Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Stop Me if You've Heard This One (II): Holidaying with the In-laws

So, there we all are, crammed into a modest unit over a sweltering Christmas, and I experience what has to be the most awkward morning of my life.

You're going to need some background. Let's see.

For a start, you have to understand that the husband and I usually spend Christmas with my family, so this trip was a rarity.

My family consists of myself, my younger brother and my mother, and even before we emigrated to Australia Christmas tended to be a sedate sort of affair. We open our presents in considerate order, play board games throughout the afternoon and chat; turning the television on is considered the height of rudeness. All terribly English, really, albeit without the Queen's Speech.

By contrast, the husband's family is large, chaotic, warm, friendly and sprawling. They comprise a gorgeously illogical mix of cultures and nationalities, which makes for a hilarious array of 'traditional' Christmas dishes. It's survival of the loudest around their celebratory tables, and the women tend to win.

We've therefore worked on the principle that his family probably won't miss us, whereas if we didn't spend Christmas with my side it would be a drab sort of affair. The other reason is simpler; we live near my family, and his is scattered throughout every state but ours.

However, my sister in law (let's call her Christiana, because it amuses me) scheduled her wedding for 30 December, and so a mass family gathering was called. We drove over to spend a week there.

With me so far?

All of this serves as background to explain why we found ourselves sharing a unit with four other adults. It having been so long since we visited, none of our usual methods of staying with friends or in a hotel were going to work this time; what's considered a polite distance in my family is often interpreted as aloofness in his*.

So there we all are, crammed into a modest unit over a sweltering Christmas. By "we" I mean myself and the husband (who have the guest bedroom), his parents (who have the main bedroom), his youngest sister, who is fourteen and shy, who is ensconced on a camper bed in the sewing room, and his maternal grandmother, who is in her late seventies and frail, on the foldout sofa bed in the lounge room. It's her unit, but she's chosen that bed so that she can get up early without disturbing anyone else.

Two relevant plot points:
1) My husband's parents are still happily married, but because of work commitments his father currently lives overseas and only manages to get a couple of weeks leave per year. Previous to Christmas, he hasn't seen any of his family since July.
2) The guest bedroom and main bedroom share a wall. This is a modestly sized unit that was never designed to host this many people.

Okay, I'm sorry this is taking me so long, but hopefully you now have the set-up. Let's cut to 28 December. We've been there a few days. There's a heatwave. It's crowded.

And at 6.30am or so I wake up. It's early, and so it takes me a moment to work out what's woken me. And then I realise I'm hearing noises.

Sort of…rhythmic…whimpering noises.


They're not loud, just these regular little whimpers; 'ah…ah…oh…'. As if that's not bad enough, every now and then they speed up a little, and I can almost hear a suggestion of 'oh…ohhh…ow…' in amongst the 'ah…ah…' which is a little more information than I needed, but I'm trying very very hard not to think about the details so I decide I'm imagining it.

The first thing I think is, I hope the husband's not awake. It's bad enough that I'm listening to this, but these are his parents. And man, the noises are just not stopping.

Of course then he does wake up, and I launch into a stream of morning prattle in an attempt to mask the disturbing sounds leaking under our door (and you don't know how much I wish I hadn't just typed the word "leaking" in this context). I put up a good effort, if I do say so myself, but there's only so long even I can talk for, and eventually there's a pause in the conversation.

"What's that noise?" he asks.
"Well. Ummm…"

The thing is that it's still early, and if his gran is still in bed then the entire living area is in use, and there's no way we can get up without intruding on her sleep, and there's no room to sit and have a coffee anyway. So we stay in our room. And try not to listen. For approximately seventeen years.

It seems to me that the whimpers are getting louder, and the little soft cries that sound almost like pain are closer together, and through the swirling horror that I am even thinking about this I am holding onto the hope that maybe soon they'll stop and we can escape…

And then the door to the main bedroom opens and his father walks out.

And the noises don't stop.

It wasn't his parents at all, and it certainly wasn't sexual. The noises I'd been listening to for the past forty minutes were in fact whimpers of pain.

Some time early that morning, around two or three am, his gran had got up to visit the bathroom, tripped over a trailing blanket, landed and fractured the tip of her shoulder joint so that she couldn't move that arm. And not wanting to disturb anyone, she'd manoeuvred herself into an armchair and sat there all night, waiting for someone to get up. As it had got later, she'd allowed herself to make slightly louder noises, which is of course what I was hearing.

She was in a soft sling for the next month, but she was essentially fine. What I keep thinking, though, is this:

Did his parents assume they were hearing us, just as we assumed we were hearing them? Did they stay in their room in mortification just as we felt trapped in ours, and the poor gran sat in her cold armchair wondering why we were all sleeping in?

I don't know.

But I do know that next time we're staying in a hotel.

*In case I sound critical, I should say that this need to demonstrate warmth is extremely good for me, since I tend to withdraw otherwise. I never really learned 'family' and the welcome it implies, and I love his to bits.


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