Sport 10: Autumn 1993
The farm, with its rutted track and low-lying pallid house—a house that reminds me now of a woman in a story by Colette who scrapes her tongue each morning with a little silver scraper—was our last call. I think it was this that made it bitter for my mother: Hermione might have been impoverished but she was frugal and imaginative, she had made a life for herself in pale faded draperies; Agatha was a managerial success, governing her sons and husband on their acres. But Cora with her church pew and too many pale- faced children at a table with no cloth, not even a milk jug but the bottle passed from hand to hand and reposing in a circle of spilled milk—Cora represented something like fear.
For isn't fear the basis of all management? At least that's what I have found. Cigarettes, sex, money—it's only fear that brings them into line, into orthodoxy, into regularity. Cora seemed to have no fear, no sense of self- preservation. The table might be clothless now, the porridge bowls chipped and unmatched but come the next anniversary—any anniversary would do-the little hectic house would flush with another party.
Aunt Cora's parties, given her financial resources, were on the scale of Elsa Maxwell. Who knows how she put money aside: in bottles, tins with the King's head, under the mattress? Or whether there was some special payout. Perhaps she sold the farm truck. Or leased the tractor. Turned the front paddock over to a neighbour's grazing. Where did the liquor come from, some of it in crates or a small dumpy barrel like a fattened pig? And the cloths and serviettes—because there was no bare table now, no milk page 48 stains. And her children, lanky and unpolished, were scrubbed and pink, even their nails shone. They stood about awkwardly, those whose birthday/ engagement/homecoming/coming-of-age it was not. Some of the shyer ones who were most at home among the cows tried to fade into the shadows but Aunt Cora invariably espied them sometime during the evening and pushed them forward.
'I've never seen such ridiculous extravagance,' my mother said to my father as we were driving again, circling, it felt like, a trouble spot, an out- of-control fire, a road that had been mined. Then she began to describe, like a society reporter, the latest party.
'A hundred guests at the very least, a spread fit for a Grand Duchess's funeral, a band hired from heaven knows where, and fairy lights in all the trees. It's a wonder they didn't have the house lit up like the Arc de Triomphe.'
My mother was exaggerating of course: there were a few lights in the trees that one of the lanky cousins was detailed to remove carefully the day following—they were on hire—but there probably weren't any more than sixty people. The band, all greying at the temples, in dark suits with string ties, included a distant cousin of Aunt Cora's. They may have offered their services for free. There was a silver bowl of punch into which one of the cousins (lanky and mischievous) had emptied something and the little rotund barrel was out of sight.
But there was no doubting the atmosphere. The fairy lights hid the ruts in the ground and people spilled out of doors under the stars, holding up hired glasses of fizzy wine. I thought it sounded wonderful. The little white house with its henna roof was properly made up for once, with face-white like a geisha. Inside the band shrieked and growled and made a sound like old car horns and the band leader raised his hand to signal a rumba. Aunt Cora had learnt the rumba in South America when she was a girl. Or was it the samba?
'That disgraceful conga,' my mother went on. 'Heaven knows where it disappeared to or who broke off.'
The line of bodies had circled the house swaying and shouting with one of the lanky cousins (transformed or fortified?) at the head. Later Cora told him she was proud of him and was putting him down for dancing lessons.
When my father didn't reply, perhaps thinking all this sounded desirable—the party was the week before we arrived, so my mother was page 49 combining hearsay with past experience—she went on to conjure the aftermath. Really my mother should have been a writer, a female Scott Fitzgerald.
'Herrick,' my father said, driving away after many kisses through windows and kisses blown from palms, and promises, never to be kept on either side, to write.
'What's Herrick got to do with it?' my mother asked as we turned onto the main road. 'We don't know any Herricks, do we?'
'Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.'
'Rosebuds!' my mother snorted. 'Cora's far too old for rosebuds. I should have thought that was obvious.'
Listening from the back seat I said what I could recall of the lines to myself—I liked the sound of Old Time—so missed my father's reply. But even I could sense he was not intending aunt Cora should pick half-opened rosebuds from the white bush that grew in the front garden. This bush and its rose called Félicité-Perpétue was her pride and joy and no one was allowed to touch it. Sometimes she wore one of the roses pinned near her shoulder. For the scent to rise towards her nose, I thought, pleased at my own cleverness.
Douglas, as he often did when the atmosphere in the Pontiac became threatening, was attempting to cross all his limbs and features: fingers first— toes were impossible because of shoes—then arms, legs, features, ending up with an eye-roll which was his accomplishment of the summer and which I hated. I gave a little scream and at the same time my father caught sight of Douglas's face in the car mirror. My mother leant over and smartly struck him on the shoulder and added a piece of literary venom: 'I've warned you a hundred times the wind could change . . .'
Then the thunderous air, concentrated about my brother's features, was
gone and we rolled on and shortly afterwards someone suggested a song.
When we arrived back at Aunt Agatha's we were singing 'Old Black Joe' and
both my parents' voices sounded tender.