From Pernicious Maxims

            Ellie was good-looking and healthy, Hika-like, about twenty-five years further on. Her house was sparsely furnished, very clean with few ornaments or decorations of any kind. There was nothing to suggest that its owner originated from Burma.
            Ellie greeted Richard politely enough but subjected him to an interrogative stare.
            “Do you want some coffee,” she said. “Normally, I drink tea.”
            “Coffee, please, if you don’t mind.”
            Nonetheless, somehow they both ended up drinking tea.
            “I’ve come to see you because I want to marry Hika,” started Richard.
            “You’d better ask her, not me, don’t you think?” said Ellie.
            “I am being correct,” said Richard.
            “So, if I say, no you can’t, you will take notice?”
            “No,” said Richard. “I will marry her willy-nilly.”
            “So, there’s not much point your asking.”
            “Yes, you’re right. There’s not much point but I hope you won’t say no.”
            “So my opinion is immaterial?”
            “If you wish to see it like that.”
            “It seems to me that my wishes don’t or won’t change anything. Is that true?”
            “Yes.”
            “Do people in their thirties in Australia normally ask parents their permission over marriage?”
            “Not normally.”
            “So why are you asking me? Are you condescending to me because I’m an immigrant of mixed race who has no knowledge of the customs of the day?”
            This was a Sh-succession type of attitude. Richard looked hard at his future mother-in-law.
            “No, I’m not condescending at all. I asking your permission because if I didn’t you would attack me the other way round, that my not asking you was a presumption, a kind of taking you for granted. Is that true?”
            “Yes, almost certainly,” said Ellie. “You are a university lecturer or professor or something of that nature. Our family is a family of artisans, scarcely educated by your standards. There’s condescension inherent in the situation. It will flow from the higher to the lower as naturally as water downhill.”
            “I’ve no intention of condescending to anyone,” said Richard. “I am myself suspicious of the intellectual or pseudo-intellectual. Your daughter lacks all academic pretentiousness.”
            “Is that more condescension?” said Ellie. “You are consciously marrying down so that you can dominate my savage daughter who will bear your dusky race.”
            She laughed.
            “Mrs Davis,” said Richard. “I love and admire your daughter. I am going to marry her. You must not bully me by preposterous quotation from Browning.”
            “Tennyson, Mr Richard,” said Ellie happily. “We were well educated in Moulmein. Do you know Latin?”
            She smiled at him, offering more tea.
            “You’ve known Hika for only a few months so you’re getting married in a hurry,” continued Ellie. “I assume that an academic would not be so crass as to cause an untimely pregnancy.”
            “Hika is not pregnant. We’ve made up our minds to be married so why wait?”
            “Carpe diem,” announced Ellie.
            “Just so,” said Richard.
            “Quam minimum credula postero.”
            “Very impressive, Mrs Davis. Ovid?”
            “No.”
            “Terence? Tacitus, Cicero, Seneca, Plautus, Suetonius?’’
            “No, no, no, no, no, no. Horace. We were well-educated in Moulmein.”
            There was a slight pause.
            “I met your daughter while running in the national park,” said Richard. “She’s impressively fit.”
            “She won’t be fit if she picks up tick fever,” said Ellie. “I’ve told her dozens of times. Do you spray?’
            “Do I pray?” said Richard. “Not much, hardly at all.”
            “Praying won’t stop you getting some horrible disease.”
            “I quite agree.”
            “Diseases can be caught by professors as well as anybody else. I once had to look after a poet afflicted by scurvy.”
            Ellie looked inquisitively at Richard as if she would not have been surprised if he failed to include anti-scorbutics in his dietu
            “Your daughter feeds me very well,” said Richard.
            “Anyway, I am not a poet,” he added. Somehow he felt obliged to say this, to deny any connection with such fanciful, pretentious people.
            “I know. You’re a philosopher.”
            Ellie cocked her head, very slightly. She raised her eyebrows a fraction.
            Richard felt a strong urge, Judas-like, to deny his academic field.
            “I teach philosophy but I am not a philosopher as such.”
            Ellie opened her eyes a little wider and regarded him from under her brows.
            “That sounds like an engineer saying he doesn’t have anything to do with engines.”
            She smiled.
            Richard felt relieved.
            “My family were all practical people. We had to be,” said Ellie.
            “Like Hika herself. I admire her very much. That side of her.”
            “I hope you admire the other side as well.”
            “Of course, I admire that part as well. Everything.”
            But that sounded overstated and insincere.
            “Good. That’s healthy. Hika’s quite like me,” observed her mother.
            Richard was worried that he might break into a sweat. It was absurd. Ellie’s manner made him feel nervous like a patient whose blood pressure was about to be taken and who felt guilty when it turned out to be so high.
            “Don’t worry. She’s gentler. I don’t really mind your being a philosopher.”
            “Thank you,” said Richard, feeling as if he had been forgiven after confessing to a dirty habit like smoking or sodomy or masturbating in front of a film showing echidnas mating.
            “But don’t be too academic. Or artistic.”
            “I’ll try.”
            “My husband was an artist. He left me. He was a painter and painted abstract art.”
            “I don’t paint. I would not paint abstract pictures if I did.”
            Richard resisted an urge to shout that he was a complete philistine. He pulled himself together and counter-attacked.
            “You can’t object to my thinking. Philosophy is thinking.”
            “I cannot object to your thinking. Don’t be absurd.”
            Not over-pleased with the interview so far, Richard rose as if to leave.
            “Please sit down,” said Ellie. “Don’t go. Have a drink, a proper one. I’ve gin and beer.”
            “Beer, please,” said Richard.
            But somehow they both ended up with gins and tonics.
            “I’m not really a bully, “said Ellie.  “I just want Hika’s husband to be someone solid. What about divorce?”
            “What about divorce? We’re not married yet.”
            “People’s attitudes and feelings change. Marriages often don’t last. Be practical.”
            “If we split, fifty-fifty, everything, both ways,” said Richard, on romantic impulse. “We total our two estates and divide them, or their equivalent value, down the middle.”
            “Children?”
            “We consider their emotional and educational needs. Mother to have last say.”
            “That sounds vaguer.”
            “It has to be. I can assure you that, if ever Hika and separated, I would never quarrel with her. There would be no point. Do I have to write all this down?”
            “No, but I shall remember what we have agreed.”
            “I am sure you will.”
            “You understand, Richard, that we don’t want a dreamer.”
            “I am not a dreamer or a visionary or a charlatan. I’m interested in what can be said to be true. It’s honourable.”
            “Claims to the truth can be an excuse for despotism.”
            “Despotism is a highly self-centred attitude. I don’t have that attitude.”
            “Most of the despots in history have been male.”
            “Your gender has greater opportunities these days.”
            “Yes.”
            “Things have improved.”
            “Yes and no. Women as despots will be worse. Do you agree?”
            “I agree.”
            Ellie suggested another drink. Richard asked for coffee but somehow, despite his explicit request, they ended up with gins and tonics.

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