My Lawyer is turning 40 and it is a massive shock to the system.
Not for him. He is having a great time – a trip home to family, and then two child-free weekends on the trot in our new hometown of Amsterdam, celebrating with his friends. He has professional credibility and lives in a Brexit-free European idyll. He has three tolerable children and a wife who blogs to literally tens of people. These are exciting times. It’s a good moment for him to turn 40. He is even starting to like the beard I have forced him to grow. Things could be worse for him.
I, on the other hand, am struggling. My Lawyer is 40. What did I think it would be like, to have a 40 year old husband? I don’t have much experience of 40 year old men. My dad was 40, once, when he was alive. I was 5 years old. My father was in the Royal Navy. He had a beard. Wait, what?
Look, it’s fine. There are books about the Oedipal complex and so it’s very scientific. Everyone does it, and if they don’t, then they are in denial, which is worse, according to Freud. So I’m fine with it. Unless My Lawyer shaves his beard off, in which case I’ll have to rent a Royal Navy uniform for him which I don’t think would be that easy to source in The Netherlands and probably also My Lawyer would leave me. He can be quite intolerant.
Since I became the at-home-parent, or stay-at-home-parent, or unemployed-parent or whatever the fuck term we’re meant to use at the moment for someone who doesn’t earn any money or respect, the question of what to buy My Lawyer for his birthday has felt a little tricky. Namely, because it is no longer the question of what to buy My Lawyer for his birthday. It is now the question of what to arrange for My Lawyer to buy for himself for his birthday. I’m less of a gifter, more a birthday PA.
But, since he’s paying, and I’ve been looking after the three tolerable children on my own for three weekends running, I decide to arrange for My Lawyer to buy himself twenty-four hours at one of the best spa hotels in the Netherlands. The hotel – the Conservatorium – is just a five minute bike ride from our apartment, and because this is such a special birthday, I arrange for his wife to go with him too.
My selflessness does not end there. I have also arranged a massage for him, courtesy of my brother and his wife who asked for help in choosing My Lawyer a birthday present. My Lawyer has never expressed any interest at all in getting a professional massage, but what price can you put on new experiences? It is likely that My Lawyer will be nervous, but as luck would have it, I am something of a massage aficionado, and so I have arranged for My Lawyer to pay a little more so that I can be massaged next to him. The package that I have chosen for other people to pay for is “The Celebration for Two”.
“Afterwards,” I tell him as we arrive at the spa, “we get champagne and seasonal fruits.”
“Sounds nice,” says My Lawyer.
“Seasonal fruits,” I repeat, raising my eyebrows suggestively.
“It’s funny,” I say. “Seasonal fruits. It sounds like a euphemism.”
He frowns. “No it doesn’t.”
“Seasonal fruits,” I nod, one eyebrow raised.
“Stop saying that.”
We are led to the treatment room by two smiley ladies.
“You get ready, and we come back,” they tell us, putting something on one of the massage beds before they leave.
“What’s that?” asks My Lawyer.
I pick up the white objects. “These,” I say, “are disposable underwear.”
My Lawyer looks stricken.
“Relax!” I say. “You don’t have to wear them.”
“What do I wear, then?”
I raise my eyebrows: “Seasonal fruits.”
My Lawyer looks around, as if for the nearest escape.
My role here, I think, as I’m expertly massaged whilst wearing underwear made out of tissue, is to make this a safe space for My Lawyer as he has his first ever massage. Just my being here is helping. That is my gift to him, on top of the gift that I’ve already arranged for him to buy himself. And also for me.
“How is the pressure?” My Smiley Lady asks.
“Fnugh,” I reply into the bed.
“How is the pressure?” My Lawyer’s Smiley Lady asks.
“Fnugh,” he replies into the bed.
You see? Lead by example.
The massages go well, apart from one moment when I’m asked to turn over and my armpit sticks together and makes a farting noise, and I spend the next ten minutes wondering whether I should have said THAT WAS MY ARMPIT, or if that would have made it worse, or if actually no one heard it at all and now I’m not relaxing which is a waste of (other people’s) money. And not relaxing is worrying, because I cannot afford to lose even a second of these escapist twenty-four hours, five minutes and a world away from our house, and neither can My Lawyer.
When people talk about emigrating, they’ll say: “Yes were in such-and-such a country for a few years. Great experience.” And you think, that does sound cool. Discovering a different country. Learning a new language, new customs, new ways of living. A new start must be refreshing. You could discover a whole new you.
What people do not tell you, though, is that in order to discover a whole new you, you must get lost, over and over again, in different ways. Geographically, of course; I did not cycle anywhere in the first three months without Google Maps ten inches from my face. Lost in time, too, displaced by an hour. Who will be available on Whatsapp in the UK now? Are they all doing the school run when I am lonely in the kitchen, making my kids’ tea? Lost in translation, always; learning a new language, you are a child again. It is frustrating, infantilising, overwhelming. I have spent many hundreds of euros on Dutch lessons so far, and cannot yet express myself in the past tense.
My Dutch is not where I had hoped it would be after four months. Fluency in this short space of time may not sound like a reasonable expectation, but let’s not forget that I’m soliciting sympathy from a spa. My baseline supposition of a tolerable situation is questionable at best.
The massage is over, and we enjoy our seasonal fruits, which are mostly melon – something of a surprise given the unfavourable conditions for a melon harvest here in the Netherlands, but I concede that they have not specified that the seasonal fruits are local. I suppose everything is in season somewhere in the world.
“That noise was my armpit,” I say to My Lawyer.
We drink in the Tunes bar before dinner, and discuss women writers who have written men well (Murdoch, Tartt, Atkinson) and men who have written women well (… any suggestions?). I make the point that men write women unconvincingly not because women are more mysterious, but that men are simply not required to navigate the female psyche in the way that women must in this man’s world. My Lawyer agrees, which makes it a good drink, but not great. It’s better if he argues.
We eat at Taiku, the hotel’s Asian restaurant. When we arrive, an Asian lady bangs a drum. It scares the shit out of me and I have an attack of hysteria for fifteen minutes. My Lawyer apologises to those around us.
“Do you think she bangs it when people leave, too?” My Lawyer asks.
I mime drumming. “They’re Going! To! Have Sex!”
“Wine menu?” asks a waiter, pretending he wasn’t standing there for my sex-drum mime, which all but destroys me for another ten minutes. There are tears.
The food is wonderful, and is matched with great wine and the most popular #metoo argument that heterosexual couples are currently having, along the lines of:
Man: “What about the men who did nothing, who get caught up in it?”
Woman: “WHAT MAN?”
Food, wine and an argument. I am in heaven.
Our exit from the restaurant is heralded by a bang on the taiku drum. I turn to My Lawyer, raising my eyebrows. “Seasonal fruits?”
He sighs. “It doesn’t even make any sense.”
The next day, we marinate downstairs in the spa, reading. I read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, which is a long personal essay documenting the year following the death of her husband (he did not have a beard). My Lawyer reads Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, which is a science-fiction novel about watching aliens who may or may not be watching you back. Our reading material is troublingly escapist in very different ways. Didion studies the psychology of grief, and finds that grief becomes pathological for widows who had been “unusually dependent”. Had they been unusually dependent, she wonders, “or were we unusually lucky?”
I look over to My Lawyer. The page he is reading is entitled The Ascent of the Invisible. The time is midday – our Cinderella hour. We have been invisible, but now we too must ascend.
“It’s time to go.”
I get dressed and notice a hole in my tights over my big toe. How symbolic, I think, and I take a photo. The hole isn’t obvious enough to make the desired impact, and so I make it bigger, and the photo is better, but now I am very uncomfortable.
Sometimes, I think, as I leave the spa, you have to suffer for your art.