The White Tablecloth

IMG_9361Mr. and Mrs. Molloy sat at breakfast one morning.

It was a day when the rain was just beginning to slide shyly out of the sky, feeling, to Mrs Molloy at any rate, like a blessed relief. It was a relief to her after the long days of heat and sunshine when all there was to be heard was the delight of everyone – the people of the country congratulating each other on their good weather as though they were all personally responsible for it. The relief was not having to go out and sweat in the heat, uncomfortable and anxious and wondering what was wrong with her that she wasn’t enjoying it more – the relief was that she could come inside and be comfortable and not feel guilty for Avoiding the Outside World.

She was eating toast and a soft-boiled egg. She looked across at her husband, who was eating cold porridge made the previous night, with a miserable look on his face (he loved the sunshine and missed it.) She watched him eating and felt ashamed for being pleased that the rain had come at last – she had a superstitious notion that it might have been her own unhappiness that had brought it on.

The tablecloth was pure and white with only one small stain. The book that Mrs Molloy was reading covered the stain by the way she held it, so she could forget about it then and was able to get a sense of great peace, of tranquility, looking at the whiteness of the cloth.

She knew that her husband didn’t like her reading at the table – he thought it a behaviour that hinted at the recluse, and liked to hint that the real reason Mrs Molloy read at mealtimes was that she would rather not have to speak to him. He was wrong about this, but right in one respect: while reading did afford her real pleasure at other times, her main reason for doing it at mealtimes was not for pleasure; rather that looking at the book meant she would not have to gaze at the stain, disrupting the lovely empty white of the cloth.

Mrs. Molloy read out to her husband a passage from the book she was reading, saying to herself that this would be her attempt at cheering him up.

“Isn’t this interesting. It’s about a mathematician from ancient Greece, who came up with these paradoxes, I think to sort of challenge the standard mathematical thinking of the time. I like this one best: the ‘Di-‘ (she paused as she figured out the pronunciation) – ‘Dichotomy. It says ‘Motion is impossible, because whatever moves must first reach the middle of its course before it reaches the end; but before it reaches the middle it must have reached the quarter mark, and so on, indefinitely. Hence the motion can never even start.’ – Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” she said, looking up and across at her husband.

“Wonder what?” said Mr. Molloy.

“Well.” She wasn’t sure how to answer the question and this made her irritated with him. “Wonder, how we ever get anywhere, I suppose.”

Her husband had a way of quizzically raising a single eyebrow that made him look like something out of a comic book. Depending on her mood, this trick either annoyed Mrs. Molloy, or else it rather aroused her. He did this now and said, “That’s easy. You just pick up your feet and start walking.”

“But how can we if before we get anywhere we have to get to the tiniest fraction of the distance, and before that an even smaller fraction and it never ends?”

Her husband always did things very deliberately and often very slowly. Now his chewing slowed down until it stopped altogether. He laid down his spoon, and looked at Mrs. Molloy with his steady gaze that never failed to unsettle her.

“That, he said, “is all inside your head, those obstructions. These rules that make things seem impossible in your mind – they have no power in real life.”

“But maths is a science. It’s real life explained logically. Isn’t it?” she said.

Mr Molloy laughed. It was a nice laugh, but still…

“My dear.” He was speaking kindly. “Don’t be silly…” He stopped for a minute, and she saw him staring, not directly at her but at the book by her elbow. He got a look in his eye that worried her.

“Let me see that book,” said he. Mrs Molloy felt a clenching in her stomach.  Automatically, she put her fingers to her throat, feeling her pulse for comfort. She tried to speak very calmly.

“I’m reading it now.”

She saw the twitching at the corners of her husband’s mouth and was suddenly infuriated at him for messing with her in that way. She remained straight-faced, calm; looking at him, and enjoying the picture in her mind, of that disgusting cold porridge spilled over the floor, the bowl shattered and blood all mixed up in the mess from the wound to his head, where she’d have smashed that china bowl. She didn’t mind the mess, as long as it was inside her head.

He stood up. He said, “The world we live in can’t always be explained logically. For example –”

And he walked across the room, “motion is possible.”

He smiled and for just a second – a moment – she felt a sense of excitement, of freedom, a sense of possibility…

But now the book had slipped – and she glanced down – and there was that wretched stain! Surely it had gotten bigger. And suddenly the tablecloth was the journey to be taken and she was the first step, and that dirty brown mark was that paradox making the journey impossible, marring it irreparably.

Like a hedge, she had grown her unbending rules and her system of logic around her. It was a beautiful hedge, perfectly symmetrical. It had protected her, until now.

“I can’t,” she said and got up and left the room.

She sat on her bed for what felt like a very long time. Bent over, head held in her hands, she tried to think of nothing at all.

Almost afraid to re-enter the kitchen, she came back inside finally and saw that something was different. There was a darker light in the room. Or something was missing. Her husband came over to her and put an arm around her. She was relieved to find that he had forgiven her for her irrationality, what must, she supposed, have seemed very strange behaviour.

Bundled up under Mr Molloy’s other arm was the white tablecloth, and somewhere among its soft folds and creases, in the depths of its white weft, was held the stain.

He said nothing.He just nodded in the direction of the table, and held her very, very tightly as they looked at it together. It was an old table, and now all its knots, cracks, undulations and variations, all its markings and meanderings and imperfections were facing out.

It was bare before the world, and as she looked at it, the word “free” came calling like early-morning sunlight, hushed and tentative, but still there, still insisting, still full of its own old vitality, into the mind of Mrs. Molloy.



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