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

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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism