The turkey was stuffed, as were its final destinations. Enough white meat remained for Dolly to take some home to Leeds in a Tupperware box, and turn it into a curry for one on Boxing Day. That would still leave a bit for Mrs King to put into the Olivers’ dishes once her son – who objected to animals being treated almost as well as himself – and daughter had gone.
The traditional toast had been drunk; the Queen half-listened to as she made her seasonal plea for the peoples of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to please be a little nicer to each other, for pity’s sake.
Now it was time for the other HRH to make his annual proclamation. Unlike the Queen’s speech, brotherly love never got a look in to this one.
It was always the same, give or take a few adjectives and the random hiccup or belch. It generally arrived after a few sherries – not including the bit in the trifle – a brandy, and a (watered down, although only Mrs King, who was on a rather tight British Coal pension, knew this) rum and Coke.
This year, it went like this:
‘Well, Mother, this is the last Christmas you’ll see your son,” said Henry King, with a significant look at his elderly mother, who was sitting in her usual armchair and looked like she didn’t hear him, which, as Henry full well knew, she probably didn’t. But she smiled just the same.
“This time next year,” Henry continued, with what he hoped was a piercing glance at the small but cozy room’s only other human occupant, his sister Dolly, “I shall be living in splendid isolation in deepest Wales, raising sheep and brewing poteen.”
It often happens that once a man reaches a certain age (in Henry’s case, 54), he has a wife to hand to let him know when he is talking bollocks. When, as in Henry’s case, said wife bogged off to Hemel Hampstead with kids and dog and red Ford Fiesta in tow, it sometimes falls to his sister to fill that role, assuming she hasn’t married and thus lost emotional if not physical track of her sibling.
Henry was fortunate. Dolly was single, as she had never found anyone she thought was worth walking out on.
“Now Henry,” Dolly said as patiently as she could on two small sherries, “you hate the Welsh. You always say their talking sounds like singing, and their singing is even worse. Anyway, wool gives you hives.”
“I wasn’t planning to wear the sheep, just eat them.”
“But you hate lamb curry, and they brew poteen in Ireland, not Wales,” Dolly continued.
“Then I shall introduce it to Wales, and make my fortune,. Really, Dolly, have I ever told you that with just a little more effort you could be almost boring?”
Dolly winced slightly, as much (Henry hoped and believed) at the use of her nickname as at the observation.
When Henry was two and a half, and his sister was a newborn dot of a creature, Henry had caught sight of the small red-faced girl in the oversized wrappings, and exclaimed, “Oh, look at the little dolly!” That event marked both the start of a family nickname, and the last time Henry was pleased to see his sister.
Dolly’s given name was Gertrude. Henry thought Dolly should be bloody grateful.
“Another sherry, Mother?” Dolly asked, in what she hoped was a loud enough voice for the 89-year-old Mrs King.
Mrs King smiled, which Dolly took as a yes. As Dolly refilled her mother’s small glass, Henry continued:
“And geese. Perhaps geese as well.”
“Geese are bad tempered,” said Dolly, regretting the words almost as soon as they were out.
“Good. Serve the bloody Welsh right. Yammering away in a foreign language, unable to speak the Queen’s English. Maybe the geese will goose them.”
Henry laughed, unpleasantly.
“Olly, Olly, Olly,” Mrs King said softly. The large, matted grey thing on the multi-coloured rag rug shifted slightly, for he was nearly as deaf as old Mrs King, and considerably stroppier with it. There was a clicking sound as the small woman bent down, and knelt on the rug next to the elderly cat.
“Do you need to go for a tiddles, love?” she cooed. Another click, and the old lady wobbled back onto her feet, clutching the cat, and almost colliding with Henry.
“Henry Richard Harrison King, I’ll not have that sort of language in my house,” the old lady said, then, in a softer tone, “Let’s go to your tray, love, and you can have a tiddle if you need to, and then some tuna, you like your bit of tuna on Christmas Day, don’t you?”
Henry watched the old lady’s retreating figure with just a smudge of suspicion. His mother’s hearing came and went like the tide, only not as predictably
Dolly sighed into her sherry again, regretting that there was to be no third. Unlike Henry, whose only problem with his mother picking up the cat was that the damn thing was still alive to be lifted, Dolly had read the small print on the Grateful Daughter’s Contract. She knew the old lady shouldn’t be doing things like that, not with that hip. But she also knew that trying to reason with Mother was rather like trying to cajole Henry, although admittedly, it involving considerably fewer words beginning with f or b.
Unfortunately, Dolly was allergic to cats, especially long-haired ones. She could stand to be in the same house with one for a few hours, even get within three or four feet of the animal, but any closer or longer and she became not so much a woman as a giant sneeze. The last Christmas Dolly had tried to help out by carrying Olly to the kitchen, her mother had been forced to throw out the trifle.
Dolly stared into the coal fire that had been built up several hours earlier by Mr Powell from two doors down, and thought about her father. Like his ex-daughter in law (whom he never met), the elder Mr King had also departed, although where to was unknown. When last seen (one day shortly after Henry’s 13th birthday), he had been going to the shop for a packet of fags, which was odd considering that up till then Richard King had been a vociferous non-smoker.
She shifted to make way for her mother, who staggered – due to the lack of an artificial hip rather than the sherry – back from the kitchen, still clutching Olly, who she lowered as carefully as the old lady was capable of back onto a green-and-gold pillow by the fire. The cat gave Dolly a quick appraisal before turning baleful yellow eyes toward Henry, who mouthed the words, “Eat shit and die, cat,” in return. Olly blinked, then began washing his genitals, which Dolly interpreted as feline for, “Screw you, too.”
At times like this, Dolly could almost like Oliver. The rest of the time, he was a source of contention between Mrs King and her two eldest children.
Dolly couched her true meaning in vague euphemisms. “Really Mother, don’t you think it would be kinder to…you know? I mean, you’re not 70 any more, and with that hip you shouldn’t be carrying him about everywhere. I mean, is it really best for him, if he’s not able to see for himself, to keep him, er, going like this? And without Olly, you could move in with me. Think how lovely that would be. You like Leeds, all the shops and restaurants, it’s a really thriving place these days, not like round here…”
Henry was more to the point: “For gods’ sakes, Mother, I could smell that cat before I’d parked the Renault. If you can’t do it, I’ll take him round the vets, and then you can get on the list for that old people’s home we talked about last Christmas.”
Anyone who knew Henry King, or was simply unfortunate enough to engage him in idle pub time conversation in December, would assume that Henry 1) hated Christmas, and 2) detested all cats. They would wrong, of course, as Henry would be too happy to point out.
No, Henry loved Christmas. He particularly loved going to his mother’s on Christmas Day, for there he would be guaranteed to see his darling sister Dolly. Such a regular familial visit gave him an excellent, trifle-on-top excuse for not crossing the Watford Gap to see his beloved sister or indeed his deaf and dotty old dear of a mum the other 364 days of the year.
As for the other assumption, that he hated cats, that, too, was quite untrue. Cats as a whole Henry merely disliked. It was one particular cat that Henry truly, whole-heartedly despised.
If Henry were the sort for whom ‘in vino veritas’ held true, give him a few whiskeys and he would admit that the chief reason he hated Olly was because his mother made more of a fuss over that damn cat than she did over her only son. A few more down his neck, and he would admit to painful memories of watching his own eldest, Jeff, play with the cat on that very same hearth when the creature was (relatively) young, and Jeff wasn’t living in bloody Basingstoke with his mother and sister and his mother’s ‘friend.’
Henry scowled into the fire, then watched with unfocused eyes as his mother trundled in the direction of the small kitchen for the Christmas cake and Wensleydale.
“’The chief defect of Henry King/Was chewing little bits of string’,” Dolly murmured softly, although at that distance, there was no way the little old lady would hear.
This had long been Dolly’s favourite Christmas party piece. In the days when Henry could still be more or less relied on to turn up for family birthdays, weddings, and funerals, she liked to wheel it out for those occasions, too. She particularly enjoyed fixing her myopic brown eyes on her brother’s increasingly prominent middle as she proclaimed:
“”Oh my friends, be warned by me/ That breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea/ Are all the human frame requires/ With that the wretched child expires’.”
“How’s the change going, Dolly?” Henry enquired.
This was Henry’s latest favourite. Prior to Dolly hitting 50, it had been, “Still on the shelf, love?”
“Myat?” asked Oliver the cat, as he shifted sides to allow for more even fur toasting.
Dolly glanced down at the cat, then in the direction of her mother, who was still fumbling about in the kitchen with a silver cake server which was clearly too large and heavy for her small, somewhat shaky hand.
“What do you think he wants?” she asked.
“Throwing on the fire?” Henry suggested, with a final tip of his glass. He stood up, with a reasonable amount of success for a man who had not just three sheets but a virtual airing cupboard to the wind.
“I need a piss,” Henry announced, then, with a glance at his mother, “Aren’t you going to offer to carry me to the toilet, Mother?”
His mother put the cake and cheese plates down on the nearest small table, and watched silently as her son made his somewhat haphazard way through the doily-covered, furniture-crammed front room and into the hall. Despite her better judgement, Dolly couldn’t resist calling after him:
“Do remember it’s an inside toilet, Henry; it has been since 1967.”
Except for an occasional remark from the fire, and the tick of the brass carriage clock which had been a wedding present to Henry and his ex-wife, and which neither had wanted to keep, the room was silent. Dolly sat on the settee and looked at her mother, who leaned back in her upholstered armchair and smiled down at her ancient, sleeping cat. Finally Dolly, who lived alone and therefore was used to quiet, couldn’t stand it any more, said:
“Shall we have a bit of telly, Mother?” and reached for the remote.
Mother and daughter watched Ant and Dec in silence until they were rejoined by Henry, who made his presence known by saying: “Are you expecting bloody Beryl, or can I forgo that pleasure this year?”
“Beryl and George and the kids are coming for New Year. They always come for New Year,” his mother replied, without shifting her gaze from the screen.
“Yes, and what a rip-roaring a start to the year that must be for the three kiddies,” Henry commented, adding: “As if having bloody Beryl for your mother wasn’t punishment enough.”
Beryl was Mrs King’s youngest. She stopped going to her mother’s on Christmas Day during her first pregnancy, complaining of stomach upsets when travelling long distances.
Beryl’s eldest was 11 now.
“Don’t speak of your sister that way,” his mother said calmly.
Henry sat down in the remaining chair through the end of the programme, then stood up again.
“Are you off, dear?” his mother asked.
“In more ways than one,” Dolly muttered, with a sniff. Louder, she said, “You know you shouldn’t be driving.”
“Why not? I have,” there was a rustle of pockets, then a triumphant jingle, “a key. I have,” Henry made a dramatic sweep of an arm toward the front of the house, “a car, which in turn has petrol. I have a license. And I have testicles—“
“—which means I can not only drive, I can park as well,” Henry continued, ignoring his mother as usual.
“You also have enough alcohol inside you to hold a piss up in a brewery,” his sister commented tersely.
“Which is more than you could ever organise,” Henry replied sweetly. “Bye, Mum. Don’t get up—it’s cold out there. Bye-bye Dolly. See you next year.”
A cold gust of West Yorkshire winter wind entered the warm room as the door slammed behind him. The two women sat and listened as Henry made several unsuccessful attempts to start his car before finally, if noisily, succeeding. They waited for the crash that they always half-expected but, so far, had failed to happen.
“I should have tried harder to stop him,” Dolly remarked, mostly to herself.
“I worry for the other drivers,” Mrs King said quietly.
Dolly gave her mother a sharp glance, but chose not to comment further. A civil hour passed, then Dolly too was gone, with a brief hug and final sneeze, and a promise, which her mother knew she would fulfill, to call soon.
Mrs King stood up. A reasonably observant visitor would have noticed that although she still moved slowly and unsteadily, there was a difference to her gait. It was more purposeful. Olly looked sorrowfully up at his mistress.
“Yes, dear, but they don’t make that much trouble, really,” the old woman murmured.
She shuffled into the tiny kitchen, opened the fridge, then scraped a few pieces of turkey into a small pan. She heated the meat for a few minutes, during which time she took two little bowls out from a low cupboard, and set them down next to an identical dish that sat on a plastic mat near the spotless old cooker. Then she carefully filled the bowls with more or less equal amounts of turkey scraps.
Whilst Olly made his slow but unaided way to the kitchen, Mrs King went to answer a loud knock on the front door.
“Have we timed things all right, Mrs K?” the white-haired, red-cheeked man asked. He was about 10 years older than Henry, and was followed by a dark-haired woman of about 50. Each of them were carrying a wicker basket shaped like an upside down U. Trailing after them was a small blue figure who appeared to be more snow-suit than child.
At first glance, the cats looked exactly alike: large, grey, and golden-eyed. In comparison with Oliver, they moved quickly, but then almost everything – even Mrs King – moved fast compared with the 18-year-old cat. A vet, or even just someone who had been around cats long enough to do more than sneeze or sneer, would have realised that although not young, these cats were closer to the 12 and 13-year-old mark, respectively.
“Olly 1, Olly 2,” Mrs King said, “join Oliver in the kitchen, there’s my good lads. There’s a bit of turkey down for you.”
Mrs King had made a remarkable number of calls to the RSPCA and Cats’ Protection, as well as combing the Yorkshire Post and the Huddersfield Examiner, in her search for Ollies 1 and 2. Being a reasonably imaginative woman, she could have thought of different names for her other pets, which she had finally obtained two and three years ago, respectively. But, she reckoned, why confuse the poor things?
She also spent a lot of time carrying them, just in case.