the idiot and the fool
Most nights when we sit down to eat I light candles, in the hope that it will make us all a bit nicer. My son however objects to candles. For him they are an affectation, a trick to draw him into his parent’s world.
I take my seat in momentary amazement at sitting down after two hours of housekeeping. We pick up our forks – or spoons if it’s soup – and before long it starts. My husband will use a particular phrase, or tone of voice, that my daughter will pick up and play on. She means no harm. Or does she? My husband will laugh at being teased and focus on the food on his plate, or sip wine from a small glass.
Next it’s my turn. Something from my day will come to mind and I’ll throw it into the conversation. My husband will ask for clarification – his big thing is that I’m not clear enough – and I’ll respond. Although this sounds too plain for what actually happens. Because what actually happens goes on below the surface, in the eddies of my mind and of his. Whenever my husband asks for clarification in a clipped tone of voice a little bit of me sucks back into myself, like a snail pulling its head back into its shell.
As if on cue my son will join in. With what I think is affection, my son has taken to calling me Captain Meteorology. I could write a family history explaining why I’ve ended up being called Captain Meteorology by my nineteen-year-old son, but instead let me just say that in my family I’m not to be relied on to know the capital city of Kazakhstan or the longest river in Spain. When it comes to general knowledge it’s my husband who fills in any factual gaps, not me.
My husband hates being teased more than I do. Whereas I submit to it, confident that it will soon blow over, he visibly prickles. Having been badly teased at school, his whole intellectual career could be seen as ballast to ensure that he’ll never suffer that indignity again. Except that now, with uncanny accuracy, his past has caught up with him in the shape of his two teenagers who make it their business to tease him round the dinner table.
They know just the moment to probe their father’s sore spots. My daughter is especially good at this. Protected by the cloak of her father’s love, she will mock him without mercy. Even my son holds back from the teasing my daughter delights in inflicting on her father – which is most likely a response to the petty humiliations of her own school day.
I on the other hand am not allowed to tease my husband. If ever I do cross that line, and in the rumble of family life this does happen, I am brought up short with That Look. That Look is a piercing glance from my husband that goes right into my heart, twisting to a point. That Look tells me, without his having to say anything, that I’ve gone too far. I have, in his words, mocked him. And mocking is something that he cannot bear from his wife.
At this point in the meal my son will reach over and finish off the bowl of vegetables, a sign that he both disapproves of food wastage and the turn in the conversation. My daughter will down her fork and say, ‘I’ve had nuff’, a phrase she coined in childhood. And I will silently breathe a sigh of relief that there is still enough food in the pot for my husband to have a second helping, a prerequisite for his pleasure at any meal.
Before the meal ends there might be time for one more turn – mine. My husband will pick up on what he thinks is a slack comment of mine. ‘Can you’, he’ll ask, ‘say a bit more about that?’ And again he’ll give me That Look, going straight to my heart and giving it a little squeeze. His request, on the face of it, is reasonable. However the four of us round the table know that it’s really an emotional point that he’s making, not a factual one.
Mostly my husband is well-mannered, even kindly. But occasionally he’ll bring me down, making it plain to everyone round the table that his wife is really an idiot, so incapable is she of relaying the simplest of observations clearly. At that moment – five seconds that feel like an hour – I will crumple inside, feeling absurdly hurt and cross, like an insect stuck on a pin.
This cuts both ways. Ninety percent of the time I am pleasant and accommodating. But now and then I can’t help myself from setting up my husband to look like a fool, joining my daughter in mocking chorus of her eccentric father. And at this moment I’ll watch him crumple, feeling absurdly hurt and cross, like an insect stuck on a pin.
We are not innocent, my husband and I – any more than I am an idiot and he is a fool. While we never sit down to dinner intending to bring each other down, to embarrass ourselves in front of our emotionally savvy teenagers, sadly we regularly do. The tiny forays which we make during dinner, as we dart behind each other’s defences, have been decades in the making. Our routines are as practised as those of adept ballroom dancers – or fencers before a thrust.
It may not sound like it, but we love each other, my husband and I. And yet the tragedy, and the comedy, is that being married for the long haul means that we are not always on the same side. We are like married couples from Shakespeare and Tolstoy, in that our love is no match for the moments of bile which cut through our shared history, wonderful children and our desire for pleasant family meals.
I don’t remember giving over my vulnerabilities to my husband and children. Before they came along I don’t remember secretly thinking that I was an idiot. I knew there were plenty of things that I didn’t know, but I don’t recall feeling shown up by my ignorance. Perhaps it was sharing the kitchen table with my kid’s trigonometry homework that triggered my feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps it was watching my husband’s career advance as my own lay idling. Perhaps it is that the things I know about best aren’t the kind of things which appear in multiple choice tests. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve been dumbed down by being at the centre of family life for so long. But somehow I don’t think so. I think it’s more that sitting down for a family meal has a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us all.
Quite possibly the intimate choreography that is our family supper will happen again tonight. My daughter will bait my husband. My husband will fall for it and hold out the bait to me. And for his part my son will eat whatever vegetables remain in the bowl, bury his head in a magazine, and say to us all, ‘I’m not related’.
Last night my daughter sat up in bed, her third day off sick from school. We’d been talking about good friends who recently had a baby who they are besotted by. ‘You know’, said my daughter, ‘all those people who have babies that they adore. They have no idea’, she continued, ‘that in fifteen years’ time those babies won’t be babies, but teenagers who send up their parents at dinner’. ‘Ha’, I replied, ‘exactly’.
But my husband and I, we are learning not to take out our frustrations on each other. There are evenings when he baits me and nothing happens. I don’t feel got at by his request for clarification. I respond to his query as if it’s a real question. Equally less and less do we resort That Look. Not because we’ve reached some kind of amazing understanding, because we haven’t. But because, from my side at least, I realise that this is what it means to love someone, night after night round the dinner table.