Peter and Anita realised almost as soon as they got married that they really shouldn’t have done it. If only they’d been born a generation later they could have had a crack at living together first and then when they realised what a disaster it was, gone their separate ways three weeks later, never to cross paths again.
But marriage was marriage and so they were stuck. Stuck with completely different ideas of how life should be lived. A night owl living with a lark, an optimist with a pessimist, two people who couldn’t even agree on what to eat and when to eat it. They were completely incompatible.
So they decided to open a backpacking hostel.
It was perfect, exactly what they needed. They didn’t need to be a husband and wife with nothing to talk about anymore, now they were a team with a project. They bought a huge run down old house and set about getting it renovated. Now the conversations were endless. They could complain about builders who didn’t meet their deadlines and bathrooms that cost far more than the original quote. They could spend their days choosing bunk beds and picking out paint colours and preparing for the grand opening. She was creative and he was logical and whilst it wasn’t a winning combination for love, it was very good for setting up a business.
The doors opened and the backpackers came. Anita and Peter fell into a routine. She bustled about brightly in the daytime, doing the cleaning, the morning check-outs and the afternoon check-ins, smiling and chatting to all of the guests as she worked, making everyone feel welcome. He did the evening shift, sitting morosely behind the desk, reading heavy books with heavy titles and only communicating with backpackers when he absolutely had to, always casting a suspicious eye over each and every backpacker as if it was inevitable that they were only going to bring trouble and mayhem to his life.
It was the perfect arrangement for an imperfect marriage. Anita went to work before Peter woke up, and she went to bed before he came home. The only time for conversations was the 3pm handover when they could briefly tell each other about unruly backpackers who’d left without handing in their key, or about a terrible smell lingering in one of the communal fridges. Peter had no idea that Anita spent her afternoons on the beach before heading home to watch several hours of TV, Anita only knew that Peter had taken up golf because of all the golf related items that now cluttered up her hallway.
They hadn’t been away together since their disastrous honeymoon in Tasmania. The hostel provided an excellent excuse for separate holidays because someone always needed to be there to run it. Anita had girly holidays in Bali and Fiji with her sisters and best friends. Peter went off by himself on walking and skiing holidays.
Once in an attempt to not exactly spice up the marriage but just acknowledge that they had one, Anita suggested that perhaps Peter didn’t need to work so late every night. On the evenings that they were already fully booked or not waiting for a latecomer, he could come home earlier. They could eat tea together. They tried it once. Anita cooked spaghetti bolognese because she had no idea that Peter had stopped eating garlic, onions and tomatoes more than six years ago after they started to repeat on him.
There was nothing to talk about over dinner, so they filled the huge gap in the conversation by planning an unecessary refurbishment of several bedrooms and bathrooms and drawing up a list of unecessarily strict rules to inflict upon future backpackers.
Peter decided he couldn’t face another night of tomatoes and garlic and awkward conversation, so he took drastic measures. He bought a fish tank. In fact he bought five and installed them all around the hostel. He spent the next few weeks and months becoming an expert fish keeper. Anita had no intention of suggesting another excruciating meal with her husband ever again, but if she did he would be able to decline on the grounds that he had to stay late to eradicate an algae problem or corect the pH level of the water. Over the years if ever Peter ran out of things to do, he simply bought another fish tank. He now had seventeen.
The backpackers liked the fish tanks and were intrigued by the grumpy man who seemed to like and care for the fish a lot more than he liked or cared for the backpackers. They quickly learnt to save their questions and queries for the lovely lady who worked during the day, and to avoid the grumpy fish tank man at all costs.
Peter’s rules became more unreasonable and more bizarre. He put all the books with the heavy titles on a bookshelf along with a sign saying that backpackers would have to pay $5 to borrow a book and another $5 if they returned it in less than perfect condition. Consequently nobody ever borrowed a book. He created wordy patronizing signs explaining why it wasn’t okay to put beer in the fish tanks and how the backpackers should go home and let their mothers look after them if they weren’t capable of washing and drying their own dishes. Anita who had a much higher opinion of the backpackers than her husband did would rip the posters down each morning and Peter, who thought it was the backpackers ripping his signs down would create even wordier and more patronizing signs to put up in the evening, including signs about how it was an offence to rip down the signs. He even started to laminate them.
Then Peter went on a roadtrip. He went to see his adult niece and her boyfriend, his siblings and their spouses, his parents and the only friend he still kept in touch with from high school. It was a bit out of character, Peter wasn’t all that fond of people, but he’d heard from his mother that a boy he used to go to junior school with had died and suddenly he felt he should make the effort to see the other people in his life before it was too late.
Peter’s trip lastest fifteen days and at every house it was the same. By day they took Peter out on walks and excursions, then in the evenings everyone sat around ignoring each other as they concentrated on the screens of their phones and iPads.
At first Peter assumed it was because his niece and her boyfriend had grown up with technology that they spent their nights glued to it instead of each other, just like all the backpackers who sat around the hostel staring at their screens every night. Then at his oldest brother’s house Peter thought his brother and sister-in-law were only on their phones all night because they’d had an argument over dinner – picking the wrong woman did seem to be an unfortunate family trait. But when Peter got to his parents house and watched his elderly mother spend the whole night online playing Words with Friends with Beryl who only lived next door whilst his Dad played some sort of online version of a fruit machine, Peter was really suspicious.
“Is this what everybody does?” Peter eventually asked his younger sister when he found himself in his fourth living room of the trip, everybody ignoring each other and even the television in favour of staring at their screens.
“What?” she asked.
“Sit around staring at screens ignoring each other.”
“I wouldn’t say we’re ignoring each other,” she protested, then swore profusely because taking her attention away from her screen to talk to Peter had caused her to lose at her game.
Peter was furious. All these years he’d spent at the hostel, carefully painting walls just for the backpackers to immediately scratch and make dirty again, spending night after night telling backpackers to be quiet, chucking them out of the kitchen at ten o’clock and despairing of the mess they left it in, all the time he could have been sitting at home in his own living room having a perfectly normal time ignoring his wife just like the rest of the nation was doing. How long had smart phones been around? Ten, twelve years? Peter had been missing out.
Peter went home and immediately installed a keypad system at the hostel so that guests arriving after 6pm could check themselves in. He bought himself a brand new phone and spent his evenings sitting on the sofa, drinking wine, playing with his phone and ignoring his wife. It was bliss.
Anita thought it was far from blissful. Because Peter was not sitting on the sofa ignoring her like any other husband might do, he was repeatedly tutting with disapproval at all of the television shows that Anita liked to watch. And coupled with the intermittent and annoying beeps that kept coming from Peter’s phone, it took so much concentration to drown him out that she had no concentration left to focus on her favourite shows. Plus now that Peter finished work by 6pm, he had started coming into work earlier, faffing about with his fish tanks, upsetting the guests by refusing to give back damage deposits to anyone who was more than three minutes late checking out, and generally getting in Anita’s way.
Anita decided she couldn’t go on like this so she vandalized the keypad and put herself on a split shift rota. When Peter got home at 6, she went back to work and sat in the hostel TV room watching all her favourite shows with the backpackers. It was great. Much better than sitting at home by herself or with her husband. The backpackers were more than happy to talk about what was happening on The Voice or Silent Witness or My Kitchen Rules. They seemed to think the shows were as important and as dramatic as Anita did. They even introduced her to Love Island. Anita should have thought about split shifts years ago.
Then one day when they were doing the handover Peter cleared his throat and looked even more serious than usual.
“Um, it’s our wedding anniversary in November. Do you think we should,” he paused awkwardly “do something?”
Anita gave an involuntary shudder. “I don’t know,” she said doubtfully. “Do people usually do anything for their thirty-fifth? It’s not a special one is it?”
Peter studied his shoes. “Some people might have a party. Or a holiday. Or a meal.”
His words hung in the air and they looked at each other in sheer panic at the prospect of putting themselves through the ordeal of any of the things he’d just mentioned.
“Alternatively though, I was looking on the internet last night and apparently thirty-five years is coral. So I thought we could celebrate with a new fish tank for the hostel. A really big one. With a coral theme. I thought we could put it in reception.” Peter’s eyes were only ever animated when he was consumed with thoughts of a new fish tank. Right now they were positively shining.