I knew when I married Aidan (heck, I knew long before I did!) that his family, the Drinkwaters, were considered – well, a tad eccentric. Oh, there were no rumours about shallow graves in the garden that attracted the curiosity of the neighbourhood dogs or people locked in attics, or anything more suspect than somewhat foul smelling herbal tea being brewed.
My mother, a practical and tolerant lady, for all she asked “Are you sure, love?” in a very strange kind of way, was of the official opinion that it was just because they were such an obviously extended family in such a flagrantly baroque house in a neighbourhood that favoured nuclear families with 2.5 children (now that would have been weird) and neat new-builds with well tended front gardens.
Anyway, she was the one who bought me all those storybooks about children growing up joyfully having adventures in massive families, so how could she make too much of an issue of it. She met Aidan’s mother, and said, yes, they got on, and, indeed, were on first name terms by now. “Did you know that Mrs Drinkwater’s first name is Persephone?” she asked, and I wasn’t sure if she registered admiration or disapproval.
It could be argued that Aidan was the one with the odd name in the context of his family. His father was called Thor, and his siblings were (in order of age, he came in the middle at number 3) Gawain, Sieglinde, Solstice (a girl, in case you’re wondering) and Benedictus. The us on the end of it was very significant, and anyone who called him just Benedict in the family orbit was taken to task. I think if it had been further curtailed to Ben then they may have had a collective nervous breakdown. The slightly disturbing thing was that Benedictus himself preferred his full handle, which was somewhat odd for a normal fifteen year old boy – he had been born, I worked it out myself, when Persephone was on the change, and so it was a nice touch calling him for a blessing – I supposed.
But that was not all there was to the Drinkwaters. There was Diadem, who was a real aunt, on Thor’s side, and Lysandra, who was Persephone’s soul-sister – her words, not mine. And there was Grandmamma. She was only ever addressed, by the whole family, as Grandmamma, not Grandma or Granny or anything like that. I sometimes thought that if her own parents had been alive still, even they would have addressed her as Grandmamma. I only found out by accident when picking up the post that her name was Onyx. I wouldn’t have blamed her for keeping that quiet if I hadn’t suspected she’d picked it for herself.
Still, Grandmamma was, so my Mother said after having visited, one of the “more conventional members of the family.” Even though the word “normal” never actually passed her lips, it had most definitely been in her mind. Persephone told fortunes, and there were rumours in town that they had an odd way of being right though nobody seemed able to come up with an exact instance. Thor was a whittler, and being useless at anything in the handicrafts department myself, I genuinely admired the birds and animals that he seemed to make come to life in just a few minutes with his little knife. But though I was always polite I never quite knew how to react when he said – and I don’t think he was speaking figuratively – that he was not so much finding their form as releasing their soul. Diadem was a folk singer, though she preferred to think of her songs as incantations, and Lysandra was apparently spared other duties on account of being Persephone’s soul-sister, but would have beaten anyone in an outstaring contest and had healing hands. She laid them on my wrist when I sprained it but I still took an ibuprofen and put on a support bandage (the latter under long sleeves so as not to hurt her feelings). Gawain was a website designer, his designs consisting mainly of swirling stars and glowing cauldrons, and Sieglinde was also a designer, in her case of jewellery, though she preferred to refer to amulets. Solstice was still at university, and Benedictus at school, though the family hoped they wouldn’t let them down.
I always had the impression they thought Aidan had let them down. Oh, they insisted there was nothing at all wrong with being an accountant. I also learnt that he was called after his Great Uncle Aidan, who apparently had had the family money.
I could see what Mum meant about Grandmamma. Oh, she definitely fell into the old-fashioned grandmother mode, with a snow-white bun of hair, the kind of voluminous long skirts that would surely have been out of fashion and relegated to historical novels even when she was a girl, and a favourite place in a rocking chair, not to mention the knitting constantly on the go, but she there was nothing more obviously odd about her. She was also one of those gentle old ladies who could be surprisingly inexorable. On learning I couldn’t knit she was aghast. “Oh, Patricia, my dear, this won’t do at all. I like your dear mother and won’t say a word against her, but how she could think of not teaching you to knit …..!” That irked me a tad, and I felt a need to defend my Mum among the serried ranks of Drinkwaters. “She tried,” I said, truthfully, “She’s not a bad knitter herself. But she realised I wasn’t interested and wasn’t much good at it.”
“Still, my dear …. we shouldn’t give up on things just because we don’t think we’re interested. Interest can come with effort. Would you let me at least try to teach you?”
That was the trouble. Had she tried to hector me, and especially if she’d case further aspersions on Mum, I would have dug my heels in and said I most definitely didn’t want her to teach me. But I suppose I didn’t want to be the kind of person who said no to a sweet white haired old lady in a rocking chair. Anyway, there was part of me that was by no means averse to the idea. I doubted I’d ever reach the stage of sweaters or the like, but being able to fashion my own scarves had a certain appeal.
Come to that, I rarely saw any of the family wearing what Grandmamma had knitted. Thor had what he called a muffler that he put on when he was foraging for pieces of wood to whittle in the winter, and Sieglinde had a pair of socks she said Grandmamma had knitted for her. Both were in muted colours, the kind that expensive shops call homespun when they are generally neither made at home nor spun.
I decided that if I did make any headway with the knitting then it would involve bright colours and plenty of them. And if Grandmamma didn’t like it – well, I was the one paying for the wool. She looked at it with one of those more in sorrow than in anger expressions, and said, “Each to their own tastes, my dear, but isn’t it just a little – gaudy? And with your pale complexion –though you have a very fine skin – wearing gaudy colours so close to the face – well, I wouldn’t advise it.”
“I still prefer to use those colours, thank you, Grandmamma,” I said. And in the Drinkwater household that counted as rebellion. I had long since been disabused of the idea that the unconventional (to borrow Mum’s phraseology) and non-conformist were also easy going. She chose not to make an issue of it, but those lips were pursed in a way that was decidedly off-putting. Still, I stood my ground.
Now I’m not going to say that Grandmamma put a hex on me or anything like that. But even though I had been doing well with wool of her choice, and reached the stage of being able to do moss stitch and know two methods of casting on, when I took up the brightly coloured wool I bought, my fingers became all thumbs, I dropped stitches, and lost count. “Is it distracting you, dear?” Grandmamma asked kindly.
“No, it’s fine,” I assured her, gritting my teeth.
Surprisingly, Grandmamma seemed to give up the battle, or at least decided to retreat for a while, deciding I’d come to my senses. As we knitted, she told me about the history of her side of the family, and its traditions, and how important it was to keep them alive, and how knitting was so much more than just the making of pretty garments. “You come from a long line of knitters then, Grandmamma?” I asked. She smiled, a smile that was even sweeter than usual, and yet made me vaguely nervous. “You could say that, my dear,” she said, “But I come from a much longer line than that. Do you remember when you covered the bandage with long sleeves so as not to hurt Lysandra’s feelings? Oh, of course we knew about it? I’m not even saying I blame you. Her powers aren't nearly as effective as she thinks they are. But we all have our reasons for concealing things.” I realised she was in the process of unbuttoning her blouse, and lifting up her skirt, and thought, in a mixture of shock and pity and – yes, frankly, a degree of embarrassment, that for all her sensible way of talking and her skill with the knitting needles, poor Grandmamma was in the early stages of dementia – I had a friend who worked in an old people’s home, and she had referred, gently, to people “Losing some of their modesty.”
“Grandmamma, please, there’s no need for that!” I exclaimed. It was then that I realised that what I was looking at was not a kindly old lady, wearing old fashioned clothes. I saw the thick, creamy fleece, saw how she was covered with it, how it grew up her legs and on her chest, and when she laughed at my horror, it came out as a bleat that was both harmonious and slightly menacing. She covered herself again, and regained the power (not that I’m sure she ever lost it) of human speech. “Did it never cross your mind to wonder why I never needed to buy any wool?”