Mary Killen

Dear Mary | 17 May 2018

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Q. I have incurable, inoperable back pain that severely hinders my ability to sit and necessitates my taking a cushion wherever I go. Many, I believe, view this as a sartorial eccentricity. I have two issues: how can I politely — or even humorously — deter people I meet from probing my medical history and offering their own treatment advice (‘Have you tried Pilates?’ ‘You must meet my cranial osteopath!’)? Conversely, a close friend recently dismissed my condition as akin to his bone-idle, sponging girlfriend’s ‘leg problem’ (‘It’s ethereal and comes and goes’). I don’t wish to be a figure of pity, but nor do I want to be seen as a foppish malingerer. Is there any way to elegantly tread the line?

— Name and address withheld

A. It all depends on what sort of circles you move in. Should they be haute bohemian, then carry the cushion inside a plastic carrier bag and, as you wedge it behind yourself on sitting down, simply remark: ‘I’m putting this here so I don’t forget it.’ Then change the subject — no need to be drawn on what the contents of the bag are. Should it be needed on more formal occasions, then have business cards printed giving the name of the manufacturer with words to the effect of ‘orthopaedic cushion, guaranteed to relieve extreme pain in cases of incurable back injury’. Hand one to the prober and change the subject. This should embarrass him or her into shutting up.

Q. My father has become querulous in older age and often tells off my sons, aged six and seven, in a sterner way than the boys are used to. They take this very badly and have become shy of him. How can I peace-broke, as my father is in no mind to kowtow to ‘junior snowflakes’ and apologise and yet he loves them passionately?

— Name and address withheld

A. Doctor Johnson, in reassuring Boswell after giving him a tongue-lashing and in anticipation of more of the same, declared that to allay the latter’s paranoia he would inscribe a book to him declaring his great affection and in this way he would not need to reiterate it. Next time he is in benevolent humour, ask your father to make a similar written declaration. Once he has done this, you can always refer your sons to it should there be any more ructions.

Q. When driving home yesterday I was barged off the road by a Range Rover. I had to swerve into a muddy lay-by. As the driver passed I flicked an angry V sign at him. As he passed at great speed, we made brief eye contact and I realised it was my gardener. I feel very embarrassed. How should I resolve the situation?

— Name and address withheld

A. Immediately ring your gardener and ask him whether he liked your joke as he drove past. Claim that you knew it was him and hope that he falls for it.