Monday, 26 December 2011

Black Puffles, blanket clips and a closet hunter


Can’t seem to get my eyes open this morning. Stagger to bathroom. Oh God! My eyes look like two puffball mushrooms with black dots in the middle. Splash with cold water. Pat dry. Argh. Still puffballs. Must lie down with legs in air. Oh no, that’s for swollen legs. Must stand up with eyes in the air. Yes, keep standing. Don’t bend over.

Argh. It’s the hunt meet at 11. Need to show my face, puffballs and all.  

Lily bursts into my room. She’s wearing her jodhpurs and is jiggling up and down with excitement.

‘Mummy! They’re all going hunting. It’s really unfair!’ She stops mid-jiggle and stares at me.

‘Mummy, you look like a Black Puffle from Club Penguin.’

‘Oh God. What’s a Black Puffle?’

‘It’s got massive white eyes with titchy little black dots in the middle. And it’s technically a black fluff ball but it comes in different colours, like red and blue and purple and pink. I don’t think they come in green, unfortunately, or yellow.’ 

I feel like going back to bed.

‘So can I go hunting then?’

‘Hang on a second. Who’s going?’

‘Harriet, Charlie, Alexander, Iona, Ailsa – basically everyone.’

‘What about Jamie and Flora?’

‘Technically they don’t ride so basically they’re not going hunting.’

‘But you do ride…’ I say it for her.

‘Oh pleeease!’ she whines, hanging off my arm like she used to when she was about six.

‘Well you’d better ask Duncan what he thinks,’ I say.

‘He says I can, if you say yes! He says basically it’s not a problem because they’ve got enough ponies and Iona and Ailsa can ride with me.’

Oh God. ‘OK,’ I say resignedly.

‘Yay!’ she says, already half out of the door.


Montmarch House is still sitting under rainclouds. The drive is lined with 4x4s. In front of the house is a sea of Thelwellian girls in yellow breeches and tweed jackets (plus Lily in navy jodhpurs and an old jacket of Iona’s), swathes of immaculately groomed women, and men in black or red coats on scarily huge horses with topiaried hairdos.

‘Why are the horses shaven with these punk hairdos?’ I ask Duncan, taking a step back from a chunky black charger straight into the path of Harriet, who is on a handsome, clean-shaven bay, its mane and tail plaited and bound to match its rider’s hairnetted coiffure.

Clipped,’ she corrects me. ‘And it might help you see where you’re going if you took your sunglasses off.’

Duncan steers me out of the mêlée. ‘What is with the flat cap and sunglasses look, by the way?’ he asks.

‘The flat cap is because it’s raining,’ I say haughtily. ‘It’s meant to be ironic in a Kate Moss kind of way. And this is why I’m wearing the sunglasses.’ I lift the glasses for a moment so that he can see the puffballs.

‘What?’ he says.

‘The puffball mushrooms,’ I whinge. ‘Which Lily says look like Black Puffles from Club Penguin.’

He’s smiling and shaking his head. ‘You look fine to me. What’s wrong with them?’

‘It’s Lily’s cream and vibrator she gave me for Christmas,’ I say. ‘I used them last night and I think you’re only meant to use them in the mornings.’

He’s giving me his amused/bemused look.

‘So, do you want to know about the horses and their punk hairdos?’ he asks. 

‘OK,’ I say.

‘They’re clipped according to the amount of exercise they take. They get hot and sweaty if they’re out for the whole day, so those horses will be clipped out like Harriet’s. But if they’re only out for half a day, like the girls’ ponies, they’ll have a blanket clip.’

Clipped out? Blanket clip? And how does he know, since he’s not meant to be into hunting? Maybe he’s a closet hunter, shooter ’n’ fisher! Next thing I’ll find him out with a 12-bore and a brace of pheasants under his arm. Or whatever you use to shoot braces of pheasants. Or brace. Braces. Brace.

I frown. ‘Are you a closet hunter?’

He crinkles his eyes.

‘And shooter?’ I ask, getting a little warm under my Primark collar. ‘Oh my God! I hope you’re not a secret deerstalker as well! Because that really is a deal-breaker!’

He manages to do his crinkly thing and raise an eyebrow at the same time.  

‘Darling, would you hand these out,’ asks Maggie, coming up with a tray of Christmas cake. ‘And Duncan – can you hand round the whisky macs?’

I do my bit for the Montmarch Meet, defying death by handing out Christmas cake and stollen to the riders, but I’m now officially Concerned of Candlebury. The huntmaster seems to be tally-ho-ing. I hasten to find Lily and instruct/quiz her, once again. She assures me, once again, that she is fine and won’t attempt to jump over any fences or ditches. A stray hound turns back and trots over to me. I kneel down and stroke his ears before a young boy grabs him by the scruff and drags him back to the rest of the pack. And then they’re off. Oh God. 

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Christmas truce?


Duncan has masterminded or even masterchefed a magnificent feast for the contemporary country house. My plate is piled high with crispy parsnips and roast potatoes the colours of autumn leaves, gingery caramelised carrots, beautifully crossed sprouts with pancetta, apple and cranberry sauces, chestnut and onion stuffing and chunky slices of a tender, brown, grainy meat topped with a thick winy gravy (which is possibly a reduction or even a jus).

‘Mmmm. Delicious,’ I say to Duncan. ‘My compliments to the chef. Is pot-roast beef a Scottish tradition?’

The whole table except Lily and me erupts with laughter.

‘Sorry,’ I say, bewildered. ‘What is it then?’

‘You silly goose,’ says Duncan affectionately, and they all burst out laughing again.

My cheeks are burning. How humiliating. The Sassenach Who Thought the Christmas Goose was a Pot Roast. I’m probably the only person in British history apart from Tiny Tim Cratchit who’s never had goose before. I pull a stricken face at Duncan.

‘Aww,’ he says empathetically. ‘It really couldn’t matter less. And it’s fair enough. Goose doesn’t look anything like poultry.’

‘No, a goose looks just like a cow,’ says Harriet tartly.

I feel like reviving that great Christmas childhood tradition of flouncing out and running up to my room. Instead, I affix my Formal Luncheon Smile. Charlie mutters something to Harriet under his breath. Everyone soon recommences chattering and clattering, except me, who finishes my plate in silence.

The young girls clear the first course while Jamie puts more logs on the fire. Duncan follows the girls out and they parade back ceremoniously, the girls bearing mince pies, whisky butter and cream, and Duncan holding aloft the flaming Christmas pudding.

When we can eat not a currant more, have pulled every cracker and read each corny joke, Charlie beckons his youngest daughter. ‘Ailsa – can you fetch me the sorting hat?’ 

‘You do this every year, Dad!’ groans Alexander.

‘We have newcomers in our midst,’ says Charlie.

‘We know which houses we’re in!’ joins in Iona. ‘Maggie is always Professor McGonagall.’

‘Who’s that?’ I whisper to Lily.

‘Head of Gryffindor,’ Lily responds dismissively.

I look at Maggie questioningly.

‘Maggie Smith, darling.’

Ailsa returns with a battered deerstalker with one flap missing and hands it to Charlie who, ignoring his elder children’s protests, puts it on Lily’s head so it covers her eyes. She giggles as he jiggles it around and makes mumbly, ruminaty noises.

‘Definitely Gryffindor,’ he pronounces.

I want to be Gryffindor,’ says Ailsa, grabbing it off Lily’s head. Charlie does his ruminations again and says, ‘Very good school report: I think you’re Ravenclaw.’ Ailsa pouts and emits a Lilyish grunt.

The hat is passed to me. ‘Ah yes, mumble mumble, hmmm, yes,’ pause: ‘Hufflepuff.’

‘What are Hufflepuffs like?’ I ask, clearly not only the sole non-goose eater in the British Isles, but the only person without an in-depth knowledge of the Harry Potter books.

‘Happy, honest and hard-working,’ says Flora.

‘Darling, they’re utterly charming and kind, not self-serving like the Slytherins,’ says Maggie. I catch her darting a look at Harriet.

‘Though lacking in glamour and style,’ retorts Harriet.

The sorting done, I feel I need to do a little sorting myself.

‘You all stay sitting,’ I say. ‘Harriet and I will clear.’ 

Duncan raises an eyebrow. ‘We can do it,’ he says, sounding a little concerned for my welfare, as if there could be a nasty accident while washing up the knives.

‘No it’s fine,’ I say valiantly.

Harriet carries out the pudding plates, puts them on the side and is about to make a getaway when I confront her.

‘Harriet,’ I say. ‘Look I’m sorry we don’t seem to have got off to a very good start. But it would be nicer for both of us, wouldn’t it, to be friends rather than foe? Can’t we call a Christmas truce?

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she says. ‘Everybody’s making you very welcome here, aren’t they?’ As she stalks out, Duncan is walking in.

‘That’s because she is very welcome here,’ he says.

He comes over and puts his arms round me. ‘Well done for trying,’ he says. ‘Maggie’s tried dozens of times, but Harriet’s always on edge when there’s another woman in her orbit. We’ve found the best way is to let it wash over us – otherwise she’d spoil the atmosphere.’

By which I take it there is no Christmas truce. So much for my diplomatic tour-leaderly skills honed on the battlefields of ’Nam.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Christmas hols commence


Lily’s term ends with a candlelit carol service in the chapel. There’s a logjam of cars queuing to park at the end of a cowpat-ridden field. It’s like the Somme out there, black as night, teeming with rain, stinking slurry everywhere, figures looming out of the blackness and no clue as to whether they’re friend or foe.

Tweeded men and stilettoed women make their way like wounded moths towards the flickering light of the chapel. The Manor has a healthy disregard for Health and Safety. Some 200 parents and siblings jostle and cram into a space designed for 50. I loiter at the back along with some maverick dads, hoping to be allowed to remain standing. We take up position on the stairs, pressing ourselves into the wall as latecomers and girls carrying lit candles swarm past us to the gallery, which is already full to bursting.

Just as the jamming and shoving subsides and I find myself on a stair of my own from which to enjoy the novelty of being able to see my daughter sing, the headmistress fixes me with her unwavering eye.

‘Mrs Gray. Place up at the front here for one.’

Like a traffic police officer, she waves me to the front row of chairs which is practically in the orchestra. I put on my Jovial Parent Smile, breathe in as I edge past the first violin, try not to trip over the cellist and lower myself gingerly into a child’s chair that is being trespassed upon by a mother and wriggly toddler to one side and a tweedy grandfather to the other. Gracious smiles and pulling in of elbows all round.

To describe the view from the front row as ‘restricted’ would be economical with the truth. Within arm’s reach before me is a music stand with a blinding strip light that prevents me from seeing anything beyond. A hush descends. The strings take up their bows. Clarinet and recorder are pressed to lips. Mr Blackburn, head of music, is pushing his way past the choir and through the orchestra to take up position. He stops at his music stand, bang in front of me. All I see for the entire service is his ample posterior, so close that if I sing too enthusiastically I might inadvertently take a bite out of it.

After the service, when we finally disgorge onto the muddy bank and slither down to the drive, Lily and I are reunited.

‘Did you see me do my solo?’ she asks excitedly.

‘No!’ I cry. ‘I didn’t know you had a solo!’

‘It was meant to be a surprise,’ she says.

I feel like crying. We traipse in silence through the slurry to the senior cloakroom and over to the music room and back to her dorm and across the field to the car, gathering and dumping belongings by the light of my iPhone. We drive home in more silence. The much looked-forward-to start of the Christmas hols is an anti-climax all round.


Grasp the nettle and unpack Lily’s bags. I make two piles of washing, darks and whites, while Lily reads out the packing list.

‘White sports socks: three.’

‘Three?’ I query, rooting through to discover three solo socks of unknown provenance, but not one of the three pairs she started term with.

‘Knickers: three.’

‘But there are only about four pairs in your drawer. What happened to the other eight?’


I delve into the muddy black bin liner and pull out wellies, trainers, rollerblades and riding boots. Wait, there’s still something in there. Hmmm. Another riding boot. Unmarked. I arrange the three boots in front of me and gesture towards them.

‘Well I do have three legs, you know, Mum!’ laughs Lily.