Art of The Niggle

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Clear the decks ’cause some 5th-rate fiction is headed your way.

MY 5th-rate fiction, to be precise.

In the fair-dinkum stakes it might actually bleed over in some passages to sixth-rate. Consider yourself warned.

This was an entry I submitted to a recent fiction writing competition run on the first weekend of every month by the Australian Writer’s Center. Entrants had just 500 words to sculpt a story that included the following ‘must haves’-

  • mention of the word ‘nineteen’ 

  • mention of the word ‘desert’

  • mention somewhere in the story of a list

  • some reference to ‘new beginnings’

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I wrote mine and submitted it. I then rewrote it, expanding it to double its original length. Before we get into it here’s a book-jacket blurb summary of the story… 

Kenneth and Anita Glossop can’t remember the last time they sent each other a Valentine’s Day card. But after 36 years of marriage would anyone really expect them to?  They’re a couple who believe Sun Tzu’s book THE ART OF WAR was really a marriage counselling guide. Though deep down they love each other, their worst kept secret is their devotion to ‘the niggle’ – the ancient art of verbal sparring.

They might bicker like the old married couple they are and somehow still remain on speaking terms but what happens the day Ken discovers a list written by his wife entitled 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT MY HUSBAND. Has the niggle finally gone too far? Can the Glossops prove that marriage is more than just shouting ‘What?” from other rooms. And what’s up with the snail secretion beauty mask Anita received after their last fight?

Find out the answers to these questions and more in ART OF THE NIGGLE. 

Before starting you should probably know one thing. A lot of research went into the writing of this short story. And by research I don’t mean the Wikipedia and Google kind. Saying anything more about that could get me into a whole lot of trouble… so on with the main show.

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New beginnings?

Pfffft!

Not likely.

The flipped over page of the calendar may have read ‘January 1st’ but after 36 years of marriage, the last nineteen of which had witnessed, amongst other low points, the creation of custom made voodoo dolls in each other’s likeness, Kenneth Glossop and his gaunt, bitter wife Anita no longer bothered with New Year’s resolutions. In place of a calendar they may as well have had a cuckoo clock attached to the wall that sprang open on the hour, repeating the gloomy phrase – “Today is another day – just like yesterday.”

Over the years, arguing with Anita had become as natural as rolling on another pair of worn socks. And since he was by this advanced stage more likely to be deeply hurt by rude bus drivers than anything she could assail him with, ‘the niggle’ as he referred to the daily pantomime of working through marital gripes and annoyances, had become somehow more subtly enjoyable to him than soccer, his game of choice from back in his youth.

CaptureTo relax he devised cryptic crosswords and she practiced her violin, which she played semi-professionally with a local quartet. Their time spent together had evolved to fulfill what could only be described as barely the most functional form of companionship. Kenneth and Anita Glossop’s marriage had long ago assumed the look and feel of a barren desert of course non-affection and tactical belittling on both sides. There were also rolling hills of disinterest for as far as the eye could see broken up only by the mutual care of a golden retriever named Stradivarius.

That morning at the kitchen table Kenneth had formed his hand into a fist and brought it down hard onto the polished pinewood surface covered by a tablecloth with sunflowers on it. “I don’t want Grape Nuts” he said with absurd emphasis, in a querulous voice that saddened and diminished them both. Later in the day there had been a disagreement about the rights and wrongs of a reputable newspaper running an astrology column. Anita had agreed with her husband that astrology was an insult to the intelligence but had then added the caveat that the public had a right to get what they wanted even if it was bad for them.

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As with a great many of their disagreements, for a long time they seemed not to be arguing at all, but merely carrying on an extended intellectual debate, the locus shifting from breakfast table to kitchen sink while she washed the dishes, to the bathroom while he shaved, to the bedroom while they dressed. On some occasions, Anita would be handed a present the next day when a waxed-mustache-twirling Kenneth sensed things had tipped over the edge into outright animosity. His past offerings had included a snail secretion facial mask, a book of poems purportedly written by cats, pine tar soap and most bizarrely and impractical of all an absinthe making kit (Anita didn’t drink alcohol).

One day while searching the glove box of their beloved silver Plymouth Valiant, Kenneth had happened upon a list Anita had written one night some months previous while propped in front of their television set blaring news of a perilous world.  It was handwritten with the title “Ten Things I Hate About My Husband”. As his eyes moved down the charge sheet, a faint smile of recognition came to settle upon his face for the type of grievances he expected might be on such a list mixed in with mild shock and a feeling of persecution for the ones that took him in a sneak attack by total surprise. It incensed:

  1. He has to be taught basic life skills
  2. Snoring
  3. His stupid puns
  4. Driving
  5. He’s 79 years of age and plays video games!
  6. Putting tape across the tv remote control sensor stops being funny after the 10th time.
  7. He never puts the decorative pillows in their proper place when making the bed.
  8. His ridiculous ‘Lost in Space’ replica robot.
  9. When he goes to the bathroom at night I’m pretty sure he’s aiming for the walls.
  10. The time he admitted he used to be a serial streaker at sporting events was a new low.

Kenneth was intrigued and consoled himself with the fact at least she had not complained about his admittedly maddening habit of misplacing things, although he guessed that had the list been entitled “11 Things I Hate About My Husband” that would have rounded out what definitely looked to be an exercise in cataloging his perceived faults like pinned moths.

CaptureDeep down, Kenneth loved his wife but in doing so also realized, and sensed she did too, that they were both sufferers of the affliction known as Hyper-vigilant Personality Disorder (HPD). This condition classically manifested itself in asocial types who upset their fellows and distracted themselves by constantly searching for hidden meanings in ordinary things.

Still, having ridden the waves of the one-damn-thing-after-anotherness of a lifelong shared existence together, finding a list like that written by your partner wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person or a marriage.

Kenneth reached into his shirt pocket and found a half full packet of skittles. He pored a handful of them into his mouth, drew in a breath as if to say something, but then checked himself. For a moment he felt absurdly powerful at the thought of what was to come. He would save his energy, for he was a person who couldn’t resist the distraction a good argument offered. 

Kenneth knew it would be quite the sparring session with Anita later that night. He’d save what little energy he had for the important things in life: the things he could rely on to still give him pleasure after all these years. And he knew, deep down, Anita felt the same way.

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Ps. While putting this post together I came upon an old-school, single-panel comic called THE LOCKHORNS. It’s been going since 1968 and is syndicated in a jillion newspapers around the world (in 23 countries) still today. It centers on a married couple – Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn – who constantly argue. There’s been at least nine Lockhorns book collections published over the years.

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Go HERE  if you want more old school LOCKHORNS humor. For way more new-school humor go HERE

PPS. BelowKenneth and Anita in their younger days?

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