When I was a little girl, there were certain levels of behaviour from my sister and I. We were not exactly of the generation “Children should be seen and not heard” but as the up-and-coming young veterinary surgeon my father expected my mother to keep an immaculate home, maintain a full-time job and fully appointed social calendar and keep us two presentable and well-mannered.
We absorbed these lessons as if by osmosis – we were never told to “mind our p’s and q’s”, or remember to say please and thank you, we just did. Those were the days when you could be socially mobile… it was just on our local news that the East Midlands is considered the worst place to live in the country. Apparently there is no social mobility… not surprising considering the state of the public transport system… I had to wait an hour for a bus the other day…
Anyway, my sister and I learnt impeccable manners – you could take us anywhere and we would fit right in, the perfect daughterly accessories to our aspirational father. One week, he came home from work and excitedly announced that one of his friends from university was visiting for the weekend. He was well-respected in the veterinary community and my father could see advantages to renewing their acquaintance over a weekend of hunting, clay pigeon shooting and delicious meals cooked by an attentive wife.
And us. The slightly unpredictable element of children. Even my father’s dogs had beautiful manners – they were to be trusted…
The momentous weekend arrived, as did my father’s friend, rolling up our driveway in his Jaguar. We all gathered on the patio to greet this pal from my father’s university days, and out he stepped, neatly bypassing a welcoming head butt from our pet sheep. He was a big man, tall, heavily- built and muscular, towering over my father and his
respectable 5”10’ …
“James! Good to see you! Come inside, here, I’ll help you with your bags!”
Full of effervescent bonhomie, my father pulled what seemed like an awful lot of luggage for a mere weekend out of the car.
Once inside, dogs greeted and drink in hand, my mother showed James to his room, and left him to unpack and change for dinner.
She returned downstairs to make the finishing touches, fresh flowers on the table, silver cutlery gleaming, the rack of lamb beautifully done and presented and the Black Forest gateau gently chilling in the fridge, awaiting a final dusting of grated chocolate.
“Dinner’s nearly ready, if you’d like to come downstairs,” she trilled sweetly.
My father emerged from his study and my sister and I joined him from the living room as slowly, heavily, footsteps were heard from the guest bedroom. They… clomped somewhat hesitatingly, down the stairs and into the hallway. James. But not James as we’d met him…
This James was wearing a nice ruffled blouse. With a pink A-line skirt. And some chunky beige heels. And makeup. A little over-enthusiastically applied, maybe, but the full complement of eyeshadow, blusher, lipstick and mascara.
In his booming voice, he declared:
“I rather thought I’d enjoy being Jennifer for the weekend. You don’t mind, do you?”
My father went a little pale. My mother let out a hoot – quickly stifled. The dogs stared. My sister and I said – absolutely nothing. Not a dicky bird.
My father waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the dining room so Jennifer could precede him, while my sister and I followed. I don’t think we had ever been so quiet or well-behaved at any point in our lives previously, up to that particular moment, and we both went on later to be expelled from our respective schools.
My father managed to make awkward small talk as he and Jennifer reminisced about battles fought on the rugby field, Jennifer throwing back his head and roaring with laughter, the foundation cracking at the corners of his mouth…
My mother spent a lot of time in the kitchen that weekend, I seem to recall, with the company of a bottle of whisky – medicinal, of course, every so often, making strange whooping and giggling sounds, like she had a hyena trapped in there with her…
The rest of the weekend fades into distant memory, really, other than remembering my father looking quite… weary, by the end of it. He must, however, have shown James/Jennifer a very good time, since the following year he was appointed president of the British Veterinary Association…!