Our unwanted guests were out-staying their welcome! What could we do?
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
“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!” ■