7. Apr, 2020


The family circle was drawn up, discord rising in the steam from everybody’s teacups, breathed out again when someone spoke.  There were those in the company who had not spoken, at least not to one another, for many years.  They were a large group of siblings, now with their own half grown children, divided anyway by age into natural sets; two older sisters who had done much of the raising of the smaller ones but whose authority had been lost in the adulthood of all; four brothers, once always in boyish scrapes, with arms in casts or slings, now stolid men and then three late born girls, each of whom had never forgiven the next one down for replacing them as the cherished baby of the family.  

The last of them, Dolly, even now looked as she was named, cherub plump, with a red lipsticked mouth and cosseted curls.  Her lower lip pouted still but her upper one was marked with little whistle lines puckered between the downy, powdered cheeks.  Millie (a rare only child in a sea of boisterous cousins) noticed them, picked out in the milky light coming through the nets of the front room window.  Millie had not seen Aunt Dol for several years, after there had been some further falling out with Millie's mother, Ivy, the last but one sister.  

Millie dared to lift and rest her feet on the spell of the chair she was sitting on, to free the back of her legs, bare above neat ankle socks, from the irksome prickle of the seat’s hard plush.  Her mother instantly knocked them off again, although grandma, tiny from years of childbearing and rather irritably unwell in the days when Millie had known her, was no longer here to disapprove.

It was not, today, that there was money to be argued over but rather, ornamental objects to be decided on, keepsakes.  Just now, it was the things that had lived always on the broad shelf of the high wooden mantelpiece that were under discussion, mainstays of decor throughout the decades and articles of pride and value to those who had owned them, guarded on the hearth by a fine set of fire irons.  Millie’s eyes went over them along with the company, counting them off as she had often done before; the Napoleon’s hat clock, figurines with flouncy, porcelain petticoats and pompadours, an old silver snuff box, fancy candlesticks, two bronze figures of ‘Night’ and ‘Day’, part of a tiny Victorian miniature tea set, a cut glass single flower vase, the jar for spills and grandad's bowls trophy shield.

“I wound that clock every day from my twelfth birthday on,” said the eldest, Lilian, with pride.  “And I dusted it all.”

“That doesn’t mean you can have it all,” cut in Beryl, next up from Ivy.

“True. Like just because you had to bath us all as kids doesn’t give you the right to boss us now,” said one of the brothers but in his case, with a gruff humour. 

In the family, the brothers were still all known by their nicknames, their own names but in reverse, Mij, Mot, Neb and Caj (for Jack), the one who had spoken up just now and the one most like his mother in looks, being wiry and dark where the others were red fair and solid like their father.  There was a picture of Uncle Jack all dressed up in women’s clothes and a bonnet, big boots and all, twirling a little Chinese parasol, music hall style, for some party occasion, in a picture frame at Millie’s house. If her grandmother had ever shared that sense of fun, too, it had been long lost by the time Millie knew her.  Other family pictures in Millie’s home were put, significantly, away at times, but Ivy didn’t fall out with her brothers as a rule and so Jack’s remained on the side table. Her older brothers had been kind to her when she was very ill as a young girl with rheumatic fever and St Vitus dance, taking her about with them in her wheelchair and this factor triumphed over the tempers which had been indulged in Ivy since then as resultant ‘nerves’.  For a year she had been unable to speak. There were those who would comment that Ivy had more than made up for it since.

“I was the only one mother let play with the miniature tea set,”  Dolly claimed, “and she always said I’d have it one day.”

“No, she didn’t,” Ivy fired up immediately.  “When I was so poorly she let me play with it and it was promised to me.”

“Now then,” said Tom, the oldest of the brothers, adjusting the thick pebbled glasses that had saved him from call up in the past.  “We haven’t got to settle all that yet.”

“We have,” objected Dolly.   “Before Caj and all his mob move in here.  They’ll get broken.”

“Why will they?” Jack was moved to object.  “My kids won’t break things any more than we did!”

Millie took refuge in pretending to be a snail curling right into the middle of her shell, looking through the pearlescent portals of her spiral chambers at the muffled outside world, sunshine through her half closed eyelids creating the pinkly translucent effect.  She hoped her mother would win, for she too loved the little incomplete tea set, with its delicate gilded twirls for handles and painted sprays of tiny violets, given to her grandmother by the old lady who had it before, because she was also named Violet.

“It’s not that anyway,” Alice, the second eldest weighed in.  “It’s only right for us to sort out our mementos that mean things to us.”

“Yes - but what if the same things matter to more than one of you?” put in Neville slyly, a teen who enjoyed needling, superior in his newly acquired man’s suit and a bit cock-a-hoop that it would be his family who would be moving into the big house now, there being enough of them to need the space and it being his father who had continued on with the bespoke tailoring business that had always taken place in the front room.

“Get along with you, and pass the sandwiches round,” his mother instantly reproved him.

Neville obliged, his insinuatingly insolent smirk now masquerading as civility.

“Wakey, wakey, Millie!” he announced loudly when he came round to her, deliberately showing her up.

Millie opened her eyes fully again, taking a thinly buttered triangle with salmon paste and cress on it.

She looked once more at the things on the mantelpiece, as time solid a reference point as ever, proof that this was still grandma and grandad’s house, which smelt of washing soda for the pots and tea towels starched into ironed flags.  But nobody now was ceremonially bringing out the treat jar of fruit thins, seen as a high end boiled sweet to have in for the discerning child visitor.  It seemed to Millie that if all the things on the mantelpiece were dispersed,  they would be, like household gods displaced, meaningless in isolation, having lost the power of their collective familiarity, with nobody to cherish them as they had been or to really know of their special qualities.  Millie, at ten, was still young enough to see things as having feelings and attachments which depended on people’s care for them in return and although she was far too old to do so, certainly in company, she began to cry bitterly for the loss of them in advance.

“Dear me,” said Dolly.  “Somebody’s very highly strung!  Like mother, like daughter, Ivy.”

“She’s an affectionate girl, is Millie,” her mother defended her (unusually,  as she’d be told off for it at home, required to be no trouble).  “Tender hearted.  She’s missing her grandma is all, aren’t you, love?”

Millie sniffed and nodded but Neville said,

“I bet she wants that tiny tea set as well, Aunt Dol.  She’s been staring at it for ages!”

“Oh, well, if that’s all…” said Dolly condemningly, shifting rather triumphantly in her seat.

Millie thought the whistle marks round Aunt Dol’s mouth were like her inner witch beginning to show, as if the soft, powdered cheeks would shrivel any minute too, leaving her wizened up like old fruit in a bowl.  She had used to rather like Aunt Dol but right now she hated her and Neville too. One of her uncles passed her a large, manly handkerchief.

“Here.  Dry ‘em up,” he instructed, not unkindly.  “Why not let her have it? There’s plenty of other things to fight over if that’s all you want to be about.  It’s for a child to keep anyway.”

There was a hiatus and Aunt Dol, scenting a possible advantage, chose to be generous.

“Well, let’s not fall out over it.  Ivy can take it, then and Millie can look after it,” which being agreed, as nobody wanted to look as if they were being mean to a child, left Dolly with the moral high ground and so in the position of being asked next what she would like to have herself.

Dolly chose the brass figures of ‘Night’ (a woman with a star) and ‘Day’ (a man with a torch) which had been a ruby wedding gift to their parents, not uncoveted by some of the others but there was no demur at the time, although it would, of course, be resented later.

Millie and Ivy left soon afterwards, the little tea set having been carefully wrapped in tissue paper and nestled in an old shoe box to be transported safely back to their own house.  Millie knew she wouldn’t be allowed to play with it but having the keeping of such a cherished treasure was a great thing and, even though she was rather too old for this too, as they walked along, Millie's mother held her hand all the way home, a rare gesture at any time.

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