So I’m here. At the Donovan family dinner table. Which is set beautifully, of course, in that cosy, casual way that takes far longer to do than formal and fancy. Oh, I was tempted to develop a case of “strategic flu” but I know that the sod’s law that dictates my life would have dictated I instantly went down with a massive case of the real thing even though there isn’t currently a flu bug doing the rounds. I still can’t quite get used to this name business. Not that I have any objections on principle, and they were quite right to point out (or subtly nudge me to find out for myself) that it has been legal for decades, in fact, quite possibly always, for a husband to take his wife’s name and not the other way round. I don’t blame Rick in the least. Lord knows, he has no reason to cling to his father’s name. I don’t know why I didn’t revert to my maiden name myself, apart from the fact that in the end the one decent thing Andrew did for me was enable me to have “Beaumont” instead of “Bloggs” for a surname. Adrienne Beaumont sounds so much better than Adrienne Bloggs. Perhaps I should have paid heed to those warnings about Change the name and not the letter, change for worse and not for better instead of dismissing them as silly superstition.
Anyway, Rick, my second son Rick, the one who barely knew his father (and didn’t miss much) is now a Donovan by marriage, since that beautiful ceremony at Frampton Grange, all stage-managed and designed by Alicia, when he exchanged his vows with Alicia’s second daughter – I wonder if that symmetry appealed to her! – Eloise.
Alicia isn’t here tonight – she’s sent her heartfelt apologies but has a motivational speaking engagement for charity. Given that combination, it would be churlish to object, not to mention hypocritical, as I’m decidedly relieved she isn’t, though the hand of Alicia is present everywhere. Present in the tasteful, rustic pink and white gingham table cloth that gives it that new twist by the gingham being based on triangles rather than squares; present in the dried flowers centrepiece that blends all the colours so subtly that Mother Nature herself would be envious, and ever so slightly, but ever so importantly, picks up the pink of the tablecloth. The dusky pink napkins are from her September Shades range.
I have resigned myself to this. I don’t mind. Not really. I can’t compete. How could anyone compete with the founder and CEO of AD, Just Be? The thing is, I don’t dislike her. She’s always been graciousness itself, and gave me a beautiful birthday present a couple of weeks back (I still can’t quite believe she’s older than I am. She ought to launch that cosmetic range she’s been threatening) – a thoughtful one, too, as I’d mentioned that I like my handicrafts, the bumper kit from her Autumn crafting collection. That’s Crafting with a capital “C” – all colour co-ordinated with embellishments and sentiments.
I am the Other Mother-in-Law and given time, I will, I hope, be the Other Grandmother. I can’t compete. No point to even trying. That sounds a bit bitter, it wasn’t meant to.
Without technically knowing that the food is from one of Alicia’s cookbooks, I do know. It smells and tastes of Quick and Easy Autumn Suppers. In my experience quick and easy recipes are rarely either, though Alicia, she makes a point of this, will have tested, or as she says, trialled them all herself, making sure in advance that her larder and her freezer have all the leftovers she’ll need, even if it’s necessary to buy them first. Or come to that, she probably does have a stock of herbs and spices and Filo pastry and lime pickle and vanilla extract. I might unearth a tin of tomatoes on a good day.
Alicia has also beaten me to it in the Grandmother Stakes. Her elder daughter Emily is already the mother of two. Baby Benjie is too young to be at the dinner party, but six year old Sabrina is there. Alicia is very particular about using her full name instead of “Bree”, saying in that arch way of hers, as if it doesn’t matter but we know different, that fond as she is of cheese (presumably, on one of her range of cheeseboards) she doesn’t want her granddaughter to sound like one. If I were in the slightest inclined to bribery, I could tell Emily that I heard her refer to her as “Bree” tonight, and will tell Alicia if she doesn’t let me have that beautiful butterfly scarf she’s wearing, and I could possibly even add that I’d tell her she was wearing part of a spring range in the autumn.
But Sabrina herself, I must admit, is a lovely child and a credit to her parents. Her dress comes from one of Alicia’s children’s wear collections. She has a knack for coming up with outfits that both little girls who are into frills and furbelows, and those who are happiest in jeans can wear without too much protest. It’s dusky pink (and much as I’m mean-spirited enough to have hoped it was made from the same material of the napkins, when I gave her a hug I sneaked a chance to feel it, and it isn’t) with a maroon velvet collar and just a hint of smocking, and it sets off Sabrina’s dark hair beautifully. She has good manners, table manners included, contributes to the conversation, and yet doesn’t make a nuisance of herself.
It wasn’t even her fault that she knocked over the glass of water. Her neighbour, leaning across the table, had unwittingly nudged it closer to the edge, and it toppled over when she touched it, cascading onto the taupe faux sheepskin rug on the polished floorboards. Well, the expression on that child’s face made me want to run over and give her a hug, a proper, arms round her, messy, arms-gathering one, not a polite greeting one. Let’s get this straight. There was nothing frightened about it. She certainly didn’t fear a harsh punishment of any kind. In fact, and to her credit, Emily said at once, “It’s okay, sweetheart, accidents happen.” But fighting back her tears, Emily said, “It’s spoilt things, Mummy! It’s spoilt things for Auntie Eloise and Uncle Rick …..!”
“Oh, Bree, don’t be so silly,” Rick said, rumpling her hair as he hurried past her on the way to the kitchen to, presumably, get a mop, though I doubt that even the AD, Just Be kitchenware range has come up with a miracle mop that can instantly dry sopping sheepskin or faux sheepskin. In fact, Emily was already rolling up the rug and said, “It can go in the tumble dryer. Or wait, it’s not urgent, we can use the Fresh Breezes airer. You have one, don’t you, Eloise?” Of course, it was a rhetorical question. Alicia would never send her daughters out into the wide world and their own homes without the full range of handy energy and labour saving gadgets.
I may be knocking on a bit (even if I am younger than Alicia) but I can still remember what it’s like to be a little girl who’s upset and wants a few minutes’ time out. “Come on, Bree,” I said, “I could do with some fresh air and it looks like you could, too.” The patio heaters on the terrace were already on, and the ambient lighting of the no-flame candles looking almost as atmospheric as it did on the infomercials. A light drizzle was falling, but the easy-assemble awning protected us from it.
So we’re out here, now, Bree and I, sitting next to each other on the bench from the Gardenia Gardens range, with its waterproof cushions that look for all the world like canvas embroidered ones. “Feeling better now?” I ask. “Yes, thank you,” she says, politely. “Good. I expect you’ve heard that saying about not crying over spilt milk, well, it applies even more to spilt water!” She manages a giggle, to my relief. “But – it wasn’t just the water, Auntie Adrienne.” I rather like the sound of Auntie Adrienne. “Like Mummy says, accidents do happen,” she sounds or tries to sound so grown-up and grave I have to stifle my own giggle. “It stopped things looking right.”
“Well, it wasn’t even your fault, love, and it’s soon fixed. I bet it has been already. But is it really so important for things to look right?” She pauses, weighing it up. To my surprise, Emily speaks next – she’s come to join us outside without us noticing. “Now now, Adrienne, that’s heresy!” Even little Sabrina has obviously realised she’s being ironic, and she’s not in any kind of trouble. “Shove up, ladies, I could do with some time out, too!” We oblige, and she says, “I guess I shouldn’t be saying this in front of Sabrina, but never mind …..”
“I won’t tell, Mummy,” she promises solemnly.
“I adore my Mother and admire what she’s achieved.”
“As you should” I say, meaning it.
“But dear God she can be a hard act to follow, or even not to let down. Don’t get me wrong, Eloise and I had a very happy childhood, but at times – and she’d say the same – oh, how we longed for a bit of mess. For the tableware not always matching and having to make sure it co-ordinated – we were already expert at that when we weren’t much older than Bree! For making Christmas and Mother’s Day cards the way other kids did, with glitter and random bits of ribbon, and pictures we cut out of magazines. And having a Coke at their houses was wonderful.”
“I’m not allowed Coke,” Sabrina says, more curious than resentful.
“Well, I suppose it is bad for you. But an odd glass now and then isn’t the end of the world.”
Suddenly, I feel a lot less bothered about being the other Mother-in-Law and I can’t wait to be the other Grandmother (and have some ribbon and glitter and old magazines, and maybe even a can of Coke at the ready!). But right now, I’m more than happy to settle for being the First Auntie Adrienne.