The table cloth comes out every year. Of course it does. The famous Arkwright lace. The fabric that founded a dynasty. Each anniversary, it must be carried from the top drawer of the tallboy in the second guest bedroom, where it has lain for twelve months in laundered anticipation, and unfolded on the ebony table in the dining room in our honour. What better way to celebrate our love?
It was with us from the start. Decorating the table throughout the awkward wedding reception. My parents, overwhelmed by the grandeur, hardly daring to say a word. Your parents taking centre stage, allowing us our brief moments of glory – toasts, your speech, cake cutting – in between their beguiling tales of family history. The cloth emerged the following year at the anniversary meal your mother insisted on throwing, even though I’d have preferred a quiet night in, just the two of us. The following year, we couldn’t possibly disappoint her because your Father was so ill and she needed something else to think about. And the next, when the baby meant we were too exhausted to organise anything ourselves and it would have been churlish to refuse. And the next, and the next…till the ritual was carved in tablets of stone, so that, even, after your mother’s death, it is preserved through the machinations of the elder sisters you dare not disappoint.
Now here we are again. Twenty five years after the original event. Twenty five years? My, my how time has flown. And haven’t we been having so much fun? Here we are again, climbing the steps of the house, ringing that ridiculous clanging bell. Here’s Daphne, taking my coat with her usual smile of disdain for my fashion sense. Here’s Georgia, handing out the cocktails, as we make polite conversation. Here’s her dull husband Steven, and Daphne’s duller husband Edwin, and a coterie of Arkwrights who are wheeled out for the occasion. Our grown up children trailing behind us. It is kind of them to come, but I wouldn’t blame them if one year they exercised their right of refusal.
Dinner is served, as always, in the red dining room. The long table ordained with the white, crisp cotton and floral loops of lace that the family admires so. As ever, it is when we sit down to eat, that the stories begin…How the cloth was created in honour of the wedding of Joshua Arkwright’s first born son and has been used for every Arkwright nuptial since. How a lazy servant nearly ruined it by not taking it to the laundress immediately after spillage of white wine – an error remedied by the watchful housekeeper who sacked the servant on the spot and took it herself. How Great Uncle Charlie (dreary in life – the stuff of legend in death) rescued it from burning when the West Wing of the house caught fire. My only role in proceedings is to smile and nod, though in my head I fantasise about setting fire to it myself. Or taking a knife and ripping those lace whorls to shreds. Better still, I think that if I were to just knock the waiter’s right arm a fraction, the red wine would flow across the table discolouring every fibre, like a deep purple wound. I’m not sure if it’s lack of courage, or unwillingness to destroy a beautiful artefact, but as always, something stays my hand.
The evening meanders on. Boring chit chat, interlaced with a fine cut of beef, meringues that melt in the mouth, and cheese that has almost liquefied by the time it reaches me. At last, the final morsel is consumed, the last story told, and it is time for the inevitable speeches. Here’s Daphne, toasting her baby brother, and Georgia, his ever youthful wife. Here are you, rising in response thanking your siblings and the Arkwright family for their annual generosity. And here am I playing my part in our happy anniversary, gazing at you with the requisite amount of adoration as you conclude, “Twenty five glorious years, here’s to twenty five more.” I smile down at the applauding table, noting the offending cloth littered with the debris of the evening, and it occurs to me that I’ve had my fill of family myths and sagas. Our lives have been weighed with the burden of history for far too long. Next year, I must put my foot down. Twenty five years has to be enough. Next year, we’re going to do our own thing. I really mean it this time. Next year, I promise myself, it’s Benidorm or bust.