The woman over the road had invited me in for a Christmas drink, along with a clutch of other neighbours. Having recently moved into the area I was keen to be friendly. And, with any luck, charming.
The men and women had divided between the lounge and kitchen before I arrived. Perching on a sofa I introduced myself to three women who were chatting about their children. I felt drawn to one of these women, a slightly haughty woman with startling red shoes.
As I entered the conversation she was telling the two other women that she’d barely seen her 13-year-old daughter for days. ‘As soon as school ended she got out her sleeping bag and had two sleepovers with different friends, and then went straight off for a tennis coaching weekend!’ The women laughed and nodded, as they took some smoked salmon on toast, offered by my neighbour’s mother.
‘I’m not such a fan of sleepovers’, I said, without thinking. The laughing stopped. The three women turned to me. ‘I mean’, I continued, regretting my admission, but pushing ahead. ‘I think it’s a really intimate thing to go to sleep in a room with someone you don’t know very well – and even more so when a whole group of friends is in the room together’. Still more silence. ‘And so often my children arrive home the next morning with rings under their eyes and then take two days to recover’.
‘But’, said the woman with the red shoes, ‘it’s so important for them to experience this kind of thing. And a bit of lost sleep doesn’t really matter’. And the other two women nodded their agreement.
‘So much for being charming’, I thought to myself, wishing I hadn’t said anything. But I had. Within six minutes I’d blown it as a savvy new neighbour. I was nothing more than a protective mother who likes nothing more than curtailing her children’s freedom. A mother who would rather have her children at home with her than have them sleep on someone else’s floor, and learn about life. A mother who isn’t wearing the sexy shoes that her husband would kill for her to wear – and not because I’m against them but for fear of the foot surgeon’s knife.
The conversation rumbles forward and I hold my tongue, feeling outnumbered. The woman in the sexy shoes mentions, in passing, that she is a child psychiatrist, telling me in code that if anyone knows how to understand children, it’s her.
‘What does it matter if they see a few adult films?’ she continues, looking across at me. I stay silent. ‘Don’t you think?’ she persists. Given that I’ve already blown it, I decide to respond. ‘Well, no. Actually I do think it matters if kids see adult films before they’re ready for them. Anyway, what are we really talking about here? For me, it’s not just violent films. For me the bottom line is this’, and I take a deep breath. ‘Basically I don’t want my kids to see other people having sex before they’ve had it themselves. It don’t want them watch other people doing something that they have no experience of. So, yeh’, I finished, ‘I do think it matters if they watch adult-rated films’.
The woman with sexy shoes frowns. The other women wait for her to reply. ‘Oh my God’, I think to myself. This was only meant to be Christmas drinks, a gesture of goodwill towards the people I meet wheeling their bins out on the same night of the week. Nothing more. And here I am sounding like a Christian Fundamentalist.
‘I see. Yes, it is a tricky topic’, the woman with the red shoes says after a pause, weighing her words, making me feel more like one of her psychiatric patients, than a woman of the world like herself.
And so I take the easy way out. We change the subject. I tell her about my background in pyschotherapy in London, some of which involved working in psychiatry, and she in turn describes to me her role at the hospital. The more we talk the more we stand on even ground, and the more comfortably we both speak. The other two women take the conversation off on their own tangent, and we relax back into four neighbours chatting on adjacent sofas.
An hour later I leave the party, and cross back over the road. My children are engrossed in watching a Top Gear DVD, waiting like baby birds for me to cook them supper. ‘Hi’, they call out. My husband waves a short wave as I pass his study door. ‘How was it?’ he asks. ‘It was really quite nice’, I say, passing down to the kitchen, ‘you should have come’.