It is occurring somewhere in the world right now. In bedrooms and corridors, parks and cars, kitchens and meeting rooms, our maws give it birth. It has no name but we all know the taste of it, the sound of it, the shame of it, intimately.
In the decisive throes of our godawful row, we are taking a purposeful slug-in of breath, summoning our silo of stockpiled spit, cranking up plosive tension with our stiffening jaw, and… emitting a sort of spluttering mutter, high on sound and fury, short on intelligible words. Articulacy snags at the back of our throat; our crowning verbal riposte stumbles on our tonsils like a child clambering round a funhouse foam punch-bag; our derniers mots dissolve into glottal gibberish that essentially boils down to ‘grrraddtdpfffffff. So there.’ The parting shot. It’s imperfect, every time.
Extreme emotion short-circuits the brain. Execution cleaves from intention like marshmallow from rock. As we stride away, employing heel-squeak and door-slam and hair-swish to cover our bungle like a cat littering its undignified crap, our body aches with the lack of it all.
It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing a crumpled ball of paper, hard, just as, post-chuck, you feel the phantom force of your limb shoot ghostly, ghastly out into space, diffusing its might into the air with palpable, withering pain – so the shadow presence of the perfect parting shot floats mocking into the air, the soul of the scathing words unsaid drifting up like the acrid smoke of a gun misfired. It’s like readying for an epic sneeze, and being left gaping, wide-eyed and slack-sinused. Unpurged.
In the aftermath, we daydream, replaying our ideal response again and again as if to train our neurons to obey. But could we be compounding the problem? Is the slippery art of diction really the thing to chase in times of stress?
In the (very, very) few moments last weekend when I wasn’t writing poetry about the rejuvenating power of spring, hiking across the lamb-studded countryside, or distributing homemade Easter eggs to the local poor, I watched the 1994 Andrew Davies adaptation of Middlemarch (tenants with flapping washing and bad teeth, dappled greys and small dogs, Rufus Sewell in a red coat and Robert Hardy in gaiters – you know the score). In a bedtime scene where the Casaubon argues with his young wife Dorothea, the controlling old scholar terminates their tiff by blowing out the candle, and plunging them into majestic black.
It has everything; shock value, contempt, and the ultimate mid-fracas pleasure of killing something with a huff. But the lesson is not to stage manage rows in darkened rooms with a single lit candle nearby, but rather to remember to never actually have the final word.
No, instead, let their last clumsy castigation hang harsh in the room. Leave it to ring thin and puling in both your ears; then identify an object, and channel all your climactic energies into that. Close the flap on your satchel so that it sounds like a slapped face. Put your glass on the counter with a precise, derisive ping. Don your hat, making sure to shift it to a jaunty angle.
Then leave, letting the parting phrase that never was be their tormenting fantasy, not yours.