I was delighted to learn recently that my daughter Ione, who lives in Leeds, might visit Kythnos as soon as next weekend. Luckily ferries abound here in high season, whereas the last time she came in early June, the timetables were in transition, meaning unbelievably virtuoso useless, and she spent all of 3 days in Kythnos and 4 days in laborious transit, hanging round sweltering Athens, consoling herself as I would have with Monastiraki Indian restaurants, a culinary option which is needless to say a bit thin on the ground in solidly Hellenic Kythnos. A visit from her before Christmas has long been on the cards, with or without old university pals, depending on their financial circumstances, work commitments etc. meaning her decision was likely to be a last minute one as now. And yes, I might be an old bastard of 64, but I can still remember what it’s like to be mid 20s, and always doing things on the hop, and I am also proud to confess I have been effortlessly doing much the same ever since. This is not particularly revolutionary anti-ageist fervour on my part, nor because I have copiously  imbibed of The Elixir of Life and stayed permanently young, but is rooted in the fact that the persona I had at 25 has basically never changed one iota. I feel 25 inside, or on a good day even 17, and always will, even though walking past the mirror I see and incredulously shudder at this hideous white-haired apparition who on a bad day would seem to be like one of the legendary Old Testament patriarchs who lived well into his multiple hundreds.

I like surprises on the whole, as opposed to shocks, which you might argue are very close if not identical items. On the whole surprises are good, and shocks are bad, though they both come to you unheralded, unadvertised, and with nil prior action plan nor logistical template. Also when it comes to confronting them, there is the matter of your subjective sturdiness or you might argue your plus or minus stiff upper lip. A monocled retired colonel from Esher might say either, I was shocked to learn my oldest boy Dickie is an appallingly  promiscuous homosexual, or more likely, I was I admit rather surprised to learn ditto, and the inner volcano of shame and perturbation will remain firmly bottled up to the end of his monocled days. As for me, ignoring every horrible shock I have ever known in my life, I will say that the best surprise I ever had in my life, was on a day when I had earlier done something stupid, and after a fashion roundly fucked things up. It was my 50th birthday on October 18th, 2000, and I was throwing  a huge party in our lovely North Cumbrian farmhouse. I had also thrown an even huger party for my 47th in 1997, this time in a nearby hotel where they provided gourmet vegetarian food, and I could just sit back and relax and let it all hang most indecorously loose, which I’m pleased to say I very much did. People then asked me why I went mad for my 47th , and indeed wondered if I was actually 50, and I said no, no,  it is because 47 is a prime number, and I am in my prime, and am celebrating the fact. Three years later, not out of stinginess nor economy, but just because I was in the  mood to cook, I made colossal quantities of Middle Eastern vegetarian food for my birthday party, and even hired a friend who was a jazz saxophonist to come and play something we might dance to. Joe arrived with his sax and his Yamaha gizmos to provide a funky backing, and all was going very well indeed, until I took the foolish advice of I can’t remember which bastard it was, and served all the food I had made cold. Cold in fucking October in fucking rural North Cumbria, do you get it, as if this was boiling mainland Greece circa August 1982 where everything was served stone cold or tepid at best, as they simply couldn’t be arsed to warm it up, and waste bloody old electricity. It was one of those baffling organisational  things…I had made so much food, I couldn’t get it all in our cooker to warm it up, and even our next door neighbour with his vintage Aga of the many doors and mysteries, could not take all the sumptuous overspill. Some brainless wiseacre observing all this, said sagely, oh bugger it, serve it cold, JM, it’s obviously so delicious no one will mind. All I can recall is that my advisor was no Bohemian, but someone faintly respectable and old-fashioned, not the kind to give you malicious or idiotic counsel when it came to highly discriminating Cumbrio-ethnic catering. So right enough, I served it cold and people piled their plates and ate it, and I could see that apropos the title of this piece, they were more than a little surprised by what they experienced. They had stuffed cooked exotic Middle Eastern food into their gobs, and were expecting it to be deliciously warm, and instead it was mystifyingly cold, all the aubergine dolmas, Bahreini pilafis, Israeli cucumber toureto, broadbean besara  and 20 other obscure dishes, most of them culled from the recipes of the late and immortal, he whose like will never be seen again, Armenian genius, Arto der Harotounian. They were much surprised to note the absence of any  warmth in this gourmet spread, and in fairness to them they might even have been shocked. Too late now, fuck it, I sighed. They all ate a fair quantity, though to my mind, far slower than usual, and all of them told me it was incredibly delicious, but I knew I had definitely ballsed things up by taking bad advice from someone I now observed was consuming a good deal less than everyone else. Annie arrived at the do an hour late, because she had been working away in South Scotland, and I told her my quandary but she said briskly don’t worry JM, balls, bollicks, forget it, the food is so good, who gives a shit, Happy 50th, birthday boy, and proceeded to heap her own plate very high by way of wifely reassurance.

Once the party was over, and everyone had departed, she told me she had a bit of a surprise for me. It was precisely 16 years earlier on my 34th birthday she had given me another surprise, when she had invited a colossal number of friends to a party I knew absolutely nothing about, and which she and they had kept secret for weeks. They appeared out of the woodwork like sprites and elves and it was all as in a childhood dream. In this case it was an envelope she handed me, which for some reason I expected to have either a book token or a CD token for a huge amount of money (those massive boxed sets of Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis and Telemann, here we come). But instead it contained two lots of air tickets. The tickets were for Prestwick-Dublin, Dublin-Prestwick, and the departure tickets were for tomorrow the 19th of October 2000. She had gone and bought us a bargain break in good old, bloody old Dublin, which despite its Celtic Tiger transformation and transmogrification, Temple Bar (an exiled Dubliner pal of mine once derisively referred to it as ‘Micks On the Make’) and all the rest, is God’s own capital, and, when it comes to disporting oneself, wonderfully exciting beyond belief.

That’s what I call a surprise. That’s what I call a wife.

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