Me and my ex-wife went to Ikea – and it went about as well as you'd expect

A three-way ding-dong between son, mother and me, and all because of an Allen key.

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A huge family row, with the Estranged Wife and the Oldest Boy. Well, when I say “huge”, I’m talking relatively. The EW and I have stumbled upon the key to a happy marriage: one of you moves out, and each of you can have sex with whoever offers or consents, and there isn’t a thing either of you can do about it. Try it some time! Our relations are more cordial than they have been since the dying days of the Major administration. As for the Oldest Boy, he’s a pretty low-temperature dude, so you usually have to be paying attention to see if he’s narked, but I think he might be.

The argument, however, concerns Ikea. They always do, in the end. You see, he is about to start university and he needs things like pots, pans, knives, forks, plates, that kind of thing. I’m sure there’s a word that covers all these things but I’m hanged if I can remember it.

OK, fair enough. I think I managed without such things and when I did need them I went to the Farthing Shop (when I was a student, you could live for a month on a pound) and bought some old crap that was expendable. But now, the boy and his mother want to go to Ikea. The mother has a job, though, and the boy is expensive to put on the car insurance, so muggins here has been volunteered.

But I hate Ikea. I hate it violently. I remember the first time I went. I think it was also the first time an Ikea store opened in this country. I also remember, in reverse order, the first McDonald’s, the first cash machine, the first postage stamp and the first semi-ambulatory fish climbing out of the tidal ooze. My mother, for it was with her that I went, marvelled at and praised its space, its brightness, the clean lines of its designs.

All of these things, though – with the exception of space, and even then too much of it isn’t necessarily a good thing – I hate. Give me age, gloom and wonkiness every time. (This, I suppose, is why I have failed so far to dislodge myself from the Hovel. About the only things I’m missing in it are a working fireplace and a cat.)

There is then the added insult (although I suspect that this is not so much an added insult as the original insult, the insult that gets the whole ball of my rage rolling) that you have to build its bland, boring furniture yourself. And – this is the kicker – with laughably piss-poor instructions and the kind of Allen key you’d get in a Christmas cracker, if cost-cutting Christmas cracker manufacturers did Allen keys.

I think my marriage began to unravel when we finally moved into a home we had to, and could, furnish ourselves. I was pretty happy sitting on the boxes we’d used to move our stuff, but my wife, heavily pregnant, was undergoing some kind of nesting-instinct thing and I thought it best to roll with it.

The comedy routine that revolves around the construction of Ikea furniture is one that, by now, needs no further airing. All we need do is refer to it; for we have all been there ourselves. We shall pass over my assembling of the Ikea desk in silence – which is not how it was accomplished, as the air around me turned a thick blue with the foulest oaths I could think of, in a selection of languages. (Whenever I’ve used up my stock of Anglo-Saxon swear words, Italian and Hungarian provide the most satisfactory-sounding oaths, for I do not like to repeat myself.)

Since then, I have reflected that even though there are countless humiliations that attend the end of a marriage, one of the good things is that I never have to set foot in one of those nightmarish blue-and-yellow warehouses again. Their shadow hung over me for a few years when the Beloved H—, a lover of all things Swedish, kept trying to get me to go to one, but, as I pointed out to her, going to Ikea without a car is pretty silly even if you love Ikea – and I don’t, so there.

She saw reason and then went off to Sweden, which is basically an Ikea store with trees, which are, after all, only Ikea furniture at an even more rudimentary stage of assembly.

So there’s a three-way ding-dong between son, mother and me. It becomes four-way for a bit when my daughter joins in, but she does not do so to argue on my side.

“It’s an important part of the bonding process between father and child, and a key transitional moment,” she says.

“Balls,” I reply.

My son pipes up around this point. “You could get a column out of it,” he says.

Well, there is always that, I have to admit. 

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 appears in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation