The philosophers are in deep discussion again up on deck. I go over to talk to them, find out what they’re talking about today.
‘Hey, Gabriel!’ shouts Ned – he’s always pleased to see me. I go over and look at the chessboard. Olly, his opponent, appears to be winning as usual. I say “appears” advisedly, because Ned nearly always wins. I know nothing about chess (well, I know the rules, but that’s about it) but Ned’s game seems unusual even to me in that it consists of him losing nearly all his pieces and then sweeping in and obliterating his opponent’s royalty. Playing Ned is not like ordinary games of chess. It’s more like trying to work out how a trick is done. No one has figured it out yet. I sit down on a spare seat at the corner next to Lou. Keith sits diagonally opposite. They may play later. Lou passes me a glass and fills it with something tasting like port. ‘Cheers’ I say, raising my glass a little. They nod and tip their glasses in return.
I look to be the youngest person here by a long way but they don’t seem to mind me butting in. I get more intelligent conversation here than with the others, that’s for sure.
‘We were talking about children’ says Keith.
‘We’ve done the “love them but couldn’t eat a whole one” joke, in case you were thinking...’ adds Olly, not looking up.
‘Bugger’ I say. ‘That was all I had to offer on the subject.’ Ned smiles a little. I look around. Back in life this would have been appalling weather to sit outside and play board games – sleet and fog, wind rattling in the rigging, but the freezing weather can’t hurt us here. We drink espresso and all manner of spirits, liquers and fortified wines and feast on hot Danish pastries and spiced Indian snacks. We wear furs and eiderdown coats, huge fur-lined boots, and ridiculous hats. We can hardly move once we get settled.
‘What about them?’ I ask, loudly, because of the weather, and because of all the soundproofing we are wearing.
‘Whether they’re a good idea or not’ says Ned, reaching over to move his rook, holding the enormous saggy sleeve up with the other hand so it doesn’t drag across the board. ‘Check’ he says.
‘Bollocks’ says Olly contemplatively, and sinks further down in his collars.
‘What’s your take on it young ‘un? says Lou, ‘you being that much closer to it all than the rest of us.’
‘Don’t know. Didn’t really think about it’ I say, which is not strictly true. I just didn’t want to think of it when I was with Mar. She didn’t want any. The thought of us as a family makes me shudder. It would have meant me at the bottom of an even bigger heap than I already was.
‘Rubbish’ says Keith, conversationally. ‘You’ve got an opinion on every bloody other thing. Don’t tell me...’
‘Well, there’s enough people in the world already if you ask me’ I begin.
‘Folks don’t have kids to maintain the bloody population’ says Ned.
‘But it’s a factor...’ says Olly. ‘Economically... you want to maintain a viable workforce, don’t...’
‘Immigration’ announces Ned, leaning back smugly. Olly demurs. ‘Give me an answer to that that’s not racist and I’ll spare your queen.’
Olly looks down. ‘All I’m saying is... No, look, I’m not saying...’
‘Too late’ says Ned, sweeping the queen away, grinning extravagantly ‘Check mate, me old mormyrid, checkmate. Who’s next?’
Everyone sits back, relieved. Olly shakes Ned’s hand, for the umpteenth time, in defeat, grins and stands to take orders for a round of drinks. I want a latte. ‘Righto’ he says and heads below.
‘Providing lambs for the slaughter apart then’ says Ned, turning to me, ‘What do we have them for, children? We’ve been talking about this all afternoon, and not got a straight answer yet.’
‘Well, not one you accept anyway’ says Lou.
‘Same thing’ he says. ‘I believe I have demonstrated perfectly adequately to you lug-worms the limitations of your arguments...’
‘Which were?’ I ask, innocently, smiling at Lou, who is looking very serious, but who I know is struggling to keep a straight face. I’ve been in his position before – Ned likes the opportunity to recap the debate – pouring much derision on the points of view thus far expressed as he goes along.
‘Lou’s argument suffers from similar flaws to Olly’s, in that he seems to suppose that people bring forth sproggs in order to serve their genes.’
‘That really isn’t...’
‘So, being a biologist, in your case, somehow results, on average, in your having greater numbers of offspring, greater numbers of copies of biologist genes, if I understand you correctly, than Keith here with mere painter-and-decorator genes on offer?’
‘Excuse me’ says Keith. ‘There’s nothing “mere” about them.’
‘No offence intended me old stoat. I understand you had very fruitful genes’ says Ned, turning to him, gripping his thigh and giving it a good old shake.
‘No offence taken I’m sure. But yes, rather too fruitful I’m afraid.’ He looks ruefully at me.
‘It’s pure Malthus’ says Ned.
‘Steady on’ says Keith. ‘Just because I live in Three Bridges doesn’t make me...’
‘I rest my case’ says Ned, turning to me with a shrug and a stage whisper. ‘Keith is very pragmatic. He admits his children were simply his pension and rest home.’
‘I did not say...’
‘Oh but you did sir, you did. I must insist. Now, who’s for cribbage?’ Olly comes back with the drinks and some fritter-like Asian snacks, which apparently the chef has just made, accompanied by a variety of chutneys. We all dig in with much appreciation.
‘Part of a very fine tradition Keith’ he resumes. ‘Goes back to the Neolithic I should think, and still popular in many parts of the world – spawn loads of brats to take over the farm and keep you when you and the missis’re too decrepit do keep it going yourself. Makes good economic sense – for a subsistence farmer.’ The crib board appears. I decline a hand, and the others all begin to play.
‘Come on then’ says Ned to me, once they’ve all made a start, and using one of the pegs off the score board to pick his teeth, to everyone’s disgust.
‘Me?’ I say
‘Children’ he says. ‘You didn’t have any. You told us that.’
‘Did I? Oh, ok’ I say. ‘Well...’ I begin. I pause. I wait. ‘Some people really seem to like children... Strange but true.’
‘ “Like” you say?’
‘Well, you know...love?’
‘No, “like” is good. Lets stick with “like”. Did you like your children Keith?’
‘Of course I did. I’d do anything for them. What are you getting at?’
‘Oh, nothing. “Love” hmm...’ he muses, then turns to me again. ‘Do you like children Gabriel?’
‘I suppose, some. Babies are very cute...’
‘Ah babies, yes. Is it my go? Sorry. Got caught up in the reverie there for a mo.’ He takes his go and smiles vaguely for a time. ‘Babies’ he says to no one in particular. ‘What a rotten trick.’
‘Excuse me?’ says Keith again.
‘Terrible biological trick to play on a person. Cuteness. Do you think it’s innate Lou?’ Lou tries to look as if he will have something useful to say, but it’s a pretence, and we all know it. ‘Baby animals are so cute, even frogs – all big googly eyes and wobbly legs, even baby fish – not the legs of course – have you seen them? All eyes. It’s universal. Are animal parents programmed to find babies cute and so look out for them do you think Lou?’
Lou, as expert witness, knows Ned as barrister will make what he wants of his testimony, but enjoys providing it anyway, we all do. Lou is the voice of science, Keith is the man on the Clapham omnibus and common sense personified, I am the voice of youth and idealism. Olly, when he can be riled, is the embattled man of faith. I know what a mormyrid is, and as nick-names go, it’s spot on.
‘Well,’ says Lou, after much thought ‘there are sound developmental reasons why juvenile animals are proportioned the way they are – the disproportionately large eyes for example are...’
‘I understand all that’ says Ned. (We knew Lou would not be allowed to talk any more than was strictly necessary. He does drone on a bit, and never uses a few syllables where several more will do. I swear I once heard him tell Keith that a tree he’d seen had had “significant spatial magnitude”. ‘It was quite a big one then.’ said Keith dryly.) ‘But what I’m suggesting here,’ continues Ned ‘is that parent animals have come to recognise this combination of characters as, in some way, appealing, and therefore worthy of nurturing hmm? The very characteristics that we term “cute” and treat in much the same way.’ The impersonation is very good.
Lou knows and takes it well. ‘I think you may be anthropomorphising a tad’ is all he says. Both of them smile broadly.
‘Just a tad. Anyway, where was I?’
‘Before that. Errm o yes – Rotten Trick’ he says. ‘Everybody likes, nay, loves babies, of course, they’re so cute, but they’re easy to look after...’
‘Oh come on,’ says Olly from behind his cards ‘you’ve had children yourself. You know better than that – lack of sleep, nappies everywhere, teething, you name it... not to mention labour, caesareans...’
‘Episiotomies. I remember it well, but as the midwife was keen to impress on me after our first, it’s still not the hard part. It’s just biology. It’s relatively straight forward - medicine, surgery, nourishment, shelter...’
‘Oh come on, I don’t think...’
‘Keeping a baby is like keeping a fish tank – you feed it, you clean it, you keep it warm. It’s biology. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but you get my drift. It’s hard work... ok, ok, I know, I know, it’s very hard work... but...’
‘Glad my wife’s not here to hear this...’
‘But it’s not the hardest part is what I’m getting at. Do you wonder why everybody says they want a baby but no one says they’re looking forward to having a five year old, or a thirteen year old, or, god help us, a two year old?’
‘Well it normally follows on naturally – two, five, thirteen year old. Hopefully at any rate...’
‘But that’s not what people are thinking when they actually plan to have a child. They all just think “Ah cute babies.” Trust me. Children are a totally different bucket of eels. The only plausible reason anyone would let themselves in for that is biology. We have babies because they’re cute, but then before you know it you’re overrun with children.’
We all sit quietly. ‘And teenagers. It’s true’ says Lou, finally. ‘Babies are the easy part. Relatively speaking.’
‘A lot of mine wouldn’t have bothered if they’d really thought about it I don’t think’ says Olly. He means his parishioners I think. He had a particularly rough inner city patch.
‘We had two with a lot of problems early on – lost one. That wasn’t so easy’ adds Keith biting his lip.
‘Sorry Keith. I wasn’t talking about babies that get sick. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean...’
‘I know. S’alright.’ says Keith, reaching across, gripping Ned’s arm. Everyone sits quietly for a while. ‘But people can get ill any time any way’ he adds. ‘It doesn’t make any difference to your argument...’
‘I think a lot of people don’t really like children that much at all’ I say. ‘They just have them because, well, everybody does.’
‘I think there’s a lot of truth in that’ says Olly.
‘So, I think we are agreed’ says Ned, standing up. ‘People have children for all sorts of reasons: hoodwinked by biology, enlightened self-interest, lack of imagination, and occasionally eugenics, but the only good reason to have children is because you like them, and with that gentlemen... I bid you goodnight.’
The rest of us sit for a while – finish the food and watch the sea moving darkly along side, then all head off to our cabins.