19. Sep, 2020

'Sugar Plums'

The house was already busy with the carrying voices of her girl cousins when Claire arrived at her uncle’s.  All of Theo’s children had names like Victorian maidservants, this being offset by a carefully cultured eccentricity.  Theo had treated them all, since babyhood, like fascinating strangers who amused him endlessly, and still did.  Somewhere in the background, Handel’s Messiah belted out in full throated splendour.  It soared through the hallway where the front door, a massive Christmas wreath hung on it like a gigantic door knocker, was wide open in welcome and to a sunny afternoon. 

Claire was pleased with her present, which she had spent some time in sourcing amongst charity and bric a brac shops, a splendidly tacky framed nativity print in garish colours.  Bad taste theme gifts were an Uncle Theo family thing.  Claire walked in and presented it to Theo, who was holding court in the front room.

“Oh, I say, look at that!” he admired, holding it at arms length to take in the simpering scene.  He greeted her next with a kiss on the cheek.  “Pride of place for that effort, I think.  How are you, my dear?”

As a child, Claire had wished that Uncle Theo, so abundantly indulgent and interested in you and still strikingly noticeable himself, had been her father too, and she still felt that tug of envy when she visited, even though she realised now that his interest was more charm than active appreciation.  One of her cousins, Martha, drifted through looking spiritual.  She was wearing a big silver cross on a long chain.

“Hello, Claire,” she said distantly.  “Is anyone else coming to church?” she asked, raising a penetrating voice in the throng.

“No, darling,” said Theo, patting her hand kindly.  “Now, off you go and have a lovely time, won’t you?”  Martha drifted off again.  “I’m afraid she’s got religion at the moment, rather a pain,” he explained, as if Martha were suffering from a small indisposition.  “In my day when we got it, we went in for a bit of pantheism.  I used to love all my chanting in the Buddhist phase, too.  But then, of course, I had been a soprano chorister as a boy.  Perhaps I was harking back.”

Most conversational roads led round to Theo himself, given time.

“Oh, dear.  Do you think it will pass?” asked Claire.

“I expect so,” said Theo.  “It usually does, doesn’t it?  Now, my dear, how about a drink?  We’ve made Smoking Bishop!   Do come and try it!”

The Messiah was suddenly muffled as somebody banged a door shut on the room it was playing from.

“Oh!” exclaimed Theo, looking baffled by the cessation, as if it were inexplicable.  “What a pity!  I was rather enjoying that.”

A large punch bowl was on the reception room table from which he helped her to a glass.  Theo’s wife, Glennis, was American and, presiding, was unselfconsciously immersed in the roleplay of the occasion, which was why their themed parties, if chaotic, were always a great success.  It was not, of course, even quite Christmas, but in this house that didn’t matter.  The hedonism of the occasion and feasting were all that did and it was near enough the time of year to count.

“Don’t eat any of the trifle, Claire!” called Glennis.   “I’m afraid the dog got it and licked half the cream off.  There’s frumenty pudding too but it looks perfectly foul so I wouldn’t go for that, either,” she laughed

Another huge glass bowl held an enormous sherry trifle topped with cream and silver sugar balls on one side, a delved into mess on the other.  Wherever the ‘frumenty’ was, it hadn’t made it out on display yet.  A large Airdale on the floor raised a coy, guilty eye as Claire said,

“Oh, Monty!” to him and tickled a woolly ear.

The dog smelt of the damp roll he had evidently enjoyed outside not long before and also of something noxious he had rolled in.  Claire removed her hand and wiped it hastily on her skirt.  Although she had come prepared for it, she soon felt swallowed up by the occasion.  It was hard to retain your poise and sense of self surrounded by so many confident personalities swooping about, guided by some inner sense of who to flock to.  It wasn’t that people didn’t talk to her, it was more that Claire, even though she was part of the family and always looked forward to coming, felt on the margins.  She had a habit of self deprecation which she had spent a lifetime trying to break but which still inhibited conversation.  Among natural enthusiasts, Claire was always ‘only’ doing this or that and if asked about her interests, although she had many, could never think of any that sounded engaging enough to expand on for long.  Claire’s other three cousins were being courted by the guests like their father was.  Claire had been standing with them but a further people eddy had swept her and her glass aside.  She could hear Theo saying,

“Now, ‘string theory’.  One of you bright sparks must surely be able to explain that to me?”

Actually, I could, thought Claire, but she was just too far away to join in.  Everybody was immersed in conversation, which meant that, conversely, nobody was watching the dinner which Claire could smell cooking in the background.  She went into the kitchen and checked the roast and trimmings.  It was pretty much done and would be served, buffet style, among all the other party foods already being browsed through.  Something that looked like porrigey rice pudding was on the side too, the frumenty she presumed.  As she ended up doing every year, Claire remained to check the bird was cooked through.  Then she dished it up to rest on the enormous green and white Victorian meat plate which had belonged to ‘somebody’s grandmother’ and  was used annually, ceremoniously toasted when it came in bearing the bird by Theo, with a glass raised to,

“Somebody’s grandmother, god bless her and all who sail in her!”  since nobody any longer recalled how it had come to be in the family.

Claire closed the kitchen door to keep Monty out and went back into the crowd.  She found Theo and Glennis to tell them that the turkey was done and ready to be brought in.

“Ah! Thank you, my dear.  Whatever would we do without you?  That lovely little dash of commonsense you got from somewhere!” (some dullard of an antecedent unrelated to their side of the family, was the implication).

A great commotion was made by Theo and Glennis of processing in the roast, Theo then carving it, even when using an electric knife, with a Dickensian flourish of convivial largesse.   A conga line of lively guests took up plates to receive their portions with Theo shouting,

“Stuffing?” in a theatrical innuendo that made everybody laugh.

Martha had returned from church and Claire found her unexpectedly at her side watching the scene too.  Claire was thinking what a gift it was to create such an atmosphere, so much effortless enjoyment and she turned to Martha with a smile, ready to comment on it but Martha said, irreligiously as it happened,

“Excruciating, isn’t it?  Christ knows what my parents think they’re doing!  I don’t know why you come every year, Claire.  I mean, the rest of your family don’t bother and it’s not as if you enjoy it, either, is it?”

“What?  I do!  I love coming!” exclaimed Claire, hurt and wounded as she had always found she was by these girl cousins who, all their lives, like their father, had seemed to be somebody.

Martha gave her a pitying sort of smile, irritatingly enigmatic but perhaps this was due to her finding Jesus rather than condescension, not that the two didn’t go together.  There was nothing like believing yourself to be among the chosen to enable a superior world view, thought Claire, which, to be honest, Uncle Theo and her cousins had always presumed upon anyway.  She looked away from Martha and saw the little nativity picture, her coded passport to intimacy and kinship with the special realm which Uncle Theo and his girls inhabited, not in pride of place amongst the display table of party gifts at all, but face down on the couch beside it, where Uncle Theo, having forgotten about it, had dropped it and moved on.  He had still been carrying it in his hand when he had given Claire her Smoking Bishop punch and had even said that the display table was where he was heading next to show it off.

Together with Martha’s words, the carelessly accidental nature of this neglect brought tears to Claire’s eyes, even as, going across to put the picture on the table herself, she told herself not to be such a child.

“Don’t be silly.  He didn’t mean it,” Claire admonished herself, whilst realising sadly and simultaneously that this, too, was just the point, that Uncle Theo didn’t mean it.

The party throng continued for some time over the food and when she left, Uncle Theo having given her his warm embrace followed by hearty expressions of how lovely it had been to see her, Claire knew that, as with every year, she would forget what smarted about the occasion and think how marvellous it had felt to be a part of it all because, afterwards, she always felt that she had been, until the next time.

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