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The ‘F’ Word

‘What was that you said, Dad?’
‘Oh nothing Lucy.’
I’m at the wheel of my car in heavy traffic.
‘You didn’t say the ‘F’ word, did you Dad?’
Lucia is four. As it turns out these are two of the first full sentences she’s ever spoken in English. I’m proud of her. And embarrassed.
‘Idiot went on red,’ I explain.
‘That was the ‘F’ word you said, wasn’t it Dad?’
Before the sentences came, one of the first English words Lucia pronounced was, in fact, the ‘F’ word. She was struggling to speak English because my mother was visiting. My respectable Anglican mother. And it’s hard when you’re the only source of English for your kids to pretend that they picked up this language at nursery school. ‘Lucia!’ everybody exclaimed. ‘You mustn’t!’ Her blonde little face was incredu-lous, then pained. She burst into tears. Now I can’t even mutter the ‘F’ word without being picked up on it.
‘You did, didn’t you dad?’
‘If you knew how people drive here,’ I switch to Italian to put her off the scent. She wouldn’t understand that while it seems entirely appropriate to me for a man in his forties at least to swear at those who are constantly putting his life in danger, the ‘F’ word is actually rather shocking in the rosy lips of a tiny girl. I shall have to modify my behaviour, damn it. Which is so often the way with kids. You think you are disciplining them. And maybe you are. Only to find that the person in the straitjacket is you.
Our after-dinner cigarette went the same way. I once defended parental smoking vigorously when a German woman came across a restaurant to accuse my wife and I of irrespon-sibility because we were smoking in the presence of our then two-year-old son. ‘We’re smoking because of him,’ I shouted. ‘Because he’s been screaming all day long and making life impossible for us.’ But years later Michele came home singing some politically correct song they’d taught him at school – ‘Papà non fumare,’ ‘Daddy, don’t smoke,’ full of cancer and heart disease and evil smells and overflowing ashtrays. He wouldn’t understand that mamma and papà only smoked a couple a week.
Kids are so categorical. ‘You shouldn’t have said that, Dad,’ Lucy says piously from the back of the car. ‘You shouldn’t look at other women,’ the ten-year-old Stefania tells me with some severity when an attractive actress is half naked on TV.’ ‘Oh Dad needs his whisky,’ Michele says pityingly to a guest. ‘He’s terrible.’ And one day, right out of the blue, my son announces: ‘If you ever leave Mum, I’ll kill you.’ ‘I have no … intention of leaving your mother,’ I protest, only just remembering not to field the f-word.
So the double standards begin. A babysitter protects the kids while we enjoy an after-dinner cigarette with friends in a restaurant talking over marital crises and infidelities vari¬ous. Some very uncorrect views are expressed. Everybody supports Clinton. What are you supposed to lie about if not an affair? And on the way back I enjoy a colourful curse or two at the expense of another atrocious piece of driving. Only to discover on arrival that bedtimes haven’t been observed! The babysitter hasn’t bothered and the kids are being allowed to watch some seriously sleazy television. For heaven’s sake!
Is this hypocrisy? Will the children one day be appalled by our duplicity? Having a family means getting tangled up in such a web: different levels of cognition, areas of experi¬ence. You lay down rules you don’t quite keep yourself in the hope that one day they’ll learn to break them circumspectly as you do. What is said publicly, you realise, is the morality of the very young, but once a parent you learn not to complain too loudly about the gap between that and experience.
‘Flipping heck!’ I suddenly announce. Words I haven’t spoken in years. ‘what I actually said Lucy, was flipping heck.’
‘What’s that mean, dad?’
‘It means I didn’t say the f-word,’ I tell her.