In the early years of my relationship with Jo, my (future) father-in-law came round for dinner, probably to check me out. I was told to be on my best behaviour, my hair brushed and neatly parted, promises made not to swear or get too extravagantly drunk. I find these events difficult, and perhaps my father-in-law sensed this, because he got up to leave blessedly early. I was thanking my lucky stars and him, thinking we’d still get most of our evening, when Jo mentioned the bay tree in our tiny back yard/ garden. It had been intended for a pot, but somebody had planted it straight into the earth. It liked that. Now it formed a solid and unsightly trunk, right in the middle. I’d tried to dig it out that day, at Jo’s suggestion, but its root-ball had turned out to by huge and stubbornly anchored.
Hearing this, the Father-in-law grabbed a spade and leapt vigorously out the back door, with a cheery Halloo. He’s always prided himself in being hale and hearty, and would love to be considered a bit of a handy-man, having spent his working life in boardrooms. Perhaps he felt he was matching his virility to mine (no contest at all!)
Of course, I couldn’t leave a man on a pension labouring in my back yard while I looked on, no matter how youthful he appeared, so, fuming, I trailed after him dragging the clattering garden fork behind me. And we dug
And we dug
And we levered and we heaved at the root-ball. And we rocked the sturdy trunk backwards and forwards and the bay tree stayed put. It ignored us. It wasn’t going nowhere.
The sun set. 9 o’clock came and went. The last of the summer evening soaked out of the western sky. Still the F-I-L wouldn’t admit defeat. Maybe he was embarrassed to do so. I grew more and more frustrated and incredulous. Why wouldn’t he just fuck off home? I seemed to be holding my breath. I could feel the unreleased carbon dioxide flooding my cells, poisoning my body. I could feel my heart-beat increasing. It was the not knowing, from moment to moment, if he was just about to stop or was going to go on for hours. If he was willing to break the 9 o’clock barrier, would he not go on until midnight? I have a limited capacity for good behaviour at the best of times. Now, I thought I might burst into tears; I thought I might break down catastrophically, that I might start screaming and throwing my own poo around like an enraged chimp.
It was past 10 o’clock by the time he gave up and drove ruefully away.
I was livid. No, I was horrified. I’d had no idea people could be like this. Surely the evening was sacrosanct! Loafing around was your reward for having worked all day. That’s the way it was in our family! What sort of a monstrous clan had I fallen in with?
I’ve never really forgiven my father-in-law for this, but Jo has no idea what I’m on about. She looks at me blankly. Why, she wonders, would somebody procrastinate in the face of a necessary task that isn’t going to go away.
“Let’s just get it done now,” she often asks,
“But it’s 9.30!” I’ll wail
“But why put it off? It’ll need to be dealt with at some point.”
“Why put it off?”, I’ll echo, incredulously, “Isn’t it obvious? So I don’t have to do it now. And I don’t want to do it now.”
“But you won’t want to do it tomorrow…” etc.
I’m a creature of the eternal present, like the stereotype of boys. The person forced to do an unpleasant task in the future is a stranger who I have little empathy for. Jo’s identity encompasses her likely future self, like the stereotype of girls. She feels her future pain as if it were her own, because it is her own.
I always capitulate, in the end. I know Jo is right and I admire hard work, but I’ll mutter “Bay Tree!”, sullenly, at her. This has become such a sore spot that it is guaranteed to cause a thoroughly enjoyable over-reaction and I can bask masochistically in the warmth of her anger. I kind of like being yelled at. It’s familiar. It’s what I deserve.