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29 April 2020

Husband and I have put the kids to bed early. We are having a “date night” in our dining room

Our date has kicked off with a long silence. What, after all, do you say to a person you have spent every single minute with for the past month? 

By Alice O'Keeffe

Husband and I are having a “date night”. Obviously we can’t leave the house, and even if we could, there would be no restaurants or cinemas open in which a date could take place. So “date night” involves sitting in our dining room, at the same table where we have eaten every meal for the past four weeks, with a beer (him) and a lemon and ginger tea (me). We’ve put the kids to bed early so we can spend some quality time together.

Our date has kicked off with a long and shell-shocked silence. Neither of us can think of anything to say. What, after all, do you say to a person you have spent every single minute of every day and night with for the past month? What do you talk about, when for as long as you can remember you have done nothing other than look after children, cook, clean, exercise and sleep?

I briefly consider bringing up current affairs – nothing says romance like a discussion about PPE and testing – but then realise I’d rather eat my own arm.

“So,” I venture, “have you got any projects you’d like to do during lockdown?”

He thinks about this for a moment. “No,” he replies.

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Husband is not, to put it mildly, a conversationalist. He is a man of few words, the kind of guy who can happily sit and stare at a wall for a good part of the afternoon. This is one of the many ways in which our personalities are diametrically opposed, words being very much my thing, and slightly manic activity being my vibe. In its stronger moments, our relationship works because we bring complementary qualities to it; he is the ying, I’m the yang.

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In its less strong moments – of which date night, so far, is one – I feel like I am living with an alien.

I fiddle with the string on my tea bag; he takes another sip of beer. We haven’t even got any nibbles, as my last trip to Sainsbury’s filled me with such apocalyptic horror that I’ve been putting off going again. 

In the yawning silence, my mind fills up with the accumulated panic and frustration I have been suppressing for weeks, in an attempt to be a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend; to keep work ticking along, to keep the bills paid, to keep the wheels on the cart. A swirling vortex of negative energy fills me up to the brim and then overflows, leaking out of my mouth.

“Why don’t you have any interests?” I snap. “It’s so boring. You never have anything to talk about.”

“That’s a pretty nasty thing to say,” he points out. But this only goads me on.

“I mean, I really have no idea why we are still together. Apart from the children, we’ve got nothing in common at all.”

Husband nods, slowly. He finishes his beer, gets up and puts the empty can by the sink. He doesn’t put it in the recycling. He never puts his beer cans in the recycling, presumably because he thinks that as his wife I should do that kind of thing for him. With the addition of this tiny grain of injustice the grim swirl of resentment crystallises into pure, clear rage.

“I’m not your skivvy, you know!” I shout, as he trudges up the stairs to bed.

Later, I lie awake in the dark. Husband is breathing quietly beside me. I think about the virus; men are more likely to die than women, they say. Husband hasn’t got the greatest lungs; he used to smoke – still does sometimes – and he often gets bronchitis in the winter. 

I don’t want him to get corona, I don’t want him to die. And if he is going to die, I don’t want it to happen after I’ve said horrible things to him, made him feel unloved. I would never forgive myself.

My dad died when I was not much older than our oldest son is now, so I know all too well that it can happen. I think some part of me is actually preparing for it; deep down I expect the pattern of early bereavement to repeat itself. Perhaps I just can’t imagine a childhood unscarred by loss. 

I turn over, put my arms around Husband, and squeeze him tightly. I don’t say I’m sorry, and he doesn’t ask me to. He just hugs me back. 

This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave