Part of the FamilybyCorpse_rider©
Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family.
What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life - to be with each other in silent unspeakable memories.
A good many family trees are shady.
Robert Elliott Gonzales
'How many times are you going to do that?' Johnny teased.
Kerry ignored him, checking her makeup in the passenger rear view mirror.
'You know, you've spent more time looking in that mirror than at me. Vanity is a terrible sin,' he goaded.
Kerry pushed the mirror flap into its concealed position. 'It's not vanity wanting to look your best when meeting your future in-laws,' she replied testily.
'Okay, keep your hair on, love,' he laughed affectionately, pleased he'd got a reaction.
Kerry stared pointedly out the window, feigning a bad mood. She was nervous about meeting Johnny's parents for the first time, and Johnny sensing this, was trying to distract her with his comments and digs. He meant well, but Kerry just wished he'd take a hint and lay off for a bit.
She lowered the window a little more, the sensation of the wind blowing in, cool and refreshing. Johnny had a point, she was hyper nervous, ridiculous really, she felt like a teenager; in a permanent state of emotional turbulence - had been since she'd met Johnny.
She glanced at the engagement ring, the glint of sunshine reflecting from the diamond, a reminder this was reality, not some fantastic dream. Only two months ago she'd been a desperate single - Friday nights in with only a bottle of Rosa, and a Hugh Grant film for company.
A work leaving do for a colleague - who she hadn't liked much anyway - drinks at The Red Lion, her round, and he was there at the bar at the same time - serendipity - light words, eye contact, and some switch flicked inside her. Phone numbers at the end of a hazy night. Chance - the roll of a dice, clichéd fate and a string of dates that left her dizzy. Sex, God, how good was he in bed? - and when they weren't together, she was like some love struck adolescent plagued with doubts and fears that something would go wrong, that she'd discover some terrible secret such as; he was already married, or was being unfaithful, or had some awful terminal disease – no scenario was too outlandish for her nervous imagination. In short, he seemed too good to be true.
The first thing Kerry noticed about him was his penetrating cobalt blue eyes that sometimes gave the impression he could read her mind. But there was also a playful, mischievous glint there too - a warmth that attracted Kerry to him in an instant. His lustrous chestnut brown tousled hair and broad chest also had their appeals, and she often noticed with relish the glances from other women when she and Johnny were out in public.
She smiled, straightened the hem of her skirt and resisted the urge to check her nails again. She decided to try and distract herself with the outside scenery.
They'd left the motorway over an hour ago, and Johnny's 4x4 Toyota was hurtling down narrow country lanes, passing picturesque small villages and farms and across the Yorkshire hills and dales. The countryside was transformed this time of year, the summer's last days of warmth reluctantly giving way as the seasons changed. Rich green hues turning to warm shades of tan, orange and red. Scattered like confetti around trees, and displaced by the wind, in ditches and up against walls and fences, innumerable brown leaves gathered, making random patterns in the landscape. You never really saw or appreciated the beauty of the seasons when living in the city, Kerry reflected. You were always too busy to stop and look and take in the rich tapestry woven all around. Two small colourful birds flitted past the car darting into a hedge.
'Redstarts,' Johnny enthused. 'Haven't seen a Redstart in ages. They'll be migrating soon, back off to Africa, and I don't blame 'em.'
'Redstart?' Kerry responded, not having heard of that species.
'They sound a bit like Robins when they sing - beautiful little birds. Their eggs are a wonderful sky blue.'
'What do they taste like?' Kerry quipped, always at a disadvantage when on the subject was wildlife. Johnny's knowledge about nature was enviable and she supposed that was another thing she loved about him. Some of the guys she'd dated would be hard pressed to tell a Blackbird from a Magpie.
'I don't know,' Johnny laughed. He then fell silent for a few seconds as though contemplating something.
'When I was a kid, about six or seven, I found a nest in an old tree stump. It had three blue eggs in it. I didn't know much about birds then, but thinking how pretty they were I took them home, showed them to my dad, wanting to impress him, I suppose – you know kids.' Johnny laughed. 'He nearly hit the roof. Really mad he was. Cuffed me round the head and made me take them back and return them to the nest. Only I couldn't find the nest could I? He was so mad,' Johnny said, shaking his head at the memory.
'Well, it took a couple of hours, but I did manage to find the nest in the end. By then it was getting dark. Boy was he mad. He didn't say a single word to me when we walked home.'
'Great, I'm going to have an angry, ill-tempered father-in-law,' Kerry moaned.
Johnny grinned at her reaction. 'It was years ago, I was just a kid. He's not an angry man, quite the opposite. He is passionate about some things. I'm sure you'll really like him.'
'I'm more concerned about him liking me,' Kerry confessed.
'Don't worry, he will. Hey, nearly there,' he announced cheerfully, as the 4x4 flew up another narrow lane hemmed in by tall hedges.
'Good, my legs are stiff as hell,' Kerry complained, leaning forward to massage her calf muscles.
'Do you want me to stop somewhere? You can stretch your legs.'
'No, I'll be fine, thanks.'
'Don't want you staggering out of the car when we arrive, my parents'll think you're drunk.'
'Very funny, I'd just tell them all us city girls from the big smoke can't get by without a few bottles of wine every day.'
Johnny smiled at her jest, as he turned a steep bend in the road causing her to grip the passenger door.
'Kez, there's something I have to tell you,' he said, after a while.
She hoped he was going to crack a joke but something in his tone suggested otherwise.
'I have to level with you about something.' He took a deep breath, but said nothing, as though he was trying to find the right words.
'What?' Kerry prompted.
'Well, I wasn't wholly truthful to you about meeting my parents . . .'
'What? What is it? For Christ's sake, Johnny, I'm nervous enough. Spit it out.'
'Okay,' he exhaled. 'I didn't want to tell you this until now. I know how nervous you are and I didn't want to freak you out.'
'Johnny, you're scaring me,' Kerry said.
'It's not just my parents you're going to be meeting,' Johnny said, cautiously, his eyes firmly on the road.
'Who else?' Kerry demanded, her stomach a knot of nerves.
He took the plunge. 'It's pretty much my whole family.'
'What?' Kerry exploded in outraged disbelief.
Johnny held up a placating hand. 'Listen I knew you'd freak out if I told you earlier. I didn't want you to cancel the weekend. My folks'd be heartbroken.'
'Thant's not fair, Johnny, you should have told me. My God, your whole family.'
'They're not monsters, you know.'
'I know, I know, I didn't mean it that way. It just. . . Christ, Johnny, I'm nervous enough as it is.'
'Which is why I didn't tell you until now,' Johnny said, a little smugly for Kerry's liking.
'How considerate of you,' she returned sarcastically, folding her arms for added effect.
'C'mon, you'll be fine,' he placed a hand on her thigh which she automatically pushed away. He wasn't getting off that easily.
He sighed. 'Listen, it wasn't my idea, I swear. I arranged for it to be just us and mum and dad, then mum decides that if we bring the autumn family gathering forward a couple of weeks everyone could meet you. She had the thing practically all arranged before she even told me, you know what mothers are like.'
Kerry threw him a sideways glance as if considering if his story was true or not. 'Autumn family gathering - what is that, exactly?'
'Well, it's what we call it, for want of a better name. My folks are really keen on family ties being strong – you know, keeping regular contact, so each season we all meet up over a weekend usually at mum and dad's, and catch up with each other. It's really important to my folks, every member of the family comes, no exception. '
'How sweet,' Kerry said.
Johnny threw her a wary look.
'No, I'm serious. I think that's really sweet. Not many families make that sort of an effort these days. It's probably why there are so many problems with young people today, they come from families that are broke up or have no interest in maintaining strong family network.'
'Quite the sociologist, eh?'
'Don't take the piss, Johnny.'
'I'm not, really. I think family is really important too.'
They were on a straight patch of road, and Kerry caught Johnny looking at her, those searching eyes.
'So how many of your relations am I to be paraded in front of?' Kerry asked, still feeling angry with him for the deception.
'Come on, it's not like that.'
'It feels like it. They'll all be comparing notes once my back's turned.'
Johnny laughed, and the warmness of the sound seemed to dispel both her anger and nerves each time. She loved his laugh.
'They're really not like that at all, you'll see. I think you'll really like them.'
'So how many is 'them', exactly?'
Johnny frowned as he mentally totted up his relations that she'd meet. 'Let's see, there's Uncle Bob and Aunty Bev, Uncle Frank and Aunty J, Aunty Viv, Janet and Chris, Stevie and Diane, Gran and Grandma of course, then there's us. So with mum and dad that makes, uh . . .fifteen.'
'What about the children?'
'Your nieces and nephews?'
'Ah, of course. Well, no. It's strictly only the grown-ups. The kids stay at friends of the family. If the kids were there, all the attention would be on them, difficult to relax, enjoy a drink and have a proper catch up, you know.'
'I'd have loved to see the kids,' Kerry said, wistfully.
'You will, don't worry, just not this weekend.' He beamed a grin at her as the 4x4 trundled down a long gravel path hemmed in by tall hedges and bushes. 'Well, we're here. Hope dinner is ready.'
The path led out into a wide driveway that was filled with cars and one land rover, Kerry counted six.
'Looks like everyone's here,' Johnny said cheerfully. 'That must be Stevie's new Porsche. He just can't help being a flash git.'
The house was a massive white stone edifice, with large windows and red tiles. It looked practical rather than attractive from an architectural point of view. Deep inset windows testified to the thickness of the walls. Thick layers of ivy smothered the west wall almost completely, while either side of the back door, hanging baskets with bright flowers put a finishing touch to the rustic appearance. Kerry loved it.
Johnny parked the car, and as the engine died, Kerry felt butterflies in her stomach, enough for David Attenborough documentary, she mused.
She unfastened her seatbelt, slipped her shoes on and got out of the car, straightening the folds on her skirt and smoothing her hair with her fingers. Johnny slammed his door shut, gave her an encouraging grin and taking her hand in his, walked her to the door.
There was a small wooden plaque above the door with two words engraved on it:
Before she could ask Johnny what it meant, he'd opened the door and they stepped over the threshold.
Instantly, rich heady smells of cooking assailed her nostrils, chicken, herbs, spices threaded through the mouth-watering aroma.
'Hi, we're here,' Johnny announced, leading her through to large living room.
Kerry felt dizzy for a second, it was like walking into a party, when your senses suddenly had to deal with a throng of people you'd never met, and you desperately tried to remember each name as people were introduced and know that later you'd have forgotten or got them muddled up with someone else.
Two men rose from the sofa, drinks in hand. One she could tell was Chris, Johnny's brother. He had the same dazzling eyes and smile but was slightly shorter and a little chubby. The other man, who was introduced as Stevie, was much leaner, with an easy smile, and Kerry guessed he was Johnny's brother-in-law.
A gaggle of women came from the kitchen. The older woman in the lead, Kerry assumed, must be Johnny's mother. She embraced Kerry giving her a kiss on the cheek and fussing over her, the younger women stepped in to introduce themselves with more welcoming hugs and kisses following. Both women were around Kerry's age and height. Janet was Kerry's build, though a little leaner looking, with dark hair tied back and warm hazel eyes. The other, who introduced herself as Diane, was a fleshier woman, with light green eyes, a broad smile and big breasts revealing a deep cleavage in her low cut summer dress. From the way her breasts jiggled and their warm feel when she hugged, it was clear she wasn't wearing a bra.
Kerry smiled affably and responded to the friendly questions about the long drive, laughing politely at the light-hearted digs at Johnny. Two more women appeared, older, but like Diane, they were both fleshy women, with broad arms and big busts. Aunts Viv and Bev were introduced, and Kerry was again hugged and smothered in light kisses. Johnny's mother eventually chided the others for swamping their poor guest and Kerry was given a drink and sat on the sofa, with Aunty Bev and Diane for company.
Johnny was catching up with others and gravitating towards the side of the room that the men were congregating, doubtless talk of work, and sport dominating their conversation, Kerry supposed. Occasionally he'd make eye contact with her, give her a grin and a reassuring wink. Aunty Bev and Diane were complimenting her on her dress and her hair, with Diane running her fingers through it. They gushed over her diamond engagement ring and Kerry felt herself listening to their own engagement stories. Her glass was refilled and she reminded herself to go easy on the booze.
Johnny's family were warmer and friendlier than she could have hoped for, and she felt a sudden thrill at the realization she would soon be part of such a tight-knit, affectionate family.
Johnny's mother returned announcing that dinner was ready, and everyone began to ease themselves out of the comfortable sofas and chairs, retrieve their drinks and head towards an adjoining room that was dominated by a long, large, heavy wooden table. It was filled with crockery and cutlery, glasses, wines and soft drinks and platters sliced ham, beef, and chicken. There were dishes of roasted vegetables; parsnips, carrots and potatoes as well as boiled onions and cabbage. Steam drifted lazily from jugs of hot gravy adding to the tantalising smells. It promised to be a veritable feast.
Kerry, already a little woozy from the wine, was glad when she sat down. Johnny sat opposite while either side of her sat Diane and a jovial older man with a grey closely cropped beard who had been introduced as Uncle Frank. Johnny's parents sat at the head of the table. His father waited until everyone had settled and the conversation around the table simmered down as he tapped a knife on the edge of his glass for attention.
'Now then, everyone, I won't make this a speech as such, Dolores here doesn't appreciate her cooking getting cold,' he have his wife a wink.
'Here, here,' Uncle Frank chimed.
'However, as you are all aware, we have a special guest here this weekend. The latest addition to our family, and can I say, I think Johnny has done us all proud in choosing such a wonderful, and beautiful young lady from the great city of London no less, to become part of our humble family. And as long she can stand our northern ways, and Johnny of course,'- a ripple of laughter ran around the table. 'Then I would like to ask you all to bid Kerry a warm welcome to the family.'
He stood and raised his glass. 'To Kerry, and the family.'
Everyone followed suit repeating the toast and clinking glasses.
Kerry hoped they hadn't noticed her blushing. She stood up holding the table for support. 'I would like to thank you all for having me here, and I am delighted to become part of your wonderful family.'
There were more drinks raised in toast and a warm comments of agreement from around the table.
'Well said, and thank you Kerry, for looking after Johnny in London. Now,' Johnny's father continued, his tone becoming more serious as he looked around the table, 'autumn is upon us. So soon the season's change, and I suppose I find, as the years slip past, that each season comes sooner than the last. Changes,' he said putting emphasis on the word, then pausing for added effect. 'The world changes around us, and indeed the family changes. It changes as it grows. And yet the family always remains constant. It is always there and will always be there. Its strength is in us all, and our strength is in it too. This family's hearts beat as one. A toast to family.'
He held up his drink, as did everyone.
Kerry raised her glass too, noting how serious the atmosphere had become. Solemnity replaced smiles, as though someone had flicked a mood switch in all of them.
Then Johnny's granite face broke into a genial smile, 'Time to dig in everyone.'
The tension vanished in an instant, so much so, that Kerry wondered if she had imagined it.
Different conversations broke out as platters of food were passed around, and the sounds of cutlery and eating and drinking, washed over the table.
'How are you coping with all us common northerners, young Kerry?' Uncle Frank asked in a friendly tone.
'Sorry, I don't follow,' Kerry said smiling, and giving a shake of the head.
'Our accents not causing you any bother?'
'Frank!' Diane remonstrated.
'It's okay, Diane,' Kerry turned to Uncle Frank. 'I'm quite all right. I watched a few episodes of Corrie before I came up.'
Dianne laughed, 'You tell 'im, girl.'
Frank smiled, delighted with her answer. He pulled a face, and raised his voice to get Johnny's attention. 'You got a sharp witted one here, Johnny. She work in a knife factory?'
Johnny, who'd been chatting to his Aunt Bev, turned to respond, 'It's not that she's sharp witted, uncle, more your blunt sense of humour.'
Frank laughed, 'Well, that may be, my boy, but she's got an edge on that last one of yours, alright. What happened to her? Samantha, wasn't it?'
Kerry glanced quizzically at her fiancé, and for the briefest of moments, so brief that afterwards she doubted she'd seen it, there was cold hardness in Johnny's eyes.
'I'm not in touch with her any more, as I'm sure you know, uncle,' he said, smiling affably. He returned his attention to his aunt.
Diane scowled at her uncle, and asked Kerry to pass a platter of mixed vegetables.
'Samantha?' Kerry asked, as she passed Diane the platter.
'Your predecessor,' Frank said, 'and very pretty too, she was, but not all there in the head department, if you get me.' He tapped his temple for effect.
'She had some sort of breakdown, it was all quite some time ago. Johnny was very upset.' Diane explained to Kerry, then turned to Uncle Frank, 'You shouldn't tease him like that, uncle.'
Frank held his hands up in mock apology. 'Well, if he'd slipped the ring on her finger we'd have had a nutter in the family. Image that!' Frank gave a hoot of a laugh.