Ian McMillan: The day I spent waiting for the great white mattress

THIS is a tale of a lonely vigil. This is a tale of two people separated by a mattress and four miles, a tale of a pair of Yorkshire puddings that expanded and expanded until they nearly took over the oven like they were in a tyke version of that almost forgotten science fiction film The Blob in which something slithery slithered around a small American town like malevolent marmalade.

Let me explain: last Sunday my lad Andrew was due to take delivery of a mattress to his bijou new apartment. The delivery firm had earlier brought the frame of the bed without the mattress which to me is like delivering the fish without the chips, but I'm a wordsmith not a sleep engineer.

The firm said they would deliver "in a window between 8.am and 8pm". Again, I'm a wordsmith not a glazier or a delivery man, but it seems to me that's a heck of a window. That's not a little window that lets light into your pantry; that's a huge stained glass window in a cathedral.

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The fly in the delivery ointment was that Andrew had to be at work on Sunday so my wife volunteered to sit in and wait for the arrival of the mattress. "It'll probably come early," she said, optimistically; "I'll just take a couple of gardening magazines with me." She should have packed War and Peace.

Off she went and I settled to a quiet Sunday morning in the life of the wordsmith: I wrote a couple of things. I read bits of a book that I had to talk about on the radio. I emailed some people. Time hung heavy in a South Yorkshire Sunday fashion, and it was as though my wife and I were both waiting for the mattress to come, joined together by hope and the expectation of a post-mattress reuinion.

I looked out of the window. She read gardening magazines. I was reminded of my mam and dad in the early years of the war; him in the Royal Navy, pitching and rolling in the HMS Zulu in the South Atlantic, her in the WAAFs, stationed near Wigan, both of them keeping contact with each other through a snail-like postal system that somehow kept their love alive. Decades later, my wife was in Barnsley and I was in Darfield; okay, it's not the South Atlantic and Wigan's wilder frontier, but I felt just as lonely.

Of course this is 2010 so I texted my wife. "Anything yet?" The reply came, forlorn in its brevity. "No." The morning dragged on. I speculated on that 12-hour window: surely the firm knew the order that things would be placed in the van? Surely the driver had a planned route? Surely the big window of time could be reduced to a two-hour porthole? Sunday lunch loomed and I didn't fancy eating it on my own.

Regular readers will know that for me Sunday lunch is like a beacon in the week, something to set your clock by, a rite of passage that renews itself every seven days. And on your own it's no fun at all. I retained a kind of faith in the arrival of the mattress, though. I felt sure that any moment now my mobile would chirrup and my wife would announce that she was coming home, or in text-speak, cmng hm. So I mixed the usual amount of Yorkshire pudding batter and prepared a pile of veg for two. However, my phone remained steadfastly untexted. The point of no return passed. The Yorkshires had to go in to the oven, using enough batter for the two of us.

And that's why I ended up munching my way through two Yorkshire puddings the size of garden sheds, and taking my time with more than enough cabbage for one middle-aged man. Of course I could have got the bus to Andrew's place to wait with my wife, but the mattress might have arrived as I sat on the bus and we'd have passed each other as she returned home.

So I washed up and texted her again, a text peppered with question marks. She replied that there was no mattress and she was listening to Moby Dick on the radio. In my post-lunch sleepiness I nodded off and the Great White Whale in Melville's novel became the Great White Mattress lumbering across the heavy seas of the A635 and the A628. I pictured my wife as a better-looking Captain Ahab on the deck of the whaling boat as Moby Mattress hove into view, harpooning it and dragging it to the safe harbour of Andrew's bedroom.

I woke with a start. A beeping noise told me I was getting a text. "Nothing yet," it said. The vigil continued, all afternoon, with never a sighting of the huge white prize, and a Sunday trickled down the drain. And the mattress never showed up. They couldn't find the house, they said. They couldn't quite see it through their 12-hour window…