-"It'd be nice if you just phoned for some other reason. You know, to say hello. To see how your husband and children are."
"What, 'Oh David'?"
"That was the first thing I asked. 'How are the kids?'"
"Yeah. OK. 'How are the kids?' Not, you know, 'How are you?' "
You -don't get conversations like this when things are going well. It is not difficult to imagine that in other, better relationships, a phone call that began in this way would not and could not lead to talk of divorce. In better relationships you could sail right through the dentist part and move on to other topics--your day's work, or plans for the evening, or even, in a spectacularly functional marriage, something that has taken place in the world outside your home, a coughing fit on the Today Programme, say--just as ordinary, just as forgettable, but topics that form the substance and perhaps even the sustenance of an ordinary, forgettable, loving relationship. David and I, however . . . this is not our situation, not anymore. Phone calls like ours only happen when you've spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play. In fact, when I was lying awake in the hotel room trying to piece it all together, I was even struck by how clever we had been to invent our code: it takes years of miserable ingenuity to get to this place.
"Do you care how I am?"
"To be honest, David, I don't need to ask how you are. I can hear how you are. Healthy enough to look after two children while simultaneously sniping at me. And very, very aggrieved, for reasons that remain obscure to me at this point. Although I'm sure you'll enlighten me."
"What makes you think I'm aggrieved?"
"Ha! You're the definition of aggrieved. Permanently."
"David, you make your living from being aggrieved."
This is true, partly. David's only steady income derives from a newspaper column he contributes to our local paper. The column is illustrated by a photograph of him snarling at the camera, and is subtitled "The Angriest Man in Holloway." The last one I could bear to read was a diatribe against old people who traveled on buses: Why did they never have their money ready? Why wouldn't they use the seats set aside for them at the front of the bus? Why did they insist on standing up ten minutes before their stop, thus obliging them to fall over frequently in an alarming and undignified fashion? You get the picture, anyway.
"In case you hadn't noticed, possibly because you never bother to fucking read me--"
"Watching TV in the other room. Fuck fuck fuck. Shit."
"Possibly because you never bother to fucking read me, my column is ironic."
I laughed ironically.
"Well, please excuse the inhabitants of 32 Webster Road if the irony is lost on us. We wake up with the angriest man in Holloway every day of our lives."
"What's the point of all this?"
Maybe in the film of our marriage, written by a scriptwriter on the lookout for brief and elegant ways of turning dull, superficial arguments into something more meaningful, this would have been the moment: you know, "That's a good question. . . . Where are we going? . . . What are we doing? . . . Something something something . . . It's over." OK, it needs a little work, but it would do the trick. As David and I are not Tom and Nicole, however, we are blind to these neat little metaphorical moments.
"I don't know what the point of all this is. You got cross about me not asking how you were."
Reprinted from How to be Good by Nick Hornby by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 2001 by Nick Hornby. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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