The Reluctant Guest

“I’m not going and that’s my last word on the matter.”

Unfortunately, the finality of the pronouncement was somewhat marred by the touch of petulance in my tone. I was struggling to keep my temper but my partner’s expression of calm sympathy only served inflame my anger. There’s nothing more infuriating, when you’re really worked up, than an opponent who steadfastly refuses to enter into the spirit of the contest.

“I know you’re nervous about meeting all my family but I promise I won’t leave you alone with any of my maiden aunts,” he said soothingly.

His attempt at humour fell woefully flat. What the hell did he think they could do to me? Sell me into white slavery? It’s what they’d be saying behind my back that I was worried about. I can hear it all even now. ‘Duncan’s got himself a pretty new boyfriend, hasn’t he?’ ‘Looks as though Edith’s hopes for grandchildren are well and truly scuppered!’ ‘Apparently he has some sort of job in the film industry but one doesn’t like to enquire too closely!’ No, I wasn’t putting myself through that just to satisfy his notion of what constitutes a family Christmas.

“There’s no need for you to act as a one man protection force,” I countered dismissively. “You go and enjoy yourself. I’ll be perfectly happy here on my own. In fact, I’ll pop into Marks & Spencer in the morning and stock up on some of that Christmas food they’ve been advertising. I’ll be able to eat like a king, with the added bonus of having sole control of the TV remote. Maybe I’ll get to watch the whole of The Great Escape this year.”

It seemed that my attempt at humour, or maybe it was just sarcasm, fell on equally unappreciative ears. “Don’t be ridiculous, Matt,” he replied with just a touch of impatience which I found rather satisfying. It proved that my arguments were getting through to him, although he continued to lay down the law with no outward sign of hesitation. “I’m not leaving you here on your own on Christmas Day. You’re coming with me to my parents and that’s an end to it. We accepted their invitation and I’m not upsetting my mother’s plans for Christmas dinner at this late stage.”

“YOU accepted,” I interjected quickly. “I never agreed to any of this.”

“We’ve talked this through over and over again. You can’t avoid my family for ever. Christmas is an ideal time to meet the lot of them in one go. We’re only going for the day so it’s not like I’m asking you to make a great sacrifice. And I wouldn’t ask it of you at all if I didn’t think you’d enjoy yourself once you get there.”

He smiled at me in a rather winning way but I don’t respond well to cajoling and I think he knows it. Just in case he needed a reminder I shrugged my shoulders dismissively and restated my position. “I’m not going.”

His expression darkened and his mouth took on a firm set. “You’re going, my lad. Make no mistake about that. You can visit my parents with good grace and enjoy Christmas dinner with the family. Or you can go with a sore bottom and sulk and fidget through the festive meal. It’s up to you. But I’m not discussing the matter any further.” With that he turned on his heel and left the room.

As a master of the grand exit myself, I’m more than qualified to express an opinion on his performance and I can sum it up in one short but accurate phrase: empty threats. If he’d really meant to force my attendance at his mother’s beastly Christmas dinner he’d have followed through. What’s the good of raising the prospect of a spanking if he’s not going to deliver? It just goes to show that he wasn’t serious about wanting me to go with him. In fact, I was sure he’d be happier with his family, playing their stupid parlour games after dinner, without a pathetic excuse for a boyfriend in tow.

Over the next couple of days I became increasingly convinced that my interpretation was correct. Nothing more was said about going to his mother’s. I went to M&S as I’d threatened and stocked up on their Christmas food. It was shockingly expensive and packaged in containers large enough to feed a family of eight. It took up a gratifyingly large amount of space in the fridge. He could hardly miss it as there was no room for his cartons of organic yoghurt but he made no comment and rearranged the shelves to accommodate his breakfast staple.

With the anticipated showdown averted, I felt strangely deflated and by Christmas Eve I’d taken the opportunity to engage in a few bouts of bitter and solitary tears. The thought of spending Christmas on my own was becoming more and more unattractive. God knows, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d watched the Queen’s Speech alone but I’d begun to believe that those unhappy days were well and truly behind me.

Also, I was starting to feel vaguely uncomfortable about letting Duncan’s mother down. She’s been so kind to me, welcoming me into her home and treating me like a son. And although his father doesn’t say very much, he’s never made me feel less than welcome. I suppose it’s just possible I didn’t make my objections clear enough when we first got the invitation to Christmas dinner but I didn’t fully appreciate then how many people I’d have to cope with. There are Duncan’s two sisters, their husbands and assorted children, to say nothing of the three aunts, one divorced and two unmarried. All those women, eyeing me up, judging my fashion sense, disparaging my accent, bemoaning my lack of education and generally concluding that I’m not good enough for their darling Duncan.

As for darling Duncan himself, he seemed to have abandoned the struggle, apparently content that we’d be spending Christmas Day apart. No further mention was made of our argument although, to give him his due, Duncan remained unfailingly courteous, communicative and loving. The truth is he doesn’t do sullen or sulking and normally he doesn’t permit me to indulge in such histrionics either. On this occasion, however, he appeared to ignore, or maybe he just failed to register, the opposition and wrath which still overwhelmed me. His indifference to my plight just served to convince me that he was secretly relieved I wouldn’t be spoiling his family reunion on Christmas Day. Clearly he was quite happy for me to stay at home and if he was ashamed to show me off to his sisters and his aunts then I was more than happy to relieve him of the burden of taking care of me.

For some inexplicable reason my anger appeared to be dissipating, only to be replaced by grief and self-pity. It was no longer the thought of a lonely Christmas which plagued me but the prospect of lonely years ahead with another failed relationship to regret. Clearly I would need to move out once New Year was over and I could start the hateful process of hunting for a flat share. I couldn’t bear to become the object of Duncan’s charity, tolerated as an amusing companion and accommodating bedfellow but never fully a part of his life. If he could so readily accept my refusal to engage with his extended family then it was obvious that he would really prefer me to stay in the background. He’d made threats about enforcing my compliance but he clearly couldn’t summon up the energy or enthusiasm to carry them out. It was just as well that his lack of commitment had been highlighted by our little squabble. I wouldn’t have wanted to commit myself to him so completely that breaking up would tear me apart. I could cope with a new year and a new life without Duncan. I could, I knew I could.

Christmas Eve reawakened childhood memories of waiting in eager expectation for Santa’s visit. In those days I couldn’t sleep for excitement but now it was misery at the impending collapse of the best relationship of my life which kept me wakeful until the early hours. When Duncan woke me with a kiss on Christmas morning I was heavy eyed and lethargic, unwilling to get out of bed despite his playful coaxing. When he began laying out clothes for me to wear I accepted the inevitable and headed for the bathroom, refraining from making any comment about the suspiciously smart outfit he’d chosen for me. It wasn’t worth making an issue of it when I could change back into jeans and a sweatshirt as soon as he left for his parents’ house. I could at least be comfortable as I lounged by myself on the sofa, watching the standard Christmas fare of classic movies.

I was still shaving when I heard the front doorbell ring. We weren’t expecting visitors on Christmas morning but I assumed a neighbour had called to wish us the compliments of the season. Only as I began dressing in the bedroom did I hear the penetrating tones of female laughter drifting up the stairs and my stomach clenched with an unacknowledged fear. When I could delay my descent no longer I tentatively stepped on our creaking treads and the chatter from downstairs fell silent. When I reached the ground floor I was relieved to find only Duncan waiting for me in the hall. He placed a comforting arm around my shoulder and gazed into my panic stricken eyes. “I have some visitors ready to meet you in the kitchen. Come on.”

I had no choice; I was propelled forward in his embrace. Sitting around the kitchen table were five women of uncertain age who were drinking coffee and talking quietly. They turned at our entrance and Duncan announced, “This is my partner, Matthew. I’ve been so looking forward to introducing him to you all. Matthew, these are my sisters, Alison and Judith. And these are my aunts, my mother’s sisters, Irene, Jean and Carol.”

Of course, I would have known who they were without the introductions. There was such a strong family resemblance between them all, Duncan included. The big surprise was that the three aunts bore no resemblance to Macbeth’s witches and appeared, to my inexperienced eye, no older than Duncan’s sisters. They were dressed informally but fashionably with the addition of Christmas bell earrings and reindeer brooches. All five women had the same kind eyes and one by one they embraced me, wished me a happy Christmas and murmured words of welcome to the family. I felt the tears welling up and Duncan must have sensed my emotion because he steered me to the table and pressed a hot mug of coffee into my hand.

“We’re having smoked salmon for breakfast,” he informed the party. “A special treat for Christmas Day and this little impromptu gathering.”

“Impromptu!” spluttered Alison. “You’ve had this planned for a couple of days, and all of us sworn to secrecy.”

“Okay, I admit it. It was my little plan to engineer a meeting between Matthew and the monstrous regiment of women.” He smiled at me apologetically. “I thought you’d like the opportunity to meet them all in your own home before we go over to Mum’s and mayhem ensues,” he added quietly.

I was too taken aback to protest that I’d made clear my intention to stay at home for the day. Somehow the gentle charm of our visitors had eroded my resistance.

“And we were more than happy to escape the pandemonium back at Edith’s,” said Jean. “There’s a limit to the number of cooks who can all work in one kitchen.”

“And we’ve left our husbands to cope for once with the frenzy of children opening presents,” added Judith. “This is such a luxurious and restful start to the day for us. Now, Matthew, I understand that you work in the film industry. How very exciting! Tell us just what it is that you do.”

There was something about her inviting smile and genuine air of interest which got me telling her about the duties of a focus puller. When the others started asking questions, I digressed into scandalous anecdotes about the stars.  Duncan pootled about in the kitchen, opening a bottle of champagne and whipping up something delicious with eggs and smoked salmon. Every time he passed behind my chair he ran his fingers through my hair or dropped his hand lightly on my shoulder. He was so uninhibited in his small gestures of affection which were silently conveying his approval of my response to our visitors. His sisters and his aunts seemed totally unfazed by his demonstrative warmth and I relaxed in their company.

Eventually, when every morsel had been eaten and Duncan was reluctantly rising to begin clearing the table, Judith also got to her feet. “Come on now, girls,” she admonished. “We can’t linger here all morning. Mum will think we’re deliberately avoiding all the hard work. You promised to lay the table and fold the napkins, Alison. We’d all better get moving if we want to sit down to lunch before nightfall.”

I too got hastily to my feet. It seemed that Judith’s brisk instructions applied to everyone. There appeared to be a universal understanding that we were all about to leave for Edith’s house and I didn’t see any reason to demur. As Duncan showed the ladies out I took my jacket from the hook and made to follow.

“Where do you think you’re going?” came the disconcerting question from my partner.

To… to your mother’s,” I stammered, “for Christmas lunch.”

“So I take it you’ve changed your mind, albeit at the last minute.” There didn’t seem to be an obvious reply to that observation and an uncomfortable silence ensued. “I think you and I have one or two issues to work out before we join the family for lunch,” Duncan eventually stated. “Why don’t you come and join me in the kitchen?”

I followed him rather disconsolately down the hallway and when he sat down at the kitchen table and looked at me searchingly I found myself babbling to cover my confusion. “I didn’t know they’d be so nice. I’m sorry. I’m not so worried now. I’m sure it’ll be okay. I only…”

“So you HAVE changed your mind,” Duncan persisted.

“I’ve been so upset about it all,” I blurted out. “I thought you were glad I didn’t want to come with you.” My voice was rising with emotion and entirely unsought tears were blurring my vision.

“What on earth gave you that idea?”

“You said… you said…” I couldn’t get the words out. “You didn’t do anything about it.” I was hardly making myself any clearer and I dashed my cuff across my cheek to remove any suspicion of tears.

Duncan stood up and put his arms around me and I rested my head on his chest. It was easier to tell the truth when I didn’t have to look him in the eye. “You said you’d make me go to your mother’s and then you did nothing about it. You’ve not said a word these last few days. I thought you’d given up on me.”

“Given up on you?” exclaimed Duncan in astonishment. “I’ve thought of nothing else this past week but how to make the visit more manageable for you. I could see you were getting worked up about it and I thought the best thing was to avoid any further disagreement and plan to make this morning go smoothly.” I drew a shuddering breath as relief coursed through my frame. Duncan must have felt it because he held me tighter and said, very gently, “I’m sorry if I got it wrong, love.  I backed off and it seems you were expecting me to take a firmer line.”

“I thought I’d have to move out once the holiday was over,” I confessed in a whisper.

“Oh, Matthew! How could you think that? What would I do without you?”

He sounded so shaken by my admission that I put my arms round his waist and hugged him as firmly as he’d been hugging me. “I’m sorry,” I said sincerely. “It’s just that I’m not very good at reading situations. When you…

“When I didn’t spank you,” he said with sudden decision, “you thought I’d lost interest. I won’t make that mistake again.” I stiffened. The conversation was taking a somewhat alarming turn although I felt strangely comforted by Duncan’s more familiar, assertive manner. “In fact, I can always remedy my omission before we go,” he added.

“No… no… really, there’s no need. I’ve changed my mind. I’m ready to come quietly.”

“You deserve to go over my knee just for the trial you’ve put me through these last few days. Don’t think I didn’t notice your fits of the sulks.”

“I wasn’t sulking, I….” Duncan was looking at me with the quizzical expression of which I’d learnt to be wary. My voice faltered and I changed tack. “I was upset. I’m sorry. I know I should have talked to you.”

“You should have talked to me,” Duncan agreed with unwonted firmness. “If you’d been honest about your fears and worries from the beginning we’d both have had a better run up to Christmas.”

I hung my head and abandoned all attempt at self-justification. “I know. I’m sorry,” I mumbled, as my hands moved to the fastening of my second best pair of trousers. There seemed no reason to try and postpone the inevitable and I was in no doubt that I deserved what I had coming. But a firm hand under my chin lifted my head and I found myself on the receiving end of Duncan’s disarming smile.

“Apology accepted,” he said lightly. “Father Christmas has granted you a free pass so you’re off the hook for refusing to go to my mother’s.” Before I was entirely overcome with relief and gratitude his crooked grin warned me that there was more to come. “But there are penalties for filling the fridge with enough Christmas food to feed an army. I’ve invited my sisters and their families for lunch tomorrow and you’re cooking.”

Well, it could have been worse, I reflected in the car as we drove over to his mother’s. There was little more to do with the M&S food than open the packaging and stick it all in the oven. And I could ask Alison if she would lay the table and fold the napkins. In fact, I could probably prevail upon Judith to help in the kitchen. I find it’s such an advantage when one’s partner has capable sisters.