Tuesday 24 September dawned like any typical Autumnal morning. Struggling to emerge from a drowsy cocoon, Michael rubbed sleep from bleary eyes. He had no inkling that this ordinary day was to turn his life upside down, albeit fleetingly. Later, dimly scrutinising himself in a verdigris-rimmed bathroom mirror, Michael decided that, although he felt rough stubble, he would postpone shaving for another day. He sighed. Since that last job concluded, he really had let himself go. Wandering aimlessly around town, evidence of how little attention he paid to his appearance was reflected in well-polished shop windows. Carelessly running a comb through his uncut hair did not prevent it from sprouting up in unruly clumps. The hooded collar of his blue anorak was dirt-black, while his frayed shoes were beyond repair.
It was not all his own fault. Trapped in boringly repetitive jobs all their working lives, his late parents allowed themselves to vegetate within their restricted world. The arrival of a son with an enquiring mind puzzled and dismayed them. Proud of an academic achievement beyond their understanding, they could not provide the intellectual stimulation Michael craved. Teachers at his local Comprehensive School were delighted to finally encounter a pupil eager to learn. They encouraged Michael to nurture grand future ambitions, but had insufficient time to help him with guidance on how to achieve them. Demoralised and bored, he left school the moment it was legally possible. Employers only saw his few academic qualifications. For the next forty years, Michael drifted through a series of labouring jobs. He was a North Sea oil-rig roustabout, a navvy on the Channel Tunnel, and hod-carrier on innumerable building sites across the country. Michael hoped gaining experience and demonstrating willingness to learn new skills would enable him to progress to more challenging work. That hope quickly faded. Faced with Contract deadlines, none of his supervisors realised, or used, his potential. Although he enjoyed travelling the country in the rough companionship of fellow-workers, he considered every job demeaning, and left each one feeling unfulfilled. Michael was dismayed to find his intellectual world becoming as confined as his parents’. Exhausted by physical exertion, everyday matters absorbed all his energy. At first, he tried to keep his mind active by reading. Soon, however, he found himself unable to summon the will-power to persevere. He surrendered to an unshakeable mood of black despair in which the future stretched out interminably before him, devoid of interest. Michael was relieved when a far-off pen decreed that the factory where he was employed as a security guard should cease production. Using Redundancy Pay and the little money saved during his working life, he bought a small terrace house in his home town. There, quietly but stubbornly, he resisted eager officialdom’s efforts to encourage him to take one of the menial tasks available locally.
That evening, Michael slouched, as usual, half awake in front of the television. Using a remote control whose sweat-greasy buttons were worn smooth, he idly flicked among channels. He knew that he would continue to watch whatever was shown, even though few programmes attracted his interest. Suddenly, there she was, speaking to him as one intelligent adult to another. ! Michael felt his battered self-esteem start to revive. Who was she ? Her accent and precise use of language told him she was well-educated. Michael was captivated. Was this the girl of his lonely dreams ? Dark, shiny, hair. Hazel eyes, set well apart. He never had a proper girl friend. The glamorous, intelligent ones he admired scorned what they perceived as “ this loser ”, while he refused to date girls he did not fancy. Now, here was this girl ! With her help and encouragement, he still had time to achieve his long-abandoned dreams. Impatiently, he discarded the thought that she was only a flickering television image. What would she see in him ? He persuaded himself that this girl held the best hope for a brighter future.
Self-consciously, Michael straightened up in his chair. Why had he decided not to shave ? She looked like some-one who preferred her men well groomed. Michael hardly dared to look at himself in the mirror. For the first time, he grasped how seriously he had let his personal and intellectual standards slide. He was nearly sixty. So much of his life had passed since his teenaged thrill at mastering some new accomplishment. Was it not foolish to expect this stranger to revive that excitement ? These thoughts were swirling around his head when the programme finished. As its end-titles hurriedly scrolled down his television’s dusty screen, an unseen male voice announced : “ That was the second in Delia’s new series. She will be presenting her third programme at the same time next week. ” Her name was Delia ! Michael had not come across that before, and wondered what her surname was. Probably something exotic. Television people tended to adopt unusual names. Michael switched the television off. Unable to concentrate, his mind filled with freshly-awakened, unsettling, emotions. He glanced at his watch. It was nine o’clock : her programme started at eight thirty. He determined to watch it next week. To remind himself, he hurriedly jotted down the date and time on the back of an old envelope, and pinned it to the kitchen door, where he was sure to see it. He had not bought this year’s diary. At the time, there seemed no point : nothing worth recording ever happened in his life. How wrong that was !
Next morning, Michael went to buy a diary. When leaving the shop, he paused as a display stand near the entrance caught his eye. It proclaimed in bold letters : “ Delia Smith’s latest book – accompanying her new T.V. series ! ” Could this, he wondered, possibly be “ his ” Delia ? Underneath was a neat stack of books. Gingerly, Michael inched one out, smelling its newness. Holding it cautiously, he scanned the cover picture of artfully presented food, before turning it over. There, beside the publisher’s excited blurb, was her photograph. Little bigger than Passport size, but recognisable as the girl who spoke to him in his living-room the previous evening. His hands dampened with agitated perspiration, leaving a faint imprint on the book’s cover. “ Delia Smith ” sounded like a good, girl-next-door, name. Hope, that she might be approachable, rose within him. Tiny figures discretely informed him that the book’s price would stretch his weekly budget almost to breaking point. Michael did not care ! He had to possess her image. The young shop assistant could barely contain her surprise at this tattered customer’s book selection. She watched him laboriously count out rumpled notes and assorted coins, and hand them to her. “ Shall I put it in a bag for you ? ” He was affronted. Suffocate Delia in a plastic bag ? “ Er….. No, Thanks. ” he muttered, before shuffling out.
As he scurried home, Michael resisted the temptation to start looking at his new treasure. Opening his living-room door, he recognised how unkempt he had allowed it to become. He could not bring Delia in there ! She was a lady, accustomed to better than this. Tenderly placing the cherished volume on a hall table, he took vacuum cleaner, duster and polish and, in a flurry of unusual activity, returned the room to a more presentable condition. Only when satisfied did he carry the book, with Delia’s picture uppermost, into a room pungent with the smell of furniture polish. He hoped she would appreciate his effort on her behalf.
Cautiously, as if expecting to hear her refined voice reprimanding him for his effrontery, Michael opened his purchase. It was a cookery book. Of course ! Delia had finished preparing a dish as her programme ended. He skimmed through the unsullied pages. Many contained recipes, and listed their ingredients. Michael, whose cooking comprised microwave-heated ready meals, was intrigued. His fascinated mind jumped back and forth among items with enigmatic names. Tarragon : what was that – an erotic Spanish dance ? He could not imagine prim Delia clicking saucy heels to clacking gypsy castanets. Chilli : she did seem rather distant, speaking from the television like a kindly, but stern, school mistress. Dreamily, he hoped that she would warm up when they became better acquainted. Aubergine : that sounded French. Visions of high-kicking, colourfully gartered, can-can dancers pranced across his fevered brain. Was Delia hiding a secret past in Montmartre ? Moussaka : was that Greek ? Michael’s heart sank at the notion that she might, instead, be in love with one of Athens tough ornately garbed and pom-pommed Evzone Guards goose-stepping up and down in front of the Greek National Parliament. These images and ideas whisked into a muddled soufflé inside his skull.
All week, Michael gave the book pride of place, above a newly dusted television set which remained switched off. How could he waste time watching dross after tasting the pure delights of his Delia’s programme ? During that time, Michael’s emotions fluctuated wildly. At one moment he really believed that he could, somehow, make contact with her. He even managed to convince himself that, when this happened, she would open the door to new worlds for him. Seeing his home through Delia’s eyes, he was aghast. Everything was run down, or in urgent need of cleaning. Although replacing worn furniture was beyond his reach, he could wash and clean. While these moods lasted, Michael raced round every room in the house with washing cloth and duster. He was astonished to see the difference made by this perfunctory cleaning. Often however, before he was finished, his pessimistic mood returned. “ What’s the use ? ” he glumly asked himself, realising the impossibility of his dream. Why would a successful television personality want to associate with the likes of him ? Deflated, he yielded to despair, returning to slouch dejectedly on his favourite chair.
Michael spent his evenings gazing longingly at her picture on the book, without opening it. At eight thirty on the following Tuesday, she was back in his living room, treating him as an equal again. Newly shaved, and in freshly laundered clothes, he was mesmerised, barely grasping what she was saying. His eyes greedily followed her every movement as she briskly transformed a series of ingredients into flawless dishes.
The programme ended, leaving Michael forlorn. Sadly, he sought consolation in the book, which was becoming dog-eared from constant handling. He spent long minutes contemplating her picture. For the first time, he started to read the publisher’s blurb. He discovered that this book, and the television programme, were the latest in a series of what were described as “ best sellers ”. There, her name was highlighted in bold type. He read :
“ She is married to Michael Wynn-Jones and they live in Suffolk. ”