Mrs Barber Visits her Daughter-in-Law

by Hannah Bagnall

The Beginning

Starting at the beginning is advisable. It saves leaving gaps and creating confusion and having to find clever ways to explain things later. Mrs Barber does not like her daughter-in-law. Nothing came before her feeling that she does not like her daughter-in-law. It was a feeling that was already there in the beginning when she came to think about the abstract concept of a wife for her son.

Being Polite

Mrs Barber wipes her feet on her daughter-in-law’s doormat twenty times before she enters her home. A definite number allows for no misinterpretations. Mrs Barber is being polite.


Mrs Barber perches on the edge of the settee wincing with every sip of her tea. She hates the way her daughter-in-law makes tea. It is over-brewed and milky all at once. It is a combination of the two very types of tea that Mrs Barber hates the most. It is in a mug. She makes a rule of drinking every last drop.

Talking a lot

Her daughter-in-law talks a lot. She talks as she gathers great armfuls of children’s toys, clothes, food and moves them from one place to another in a heap. She talks as she comforts children after scuffs and scrapes and sends them away to play again. Mrs Barber refrains from talking in her daughter-in-law’s presence. If she can help it. That had been a trick she had learned from her own mother-in-law. If you do not talk, you can be neither understood nor misunderstood. Either could cause difficulty. Talking a lot provides context and context leads to discovering motives. Not being sure of sufficiently suppressing her one big underlying motive, Mrs Barber sticks to her policy of saying a maximum of five complete sentences on any one visit.

Cold bath water

It becomes necessary for Mrs Barber to make use of her daughter-in-law’s bathroom before she leaves. Even when she is certain of her privacy, Mrs Barber does not permit herself to make faces at the toothpaste splashes on the mirror, or the scraps of soggy toilet roll that have tangled themselves around the toilet brush. The bath is filled with water. She does allow herself to put just one finger in the water to feel the temperature. Cold. Bubbles have collected at the edges of the water and have turned to dusty foam. Toys filled with water have sunk to the bottom.

The door is closed.

On the way out, Mrs Barber wipes her feet again out of habit. She stops in mid-swipe, remembering herself. She becomes afraid that she has given something away and she reprimands herself for her sloppiness. Her daughter-in-law waves from the doorstep with her children tangled around her legs. Her daughter-in-law does not seem to have noticed the little indiscretion. She waves and smiles and waves. The children pull her back into the house and she laughs and rolls her eyes good-naturedly. The door is closed.


Mrs Barber visits her daughter-in-law and wipes her feet and is pleased with her display of manners. She drains the over-brewed and milky mug of tea in spite of it being precisely the kind of tea she hates most of all. Her daughter-in-law talks rather a lot and Mrs Barber is sure to do the opposite. Her daughter-in-law has not tidied her bathroom in preparation for Mrs Barber’s visit.  Mrs Barber is careless as she leaves the house and nearly betrays her motives after all. Her daughter-in-law does not seem to notice.  Mrs Barber later relates the whole visit to a friend on the phone. They agree that Mrs Barber has been particularly unfortunate in her daughter-in-law.