To me, home improvement is ever a mystery

"Have you got a moment?" "No." It's funny how I can say "no," but she seems to hear me say "yes." I've never fathomed this. I thought the two words had opposite meanings.

"It'll only take a second or two. Come and see what I've done."

Perhaps it's because writing is a notably silent business, and this invites the assumption that certain indications - long silences, extended gazing into space, and pronounced inactivity in the finger/keyboard department - must mean one is doing nothing. I admit: It is hard to tell.

So, with a certain grumblement and mutteration, I heave myself out of my chair and follow her into ... well, it might be the hall, it might be the spare bedroom, it might be the sitting room, the kitchen, the bathroom. I am never quite sure.

"Do you like it?" she asks, and I survey the room in question in a game of "Spot the Difference." The trouble is, I very often don't spot the difference. She watches me struggle, smiling tolerantly at my typically male lack of observation.

Finally, I admit my hopelessness (easier than fighting it). "OK, I give up. I can't see anything."

At this juncture, I feel that I might be let off the hook. But no; the game is afoot, and I am not to be excused so lightly.

"Keep looking! Can't you see it?"

I shake my head sadly, with a slight laugh. "Give us a hint. Is it on a table? On a shelf? By the window?" And then, sometimes, it dawns on me. Or I think it has. "You've moved that armchair," I hazard.

"No. The armchair is exactly where it has been since January. Look again."

"The lamp on the side table?"

"Oh, honestly! No!"

And so it goes. Sometimes I do actually get it right at last. A candle, a vase, a three-seater settee has changed position or vanished. More often, though, she ends up telling me - with a suggestion of triumph. "The yucca by the TV! I've removed it!"


"There was a yucca by the TV?"

"Only since 1993." Another pause. "I thought," she resumes, "it really was crowding things. What do you think? Better without it, isn't it?"

This is a tricky. If I say, "Much better," she is disinclined to believe me - since I had failed to notice the yucca's presence for a decade. Similarly, if I say "Oh, I don't know, I was rather fond of that yucca," my credibility may be even more suspect. On the other hand, I do have to say something. A writerly silence will not suffice. So I try something like, "Now that you point it out, yes, it does seem altogether airier somehow. Good idea." And I try to head back to my keyboard.

"You're just saying that," she says. And then: "Do you really think it's better?"

Actually, I do care. I enjoy the careful orderliness of our house. But (call me old-fashioned) I have long ago concluded that her pleasure in this felicitous arrangement and refinement of every room in our house, except my study - my cave - is all hers. I have once or twice dared to move a piece of pottery or put the soup spoons in an unprecedented part of the drawer, but I've never been able to get away with it. "The soup spoons are in the wrong place," I am quickly informed. "Why?"

It's a hard question to answer, the "wrong place" question, though very occasionally I have argued that my minor re-arrangement is actually better. Even more occasionally, she has agreed. But then she is the one who watches TV programs about house design and decoration and therefore is the one most likely to be an expert around here.

All the same, I am a little puzzled. By two things. The first is that for many years, once things like furniture are positioned, or a picture hung (usually after much cogitation, and, admittedly, some discussion), such features used to remain where they were more or less permanently. But recently, one never quite knows when something is going to be altered, moved, or relegated to storage or dump.

The second puzzlement is that I observe a distinct process of minimalization in the air. Where there were once two or three objects on a surface - cushions on a sofa or plants in a room - there are now one or two. It's quite subtle, but each weekend I am introduced to the decisive exile of some familiar object or other, and a new spaciousness resulting.

I am aware that this is not entirely new. A substantial selection of my bottle collection was long ago wrapped in newspaper, boxed, and rehoused in the cellar. There is nothing personal about this. She culls her collection of stuffed toy animals periodically, too.

Nevertheless, she and I differ in this respect. Someone once asked me why, to make much-needed shelf space, I didn't sell some of my books and catalogs. Not to appear obstinate, I went through them all with a fine-toothed comb. I found just one catalog I felt I might part with - and that was a by-mistake duplicate. I couldn't part with a single book. You just never know when they might be useful. My study, therefore, is the one place in which there is more clutter than air.

So when she is working hard at something, it is more than rare for her to be interrupted by someone else saying, "Have you got a moment? I want you to come and see what you think about a space I've made on a bookshelf by dispensing with one of my books." I just can't see this happening, somehow.

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