Se­cret Codes

Our un­wanted guests were out-stay­ing their wel­come! What could we do?

The People's Friend - - This Week - by Ali­son Carter

WE had a large bay win­dow at the front of our house, and it was right on the high street, so it was among the best van­tage points in the vil­lage when the bon­fire so­ci­ety pro­ces­sion came down.

The larger Sus­sex so­ci­eties were fa­mous for wild­ness and an­ar­chy, but our smaller vil­lage one was no dif­fer­ent, in its own mod­est way. It was noisy and joy­ful, and lit up with a hun­dred flames.

Ev­ery year for the last three, since we were mar­ried and moved in to our house, more and more peo­ple popped in to en­joy the pro­ces­sion – with a quick drink, of course, and some of my parkin.

“It is so great to be at the heart of things,” my hus­band said, as we filled our su­per­mar­ket trol­ley a few days be­fore. “Bon­fire Night is the high­light of the lo­cal so­cial cal­en­dar.” “Hmm,” I said.

Olly worked in Lon­don, while I worked at home. This meant that I was usu­ally the one pre­par­ing the house for Novem­ber 5.

“Parkin?” he asked, and I saw the ea­ger look in his eyes. I’m a north­erner, and when I first came to the vil­lage and made it for Bon­fire Night, my parkin – a kind of squidgy, trea­cly gin­ger­bread – was a reve­la­tion amongst my neigh­bours. None of the softy south­ern­ers had ever heard of it.

“Yes, parkin,” I said. “I’ve made four slabs, but I’m won­der­ing . . .”

“A lot of peo­ple came round last year. Won­der­ing about more?”

“Yeah.”

****

On the day, I laid out news­pa­per at the door, for our guests to leave their wellies on when they came in.

They brought with them the sort of so­phis­ti­cated “of­fer­ings” that posh peo­ple in posh Sus­sex vil­lages bring to din­ner par­ties – a piece of cheese made in an ar­ti­san dairy; el­der­flower pressé with a hand-writ­ten la­bel; bis­cuits made by Bel­gian monks. Olly gath­ered the gifts in the kitchen as peo­ple ar­rived.

“Of­fer­ings are in­ter­est­ing things,” I said to him, dur­ing a quiet mo­ment. “I re­mem­ber when my fam­ily moved to live in Corn­wall, a lot of my mum and dad’s friends vis­ited us reg­u­larly for years. I sup­pose it was a use­ful place to come to, by the sea and ev­ery­thing.”

“And did they bring small bars of plain cho­co­late flavoured with . . . white pep­per and lime?” Olly asked, hold­ing up the present from the lady at the manor house.

“Well, I do re­mem­ber our Corn­wall visi­tors brought those . . . what are they called? They were all the rage back then. Jel­lied fruit things.”

“With soft cen­tres! I know!”

“My par­ents – they can be so mad – they used to waltz around the kitchen singing ‘jelly fruits, jelly fruits’.”

“Your par­ents,” Olly said, “have to be the most em­bar­rass­ing peo­ple on the planet.”

“I know.”

My mum and dad were bonkers, and when I was young I hated that. Walk­ing into the kitchen to find them singing about jelly fruits – the mem­ory of it could still make me cringe.

Back then, they’d whis­per or war­ble about jelly fruits, I re­mem­bered, even when no­body had brought any!

Although it was grat­i­fy­ing to be so pop­u­lar, our Bon­fire Night guests were a lot of ef­fort. The pa­rade was late, and af­ter it fi­nally passed by, peo­ple stayed on. I sent Olly to the cel­lar for the emer­gency crisps.

By ten o’clock, I was feel­ing that I needed to get rid of them, and even Olly, who had rev­elled in be­ing the pivot of vil­lage life, looked tired.

“We have six ver­be­nascented can­dles,” he said qui­etly, as he set an­other gift on the kitchen work­top.

“Oh, yes, so we do,” I said. “Of­fer­ings.”

Mrs Skin­ner from the hor­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety came in with a large mo­bile phone in her hand.

“Would you mind aw­fully if my pal Judy pops in? She’s down from Lon­don, and she’s never been to a proper bon­fire so­ci­ety do! Can you imag­ine?”

“That’s . . . fine,” I said, won­der­ing if I was go­ing to have to get in the car and find a late-open­ing su­per­mar­ket.

“Will she bring a ver­be­nascented can­dle, do you think?” Olly asked.

Mrs Skin­ner blinked at him.

“Sorry?” she said. “Shall I just say yes to Judy? Su­per.”

When she’d gone, I turned to Olly.

“A ver­bena-scented can­dle?”

“I think that ob­ject will for ever re­mind me of un­wanted guests,” he said.

And for the rest of the night – which went on and on – the phrase popped up.

When some­body said that they were just nip­ping home to check on the dog, and came back ask­ing for an­other glass of white.

“Ver­bena-scented can­dle.”

When our next-door neigh­bour sent her teenagers in for “a bit of some­thing to soak up the booze”, Olly asked a pass­ing fifteen-year-old if she hap­pened to have a ver­bena-scented can­dle.

He got an as­ton­ished and em­bar­rassed stare, which made me think of me at the same age, and jelly fruits, and my mum and dad.

At some point af­ter eleven, the last guest went home.

“I’ve just this minute re­alised,” I said, af­ter a while.

“What?”

“Jelly fruits. It was my mum and dad’s code for un­wanted guests! Af­ter a while, when they were sick of peo­ple spong­ing off them just to spend time at the sea­side for free, they be­gan to use that phrase to make each other laugh.”

“What’s that smell?” Olly asked.

“Lager? Smoke? Mud?” He smiled. “Waft­ing in from the kitchen, it’s –”

“Ver­bena-scented can­dle!” we cried in uni­son.

“Are we turn­ing into your mad par­ents?” Olly asked.

“And would that be such a bad thing?” I took his hand be­tween the chairs. “They were so happy in those shared mo­ments, and us­ing those words that held mean­ing for them, their se­cret codes.”

Olly stood, and made me shift over in the big arm­chair so he could squeeze in be­side me.

“So we’re de­vel­op­ing our own codes now?” he asked.

“That’s what makes a mar­riage, I’m guess­ing,” I said. “Lit­tle mad things – they’re the key to it.” He nod­ded.

“Let’s just hope our next lit­tle mad thing smells of some­thing other than ver­bena!” ■

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