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13 July 2022

A tense time – take an M&S bedsheet from its package and there’s no going back

With new fitted bed linen I can now writhe about in full confidence that my bottom sheet is not going to strangle me.

By Nicholas Lezard

I write on day five of an illness that may be Covid, but if it is not, might as well be. I also write on day two of Boris Johnson not leaving No 10. Both are vexing me considerably. I am prone to breathing issues; I suffer from sudden exhaustion that makes me dizzy and liable to pass out; my internal organs seem to be made of phlegm. The Johnson business just produces nausea. “I assumed the news from Downing Street would have you high-kicking,” my editor wrote to me when I said I was too ill to file; but no, it doesn’t. There is a certain degree of Schadenfreude – you’d have to be inhuman not to feel any – but it is mostly directed, silently, at the PM’s lickspittles and hangers-on. But the most vexing aspect, on a personal level, is that a really good lunch hangs on this. I recklessly challenged my friend the Wing Commander to a bet about whether Johnson was “finished” or not; at the time of making the bet, he had not made any kind of announcement about resigning. I am hoping the initial vagueness of the wording will work in my favour. But the idea of stumping up for a lunch at the RAF Club gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I had already stumped up for a lunch a few days before: my friend D— had come down to visit, and we ate at the best restaurant in Brighton, the Regency. Honestly, £46 for lunch for two and a bottle of wine? Including the best whitebait on the south coast? We staggered up from the tables, bloated, unable to finish what was on our plates. I shall be going there again with my youngest son for a post-graduation lunch, but this time I am rather counting on his mother paying for me.

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Friendship with D—  has proved life-changing, in at least two ways. The first is that when it was my birthday, she included with her card an envelope full of sunflower seeds. I bought some potting compost and flowerpots from Robert Dyas and planted five; two of them have sprouted. One started out much smaller than the other, but, like Root and Bairstow in the fourth innings against India at Edgbaston, the latecomer is beginning to outpace the earlier front-runner. They are enormous, and somewhat obscure the view, but it is nice to have other living things in the flat that are not vermin, and the plant on the right does a fine job of hiding the long, wide streak of seagull shit on the window, which has been bothering me for a couple of weeks. Add to this that D— left her autograph tree, Clusia rosea, behind (she is the kind of person who cannot step outside the front door without buying a plant) and the place is beginning to look like Kew Gardens. Which is fine by me. Right now, I need the extra oxygen.

The other change her visit effected was, perhaps, even more profound. I knew she’d be coming to the Hove-l because she’d have some luggage to park; and this meant tidying up. Cleaning the place is, always, a fraught business. It involves days of self-loathing procrastination followed by hours of weeping, many of them on one’s knees. The vacuum cleaner is useless so all crumbs etc have to be swept up with the dustpan and brush. This time I didn’t have to use the dustpan and brush because I have lost the brush. I did not know one could do that. They go together, don’t they? Inseparable, each doing their best for the other, like a metaphor for a good marriage. Anyway, the brush has run off with another fancy dustpan or something, so the crumbs remain.

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No, what changed was in the bedroom. Stop sniggering at the back. Since I moved here, a freak shortage of fitted sheets at Debenhams when I was buying bedlinen meant that I have been relying on unfitted sheets for the past 21 months. Older readers may remember unfitted sheets. They are like fitted sheets, but without the elasticated corners. Imagine, if you can, a tablecloth that goes over your mattress. But with nothing to secure it to the corners. After a few hours of lying in bed, this becomes unfit for purpose. The sheet develops a mind of its own and before long you are sleeping on bare mattress.

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Vagueness about the mattress’s dimensions, a reluctance to believe that anyone apart from Debenhams sells bedlinen, and then the demise of Debenhams’ high street stores, had prevented me from fixing this problem. But in the end I decided I had had enough and went to Marks & Spencer, and measured out what I thought was the width of the bed in front of the bemused woman at the counter with my feet. I struck lucky. Once you have taken an M&S bedsheet from its package, there is no going back. It is yours for life, whether it fits or not. Mine did. The relief was extraordinary. And now I can stay in bed and writhe about it in full confidence that the bottom sheet is not going to try to make a break for it, or strangle me, or let me down in some other way. And this is just as well because, after sending this off, bed is exactly where I’m going to be spending the foreseeable future.

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant