We have been married for thirty four years and, I agree, a man of such long experience should know better than to ask a direct question. Any married man will tell you that any married woman will always meet a direct question with – a direct question. For instance, you are at the theatre, the play is dragging and you sense that she is not enjoying it any more than you are. At the interval you stand in the lobby or at the small and crowded bar (why are theatre bars always so tiny?). Out of concern for her you turn and ask, “Why don’t we give the second half a miss?” Suddenly, she is very interested in how the play turns out, even though it’s The Mousetrap and you have seen it three times before, and replies, “Do you want to go home already on our first night out together for months? You never take me anywhere.”
“But I didn’t mean…”
But what you meant is not the point. You asked the wrong question.
I should explain that I am a “househusband” while my wife is the “breadwinner”. Very enlightened. However, no matter how long this swapping roles business goes on, there are some things to do with the nature of men and women that never change. As we approached the penultimate day of the year I knew my wife was going to be in work on New Year’s Eve. The question was, did she plan to finish work early and return to hearth and home, Sparkling Perry, Trivial Pursuit – and foreshorten “my day”, or would she dutifully press on to the bitter and belated anti-climax that is New Year’s Eve at the office?
I was tired. It had been a busy Christmas (you don’t know how busy until you have to organise it yourself because, “that’s your job”). As we sat up in bed, she reading a Science Fiction novel, me reading the latest Kathy Reichs forensic science adventure and thinking about who of my acquaintance might look good on a slab, when the words just – slipped out. “Are you finishing work early tomorrow, sweetheart?” It sounded so right in my head but as soon as it was on my lips I knew I had blundered and could have wished myself on that slab.
I was simply seeking information. I had no views on the matter. It mattered not at all to me what her answer would be, so long as it was a straight answer. I thought of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” he sang. Ask a man a straight question and the fellow will give you a straight answer. He understands the need simply to know, the problem-solving nature of questions, the worth of the direct route to a solution. To a woman a question is an opportunity for adventure, a chance to elicit something from an unexpected happenstance, to be complimented or, if she can catch him out, to be rewarded by her poor, dumb, placating husband, “No, dear, I really didn’t mean…?”
She turned and smiled in that inscrutable way they have and asked – asked mind, not answered, “Would you like me to finish early?” Oh, the fiendishness of it! The utter cunning of her gender. This would be tricky and, what made it worse, I had walked into it with my mouth open ready to receive both feet. I felt the panic rise in me like a flowing tide and my will to defy the fickle fates ebb away. I thought of how busy my day would be; how solitude in the kitchen would be so much more – salubrious than the occasional interruptions to, “come and see this on the TV, dear”, or, “Do you know where such-and-such is dear?” I love my wife, but I like my kitchen. It is my domain now. I know where everything is - I am in charge. It is the only place where I at least have the illusion of being king of my own castle. I spend hours in there, preparing food and listening to BBC radio 4, the Today programme, the News Quiz, “I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue”, with Humphrey Littleton. I am reluctant to come out of it until I am ready.
Steadying my nerves I took a deep breath and said, “Of course, my love, I would be ecstatic to see you home early. I would look forward to spending more time with you. However, I mustn’t be selfish, and I know how you hate to leave loose ends. You are getting on so well at the office I would hate for you to blot your copybook for my sake. If you need to work through I don’t want to get in your way.”
We compromised. She finished early but late enough for Radio 4 to lose my attention and the lounge sofa to gain my undying loyalty. If you are already kicking yourself for breaking your New Year’s Resolutions let me make you feel worse still. I have, so far, kept mine – to never ask a direct question.