The column: A palpable hit

A domestic dispute leads Howard Jacobson into a spot of social awkwardness, but harmony returns with a stinging rebuke from an old friend

Readers of this column will know by now not to expect anything from it in the way of intimate revelation, salacious or otherwise. We meet as equals on this page: as a son, father, husband, brother, friend, I am as inadequate as you are. What else is there to say?

However, an event touching on my personal life has just occurred, of such a bewildering complexion, of such unexpectedness and high dramatic coloration, of such moral and psychological extravagance, that I must violate our unwritten agreement this once and allude to the circumstances that led up to it.

It began with a domestic. I had argued with my wife, my wife had argued with me, one of us had raised our voice - need I go on? A domestic is a domestic. These things happen. You know your Coleridge: "And to be wrath with one we love/Doth work like madness in the brain." One of my oldest friends used to fight the most savage battles with his wife - aerial encounters which left their house and garden looking like the plains of Agincourt - on the principle that the more blood they spilt the more they proved the strength of their attachment. That they divorced after five years of wrathful devotion only vindicates their argument. Who gets to five years these days? But I am already saying more than I meant to. Our domestic is relevant only in that we were supposed to be taking friends out to dinner shortly after but were not able to feel, in the circumstances, that we could keep the appointment. It was while I was charging blindly around Melbourne, leaving postponement notices under people's doors, that the "remarkable event" occurred.

You are wondering why I didn't use the phone? I couldn't find the phone.

Among those to whom I had to break the news that there would be no dinner overlooking the Bay in our company tonight, was the food writer Mietta O'Donnell. I mention her by name and reputation because these things are pertinent to my story. For many years, together with her partner, the photographer Tony Knox, Mietta O'Donnell ran the most sophisticated establishment in Australia - a chandeliered restaurant on one floor, a coffee house and club and cabaret and salon de the on another. Now you were in Bohemia, now you were in Versailles. If you happened to be a visiting musician or writer you were warmly welcomed at Mietta's, invited to try the best Australian wines, introduced to fellow practitioners, and perhaps given the opportunity to perform or read. Hospitality, is that what I'm describing? The word is too inflated. Yes, of course she could do the grande dame, but a gentle consideration was her speciality. She has always seemed able to read at once what your nervous system is in need of. She is a beautiful woman, fine-boned, exquisitely pale, soft-voiced, with still black Italian eyes. And that's what you realise you are in need of when you see her - her self-control. She quietens you, that's her great gift. She creates a space of calm around you. Recently, again with Tony Knox, she founded the Melbourne Song Recital Award. Not for any old singing. Not for belters. Not for old Wembley Stadium sperm chuckers like Pavarotti and Domingo. But for Art Song. The refinement of a singer alive to the subtleties of a poem and a single piano.

It was to this person that I ran first, an hour before we were due to meet, to say we weren't able, sorry. My distraction and my paleness - for I was paler tonight even than she was - alarmed her. For a moment she may have thought I was the bearer of terrible news. "Just an argument," I said. "A little too heated for us to dissemble across a dinner table, that's all. Sorry, sorry."

She shook her head. As if over the universal sadness of things. But also as if over my incorrigibility. I believe I felt put out. It wasn't as though I was always running white and breathless round to her place to say there'd been a domestic. Why, for all Mietta knew to the contrary, I lived in a country of the heart which did not even have a word for disagreement.

Was she blaming me? Without any information as to the rights and wrongs of the matter, was she assuming it was my fault?

However you explain it, what she did next astonished her as much as it astonished me. She raised her hand - that soft white considerate hand which had shown me to a table I do not know how many times - and slapped my face with it.

Imagine that! You arrive shaken at the door of a friend, you mention you have fallen out with your wife, and thwhack! It wasn't a hard slap, you understand. Its significance was entirely symbolic. But a slap on the face is a slap on the face. The fact that slaps on the face belong to an earlier phase in the history of strife between the sexes only added to the symbolism. Not only Mietta but the dark backward of time was paying me out. The Ghost of Domestics Past.

I gave a little gasp. "Oh!" I think I said. What else can you say? Then I fled.

By one of those dream-like coincidences that is always waiting when the world turns mad, I was no sooner back out on the street than I ran into John and Stephanie, the other friends we were to be dining with that night. I wasn't sure I had the courage to tell them of our troubles. What if Stephanie decided to slap my other cheek? What if John thought it appropriate to punch me on the nose?

A couple of days later, with peace aflutter at home, waiting only on the terms of treaty, I mentioned Mietta's slap. We laughed robustly over it. As I now realise Mietta must have known we would. Social tact, you see. Consideration so exquisite it stings

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

    £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

    £13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies