Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: Other voices
I know, I've been going on a bit about that question, "What are you thinking about?" And I know, it's part of any marriage - well, a part of any heterosexual relationship, anyway. She wants to know what's going on inside his head and it's his job to guard the contents of that head, no matter how flimsy the contents might be - especially because there might be nothing much going on in there. An empty head is no man's most attractive feature.
Anyway, the wife - my wife, that is - has been asking the question since the day we first met and, irritating and unsettling as I've found the question, I've always thought that I'd be in trouble if she ever stopped asking it.
By the way, it was the third question she asked me that night. The first was "What are you looking at?" and the second was "With you?" - after I asked her if she wanted to dance.
Anyway, there are two reasons why the question has been keeping me awake.
My standard answer has always been "nothing much". It's evasive but, actually, it's often honest. And that now, I no longer find satisfactory. I'm well into my seventh decade and "nothing much" seems a bit pathetic. I know I'm not Albert Einstein or your man, Aristotle, but surely to God I could have come up with some original thought - even just the one. Or, do we all think that, now and again - men and women - as we start to spend more time looking back at our lives because we're a bit scared of what lies ahead? I seem to regret everything these days. I put marmalade on my toast and, even before I have it up to my mouth, I'm regretting that I didn't go for the jam.
The other reason I've been dwelling on the question and what it might actually mean is because I had a strange experience while I was rinsing the dishes. I heard a woman's voice asking me what I was thinking about. But it wasn't the wife who spoke and she was the only flesh-and-blood woman in the house when I heard the voice.
And now the wife's after telling me that she's heard the voice too, except it didn't ask her what she was thinking: it told her what I was thinking. And the way the wife is looking at me now, the voice must have started with the bad stuff.
- I only think it now and again, I tell her.
- That I'd rather be down in the local than here, I say. - I'd only think that when I'm, eh, like, thirsty. And never mind the other thing.
- What other thing?
- That I'm thinking of Rachel from 'Countdown' when I'm supposed to be listening to you, I say.
- That's not even a real thought, I assure her. - It's only a bit of a joke.
- You watch 'Countdown' every day, Charlie.
- In my fight against Alzheimer's, I do, I tell her. - The doctor told me to.
- And Rachel Riley helps you in your battle against Alzheimer's, does she?
- She just happens to be there, I tell the wife. - She's always standing in front of the letters. You'd see that if you watched it, like. It's on in a minute, by the way.
She starts to laugh.
- My God, she says.
- Hang on, I say. - You didn't hear the voice at all, sure you didn't?
She shakes her head.
- You were fooling me, I say.
- It wasn't much of a challenge, she answers.
She smiles, almost fondly. And I think I got away with it: she still has no real idea what I actually think about. But she sits down beside me - right against me - for Countdown.
- Go on ahead, she says.
- Make up a word from the letters Rachel's after giving you.
- I can't, I say. - With you watching.
I turn down the sound. I go even further: I turn off the telly. And I look at her.
- Who do you think the voice is? I ask her.
- I don't know, she says. - I don't think it matters.
- I've heard other voices, I tell her.
- Same here, she says.
- My father, I tell her.
- Same here.
- What's going on? I ask her.
- Well, she says.
There's something about the way the wife says "Well". It always seems to announce that she's going to say something worth hearing. The first time I really noticed it was just after I asked her to marry me. "Well," she said. "I might."
This time, she puts her hand on the back of my neck.
- We're at a stage in our lives where we nearly know more dead people than live ones, she says. - We're keeping them with us.
- D'you think?
- I do.
She pulls my head gently closer to hers and we have a good oul' cry.