Family & Education

I’m arguing with my son and self

Lockdown is getting to Claire Calman - and it's embarrassing her in public


Senior woman shouting over a wooden gate outdoors in winter

My son Leo and I are arguing. Nu? It’s a Jewish household — not so newsworthy? True. The flaring up of minor disagreements is such a commonplace event that normally I wouldn’t burden you with it; as a headline, it’s on a par with “man walks dog” or “sea goes in and out”. But whereas we used to argue in the privacy of our home, we have added another string to our bow — we now like to argue while on the move as well. Keeps it fresh.

The element I found most embarrassing about my family when I was a child — no shortage of material: my mother often sang loudly while walking along the street — was my father’s lack of embarrassment about arguing loudly in public. I felt it made him stand out as exotic, un-English, other (he was born here and grew up in Stamford Hill, but with his very dark eyes, dark beard and olive skin, he looked unquestionably foreign).

So, even while Leo and I are in the midst of arguing as we stomp around the streets — “You’re not even listening to me!” — or tramp across the heath — “Can we please just agree to differ?” — part of me is thinking there’s something not quite correct about airing our differences in public. It’s not assimilated behaviour. A friend’s late parents, like I suspect many of that generation, used to speak of Jewish events or festivals in very hushed tones when on the bus so that non-Jews wouldn’t overhear any key, tell-tale words such as “Jewish” or “Yom Kippur”. Ssh! Don’t call attention to yourself! Keep a low profile.

I preferred it when Leo was a member of the debating society at school; then he could extract some of the arguing out of his system, like squeezing the juice from an orange, leaving barely any left. But now he is dismissive about the school’s online extra-curricular offering as it involves spending yet more time looking at his laptop. Yesterday, he even uttered the never-to- be-expected words: “I think I’ve had too much screen-time today.”

We do discuss politics, philosophy and other high-falutin’ issues as well as films and books and people, but our current favourite topic of dissent while out walking is other pedestrians and my response to their tendency never to make way.

I am very Covid-compliant and always try to maintain distance whether walking around local streets or on the heath. When I see people approach, if they are elderly or pushing a buggy or with children, of course I make way: I move into the road, or cross over, or step aside between parked cars to give them space. But I get annoyed that I have to yield so much of the time — to much younger people, to joggers, to pairs widely spaced across the pavement to keep distance from each other, while apparently not caring about anyone else coming the opposite way.

Leo insists it’s because I’m not being assertive enough.

“Just keep going straight ahead and they’ll move,” he says.

“But they don’t!”

For Leo, it’s easier to keep his course because he doesn’t care whether the other person moves or not. If a stranger passes by only a foot away, he’s unbothered. Of course, at 17, the risks of the virus are simply lower for him than for me. I notice how often I can smell a person’s perfume or after-shave in the street even from a few feet away, and I wonder: if I’m close enough to inhale their scent, could I also be inhaling the virus?

It reminds me of the time when my husband first borrowed my car. At the time, he drove a Jaguar and I had a Honda Jazz.

“It’s so strange,” he said, as he came in. “No-one gave way to me today on the road.”

“Yes. Welcome to my world,” I said. “That’s what happens when you drive a small hatchback rather than a Jag.”

I think part of the problem is that, as a short woman who struggled in the past to be assertive or even noticed, when other people don’t make way for me, I see it as a dark mirror, reflecting the truth: I am not worth stepping aside for.

Intellectually, I understand that other people move, or don’t move, because of their own personalities, mood on the day, level of distraction, timing and so on. It is not determined at all by their assessment of my worth.

But, knowing that my annoyance is rooted in old insecurities doesn’t seem to help. I have to remind myself that most people are — just like my son — simply walking along, not really thinking about other pedestrians and their relative value. If I make the decision to keep my distance, then that’s a good thing for me and for others and I should practise that decision with pride, rather than with anxiety or self-doubt.

Then I wonder if, from old habits, I am somehow silently projecting “Don’t notice me…” without realising. I can see that this internal debate will rage long and hard. I won’t even need Leo to walk with me and offer a contrary view. I can manage to argue both views all by myself.

Claire Calman’s most recent novel, Growing Up for Beginners, is available online

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