I recently read Richard Russo’s rather brilliant Empire Falls, a book which slowly unravels the secrets, failed hopes and power struggles of the townspeople in a small town in northern Maine. The characters are ordinary, their lives mundane, yet Russo observes them so acutely and so warmly that they become almost better than themselves. Like Russo, the protagonist’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Tick, is a practised observer of human behaviour, having watched at close quarters as her parents’ marriage dissolved hideously in front of her eyes. Here she is having a conversation with her school’s head teacher and watching how he lies to her:
Tick’s strategy for dealing with lying adults is to say nothing and watch the lies swell and constrict in their throats. When this happens, the lie takes on a physical life of its own and must be either expelled or swallowed. Most adults prefer to expel untruths with little burplike coughs behind their hands, while others chuckle or snort or make barking sounds. When Mr. Meyer’s Adam’s apple bobs once or twice, Tick sees that he’s a swallower, and that this particular lie has gone south down his esophagus and into his stomach. According to her father, who’s an old friend of Mr. Meyer’s, the man suffers from bleeding ulcers. Tick can see why. She imagines all the lies a man in his position would have to tell, how they must just churn away down there in his intestines like chinks of undigestible food awaiting elimination. By their very nature, Tick suspects, lies seek open air. They don’t like being confined in dark, cramped places. Still, she likes Mr. Meyer better for being a swallower. Her father, who lies neither often nor well, at least by adult standards, is also a swallower, and she approves that his lies go down so painfully. The snorters, like Mrs. Roderigue, and the barkers, like Walt Comeau, are the worst.
To me, the idea of a lie being either swallowed, snorted or barked is the physical equivalent of moral discomfort of lying. I find it hard to lie. I’m sure I equivocate with white lies, but I really can’t tell big whoppers. It just doesn’t sit comfortably with me.
Like Tick, I was lied to by a head teacher, and she did it on paper, laid it down for posterity so that I could always remember her perfidy. At the end of our final year, she wrote us a kind of reference, that would sum up our character and performance during our years at school. She wrote of me:
Charlotte is a neat schoolgirl, who always looks nice and tidy in her uniform.
LIES! I was a complete scruff. My socks were always falling down (bad), my hair ribbons never matched (worse), I usually forgot either my hat or my blazer at home (worst), and my desk and my bookbag were filled with Jurassic layers of old Marmite sandwiches and ancient apples. In my final year, my friends told me I brought shame to the prefect body because I looked so untidy and that they “couldn’t punish anybody for their bad uniform” because mine looked so terrible.
Obviously, the lovely Miss B. was casting around for some filler copy because she couldn’t remember anything about me, and sucked that straight out of her thumb. I lost respect for her, and have not set foot back in my alma mater since the day I left. Had she said “Charlotte is not overly bothered about the state of her uniform but has a lovely smile”, I would probably be a leading light in the Old Girls’ Guild (International Branch) to this day.
I’ve been trying to remember any other incidents of grown-ups lying to me, and there are barely any. I think I was lucky to be raised amongst truth-tellers, who perhaps fluffed the truth up a little or covered over harsh realities. I do remember my usually very gentle and sweet grandmother not being able to tell me why she didn’t like Martina Navratilova and resorting to “she’s just a BAD lady, darling”. Clearly, she did not want to answer the inevitable question – “what’s a lesbian, Granny?”. I do remember feeling sure that Martina was not a bad lady, and reminding myself to find out what it was about her that could get my serene grandmother so riled up.
I don’t lie to my children, and, when I have the energy, I try to give them clear and honest answers to their
exhausting barrage persistent enquiries. I’ve just read both daughters the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, where there is a high body count, and one question which arose was “Is it okay to kill someone if they are a bad guy?”. My answer – not a good one, I’ll allow, but a truthful one at least – was “It’s not, D, but I’m too tired to tell you why.” Sometimes, Mummy speaks not with forked but with fuzzy tongue.
Henceforth, I’m going to have to make sure I keep telling the truth. I wouldn’t want them trying to assess whether I was a swallower or a snorter.