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Steve Barley

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10/10 Foot-Mouth-Insert Moment
By Steve Barley
Friday, April 30, 2010

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As embarrassing moments go, one that scores 10/10 doesn't come along very often. Not unless you are a desperate househusband.

Recently I had one of those heart-stopping, stomach-dropping, ego-popping moments that ranked a full 10/10 on the 'How to make a complete [insert common garden bird of the blue- variety here] of oneself' scale. You know the sort of thing I'm talking about; those occasions when you wish you had a Tardis to go back a few seconds and stop your foolish former self from doing or saying something really, REALLY stupid.

Sadly I'm not Dr Who, so time-shift is out of the question, and the nearest thing you'll find to a sonic screwdriver in our household is when I accidentally reverse the quantities of vodka and orange in my elderly relatives' drinks at Christmas. Although it's surprising how effective the old triple-distilled is at sending people floating into their past. Luckily they have their rose-tinted spectacles to see where they are going.

Of course, what is embarrassing to one person is water off a rubber duck's back to another. For example, my wife does not suffer from an embarrassment gene when it comes to customer service. Admittedly she used to be a sales rep which means she's done a lot of bargaining in her time. She sold what the marketing people call FMCG - fast moving consumer goods. Coffee and powdered desserts in her case, or pallet. Seeing that both products have a diuretic effect when consumed in volume, fast moving consumer goods was a rather apt title. With that experience behind her, my wife has no qualms about standing up for herself when it comes to her consumer rights.

I'm the complete opposite and go to extreme lengths to avoid making a scene. I'll automatically mumble something along the lines of, 'S'okay,' when asked if I am enjoying the congealed meal before me that took an hour to arrive. Mostly because the underpaid and under-skilled kitchen staff needed that long to char-grill the vegetables to the optimal shade of black, add the streaks of gristle to the steak, and sneeze the lumps into a pepper sauce strong enough to swamp even the most resistant of taste buds. Gillian, however, is a paragon of consumer virtue if a product doesn't deliver on its promise, and would send itching powder back if it wasn't up to scratch. When served an inadequate meal, she will immediately establish eye contact, raise her voice, and demand that the cost of the course in question be deducted off the bill. By the time she has negotiated a free drink as compensation for the inconvenience, and made full use of the word 'optional' before the 15% service charge line, eating out can turn into a very cheap experience - a bit like the food.

On one occasion, my wife made our entire party of twelve walk out of an Italian restaurant in Wembley because one of our meals hadn't turned up. Admittedly, there was more justification than simply missing a pizza. We had only agreed to eat there because the management had promised faithfully they could serve us all quickly before our concert, yet proceeded to mess up our order three times, forget our drinks altogether, and deliver 11/12ths of our food with barely five minutes left to eat it. Gillian said it wasn't good enough, ordered everyone to down their cutlery, and escorted us from the premises to the accompaniment of cheers from the other, equally frustrated, customers. If you want to know what standing up for your rights is, then leaving a table filled with pizzas each missing one bite is pretty close. Our motto that day was, 'If you serve 11/12ths, you get returned 11/12ths!'

While I'm happy to give presentations and speeches, think nothing of running cub quizzes, or appearing on radio and TV, Gillian detests all such forms of what she terms 'public exhibitionism'. Conversely, if there's good reason to complain about bad service or faulty goods, I'm the one who's too embarrassed to stand up for my rights, whereas my wife is already climbing aboard her charger to lead a consumer crusade. Fortunately we can support each other when potential embarrassment threatens. Unfortunately, we need to be within elbow range for it to be effective.

For my recent blooper, Gillian was absent altogether, which I suppose was asking for trouble - it's always when I'm let out on my own that opportunities to bungle present themselves. Especially when wine or beer is involved. Saying that, there was an occasion when all it took was tea. It was when we first moved to Hertfordshire, and I got chatting with a couple called Mike and Susan who lived further up our road. Rather than talk outside under the hot sun, they invited me into their house for a cuppa.

'I'm afraid the only tea we have is Lapsang Souchong,' said Susan while Mike was showing me into their lounge.

'That'll be fine,' I answered. I'd never tried Lapsang Souchong - trucker's tea was more to my taste and upbringing - but I felt it important to give Mike and Susan, who were obviously a lot more refined than I was, a good impression of their new neighbour.

'Here you are,' said Susan a little later as she handed me a China mug decorated with gold-leaf and filled with steaming black tea.

'Steven was just telling me that he works in London,' said Mike - which was true back then. 'Good job by the sounds of it.' Mike gave me a disconcerting wink. 'Must have a bit of money behind you to take on the Williams' old property, eh? Got yourself some work to do there.'

'It does need some attention,' I said. 'We'll concentrate on the basics first - wiring, plumbing, windows, that sort of thing. We plan to spread the work over time.'

Mike leaned forward in his chintz armchair. 'You look like the calibre of person we need on this road.' His wife smiled in agreement.

I was pleased to meet with their approval but aware that the more literal translation of 'right calibre' was 'right bore'. Changing subjects, I raised my mug and looked at Susan. 'Could I be a pain and ask for some milk, please?'

Susan's smile faded. 'Milk?' She exchanged a stricken glance with her husband. Had they run out of milk too?

'And sugar if I may?'

'Milk and sugar with La...' started Mike but Susan interrupted him.

'Yes, of course,' she said, 'I'll just get you some.' She was only gone thirty seconds but I had to do most of the talking until she returned.

'Here you are,' said Susan as she placed a matching China jug and bowl on an occasional table by my chair. She and her husband stared as I added an inch of milk and two sugars to my tea. After taking a sip, I asked if they had any children, but before they could answer I began sniffing the air and said, 'Are you having a bonfire in your back garden?'

'No,' said Mike, looking at his wife in confusion.

I took another sip of tea. 'I'm sure I can smell burning. You haven't got a wood stove have you?' Susan insisted they had a state-of-the-art gas hob and oven. Ever safety-conscious, I couldn't get the smell of burning out of my mind, or nose, and kept sniffing and pausing to comment. This went on for a good ten minutes until Mike suddenly snapped.

'We don't have a wood stove or a bonfire! It's your...' Susan leapt up and whipped the now empty mug out of my hand.

'It's been lovely talking to you,' she said, and began ushering me towards the door. A stony-faced Mike followed and reluctantly shook my hand as I made to leave. Susan glared at him until he added, 'It's nice to have someone so...down-to-earth on our road.'

When I got home and told Gillian about my encounter, she burst out laughing before informing me that adding milk and sugar to Lapsang Souchong is about as cultured as adding tomato ketchup to caviar. Grinning, she also explained that it's a tea made from leaves smoke-dried over pinewood fires to infuse it with its distinctive smoky flavour.

As social indiscretions go, my neighbourly faux pas may have warranted a groan or two, but only ranked 7/10 on the embarrassment scale because the moment of realisation was after the event itself. A good example of an 8/10 was the occasion I vaguely recognised a fellow runner in a local 10k race and we chatted for several miles desperately trying to establish how we knew each other; only for us to realise we didn't. Higher up the scale was the 9/10 I achieved when I had what the police would term 'an incident on the tube.' It happened when I offered a pregnant woman my seat only to discover I should have offered her a doughnut instead. Never has more weight been attached to the words, 'When's it due?' as on that memorable occasion.

Finally, we reach the score that only applies to truly cringeworthy moments in life - a maximum 10/10. The sort of score that takes days after the event for you to grow a skin thick enough to hide behind. A score that I achieved recently by being unconsciously, yet spectacularly, rude at a small drinks party hosted by some friends.

Like most times when I'm to blame, Gillian wasn't with me - she was away visiting an old school friend. The hosts, who I shall call John and Jane Doe, had children that were friends of ours, so Bethany and Christian were invited too. On arrival my kids were whisked away by their friends to play on their Wii while I dutifully handed over my gifts of wine, chocolates and coat to prove what a polite guest I was. It was a label that wasn't to last.

One or three glasses of wine later found me chatting to John, Jane and another couple at one end of the hosts' lounge. Our children were energetically paddling down a virtual river on the Wii at the other end of the room encouraged by shouts from their friends. A particularly loud shriek of, 'Faster!' made me instinctively glance over; which is when I spotted the half-finished picture on the wall over the fireplace. It was a frameless, stark white canvas stretched taut over a wooden backing and held in place by staples. A ghostly image of a rose bush filled with blooms was faintly outlined in printed grey lines against the white background. Only three of the flowers had so far been painted. Their vivid scarlet blooms had attracted my attention because they made me think of fresh blood on bandages.

I turned to Jane, and in a jocular tone said, 'Which number would you like me to fill in next?'

Jane looked confused. 'I'm sorry?'

I nodded at the picture. 'Which number would you like me to fill in next?'

Expecting to be told someone in the house had taken up art as a hobby, I couldn't quite work out why Jane's eyebrows were suddenly so eager to meet. Perhaps she hadn't grasped my meaning? I tried again. 'I haven't seen a 'paint by numbers' since I was a kid. Who's the budding Van Gogh?'

Sometimes it takes a while for my brain to catch up with my body, which is why my stomach was beginning to flap but I wasn't. The clues were all there but I failed to connect them. John was doing a good impression of being at a tennis match as he looked back and forth between the picture and me; his mouth agape. The other couple were wide-eyed yet silent like a jury on a particularly scandalous case, and Jane was turning a shade remarkably similar to the Merlot in the wineglass she was obviously afraid of dropping as she was clutching it so tightly.

In a slightly less certain tone, I said, 'It'll look good when it's finished and properly framed.'

John's gaze was now ping-ponging between Jane and me. From the expectant look on his face, the game was nearing match point.

That was when Jane delivered her ace. 'It is finished,' she said.

I had a sinking feeling that rivaled the Titanic.


To make me feel better, Jane added, 'In fact we commissioned it specially.'


Jane's eyes never wavered from mine. 'Roses are my favourite flower; which is why we paid a considerable sum to a local artist to come up with a modern impression of the rosebush in our back garden.'

I gulped to restrain the battery acid bubbling against the lead filling my stomach. Plug in some electrodes and I could have powered the whole of Anglesey.

Jane's stony gaze switched to her husband as she said pointedly, 'We like it, don't we darling?'

John mumbled his approval. Marshalling what manners I had left, I launched a damage limitation exercise that even political spin doctors would have applauded. I've never apologised for something so much in my life as I did there and then - provided you don't count the time I nearly killed my Auntie Kath by making her run for a train but forgot she suffered from extremely high blood pressure.

So there you have it, that was my 10/10 most embarrassing moment recently. Normally it takes a while before I am able to relate the story of a cringeworthy event without reliving the horror I felt at the time, but there were mitigating circumstances to this case. Later that evening, John admitted to me that when Jane and he first saw their newly commissioned artwork they both thought it looked unfinished too. But as they were good friends with the artist they were too polite to say anything. Which is why it's such a touchy subject with his wife. Even so, Gillian has now banned me from attending parties without her.

And as for my brief role as an art expert, my days, if not my canvases, are certainly numbered.

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