Of fish and bicycles

Poor, hapless Amy. She’s the kind of woman no red-blooded man would want to end up with. Quite frankly, she’s let herself go. She’s messy, disorderly and loud. She likes a beer and a raucous sing-song once in a while. She’s always singing round the house. She never has meals on the table on time. She doesn’t iron shirts properly. In fact she’s not seen the bottom of the ironing pile in months. She seldom gets her hair done, and never puts on lipstick to greet her man after a hard day at the office. Worst of all, she sometimes spends the whole day in a dressing gown. Small wonder her long-suffering husband has embarked on a torrid affair with his glamorous secretary. Georgie’s everything Amy isn’t. Efficient, elegant and self-effacing. The perfect little woman. She’s half Amy’s age and she’s all over Jim like a rash.

Yes, it’s Saturday afternoon and I’m watching black-and-white kitchen sink dramas on the telly. How better to while away a tired hour or two when you’ve been blasted out of bed at five, ready to capture the dawn on camera? This particular film, Woman in a Dressing Gown, was made when I was three years old and the world was a quite different place. Everything seemed black-and-white back then, and I don’t simply mean the cinematography. I can predict the dramatic denouement before I’m half way down my first cup of tea. Two women fighting over the greatest prize life has to offer. A man. And not even a particularly good one. He lies, he cheats and when his son calls him out he resorts to physical violence. I’d get shot of him if I were you Amy. You’re better off without him.

Amy’s making an impassioned declaration of independence now, and I’m on the edge of the sofa cheering her on. Then Jim plays his trump card. What’s she going to do without him, he asks. What on earth will she live on?

I’ll get a job.

You can see the pity in their eyes, Jim and Georgie. Poor deluded Amy can’t even look after her own husband. She’s not going to last five minutes in the real world.

My mother-in-law was the world’s worst cook. She’d been a full-time housewife for the best part of thirty years when I met her, so you’d think she’d have got the hang, but in truth her heart was never in it. I loved my mother-in-law far better than her son if I’m honest. There were three things made Grandma smile. First was her grandchildren, the second her Tuesday afternoons at the local baby clinic, but the third was talking about her life before domestic drudgery. You see my self-deprecating mother-in-law, whose scattiness made her the butt of every family joke, had once held down a highly responsible job in the Education Department of London County Council. There she’d helped to organise the evacuation of thousands of children from wartime London by day, whilst standing fire watch on St Paul’s Cathedral by night. She’d seen a deal more active service than her husband, who’d spent his war on an artillery range on Salisbury Plain. Maybe Amy would shine too in a different environment.

For Amy and my mother-in-law marriage was a stark transaction. Grandma married late, and I think she had cause and perspective enough to regret it. Not that she once complained. One didn’t in those days. Amy was educated with marriage in mind. It’s hard to believe any parent would deliberately deprive their child of a good education, but the past was a different place. I’ve had more than one friend whose father decreed that the only skills she needed were cookery and shorthand typing. Shorthand? Where’s that going to get you these days? So there’s Amy, smack in the middle of telling Jim she doesn’t need him, when she comes up against the truth. In marrying him, she’s sold her life, her independence and all her dreams for a band of gold and a share in Jim’s wages. Without him, she’ll starve. Small wonder she and Georgie are squaring up to slog this one out. Sold a romantic ideal that was really no more than a precarious meal ticket, the lot of the average 1950s woman was not a happy one.

Of course, the lily-livered waster does exactly as I knew he would in the end. Georgie’s the loser, and no-one’s meant to feel sorry. She’s a woman who failed to understand her place. She got above her station and took what she wanted, although why the hell she wanted Jim is beyond me. She walks off the set, aloof and slightly sad. As befits a woman fallen from grace, she’s doomed to spend her declining years alone in the corner of a dusty office, with nothing but her shorthand notebook and a typewriter for company. As for me, I can’t help imagining how things might have been if Amy and Georgie had thrown Jim out on his ear and joined forces to launch Amy’s singing career. With her voice and Georgie’s organisational skills they couldn’t have gone wrong. Sadly, 1950s scriptwriters weren’t noted for thinking that far outside the box.

I don’t know its origin, but I first saw it scrawled on the wall of a toilet somewhere around 1976. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Some years later the saying was purloined by a purveyor of Irish stout, and I have to confess that I now own a chopping board with the words emblazoned across it. Be that as it may, I’ve never forgotten my first encounter. Need is not good for any relationship. You’re my world … sang Cilla Black. I was still in primary school then. Need feeds the romance industry. Need and possession. I’m your woman, and you are my man … I can’t live, if living is without you … But despite the promise of happy-ever-after, marriage has always been a harshly practical arrangement. All down the years women like Grandma and Amy have traded their lives for the promise, only to end up dependent upon that most unreliable of beasts: a man.

Money. In the world as we know it, money buys freedom.  Yet the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. St Paul’s words, not mine. Well not his precise words obviously. He didn’t speak English, although I’ve known people who’d be surprised to hear that. For something that doesn’t exist, money causes a lot of trouble. Take Amy’s conundrum. She needs Jim because he brings home the bacon. He also brings home tea, milk and sugar, of which they’re getting though an awful lot right now. During one melodramatic climax, Jim sends Georgie to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. This is a British film after all. But seriously, can’t he even boil a kettle?  Amy drags her twenty years of shared experience with Jim into the fight. Now, if he’s prepared to deceive her to get what he wants, I don’t think all that matters much to him. He’ll do it again in a heartbeat, mark my words. The only thing keeping the two of them in the same room is Amy’s dependence on his pay cheque. And the demands of the script of course.

I’ve written before about money. It takes more faith to believe in the existence of money than in a god who sits on a cloud hurling thunderbolts all day. Nevertheless, like children at a pantomime we suspend disbelief and clap our hands because we can’t picture the world any other way. In a moneycentric universe people become commodities, and Jim’s a pretty valuable commodity to Amy right now. Sadly, she has far fewer bargaining chips than he does, and those she has aren’t in good shape. She’s a terrible housewife, and she’s let herself go physically, to boot. All-in-all, she’s dismally failed to uphold her side of the marriage deal. Seeing as the screenplay’s by a man, I’m surprised he hasn’t written her out already.

Charlie’s attitude to money was refreshingly straightforward. Money equalled booze, and he’d think nothing of clearing every penny in the house for another drink. You know where you stand with a man like that, even if it is in the shit. His predecessor was more complex. It took time to understand those Andy Capp impressions he used to do – lying all day with his dirty boots on the arm of the sofa. Now I get it. He didn’t want to share his money with me, or with his children. The solution was simple. Don’t bring home any money. The traditional marital deal collapsed spectacularly, but instead of insisting on a new one I tried to uphold both sides single-handedly. The burden broke me. This is not the place to talk about the shifting boundaries of relationships in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That’s a post for another day. All I’ll say now is that a fish has far more use for a bicycle.

So, what of Amy? She’s got her man and they’re walking hand-in-hand to the rosy glow of renewed romance. I doubt it’ll last. Amy’s not going to fall in love with drudgery any time soon, and Jim’s highly likely to fall in love with the next pretty secretary. Money, need and fear of the unknown will hold them together for now, but they’re fragile threads. I’ll give it a year. Perhaps next time they’ll make the right choice. Then Jim’ll be on his bike.

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