The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 12 Christmas

OH, FOR shame! (I do like that expression. It was said to me in an email from a friend who lives in the US except she used three exclamation marks). Oh, for shame! I’m going to have to spend my Christmas with my parents in deepest Suffolk. The alternative, as they’re probably aware, was for me to loiter miserable and alone at home while everyone else is whooping it up with their spouses, partners, family and friends. Even my brother and his wife and kids (they are hers by a former marriage) are not going to be there. My brother doesn’t get much time off work normally but at Christmas his firm closes down for two weeks so he’s decided to take the family off to Barbados or Bermuda or some such tropical paradise for a healthy mid-winter beach holiday. Scuba diving, wind-surfing, dolphin spotting. My mother tells me all this in great and gleeful detail over the telephone as I am making the arrangements with her for me to spend my Christmas break watching my parents watch the telly and being told repeatedly about my brother’s successful marriage.

At that moment, I am minded to tell her what she can do with her Christmas hospitality, hang up and book a budget singles trip to Tenerife or similar. My firm, too, closes down for two weeks at Christmas. It would be the ideal opportunity to get some winter sun and cheer myself up in the company of other no doubt similarly disgruntled and cynical singles. Or a cruise maybe. Didn’t I read that lots of singles have started to take cruises, with many cruise lines upping the numbers of solo cabins? It was in the Daily Mail, so it must be true.

“Darling, we’re so looking forward to having you stay,” my mother says and I thaw out a bit. “And introducing you to our new neighbours.” My parents have recently moved house. Naturally I did the conveyancing for a nominal fee and very fraught it was too. Daily living their anxiety of will-it-won’t-it exchange today, will the buyer back out and find something else, will we get gazumped? To give my parents credit, the gazumping was a real possibility as they had chosen to purchase as their retirement idyll a timbered Tudor (or perhaps Elizabethan) well restored four-storey town house in an up-coming and suddenly popular area of their home town in a cul-de-sac called Baker’s Lane close to the town centre.

Whereas many retireds are opting for bungalows in a determined effort to avoid any possibility of having any longer to climb up stairs, thus ensuring that their already partly atrophied leg muscles seize up more or less completely, my mum and dad cheerfully face heaving themselves up and down the narrow winding staircases of their new house many times a day since the living rooms are on the first and second floors, with tasteful wrought iron balconies overlooking the rear courtyard garden, and bedrooms on the ground and third floors.

This set-up and the proximity of many shops, bars, restaurants, a park and other attractions are proving irresistibly attractive, de rigueur in fact, to a growing fashionable set apparently. Properties in the street have become much sought-after. That is according to the estate agent’s particulars which I dubiously read through since I haven’t actually, to my parents’ oft-voiced dissatisfaction, been there yet myself.

I suppose that I was somewhat put out that my parents were enthusiastically disposing of my childhood home, the never-to-be-recovered base from which I was thrust forth into the world, ready or not. I have friends and acquaintances whose parents forced them to move at crucial junctures of their lives, like aged seventeen, from the homes they’d lived in since birth and they say they never ever recovered. They were just getting to grips with burgeoning adulthood when suddenly, literally almost, the earth beneath their feet, which they’d thought at least to be secure and unchanging, was whipped from under them just like that. That the vague mutterings about selling up, stoutly ignored, had suddenly expanded into loud and imperative announcements that contracts had been exchanged, that they were moving in a week’s time and that the kids had to clear their rooms out in readiness. They say it was like being smacked full in the face by a sledgehammer.

For probably at least two decades, kids aged seventeen and over have had to be written to specially and asked to sign the Contract to agree to the sale. However some people I know who were asked in their late teens to do so, amid all sorts of dire threats from their parents if they refused, say they didn’t take it in properly and simply didn’t believe that their home could be removed so suddenly and within weeks inhabited by strangers. I must have written hundred of letters to teenagers myself asking them to sign a sale Contract without ever thinking about the emotional side. Since it was work for me, I must have closed my mind to the implications of what I was asking them to do. After all, my own childhood home had remained secure until earlier this year when, even aged thirty-five, I had felt more than a little upset to see it being off-loaded to new people and ceasing to be my safe haven forever.

Though I have to say that the new residence did look very alluring in the agent’s photos.

“There’s lots going on, Anna.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Ooh loads of things. There’s a committee that organises events for us all. I’m going to be on it next year.”

“Us all?

“Yes. The residents.” She says this as though I’m weak in the head.

The residents? I feel like saying. But I don’t for fear of being made again to feel like a simpleton by my own mother who hasn’t in fact worked a stroke since marrying my dad aged nineteen. OK, she’s done quite a bit of charitable stuff and I suppose she looked after us pretty well though she had lashings of spare time especially after my brother and I had started school.

“The group’s called The Friends of Baker’s Lane.”

“How original,” I say. “Look, it’s entirely up to you, but you could give me a taste of what these entertainments are all about.”

“Well there’s quiz evenings, a street party, open houses, a safari supper‒”

A safari supper?” Since when have my parents even known what such a thing was let alone partaken of such an event.

“Yes,” says my mother apparently through gritted teeth. She pauses. “Look, Anna, you need to grow up. We’re retired now and we’re entitled to have some fun.”

“Mum, what in heaven’s name are you talking about? You’ve been retired since you were nineteen. You haven’t done an honest day’s paid work‒”

My mother hangs up on me.

Oh well, we managed at least to have a conversation without my marital status being trotted out or any searching questioning about Dennis or others I might have met or be meeting. Chance would be a fine thing. This is, though, the thing about parents. They can say exactly what they like to you, but you just try and get over a few home truths yourself and all hell breaks loose. However, I know she’ll be on the phone again soon and indeed she is and we firm up my dates.

“We’re putting you on the third floor. It’s a full suite of rooms up there…” I know. I read the estate agent’s it’ll be all private for you.” She’s silent for a moment, a rare thing with my mother. “You can bring, you know, a friend if you want to.” And here comes the fishing: “Of course it doesn’t have to be a man. You might, you know, feel like more gentle female companionship these days.” She lowers her voice and almost whispers the last sentence.

“Oh Mum!”

“I didn’t mean … I wasn’t implying … you know.” Again the hushed pseudo-respectful tones, almost like an undertaker.

“Well, let’s make things absolutely clear. I haven’t switched sides. I haven’t started to fancy other women and I’m not bringing anyone with me, OK? We’ll just have a nice few days together and I’ll enjoy seeing your new house.” I have to remain optimistic about the ‘nice few days’, or sound it at least.

“No, no, of course not. Of course,” my mum says firmly. “Well, I’m glad you cleared that up because there are some nice unattached men that we know here who‒”

“No. No. No, no, no. I’m not being paraded around in front of a string of randy, louche, desiccated old Lotharios. I’ll stay at home this Christmas if that’s what you had in mind.”

“No of course not, darling. I was just saying. Daddy and I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing.” She affects a deeply wounded tone. It isn’t reassuring. “Anyway, Daddy and I are looking forward to seeing you. We don’t see enough of you.” This, I know of old, is the time to ring off before the recriminations start.

“Fine. I’ll be there Christmas Eve at five as we arranged.”

BAKER’S LANE, when I arrive, has clearly been done up a great deal since I was a child. At that time it was rather scruffy, with one or two old shops, including an actual and very ancient bakery. No doubt the road housed other trades as well in past times. I wonder what a modern-day environmental search would make of the backyards given the noxious substances businesses used to create and then hurl out with abandon in past centuries. My parents didn’t want an environmental search. They didn’t want to know anything that might dictate against their ardent wish to buy the house, but with luck these earlier uses probably wouldn’t be documented any longer.

The road was known as bedsitland in my youth and mostly the houses were divided into rented flats lived in by poor people, benefit claimants and young single people and couples. As I was being born in 1980, Britain was experiencing a property boom followed by a crash about ten years later which is how I suppose the houses in Baker’s Lane came to be speculatively and probably actually fairly shoddily converted into studio flats during the nineteen-eighties by developers hoping to make a killing and make more money that way than refurbishing the houses as a whole. Of course, when the downturn came, the unlucky buyers of the flats found the value of their homes had plummeted. Repossessions I dare say were the inevitable result.

East Anglia suffered considerably during the property price collapse. The high property prices in the South East had made homes in Suffolk and Norfolk seem like a good bargain and the rush to buy had then pushed up their prices too to dizzy heights. Sadly, on the basis that the higher you jump, the harder you fall, East Anglia’s crash saw property values take a sickening nose-dive especially in the more outlying towns with low employment prospects. The buildings in Baker’s Lane were bought up cheap by property companies and let out at low rents, as I say, as bedsits.

At the time I was oblivious to this social upheaval. I was a disinterested young teenager hell bent on creating as much havoc as possible at my comprehensive school with Simmsey and others of a similar ilk so I never noticed what was happening on my doorstep. The only thing I thought about the street was that a lot of quite hip people lived in these bedsits. It was reputed that a lot of drugs were taken and dope smoked there and it seemed pretty cool. But the tenants were a few years older than me and therefore, in the way of things and probably fortunately for me, not in my social group, though I believe Simmsey managed to cultivate more than a few friends in the street.

A welcome consequence of the bedsit period, do doubt unintended, was that the decade or so the buildings spent as multi-occupied houses means that all floors have bathrooms and plumbing. Which is very convenient in a town house. Obviously eventually the potential of the area in general and Baker’s Lane in particular was realised, well-off people bought up and sorted out the houses and regeneration of the area proceeded apace.

Baker’s Lane is narrow with no space to park in the road. More modern developments of town houses sport integral garages or sometimes carports between buildings, possibly archways through to parking facilities at the back or they have communal parking areas nearby. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only coaching inns had archways constructed to give access to the rear, that the toffs who could afford a coach and four could be deposited away from the street and the riffraff and that the horses could be driven straight to the stables in the courtyards behind the buildings. A small cul-de-sac like Baker’s Lane with possibly only a tavern and certainly no inn wasn’t built with modern parking needs in mind.

Never fear however. The Friends have been active in that department as well. It’s amazing what a group of determined, monied people can achieve to improve their living circumstances when they choose to. The Friends, my mother reliably informed me, had contrived to buy some scrubland at the end of Baker’s Lane and create a parking area. They had formed a residents’ management company and had allocated two spaces to each house whose owners were prepared to pay for shares in the company. To prevent spaces being let out or just farmed out by owners to non-residents, the spaces are licensed on an annual basis by the company and woe betide any parking space renter who tries to allow strangers to use their spaces. They won’t get their license renewed next time.

Isn’t that clever! My mother told me all this over the telephone in detail yesterday. Like, of course, I didn’t already know this from having dealt with the purchase for my parents and actually arranged for the purchase of the car parking shares by them, and explained the scheme to them comprehensively in the letters I sent them. Which obviously she at least clearly never bothered to read. And she has the nerve to tell me to grow up, to accuse me of never being serious about anything.

The parking area is not tastelessly tarmacked with gross and obvious white lines painted between the spaces and white numbers painted on them. Not a bit of it. It is surfaced in gravel with short cast iron decorative black painted bollards marking out each space. The kind of bollards you can’t see when you’re manoeuvring into a space as they’re too low down especially in the dark, and on which you therefore risk crushing your front or rear bumper. There are small discreet number plates affixed to the front of each bollard.

My mother says I can have parking space ten by pre-arrangement with their new friend Justin who is going to be away for Christmas with his wife Jacintha and their grown up children Hadrian and Jocasta. Why, incidentally, I had to be given the names of the whole family I’m not sure. Am I supposed to be impressed by the fact that they’re not your everyday names? I drive towards the parking area squinting for number ten in the dark. But, in keeping with The Friends’ exquisite ability to arrange all things to their absolute convenience, a security light bursts into life and thereby I am easily able to locate and drive into the space.

Now, however, comes the hard part. The arrival at my parents’ actual home. Will I be too late or conversely somehow too early, will my having brought two small cases rather than one attract comment, will my lack of any obvious present for them as befits an arriving house-guest (chocolates, flowers, et cetera) cause unintended offence? I had to work until noon today, then rush home and throw a sundry collection of items into cases not knowing quite what manner of dress is going to be expected of me this visit, given the round of activities apparently on offer. While I have their Christmas presents proper all carefully wrapped and labelled in the car, I haven’t had time to even stop off at a petrol station on the way to purchase meaningless trifles for them that they wouldn’t actually have liked and may well in fact have banished to the least used room in the house.

I grit my teeth and walk towards their front door.

I KNOCK ON the door and, while I wait, I admire the wreath hanging just below the knocker. I wonder idly if my mother made it. She sometimes used to fashion this sort of thing in the huge amount of spare time she had on her hands. After the Arsehole left, I should have roped her into weaving artefacts for me with which to somehow hex the Backside. I found a site earlier in the year when I was more inclined to consider practising such chicanery called ‘Paganism for the Real World’ with a piece about cord or knot magic. I had the opportunity when the Arsehole came round six or so weeks ago. I could have diverted his attention and somehow secreted something mischievous about his person.

Or, had I had the forethought, I could have appeared to be more receptive to his requests at that time, seen him to his car in a friendly manner, pointed out a neighbour’s extensive exterior home improvements to him as he was getting into the car and, while his head was turned, positioned a negatively charged amulet strategically under the car seat. He was always as bad as I am about cleaning and tidying out the car so there would have been every chance that the spellbound item would have stayed there a long time and played havoc with every aspect of the Arsehole’s and the Backside’s lives. Or not as the case may be. Whether my mother would have colluded in such a plan is a different matter. I would have had to say that I wanted the object for a local fete or something.

I sigh, hammer on the knocker again and turn my attention to the Christmas tree flamboyantly and very obviously displayed in the first floor sitting room window, though with muted decorations including small tasteful white lights which don’t wink on and off. There are no common fairy lights adorning the front of the house. In the downstairs street window, there are a range of posters about local events including those put on by The Friends. In fact there’s one tonight at six pm at Number Five. I’ve already noticed that the front doors don’t bear actual digits. They all have little boards with the numbers painted on in full in some fancy calligraphy font.

I look at my smartphone and see it’s five-twenty. I am only twenty minutes late, but it’s dawning on me that my parents are not at home. Unless of course they are in the back garden having taken in their mad old age to eating al fresco even at this time of year. Wine bars these days seem to put out so-called patio heaters, gas-guzzling assaults on the environment, on any spare exterior hard surfaces so that the patrons have to sit there affecting to look cool (and probably literally are) and pretend it’s comfortable to sink chilled white wine in sub-zero temperatures. But as the back garden is land-locked on three sides and bordered by the back of the house on the fourth with no convenient foot passage between the houses, I have no physical way of finding out if my mum and dad are in their bijou courtyard garden out of earshot of the front door knocker.

Luckily, technology is at hand. Both my parents have enthusiastically embraced iPhones, Facebook and the like so I dial my mother’s number. I know instantly on her picking up that they are indoors, not outside. You can tell. And they are not alone. I hear the sounds of revelry and assume they have decamped to Number Five without waiting for me to arrive. Now if I did that to them ‒ but it’s not worth going there.

“Hello Mum, I’ve arrived.”

“Have you arrived?” she bellows at a hundred and fifty decibels.

“Yeees,” I yell back. I feel a fool in the empty street doing this. I look at the open end of the cul-de-sac in case people are passing by but no one is at this time.

“Oh good. Just come straight round here then. We’re helping to set up.” And about a hundred others by the sound of it. What on earth gets into people when they retire? Either they buy a bungalow somewhere by the sea and refuse to do anything or go anywhere or see anyone. Or else they start to re-live their youths with a vengeance. Or rather probably the youths they wish they had lived but were too shy or hemmed in by their parents or society to dare to live. I feel a sudden warmth towards my mum and dad who won’t let decrepitude take over, won’t give in to advancing age and accept a dim and unexciting future, who want to extract whatever fun they can in the next two or so remaining decades and are creating and helping to create the circumstances to bring this about.

“OK,” I shriek into the phone and we hang up. She hasn’t even said they’re at Number Five. She didn’t need to. As I hump my suitcases further up Baker’s Lane, I’d have to be stone deaf to not know which house to stop at. The noise isn’t ear-shattering but it’s fairly bloody obvious. It’s a good job that almost everyone in the street belongs to this association or else the complaints would be manifold and manifest. The sound of Eighties music pumps out of one of the ground floor rooms into the street. I’m glad they haven’t put the disco on an upper floor. Who knows if the old joists would stand it.

The door of Number Five opens and my dad’s there grinning at me foolishly, already visibly several sails to the wind. He takes my cases, puts them down on the hall floor and envelopes me in a bear hug.

I AM waking up in a strange house in an unfamiliar bed. I must have fallen asleep with the bedside light on. For a moment I dream hazily and blissfully that somehow, in some amazing way, I made contact with Dennis last night and that we have been together in his house, in his bed. He must be downstairs, as any gentleman would be, making me a cup of morning tea. Though the proportions of the room are all wrong for a bedroom in Dennis’s old rectory, except perhaps for an attic room once inhabited by servants. I imagine Dennis wouldn’t sleep up there. He’d have one of the main bedrooms down below, I feel sure. And this room is old and beamed with low ceilings, not like a Georgian rectory.

And I feel sick. Instinctively I know there is a toilet somewhere nearby. The great attention paid to the estate agent’s particulars, which included plans of every floor, has ensured that I know where to go in this situation. I heave myself up out of the bed and stagger onto the small galleried landing, narrowly missing falling headlong down the steep stairs (really they should put child-proof gates at the tops of such stairs for those with blinding hangovers). I keep my footing somehow and find myself in the sweetest little shower room. I look around the dear little room admiringly, at its economically arranged wash basin and toilet and the shower cubicle with folding doors, by which time I find that the need to hurl has diminished.

I do have a raging thirst and down several quarts of tap water using the tooth mug in which I have to hope the last visitor didn’t actually soak his or her false teeth overnight. I’m so dehydrated, I don’t care if, at this height in the building, the water from the tap comes from the cold water tank. Cold water tanks, I understand, are often open at the top and include dead flies, dead mice and other undesirables floating in them. However, as my room and this bathroom are in the roofspace with sloping ceilings plainly in evidence, I can’t see how a cold water or any other water tank could be positioned above the tiny bit of actually level ceiling. So where in fact do they put the cold water tanks in houses like this? I give up and slope back to my bedroom for several hours’ more sleep.

THERE IS a fierce and ear-splitting hammering on the door of my bedroom. I try of course to ignore it. The quilt is thick and soft and I duck under it holding it fast to my ears. But the noise continues. It is then accompanied by a voice.

“Anna. Get up,” it says. “You know what day it is, don’t you.”

Do I? I know it’s not a work day and if I’m not working, generally I’m not really bothered what day it is.

“Uuuhh,” I say.

“Anna, get up, do.”

“I can’t; I’m too tired,” goes my brain, except the words won’t come out of my mouth.

“Can I come in?” Odd for my mother to show such circumspection. What happened to the barging in at any old moment to suit her?

“Ihh oo muuuh.” She takes that as a yes and there she is, peering down at me. When I was a teenager on school days, I’d have had the covers unceremoniously whipped away and occasionally a glass of cold water added to the effort to wrest me from my slumbers. I quickly sit up, my upper half unsteadily swaying around.

“Darling. It’s Christmas Day. You have to get up. It’s nine-thirty and we’re going out.”

“Going out on Christmas Day?”

“Yes. For lunch of course.”

“Wha’bout the prezzies?”

“We’ll exchange them over Christmas lunch. Anyway. I’ve brought you some tea and some soluble aspirins. Just drink up and you’ll be right as rain in no time.”

How can someone be so bright and cheerful after a skinful the night before? I look to the side of the bed and there is indeed a mug of steaming beverage and a glass of fizzing liquid, actually two glasses, on a tray on the bedside table, the tray no doubt being to lessen the chances of a clumsy spill. She sees me looking and tells me that the fizzier of the two glasses contains Andrews Liver Salts “…to rehydrate you and replace some of the lost minerals.”

“Aren’t we having Christmas lunch here then?”

“Not this year, no. It’s something arranged by The Friends. Special rates. The restaurant was very pleased to take the booking.”

I bet they were. Judging by the number of enthusiastic party-goers last night, The Friends have probably filled the restaurant to bursting. Despite my fugged-up brain, I detect that there’s something wrong here. What time did she say it was? I look at the digital bedside clock. It says 09:35.

“Why are you asking me to get ready for lunch at nine-thirty-five?”

“We’re going to Christmas morning Mass first of course.”

I must be hearing things. The plates are shifting and I’m entering an alternative universe.

“But you don’t go to church.”

“Well, we do now. You have to come. Everyone wants to meet you again. All The Friends and their house guests’ll be there.”

I swig down my Andrews, shake my head and things settle a little. I suppose it’s no stranger than attending safari suppers, a joy yet still in store.

“OK then,” I say. Satisfied, my mother leaves and I hurry to the shower, after which I slap on some face paint and spray my hair up a bit. I find something suitably demure to wear to church, with a bit of sparkle thrown in and short sleeves so that I can throw off my cardie if I start to go red in the face at the restaurant later as I’m apt to do. I don a thick coat since the sky, through the small dormer window, looks pale and wintry as though snow may be threatening.

MY FATHER clutches a bagful of the majority of the presents as we walk to the church. I carry my own presents for my parents. It turns out that last night after I went straight to bed, he sorted through my handbag for my car keys, went to my car and took out my Christmas presents which I’d left sitting on the back seat. I’m rather surprised not to have received a lecture about the states of both my handbag and my car interior, but my parents are greatly diverted by the imminence of further contact with their new friends and neighbours.

“So,” I say as we trudge along, “are we having a traditional turkey roast, or something more culturally advanced, more continental perhaps?” No sarcasm intended, though any is lost on my parents.

“We’re not sure,” says my mother. “It was all arranged by Tarquin.” Hmm. Tarquin. Of course.

“Yes, it’s a treat for your mother, not to have to cook Christmas lunch for once,” says my dad.

How many more treats, I think, can one person handle in a whole lifetime of them?

“You were certainly raving it up last night, Anna,” says my mother. I’m uncertain how to respond. Did I show them up? I have recollections of some quite energetic dancing, but mostly it was talking to people I’d never met before which is quite easy really since whatever you say or have said to you is new and it seems interesting even if it’s not actually. However, if I had proved to be an embarrassment, I feel quite sure it would have been rubbed well in by now and that I wouldn’t have been invited to church this morning.

I take a chance on: “Yes, it was fun.”

“Yes it was, wasn’t it,” says my mum. “We’re really glad you enjoyed it.”

Gosh. Amazingly I am actually enjoying this visit. I feel mentally warm and comfortable and the inclusion of a traditional Christmas Day service makes it even better somehow. We’ve never done this before.

We’re approaching the church now and my parents stop to greet lots of people. Of course, they must have some old friends here as well as their new ones. They seem to know a great many people. Some of them nod at me, having met me last night, and I nod back. We deposit our presents at the back of the church on the floor and we’re not the only ones. At least half the congregation must be going to this Christmas lunch.

We are lucky to get seats together in the church. By the time the service starts there’s barely standing room. The vicar must be cock-a-hoop to have his congregation numbers so swelled. Perhaps the vicar, Tarquin and the restaurant owner are in cahoots with one another. Maybe Tarquin gets a cut of the restaurant takings and the church collection plate. Whatever, we’re standing now for the first hymn. I do feel quite faint having had no carbohydrate-laden, hangover-busting breakfast. Still, I put on a hearty contralto and my mother, who has only ever been able to manage the squeakiest of squeaky sopranos, regards me proudly. A big change there. Proud looks are not handed out routinely or freely. Of course, if the words on the hymn sheet were not swimming about in front of my eyes it would be better; those I can’t see I have to make up.

We sit for the first Lesson. We are about three-quarters down the church so we can see a large proportion of the worshippers in front of us. My mother nudges me and hisses: “Dominic’s looking at you. You two were getting on like a house on fire last night.”

The blood freezes in my veins. What the hell went on last night? Against my better judgement, I scan the heads for any wizened old walnuts turning and leering in my direction. I note with relief that there’s nothing in that category; just the rather good-looking man aged about thirty to whom I spoke briefly last night and danced with. I dismiss him immediately as a contender for the house fire-raiser. He must be checking on his presents at the back of the church. I continue to cast about, if only to please my mother.

I am nearly knocked sideways by the next nudge, fragile as I am this morning. “Look, him,” my mother says. “Atticus’s son. ”

What is it with these people? Why can they have normal names like … like Dennis I think inevitably. I don’t know why he persists in my hopes and dreams as there’s clearly no hope whatsoever in that direction. Cathy Earnshaw obviously has her northern talons sunk deeply into him. It’s a stark anomaly that the more unattainable a person is the more attractive they become. It’s just human nature I suppose but I start to feel a bit depressed. It must be the downer after the previous night’s dizzy Baker’s Lane heights. I determine, though, to pull myself together and enjoy this Christmas sojourn with my parents who apparently are glad that I had a good time last night and would like me to be happy for the next several days with them.

“He’ll be at the restaurant,” says my mother and I see that she is smiling and waving not very discreetly at someone. For some reason it’s in the direction of the fit-looking thirty-year-old. It occurs to me fleetingly that she and my father may have become swingers. Do they now go to those parties where men throw their car keys into the centre of the room and ‒ well you know the rest? It doesn’t bear thinking about. The young man smiles weakly back at her and turns away embarrassed.

The embarrassing-parent syndrome. I thought I’d got rid of that when I left home. The Arsehole, when he came for a visit with me, must have acted as some sort of buffer between my parents and their worst excesses. Now that I am toute seule again it’s back with a vengeance. Well, I tell myself, I don’t care. I will if necessary this next few days join with my parents in casting aside my prejudices and the normal social constraints and have FUN.

I am nudged again to rise for the next hymn. These Christmas songs are so lovely. As the herald angels sing, the sun appears, or I suppose rather it rises high enough in the winter sky as we are at about fifty-two degrees of latitude above the equator, and shines gloriously through the old stained glass windows of this lovely flint-faced building which has nestled here at the heart of this Suffolk community since Norman times. Nevertheless, I’m glad when the service comes to an end. I don’t think I’m the only person who fell asleep during the Christmas sermon. As I leaned heavily on my mother and she on me, my father on the other side made a comfy pillow of my mother’s fur coat collar (apparently coney, especially if second-hand, is acceptable again these days). We shake the vicar’s hand as we leave.

“Lovely service,” says my mum.

“Yes, very thought-provoking sermon,” says my dad.

“Thanks, I enjoyed it,” I say, which I sincerely did. My parents beam, so it was clearly the right thing.

IT TAKES ages to be served at the restaurant as is hardly surprising given the crush and the paucity of serving staff. The starter comes soon enough in the form of vegetable soup which is served to everyone with lovely artisan breads. This I assume is because veg soup can hardly be objected to by anyone, though there is the option of gluten-free bread. On the other hand, there has been a choice of main courses so that takes longer, especially since the venison is much more popular than the rest and sells out quickly. The poor serving staff have to go around and explain this to many people and ask for their second choice. I rather wonder why they didn’t ask for a second choice to begin with. Perhaps just getting the Christmas lunch organised at short notice apparently, I now learn from my mother, was enough of a challenge for the restaurant.

Before any of the main courses are served, Tarquin organises us all to change places, as befits a cool chattering classes party of diners but confuses the serving staff no end. I had already opted for the readily available vegetarian quiche with stir-fry vegetables and roast potatoes and my plate goes round the table several times before it finds me. What does find me however, or who does find me to be more precise, is the good-looking thirty-year-old from the church. He seems to think I should know him well and says his name is Dominic. I tear and strain at my memory of last night but simply have no recollection of having spent more than a short time talking to this Dominic and maybe one or two dances which hardly adds up to an understanding.

All the same, we chat. I can tell that there are quite a few things I ask him about himself that he thinks he’s already told me. The thing is, I was terribly distracted at some points last night because one of my parents’ neighbours was trying to retain my attention. Though older and with a face usually generously described as ‘lived-in’, he was endearing and entertaining with a half-smile most of the time. He was slim and looked quite fit and I kept thinking that it wasn’t fair that people get old and, though still attractive, cease to be physically desirable while remaining vital and young inside. I kept stopping to listen to him, while at the same time recognising that I couldn’t in a million years be physically attracted to him. Not really. Which is sad. He might be my soulmate in another time. And, though his name escapes me, his face and his personality are uncomfortably seared into my psyche. But he isn’t here today.

When Dominic’s venison turns up, I have to look away as the dark meat, rather rare, is cut deeply into with his sharp steak knife. Dominic, chewing away, says he’s twenty-seven (he looks older) and, looking deep into my eyes, asks me how old I am. I lie and say forty-three. His smile remains fixed but his eyes go cold. A look of comprehension passes over his face. He now knows why I have such a bad memory of the essential facts about himself which he imparted last night. I’m obviously going senile. He loses interest in me which is fine by me and, therefore, when we all swap places again, I go back and sit with my parents.

“So how did you get on with Dominic then?”

“Well, not so bad. But…” I think about the ageing neighbour and yet I don’t say anything about him. I hope he didn’t see in my eyes last night my involuntary attraction to him combined with the impossibility of our forming any kind of union or, possibly worse, my pity that he might even consider himself a potentially viable partner.

My parents are still chewing away at their lamb shanks which look very tasty and they eat them with relish. At the end of the meal over coffee we all exchange presents. I’ve got my mother an antique mink stole. She loves anything like that. My dad, I know, must be missing veg gardening so I took a chance on two small raised beds. I think there’s just enough room in the gravelled courtyard garden without making it look cluttered. I checked the agent’s particulars and scaled up the Land Registry plan. Obviously, I didn’t pack and bring the beds with me to the restaurant. They’re in the car boot. Instead I wrote him a card and enclosed brochure photos of the beds when made up which I wrapped in several layers of gift paper to make it more exciting than just an envelope. He’s delighted.

Their present to me is a full-length brass rubbing of a medieval knight on a pale material with stiffening rods top and bottom and a gold cord for hanging.

“Your mother does quite a lot of them these days when she’s got time,” says my dad. My eye-rolling at this remains purely imaginary but I tell them I love the present, which I do. He continues:

“Your mother was keen to give you a year’s subscription to a rather good marriage bureau some of The Friends go to, but I said you’d be making your own arrangements.”

“Thanks Dad,” I say.

THE REST of the day after getting home from the restaurant is spent dozing in front of the TV with a roaring log fire in the grate. At five-thirty my mother produces some little quiches, some triangular packets of filo pastry with cheese and spinach filling and an unpronounceable Greek name and some stunning homemade cakes, together with a pot of tea from the kitchen/diner opposite.

I find I like the idea of a sitting room on the first floor with its little balcony for sunning oneself in the summer. The balcony, my mother informs me, was installed in the 1920s, another fact of which I’m already aware as a result of having carried out the conveyancing which these days entails trying to see statutory consents for just about every little alteration in recent decades. Still it does enable my parents and me to chat about the constraints of the planning system today. You’d probably never get permission for a balcony now in a built-up area. Every property owner in the vicinity would complain about being overlooked. This conversation and the effort of putting cakes and cups of tea to our mouths exhausts us for now and we fall back again onto the squashy cushions of the sofas for another snooze through a Harry Potter film.

Thus passes my first full day in Baker’s Lane. And not a word either about my brother’s successful marriage. It’s just amazing what an active retirement can do to divert a couple from dwelling as publicly normally as possible on their daughter’s failures.

LATER in the attic room, sleep eludes me here every bit as much as at home. It’s that need to nest with a suitable mate intervening and interfering again. Of course, there are disadvantages to sharing a bed chamber with another. Most notably the persistent snoring, though I always found with the Arsehole that a well-placed pillow applied full on his face pressed firmly down would do the job nicely. However at this moment if I’m honest I’d exchange the deep silence up in this attractive eyrie for a little male stertor.

I’m not well over the limit tonight as last night, Christmas Eve. I haven’t had stupor-inducing levels of booze this afternoon and evening at home with my parents. And snoozing on and off is not exactly the best way to conserve the sleepy dust until it’s really needed. Therefore I have to fall back on a book to get me to sleep. My current read is One Day and I do so love it. I finished Gone Girl and, if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy it that much despite how hyped up it was by the critics and everyone. It seemed pretty improbable to me. One Day is making me laugh out loud. I read a critique of it by two separate journalists, a man who just adored it and said he cried at the end and a woman who thought it was ultra-schmaltzy and that the female character was way up her own backside. So far I’m definitely with the man.

And I can laugh out loud at 2 am without disturbing anyone now. Because I’m ALL ALONE.

Happily, as I love it so much, the book is having the desired effect. I always know when I start to read words that aren’t on the page that somnolence is overtaking me. In this case I read knee-bark instead of tree-bark and it helpfully expands itself into a times-five-hundred magnification of what I imagine my knee skin must look like when subjected to microscopic examination. Like tree-bark in fact. Soon, muddle words are piling in. ‘Nose-border’ seems perfectly logical. It has a meaning; an illusive one as I hang between consciousness and sleep, though I’m sure it does. But ‘email-witch’ (I know for certain that it’s spelt ‘witch’ and not ‘which’) sends me over the top and right down the other side deep into the hallucinatory territories of the Land of Nod. Goodnight.

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