The best arguments of my childhood erupted at the dinner table. One Sunday I wanted to know whether communism was a good idea.
“Communism is a good idea,” I declared.
My father put down his knife and fork and slowly wiped his mouth with a serviette.
“And how is that?” he asked with some restraint.
“They say it is,” I said. “Prices stay the same and everybody’s got a job.”
“Who are they?” my father asked. “What are these jobs everyone’s got? And where did you hear this crap?”
“Oh,” I chimed, “so now it’s crap? Just because I say it?”
“No,” my father said with what looked like even more restraint, “not because you say it. It’s crap because it’s actually crap.”
“Oh,” I chimed again. “And what do you know about communism?”
“We can sit here,” my father growled, “and talk about what I know about communism until your pimples clear up. What I want to know, before that time, is what you know about it.”
His food was going cold and he had his hands folded under his chin. I think he folded them like that to keep himself from any sudden impulse to slap me.
“So now you just turn it around?” I remarked with calculated cockiness.
“Dammit!” my father roared and banged on the table so hard that some of the dishes jumped. The argument proper had begun. Now communism would be cast aside. From this point on only the meaning of our words and how we said them would matter. My mother and sister left the table but my father and I remained. It was a house rule, one I have since come to appreciate more than most others. Regardless of the cost or the time involved, regardless of the number of far-flung incidents that were dragged into the fray as it unfurled, and regardless of how badly we hurt one another, arguments were continued until they were settled, until one of us had learned something. You couldn’t walk away, and we never did. My father once missed a flight because he and my mother couldn’t finish some quarrel they had gotten into on the way to the airport.
At two in the morning, my father switched to English.
“Jesus Christ,” he said in response to some claim I’d made. “Tell it to the Marines.”
This was a sign that the argument had now entered its more vicious phase. Switching to English signalled that we would now incorporate quotes and literature in a way that Afrikaans didn’t afford, and that the argument would now begin to turn upon itself. At the same time, it was a return to humour, however caustic.
“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” I remarked.
My father gave me a long stare. “That’s why I’m using it on you,” he replied.
When the clock above the kitchen table ticked past four in the morning, we had fought about how he had never been satisfied with me, how he had always favoured my sister, how I had always belittled him when he’d taken the long way around a problem, how I always sided with my mother, and many other things. We had insulted one another and parachuted in supporting quotes from Maugham and Churchill and Cicero along the way. The house was quiet except for us and the dogs. In mid-sentence, my father stopped what he was saying.
“Would you like a coffee?” he asked instead.
He placed a cup on the table between us, fetched the jug from the filter machine and began to pour.
“I don’t know you as well as I think I do,” he said as he poured and looked me in the eye. “How much coffee did you want?”
As he said this, the cup overflowed onto the table.
“Stop!” I cried.
“You see,” he said as he put the jug away, “the next time you’ll know to stop me.” He waved a tired hand at the table and the mess he’d made. “The time after that we won’t need to say anything.”
As I lay in bed later I listened to the songs of the first birds and to the threads of my father’s voice that hung from my doorknob like a scarf.