“I don’t mean to be unkind,” said Edna Cummings (which usually meant she was going to be) “And I know it’s something you’re not supposed to mention these days, but – well, Jeanette is a NICE girl, but you could hardly call her regal, could you?”

     “At least she has some brains and a bit of dignity,” Glenda Gove pointed out, “And she’s not likely to turn up at the parade with her hair dyed some colour the Lord never intended and her toenails painted purple. Not like your precious Patsy.”

     “She prefers to be called Patricia,” Edna pointed out. “And her being my niece has got nothing to do with it. But you can be as – as awake as you like, but a Carnival Queen has to have a bit of glamour about her!”

     It took me a minute to work out that she meant “woke”. Not for the first time I decided that I must have been out of my mind when I joined the campaign to have the town’s carnival relaunched. Not that it really mattered when Edna and Glenda both wanted it. They’d been in total agreement about that. Two sides of the same coin; two hands on the same clock.

     “I know you and Jeanette’s mother are like that,” Edna crossed her fingers. “But I doubt she even wants to be Carnival Queen. Too much of a Bluestocking and a Brainbox and an Egghead and a Boffin ….” For someone who affected a degree (pun unintended) of contempt for learning, she certainly seemed to have been studying her thesaurus. 

     “Ladies, please,” Edna’s husband Paddy said, “Let’s keep it civilised. Would – er – would anyone like a chocolate chip cookie?”

     “And what’s wrong with good old fashioned biscuits?” Glenda asked, helping herself to four of them. “Never cared for them much myself.”

     They weren’t my first choice of biscuit either (I’ve always been a Bourbon Cream girl) but I was in serious need of comfort eating, and didn’t say no. 

     “Anyway, there’s no rush, is there?” asked Maggie Townsend, my next door neighbour, “I mean, we’ve not even arranged the route of the parade yet.”

     “Putting things off,” Edna said, as if referring to mass murder. “I can’t be doing with folk who keep putting things off.”

     “Shame that doesn’t seem to apply to weeding your path, then,” Glenda, who was a bit of a neat freak, said. I kept my mouth shut. Let’s just say that a couple of weeks back I’d had a cab, and the driver, who fancied himself a comedian, greeted me outside the house with, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

     “What do you think, Sarah?” Maggie asked. Normally I was very fond of Maggie, who had elevated harmlessness to an art form, and probably thought she was diffusing the situation now, but if I’d ever learnt the art of looking daggers (generally people ask me if I’m feeling well when I try) I would have done so, then. “I – think they’d both make quite a good stab at it,” I said, reasonably truthfully. Though fair enough, neither of them was ideal. But Jeanette, though quite plain (and of course on principle I thought it didn’t matter) carried herself well and had nice eyes, and Patsy – sorry, Patricia – whilst having a taste for odd shades of hair and nails, didn’t take it to freakish levels.

     It had all been so easy the previous year when, in the first year of the Carnival’s new lease of life, there hadn’t been a Carnival Queen. Well, easier, at any rate!

     “I’m sure they’d both make a splendid shot at it,” said the Chairman of the Carnival Committee, the Reverend Alexander Bernard, Prebendary (retired) as he put on all the official letters. In case you’re wondering, a Prebendary is someone who has some kind of honorary high-up position in the Church of England. I didn’t know until I’d Googled it either! He looked like a slightly stooped Santa Claus (though he favoured tweeds rather than red jackets) and had a voice that made me think he’d never need a megaphone.  He had also perfected the art of polishing off biscuits and talking at the same time while never spilling a crumb. Impressive.  He didn’t (so he regularly told us) stand on ceremony, and was happy to be called Alexander. But calling him Al or Alex or whatever would have been akin to starting the Hail Mary with, “Hey, Madge!” “Of course, it would be highly inappropriate to propose my granddaughter.” Alexander waited to be contradicted, but nobody did. It crossed my mind, as I knew Lucy Bernard and liked her, but in the first place that would have possibly made Edna and Glenda combine forces and that didn’t bear thinking about, and in the second place, Lucy was in her twenties by now. I mean, I know there are no hard and fast rules about the upper age limit of carnival queens, but there are just – well – traditions. 

     The issue couldn’t even be settled by the arguably unfair but at least practical solution of “the costume fitting”. “The Costume” only consisted of a cloak and a sash and a crown and a sceptre, (Alexander had haggled a knockdown price at a theatrical outfitters) so it didn’t really matter, and the Queen would wear her own clothes underneath; though as it happened, Jeanette and Patsy weren’t that different in size, anyway. The irony was that though they weren’t bosom buddies – they didn’t have much in common, and it wasn’t one of those “attraction of opposites” things, the girls themselves seemed to get along perfectly well!

     Well, the meeting ended with nothing resolved on the matter of the Carnival Queen. I wonder if they have this problem in Rio, I thought. Or Cologne. Or all those cities that have elevated Carnival to an art form. I had a vision of versions of Edna and Glenda and Alexander in a polyglot global mixture, and hoped I wouldn’t have nightmares.

     Luckily, I would have a bit of a sanity break long before I went to bed! I was going round to my Mum’s house for supper, and Mum and Larry and Bee nearly always managed to cheer me up, often by not even trying! 

     Larry was my stepfather, who still jokingly called himself my Mum’s toy boy at times, though, oddly, the age difference between them seemed to be diminishing. I won’t say we hit it off entirely unproblematically at once, but he told my stroppy teenage self from the word go that he knew he’d never replace my Dad, but hoped we’d get along. We did. True, his taste in sweaters was appalling, and true, his jokes about being the henpecked rooster in a family of females didn’t have quite such a long shelf life as he thought they did, but he was one of the kindest men I’d ever known, and he worshipped the ground Bee walked on. Bee – that’s my half-sister. Her full name is Belinda, but I don’t think anyone has ever called her that since she was christened, and if they did, she’d probably ask “Who?” Bee is the past mistress of the deadpan monosyllabic question. Let’s not beat about the bush over this. She wasn’t planned, and – well, when someone has a child in their mid forties sometimes things can go a bit awry, and in Bee’s case, they had. I liked that little, slightly old-fashioned word “awry” when I was thinking about Bee. It would have been unthinkable, for anyone who knew her, to say “wrong”. And there’s something, even though I know it’s come into the language for the right reasons, about that term “special” that always seems to me as if folk are trying too hard to convince themselves. 

     Bee had done wonderfully well, in many ways. She could read, now, though she often forgot what she’d read two minutes later. But she never forgot how to bake melt in the mouth scones (and I know it caused Mum anxious moments when she used the oven but she determinedly kept her worries from Bee) and she never forgot a kindness though, oddly, she seemed to more or less instantly forget an unkindness. 

     Of course there had been heartache and soul-searching. As Larry tenderly put it, “Sometimes, she knows enough to know,” and she could get frustrated and upset at times, and though they had made provisions for her future they couldn’t help worrying what would happen. 

     Bee greeted me at the door with a big kiss, though as I embraced her back, she protested, “Mind my lid!” I knew she had picked up that expression from her Grandpa on Larry’s side who always called the checked caps he had a fondness for “My Lid”. Bee’s current favourite “lid”, indeed, one of her favourite things in the whole world, and one that had lasted considerably longer than most of her favourite things in the whole world (apart from raspberry ripple ice cream, her toy rabbit Rangoon, and The Beatles, which she’d inherited from her Dad) was a paper crown that had been in a Christmas cracker. Mum and Larry had been a bit worried about her going to a party with crackers and wondered if they might scare her, but she loved them, and would have had Christmas crackers all year round if they’d let her. The plastic whistle and the terrible joke had long since disappeared, but now, in spring, she still loved her “lid”. Mum told me she had once gently said, “Bee, you can’t wear that all year round!” Bee had looked at her with one of those quizzical, patient and pitying looks she specialised in, and asked “Why?”, and of course Mum couldn’t tell her.

     I won’t say it was as if the vexations of the Carnival meeting suddenly evaporated as if by magic. A little of Edna and Glenda at daggers drawn goes a very long way. But as we all tucked into Mum’s tuna and cheese bake (she makes it the way we all like it with way more cheesy topping than you’re supposed to, just the tiniest bit burnt, and discovered that we did have room left for some of Bee’s raspberry shortcake (she’d added another string to her culinary bow) and talked about the silliest and the most important things, which were often one and the same, I thought that Bee, holding court in her Christmas Cracker crown, would have been a more worthy Carnival Queen than either Jeanette or Patricia.

     Now maybe this is where you’re waiting for me to tell you that I proposed that and that she was a roaring success and it was printed as a touching and heartwarming story in the local paper and even got into a magazine. 

     No, that’s not what happened – no way were we going to throw our precious Bee into a bearpit like that! Anyway, as it so happened, Mum and Larry and Bee had booked a holiday over Carnival Week. “How can you ever stand missing it?” I asked sarcastically.

     “You’re a fine one to talk as you were one of the campaigners for it,” Mum pointed out. “Mind you, when I first heard about it I was quite sorry we’d moved away a bit. Now I’m positively relieved, though I suppose I won’t be able to resist having a look on Facebook.”

     I had wondered whether to mention the “Queen Row” in front of Bee, in case it upset her, though we had all determined not to wrap her in either emotional or physical (well, figurative, but you know what I mean!) cotton wool. Still, she had apparently established a good idea of what was going on. She had a knack for cutting to the nub of a matter. “That’s when we’re on holiday, Bee,” Larry reminded her, “You know, we’re going to stay where the ponies are again!” They had a little holiday cottage in the New Forest, and ponies were also amongst Bee’s favourite things. She went to a special riding centre every month, and was apparently a natural. 

     “I know THAT,” she said. She helped herself to one of her own strawberry shortbreads, which, never troubled by false modesty, she declared to be “yummy” and appeared to be weighing something up as she enjoyed it. Her mouth empty once more, after politely dabbing it with a napkin (she had seen someone using one in a costume drama and had given Mum and Larry no peace until they bought one for her, complete with a napkin ring) she turned to me, and said, “Sarah – that – fall-out those silly ladies were having ….”

     I could see Mum half-wondering whether to correct her and tell her not to be rude – they didn’t let her get away with bad behaviour - but she evidently decided that she wasn’t going to try to turn her daughter into a liar! 

     “Yes, love?”

     “Well, it’s – it’s obvilous!” She was fond of the word “obvious” but decided to give it her own twist, and we found ourselves picking it up! It caused me to get some very strange looks at work one day.

     “What’s obvilous – er, obvious?” I asked.

     She gave a long-suffering sigh. “Can’t they BOTH be Queen?”

     Well, I thought that was brilliant, but there was no guaranteeing that Edna and Glenda would agree. I raised the matter at the next meeting, and perhaps for the first time in my life understood the meaning of the word pregnant pause. I was beginning to think we needed the forceps when Edna and Glenda looked at each other, weighed each other up, and I swear Alexander was praying. If he was praying for a miracle, his wishes were granted. In unison, they burst out laughing. “It’ll – certainly be different” Edna said.

     “But this town has always liked to be a bit quirky,” Glenda said. “Only – what about another costume?”

     “Don’t worry about that, I can sort it in two shakes,” Alexander assured them. He was fond of expressions like that. “Sarah, I am in awe. Solomon has nothing on you!”

     Well, I have my faults, to put it mildly, but I wasn’t going to take credit that wasn’t mine. “Oh no, Alexander,” I said. “It’s not my idea. It comes from someone far, far wiser than I am!”

February 07, 2020 08:17

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Deborah Landers
22:04 Feb 12, 2020

I like how you addressed the expectation as you were bucking them by mentioning the regal appearance of Bee. It's simple and sweet, and it's just nice to have that sometimes. I liked it!


Deborah Mercer
07:54 Feb 13, 2020

Thanks to you, my namesake! Of course, though Bee in my story is Belinda, our name means Bee!


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