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.

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