Reader fiction: Lending a hand


By May Swanow

When universities began measuring research output, Gerald and his wife Jacqui both had their teaching hours cut. This was so that they could write more, he because he’d published so little, she because ‘research active: upper quartile’.

Gerald pattered away in the big room overlooking the garden. Jacqui had a tiny office in the basement, once a coal store. At supper she was usually upset about how little she’d got through.  Gerald had no such problem. 1500 words most days, along with proofs, answering referees’ comments, updating publications.

‘It’s a matter of organization,’ he said. ‘I keep a check list. See what I can cross off by the end of the day.’

‘You do so much,’ said Jacqui. ‘I’m still working on the dolphin piece. Four months!’

‘Rough it out first. Detail comes later. You’ll find you don’t need half the stuff you’re collecting’.

‘I can’t work like that, Gerald. We’re different.’

‘Only being helpful.’

A week later, Jacqui was still feeling low.

‘It’s good news about the Korean translation,’ she said, as she brought in Gerald’s supper. ‘You must be thrilled.’

‘Yep. And what have you been doing, my love?’ he said.

‘Don’t ask. I revised a paragraph on the bottlenose first thing this morning. Since then, I don’t know… one thing and another…’

‘But you’d set aside the whole day…’ 

‘I know. No need to remind me.’

‘This happens so often. There must be something you can do.’

‘It’s me,’ Jacqui replied. ‘I’m not organized like you…’

 ‘You’re doing too much. I cope with the dishwasher most days, but could well take on more. Look’, he said, tearing a sheet from the block on the table, ‘write down things for me to do.‘

Jacqui was reluctant, but Gerald insisted.  

She wrote:

-       clean knocker

-       scatter slug pellets round dahlias

-       put out green bin for tomorrow

 ‘Excellent!’, he said. ‘I can leave the email to Seo Hun till later. No problem. Really. I must do my whack!’

Twenty minutes later, he called out ‘All done! And I’ve made coffee in and among. And written to Seo Hun. 

‘Thank you so much,’ said Jacqui, ‘That’s wonderful. 

‘It’s only a start. Fairness means so much to me. Every day we’ll make a list like this, only longer.’

Every day it took Jacqui time out of her writing schedule to construct this.

Gerald gave himself a new target – combining domestic duties with undiminished academic output. The challenge was invigorating. He devised ever quicker methods of cleaning surfaces, sweeping leaves, making the bed, deadheading, killing snails.  He also found way of streamlining literature searches, responses to publishers, drafts of abstracts.

Days later, Jacqui was still down.

‘Problems?’ he asked.

‘I’m worried about the dolphin piece. I….’

‘It’s perfectionism. You’ve been fiddling with it too long. Send it in now.’

‘It’s not perfectionism, Gerald.’ (She very rarely called him ‘Gerald’). ’It’s time. I don’t suppose I’ve done more than a couple of hours on it since the weekend.’

‘But you’re always at your desk. Whenever I come down ….’

‘….It’s all the interruptions. Take today. Sorting out the car insurance. Ringing Milly to check she’s all right. Sorting out presents – so many birthdays in November – finding the right card…’

‘It’s just not right you do so much,’ said Gerald. ‘Funnel more my way. Let me do the car insurance…’

‘I’ve done it already.’

‘Birthday things.’

‘I’m nearly up to date, but help with what’s left would be good.’

‘Good. This is what we’ll do,’ said Gerald, tearing off a sheet.

He put down 

–      make list of remaining birthdays

–      get cards

–      find wrapping paper

–      sign cards

–      wrap

–      address envelopes

–      send off cards

 ‘Anything else?’

 ‘Sourcing presents. Perhaps you were going to put that?’ said Jacqui.

 Christmas drew near and Jacqui grew busier. She’d have to put the dolphin paper on ice until the new year.

Gerald came up with new offers.

In mid-December, what he called his ‘transferred labours’ included: knocker, slug pellets, bird food, bird bath, gas bill, electricity bill, posting calendars, addressing envelopes for cards, checking fairy lights and other decorations, booking Boxing Day lunch, sorting out money for postman, paper boy, parcel man, milkman, window cleaner.

Gerald could see Jacqui finishing her draft by the start of term. His own work had suffered at first, but he had more than coped. The secret was organization. Lists, task analyses, combining duties, shaving half an hour off sleep….he was exhilarated with what he’d achieved and how he’d gone about it. He felt especially good about his selflessness.

Jacqui did complete her paper, but not before mid-February. Despite Gerald’s help, she could still do only two or three hours work most days. How long the College would continue to see her as research active, she didn’t know.

Her cousin Milly was in the early stages of dementia and, living alone, needed support. She rang her several times a week. She was very fond of her sister’s little daughters and always buying jackets and tops and party dresses she saw online. She had three or four close friends and was regularly in touch by phone and text.

Gerald was not a relationships person. They only get in the way.

He was too busy with his writing to take on board, except in the haziest of ways, that Jacqui was doing all the washing, drying and putting away; that she kept track of stocks of food and drink, shampoos, light bulbs, cleaning materials and kitchen paper; edges of armchairs that were beginning to fray; leaves in danger of clogging the guttering; outings, holidays, house repairs and everything to do with the car. If he had realized any of this, he would have been quick to transfer yet more labours.


Woman's Way