Some Matthews are never called Matts, not once in their lives. Sometimes the mistake would seem so glaring and obvious that it will not enter your mind for one second to make it. Take my dad, for instance. Nobody called him Matt. They called him many things (Emily occasionally referred to him as ‘shitbag’, though never in his presence), but there was just one Christian name for my old man. And the name was Matthew.
Nothing biblical about it, mind you, even if my grandparents were ardent churchgoers who settled on the name in a truly consensual, God-fearing way. Matthew. Right from the start no one thought of my dad as ‘Matt’, not even when he was tucked up in his cradle crying into eternity full of intrusive faces, endless ceilings and ever-flickering lights. There, there, Matthew. Hush, my boy. I believe it was Mary, my grandmother, who said that. In her cooing baby-voice, holding a silver ladle and wrapped in a white apron smeared with soup. Matthew's quick-tempered father must have been annoyed by the rattle, though he liked repeating that his little boy was making the loveliest, most charming scream imaginable.
Then, when a complicated puzzle was all done and triumphantly spread across the floor of his room, Matthew was patted on his shoulder or kissed on the forehead: Well done, Matthew. And then, later still, when the ball came crashing through the open window and onto his book-cluttered desk, it wasn’t Fuck chemistry, Matt, it was more of a Care to join in, Matthew? Which Matthew never did, not even when he knew that Esme would be there, watching. He was good at football, among the very best at his school, but even so: such a time-wasting experience. Besides, all that for just one ball? Ninety minutes plus added time? Twenty-two men? Not that Esme wasn’t the prettiest thing in town. In her summery white frock, searching for sweaty masculinity or what words and even thoughts could not yet articulate, she hovered around the stadium in a way that was pleasing and slightly confusing. And every time it was Matthew, she’s all hot for you. And in the tree, when only butterflies and Lucy could hear her, Esme whispered the name. The name was Matthew.
And what does old Matt think we are doing all night? Solving his riddles? 'Old Matt' was of course the nickname of Professor Churchill at Cambridge University. Speaking of which, aren’t you going out with us tonight, Matthew? There were professors who were like ancient paintings decorating University halls: you would never remove them, because the dust might kill you. And then there were professors who were all modern and cheeky, who talked about Mexican weed and Hungarian prostitutes. Yet neither party could quite master the concise and seemingly reasonable ‘Matt’. Perhaps they never tried, and perhaps That’s quite remarkable, Matt would have sounded ludicrous in the extreme: considering the precocious achievements and the handsomely protruding chin. So Matthew it was, to his face and behind his back, in lecture halls and in lavatories. He did get out some nights and he did get laid of course, though it was never quite the pretty Esme of old. And even in the morning, when a girl’s naked thigh looked out at him from under the blanket and a cloud of cigarette smoke rolled out of his mouth, it was You know, Matthew? Sex with you is a real one-off. She looked at his face, at his handsomely protruding chin and said that. He was promising and twenty-one. He was the one from her dreams and she had slept with everyone on Cambridge’s rowing team. Her parents had a huge mansion on the Western coast of France where she was about to move. She had just had an orgasm that made the Earth move under her feet. And she called him 'Matthew'.
Professor Matthew Churchill, old Matt, saw his big MI6 proposal go down in flames when my dad chose to join the military. There wasn’t a war at the time, but no shortage of hot-blooded enemies among chief officers. Red in the face and shouting abuse randomly and indiscriminately, every Sergeant Hartman of British military command was reduced to saying the full name of my father. Matthew. And that includes the few instances when Matthew happened to be slow, negligent or else said something inappropriate. Overall, though, the service sheet was clean to the point where my dad was invited to the General’s office and offered tea and home-made biscuits: Matthew, you might just have a brilliant career ahead of you... Having skipped the Matt thing in the cradle, childhood, teenage and University years and even in stuffy barracks smacking of exaggerated bonhomie and fake pornography, my father was of course bound to live on ‘Matthew’ from now on.
And later, when protruding chin was downgraded to protruding stomach and marriage seemed years away, ‘Matthew’ was getting ever more reasonable both at home and in public. Regardless of how clear or vague the concept of chemical valence was, his pupils called him ‘Matthew’. Even the proposal made by my father in a crowded canteen that smelled of bad sandwiches and orange juice was answered by Zoe (who taught English literature at the same school) with a brief, slightly chewed-up I will indeed, Matthew. Canteen lunches, weekend cinema shows as well as an ill-advised camping trip behind them, she never had one doubt about whom she was marrying. She was about to become the wife of ‘Matthew’, and, unknowingly perhaps, the splitting image of the now deceased Mary who had to her last day been bravely carrying the household on her matronly shoulders and making occasional long-distance phone calls to find out about the health of her Matthew. Silver ladles and soup-smeared aprons were now Zoe’s forte, and every time it was Busy day, Matthew?, and Pass me the salad, Matthew. This is what Emily and I heard besides the commonplace ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ and ‘hon’. And this is what I heard from his close friends, school colleagues and jogging mates. Yeah, Matthew, I’m telling you. Mrs. Bradshaw didn’t care for chemistry but she was all dressed up for you, said an old school friend who dropped by one evening, with lager, memories and flowers for Zoe (her first since a wedding anniversary seven years ago). My dad then a chubby, white-haired man who voted Conservative and didn't know how to send an e-mail.
Speaking of myself, it was never an issue. I called him ‘dad’ or, when I felt self-conscious in a company of other kids, I called him ‘father’. It sounded religious, almost biblical, which I never really minded. But Matt? Matthew? That really was none of my business, though years later I did of course have to deal with the funeral papers and the tombstone inscription that my grief-stricken mother couldn’t handle. And neither could Emily who had long relocated to Canada and insisted there was no way for her to fly over. What with Margaret’s prom and Frank’s back injury (Frank: Geez, Matthew was such a nice old chap.) It was ‘Matthew’ everywhere, of course, on mourning cards and in scarce words of a few friends and relatives who cared to come. On the tombstone it read: Matthew Johnson. 1934-2003. Rest in peace. And when three years later I moved into my dad's place and somebody called and said Matt’s house? Is this Matt’s house?, I just dropped the phone and got back to whatever it was that I was doing. Because some Matthews, etc.