unwelcome guests

Nobody likes feeling comprehensively disparaged.

My wife and I, together with her sister and her sister’s husband visited extended family across the other side of the UK. We drove to her sister’s, roughly half way, and her husband drove us all on the next day.

Her sister, a slightly nervous, shy and inhibited character, has had something of a ‘Daddy complex’ when it comes to partners.This might sound cruel to say, but the facts bear it out. At around 38, she has never been single her whole adult life, and has always been with a man at least 10 to 15 years older than her, sometimes having affairs to get to the next one. Her husband of several years, with whom she appears utterly besotted, is in his early 50s, Scottish, a curious combination of laid back, mellow, yet militarily stiff and a bit boring. Let’s call him Gerald.

I cannot really comprehend the amount Gerald has seen and experienced in active service across countless countries. Equally, he has little sense of my work or myself. All told, we don’t have much in common at all. He didn’t attend our wedding a few months ago as he was working overseas. We were told that he was gutted to miss it, or words to that effect, but on viewing the photobooks of our wedding and honeymoon, Gerald passed no comments, asked no questions. My hunch is that he didn’t give a fig, or haggis.

I ask plenty of questions, particularly when I don’t know much about something. Partly because it’s polite to pay an interest, partly because I am genuinely curious. They have passed comment on that in my absence once or twice, according to my wife. ‘He asks a lot of questions, doesn’t he?’

In the world of grown-ups it often seems like there are people to whom a lack of knowledge is an affront or a threat, and there are those to whom it is a chance to learn. It could also be the case (and almost certainly was) that Gerald was entirely uninterested in us silly young people who can offer him nothing. But he asks no questions.

On arrival at their house we were not made to feel all that welcome, comfortable or even expected. Given that neither of them ask many questions, it was up to us to do the conversational running. They do not appear natural or regular hosts. We did nothing much from our arrival at around 2pm to going to bed after watching Sherlock at 10.30pm (our choice). We sat on the sofa and watched television. Granted, the weather was foul and did not encourage excursions, but even so, it was extremely boring.

One of his, and by proxy his wife’s, favourite sayings is “it is what it is”. It’s used to conclude and dismiss conversation of virtually everything; a lazy, slightly banal way of excusing yourself from discussing or analysing anything. We all have favourite expressions, and I guess I can see its utility in allowing you to let something go and move on, but when overused it gets quite exhausting. Oh, the holocaust? You know, it is what it is. Terrorism, the middle east? It is what it is. The meaning of life?

The following day we visited the aunts of my wife and her sister. He drove the few hours down the sodden motorways, clogged with surface water. Gerald appeared sullen and straight-backed at the wheel, casually aggressive towards other drivers at times, less inclined than ever to engage in conversation with us back seat children. Were we imposing on their trip? When we offered petrol money they said, more than once, that ‘they were going anyway’. Oh. So we weren’t then? This wasn’t a nice friendly group trip? We were seemingly just freeloading.

There was no indication of Gerald’s sudden transformation. This was what rocked and stunned us. In this company my big brother in law became some sort of cheeky, charming, jovial chat show host. His old charm guns were out and firing, and hitting the bullseye every time. By contrast, I felt wrong-footed and clunky.

The aunt whose beautiful home we visited for lunch and dinner lived with her husband, 25 years retired. (Think about that one, people who will probably never retire: 25 years retired). He was recovering after various serious, life-threatening surgeries (he had passed around an insightful colostomy publication). Back in the days when he had worked, he had worked making weapons. And he had also served his national service, thereby having a great many subjects to discuss with my brother in law.  Military travel tales were much discussed over a simple lunch of soup and posh bread. Some might say overdiscussed, at considerable length. I had none, and felt mildly subjugated in the covert war on inheritance.

Following lunch we went to check in at a nearby hotel. It had been mooted that we might, all four of us, go on a small exploration of the area. The weather appeared to be clearing up, slivers of blue sky slowly expanding through the grey. We had each found our rooms and my wife and I were exchanging observations of lunch, largely revolving around Gerald’s transformation, when she received a text message from her sister remarking on the blue sky. I suspected she wanted to go out, stretch her legs and get some air, as I did. My wife seemed less fussed, but replied asking if they were going out for a walk. ‘They’ (but Gerald, clearly Gerald) said no, they were just going to chill out for a bit. Gerald clearly fucking hated us.

Dinner was a little better, the conversation more evenly spread. I was determined not to be quietened or cowed, or afraid of being myself. However, it still felt like Gerald held the reins of conversation. Whenever it veered outside his realm of interest or experience (anything not military related) and everyone was chewing over an interesting point for a second, he would seize the moment to realign conversation into a track which suited him better.

I like to think my inner child is sometimes not far from the surface, I like to mess about, occasionally be animated for attempted comic affect. This is unlike my brother in law, or indeed anyone on my wife’s side besides my wife, who can goof around with the best. Their family had a monstrously dominant father who had a good go at nipping that sort of thing in the bud.

The females assembled in the kitchen after dinner, leaving Gerald, the aunt’s husband and I in the lounge. Playing around with the aunt’s young cat, sitting on the floor, I felt mildly judged, a little foolish. But I tried not to care, and didn’t. The first time Gerald and I were left alone, we kept the conversation going. The second time neither of us could be bothered, and I went to the kitchen.

The Chimp Paradox – a widely lauded mind management book of Dr Steve Peters – returned to my consciousness of late. In very simplified summary, it’s based around the emotional element of our brains being ‘chimps’, which can overpower us in certain situations when we feel threatened, causing us to behave in unhelpful ways.

Several years ago I heard of it and him for the first time when he was a guest on Richard Bacon’s Radio Five Live show. I made a note and emailed a link to my Dad, who has suffered from various psychological issues including depression for much of his life. It didn’t really register with him and I said no more about it until several weeks ago. Now more receptive to the theories of others, he downloaded and read the book, and found it helpful. As has my wife, still working her way through the audiobook. I’m half way through the paperback I bought her for Christmas.
This was a weekend when many chimps felt extremely active on all sides. There were unconscious threats, fears, concerns, a great many inhibitions. On the surface we made our way through it all fine, legs kicking furiously underneath, chimps swinging loudly from tree to tree.

One of the most powerful ways to undermine someone is the suggestion that they are unusual, or not normal. This can be what breeds paranoia and neuroses. Maybe military training, or a whole military working life institutionalises you into a certain practical and disciplinarian way of being. It’s perhaps no surprise that Gerald and I entirely miss each other on a number of levels – while remaining civil. Such weekends or meetings are not a regular event, and are unlikely to become more common.

What insulted and left a light scar was his sturdy, casual indifference to us; that he couldn’t, wouldn’t and probably never will summon the basic, regular levels of polite civilian inquisitiveness towards us. But he could switch it on in a headspinning instant for his elders.

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