“Your pronounciation leaves a lot to be desired, madam,” the interviewer said in a rather curt manner to his subject. The woman looked nonplussed, but not half as bad as I felt.
I was fuming; fortunately we didn’t have any smoke detectors. I turned the television off in haste.
“Dan, why’d you do that?” Sheila demanded from the depths of the sofa. “It was a really interesting interview!”
“Interesting? It was pathetic! He decries the poor woman’s pronunciation yet he can’t even pronounce the word “pronunciation” properly!” Try saying that after a few drinks, I thought.
I threw on my jacket – well, put it on, really. Ever tried throwing on any type of clothing? It goes all over the place.
“Switch on, if you must. The television, not me,” I quipped, trying to defuse my loving spouse’s incipient long silence.
“I’m going down to the pub,” I said. “At least at the local they don’t pretend they can talk properly.”
Those ruby red lips were clamped shut as she pointedly gazed at the blank screen, arms folded. Resolutely staying quiet, Sheila grabbed the remote, jabbed the relevant button and the machine’s single eye glowered accusingly at me.
“Do you want me to bring you back some crisps?” I sallied in an inane attempt at a peace offering.
“Is that potato chips or crisps?” she retorted without looking up,
“Very funny,” I snarled, quite impressed despite myself, and walked out the door.
Her obscure reference alluded to the inventor of crisps, George Crum, an American Indian chef – as opposed to chief. He’d actually been trying to get one over on an obnoxious diner, railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who complained about the undue thickness of his French fries. Crum’s frivolous attempt at extreme thinness backfired and in fact was a hit with the magnate and soon the Saratoga Chips caught on, even if their name didn’t.
Sheila probably got that piece of useless information from the Discovery Channel. If she isn’t watching game shows or soaps, she’s hooked onto educational television. But she never reads a book. Except dictionaries.
Crosswords – and we have plenty from time to time, though we deign to call them “differences of opinion” – word-searches and daily doses of Countdown – when it was being televised – kept Sheila quite content. As long as she had the Big Dictionary within reach. Numbers were another matter entirely. She was no good and marvelled at the Carol Vorderman replacement’s ability. And she always got frustrated over that new craze, sudoku – those Japanese have a lot to answer for – karaoke and sushi, for starters – well, not in the meal sense, thanks very much, as sushi sounds like a raw deal, to say the least.
In every room in our house there are half-read – or is that half-dead? – books, lying face down, spines uppermost, like tents pitched to accommodate all those words. And they’re all dictionaries: foreign words and phrases, allusions, euphemisms, idioms, religious quotations, contemporary quotations, eponyms, slang and proverbs spring to mind, though there are others...
I won’t beat about the bush. I’m attracted to words too, though not as seriously as Sheila. I must confess to having a fondness for the odd idiom or two – or even the plain straightforward normal idioms. Idiotic, I know, but there you are. Certainly, Dr Johnson disparaged their use – “colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms and irregular combinations” – and I don’t think he was talking about underwear. Not to mince words, I suspect my predilection for idioms indubitably explains why all my short stories get rejected.
The Big Dictionary is seventeen centimetres thick, all 3,333 pages of it. Thumb-indexed and very heavy, it has been in our family since 1935 and has all the names of each relative on the flysheet at the front. You could say that, up to a point, it reveals the etymology of our family as well as that of each word it contains.
It was love at first sight for Sheila: she fell in love with this book first, then me.
A thirst for knowledge doesn’t adequately describe her deep and seemingly insatiable urge. She just wants to know everything. And since she has what amounts to a photographic memory for facts –though not numbers, it’s quite possible that one day she will actually achieve her aim. But what can she learn then, when she knows it all?
Frightening thought, to know everything. They called her a “know-all” at school, but they don’t know the half of it!
Of course I know that she’ll never know absolutely everything. It isn’t going to happen, because in so many different areas of research they’re discovering new information every day – even new planets.
We’ve known each other six months and been married two of those. Naturally, the only place we could go to for our honeymoon had to be none other than Wordsworth country. As it was a February, while we stayed in Grasmere there wasn’t a daffodil in sight; it seemed like poetic justice to me, though Sheila was a bit peeved. I cheered her up with a visit to the great writer’s home Dove Cottage where William stayed with his sister Dorothy. Strange, the associations you make with names, but I always think of The Wizard of Oz when I hear that name.
Fortunately there were no dictionaries in evidence in the cramped little cottage; I had really feared that Sheila might have attempted to purloin one.
Just like an addict who needed an instant fix, the day after our honeymoon, Sheila started reading the Big Dictionary from the beginning.
It didn’t take long after that for me to realise that I was shaping up into a word widower.
Marriage and in fact any serious endeavour can be a leap in the dark, a leap of faith, if you will, and to begin with I’d faithfully hoped she would turn over a new leaf but the only leaves she turned belonged in dictionaries.
When I returned from the pub, arms brimful with assorted flavoured crisps and a bottle of her favourite stout, Sheila was listening to the television – something about the engineering feats of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – while reading the Zed section of the Big Dictionary.
This was not good news. I must have blinked for a few days. When had she managed to get so far into the book?
Once she read about zythum, a drink made in ancient Egypt from fermented malt, she’d be thirsting for a replacement dictionary. And nothing but a new edition would suffice.
Sadly, Sheila was in for a shock. I’d tried to prepare her more than once, explaining that the family tree had sort of obliterated the date of printing on the flysheet, but she just ignored me and devoured another half-dozen exotic words.
What do you do with unfamiliar words if you’re not a writer like Anthony Burgess? They might come in useful for the Times Crossword, I suppose, or for showing off in a pub quiz – both of which Sheila has resorted to since she began reading the Big Dictionary.
But how was I going to tell her that a new dictionary, printed seventy-three years since ours, was going to contain thousands of new words? Indeed, many of those words she’d memorised were either obsolete or had changed their meaning or even been hijacked for politically correct or socio-political purposes...
Scientific discovery alone continually threw up new terminology; many branches of science even had their own lexicons. Modern media dispensed slang and neo-words by the hundred every day, or so it seemed. Jargon was everywhere. The hungry English language simply laps up new words from any and every source and makes them its own.
She closed the big book with about two pages left to read and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m off to get some zeds,” she said. “Let’s eat the crisps in bed, shall we?”
“What about the crumbs?” I countered. She was a stickler for cleanliness though not tidiness.
“Don’t make any,” she suggested sternly.
“Impossible!” I protested cravenly.
“Is that two words?” she teased at the door.
My heart lurched. “You’ve been reading the dictionary of quotations as well, haven’t you?”
Sheila nodded. “Samuel Goldwyn. In two words: im possible.”
“And where are you up to in that book?”
“A while to go yet, then?”
“It might take some time, yes,” she replied. “As Bacon said, I have taken on all knowledge to be my province.”
“Which dictionary are we reading tonight, by the way?” I asked, ever hopeful.
“Dreams,” she said.
“You’ll have to wait for the next few pages of the Sex Dictionary until you buy me the latest New Oxford English.”
I sighed, crestfallen. “All right,” I said with a sinking heart. “It’s a deal.” Once she got into that tome, with all its new words, I knew full well that she’d have no time for me at all. Yes, word widower summed me up precisely.
Previously published in Pen and Plot Webzine, 2013
Edited by novelist Rosean Mile, Pen and Plot has now been removed from the web
***Short stories can contain humour as well as drama. Some of my tales in Spanish Eye contain humour, while others are tragic, dark or poignant. An assortment of emotions in 22 cases of Leon Cazador, half-English half-Spanish private eye.