The thrill of confrontation


A real-life argument is an altogether different animal, Eva Wiseman writes.

It was almost 3am and I was lying awake in a large white bed working out what I should have said. What I could have said, were the circumstances just slightly in my favour, half an hour earlier or 6in to the left. But honestly, I was buzzing. I was absolutely completely alive, that night in half-term, in a hotel bed, in the dark, the only sound my family snoring gently beside me.

We had taken the children to the seaside for the night and were staying in a hotel down a muddy country road 10 minutes from town. It was quite obscenely idyllic - a little country house, strewn with lights. We got there at 6pm and headed straight to the restaurant in the garden. This is when children eat. If children do not eat at 6, something shifts, a change occurs as if a switch has tripped. But they were thrilled to be here, on holiday, in a restaurant, and they sat on their big chairs and buttered their own bread as we ordered our food, and the waitress was charming and then the lights went out.

A power cut had taken out the electrics, which meant no light, no heat and no ovens. The restaurant was full by now, an older couple, another family with a little boy, a mother with teenage kids, and everyone merrily busied themselves with the bread and then some soup, and the waitress lit candles and updated us on the emergency electrician, and there was a general sense of good time camaraderie. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the room had spontaneously burst into song.

At 7.30pm, after some exploratory smiles, my 3-year-old and the boy on the next table started playing. They were owls for a little while, then some form of Spider-Men and then they got excited about a tomato plant on a shelf which was actually delightful. Then, from behind me, I heard a woman say, "ISN’T IT BEDTIME YET?". The hairs on my neck stood up.

Earlier this year, a debate about child-free spaces roared across the internet. I wrote about it, with a certain bemusement. Not at the desire to simply eat in peace, I get that, but more at the lack of nuance allowed when discussing parenting and the move to segregate our fragile communities even further. I forgot all of it. My mind was a screensaver. I sat quite still. The dad on the other table replied to her: "You’re welcome to go to bed if you like."

My daughter looked at me with eyes like blue plaques. "What’s happening?" she hissed, a stage whisper. The woman continued, much to the mortification of her teenage children. "This isn’t McDonald’s!" she said, louder now. "It’s almost 8 o’clock! As a mother myself, I would never have considered taking children somewhere nice like this, at this hour!" She repeated the price of the set menu a few times to reinforce her point - the other diners looked over in the gloom.

I turned round, quite slowly. "I’m sorry," I said, pausing dramatically before landing the crucial, "but ... " I said the service was a bit slower than usual this evening, because of the power cut and so everyone was probably a bit hungry and I’m sure she understands, something like that, pursed, secretarial, but fair. She carried on, louder now, the McDonald’s thing again, and "As a mother". By this time, my son was sitting quietly at the table, but still the woman was livid. So I stood up. I felt like - what did I feel like? - I felt like an eagle, or a tree, something grand and uncomfortably large, and I said, "I can see you don’t want us here, so we’ll leave." Oh God, the rush. As we were putting our coats on she said, "I was hoping to have a nice meal with my family," and I said, same, and I hoped she had a nice evening, and then we were gone, running back through the garden in the night. Five minutes later, there was a knock on our door - the waitress and the chef had brought us our meals and some wine, and some unnecessary apologies, and we loved them very much at that moment. By 11pm everyone was asleep, apart from me, buzzing ...

Aside from who was wrong, or right, or hungry, the reason I couldn’t sleep was because of the electric thrill of a genuine, face-to-face confrontation. I wade through hundreds of arguments online every day, on social media, or in mannered newspaper articles, or in comments - they make up the texture of the internet and so, society. You walk across it as if Lego on a carpet. But in real life, in my experience, people tend to be gentle, understanding and funny. To have an encounter like this in the flesh, despite having mused on such a thing laboriously in print only months earlier, was an uncomfortable treat.

By dawn, I had run through every iteration of the conversation and composed a sort of prose poem of a response - certain versions were intended to rhyme, others to inspire a bond, one to simply provoke a standing ovation from the restaurant. I arrived at breakfast unslept but righteous, understanding of her no doubt complicated family dynamic and stressful job and vanity about her hair looking the way it did, to find she was not there. Nor was she there when we explored the gardens, or played Pictionary by the fire, and for every room I walked in to to find her absence, I felt a jolt of disappointment - my nemesis, my soulmate, gone. That night we had fish and chips on the beach and everyone was asleep by 8. — The Observer