A night at the opera

David Whitley October 23, 2011 3

“You shall visit us next time you come to Tampere. We have four saunas.”

By this stage, I want to crawl through the floor into a little grubby hidey-hole. There are some times in life where we do something because we feel we ought to rather than because we want to. In my line of work, this happens rather often. It’s not about doing what I’d most enjoy, but what best fits what I’ve been commissioned to write about. And this is how I ended up sat next to the 60-year-old Finns.

I didn’t particularly want to go the Mozart Dinner Concert – I’ve a long standing belief that any ‘entertainment’ over dinner is there to mask the low quality of the food and the food is there to soften the low quality of the entertainment – but it did need checking out.

The problem is that when you go to check out this sort of thing, you’re usually the only person on your own. I was. So I got put on the table with the Finnish couple. And did small talk. The smallest of small small talk. What do you do? Oh that’s nice. Yes, I’m here for a weekend too. Salzburg is a nice city.

After sitting entirely non-plussed through the greatest hits of Don Giovanni, we finally had some food put in front of us and the chap on my left disappeared to the toilets.

“So what did you do before you retired?” I ask of his wife, picking up the forced chat from earlier.

She pauses. “I have depression.”

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Mouthful of soup.

“A very deep depression. I have had it for ten years.”

Attempt at mustering up another mouthful of soup.

“We have two children. Our daughter, she has Angleman Syndrome.”

Fork stops before mouth. I confess to not knowing what Angleman Syndrome is.

“It affects about one in 20,000 children.”

“Our son…” She pauses. Silence pesters. “He is dead.”

I struggle to know what noises to make.

“It was, how do you say?” A brief pause for thought; a body and face frozen in awkwardness. “Self-murder.”

At this point, her husband returns.

“I have been telling him about our family tragedies.”

It’s awful, but I feel an immense relief. Someone else is here to take a share in the discomfort. The look on his face is torn between recognition and love. Recognition that I’m being placed in polite chit-chat purgatory and love for the woman he has shared so much heartache with. He wants to say that she shouldn’t be talking about this. He hasn’t the coldness to shush her.

“We were in Lapland at the time,” he says. “Three years ago.”

“Have you been to Lapland? It is beautiful in September. There are lots of English people there in winter, with their small children. Santa Claus, they all come to see Santa Claus,” she interjects, flailing to cover her tracks. We’re back on small talk. Good small talk. The right things to talk about.

The lights dim, and the musicians come back on. The duettists ham away in front, performing the same Best Of compilation that they do every night. I sneak a look at the time on my phone. This won’t finish for another hour-and-a-half at the very least. I can’t escape early because I have to pay for my drinks. And besides, if I run, they’ll know. She’ll know it’s because of what she said. That will only make things worse.

They still have plenty of time to invite me to Tampere.

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