Clammie’s mother, Livia, was joining them a few days before Christmas- the same as usual. She always insisted on helping in the kitchen, and Tristram disliked any interference in what he deemed to be his exclusive sphere. He wanted to keep her out of his fast-receding hair.
She would arrive with The Right Way and The Only Way to do everything. Her stuffing was superior and Tristram had to stifle phrases involving injunctions on that theme. Her countdown was as regulated as NASA’s had been and her tinselled timetable was as efficiency conscious as Mussolini’s railways.
She was also excessively interested in the regulation of familial bowel habits and arrived with various packets of Fig Rolls. Tristram preferred to remain slightly constipated than to partake of these suspicious little ridged sweetmeats.
He knew that he was being paranoid, but ever since he had been deeply impressed by a Classics lesson in Transitus, he had carried an aversion to, and a fear of, anyone called Livia. Hadn’t the Empress thus called been responsible for the death of her husband, Augustus? Hadn’t she cleverly smeared the ripe figs on the tree with a deadly poison? He wasn’t taking any risks and even eschewed the boxes of Egyptian dates that she brought into the house.
He had remonstrated with Clammie when she had wanted to call Scheherezade ‘Julia Augusta’. He felt that it had been a signal of impending terror. Hadn’t that been Livia Drusilla’s adopted name when she was taken into the Julian family in AD 14?
Come to think of it, there was a master at the boys’ school nicknamed Caligula. Could he conceivably be related?
Once, for their anniversary, she had sent a fig tree for their garden. He tried to appear grateful, but inwardly vowed never to let its fruit pass his lips and he wouldn’t eat any of the conserves, or preserves, that Clammie made from its bounty. Suetonius had recorded that Augustus might have snuffed it after kissing his wife, so Tristram indulged in a lot of mwah-mwah charades with his mother-in-law.
The original Livia had initiated herself as a priestess in a new cult and so, when Carrie’s mother announced that she had become a lay-reader, albeit in an Anglican diocese, he felt even more uneasy. It was treasonous to speak against the Empress, and Tristram felt that he could not breathe a word to his wife regarding his discomfiture in her mother’s presence.
He went back to his school texts. Tiberius, spawn of the Empress, used to resent being addressed as Son of Livia, or Son of Julia; Tristram hated being introduced as Livia’s son-in-law.
At five minutes past four, on the 20th December, she telephoned from the station, and he felt as if he was being asked to pick her up on an elephant-drawn chariot.
Once he had her installed in the family sitting room with Clammie, he produced a bottle that he had bought from Pop My Cork! (a local wine merchant.) He felt smug, as he had managed to find Pucine– a red wine labelled : grown on a hilly promontory between Aquilea and Tergeste, near the slopes of Mount Timavus, on the Adriatic. This had been the daily tipple of the Empress herself. It was what she had been drinking on the day she died, aged 86. He knew that, like Tiberius, he would probably have to probate her will, but he would, like the aforementioned, veto her deification whenever he could.
The only way to survive her visit was to adopt the behaviour of Claudius: ie/ stammer and play the role of a half-wit.
So, there she was, in HIS kitchen, stirring some cranberry sauce which she had made from first principles, when she looked out of the French windows and suddenly came out with:
I don’t see that tree I bought you for your anniversary.
What happened to it?
Tristram’s mind whirled around. Suddenly recalling her lay-readership, he embellished a New Testament story:
Oh, it wasn’t producing any fruit, so we took Jesus’ advice and dug it up.
Hmmm, well, it’s a pity you didn’t follow His advice on tares, she riposted, casting a critical eye on the weeds they hadn’t had time to address in the Autumn.
Livia: 1; Tristram: 0
What was the point in engagement? She was a sheep; he was a goat. They’d be separated on The Last Day.
Well, she continued, we don’t need any figs, as I was just going to make the pudding on Stir-Up Sunday, when I saw an article in The Sunday Times that said the must-have dessert this year is Heston’s Figgy Pudding, so I went out and bought one in Waitrose before they flew out of the stores. She indicated the box lying on the granite worktop.
Tristram could feel his stomach beginning to knot. He would have to check the seals.
Suddenly, at the back door, they could hear a clanging noise, which was evidently hand bells. The some treble voices from St Birinus ‘Middle School, no doubt, trilled Sleeping in Heavenly Rest.
My favourite! smiled Livia, turning off the gas and exiting the kitchen to look for her purse.
The ensemble started up We Wish You A Merry Xmas with some gusto, aware that it was more of a money spinner and suddenly Tristram had an epiphany. He opened the back door widely and thrust the Waitrose box into the gloved hand of the conductor, Mr Geoffrey Poskett, the red-nosed choirmaster, just as they reached the line:
We all like some figgy pudding, so bring some out here!
Oh, they’ve gone! said Livia, putting her pound coin back into her purse.
Don’t worry! I gave them something from you, said Tristram, playing the part of the dutiful son-in-law. Here! Have another glass of Pucine.
The distraction worked. He would pick up another box tomorrow on the school run and she’d never know the difference. He’d lived another day.