After a poor night’s sleep in an hotel in St Malo it was time to catch the ferry home. I had just settled the bill when the young man behind the counter stood up, pointed to a wine glass full of straws and suggested that I serve myself one. I asked him to repeat this remark, which to me was incomprehensible – either his French was beyond me or, more fancifully, this was the opening gambit in some dialogue intended for a secret agent.
On a second hearing the message became clear. He was asking me whether the giant surfboard resting against the wall behind the straws, and which we had brought into the hotel the previous night, was mine. When he posed his question originally, I had confused the words “sers” (serve yourself) and “surf” (surfboard)! Our sea monster was not there by chance. It had been brought in because we were in transit between our cottage in Brittany and London and leaving it out overnight on the roof rack in a public parking lot was deemed risky.
So far, the misinterpretation was understandable, but what followed was pure fantasy on my part. Being an ageing alpha male, I then allowed myself to imagine that he had asked me the question hoping that he was making the acquaintance of a fit, athletic, oldie who was still surfing giant Atlantic breakers. It would have given him, or so I supposed, something to aim at in his later years. But I had to own up; the board belonged not to me but to one of my sons. The flattering image I had created for myself was dashed and I had to face the reality that the hotel clerk had asked me the question about the board because he wanted the bulky, almost three-meter long obstruction removed from the hotel lobby as soon as possible.
On this occasion it was me that was caught in some unreal world, but I remembered another occasion many years ago when the fantasist was Max, my newly acquired brother-in-law. Then, the misinterpretation, which happened to be in my favour, was soon resolved, but only after some detective work.
Just after a Rohan and I were married, Max came to stay in our house. Our brotherly relationship, while courteous, was a little prickly and in general our conversations rarely lasted long. After two months, Max asked if he might raise a rather personal question. I could hardly decline and listened attentively as he unravelled his intimate set of observations and interpretations.
The main point was that he had observed that I was full of energy throughout the day, every day, never showing a hint of tiredness. How could this be, since whenever he woke in the night he would hear the sound of our bed springs squeaking? In his mind, his sister and I spent all night “satisfying the urges of newly-weds” as he so politely put it. Max, who was not one for flattery then added, “Joe, you are a truly an exceptional man.” I thanked him for his kind words but otherwise remained discretely silent.
I discussed these observations with Rohan, and we both agreed that they did not accord with our version of reality. After some days of puzzling Max’s remarks, the explanation suddenly came to me.
I took the first opportunity to talk to Max, man-to-man, about my superhuman, night-time exploits. The noise he heard each night came not from our squeaking bed springs but from the ill-fitting exercise wheel in the cage of our pet gerbils. I reminded him that these pets lived in the cage on the landing just outside our bedroom door, adding that these busy mammals were primarily, but not solely, nocturnal. Every night the two of them would spend hours running on the wheel. The noise he heard had nothing to do with us.
Max looked embarrassed and I was left thinking perhaps it would have been better if I had not disillusioned him. Fantasies are commonplace and it would not have made any material difference to him if his particular interpretation was allowed to persist. Who knows, his relationship with me then might have more quickly lightened.
Photo Credit: Gerbil, Wikimedia Commons – Roo72