Squeezed Middle: Couples therapy

I genuinely don’t know if I can accept advice from a man who seemingly takes his fashion cues from Simon Cowell but, having got this far, I feel obliged to give him a chance.

‘‘Please take a seat.” Curly and I sit down on the cheap blue foam chairs. It turns out Dr Nutfixer wasn’t our couples therapist, after all. She was just an intermediary and, having assessed us, she has now referred us to Dr Gordon.

I am far from delighted at this development. Dr Nutfixer may have been stern but she was at least wise and female. She was exactly how I had pictured a therapist. Not only is Dr Gordon a man, but his face is strangely immobile. I definitely don’t look at him and think “emotional intelligence”. I look at him and think “fish on a slab”.

I’m sure there is a deep-seated psychological explanation for the overwhelming hostility I am feeling towards him. But right now, I feel like it has more to do with his trousers, which are hitched up and tightly belted way above his waist. I genuinely don’t know if I can accept advice from a man who seemingly takes his fashion cues from Simon Cowell but, having got this far, I feel obliged to give him a chance.

“So. Would either of you like to tell me why you are here, what you would like to get out of these sessions?”

The ensuing silence seems to drag on for years. I have no idea where to begin. I glance hopefully at Curly, who is examining a picture on the wall with intense concentration. It is a still life, a vase of flowers in pastel shades, the kind of mock-art you might find on the wall of a cheap hotel room. I hate it almost as much as the trousers – almost as much as giving a glib summary of my most intimate life to a wall-eyed stranger.

The irony is that after months of waiting for the couples counselling appointment with a desperation bordering on despair, we have actually been getting on pretty well lately. And now here we are, having to stir up the hornets’ nest again.

I muster all the enthusiasm I can and start waffling something or other about how we need to lay a firm foundation for our family in the future. Dr Gordon does not look impressed. He looks bored. When I have finished, he turns to Curly.

“So, a great result the other day.”

What is he on about? It takes a moment before I realise that Curly is wearing his Aston Villa T-shirt. The man is talking football! In time that we are paying for! Is this some kind of trick to get us to relax? If so, it’s not working on me. I don’t feel relaxed, I feel furious.

“Erm. Yeah.” Curly laughs nervously. There is another long pause. I have slumped in my seat like Kevin the Teenager.

Suffice to say, the session is a disaster. Curly is delighted. He never wanted to go to therapy anyway. “You should have seen your face,” he says afterwards, wiping away a tear of pure hilarity.

“Who did he remind me of? His eyes were so weird. Blank.”

“That one from The Addams Family – Lurch.”

I’ll say one thing for Dr Gordon. We haven’t laughed like that in quite a while.

Couples therapy: not traditionally a barrel of laughs. Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.