September 2022

Back to Issue 12

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

By Stephen Smithyman

Phillip and Emma ate in silence, with the baby, Sylvie, burbling between them. In between mouthfuls, Phillip and Emma rested their heads on their hands, hardly looking at each other – two very tired people. Sylvie was hungry and ate well.

Suddenly, Phillip noticed Emma carefully sifting through her scrambled eggs, Italian style, and extracting near raw pieces of garlic he’d thrown in, at the last minute.

“Didn’t you fry the garlic before you put it in?” Emma asked, holding up a particularly large chunk, like a broken fragment of tooth, for his inspection. She threw it down on the plate.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…”

Her expression told him everything. She continued to sift. He felt himself go very still and begin to burn. A long silence followed. She sifted and he burned. Sylvie, meanwhile, chattered on, unaware.

Phillip said, in his best low, controlled tone of voice, trying hard to be conciliatory “Next time I cook it, I’ll fry the garlic.”

“Don’t use that tone of voice!” Emma snapped. “I hate that voice. It’s your Ronald Reagan voice.”

More silence. More sifting, on her part, more burning on his. Sylvie – perhaps in her own response to the situation – leaned forward, laying her head first one way, then the other, on the table. “Hullo, mummy, hullo daddy!” she said, brightly, over and over again, bringing both her parents close to laughter.

“I mean it.” Phillip said, trying to sound a little less like Ronald Reagan. “I’ll fry it next time. And I wasn’t putting on a special tone of voice.”

“Yes, you were. You put on a superior tone of voice that said ‘I might as well humour her.’, when you had no intention of listening to me. You never listen to me, you self-important bastard, do you?”

“Well, pardon me!” he said, feeling well and truly put in his place. “Who’s being so superior and judgemental now?”

At this point, Sylvie, deciding she was tired of her dinner, swept the contents of her plate onto the floor. Neither of her parents did anything. They continued eating in silence.

“Me want to pop down now.” said Sylvie.

Phillip took the last piece of pumpkin. Emma contested the last pieces of fried potato and carrot with Sylvie, who’d suddenly decided she did want some more, after all.

“Leave some for your father!” Emma said to Sylvie. “Do you want any more?” she asked Phillip.

“No, you have them. I’ve had enough.”

Emma ate them, then stood up in silence and left the table.

For some reason, the song ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’ rose up in Phillip’s throat. He was a terrible singer, but he liked the sound of it, just then. What he particularly liked were the three falling notes of the chorus, ‘hallelu-u-jah’. He sang them experimentally, in the wrong key.

“Daddy, me want to pop down now!” Sylvie repeated, more assertively, this time.

“Yes, yes…” he muttered, placatingly – almost absent-mindedly. He undid the strap and lifted her down from the high chair. “I’ll just go and get the face-cloth and wash your face and hands.”

Barley the dog, who’d just come in, guzzled the remains of Emma’s meal, under the table.

“Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelu-u-jah!” Phillip sang, on his way to the bathroom.