Affairs of the chest

Interior, Little girl by the chest of drawers

AMONG the many questions inspired by the case of the 99-year-old Italian man who’s divorcing his 96-year-old wife because she had an affair 70 years ago – the many high-minded questions of a moral and philosophical and indeed of a social nature and so forth – there’s one that keeps troubling me, and it has to do with the chest of drawers.

According to the divorce papers lodged in court in Rome, Antonio discovered the affair when he searched a chest of drawers and found letters exchanged between his wife, Rosa, and her former lover dating back to the 1940s.

You see the question towards which this information tends, don’t you? It seems not unreasonable to assume the letters had been there all along, which means that Antonio must not have opened that particular drawer since some time during or soon after World War II.

Imagine having a drawer you haven’t opened in 70 years. What can it possibly mean? Was it a “private” drawer, and therefore indicative of a habit of secrecy in Rosa that ought to have aroused her husband’s suspicions long since?

Or does it show an unpardonable lack of curiosity on Antonio’s part? Because if so, it would be no surprise if Rosa were a bit careless about where she left incriminating evidence. And who knows what else is going on that he doesn’t know about? Every drawer in their house could be groaning under the weight of adulterous love letters. Bouquets of flowers may be arriving every hour on the hour. The doors of their kitchen cupboards may refuse to close against the stacks and stacks of padded Valentine’s hearts from other men. There may even be other men in the spare bedrooms. Antonio won’t have noticed.

Of course, there is an innocent explanation, which is that Rosa and Antonio’s house is vast and enviably organised and wants for nothing in the way of storage, and Antonio has simply never been at a loss for someplace to put something. Still, though.

Personally, I open every single drawer in my house at least six times a day to look for the car keys, so it would take a very crafty man to conceal his faithlessness from me. There, you see: being chronically absent-minded reduces your chances of being cuckolded (or cuckqueaned, which you may be interested to learn is the female equivalent. You’re welcome). Unfortunately it also increases the chances that your better half will chuck you into a home some day on the grounds of dementia.

There is one final possible explanation. It is conceivable that Rosa, unable to contain her guilt a moment longer, placed the letter in the drawer recently, especially so that Antonio would find it. And really, if she’s the kind of person who goes around leaving subtle, manipulative messages for him like that, instead of coming right out and saying “Anto, il mio tesoro, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” then he really is better off without her.

The story has proved quite divisive. About half of the people who read it cannot believe that Antonio is unable to forgive an indiscretion from so long ago. The other half sympathise with him, saying that Rosa’s breach of trust has continued for each day of the 70 years she didn’t confess to him.

I tend to a third view, which is that they must have secretly loathed each other for years and only wanted an excuse to split up. Picture seven decades of frosty silence over the antipasti. First they stayed together for the sake of the five children, then for the sake of the 12 somewhat surprised grandchildren (“There’s really no need to do this for our sake, Nonno e Nonna”), and latterly for the sake of the solitary, oblivious great-grandchild.

The whole story calls to mind the man who took up smoking again after 25 years off cigarettes. “Why did you go back on them?” he was asked, and he replied: “I couldn’t stick it any longer”.

At last, Antonio has valid grounds for divorce, and can be free to get on with the rest of his life… But he must be daft. In all relationships – the happy and the unhappy alike – one party must outlive the other. So it is the fate of each and every one of us to end up alone in our old age, if we haven’t died first. I do apologise for sucking all the joy out of your Sunday morning, reader, but you know it’s true. Antonio has had the amazing good luck to have avoided that fate so far. You’d think he’d have the grace to count his blessings and be thankful. For goodness sake, Antonio, act your age. The rest of you, check your drawers.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 29th April 2012

Relics of auld decency

The cherry bun: Just not the same

I GOT laughed at again in Dublin this week. This happens whenever I visit the capital, and it’s usually for technological reasons (although not always – sometimes people laugh at you simply for asking for a dinner menu in the middle of the day).

Let’s be clear: I do have a mobile phone. I’m not a complete troglodyte. However, my phone is around seven years old. It doesn’t have a camera. It doesn’t know what day it is, and tends to keep assuming it’s the First of January 2005. (I’m sure we can all agree, the wish is probably father of the thought there… Imagine if we didn’t know now what we didn’t know in 2005?)

Naturally, my phone doesn’t know how to connect to the internet. If it’s honest, it thinks this whole smartphone business might turn out to be nothing more than a fad. Also it has a cracked screen, behind which a tiny piece of loose glass rattles around noisily.

But I refuse to replace it. I’m fond of it mainly because the keypad happens to be in Arabic. This – the consequence of nothing more than a happy geographical accident – conveys the impression that I understand Arabic and therefore might be secretly (and despite appearances) a thrillingly important person. I might have influential connections in assorted emirates; I might go around airports shouting “I’ve got to get back to Bahrain tonight!” at the ground crew. I love conveying that impression and would be very sorry to give it up. (Of course my Arabic keypad might also hint that I’m a closet jihadist who entertains murderous thoughts towards Jedward. I’m OK with that too.)

So anyway, I visited a mobile phone shop in the capital to see if they could fix the broken screen. To be fair, I did have the good grace to be a little bit embarrassed. It isn’t as if I don’t know my phone is an anachronism. As soon as you get off the train, you are surrounded by city people pointing and laughing; you get the message soon enough.

The shop assistant – Emmet, no doubt, or Shane, or maybe Fionnán? – took one look at the phone and issued a complicated sound involving mostly vowels. Then he gave me a searching look to make sure I wasn’t taking the mickey. Then he laughed. Another shop assistant – Chloe? Emily? Aoibheann? – came over, saw my phone, and regarded me for a moment or two with a look that I understood to be sincere, benevolent concern. It was crushing.

Under a gaze like that, you suddenly become aware that it’s not just your phone that’s out of place. You’re what might be charitably described a “relic of auld decency”. For instance, you notice that nobody else – absolutely nobody else – has frizzy hair in Dublin. How do they do that? Is it something in the water? And look at your clothes – they’re a classic example of what happens when you repeatedly hug a white cat while wearing dark colours. And is that – oh God – could that be a trace of cow dung on your boot?

Later, you notice that you’re the only person in your hotel lobby who doesn’t have an iPad. In fact, now that you come to think about it – and this is a little weird – you seem to be the only person in the hotel lobby who’s not having some sort of script meeting. Seriously, are there three or four script meetings going on in the lobby of every hotel in Dublin at any one time? If so, why isn’t television better?

You’re the only person in the cafe who’s reading the print edition of a newspaper. You just want a coffee, just an ordinary coffee, please. You still think in terms of Bewleys. You mourn the almond bun. You’re a bumpkin. You’re not quite wandering around the city, with a drip on the end of your nose, looking for someone to play the banjo with, but you’ve become an out-and-out culchie all the same. When did that happen?

Irish Rail has introduced free wi-fi on the Dublin to Cork train. But if you’re heading west of the Shannon, you have to change at Limerick Junction, where you lose the wi-fi (together with the will to live, but that’s another story). Thereafter, you’re on a train with one electrical socket per carriage.

The woman opposite me on the journey home – a middle-aged, ‘traditionally-built’ woman with a decent, rural bearing – was all amazement. “Imagine that,” she marvelled, seeing me plug in my antediluvian phone charger. “We really have come up in the world. They have sockets on the trains now.” I laughed at her. That’s how it works – you transfer the ridicule to someone else.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 15th April 2012

Unpleasantness about the seabass


DINE in Dublin week ends today, not a minute too soon. The intention was to encourage us to spend our way out of recession, or eat our way out of recession, or pretend-to-know-something-about-wine our way out of recession, or calculate 12.5% of our way out of recession, or whatever.

The very idea is a penance. What if you loathe eating out, and passionately dread those occasions that make it necessary – a first communion, or a work thing, or someone having yet another sodding birthday? (Didn’t you have a birthday just last year? I could swear you did. I remember distinctly that  unpleasantness about the seabass.)

The first thing that happens, when you get seated behind a restaurant table on one of these obligatory occasions, is that you realise at once, with a sickening lurch of the stomach, that you’re not going to be able to leave until everyone has finished their main course – and that’s at the earliest, assuming nobody fancies the tiramisu. You’re immobilised, stuck there, a prisoner. Instant panic attack.

Then they bring the menus and, to your dismay, someone begins contemplating a starter. Starters are going to add at least 20 minutes to this ordeal. “Garlic mussels might be nice,” they muse happily. “I wonder are they local. Ow. Why are you kicking me?”

The waiter comes with the wine list, and some thoughtful person thinks it necessary to canvass the opinions of the entire group on medium- versus full-bodied. Everyone duly tries to remember which grape variety is fashionable at the moment, and dredges up the few oenological buzzwords they carry around for these occasions. “Oh I don’t mind at all,” you say, when it’s your turn. “Whatever way it comes, ha ha.”

Perhaps for that very reason, the waiter chooses you, above anyone else, to enact the ludicrous dumb show of examining and sniffing the wine. “It’s fine, it’s lovely, ha ha,” you say, hoping no one will suspect the truth, which is that the sommelier could have urinated in it for all you care.

The worst part, though, is when the food arrives. Someone (usually the starter person – they’re a type) has to send theirs back for some reason. Everyone is obliged to wait while they carefully explain to the waiter, using many hand gestures, the subtle difference between what they wanted and what they got.

Meanwhile, you have somehow accidentally ordered the entire carcass of a fish, complete with flaccid tail and cold, staring eyes. But as you would rather swallow a whole live jellyfish, in public, wearing a pink tutu, than spend a minute longer than necessary in this private hell, you say nothing. You pick around the eyes.

Being someone who hates restaurants has several obvious drawbacks. For one thing, people tend to assume you’re a little odd. They couple it with the fact that you also don’t enjoy shoe-and-handbag shopping and realise that you’re hopelessly excluded from the modern, urban feminine fantasy. You’re a bit agricultural on the whole, aren’t you, poor thing.

Then there’s the fact that, should you happen to be single, you can never have a first date with anyone, ever. You can’t countenance the prospect of going out to dinner with a stranger, so you have to say no, but obviously you can’t tell them why you’re saying no or they’ll think you’re a fruitbasket and be thankful for their escape. And even agricultural types hate to be thought less of, especially unjustly.

Because what could be worse than eating with someone you don’t know? You’re supposed to look elegant while trying not to spill food on yourself. You’re supposed to make conversation while not talking with your mouth full. And if your date turns out to be that most self-satisfied of bores, the food bore, you’re supposed to feign interest in the exhaustive details of his prandial preferences, while trying to quash mutinous, old-fashioned thoughts about the starving children in Africa.

But those problems are nothing – nothing – compared to the danger of discovering that your companion eats with his mouth open. The horror. It’s enough to make you commit yourself to solitary basins of thin gruel in your own kitchen for the rest of your days.

You try to concentrate on what he’s saying but the sensory assault is overwhelming. You can see nothing but the boggy contents of his mouth. You can hear nothing but the wet, slapping sound of his chewing. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in. You toy with the condiments under a cloud of imminent violence. You find yourself blaming the parents.

To distract yourself, you count his fillings. “Hmm, mercury,” you notice with relief. “With any luck he’ll be dead before they bring the dessert menu.”


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 1 April 2012