Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 14 September 2002

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Dear Mary...

Q. A problem I often run into at school is that of the 'mystery offence'. For example, arriving in my form room at the start of this term, a very dear friend 'death-stared' me and refused to speak to me. On inquiry as to how I had offended, she replied, 'You know.' What can one do in such a situation? Apologise profusely, as though knowing what is wrong, and risk, through ignorance, the same mistake again? Or continue to question and anger the friend further? I need your counsel.

C.W., Edinburgh

A. Your letter withholds your full name, but let us assume it is Charlotte. Rehearse a third party to inquire casually of the offended one, 'Hey, what have you done to Charlotte? Someone told me she was really angry with you about some terrible thing you've done to her.' A defensive outburst will thereby be triggered: she has done nothing to you. On the contrary, it is you who have behaved appallingly by buying the same dress as her for the same party, telling your parents, who then told her parents, that she smokes ...or whatever. Having established the offence of which you stand charged, you can then proceed either to clear your name if innocent, or to make amends if guilty. Meanwhile, on conclusion of the outburst, third party can say, 'Sorry, I got it wrong. I meant to say I heard you were angry with her.'

Q. Although I am myself peculiarly averse to barbecues, my newly wed young wife and her young friends enjoy these culinary experiments. At this time of year, I find my patience more than usually tried by the prevalence of wasps in our garden. These menaces which sting the tongues of toddlers are naturally drawn to the barbecue table. How can I retain my composure during these deeply unenjoyable events?

E.D.G., Cornwall

A. Why not transfer your anxiety on to the young parents present by volunteering to entertain their children on a mission of wasp patrol? As the wasps land on the table, trap them one at a time in a screw-top jamjar lined with a quarter of an inch of flour. Replace the lid of the jar and shake it around until the wasp is fully coated. When it is let go you can lead the children in following its bullet-like progress back to its nest. In this way you can duck out of cooking or handing round, at the same time as channelling your aggression into the useful activity of locating the nests so they can be destroyed by a council extermination team. It is likely that you will simultaneously succeed in reducing your wife's enthusiasm for barbecues, particularly if you point out that you have at the ready a sharp knife and empty ballpoint pen-filler in order to perform an emergency tracheotomy should any toddler be stung in the buccal area.

Q. A merkin, I recently learnt during a convivial evening, is an 18th-century word for a pubic wig for ladies. On what occasions, if any, is it correct for these to be worn?

M. McM., by email

A. A merkin is, indeed, a pubic wig, but its correct use is restricted to youths taking part in their bar mitzvah ceremony, where it is worn to symbolise maturity.

If you have a problem write, to Dear Mary, c/o The Spectator, 56 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LL.