One of the most puzzling things for the average child must be the way in which their parents not only construct arguments out of nothing, but actually repeat the same module of conflict every time a particular situation arises. Arguments have tunes, and, in some cases, Bridget and I have been playing the same pieces of music for more than twenty-three years now. Like two professional actors in some long-running play we step almost automatically into our roles and embark on the script that we have come to know so well during the course of our marriage. Fortunately, again like actors, we conclude most of these performances with a friendly chat and a drink or two.
Of course, when the music of conflict becomes too agonisingly discordant, something has to change, but most of our oft-repeated rows are like comfortable old shoes. An example? Well, take the whole business of Packing.
Bridget and I both claim to know exactly how packing should be done. My method is neat, logical and takes about three days. Hers is wild, unfathomable and takes about three hours. I feel quite sure that the time factor in my method could be significantly improved if we only gave it a chance. But we never do. I always retire in fury after a few minutes and sulk somewhere while Bridget does it her way. The dialogue that precedes my walk-out usually goes something like this:
A : (WITH TOTALLY UNCONVINCING CASUALNESS) Right, well, we might as well get started on the packing, then.
B : Darling, wouldn't you rather go and do something with the children while I -
A : Why don't we try to be really systematic this time.
B : (GROANS) Oh, no...
A : We've got six cases altogether, right?
B : What was wrong with the way we did it last time?
A : Nothing - much. It's just that I can't get involved when you organise it. We end up in a sea of clothes and shoes and books and bits and pieces with the cases buried somewhere underneath, and I wade dismally through it all with a teacloth in my hand wondering where it fits into your master-plan. I don't know where anything is, I don't know where anything goes, I dunno what's going on, and I -
B : And you start shaking your head and sighing and rolling your eyes up into the top of your head like some bad Victorian actor and talking about how your bad childhood makes it difficult for you to cope with chaos.
A : I don't do that.
B : You're almost doing it now, and we haven't even started yet.
A : (WITH WHAT HE CONSIDERS TO BE HEROIC SELF-CONTROL) Look, all I'm saying is that we could try it my way and just see how we get on - just try it, for goodness sake!
B : Your way being what, exactly? (SHE KNOWS)
A : (AS IF EXPLAINING TO AN IMBECILE) Right! We take all six cases out into the garden. Right?
B : (NODDING WEARILY) And we put them in a nice neat row -
A : We put them in a row - it doesn't have to be that neat a row - with the lids open, and we number them from one to five, and agree about what sort of luggage is going into each one, then we bring stuff out from the house bit by bit and fill the cases one by one until there's nothing left in the house that's supposed to be in the cases. Apart from anything else it would be so much more fun doing it this way. You'd say to me, "Here's a shirt, Adrian, it goes in number three," and I'd go out and put it in number three. Then you might say, "Here's a pair of shoes, Adrian, they go in number five, so I put them in number five and come back for the next thing, and so on. Then we could swop round and I'd say, "Here's a blouse, Bridget -
B : (MIMICKING) It goes in number four...
A : (REFUSING TO BE PUT OFF) And you'd go out and put it in number four, then you'd come back for the next thing and so on. Then, when everything's in, we shut the cases - one, two, three, four, five! - and that's that. The packing's done, everything's ready and we haven't had to hack our way through forests of underwear and overcoats just to find the floor. (PAUSE) How can you say that that doesn't make sense? How can it possibly not make sense? How? Well, how can it? Come on - tell me how that can possibly not make sense! It seems so obvious-
B : Michael, I wish to make the following observations. First of all, let us calmly consider the difference between your method and mine. Your method may be neat and logical, but it would take - ooh - about a year to get everything packed. In fact, it would become more of a hobby than a functional task. My method, on the other hand, may appear wild and unfathomable and cause you unspeakable anguish, but it would mean the packing gets done before we leave for America - an attractive little feature of my approach, wouldn't you say? Furthermore, touched though I am by the pretty picture you paint of you and me trotting happily and eternally to and fro with shirts and blouses and pairs of shoes, I have no intention of playing 'Jane And John Go On Their Holidays' out in the garden just to pander to your completion neurosis. You may not know what's going on when I'm packing, but I do. And as it's always me that ends up doing it anyway, that's all that really matters, isn't it? Why don't you go for a walk, or play golf, or whatever you like, and by the time you come back the work will be done and you won't have to worry about it. How does that sound?
A : (SENSING AN OPPORTUNITY TO BE BE DEEPLY HURT AND PLAY GOLF) Are you saying you don't want me to help?
B : Of course I'd like you to help - if you really mean it. What I can't stand is having you huffing and puffing around and getting irritable about not being able to do anything while I'm busy doing it.
A : (DECIDING TO BE OFFENDED) Oh, well, in that case, I might just as well go and play golf, or perhaps you think I won't be able to organise that! (SLAMS OUT)
B : (COUNTING ON HER FINGERS) One, two, three, four -
A : (REAPPEARING) Err, have you seen my clubs....?