now). 

I recognised one as the new tenant – her name is Nina. I had spoken to her briefly when their moving van came the previous Sat. I reminded her we’d met. I said I’d call the police if the noise continued. Nina apologised and said she’d get it quieter and that it was a one-off house-warming. (Two-off?).

Susan thinks ‘they’re trouble’. In bed (rear) we could see raised light levels and hear doors banging after 12.30 – woken up again 3 a.m. then went to sleep again. Bill this morning has mentioned the lights at 4 being on all night. They also heard the bathroom fan on all night, and Susan has now identified this fan as the hum she heard constantly in the night, as it vents over our rear deck (below some steps). I understand some lights are still on now.

Bill, I believe, spoke to the agent during the week because they suffered from noise the previous weekend, stomping and perhaps dragging furniture late in the night. Bill apparently also had an unfriendly response at the door of 4 when he went to speak to them. 

We need to tackle this PDQ. 

Dick

PDQ? I had to Google it, and it means ‘pretty damn quick’. Get Dick and the text-speak.

Bad-tempered Bill then waded in. Never one to do things by half, he’s already emailed the council’s noise nuisance squad to lodge an official complaint. I almost feel sorry for the Troublesome New Tenants; they really have no idea what they’re dealing with.

To be fair, I was going to phone the letting agent myself but now I don’t need to bother, knowing that SuDick and Bill are already on the case. Sometimes our nutty neighbours can be a blessing. They have all the time in the world to moan, rant and complain on our behalf.

But whatever you do, don’t order a Dominos pizza before midday.

My Mother… Landlady Extraordinaire

Regular readers may recall my mother’s role as a student landlady, in which she believes all the tenants are simple (see My Mother… and the Simple Students). She regularly peddles round on her bicycle to impart advice such as, ‘Put the bins out – and don’t forget to lock the back gate!’, and ‘Drinking at this hour? It’s a wonder you ever get any studying done!’.

After the departure of last year’s batch of simpletons, my mother set about her annual summer cleaning of our student house.

But as she hoovered away at the carpet with her trusty ‘little vac’ (the Dyson rendered ‘utterly useless’), she kept feeling holes in the floor of the lounge: holes that my father had been blithely ignoring for the last few years (bringing with it a very literal meaning to brushing them under the carpet).

Finally pulling back the carpet, my mother was alarmed to find large areas of the floorboards has been devoured by a particularly voracious strain of woodworm – a grim discovery that brought about her new saying of the summer, ‘The floorboards were like WEETABIX!’

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Rather than immediately consult with a woodworm expert, my 65-year-old mother decided to venture into the bowels of the house herself, squeezing down a tiny hatch she found in the corner of the lounge. On her hands and knees, she managed to crawl, caterpillar-style, the entire length of the underbelly of the property, to inspect the extent of the damage with a torch.

Re-appearing, covered in soot, my mother – the pot-holing pensioner – claimed that no-body over 5ft2 would even make it down there.

My father’s role in this was to investigate a solution. He apparently managed to operate Google and read up on some super-strength woodworm killer, although given the scale of his internet ineptitude (see My Parents… and the World Wide Web), I’m not sure how this was possible.

After weighing the job up at length, the parents decided it probably was time to call in a joiner, who arrived to replace the Weetabix floorboards and told my mother he had replaced part of a joist underneath the house too.

Not content with just taking his word for it, my mother then ventured back down the hatch and slithered underneath the house – torch poised – to see if he really had replaced a joist. Luckily for him, he had.

This September brought with it a new batch of students and further parental eccentricity. I told my mother that I had organised for two Polish girls to move in and she was to meet them at the house on Friday.

My father began making noises about collecting them in person from Liverpool airport. He said it wouldn’t be any trouble. But, in the end, they settled for a ‘meet and greet’ service at Preston train station, and a personal taxi service to the student house. Contracts duly signed, normal landlords would probably wish them well and be on their way.

But not the parents. Oh no… their concierge service continued. When I phoned my mother to ask how it had gone, she said that they had pretty much spent the whole day with the Polish girls.

Apparently, they drove them to the University library and actually waited in the car for them while they registered. The girls were then ‘terribly hungry’ – hadn’t eaten for 17 hours, in fact. Ever the hostess, my mother toyed with the idea of taking them back to their house for dinner but instead she settled for dropping them off at Aldi to do some food shopping. She thought they’d feel at home in Aldi, she said, because of its continental connections.

In the midst of this madness, my father – the chauffeur – had produced one of his infamous maps with a highlighted route and instructions on how to get from the house to the University on foot.

They left the Polish girls happily ensconced back at the house, munching on an Aldi pizza and watching X-Box (I think she meant X-Factor).

At the end of this tale, I asked my mother what the Polish girls were like.

‘One of them seems quite sharp,’ she said. ‘Pidgin English – but definitely all there.

‘But the other one is terribly feeble. She barely spoke.’

I just knew what was coming next.

‘In fact, she seemed a bit… simple.’

The Farrow and Ball Obsession

Mention the words Farrow and Ball to any decorator and they will shake their head with a derisive snort, claiming it’s average-quality paint with a hefty price tag, marketed for foolish, middle-class women, with too much time on their hands.

So naturally, being a foolish woman and having too much time on my hands, I developed a craze with Farrow and Ball that very rapidly spiralled out of control.

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It began with a simple task to paint the bathroom of my rental flat; the last tenants had moved out after three years and it needed a lick of paint to smarten things up. I pottered down to Homebase, naively thinking I’d just grab a pot of any old paint and slap it on. But when I headed down the paint aisle, my eyes were inexplicably drawn to the enticing brown sample pots of… Farrow and Ball.

I’d already had a taste of F&B in the past, having painted the chimney breast of my beloved flat in the strangely-named Dead Salmon, a kind of pinky brown colour – which now I come to think of it, actually does resemble the colour of out-of-date fish.

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For the bathroom, I wanted a shade of blue. But what was it to be? Parma Grey, Lulworth Blue, Blue Grey? The choice was boggling.

After much deliberation, I plumped for Borrowed Light – a  beautiful pale blue. I loved it.

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It was at that moment that I crazily decided to paint my whole flat in Farrow and Ball – a decision that would go on to cost me several hundred pounds, many hours of labour, and untold exasperation to the long-suffering husband.

F&B connoisseurs will tell you that there’s a depth to the paint that Dulux and Crown just can’t compete with. I’m not sure this is strictly true but this is what I kept telling myself, in order to justify the paint pot splurge.

I began carrying around a colour chart of F&B and would sit studying it several times a day, with all the intensity of a Truly Crazy Person. Friends, long since tired of my painting patter, attempted to stage an intervention. But when they snatched the paint chart off me, I began rocking in the corner, muttering ‘Elephant’s Breath, Elephant’s Breath’ repeatedly, until they reluctantly placed it back in my palm.

Remember that 90s game show called You Bet! hosted by Matthew Kelly, in which contestants had to complete unlikely challenges such as memorising all of the road signs in the UK? Well, I could easily recall all 132 Farrow and Ball colours, in order, and come away with the star prize.

Some evenings, I would roar off on a whim to the Harrogate F&B shop, to stare dreamily at the paints on display. The shop assistant there became my new best friend and I started phoning her at all hours of the day just to chat about paint: ‘Do you really think Rectory Red would go with Oval Room Blue? Really? I was thinking that too! Ha ha haaaa!’

I was clearly unstable.

The spare bedroom was painted in probably my favourite colour: Light Blue (a kind a blue-grey that changes with the light of the day), complemented by Slipper Satin on the woodwork.

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Manor House Grey framed the landing, while the main bedroom had a palette of purply Brassica and Calluna – the colour of ‘Scottish heather’.

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Finishing the walls, I was in too deep to end things there – so I began feverishly painting the furniture. Any wooden item that wasn’t nailed down was at risk of being ‘Farrowed’ in my upcycling mania.

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The worn church chairs were painted Oval Room Blue and Chappell Green respectively, and a tired, old dresser enjoyed a new lease of life with a hearty lick of Dove’s Tail.

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Even the front door didn’t escape – acquiring several coats of Blue Green and a shiny new number 5.

My irritating neighbour Greenclaws came sniffing around and was so taken with my efforts that he gaily skipped off to Homebase himself and returned clutching a tin of Middleton Pink (probably to match the garish plastic lobster that adorns his kitchen wall).

And then it was over.

The paint pots were stacked in the attic, a colour scheme was thrust in the hands of my new tenants, should they feel the need to so some touching up, and I reluctantly trundled home with my paint brush.

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For about a week, I had to go cold turkey, tossing in my sleep and chanting, ‘Mizzle… Mizzle – it’s reminiscent of a West Country evening mist…’

Two months on, I think I’ve just about recovered.

I passed a F&B shop in Marylebone last week. And even though every bone in my body wanted to rush in, ambush the woman and yell, ‘Do you really think Arsenic goes with Brassica?!’, I managed to keep on walking.

Dick… and the Dastardly Decorators

High drama at our apartment block this month after we employed an ‘experienced’ decorating company to paint the external walls and metalwork – only for the Chuckle Brothers to show up.

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This hapless pair seemed to spend most of their time smoking and eating sandwiches in their battered Peugeot, emerging only to scratch their heads in bemusement – barely registering the need to dip their brush in a pot of paint from time to time.

The Chuckle Brothers probably thought they could get away with slapping a bit of paint on the walls in between lengthy tea breaks. But little did they know that their workmanship would be conducted under the hawk-like watch of my favourite nosy neighbours: twitchy Susan and downtrodden Dick, who took up permanent residence in their window and began logging a minute-by-minute account of the clueless cowboys’ movements (or lack thereof!)

Less than 12 hours after their arrival, SuDick began firing off emails to anyone who’d listen, documenting the sheer scale of the Chuckle Brothers’  ineptitude: walls not adequately primed, metal work not sanded down, scaffolding posing a ‘health and safety’ hazard…

I won’t bore you with the details but let’s just say the Chuckle Brothers aren’t chuckling anymore. In fact, SuDick have pretty much seen them off the premises.

As a result, we are currently locked in a battle over paying them, with Dick now threatening to send a sample of the paint work to a laboratory (yep, a laboratory!) to be scientifically analysed.

Having got wind of this, Chuckle Brother 1 then attempted a stealth return to the scene to patch up his flaky paintwork.

But he was no match for ever-watchful Dick – with even Belligerent Bill getting in on the act…

Here’s Dick’s latest:

Dear residents,

Darren the decorating ‘gaffer’ showed up this morning. Bea from apartment 2 came and knocked on our door and said ‘there’s a painter on my deck!’ From the back of our place I could see Darren on his knees trying to scrape paint off the upright girders at Apt. 2.

Anyway, Bill then came home and exchanged a few words with Darren who beat a hasty retreat, as I witnessed: Darren scrambled over the railings onto the lawn with his stepladder.

A bit later Susan found him in the car park and told him to go away and take his paint pots with him. There was ‘something of an exchange of words’ I am told, but he went. Apparently, he blames us residents for not getting paid. Susan can tell you more.

Susan informed [management company] and I think Bill also phoned…

Q1: What did Darren think he was going to achieve?

Q2: Who had tipped him off to focus on the metalwork down there?

Dick

My Family… and the Dawn French fixation

We are in the middle of the annual family sojourn to Cornwall, where my father has taken up residence on his favourite seat in the garden to study the passing ships with his binoculars (no doubt contemplating his own imminent foray out to sea in his beloved dinghy ‘Chrismick‘).

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This was, until his binoculars fell upon a particular palatial home, built into the cliff directly opposite. My father sat studying the house for quite a long time and pondered who might live in such an opulent mansion.

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That afternoon, my sister visited the cove below and reported that she saw a girl ‘fitting the description’ of Dawn French’s daughter Billie, padding from the beach and into the mouth of its imposing gates.

A lengthy discussion was then held by the whole family (along with lots of Googling) at the end of which it was decided that all the evidence pointed to a firm conclusion that this was in fact the residence of non other than Dawn French.

The next morning, my father rose early, filled his flask with coffee, took up position in his chair and trained his binoculars on the house, looking for any sign of movement.

‘Dawn Watch’ continued that evening, followed by another discussion about the rotund comedienne. My sister had been following her on Twitter and discovered she had been at a book signing in nearby Falmouth. There was every chance that Dawn might be at her Cornish home, fuelled by my father’s report of a light going on in the house at approximately 9pm.

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And then, finally… a firm sighting! At 2.09pm yesterday afternoon, my father excitedly summoned us all to the garden and one by one we peered through the binoculars. Before our eyes was the unmistakable silhouette of Dawn French, on the balcony of her 40-room mansion enjoying the afternoon sun in a billowing kaftan.

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Swept along by the excitement of the celebrity spot, the family began a running dialogue of her movements, with even my mother getting in on the act: Dawn’s looking out to sea; Dawn’s now leaning on the balustrade; Dawn’s now going inside the house; Dawn’s just scratched her bottom…

Dawn French is beginning to take over our holiday: my sister has been googling all about her divorce from Lenny Henry and recent marriage to a man called Mark Bignell (after a 16-month romance!); my father has been on Google Earth investigating the layout of her gothic-style house (it can’t possibly have 40 rooms!); my mother has become something of an expert in Dawn’s weight loss and then subsequent gain (it must be all those Cornish cream teas and pasties!).

Gripped by ‘French fever’, my father was last seen roaring off to Fowey in Chrismick to get a closer look at Dawn’s house from the sea.

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I’m not sure where this obsession will end. Camping outside her house until she invites us all in for a traditional cream tea?

Probably.

Watch this space…

The Husband… and the House Hunt

When I first started dating the husband, he was rattling around a rambling Georgian pad in Lancashire, with grandiose designs of installing a bar in the basement and a gym in the attic.

He spent the evenings eating stale cornflakes for his dinner and forgetting to put the bins out. Someone came round and stole all the Yorkshire paving stones from his back garden and he didn’t notice for about a month.

Fortunately, I came along and whisked him away to Leeds, convincing him that all he really needed to be happy was a couple of bedrooms (and a few boxes of cornflakes).

So we downsized into our current apartment – a Swedish style white box, which we dubbed our ‘holiday home’.

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The holiday home is basically a giant, clutter-free, sugar cube, devoid of any personality. We’ve been here three years and haven’t even got round to hanging pictures on the walls. We eat out a lot and poke fun at SuDick. It’s great.

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Sometimes, at weekends, we talk about the day that we will buy a proper home, and do a spot of kerb crawling – peering into houses that aren’t for sale and scaling fences to inspect derelict renovation projects.

Occasionally, I’ll peruse Rightmove and book an appointment. We’ll drive up, view the house and then spend the drive back disagreeing about everything (him – there’s no gravel driveway – he has this strange obsession with the crunch of gravel; me – it’s too far away from the nearest coffee shop).

So we hot-foot it back to our big white box and forget about finding a proper home for another few months.

The other week, I decided to escalate the search. Spotting a new build on Rightmove, we set off for a viewing. When we arrived, there was no nearby coffee shops and no crunch under the tyres. It appeared to be a field and pile of bricks.

‘You’ve brought me to a building site,’ said the husband.

We parked up and a ruddy-faced Harrogate type in a tweed jacket advanced towards us.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Well, this is it…’ gesturing to the field and rubble in front of us.

He rambled on, finding his stride: ‘The plan is for five individual houses…’

I had already zoned out, too busy pondering just how much redder his face might get if he stood any longer in the midday sun.

‘… all with bathrooms, and on the top floor is a 30ft media room.’

‘A media room?’

At the sound of this, the husband’s ears pricked up.

That night, the husband was full of excitement. He dreamt about his media room. He mumbled ‘media room’ in his sleep. He woke up, poured himself a bowl of cornflakes, and sat studying the plan of the house, paying particular attention to the top floor.

‘I thought you were a simple man of simple needs, who didn’t like fuss,’ I said.

‘I am a simple man,’ he replied. ‘I’m just a simple man who wants a media room.’

From what I can surmise, a media room is basically a home cinema, where the husband has visions of inviting hordes of friends over to watch a film or hangout doing ‘media stuff’.

The only problem with this plan is that the husband works 12 hour days and doesn’t have many friends this side of the Pennines. Poor husband. He’ll have to eat his popcorn alone.

The following week, I told the husband we were going to view another house.

His first words were: ‘Does it have a media room?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ he said.

We viewed the house. It was perfect: close to the park, and within walking distance of our favourite Italian and a coffee shop.

‘Do you like the house?’ I said.

‘Two words,’ he said ‘Media. Room.’

It looks like we’ll be extending our vacation in the holiday home for a little longer.

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