Forget the adage about sticks and stones, words can certainly hurt and they did just that, one evening before Christmas. Add in the effect of actions, with their capacity to speak louder than words, and the occasion had many of the features of a nightmare.
A young couple, with their small child, had come to stay from France. Neither spoke much English so chatting was mainly done in French, something I love, but which still remains quite a strain.
We had first met Jacques, the husband, when he was a toddler. Now in his mid thirties he was amusing and thoughtful and fun to be with. We were very fond of him. In his life he had had to weather some very difficult periods, the worst of which was binge drinking. This was ten years ago and a thing of the past. But while fatherhood seemed to have consolidated his recovery, recently there were ominous hints that control might have begun to slip.
Their son, Marcel, was a lively, funny, bright, and responsive two-year old. He was also headstrong, occasionally to the point of being disruptive, but somehow that could seem endearing. As a rule he loved joining in. I knew from previous occasions that Jacques was averse to cooking, so while he was with us I persuaded him to help me prepare and cook our meals. We both wore aprons, he served as sous-chef, and the apprenticeship seemed to be working well. Inspired by this, Marcel was appointed the sous-sous-chef.
The mother, Marie-Laure, was very entertaining, vivacious, and whenever she was around there was no risk of conversation drying up. They were with us for almost a week and for several days all went well. Then, on the penultimate day, relationships changed. They went out together nominally for a stroll while we looked after Marcel and prepared the dinner. When they returned it soon became clear that the outing had mainly involved drinking in the local pub. This then continued during the meal, with Marie-Laure seemingly egging Jacques on. When the meal was over I cleared away the dishes and went off to write.
An hour later I returned to find them still at the table, and very obviously drunk, him rather more so than her. By now their comportment had entirely changed. Slouching rather than sitting, they repeatedly mocked my French, particularly my accent, highlighting my mistakes, pointing at me and giggling. They also belittled elements of our household. Soon afterwards they struggled up to bed.
Much of our night was then disturbed by Marcel who, from around 2.00 in the morning, cried incessantly. Whether his parents offered solace we never knew, but we were worried.
The next day the atmosphere was tense. Rohan and I felt absolutely miserable, in modern speak, ‘gutted’. Our guests said nothing about the events of the previous evening – there was certainly no hint of an apology. So much that was wrong had happened in those few hours. It was desperately sad to see Jacques drinking again, and so tragic after all he had achieved. Our hopes for him were shattered. It was worrying, not to say frightening, to realise that the wellbeing of little Marcel might be threatened. Suddenly he appeared very vulnerable. Their abuse of our hospitality felt so unjust; how could guests behave like this? And finally, and at personal level, it was painful and undermining to be the brunt of their jibes. I see myself as a hardy character rarely ruffled by criticism. Through their words they had found a way through my guard and their mocking hurt.
We have now recovered from that horrible evening, although, of course we remember it well. One obvious outcome is that we may have lost some good friends, although careful bridge building has already begun. But whatever the effects on us, they will have been much more serious for our erstwhile guests. They may well be living with those few hours, and their consequences, for years to come. For me, at least, no bones were broken. Perhaps the old adage is right.