It’s pretty snug in the back of the café on the high street. Soft fried eggs are being popped by chips on most tables, washed down with builders’ strength teas while unapologetic white bread – spread with margarine – is busy mopping up baked bean sauce.
Across the aisle, to my right, a table of five sit talking – three young women in their mid-twenties, a giant of a man (probably thirty) and an angelic blonde child of about fifteen months who is sat in a high chair with her back towards me.
I’m not quite sure what first draws my attention to the group but I’m suddenly aware of something completely chilling. The woman closest to the child (who appears to be her mother) displays open anger and disgust, for no apparent reason, towards the child, who is finger feeding herself.
I am so tightly aligned with the mother’s eyes that I can’t believe she hasn’t seen me looking directly at their dyad. I’m unsettled. Here in the friendly atmosphere of my favourite greasy spoon, where I have never heard cross words spoken or seen tension displayed. Here in this friendly high street enclave I am deeply disconcerted at some momentary flashed expressions.
And now I’m no longer enjoying the acidic bite of the tinned tomatoes that accompany my eggs, chips and beans. My human ability to read two of the six universal emotions purported by Ekman and Friesen* have seen to that.
Mother is looking blankly at the child. Across the table engaged with her friends and partner she appears inconsistent: sometimes smiling and engaging but then turning to her child with poison and what I see as resentment. Father strokes the child’s head for a moment. Mother, checking to see the others are engaged away from her, flashes more disgust at her child. Mother’s upper lip is raised, the bridge of her nose wrinkles and her cheeks are high.
I think I raise my right hand to my mouth to try to cover the words I’d like to shout across the room. I want to stand up in the back of the café and address my fellow regular patrons. ‘Am I the only one who can see this?’ I’d shout. I want to race across the room and ask what is wrong with this friendship group that they do not challenge this mother, their friend. Why do they not want to protect the Angel from this storm?
I’ve lost my hunger and I am left in a universe of uncertainty. Did my own mother feel these emotions towards me when I was a child?
Angel, who has been so calm and contained for one this young, reaches over her plastic feeding bar and attempts to get to more food. Her father strokes her head gently once more. Mother stretches to the food, breaks off a crust of toast and drives it in the air past her daughter’s eyes to her own mouth, and drops it in. Every gesture aimed at Angel says, ‘I hate you; you disgust me.’
I deploy my inner therapist as my own referee against demonising this young mother.
Thankfully, mother and friends are ahead in their meals and don’t look as though they will sit and talk after they finish. Dad produces hand wipes for mum to clean Angel’shands. The three engage, and Angel is allowed to witness and absorb more of her mother’s bile. Mother’s eyes dart around her friends and partner. She places the first wipe, now dirty, on Angel’s head; it looks like she wants to humiliate Angel, turn her into a rubbish dump. She begins to roughly clean her other hand. Father’s long arm reaches over and removes the wipe from Angel’s head and places it on the table. Mother smiles at her partner in a sarcastically petulant manner, then turns a disgusted face once more towards Angel – dismissing her.
My inner therapist has decided he is watching the acting out of an envious attack from mother to the child who has stolen her lover. It is dangerous, raw and uncomfortable to see. How have I been able to be this voyeur? How have I not been seen watching in plain sight?
Father rises from the table, stoops and picks up Angel from her chair. He holds her lovingly in an embrace and I see, as they twist around, the brightest of faces, a smile and a giggle. Now moments later mother is manoeuvring the empty pushchair through the café. She looks depressed, abandoned, weighted by the world.
The observation is over. I am unsettled: ‘What could I have done?’
I so hope I will not read of a mother and child killed on the nearby railway crossing or of Angel battered and abused, then removed into care.
This breakfast has left me feeling empty; I’ll not forget it for a long time yet.
* Ekman, P. and Friesen, W.V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124–129.
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