‘Brexit? What is that? Something to get rid of bad breath?’
Michael Harding: The gales of laughter softened me too, dissolving the solemnity of all that a man tries to pretend
Michael Harding went out with two women for dinner in Warsaw and stopped taking himself so seriously.
Sometimes I take myself too seriously. But that changed one night when I went for dinner in Warsaw with two Polish women. One was a student with short blonde hair. The other was her music teacher, with soft grey locks falling over her eyes. They ate like hungry cats, and guzzled the wine. But I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about.
Initially I tried to engage in rational conversation.
“What do you think of the government in Poland?” I wondered.
They laughed and splattered particles of tomato soup all over the table cloth.
“The government is good for babies,” the teacher declared. The student giggled and nodded agreement. But I didn’t know what she meant.
“People say the Polish government is interfering with the judicial system?” I suggested. “Are you not worried about what direction your country is going?”
The teacher leaned across the table.
“Our Blessed Mother once appeared above the Vistula river to protect us from the Russians. Why should we have worries?”
The student nodded.
“You must both be devout Catholics,” I suggested.
They agreed. But then they sniggered. As if to undermine what I had just said.
“And the government is very good for trees,” the young student observed, feigning gravity.
“Not true,” the teacher bellowed, banging her fist so hard on the table that the waiter turned to observe us. “The government,” she said, “are the very ones who are cutting down the forests.”
At last I thought there was going to be some dialogue I could understand. But they began to argue in Polish and the ferocity of the exchange alarmed me, until it reached a peak and unexpectedly blew up in more laughter.
“I think you are both mad,” I declared.
“Of course we are,” they replied. “We are Catholic, but we are also out for the evening.”
So I decided to abandon any further attempts at patriarchal solemnity. I forced myself to grin, because I didn’t know what was funny and what was not. But their laughter was contagious. And by the time the tiramisu arrived we had all fallen into a single embrace of feckless frivolity.
“The tiramisu is very sweet,” I declared; it was like putting a match to gunpowder.
“And we must have more sambuca,” the teacher asserted, and we laughed at each drop that fell into our glasses.
Over coffees I mentioned Brexit, but the very word itself sounded comic.
“Brexit?” The student repeated. And the teacher intoned it.
“Brexit? What is that?”
“Is it a mouth wash?” The student wondered. “Something to get rid of bad breath?”
Their lungs opened and they threw up more gusts of laughter.
We had found a shared space, where there was no Self worth defending or advocating
Trump elicited even further levity.
“What do you think of Trump?”
“It’s a very musical name,” the teacher admitted. “Trumpity! Bumpity! Bump! Rump! Thump!” She intoned, as she patted out a rhythm on the table with her coffee spoon.
By the time we got the bill it was impossible to speak a single noun without finding in it’s essence some furious and ridiculous absurdity.
Although at one stage the teacher changed tack.
“This is not funny,” she declared. “I am a Catholic. I am a professor of music. I am a serious person.”
We all assumed straight faces; until tears swelled in her eyes with suppressed glee.
“My boyfriend will not marry me,” the student confessed, out of the blue, as she sipped espresso. “We are together for seven years, but he sits in the corner all day.”
Another pause. Another hiatus. As if in this moment we might be verging on coherence. But always the subversive tittering returned, like a cacophony of naughty schoolgirls.
When I wiped my eyes with a napkin the teacher said, “You look like a crying schoolgirl!” Which only made me laugh more.
I suppose laughter has no meaning. But it does loosen my mask; that po-faced gravitas behind which I sometimes hide. And neither my masculinity, nor their Catholicism could sustain itself with any dignity, in the face of hearty laughter.
“Don’t look so frightened,” the teacher said, as we began to part. But I was. Because there had been an intimacy in the laughter. We had found a shared space, where there was no Self worth defending or advocating. And I didn’t want to leave that.
We even laughed on the street outside as we waited for a taxi. For them nothing was sacred or serious. To laugh was everything. And it softened me too, dissolving the solemnity of all that a man tries to pretend. And when the taxi arrived, we shared that too.