I’m at a pancake house, in the middle of Amsterdamse Bos – the forest – being refused pancakes.
“The till has suddenly stopped!” says a cheerful woman, standing in the sunlight, blocking entry to the restaurant. “Maybe in half an hour, it will begin again.”
“Maybe?” I ask. I don’t think she realises I am British. I can’t do anything with maybe. Christ. The empire wasn’t built and subsequently dismantled and ultimately carved up into opposing factions on the basis of make-believe plastered across a bus on maybe. Just tell me it will work in half an hour, so that I can go back to my seat tutting, checking my watch extravagantly (whether I am wearing one or not), only to express impotent outrage in thirty minutes’ time when nothing has changed. This, cheerful woman, is what it is to be British.
The cheerful woman has a different suggestion: “Just relax.”
“Oh,” I say, backing away. Possibly she’s drunk. “Okay. Yes I will.”
I walk back to my friend, who is visiting from London with her daughter, the six year old’s Best Friend Of All Time. We have brought the girls here along with the four year old whilst My Lawyer takes the eight year old to judo. I convey the till problem without a maybe, because I’m a good friend, and because I am hosting a worsening gum infection around my wisdom tooth. I must choose my words carefully, and so words of uncertainty are the first to go. For an anxious person, dispensing with conditional clauses is an interesting exercise. This could have been an opportunity for a positive mindset reboot, were it not for the drumming throb from my ear up to my eye socket.
I ring My Lawyer to concisely enquire their progress.
“Thank god you phoned,” says My Lawyer.
I say: “Eh?”
It transpires that the eight year old couldn’t be bothered to cycle his own bike to judo, and so hitched a ride on My Lawyer’s bike, in a chair intended exclusively for the four year old. It is intended exclusively for the four year old because the four year old has short legs. Legs that will not dangle down beside the front wheel. Legs that will not get trapped in said wheel whilst the bike is in motion, pinging spokes and ligaments in the process. This type of accident is the third most common reason for a child to visit the emergency room in The Netherlands. The first two are falling in a canal and being smacked in the head by a windmill blade*. It is an accident with which we have previous experience, when the six year old stuck her leg in the back wheel of Steve the Bakfiets, our cargo-bike. Her leg did not break, but was in a cast for a week with a sprain. My Lawyer was, once again, in charge. Steve was an accessory. I was absent. We each had a reason to blame ourselves.
My Lawyer tells me that he and the eight year old are in a Dutch man’s car, on the way to the hospital. The eight year old is sobbing in the background.
“So, it’s like last time?” I ask succinctly.
There is a pause. “A little more.” My Lawyer is also choosing his words carefully, so I know that it must be bad. That is the thing with lawyers.
My Lawyer and I are blamers. We are self-aware about our condition, and we try to deal with it by watching Brené Brown Ted Talks and beating up ourselves rather than each other. That’s not too hard to maintain; after all, one of us is a woman, and the other was raised Catholic. Blaming ourselves, and the subsequent shame we feel, is what we also call being awake. We just carry that shit around like normal, decent people. You know. Standard mortification, with just enough white-middle-class-privilege shame to know that it is nowhere near enough white-middle-class-privilege shame.
But sometimes, the target moves.
Why was he not riding his bike? I text. Blame grenade.
Before I left the house earlier that day, I said to My Lawyer, “Here are his bike keys.” I placed them on our side cabinet. I always insist that the eight year old cycles his own bike. If they had taken my – let’s give me a break and call it advice – they would not be on the way to the hospital. They would, instead, be on their way here, to relax, and maybe get pancakes in half an hour.
Brené Brown gives a great example about tenuous blame. In the story, Brown drops a cup of coffee one morning, smashing it on the floor, black coffee leaping up to stain her white trousers, and she immediately shouts, “Damn You Steve!” Steve, her husband, is not there. He is at work. But he arrived home later than he’d promised the night before, so Brown was tired; tired enough that morning to have an unprecedented second cup of coffee that ended up all over the kitchen floor and all over Brown. I mean, it was Steve’s fault, right? I think that’s the point she is making.
We make the most of the rest of the day. The till rattles back to life, everyone else eats pancakes and I suck bits of pancake on the good side of my mouth whilst ignoring my increasing feverishness. We explore the forest’s cherry blossom fields along with several thousand other people who are all saying to each other, “it would be so nice here, were it not for all the people.”
We head home to see My Lawyer and the eight year old. My Lawyer is pale and on his third beer. The eight year old is morose, flailing in the self-blame that courses through his DNA.
“I should have been riding my bike! It is all my fault!”
“It is not your fault,” I say, throwing a meaningful glance at My Lawyer.
“I won’t be able to swim on holiday,” laments the eight year old. We go to Majorca in three weeks; our first family holiday for nearly two years.
“Hopefully the cast will come off next week,” says My Lawyer. “They don’t think it’s broken.”
“They don’t think it’s broken?”
“Let’s just see,” he says, sighing.
Let’s just see, indeed. To embrace that level of uncertainty is to embrace a complete lack of control, which Brené Brown says is why we take comfort in blaming people. But I mean, it is his fault. So.
The weekend ends. We say goodbye to our visitors and I go to bed pressing frozen peas to my burning cheek. My heart beating in my ear. Pus is seeping out from around my wisdom tooth. I cry most of the night. When I am not crying, I distract myself online. I read an article that tells me “Eight Ways To Stay Healthy In Your 20s.” Tips include drinking water and sleeping well. I read another article entitled “Puppy Items I’m So Glad We Bought.” Featured items include a crate and dog treats. I cry for a while, for myself and for the poor puppy who has been adopted by this idiot, and then go on to read an article entitled “Bathroom Hand Dryers Suck Up Fecal Matter and Spray It On Your Hands, New Study Reports”. We can never not know that now, you and I. Blame me.
The next day I am referred to hospital, where I am told that my wisdom tooth must be removed, but not until the infection has subsided. The current infection increases the chance of post-op infection. I can’t argue with this logic.
“What you must do,” says the doctor, “is chew on a peroxide-and-water soaked gauze, five times a day, for five days.”
All I can think about is shit-spraying hand dryers.
I spend a couple of days in bed, knocked out by the infection. The solemn eight year old returns to school on crutches. My Lawyer juggles work, school runs and tending to me.
“Mashed avocado!” he says, proudly presenting a bowl.
“Yum!” I say, sitting up in bed.
My Lawyer is buoyed by the lack of passive-aggressive castigation in my response. “I put lime in it!”
“Yes, like guacamole! And a pinch of chili!”
“Lime and chili?”
“I have an OPEN WOUND IN MY MOUTH.”
He turns to the door, hamming up his shame for my entertainment. “I’ll get another avocado.”
I smile. It’s getting better.
A week later, My Lawyer takes eight year old back to the hospital to have a look at the leg. My mouth is pretty much better, so I can say too much again; over-promising, over-sharing, over-blaming. I’m back in the game. I have assured the eight year old that he will not have the cast for our holiday. I have no evidence to support this declaration. I wait anxiously for confirmation that my promise is fulfilled.
Eventually, My Lawyer texts me: It’s definitely not broken!
Hurray! I reply.
Ten minutes later, he texts again: Spoke too soon. Cast for another two weeks.
We go on holiday in one week.
Damn You, Steve.
*If only. In reality, the top two childhood injuries here are, like, falling over and hitting your head and walking into a wall or some other dumbass shit that kids do all over the world. But leg-in-the-bike is the third. Most of them were my kids.