Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 4. True stories

And so my mind wanders to wondering what life’s greatest tactful omissions might be...

I wonder how many sitting rooms are housing an elephant while their inhabitants silently watch TV.

I wonder in how many boardrooms tomorrow the recession will be blamed for everyone’s failings.

I wonder how many forbidden ‘I love you’s’ are not being said tonight.

I wonder about the stories we tell ourselves in the dark, so that we might sleep soundly.

And I ask myself whether fear, self-preservation, the greater good or a simple act of kindness is the reason for these tactful omissions?

Tricky lesson number four: always tell the truth, especially to yourself.

We tell ourselves we use them to spare others’ feelings, to boost their confidence, to keep the peace. But how often do we tell them for our own sakes: because we don’t want others to think badly of us, because it’s an easier life, it’s easier to please, easier to be beloved by all?

Perhaps the truth is that our tactful omissions are at the heart of what define us. For life is an editorial process; we shape it as we go, writing our stories and vaguely remembering the discarded opportunities and the unwritten, unwritable chapters.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 3. Blind eye

The Impster and I are discussing notable points in the school day.

‘Rupert was running in the corridor again so I told Mrs Roach,’ she says.*

‘What? You mean you told on him?’

‘Yes, we're not allowed to run in the corridor. Those are the rules.’

Tricky lesson number three: always tell the truth, but never dob in your mates.

Unless you're two.

'I'm afraid he’s in the accident book again today,' one of the nursery staff says when I arrive to collect the Boo.

The Boo is always in the accident book.

'Nevermind,' I say, signing the book.

'Got bitten by another child,' they whisper, preserving anonymity at all costs.

'Duncan did it,' he pipes up.*

It is impossible for a two year old to lie. The part of the brain that understands lying simply hasn’t developed. A four year old on the other hand can happily tell you a bare-faced lie. So in our house at the moment we keep replaying variations on a theme:

The Boo: Waaaaaa! She did it.

The Impster: No I didn't. He hit himself over the head, silly billy bumpkin.

Me: Of course he didn’t. Don’t lie!

Sometimes I bother with the naughty step; other times I just let him get on with it and biff her back over the head. I always know if he’s the culprit because the Impster will wail with righteous indignation, ‘I didn’t deserve that!’ It’s perfectly obvious that at all other times she does.

There is a stage in childhood development called Machiavellian intelligence, which kicks in around about the time children start school. They suddenly begin to grasp the power of a convincing lie and how to make it sound as believable as possible, but they still have a wobbly moral compass.

Thankfully the Impster is an extremely poor liar, and folds quickly under interrogation. She looks to me to pull rank, to settle quarrels and dispense justice, and is never more infuriated than when I simply choose to turn a blind eye. I wonder if this is what is meant by exemplary parenting?

* Real names have been tactfully omitted

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 2. For appearance's sake

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there was a young man who caused me a certain amount of aggravation on account of the fact that I did not fancy him. Then a few years back we arrived at a party and there he was. He had let himself go to the point of resembling the Michelin man.

K walked over, shook him warmly by the hand, and said, ‘Good to see you looking so prosperous.’

In that moment of winning charm it was clear that a score had been settled.

How rarely, though, it pays to comment on appearances. No one likes criticism, and we English can rarely take or give a compliment without exaggeration. In fact, if you want an honest opinion, you need to ask a child.

Yesterday my daughter went next door to play, and as soon as our neighbour opened the door the Impster said, ‘I love your necklace.’ And then she said to her, ‘You look quite pretty today.’ My neighbour said the ‘quite’ made her chuckle all day.

Only a four year old can dish out such faint praise and have it taken as a compliment. But you know it’s sincere, and it’s invaluable just for that fact.

You have to proceed with caution though, as a friend of mine learnt to her cost. She asked her four year old what she thought of her new fringe and was told, ‘I think you look a bit like a horse mummy.’ It’s hard to walk with your head held high after that.

Rewind to our pre-Christmas party. The Impster and I have shopped for the ultimate party dress, and truthfully, she looks stunning.

Seven thirty pm. Guests arrive and I hear, 'Look at me! Don't I look dazzling?'

I tell myself something must be done about this child (and her curious vocabulary), and I embark upon:

Tricky lesson number two: always tell the truth, except where modesty is required, or where haircuts are concerned.

‘Why?’ says the Impster.

‘Because it’s boastful,’ I explain.

‘What’s boastful?’

Oh how much you have to learn my child. White lying – or diplomacy as we prefer to call it – is a hard lesson to teach one who has been schooled in honesty. But for the moment, she is still able to get away with the truth, and perhaps I should make the most of it too. If I’m brave enough, she could even improve my appearance.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Tactful omissions: 1. Little white lies

Yesterday I got a text from a friend asking whether I had a copy of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I do. ‘I thought you probably would,’ he replied. ‘My brother-in-law gave me a copy for Christmas and he was so pleased to have chosen it I didn’t have the heart to tell him I already had it.’

My family does not understand these social mores. On Christmas Day the Impster rips open a present to discover a book she already has. Her face falls.

‘Well I've already got that one,’ she says. ‘We must tell Aunty Katy and she can get me something else.’

Tricky lesson number one: always tell the truth, but not necessarily at Christmas.

K and I discuss and differ.

Him: Lying is never right.

Me: Of course it's the right thing to do if it spares somebody's feelings. It’s called diplomacy and basic good manners.

Him: There’s never any need to tell a white lie. Anyway, who are you lying to? Either you're with a friend who should want to know the truth, or you’re with people who aren't your friends so it doesn't matter if you tell them the truth. In any case, people almost never ask for a direct opinion.

(Just shows he doesn’t work in publishing. I’m paid to say what I think of people’s writing every day. Perhaps that explains why I’m so preoccupied with the problem of kind rejections. Bat them away with enough force that they’ll never come back, but so softly they don’t feel the blow.)

Me: What about work colleagues?

Him: They can know the truth.

Me: And your boss?

Him: Definitely, that's what he's paying me for.

(Here’s a man who has never worried about his employment. For a heartbeat I am proud. Then somewhat nervous.)

Me: What about your mother's friends then?

Him: Avoid talking to them! You don't want to put yourself in a difficult situation, now do you?

He is direct in manner but with a tendency to skirt around tricky issues. Yes, K – like many men - has perfected the art of the tactful omission. I cottoned onto this about twelve years ago with the result that these days I’m more interested in what I’m not being told. So generally, it doesn’t work out quite as well for him as it used to.

But it does beg the question: what is the difference between telling only part of the truth and telling a white lie? If someone gives you a present you already have and you say, ‘How thoughtfully chosen,’ is this a white lie? It’s partly true, but what you really mean is that they’ve thought about it and have got it so right it’s wrong.

I believe in white lies, as much as white Christmases. As if proof of their value were needed, a friend gave the Impster a coat. It was a bit small. She is a very good friend, and the words of my beloved were still ringing in my ears. So I told her the truth and said that we loved it, but if she still had the receipt the next size would get more wear. She didn’t have the receipt and instead bought another coat. I now feel like the biggest ingrate the world has ever seen. I should have had enough heart for a little white lie, or at least to tactfully omit the truth.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Baby love

Yesterday I went to Cambridge to see my friend’s new baby. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see a friend for six months because they’ll still know who you are when you turn up at the door. But if you don’t see a child for six months then there's no chance they’ll recognise you the next time they see you. So, there's nothing for it but regular journeying.

I had a very nostalgic time cuddling the baby, but it made me a little bit sad to think how my friends have dissipated. Once upon a time not so very long ago we all lived in London and took meeting up regularly for granted. Now we are having babies and living in places like Hampshire and Kent and Durham and Cambridge and Bath and Devon and Lincoln and Bristol, and really – although I think I may have started it – I’m not sure I approve of it. I want to be able to pop in and babysit their children occasionally so they can have a night out, and for them to feel they can say ‘well this week’s been a bit sh*t’ when it has, and to drink bottle of wine together to make it seem better. This, after all, is what friends are for.

I have made some wonderful local mummy friends in the last four years, whom I honestly couldn’t survive without. But I think of my oldest and bestest friends living miles away and am acutely aware that parenthood must be changing them, and that at this particular juncture in one’s life, distance can create distance. And that’s just between mummies, never mind what happens to the friendships with your non-mummy friends.

If truth be told, I was also a little bit sad to think that the Boo is no longer really a boo but a marauding toddler who calls the shots about when it’s time for a cuddle. The Impster adores babies and asks if we can have a new one every day. But the previous night, she requested a scientific explanation of how a baby gets into its mummy’s tummy. I think this might be nature’s way of telling me to quit while I’m ahead.