Could I ask a small favour? Even if you only intended to check out the general subject of this column before getting back to something more important, like shredding cabbage, would you be so good as to keep your eyes on the words in front of you and not let them wander aimlessly down the page? Thanks. Now, here's what I'd like you to do next.
Think of a number between one and ten. Double it. Add eight. Divide by two. Take away the number you first thought of. All right? And now work out the letter of the alphabet that corresponds to the number you have in your head (A would be number one). Now think of a country beginning with that letter and then take the alphabetical letter after the one that corresponds to your number and think of an animal that begins with that letter. And finally think of the colour of that animal.
You're now ready to have your mind read. "I'm sorry. There are no grey elephants in Denmark." You were thinking of Denmark and a grey elephant, weren't you? We all were last Thursday when Geoff pulled off this little trick at a get-together in Bertorelli's to mark Marcia's first year of fully fledged lesbianism.
All would have been well if he hadn't decided to rub in his little success by pointing out that it had worked perfectly even though there were four graduates and one full professor sitting at the table. I had to retaliate. "Of course it worked. But only because we agreed to let it work. You hardly need O-level maths to know that your game will leave everyone with the number four and then it's equally easy to predict they'll choose Denmark as the country beginning with D and elephant as an animal beginning with E. But we could easily have gone for Dubai and emu." ("Emu's a bird," shouted Marcia in that aggressive manner that has become such an unsavoury part of her personality in the past 12 months.)
I shouldn't have allowed my irritation to show but I'm beginning to wonder if my current inability to solve even the simplest riddle or mind game is a sign that my mind is becoming increasingly closed to ambiguity. It's not a welcome development. There's a whole series of psychological studies showing that an unreadiness to tolerate ambiguity is indicative not only of a closed mind but a predilection for fascism and a belief in male superiority.
There's other evidence. It's barely six months since I failed to work out John's irritating little riddle about the man who was driving his son to work and had a fearful accident. The child was dashed to hospital and was lying on the operating table when the surgeon came in, looked down, and suddenly said, "My son".
"How could that be?" John asked. And, of course, I piled in with stories about the surgeon being the driver's Siamese twin and similar nonsense before John casually pointed out the surgeon was the child's mother. "Have you never heard of a female surgeon?"
I'd like to think there are more accurate indications of incipient closed-mindedness and developing chauvinism than a couple of silly dinner-party games. But I still have to accept that I'm slowly losing the riddle-solving reputation I've enjoyed since that magic moment at my fifth birthday party when my father leaned across the table and said, "Laurence. 'Constantinople' is a very long word. How do you spell it?" And I stared right back at him and said "I-T". I tell you, before the age of puberty, I was nobody's fool.