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.

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