Oh come, all ye hateful

My Cousin Fiona’s eldest, Beth, has a daughter named Erin who started primary school in September. It being the end of the autumn term, and despite its multi-ethnic makeup, Christmas fills the air, the corridors and just about everywhere else. Erin’s school may be cosmopolitan, but it’s quite traditional enough to want to provide its pupils with some of the experiences that were common to the Christmas season back when I was in short trousers. But these have all kept up with, gone with or mutated to suit the times, depending on your point of view. Fiona’s view, as always is eminently clear. “Edwin, you may live in the boonies of Neuropa, but you are her godfather.” Am I? I had somehow forgotten. “Of course, after my recent outburst I think it only tactful to stay away, and Beth, poor dear, has her own dreadful junket to take care of. So, since you’re going to be over anyway for Haviland’s big bash, you may as well do the honours. You know how happy she’ll be!” Do I?

“Away in a hanger”

Perhaps I should explain what is going on here. Haviland’s big bash is his 99th birthday. He thinks it immoral to so far outlast his own century as to no longer really understand the times he lives in – by the way, I think he’s fibbing. There’s not a trick that gets past the old beak – in addition he’s far too modest to want a telegram from the Queen. So he has made it clear to everyone that this will definitely be his last birthday and we’d better get used to the idea and certainly not give him anything he can’t drink or smoke as he intends to “go down in a miasma of cognac and cigars” within the next twelvemonth. I might find this desire to be off the nation’s books and out of its pocket laudable, but I don’t. Firstly, Haviland could still run a half marathon. Yes, it would take a while, but he’d finish. Secondly he isn’t on the nation’s books. I doubt whether there’s a single official mention of him outside Debretts and quite possibly not even there, that’s how secretive he is. I’m not even sure whether he went to Harrow or Charterhouse. He is claimed by both, but on the register of neither. His record at Cambridge got destroyed in an unfortunate incident involving a decanter of port, a large dog and a fire extinguisher. No one can say what he studied there and the rest of his passage through life is equally nebulous, all records expunged.

Apart from having an RAF administration complex, Haviland Corner, named after him because it was built at the end of a former airstrip in Norfolk, where the hanger housing his Lockheed F5 reconnaissance plane once stood, he is otherwise invisible above ground except to the aging owls of Whitehall. The man is a blank sheet, a void, even though he seems, by his own account, to have been everywhere and to know everybody. I once saw his passport from the fifties and sixties. It was suitably dog-eared, but entirely devoid of visas apart from a single trip to Switzerland, in the skiing season, if you please. Your average maiden aunt from Sevenoaks has travelled more. Thirdly, insofar as he’s not on the nation’s books, he’s not in its pocket either. There was the generous matter of the house at Blake Atherton being redeemed from the bank at a wave of Winston’s magic wand and I know he has a humble and presumably well-merited pension. But apart from this, Haviland is no burden upon the coffers of the state: a raven at the tower costs more to keep. But the die is cast. My uncle is a determined man and will doubtless keep his appointment with the reaper. I’ll be sad, but it’s been a longer innings than most men get by a couple of decades, so none of us can complain, least of all him.

“Deck the malls with rows of trolleys”

The other matter, Fiona’s outburst, will be harder to deal with. Basically Grandma has burned her boats with her grand-daughter’s school (where she used to pick Erin up almost every day) and is now, if not actually blacklisted, certainly non grata. It was the bloody nativity play that caused it. She exploded when she learned that the shepherds were going to sing “We will, we will rock you! Boom, duff-duff boom!” to a baby Jesus lying in a day-glo recliner chair freezing his little holy tootsies off outside the ‘Three Kings Cash’n’Carry’ with his welfare mum ‘Lisa-Marie’ and his Dad, ‘Loser Joe’ from the tattoo parlour, while waiting for the doors to open for the January sales. Erin’s class teacher who, as the most junior member of staff, was probably mobbed into helping with the play in the first place, tried meekly to defend its “social relevance”. At this Fiona screamed, in a voice that could be heard by everyone in the entire school: “Social relevance, my sainted arse! The thing’s nothing but an excuse to get a chorus of nine-year old mini-strumpets to dance indecently to “Like a virgin”, which I might remind you, Miss Fynrose, was a hit back when you were a teeny and I still looked seriously hot in a skirt. Where’s the relevance in that? Whose play is it anyway? The children’s or Mrs Cathy-come-home bloody Bexford”

Mrs Bexford, I should add, is the school principal and head of English, which includes anything relating to drama. Fiona went on to say in a tone just as hectoring and strident that “she”, meaning the principle, “probably sprinkles inner city grit on her muesli every morning! A brace of oxen singing ‘Who do you think you are?’ from the Spice Girls, angels on motorbikes, bloody hell! Don’t you lot ever grow up. Peter Fonda just turned 70 and Marlon Brando, Steve Mcqueen and James Dean all died before you were even bloody thought of. Your ridiculous ‘N-Act-Tivity, as you so coyly insist on calling it, is about as relevant as Harold Macmillan’s Facebook page. It’s just a nasty bit of cheap blasphemy. Give the kids their dreams back, you coven of trendy hags!”

“Happy Christmas, law is over”

This last was uttered just as Mrs Catherine Bexford BA came storming down the stairs and pointed, shaking with rage, to the door. Fiona left as regally as she does everything in life, but has not been seen there since. Her cleaning lady now picks up Erin from school and the little girl is deeply hurt by all the fuss her granny has caused and very sad about the whole business. Now Edwin is to go in like a lamb where Fiona went out like a lion. I am to be meek and understanding. I am to be every toddler’s friend. I am to be Santa’s little helper. I am to mend fences. I am to clap loudly every time Erin, dressed as a biker moll, comes onstage. I am to shed a tear when she sings her angelic little song, the chorus of “She talks to angels” from the Black Crowes, actually a desperate ballad about addiction. Why do I want to cry about all this? Is it because innocence was once just that … innocent? Is it because that song somehow foreshadows the crucifixion of a girl by her own hand? Is it because Fiona is possibly right, we should leave the kids to be kids, good grief, life’s short enough!

No, it’s because a seventeen month old baby was just shot dead by a grenade and gun-toting maniac on the edge of the Christmas market in the suitably gritty but stylish city of Liège, a place I love, a place that feels a lot like some kind of hometown. Christ! That could have been baby Jesus. The shooter could have been ‘Useless Loser Joe’ from the tattoo parlour. The young girl with shrapnel in her lungs could have been sixteen-year-old ‘Lisa Marie’, welfare mother. Once again the law fell asleep on the job in this little country and lawlessness immediately filled the vacuum. It doesn’t take much these days. It seems everyone is on a hair trigger, not just my dear cousin.

Now pass me a bucket and a mop. I’m off to school where I have some serious groveling to do. Afterwards I shall party for Haviland’s sake, but I fear my heart will not be in it. Meanwhile Erin, the sweet angel, will sleep secure and comforted that her world is back to normal. It is an illusion of course, but one we may all hope to preserve as long as possible.

Edwin Drood

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