“We’re almost there now.”
Anne guided her car expertly through the lanes of the sleepy Norfolk village where she’d grown up and learnt the joys of country life. Brian, sitting quietly in the passenger seat, felt distinctly nervous — a fact betrayed by his sweaty palms. They’d met at university in Cambridge some weeks earlier and now he anticipated with quiet dread the fate of most boyfriends — meeting the parents.
They turned down a long driveway lined with majestic elm trees and Anne brought her car to a halt outside a well built Georgian house which looked as though it had been sympathetically altered at some point. Although not a country house in the ‘stately home’ sense of that term, it was still considerably larger than the average middle class village home, not that there was anything remotely middle class about Anne’s family, despite her attempts to downplay the fact.
Brian’s nervousness hadn’t escaped Anne’s notice and she turned to him with what she hoped were words of reassurance but which, unfortunately phrased, were less reassuring than the intention behind them.
“Brian, I know you don’t like dogs and I promise you there aren’t any — well not of the canine variety at least. Daddy’s fine when he’s at home but there’s an odds-on chance he won’t be. You will, however, have to meet the dragon so I hope you’re feeling brave.”
A look of panic crossed Brian’s face and a spurt of pee involuntarily escaped into his underpants.
“My mother, silly. What did you think I meant? She may come across as a rather formidable lady and she is but, trust me, her bark’s worse than her bite.”
Not altogether put at his ease by that statement, Brian timidly followed Anne as she got out of the car and made her way to the front door, opening it without even bothering to knock.
“It’s me. I’m home!”
Brian half expected a butler to appear in the hallway but instead a middle aged woman with silver rimmed spectacles and greying hair, emerged from a side room. Gaunt and angular, she had a severe look about her, the sort of look that wouldn’t seem out of place in an old fashioned headmistress.
“So you’re here at last. You do know I was expecting you over an hour ago. It’s just as well I’ve done salad for supper.”
Unflinching, and not one to be talked down to, Anne was ready with a response to match the severe sounding lady’s words.
“Mother, when was the last time you drove through the Norwich rush hour on a Friday evening?”
The lady frowned and lowered her spectacles as she did so.
“Anne, how many times have I told you that you don’t need to go through Norwich? There are quicker routes from Cambridge to here for goodness sake.”
Anne squared up to her mother.
“Perhaps there are but that’s the one I know. I’m not risking getting lost, least of all when I’ve got someone with me. Anyhow, allow me to introduce you to Brian if you will. Brian, this is Elizabeth Glenning, my mother. Mother, this is Brian Timpson.”
Anne’s mother extended a hand to Brian which felt every bit as cold as its owner.
“How do you do, Brian?”
Not quite sure of the protocol, Brian replied in kind.
“How do you do, Mrs Glenning?”
Shaking his hand, she gave him a somewhat strange smile.
“My daughter likes to downplay our family’s status, but I am entitled to be styled the Lady Glenning. However you may call me Mrs Glenning. That is a privilege, young man, and one I hope you won’t forget.”
“Of course not, Mrs Glenning.”
“Good. Just so long as we understand one another. Come in, the dining room’s this way.”
Brian was led into a spacious, well-lit room, the centrepiece of which was a large oval table laden with salad, new potatoes, and a whole poached salmon. To one side a bottle of Chardonnay sat chilling in an ice bucket. Cream candles flickered in silver candlesticks which, in turn, gleamed in the evening sun. Imposing French windows afforded a view of immaculately trimmed lawns and formal gardens which stretched as far as the eye could see. Guiding Brian to a chair, Mrs Glenning continued speaking on what to him sounded like a slightly affected upper class accent, but which was no doubt genuine. It reminded him a little of how the Queen spoke during her Christmas broadcasts.
“My daughter’s told me a little about you but we’ve not had the opportunity to discuss your dietary needs and I didn’t know whether you were vegetarian or not, so I decided salmon would be a safe option.”
Taking his seat as he was bidden, Brian smiled at Mrs Glenning, hoping that a smile would help to thaw the iciness of her mood.
“Salmon will be fine. In fact it’s my favourite fish. Rest assured I’m not vegetarian though.”
Unsmiling, Elizabeth Glenning proffered the salad to Brian.
“Well at least that’s a small mercy for which I imagine I ought to be grateful. Young people are so strange nowadays. My daughter barely tells me anything and it was only by chance I even discovered that she’d even got a boyfriend.”
Turning to her mother, Anne interjected.
“Mother that’s hardly fair. It’s not as though you’re even interested in what I’m doing or ever want to hold a proper conversation. Anyway, where’s Daddy?”
Elizabeth took a deep breath before answering her daughter.
“Anne, I wish you wouldn’t be so childish, particularly when we have a visitor. You know very well that I take a keen interest in your well-being. I also wish you wouldn’t use that infantile expression to describe your father! If you must know your father’s supposedly at a Law Society conference in London but I expect your guess as to his true whereabouts is probably as good as mine.”
“You mean somewhere in Brewer Street?”
Elizabeth gave her daughter a black look.
“Anne! Do you have to be so indelicate? We have a guest in our midst, your guest in fact, and I’ll thank you to remember that.”
“Mother, I was only articulating what we were both thinking. You know very well Daddy….”
“Stop it right now young lady! This is most embarrassing. I’m quite sure your guest doesn’t wish to know about your father’s private life.”
“Very well. Where’s Julie?”
“Your sister’s out.”
“Oh yes, and we all know what that means, don’t we? She could at least have had the courtesy to grace us with her presence this evening. Still, I expect she’s getting her meat and two veg off Keith at the Five Bells.”
Elizabeth glared at her daughter.
“Anne Glenning, I’m warning you. I’ve had quite enough of this innuendo for one evening. If you can’t manage some pretence of keeping your conversation clean I shall be asking you to leave the table.”
Anne threw her napkin on the table and got up.
“Don’t worry, Mother. I’m going for a shit if you must know. I’ve not had one since Tuesday so it’s about due.”
Elizabeth gave Anne her blackest look yet.
“I don’t want or need to know about your bowel habits and I’m quite sure your guest most certainly doesn’t. I don’t know what’s got into you just lately but I would imagine it’s down to having too much freedom at that university. I would be obliged if you didn’t rejoin us until you’re in a better frame of mind and have recovered a proper control of your tongue.”
Anne stormed out of the room, leaving Elizabeth and Brian to complete their meal. Elizabeth reached for the Chardonnay and topped up Brian’s glass.
“I can only apologise for my daughter’s behaviour. She can be so unbelievably childish at times and much though I love her as a daughter, she drives me to distraction sometimes.”
“It’s alright, Mrs Glenning. As a matter of fact Anne’s shown me nothing but kindness since we first met.”
Elizabeth gave a wry smile.
“I’m sure she has. Anyhow, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to our humble abode. Historically the family seat was the manor house but when Anne’s grandfather, the Ninth Baronet, died it had to be sold in order to meet the death dues. Wretched business if you ask me. Such a humiliation for the family. Anyhow, it’s now in the hands of the National Trust and you can look round it for a fee if you so wish.”
Brian’s eyes opened wide.
“Is Anne’s father a Baronet then?”
“Yes, he’s the Tenth Baronet.”
“She never mentioned anything about that, Mrs Glenning.”
“No, she wouldn’t. So far as she’s concerned Bart rhymes with another word which I hesitate to repeat, and she’s not in the least bit interested in the family’s position, silly girl that she is. Maybe it would be different if she had a brother to inherit the title but, as things stand, there’s no male heir and, in consequence, Anne’s father will be the last Baronet. He prefers to be known as the Major anyway. When you meet him, as you will in the course of time, you’re to address him as ‘Sir’ at all times.”
“So he’s an army man then?”
“Yes, ex-army but it’s a long time ago and nowadays he prefers not to discuss it. He’s since carved out a very good career in the legal profession and we were both very proud when he took the silk?”
Brian looked and sounded as puzzled as he was.
“Yes dear. He’s a Q C — Queen’s Counsel that is.”
There was a faint note of that weariness in Elizabeth’s voice, redolent of a teacher trying to explain a very simple equation to one of her less remarkable students.
“Oh. I see.”
“Good. Perhaps you’d like to tell me a little about what you’re studying and your career plans, Brian.”
“I’m doing an engineering degree and my career choice when I make it, will necessarily reflect that. There are a number of options open to me and I’ve not made any firm decision yet as to which one I’ll be pursuing.”
Elizabeth gave him a hard stare.
“Perhaps you should. Once you’ve graduated you’ll have responsibilities and the world will expect you to pay your way. I imagine this engineering degree will be a Bachelor of Science, won’t it?”
Brian faced his hostess, trying not to look smug.
“No Mrs Glenning. Bachelor of Arts. Cambridge University doesn’t award Bachelor of Science — at least it hasn’t done yet to my knowledge — and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.”
Elizabeth sipped her wine.
“I see. Tell me, what does your father do for a living?”
“He’s the assistant manager of a Bank in Sheffield.”
Brian’s hostess raised her eyebrows.
“Only assistant manager?”
Brian, not unnaturally, felt defensive.
“It’s a good position and he’s worked his way up through the Bank to get it. Mrs Glenning, some may be born great but the rest of have to work at it. We all have to start somewhere.”
“Quite. Well at least it’s good to know a little about my daughter’s fiancé and his family, however modest their aspirations and attainments might be.”
“Fiancé? I’d hate to think you were under a misapprehension Mrs Glenning but I don’t think Anne and I have thought that far ahead yet.”
“Obviously not. Perhaps it’s as well that I have then.”
Brian did his best to conceal the sense of panic he was beginning to experience, but it was a struggle.
“I’m not sure that I understand, Mrs Glenning.”
“Well let me explain it to you. You’re going to marry my daughter. You’ll do the right thing by her and this family.”
Brian looked anxiously at his hostess. Regal though her style was, she wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind as a future mother-in-law. However good manners and fear of what might happen if he offended her prevented him from being as frank as he’d have liked.
“Mrs Glenning, I love Anne very dearly and, trust me, I’ll always do right by her, whatever that may involve at the time. I must point out though that we’ve not known each other for that long and, with respect, I think it’s far too early to even consider what you’re suggesting.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. Her reply was measured and precise.
“Listen young man, delicacy has so far prevented me from stating the case with greater frankness, but I understand that you have a physical relationship with my daughter. Is that not correct?”
Brian blanched. He was, to say the least, more than a little taken aback by Elizabeth’s statement.
“How do you know that?”
“Anne told me. I don’t believe it was her intention to do so but it came out during the course of a disagreement, a fact which might be considered unfortunate, but which cannot be ignored either.”
A puzzled look crossed Brian’s face.
“But Mrs Glenning, what’s that got to with marriage?”
“Everything, young man. Had it been Julie, my eldest daughter, I would not consider the matter to be of quite such gravity. Her heart’s in the right place but she’s hardly the brightest star in the universe and, to be frank, I think it would be fair to say that she’s going nowhere fast. If she marries at all, and I have currently no reason to believe that she will, it will be beneath her station and that will be humiliation enough for the family. Anne, however, is a different matter. She’s bright, beautiful, capable and, even if she doesn’t work as hard as she should at university, has at least got what it takes to make something of her life. I know she likes to downplay this family’s position and pretend she’s not the daughter of a Baronet but, believe me, she’s the nearest thing to a Princess that a middle class boy like yourself is ever likely to meet. Anne and I don’t have the sort of enviable mother/daughter relationship that’s taken for granted in some families. We’re both far too stubborn for that and, more often than not, we fight like cat and dog. However I love her very dearly in my own way and my sole concern is what’s best for her. Understand this, hurt my daughter and you’ll have me to answer to.”
“But I don’t see what this has got to with marriage. Lots of couples have sex nowadays without being steamrollered into marriage. It’s 1982 for goodness sake.”
Elizabeth gave her guest a steely look.
“Young man, the working classes may please themselves and openly live by the Sixties morals if they so choose. I don’t doubt that some of them do. However those of us whom providence has placed in positions of honour have a duty to lead by example. We have to conduct ourselves in a respectable fashion and, if the frailties of human nature prevent that, then at least maintain the illusion of respectability.”
Brian almost felt stifled by what his hostess was saying. It was as though she cared about nothing but her family’s honour and position.
“Mrs Glenning, does Anne know about this? I mean what if she doesn’t want to marry me? We’ve both still got two years of study ahead of us for a start and, as you’ve admitted yourself, she doesn’t exactly care about being the daughter of a Baronet.”
“Anne will be told about this later and, trust me, she will do as she’s told. I have no doubt that she might cry, throw a tantrum and shower me with obscenities. I’m prepared for that and will deal with it. Of course she doesn’t care about our family’s position but I do. I would prefer it if she married into her own class but the need to maintain honour and decency has ruled that out. You may be from the middle classes but you’ll do. I really wouldn’t worry about your education either. It will take well over two years to organise a society wedding and, trust me, it won’t take place until well after you’ve both graduated. Meanwhile, if you’re to continue having a physical relationship with my daughter you’re to wear something at all times and you’re to ensure that she takes contraceptive medication, not that I won’t be speaking to her about that because, trust me, I will. You may have been lucky so far but, if you don’t take the proper precautions you’ve only got to be unlucky once. If you get my daughter pregnant out of wedlock I’ll make certain you pay for it. Do you understand me?”
“Yes Mrs Glenning, but I’m not surely either of us are ready for marriage yet though. It’s not as if…”
Elizabeth’s eyed narrowed as she cut him short.
“But nothing, young man. You will marry my daughter and that’s final. You will propose and she will accept. You will go through the formalities of engagement and courtship. So far as Anne’s father is concerned your proposal was a spontaneous one. He’s nor to know the truth and neither is Julie, Anne’s sister, when you get to meet her. Do you understand?”
Brian looked nervously at his hostess.
“Yes, Mrs Glenning.”
“Good. At least that’s settled. So far as the formalities of the wedding itself are concerned , the 1928 Marriage Service will do. I have enough trouble getting Anne to obey me as it is and I very much doubt that she’ll obey you at all. Fortunately the village church holds around four hundred and we should just about manage, even though the county will be there. It’s not St Paul’s but we’ll do our best. “
A look of alarm crossed Brian’s face.
That earlier expression of a wearied teacher trying to explain a simple concept to a dim child, crossed Elizabeth’s face yet again.
“Yes dear. It means all the people of quality round about. Anyone and everyone of importance in Norfolk will be invited. A well connected family such as ours has no choice but to do that. There will, of course, be a limited number of seats reserved for your family — no more than twenty or so though.”
“Yes. That’s the deal. I won’t say ‘take it or leave it’ because it’s what’s going to happen and I don’t intend you having a choice in the matter. There will, however, be a wedding breakfast worthy of the occasion and you need not worry about the expense of a honeymoon as that will be paid for.”
“That’s very kind Mrs Glenning, but you’re saying Anne and I don’t have a choice over whether, when and where we get married?”
Elizabeth lowered her spectacles.
“That is correct young man. Also, I appreciate that you have a physical relationship with my daughter at university and there’s nothing I can do about that. However there’ll be none of it in this house — at least until you’re married. You’ll sleep in separate rooms and if I hear footsteps on the landing overnight I will investigate, trust me.”
Brian looked anxiously at his hostess.
“What if I need the bathroom at night? I don’t wet the bed — well not generally — but I normally have to get up at least once.”
“Your room’s an en suite. All the guest rooms are.”
Brian breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, Mrs Glenning.”
“Good. I’m glad that’s settled. My daughter will be back soon from Farmer Appleyard’s and you’re to behave as though we’ve not had this conversation.”
A puzzled look crossed Brian’s face.
“But I thought she’d gone to the bathroom?”
Elizabeth’s stern features relaxed and she allowed herself a chuckle.
“What, my daughter use the bathroom? I don’t think so. No, she has an arrangement with Farmer Appleyard, one of our tenants. When she’s at home she keeps him supplied with manure. He absolutely loves her and no doubt they’ve been busy putting the world to rights whilst she’s regaled him with tales of university life. She’s not his only supplier by any means, I would add. There are a few cottages in the village where, even these days, sanitary arrangements are a little primitive. I do take care though to avoid buying his potatoes — even though my daughter’s played a part in their cultivation.”
Looking at what remained of the buttered new potatoes in their dish, Brian suddenly felt distinctly unwell.
“Perhaps you could show me to my room. Mrs Glenning. It’s been a long day.”
His hostess gave a knowing smile.