You know, I was going to post this as an unannounced reversal, and then put my usual “Oh, oops, I got that wrong” spin on it at the end. But as I started to change the genders (and very little else), I found myself getting upset. The idea that any husband would treat his wife like this, and then write about it in a lighthearted sort of way was genuinely distressing.
All my protective instincts towards the imaginary wife were activated. I felt myself growing angry and indignant at the husband. How dare you? How dare you treat another person like this? One you supposedly love? How dare you treat this like a joke? How dare you write about this as if it’s funny, or just par for the course?
And mostly, I thought to myself “why the fuck are you living like this”?
Run. Run away, far and fast. Have some respect for yourself. Believe you are worthy of something better than this.
I’m going to post this as if it were a wife writing about her husband, but it’s not. This is Robert Crampton, writing about his life with his wife Nikola. I have reversed the genders just to illustrate how completely awful this whole thing is. Robert is being abused.
And he finds it funny.
‘I hear my husband before I see him. Most of his words begin with an F’
So, to recap: last week’s cliffhanger left me standing next to my Volvo, a Volvo firmly wedged in a boggy pothole on a forest track in France. The children, covered in mud following a failed clutch attempt at liberation, have trudged off to fetch my husband from our house a few hundred yards away. I can’t pretend to be much looking forward to his arrival.
Over the previous 20 years, the occasions on which Robert has told me on no account ever to try driving along this track probably number more than 100. Something tells me he will be reminding me of this advice in the very near future. Like a condemned woman walking to the gallows, I look around at the beauty of the woods, turn my face to the sky for a final time, inhale deeply.
I hear him before I see him. Thirty or so yards ahead of the immobilised car, the track takes a sharp turn to the right. Beyond that turn, a voice is growing louder. Most of the words begin with an F. Others include “idiot”, “pathetic” and “loser”. And now he’s in view – tall, muscular, terrifying – picking his way swiftly through the ruts and bumps, the children, plus Cousin Susan, trailing miserably behind.
Best not to dwell on the next ten minutes. I am, of course, eviscerated. As is, less predictably, my daughter.
“I didn’t expect anything more from her,” Robert tells Rachel. “But I expected more from you” – an interesting insight into my husband’s opinion of his wife. Announcing he will have nothing to do with any efforts to recover the car, Robert departs. Once he’s safely out of sight, Cousin Susan offers me a consoling pat on the shoulder.
“We need some help,” I announce. “I’ll go and talk to the farmer.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” asks Susan. I look at Susan, taking in the ponytail, the Harry Potter specs, the sunburnt arms similar in colour to the bright red vest and shorts, the crappy John Lennon tattoo, the flip-flops. What goes down well in Shoreditch, I decide, might not play so well in the ultra-conservative back-of-beyond French countryside.
“No,” I say to Susan. “You stay here. I’ll take Rachel.”
Rachel and I plod up to the farmer’s house. A boy of about 5 comes to the door, surveying us shyly through the glass.
“Est-ce que il papa dans la maison?” I shout. The kid shakes his head – not surprising, I realise, as I’ve just asked him, partially in Italian, if the Pope is in the house.
A seven-year-old girl appears, big eyes wide and fearful. Rachel smiles at her and she smiles back. Bringing Rachel instead of Susan, I reflect, is the first decent decision I’ve made so far today. Now a woman joins the gathering on the other side of the door. She is also uncertain. Finally, in what I can’t help noticing is a classic demonstration of the type of traditional non-abusive patriarchal set-up I have not enjoyed for so much as one solitary second of my family life, Thierry the farmer materialises and opens the door.
“Ah, bonjour monsieur,” I say, flapping my hands in what I hope is a reassuringly Gallic fashion. “Ma voiture est dans le forêt. Dans la boîte.” Thierry lifts an eyebrow. I have just told him my car is in the forest. In the box. Still, he latches on quickly enough, and moments later we’re climbing into the rather exciting cab of the massive pick-up truck parked in the drive.
Susan emerges from behind a tree. “Il y a Susan. C’est ma cousin,” I say, as in, “There is Susan. It is my (male) cousin.” Thierry nods in understanding.
“Can I get in as well?” says Susan.
“No,” I tell her. We trundle off towards the woods, Susan following on foot.
It’s all pretty straightforward after that. Thierry reverses the pick-up down the track. He’s friendly enough, and God knows I’m grateful to the man, but it’s not entirely necessary, to my mind, for him to tell me 3 times in the space of 200 yards that driving an ordinary car on this terrain is not advisable because, well, you can get stuck. Mate, I feel like saying, you’re starting to sound like my husband.
Still, that’s the French for you. When we round the corner and he spots the Volvo in his mirror, Thierry actually says, “Oo là là.” I fish a tow rope from the boot of the Volvo, Susan tries to make a contribution by jamming a few twigs under the tyres, Thierry does a bit of shrugging and lip-pursing, Rachel tells Susan to stand aside, Thierry hauls us to solid ground, I dispatch Rachel to fetch him a couple of bottles of wine.
“All sorted,” I tell Robert, trying to sound all efficient.
The bollocking resumes, however, and continues for some time.
Robert, who is fact, the victim in this narrative, writes a whole series of columns called Beta Male, in which he relishes the abuse his wife heaps on him. Is this really what it means to be a Beta Male? You accept emotional manipulation, humiliation, constant insults and unreasonable constraints on your behavior?
Why? Why would Robert do this? What on earth does he get out of it?
And yet, though I have surveyed this idyll on countless occasions over two decades, a tiny niggle of irritation compromises my good spirits. The niggle arises from the existence of a second way – a covert, clandestine, cross-country way – to access the house. And while I have walked this route many times, I have never driven it. Why? My wife won’t let me.
Robert seems to get that allowing his wife to tell him where he may and may not drive his own fucking car is a bit…unhealthy.
The children giggle nervously, awareness perhaps dawning that this is not a harmlessly eccentric jaunt, more an instalment in a confusing, long-running and not entirely healthy marital psychodrama.
Robert tells his son that girls are allowed to hit him, and that’s just the way it is. Passing on the acceptance of abuse that crosses the line from emotional into physical. How sad. When Sam gets in an altercation with his sister, Robert steps in to make certain Sam cannot and does not fight back.
Rachel picked up a broom and jabbed it into Sam’s stomach. He absorbed the blow, grabbed another broom, and advanced. Rachel screamed. I wrapped Sam up in a bear hug and disarmed him.
“How come she’s allowed to hit me with a broom and I can’t do anything back?” he said. “Just the way it is, son,” I said.
Understandably, Robert takes some psychotropic medications to deal with his life, for which his wife and daughter both mock him, calling his prescription “mad pills”.
First things first: I hand over the scrip for my next consignment of fluoxetine – or Prozac if you will, or mad pills, as my wife and daughter call them, deploying the sensitivity for which they are both renowned.
Robert’s wife makes no secret of the fact that she prefers to talk to her best friend than him.
When Nicola and I started going out, I noticed she was always ready, willing and able, first flush of romance notwithstanding, to tear herself from my arms for a lengthy phone call with her pal.
He did, however see the upside to his wife’s close bond with Karen.
I also worked out that if Nicola was busy nattering away to Karen, she wasn’t giving me any grief.
I wonder why he doesn’t see himself as deserving of a life devoid of grief, especially the kind that comes with marrying such a fucking bitch?
On a road trip that their children declined to participate in (gee, I wonder why?), Robert thinks back over the whole long, miserable marriage.
Still, never mind, Sam and Rachel’s absence gave me and Nicola the chance to resurrect old unresolved tensions and argue bitterly about the route. It was just like old times.
After 15 years, Robert has mostly acquiesced.
After 15 years, most have fallen silent. Either I’ve won (accompanying her to Ikea, say, or rather, not accompanying her to Ikea), or an uneasy truce is maintained (my smoking), or Nicola’s will has prevailed (everything else).
What a life. It goes on and on, with Robert detailing his failures, his humiliation, his ineptness, his basic lack of functionality without his beloved whipmaster telling him what to do.
Part of me wonders if this is perhaps not just a British thing? The self-deprecation and understatement really masking a certain cultural arrogance and snobbery. But that feeling of humble-brag just isn’t there.
Robert is like a thrashed dog.
It’s unpleasant and evokes a strong sense of pity. So why is he published so frequently in the Times? And who are his main readers? That is what I would love to know. Is it women who delight in Robert’s obsequiousness, his shameless boot-licking, his avowed acknowledgement of his wife’s superiority?
Surely it can’t be men? Talk about Stockholm Syndrome.
British tabloids are famous for digging up dirt on their celebrities. I wonder how many guys his wife fucks on the side?
It’s not like she respects him. How could she? What master respects a slave?
I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
Lots of love,