Tim Dowling: my wife is gardening. I’m in my shed writing. It’s a risky situation

Staring out of the window is important for a writer, but my wife, who is spending the bank holiday weeding, has a different view

A long time ago I read a quotation in a book of advice, which held that the hardest thing about being a writer is convincing your spouse that looking out of the window is part of your job. I have never been able to track down the exact wording or the author of that quotation; when I look online the only source I can find for it is me, because I cite it so regularly. This is perhaps fitting, since my wife thinks I made it up.

It is mid-morning and I am staring out of the window, hard at work. From my office shed I have a clear view of my wife as she struggles to push a wheelbarrow full of soil across the garden. This is a very dangerous position to be in; if I accidentally catch her eye, no unattributed quote about the hardest part of being a writer will be accepted in mitigation.

I turn back to my computer screen and place my fingers on the keyboard, but after a few minutes my chair begins to swivel of its own accord, turning slowly anticlockwise. I find myself facing the window again. My wife is now kneeling on a pad, digging weeds from a crowded bed. There is a dot of mud on her cheek, and a strand of her tied-back hair has worked its way loose, falling across her …

“Busy?” she shouts, looking up at me.

“Yeah,” I say. “Busy thinking.” My wife tilts her head and raises an eyebrow, indicating that I have once again, to her surprise, expanded her capacity for disappointment.

One possible mitigating factor: it is a bank holiday. I am facing a looming deadline while my wife has elected to spend her extra day off digging in the dirt six metres from my desk. “She likes gardening,” I say to myself, very quietly. But I accept the juxtaposition is unfortunate.

There is also the matter of the coat rack, formerly of the wall next to the front door. My youngest son presented it to me two days ago – six hooks spaced along a plank of wood, with three screws sticking out the back.

“This came off,” he said, handing it over, a scarf still hanging from one of the hooks.

“I can see,” I said.

“There are coats everywhere,” he said, pulling on his own jacket and heading for the front door.

From where I’m sitting I can see the coat rack lying across the kitchen table, hooks pointing up, as well as my wife, presently driving the point of a trowel into the earth with a sort of contained fury, little heaps of pulled weeds piled up around her.

I turn back to my computer screen, which is blank. I look at the clock, which says it is 11.30am – not yet time to panic.

The door to my office is yanked open. My wife steps inside and surveys the narrow sofa directly behind my chair. It is piled with books, musical instruments and old paperwork.

“There’s nowhere for me to sit when I visit,” she says.

“And no available appointments either,” I say. “Best to ring in the morning, in case there’s a cancellation.”

“I’m going to the shops,” she says. “Do you need anything?”

“No,” I say. “Oh, wait. Printer ink.”

“You’ll be lucky,” she says. “It’s a bank holiday.”

“Yeah, for some of us.”

My wife leaves a little silence here, to give me a moment to think about why this was the wrong thing to say.

“I thought perhaps you were going to ask for something to fix that coat rack,” she says.

“I don’t know how I’m going to fix that,” I say.

“What do we need?” she says. “Bigger screws?”

“Or fewer coats,” I say. She stands and leaves. I return to the screen.

At 7pm, my work still unfinished, I return to the house through a meticulously weeded garden, thinking: another bank holiday squandered.

On my way past the kitchen table I see the coat rack, and I pause.

I search through my tools and parts, but the only screws I can find are enormous, the sort of thing you would use to attach a balcony to the side of your house. I think: I don’t even have a drill bit that big. But it turns out I do.

After half an hour of drilling and banging and swearing, I step into the living room, where my wife is watching TV.

“Success?” she says.

I say: “Uh-huh”. But I think: are you kidding? You could hang a lifeboat off those hooks.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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