COUSIN JULIA by Sydney Peck
They had all been raised in Stanley’s coaly air, but my wife and her sister Lina had married into Newbiggin, whereas cousin Julia had married into Darras Hall. Last year she had missed us due to a cold she developed in Athens on her late summer holiday there, once the Greek temperature had fallen to Julia’s required twenty degrees maximum. But she wouldn’t miss us this year. It was late September now and it was time for the visit. Julia was wealthy, with nothing to do but visit all her relatives on an annual cycle. This ritual required us to be next on her schedule of visits. Once a year she felt duty bound to see us and then felt glad to see the back of us, and believe me the feeling was mutual. Cousin Julia and her husband would be coming to tea today with me and Winnifred, and Winnie’s sister Evelina.
Their car purred its way up our short drive and the engine stopped. She waited till her door was opened for her, and stepped out gracefully. It would put the arrival of the Queen of Sheba in the shade, with husband George behind her, carrying a tiny pampered dog and a bottle of wine. Like the gifts brought to pharaoh by the Ethiopians, I half expected a Nubian dancer with ostrich feathers and a troupe of Moorish acrobats to pour from the Bentley. The car, we were informed, had to be parked out of the salt wind. Antique Bentleys and salt winds don’t go together, you know. Our junk-filled garage was the only shelter against the seaside weather. So the bikes were hurriedly stacked outside and the lawnmower was placed against the brick path so its fuel tank didn’t leak. The Bentley was gingerly inched in and just fitted – and the rusting garage doors were gently bumped closed on its rear fender.
It was a dull afternoon, one of those indecisive days in autumn when the weather is salty and unpredictable, like the sea itself, just the very reason we had chosen the house many years before. When Julia arrived the weather threatened to become even duller – and so did the conversation.
For this occasion, she brought her little yapping dog – a thoroughbred chihuahua. For our big tortoiseshell cat (new since last year) it was hate at first sight, and she eyed the midget dog unblinkingly as though it might turn out to be a substantial snack. To cut a long story short, after a lot of hissing and growling the dog was shut up in the conservatory, whimpering at us through the glass while the cat curled herself back down and stayed on the sofa in the warm living room watching us eating. Her nose twitched – she could smell fish a mile away.
Julia had brought an expensive red wine which needed chilling, but our fridge had broken down the previous day so the wine was a disaster……We settled for Winnie’s home-made fish pie and her sister’s apple cocktail. After we’d scoffed the wineless slices of fish pie and followed them up with the homemade apple/plum fruit cocktail from the garden, we relaxed somewhat with our cups of tea while sister Evelina played a few tunes on the piano. Evelina was a capable player by ear but could not read music. In truth it made little difference for our piano had long since succumbed to the salty dampness of our Northumberland coastal habitat. There were no flat notes, but undoubtedly some notes were no longer at top crispness of pitch. In between remarks about the worthlessness of teabag-tea and how at home they only ever drank real leaf-tea made in a hot teapot and allowed to stand and mash for five minutes, my ears could not help hear Julia prattling on about the pleasant but mediocre quality of Lina’s piano recital.
My sister-in-law was a fan of popular songs based on movie musicals such as West Side Story and Oklahoma and could render them in a foot tapping way which the typical listener could hardly resist. Julia was not typical. “ My son Gerald, you know, is in the West End music conservatory. He is quite excellent – top of his class you know, specializing in Mozart or Beethoven or some such thing…..he’s in line for first place in the orchestra,” she confided to my wife.
“Oh, I imagine it’s beautiful when he plays for you at home? Probably plays non stop?” Winnie said.
“Oh dear me, no,” there was unmistakable disdain in her voice, “we never see him playing at home – although we have a first class pianoforte (said with affected Italiano pronunciation)….He’s much too busy to play for me at home…constant rehearsals you know.”
She droned on and on while Lina’s tinkling tunes spilled happily over the warm carpet. Oh What A Beautiful Morning was easily and seamlessly followed by Yellow Submarine. Julia half-heartedly sipped her tea and rather noisily placed the cup on the saucer, and then noisily placed the saucer on the wooden table. She was losing patience with the piano. She posed her wrist high in front of her face and slowly looked at her watch with one eyebrow raised. Then she scanned over her dress and blouse, brushed a few imaginary crumbs off the material, and gazed around the room, pausing to half-smile at the chihuahua dozing behind the conservatory glass door.
Eventually, as we knew all along she would, Julia suggested, “Well, anyone for a rubber of bridge?” And as an afterthought she added, “Oh hahaha …,” she laughed falsely, “but I suppose you Winnie won’t be too happy to lose again, oh dear, oh lord, haha…..Still it’s just a bit of fun, isn’t it?” she lied entirely unconvincingly. “George , you’ll play of course,” and pharaoh’s Ethiopian nodded automatically.
Evelina stopped playing right in the middle of If I loved You, just where the lyrics hypothesized “off you would go in the mists of day.” Winnie raised one hand and stuttered, “Oh, n – no, Julia, please – it would be no fun for you…… we’re not in your league you know.” She wanted to let Julia think again, and perhaps drop the idea of bridge.
Julia misunderstood of course and thought it was simply because my wife was afraid of losing, as she regularly did, and so she insisted with her false laugh again. “Oh, never mind about leagues and so on, you’ll enjoy it,” meaning of course that she would enjoy it.
When Julia played bridge Winnie and Lina never liked her competitive and supercilious ways. Julia had always been better at bridge with her superior method of bidding. Actually, the two sisters had always liked bridge but not in any competitive way. Indeed, over the past two years they had been going frequently to the weekly parish bridge tournament and had even had some lessons. They played regularly at home in the evenings and invariably dragged me in as their third, using a blind dummy. We all three enjoyed it. We only had one deck of cards and it was much the worse for wear. It was one of those decks where it had become possible to identify the king of spades and other cards from their dog ears. Julia of course knew nothing of our dog ears.
So with Julia bullying and talking non-stop, they launched into playing, and through superior bidding, the first game went predictably to Julia and George; but gradually the score turned in favor of the home team and they took the rubber thanks in part to the finesse in spades based on a certain dog-eared card observed in George’s hand. First one rubber, then a second, until Julia’s enthusiasm drained away down the plughole of defeat. I sipped my tea and enjoyed with secret pleasure the irony while the game was being won by Winnie and her Lina, who were clearly no longer in the same league as Julia.
All through the dealing and score-keeping Julia chatted about her superior ways and friends, and about how her daughter was now up at Oxford. We offered the parallel information that our son was now an established local fishermen with his own boat and a good trade in Newbiggin. He spent practically all day every day out in his boat. To this the only comment she could contrive was, “ My dear Winnifred, is it entirely safe for him to be in out there all day in stormy weather, in such a small boat, for a few fish?” I threw in a few words when she paused for breath…”Actually, there’s very little danger because my son knows our local waters and the local weather perfectly and he enjoys the sea enormously.” Without a glance at me she humped with a raised eyebrow and turned to the cards.
After an hour or so of bridge, Julia stretched in an affected manner and suggested a stroll along the beach before they went home.
“George and I do three miles every day you know. Keep fit – that’s our motto. Do you some good too, Winnie.” She suggested a couple of miles in the bracing sea air along the sands.
Risking another raised eyebrow, I chirped up with “….Well, I should tell you my son said it was going to rain this afternoon – we get these sudden sea mists on the coast here in late September and he’s pretty sure it’s gonna rain. I think I’ll stay in and have some more scones.”
The eyebrow was not raised and instead it was the dismissive blinking of eyelids followed by the far-off gaze out through the window. She spoke slowly and pronounced each word as if it were an elocution test, “George of course worked for years with the meteorological service.”
The Ethiopian recognised his cue to speak, “It’s certainly not going to rain – just look at that blue sky. A walk is a fine idea, Julia – let the little dog have a run after being cooped up in the conservatory…..”
We buttered up some more scones and Winnie made a fresh pot of tea, and the three of us watched the two figures and the tiny dog disappear in the distance down the sunny beach. Oh, the mist didn’t show for about half an hour, until they had walked out of sight about three miles away from the house. But then it poured down all the way back. The dog of course enjoyed swimming and getting soaked in the sea and rolling in the sand too.
They got back drenched and we urged them to have some hot tea. But they decided to return home immediately to have a bath and dry off. Opening the garage door for the Bentley, George found the car covered in a layer of pieces of moss. The salt-corroded leaky garage roof had allowed the moss from the gutters to be washed in over the windshield and roof of the car. George pulled a face and swiped it all off as best he could, and then Julia sank with a sigh into the white leather seat as they all piled in to the car – and the dog all wet and sandy shook himself well on the leather seats . The cat stood up looking at him smugly from the warm living room window, and then sat down again and curled her tail luxuriously around her feet.
“Oh dear, Winnifred, I’m sure I don’t know how you survive with this cold place and this primitive existence. Such a lack of comfort and convenience is such a chore. You should have come and lived next to us in Darras Hall years ago you know,” she intoned with a complete belief in what she was saying.
Then she added without reflection, “I think I’m developing another of those late summer colds again.”
Julia sniffled a little and brushed some sand from the seat as the engine started. Closing the door, she gave a perfunctory air-kiss to Winnie, glanced at me with an accusing look, and smiled an official smile that is appropriate on such important visits and occasions, and was whisked away back to civilization in Darras Hall.