Monday, 19 March 2012

Voyage IV – Parental choice

‘I don’t see how you can say that’ says Olly. I’ve only just arrived. I look around the little group and see immediately that something’s happened to upset the cosy equilibrium here. Maybe it’s that we’re all cooped up below decks. It being like the biblical deluge outside, even we philosophers must retreat to the relative comfort of the forward lounge. Olly and Keith are locked into a game of chess but there’s a tenseness in Olly’s shoulders and a set to his mouth I don’t recognise. Ned looks up at me and half smiles, cocking his head as if to say ‘boys will be boys...’ I pull up a chair and sit on it backwards, leaning on the back. ‘Hi’ I say. ‘Who’s winning?’
Keith looks warily at Olly as the latter moves his pawn. Lou looks up and smiles at me. He seems to be quietly enjoying himself anyway. I decide not to ask what they’ve been discussing but suddenly Keith says ‘Lets ask Gabriel’, looking squarely at me, somewhat challengingly.
Olly, who I’m sitting behind, half turns and attempts to smile at me ‘Oh’ he says. ‘Hallo Gabriel. Didn’t see you there.’ He reaches his arm around toward me but then takes it back, thinking better of it. I have no idea what the gesture meant but it is filled with sadness. I look at the others and wonder what they’ve done to him. Then I see their faces and they’re worried too. What on whatever planet we’re on has happened here? Olly looks at his game for a while but can’t concentrate any more. ‘I can’t do this’ he says, knocks his king over and gets up. ‘See you later’ he says and heads for the door.

Once he’s gone everybody relaxes visibly. Ned heads out to the bar and Lou follows him to give him a hand. Keith cradles his tumbler.
‘What was that all about?’ I say.
Keith thinks about it. ‘Families?’ he says eventually, as if he’s not even sure himself. I’m intrigued but don’t feel I can show too much enthusiasm under the circumstances. I like families. They’re a favourite topic of mine.
Ned and Lou come back from the bar with drinks and snacks for everyone, including a latte for me.
‘Any sign of Olly?’ says Keith, evidently quite concerned about him.
‘He’s ok’ says Lou. ‘Gone for a breather.’
‘Ah’ says Keith, nodding and topping up his glass from the new one they’ve brought him. Then he leans back and holds the glass on his knee and gives out a long ‘Phew.’
‘So what was all that about?’ I say again.
‘Hard to say really’ says Ned, looking around for confirmation. ‘We were actually talking about crime statistics and prison and so forth, but Olly...’
‘I think there’s something he’s not telling us’ says Lou. Ned looks like he knows but is not letting on, yet. No doubt he will, when he feels the time is right.
‘All I said’ says Keith ‘was you can’t just blame their upbringing for everything. The law has to assume free will, people’s freedom to choose, a life of crime or... or not, as the case may be.’
‘That’s not actually what you said, to be fair’ says Ned. ‘You actually said, correct me if I’m wrong, that the little shits have wet their beds and they should be made to lie in them.’
‘Well, I didn’t mean it quite like it sounded. But no, I think there’s a place for setting an example, don’t you Gabe?’
I sit forward and stir my cup. I really don’t think so but I’m not sure why. It just seems wrong. ‘I suppose it would depend why they did what they did’ I say tentatively. I see Ned nodding but Keith goes ‘Noooo’ sounding like a plane coming in too fast. ‘Bollocks it does. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. You break the law you know what happens. Boom boom boom. Easy. They should teach it in school so nobody's in any doubt.’
‘I don’t think children work like that’ I say, looking around hopefully at the others but neither of them seems inclined to intervene.
‘What we were talking about before’ he continues ‘I was agreeing that er... yes, that the families have a lot to do with it, and poverty and education and all the rest of it, certainly. Actually, what was he on about broken families? I didn’t get that at all.’
‘He was saying you can’t justify comparing the children of one-parent families with those of two-parent families because the former are likely to be the poorer’ says Lou.
‘So?’ says Keith.
‘Well, normally we assume that the inferior performance of children from single-parent families is because of the traumas associated with the split, when in fact it may be a simple matter of economics. Hence he advocates more generous handouts’
‘He was saying more than that though’ says Ned, leaning forward. ‘He was saying that since any unhappy families in modern Britain are free to split up, it follows that the remaining two-parent families are likely to be the happy ones. He was saying that by comparing single- and two-parent families all you’re doing is comparing unhappy with happy families and children from happy families are bound to perform better.’
‘So families should stay together. That’s what I was saying.’
‘No, he says the studies need to compare unhappy two-parent families with happy-two parent families. Do you get my drift?’
‘Not even slightly.’ He tuts impatiently.
‘I do’ I say. ‘I get it.’
‘Go on.’
‘Ok. A child might be doing badly because their family is poor or because the family is unhappy, but it’s not necessarily anything to do with them being a single-parent family. Yes?’
‘But single-parent families do tend to be poor and unhappy. That’s my point, exactly’ says Keith thumping the table.
‘Yes, but... But’ interjects Ned ‘you can’t solve the problem of the unhappy family by forcing them to stay together. They may be even more unhappy that way.’
‘Oh now, you see that’s where I disagree’ says Keith. ‘I think if a few of these so-called unhappy couples just stuck at it... I mean look at me and my Alice, all those years...’
‘Happily married...’
‘No. Bloody desperate...’ Everybody laughs. ‘But that’s not the point. We stuck at it, and the kids didn’t suffer. Didn’t know anything about it.’
‘I bet they did’ I say.
‘Excuse me?’ he says, turning on me, suddenly not funny any more. I go quiet. There is something scary about him. I don’t want to push it.
‘Anyway’ says Lou, rescuing me, ‘Olly was referring to the results of child abuse.’
‘Well everybody has to watch out where that’s concerned, keep an eye out for strangers.’
‘No, he meant within the family’ says Ned. ‘The vast majority of abuse occurs within the family. He implied that if we’re serious about combating child abuse we should look at the immediate family more.’ His voice trails off as he catches Keith’s expression, which is decidedly threatening.
‘What are you getting at?’ he says.
Everybody goes quiet.
‘I think it’s being inferred’ says Lou, ‘that the traditional family may not be the cure-all that is commonly assumed’ and for once I’m glad of his rather impersonal way of expressing himself.
Keith continues to brood however. ‘I still say...’
‘What? What do you have to say, me old porpentine?’ says Ned, trying to reassert some of the old levity, but failing miserably. Keith ignores him.
‘I still say we shouldn’t undermine the traditional family by casting aspersions... I still reserve the right to know what’s best for my kids, as a parent...’
‘This is where we came in...’ says Ned to me in a stage whisper.
‘And I won’t have no social worker or teacher or... or vicar come to that, come and tell me what’s best for my own kids. That’s all I’ve got to say.’ Keith shrugs and takes a sip as if he’s just finished giving evidence, not making eye contact with any of us. Right on cue, Olly appears with a huge mug of hot chocolate. ‘Perishing out there’ he says to no one in particular. His coat is heavy with water and he hangs it on another chair to drip. He looks around at us. ‘Sorry about that gents’ he says.
‘Think nothing of it’ says Keith, and on the face of it we’re back to normal.

Some things are hard. Why does that phrase of Vincent’s keep coming to mind?

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.