For some time he’d been vaguely aware that something wasn’t quite right.  Duncan and his wife, Julie, had been married for 16 years.  They’d been teenage sweethearts having met at their co-educational secondary school.  Everyone who knew them assumed they’d get married and, sure enough, when Duncan had finished university (English at Cambridge) and got his first job (writing marketing literature for a big multi-national), they obliged. 

They honeymooned in Devon at a hotel Duncan knew well from childhood holidays.  They expected to have children but, as the years passed, none came along and gradually they settled to an orderly, childless existence: routine and humdrum.

It was therefore a surprise when, at breakfast, shortly after his 41st birthday, Duncan suddenly announced he’d made a list.

‘A list?  What sort of list?’ Julie asked, a spoon-full of porridge hovering mid-way between her bowl and her mouth.

‘Well,’ he said sheepishly, ‘it’s a silly list.’ 

‘A silly list? Let me guess, you’ve made a bucket list.’ 

‘Not a bucket list exactly, but I suppose there are similarities.  I’ve had it for a couple of days but I hesitated to show you because I knew you’d probably laugh.’

Duncan was an organised man, a slave to his daily routines.  For example, when shaving he always used the same shaving gel, the same Gillette disposable razors, pulling the same faces in the same mirror at more or less the same time each morning.  After dressing (always in a blue shirt, grey jumper and black corduroys), he would go for a brisk walk, following the same route, pausing only to buy a newspaper each morning (always the Guardian) and a banana for Julie.  He was invariably served by the same ginger-haired woman, always exchanging a few words with her about the weather.   

Then over breakfast (always two shredded wheat, with a sprinkling of seeds and some raisons, in his favourite bowl) he’d settle down to read his newspaper.  He always read the leader first, followed by the articles in the comments section.  At precisely 10am he would retire to his study where he’d write a thousand words, emerging at precisely 12.45 to prepare a light lunch (always a bowl of soup with two pieces of wholemeal bread) and watch the 1 o’clock news on television.

He was slightly more flexible in the afternoons, preferring to work for a couple of hours until 4.30, at which time he’d welcome Julie home and they’d have a cup of tea and a biscuit (or two, he had a weakness for ginger biscuits, never dunked).

Julie, a teacher at the local primary school, was inclined to be more adventurous than Duncan (not difficult!) but she too had her routines and foibles.  For example, she always folded sheets and towels in particular way, kept her shoes in the boxes they originally came in, could never throw away carrier bags and had accumulated a vast collection of cookery books full of recipes she never used.

One day, whilst travelling on a train, Duncan picked up a discarded Metro newspaper and flicked through the pages skimming various items, including his horoscope.  The Sagittarius paragraph read:

Do you feel you’re drifting, stuck in a rut, not having enough excitement in your life?  Today’s lunar phase should inspire you to look at new interests, to become more adventurous.  This could be an excellent time to unleash your latent spirit of adventure.  Seize the day, you’ll not regret it! 

Even though he disparaged such trivia, he was surprised to find these words unsettling.  Until now he’d been content with his lot.  Indeed, when unexpected events forced him to depart from his cosy routines — funerals, power cuts, icy pavements for example — he always felt irritable: thrown off-balance, out of kilter.  

So, Duncan, despite himself, fell to wondering what it would be like to be more adventurous.  He even found himself wondering what it would be like to be married to someone else.  His late mother had married three times and, having outlived all her husbands, finishing up co-habiting with the village handyman.  One of her little jokes was that he’d certainly come in handy and, after she died, he’d risen to the occasion by building her a plywood coffin with her favourite flowers stencilled on the sides.

Duncan had often been on the brink of quizzing his mother about what it was like to adjust to living with someone else but, despite his lingering curiosity, had never plucked up the courage to broach the subject.  When reading the obituaries of people, actors in particular, who’d been married multiple times, his imagination was always stirred.  But, just like his mother, they were dead so he’d left it a bit late to quiz them and, had they been available, he was unsure exactly what it was he wanted to know.

Recently, on his morning walks he’d invented a harmless game where he imagined he was married to the first woman he passed in the street.  Very occasionally, he’d pass someone he considered to be a possible candidate (late thirties, well turned out, sensible shoes, not too fat, not too thin, a bit shorter than him) but he only ever allowed himself a fleeting glance and, of course, never plucked up the courage to speak to them.          

‘Come on then, let’s look at your list,’ Julie said, finishing her porridge and getting up to rinse the bowl under the tap.  ‘I promise not to laugh.’

Duncan, looking sheepish, produced a single sheet of paper and slid it across the kitchen table.  Julie picked up the page and, glancing anxiously at the clock on the wall, said, ‘I must go or I’ll be late.’  

She read Duncan’s list:

  1. Become an exhibitionist — learn to tap dance.
  2. Become a gambler — learn to play poker.
  3. Become a blurter — start saying what I really think (and to hell with the consequences).
  4. Become a risk-taker — rob a bank.

‘Why on earth would you want to do any of these things?  Anyway, you’re a hopeless dancer, no sense of rhythm.’

‘I just thought,’ said Duncan sounding far from convinced, ‘I’d got myself into a bit of a rut, that I should try to be more adventurous.’  

Julie threw back her head and laughed.  ‘What you, adventurous?  I’ll believe that when I see it!’

‘You promised not to laugh,’ said Duncan miserably.

‘I couldn’t help myself.  The idea of you doing any of these things is absurd.  You’re far to set in your ways.  Anyway, I must rush.’  Julie put on her coat and picked up her bag.

‘I’m determined,’ Duncan said wistfully, ‘to try some new things before it’s too late.  You’ll see.’ 

Julie smiled, gave him a peck on his furrowed brow and was gone. 

Julie was, of course, right.  Duncan’s resolve failed him and he continued with his routines, taking comfort in their familiarity.   Often, however, he emerged from his study at 4.30  expecting to welcome Julie back with the usual cup of tea only to find she hadn’t yet returned from school.  She always had plausible explanations: she’d been delayed by a staff meeting, a demanding parent had wanted to see her, she had volunteered to help convert a corner of the playground into a vegetable garden.       

Then one day Julie said, ‘I’ve seen no signs of you being more adventurous.  Have you given up on the idea?’

‘Not entirely.  I’m still thinking about it.’

‘Well, I can’t bear the suspense.  I’m leaving!

‘What  do you mean?  You’re leaving?  Where are you going? ’  Duncan was utterly flabbergasted.

‘Simon has invited me to live with him in Tuscany.’

‘Simon?’

‘Yes, Simon, chairman of the governors.  His father died recently and has left him a small fortune.  He’s buying a villa in Tuscany and I’m joining him.’

Suddenly, the harmless wife-spotting game Duncan played on his morning walks took on a new significance. 

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