When I go for my early morning walk I sometimes don’t see a soul, or maybe just a figure in the distance. From time to time I might meet a someone coming the other way. We will greet each other, perhaps even have a brief chat. But this morning I was walking up the hill and where my path merged with another I found myself suddenly side by side with a fellow creature. We strolled quite happily together, talked about Hamlet, and then our paths diverged again.
The merging paths stirred a distant memory.
I was on the back seat of a stuffy little Morris 8 somewhere in France. We had been somewhere in France for many, many hours and been lost several times. It was very hot and I would have liked to have stuck my snout out of the window, but it was only allowed to be a little bit open, just enough to get rid of the petrol fumes, but not so much that it made a draught. I couldn’t inch it down further because it squeaked and gave the game away. A chap at the office had lent Papa the car. Mama was navigating.
Still, all the discomfort in the world couldn’t undermine the treat I had on my lap: the Green Book of Puzzles, given to me by Great Uncle Mole, and now I had hours and hours to immerse myself in it with no-one asking any more of me than that I should keep quiet.
I was trying to nut out a particularly challenging pictogram when I heard Mama saying that we should be coming to a fork in the road. Perhaps it was the pictograms and their incongruity that gave me a sudden image of a giant silver fork stabbed down in the middle of Route N74 as if it were mere mashed potato.
‘Is that “une fourchette dans la rue”‘, I asked with all the puffed up pride of an eight year-old mole who has just done a term of French. Mama said she had no idea. She was turning the map upside down. Forks were now the least of her worries. She had to work out how to circumnavigate Chalon. We seemed to be heading for Lyon instead of Geneva.
‘Nearly’, said Papa, who was rather more interested in linguistics than driving. “Fourche de routes”. A fourchette is a derivative of fourche from the Latin furca.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. And I was still none the wiser as to what a fork in the road might mean.
‘It’s a bifurcation. Or perhaps…’. He paused. ‘Perhaps it could be any number of divarications’. I could see his face in the rear-view mirror. His eyes had taken on that dreamy look he had when his mind was elevating itself above the dreary business of everyday living.
Mama suggested he should concentrate on where we were going.
A fork in the road, whether literal or figurative, should be an exciting thing – an unexpected manifestation of options, but for me they more frequently present unresolvable dilemmas. I come to a standstill and go no further lest I take the wrong route. This afternoon I spent a little time with my snout in Great Uncle Mole’s O.E.D., trying to convince myself that if only I understood forks a little better, I would be able to resolve my fear of them.
Fork is a very old word, but then I suppose pitch-forks are very old tools. And strangely, it is the older figurative uses of the word, the ones that are obsolete, that most accord with the sense of unease I have about forks; the way they pull the rug of certainty from under your paws. In 14th century courts, witnesses whose testimony was contradictory were said to be forking. In the 17th century a forked fee was a bribe extorted from both sides; a forked argument was one that was deliberately ambiguous, or one that contained a dilemma. If you stumbled over a word, or used the wrong one, you might say your tongue was forking. In other words a fork is a deceptive trap.
But when I resurfaced from the O.E.D. and allowed myself to ponder again about my morning stroll, I realised that there was indeed a different way of looking at a fork. The path I had taken was not the handle but a prong and what I came to was a confluence not, as Papa would have put it, a divarication. Is there some way I can turn my fork phobia on its head? Can I trust, somehow, that my fellow prongs will do what needs to be done without my meddling, and that we shall come together in the palm of the fork with complete synchronisity?