At the close of the 1914 -18 war the streets of London were inundated with a population suffused with an unbounded joy. Dancing and merrymaking were the order of the day and many tears of happiness were shed; many tears of sorrow too. And one word was on everyone’s lips, a word that flew in every voice from one to another throughout the land ─ the long awaited ‘Armistice’. A word synonymous with peace, conciliation and relaxation from the terrible austerities and carnage of war. ‘Hooray!’ they sang, for at last had come the great Armistice.
In those innocent days when a majority of that population were semi-literate and unlikely to have much access to a dictionary; no dissenting voice was heard; and even the intelligentsia were strangely silent; for one look in any dictionary gives the whole game away.
‘Armistice ─ an agreement to stop fighting temporarily.’
Were those who drew up the documents and devised the terms under this word aware of its meaning? Or of the terrible prophecy which it irrefutably implied. Three wrecked and depleted economies agreeing to disengage for a while to lick their wounds and allow a couple of generations to refresh their stocks of cannon-fodder. For, of course, twenty years later that prophecy was fulfilled and the signatories returned to the fray.
This syndrome, although as illustrated here relates to high politics, can be seen to operate in all walks of human life, and reveals itself on the smallest scale and in the commonest of incidents.
Emma has just stepped out into her back garden. She stands looking upward watching an aeroplane as it passes overhead and for one moment she almost loses her balance. She stretches out her arm and holds on to the fence which divides her garden from the one next door. The fence is of light construction and her weight as she wobbles bows it a little.
A curtain in the window of the kitchen adjacent house twitches slightly and a moment later the kitchen door opens and Mrs B─ steps out. She is a stout woman and her manner is stern. She walks up to the fence and addresses Emma who still rests her hand on the fence.
‘Be careful of that fence,’ she says. ‘It’s not very strong and can’t take your weight.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ says Emma, hurriedly withdrawing her hand. Emma doesn’t like Mrs B─, who she thinks is common. ‘But it was quite accidental and look.’ She straightens the fence. ‘It’s all right now.’
‘Well that may be,’ says Mrs B─ ‘But I’d just as soon you don’t lean on it again.’
This gets up Emma’s nose a little; she is not going to take orders from this prole.
‘Well you can just as soon something else then, and be less rude into the bargain.’
‘Rude!’ says Mrs B─. ‘I’ll show you rude if you start calling me names.’
‘I just think you shouldn’t be so rude.’ says Emma.
‘Well as far as I’m concerned you can just piss off.’ says Mrs B─. Emma is shocked by this and throws caution to the winds.
‘You vile woman,’ she shouts, her voice carrying across the nearby back gardens.
‘Oh, so I’m a vile woman am I? How dare you? You dirty whore.’
Emma lowers her voice but puts a steely edge to it.
‘You fat old cow,’ she grits. ‘You piece of low-life scum!’
Mrs B─ now falls into a fearful rage and spittle flies as she screams her defiance. ‘You filthy stinking SLAG!’ She searches through her repertoire for more of the same. ‘And what’s more your husband is a pimp.’
‘Don’t you dare call my husband a pimp,’ cries Emma, this last had got to her and there are tears in her eyes.
‘Oh, crying now are we?’ says Mrs B─ scornfully. ‘It only goes to show your sneaky nature.’
‘But I’m not sneaky,’ says Emma through her tears, ‘and I’m always ready to be friends.’
Mrs B─ considers this and reluctantly concedes a point.
‘Well all right then,’ she says. ‘But you must promise to leave my fence alone.’
‘I will,’ says Emma gladly, ‘and I don’t really think you’re a fat old cow.’
Mrs B─ allows herself just a hint of a conciliatory smile.
‘Well all right my dear,’ she says. ‘And you’re not a slag.’
Now they are both smiling and Mrs B─, imbued with a sudden and unexpected feeling towards her neighbour invites her in for a slice of cake and a cup of tea.
Emma eagerly agrees and since there is a gate in the fence for the convenience of the gardeners she comes through and follows Mrs B─ into her kitchen.
They sit at the table waiting for the kettle to boil while Mrs B─ cuts the cake.
‘I must say,’ begins Mrs B─, ‘you have managed to get some very nice flowers to grow in your garden.’
Emma likes this; maybe Mrs B─ is not so bad after all. She ventures a compliment of her own.
‘Well thank you,’ she says, ‘and I never fail to admire you hollyhocks.’
Now it is the turn of Mrs B─ to harbour warmer feelings; but…
‘You know my dear,’ she says condescendingly. ‘It was my husband who built the fence and he had quite a difficult job sinking in the posts.’
‘Yes of course,’ says Emma, ‘and I have said I’m sorry.’
Mrs B─ pours the tea but hasn’t finished yet.
‘So you must understand that I can’t allow people to go around leaning on it.’
Emma is now on the defensive.
‘But I wasn’t actually leaning on it; just recovering my balance.’
‘Well it looked to me as if you were definitely leaning.’ says Mrs B─ firmly. ‘And if that fence goes down my husband is going to be very upset.’
‘Look, can’t you just shut up about the bloody fence for a moment,’ says Emma now becoming irritated by this. ‘I thought we were over that and I’ve promised not to do it again.’
‘Don’t tell me to shut up in my own kitchen,’ shouts Mrs B─. ‘I didn’t invite you in to be insulted.’
‘Well if you behave like a common fish-wife I have no choice but to retaliate.’
‘Oh, a fish-wife now am I?’ screams Mrs B─. ‘Then you can just get out of my bloody kitchen NOW!’
They get to their feet and Emma’s chair crashes to the floor. She turns and flounces out while flinging a Parthian shot over her shoulder.
‘You’re nothing but a fat scumbag and a dirty slut!’ she shrieks.
‘And your husband’s a pimp!’ screams Mrs B─.