Sean and Jenny Thompson had followed the convention of spending their first married Christmas with Jenny’s kinsfolk in Manchester and the second with Sean’s kith and kin in London. The third year, after a row about whose relations looked more stupid in paper hats, they accepted an invitation from Sean’s former best man, Hugh Lazard, to spend the festive season in the country.
Hugh had grown up on his parents’ rambling estate in North Devon shooting, fishing and mucking about with baling twine. And every year his large Catholic family would return home to the 12-bedroom Georgian farmhouse for Christmas in the country.
A rustic yuletide would be a new experience for the urban-born-and-bred Sean and Jenny, who met at uni in Leeds, and now worked in the City. Their only contact with nature was an occasional walk through Kensington Park Gardens.
The couple set off in the drizzling rain on Christmas Eve, crawling out of the capital and along the M4 with the rest of those who were planning to celebrate in the sticks. After leaving the halogen safety of the six-lane motorway the Satnav steered them through the pitch-black hinterland to the Lazards’ front door, where their relief at arriving somewhere civilised was tempered by a pack of barking, inquisitive dogs.
Minimalism had not reached Devon. Hugh’s parental home contained a host of hunting trophies, colonial mementos and heavy oak furniture. The panelled hall with its 15ft Christmas tree was full of coats and boots belonging to a platoon of relatives – most of whom were trying to keep warm by the fire in the cluttered drawing room.
Hugh showed the couple their chilly bedroom at the top of the house. It had been Nanny’s room, was decorated in chintz and contained a “spinster’s occasional” cast-iron double bed with a horse-hair mattress. Hugh suggested the two of them join the family for a drink.
Downstairs the extended Lazard family were consuming industrial quantities of spirits from a drinks tray that would have embarrassed a cocktail bar. By the time supper arrived the Thompsons were tired, hungry and very, very drunk.
Hugh woke them up on Christmas Day with the news that they would miss church if they didn’t hurry. They’d already missed the opening of the children’s stockings and breakfast, which had left its delicious lingering smell, and were now forced, like hung-over teens, to dress in their “Sunday best” and rush off to Mass in a Land Rover that wove precariously through the high-hedged lanes.
Bloody Marys followed church. Hugh had a special recipe that included a shot of sweet sherry that made them twice as alcoholic. Then came champagne and an exchange of presents. After that, Hugh’s mother decided to make a start on Christmas lunch. She’d had the foresight to put the turkey in the Aga’s warm oven overnight, but the country stove had not made much of an impression on the meat. Now she moved it to the top roasting oven and bribed as many children as she could to help her peel potatoes and trim sprouts. The drink, meanwhile, continued to flow – and the few canapés were all demolished.
Four hours later the turkey was put on a carving dish to stand, clearing the Aga for the potatoes and trimmings. Sadly, the bird had sucked the heat out of the stove, which meant the potatoes didn’t crisp, the sprouts didn’t cook and the plates were stone cold. Not that anybody cared as by then the crackers had been pulled, the children had returned to the television and the vintage port was doing the rounds.
“I thought we might go to the pub for a pint,” said Hugh to the silent Boxing Day breakfasters next morning. “Then there’s a lunchtime thrash at the Bartletts’. No pressure, but it’ll be fun.”
And as the London couple prepared for yet another onslaught on their livers, Sean commented to Jenny that the only thing he wished for was a bracing walk… amongst the flora and fauna of Kensington Park Gardens.