The problems began the day before the celebration. I had just come home from boarding school when Father took me aside and told me that Mother was up to her old antics, letting the whole family down, and that if she continued, we’d have to act. Father was wearing a plaid shirt and tan trousers. He said that at times like these we men had to stick together. I assured him that he could count on me and, over a lunch of cold pheasant and plums, a plan was worked out whereby one of us would keep an eye on Mother while the other supervised the preparations for the celebration. It was on the second switch over of the evening, when it was my turn to keep an eye on Mother, that, exactly as Father had predicted, she began to play up, dancing in the living room, kicking her legs and almost shouting out the chorus of a ridiculous pop song, her slip showing underneath her tweed skirt. Straightaway I sent the agreed signal to Father and together we crowded Mother to the edge of the patterned carpet, pretending we too were dancing, and then, keeping her wedged between us, we bundled her out of the room, down the backstairs and into the garage. Mother was floppy in our arms and the top button of her blouse had come undone, revealing the lace of her bra. With his free hand, Father brushed the cobwebs off a plastic chair and eased Mother onto it. There was a ball of twine on one of the shelves and Father secured Mother’s hands with it and, as a precaution, also tied her ankles. It was cold in the garage and the air was dusty. Father took off his jacket and tucked it in around Mother. He said it would be a poor show if the hired help preparing for the celebration should suspect that anything was wrong and that we should go back inside. As we left the garage, I glanced back at Mother. Her eyes were shut, and her head had slumped to one side. The following morning when I came down for breakfast, there was a woman washing dishes in the kitchen. I presumed it was Mother, but it wasn’t. The woman had on a pair of lime green rubber gloves and a pink dress. She asked me what I would like for breakfast and I said cornflakes, but the woman said a growing boy needs more than cornflakes and told me to sit at the table. A while later she brought out a plate of cooked kidneys and liver. I ate as much as I could, but the liver was dry and hard to swallow, and the kidneys squirted when I bit into them. With the rubber gloves still on, the woman lit a cigarette, flicking the ash into the sink and telling me, between drags, that I was a good boy. After breakfast Father called me to help with the preparations for the celebration. Several trestle tables had been delivered and needed to be assembled in the dining room. As I passed along the hall a fur stole slipped off the coat stand onto the parquet floor. The animal’s head was still on and there was a row of tiny white teeth in its mouth that looked as though they were grinning. By evening everything was ready for the celebration. The trees in the front garden were covered in pink lights and a green banner that read congratulations hung across the front porch. Father sent me upstairs to change into my new corduroy suit. It was laid out on my bedspread, along with a cream shirt and orange tie, and there was also new underwear, shorts rather than pants, and shoes that looked exactly like Father’s. A large glass ashtray had been placed on my bedside locker between my comics and pineapple-shaped alarm clock. When I was dressed I went looking for Father to help me knot my tie. Through a gap in the curtains I could see his tanned face and silver hair in the conservatory. He was talking to a woman I thought must be Mother, but it wasn’t. The woman was wearing a black dress with a string of pearls around her neck. The candles in the conservatory cast long shadows on the walls that slithered in and out of each other. The woman touched my arm, saying how grown up I was and, while Father knotted my tie, she poured me a whiskey. I had never drunk whiskey before, and it burned my throat, but I got used to it, and after a few sips I began telling stories that caused the woman to laugh loudly and Father to puff vigorously on his cigar. When the guests arrived, Father told me to greet them and take their coats. By the time I entered the dining room the only seat left was at a table with two maiden aunts who looked like very old dolls, an uncle who had lost a leg in the war and various second cousins who were absorbed with the menu. The menu was clipped to a brass holder in the centre of the table and read: seafood mousse, coq au vin, poached pears in port. Father stood up and gave a toast and while everyone was busy clinking their glasses and unfolding their swan-shaped serviettes, the waiting staff served the meal. The dining room was full of chatter but at my table the conversation was confined to varicose veins and stomach ulcers and smoking related respiratory diseases. The woman in the black dress and pearls was seated beside Father. After dessert, while the coffee and petit fours were being served, she made a rude gesture that made Father roar with laughter. As I turned away, I accidentally dipped the elbow of my shirt in a glass of red wine. I excused myself with the intention of getting some tissue to wipe the stain, but in the hall I collided with the woman in the black dress who must have exited the dining room via the other door. Holding out my shirt sleeve for inspection, I explained my errand to her, but somehow the situation became confused and she began to suck on one of my fingers. Father appeared and bundled the woman into the guest lavatory, beckoning me to follow and close the door. In the confined space, with all three of us pressed against the tiled walls, Father struck the woman, causing her string of pearls to snap and the beads to bounce all over the floor like hard shrunken eyeballs. Father told me to go back inside. He said that it wouldn’t do for the guests to get a whiff of anything out of the ordinary. In the dining room, Mother was sitting at the top table laughing and joking with the guests. Her hair was coiled around her head and her blouse was buttoned all the way to her throat. She beckoned me to come to her and rubbed her fingers through my hair. A short while later Father reappeared and kissed Mother on the cheek before taking a seat at her side. Brandy was served, and Father crowned the evening by making a witty speech in which he referred to Mother as his armadillo, which everyone found hilarious, saying what a card Father was. At the end of the night, as the guests began to leave, Father told me to get their coats and see them to the door. One of the relatives – the uncle who had lost his leg in the war – couldn’t find his prosthetic, which he had unstrapped earlier because it had begun to chaff uncomfortably. I located it in the garage. When I returned to the dining room, the woman from breakfast was embracing Mother. Her pink dress was crumpled, and her nails were stained with nicotine. She and Mother pulled me into their embrace, both rubbing their fingers through my hair and laughing at some joke. Father appeared with a bottle of reserve champagne saying he always saved the best for last, and Mother put a pop-music record on and began dancing wildly around the trestle tables. Father joined in, dancing first with Mother, then with the other woman, and then with them both. The woman in the black dress returned from the lavatory with her neck bare and her lipstick smudged. Father danced across the room to her, mouthing the words of the ridiculous pop song until she began to laugh. Then he took her hand and danced her over to Mother and the woman from breakfast and, holding one another at the waist, all three women shuffled out of the dining room like a conger eel, singing along to the record now at the top of their voices. Father poured a nightcap. He said it was high time that he and I had a man-to-man talk, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying above the sound of the women snaking around the house, eventually arriving back in the dining room, red-faced and out of breath, vying with one another to kiss me goodnight. Mother kissed the top of my head while the woman from breakfast kissed my cheek, and the woman in the black dress kissed me on the mouth. Feeling a little giddy, I leaned in to kiss Father but pulled back just in time and stuck out my hand instead. He shook it firmly, each coarse hair on the back of his own hand bristling as he declared, with moisture in his eyes, that the celebration had been a success. A great success.
‘The Celebration’ is included in Cathy Sweeney’s collection Modern Times, available now from Orion.
Cover image © Jurassic Blueberries