It wasn’t till many years later that I began to understand how much I must have irritated my mother-in-law. She only bore with me, I suspect, because I had been the one to take her gifted, gruff, eccentric son off her hands. He was twenty-eight when I met him and nearly thirty by the time we married. At that point I still believed he was a catch but she must have felt he was approaching some sort of sell-by date.
All the same, whenever we arrived on her doorstep, though punctual and expected, we would be greeted with a disappointed and slightly huffy “Oh – it’s you.” The conversation tended to be punctuated with south-ist exclamations like “Damn southerners – all swank”. Not looking at me, of course.
There were a number of misdemeanours – firstly, the crinkle-cut chips. My parents in law moved a lot and every house they moved to was better than any other house they had ever inhabited, the neighbours more upper-crust and highly-educated… for six months or so at least, till the magic wore off and the bitching-over-the-garden-fence started.
MIL, extolling the virtues of the latest neighbourhood, informed me that it even had an Asda that sold crinkle-cut chips. To which my innocent reply was: What’s an Asda? I was guessing some kind of machine or kitchen gadget.
And I failed twice over, in never having heard of crinkle-cut chips. My mother, when she wanted to make chips, sliced up some potatoes and fried them in the chip pan. It had never occurred to me that you could get them ready sliced in packets. To this day I can’t see why a chip with wavy sides would taste any different to, or contain any more nourishment than, a chip with plain sides.
On my first visit to… one of their houses, the one with the rabbit… On the way down I sat on an ice lolly some kid had left on the train seat and didn’t realise till I stood up: yellow bell-bottoms, pink ice lolly, soggy bottom; not exactly a cool entrance. And then I got locked in the loo and had to call out of the window for help – trying to call quietly and politely I recall – and be rescued, which involved a great deal of laughter at my expense and the pushing of a little key under the door.
Then there was the coffee. MIL’s coffee and tea were exactly alike – whitey-brown, transparent, a slight fizz on the top and lacking in any kind of taste. Came the fateful day when I plumped for the wrong one and thanked her for coffee which turned out to be tea. Why did I even have to mention coffee or tea? Why couldn’t I have just nodded when she handed me the mug of brown fizzy whatever-it-was?
I was young for my age, naïve and socially unskilled. His family – the female side of it at least – were exactly the opposite: non-stop communicators. Truth to tell I couldn’t understand most of what MIL was saying most of the time, especially when she speeded up. It was that Liverpool accent she pretended she didn’t have – so fast – a torrent of words. Even if I succeeded in sussing out one of her sentences I was unlikely to cotton on to the underlying significance. Hence the Asda/crinkle-cut chips debacle. I was supposed to be impressed but had deliberately failed to be.
The worst thing was the announcement that we were eating Ex’s little sister’s pet rabbit for Sunday lunch. This was before Ex and I were married – at which point we were just staying at each other’s parents’ houses on alternate weekends. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years now, but I wasn’t in those far off days.
There were these slices tough dark meat, with some splotches of gravy scattered about it, and half way through the meal Ex’s father announced that this was in fact little sister’s bunny-rabbit. I think this was aimed at little sister rather than me – to toughen her up, make her face food facts – maybe as an exercise of masculine or paternal power – I don’t know. It was cruel – to rabbit and child. She was thirteen, I was nineteen. She stopped eating and started crying; I put down my knife and fork and sat blank-faced and speechless wanting to spit out the current mouthful. Ex, an animal-lover for all his faults, was angry too. It didn’t seem to have occurred to either parent that more than one person would be upset.
I could go on: the great Christmas debate between MIL and a visiting Liverpool Auntie about the presence (or not) of dog-dirt on the pavements outside; the seven year silent Cold War that began in mid-sentence as we walked in
“… and yes, you Stole my Goldfish…”