Twas the week before Christmas.
Which means one thing above all others at Shrewsday Mansions: the man of the house gets to indulge his primeval urge to make fire.
In civilised twentieth century speech, this translates as the Shrewsday Lantern Party.
It goes like this. I cook a vast amount of food, including a turkey. We make the house look respectable.
But when the time for the party arrives, Mr Sociable disappears into the garden, lights his chimenea and a plethora of coloured lanterns, and issues a stream of imperious requests through the back door. He demands string which is no longer in the drawer, and newspaper which has been put at the bottom of the recycling bin; and he huddles round the fire in the manner of his stone age ancestors.
While I, who have fallen into the recycling bin head first trying to reach the newspaper, attempt to extricate myself before the guests arrive.
There was an added dimension to the party this year: four inches of crisp white snow. The garden has eschewed its general damp disgruntled midwinter air, and shrugged on an evening dress of pristine, glistening glamour. The chimenea sported a white hat when we arrived this afternoon to light it; the bird table had developed its own monolith.
What a splendid backdrop it would be for the pre-ordered lanterns, sitting concertinaed in a jiffy bag on the side, waiting for their three hours of fame.
It is fortunate I have garrulous relatives and a voluble stream of conversation myself, because if we were depending on Phil for his usual debonair sparkle it would be a flat social occasion indeed. I fear it would be one of those stare-into-your-teacup-and-pray-someone-says-something gatherings.
Because Phil was in the garden, in love. The lifelong romance between himself and the dancing flames means that when a fire is lit, there is only ever really room for the two of them, he and that light-footed atomic pas-de-trois between carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
No matter. Because no-one is ever short of conversation in this household.
Phil’s wedding speech was deeply funny. It had them rolling in the aisles. He told the guests that visitors to my childhood household fell into two categories: the quick, and the mute.
Ain’t that the truth. Snow has stopped play for anyone who drives. But even those within walking distance managed to fill the house with quick-fire happy week-before-Christmas babble.
The first ring on the doorbell heralded my nieces the Princesses, who were brandishing letters from Santa. It is a token of the level of organisation in my sister’s family that Santa actually writes back, politely mentioning the fact that the littlest princess has learnt to ride without stabilisers this year, and the eldest princess has distinguished herself at school.
Each letter was triumphantly read, and very quickly it became apparent a third cannonball had joined the fray. Alasdair has not got a letter from Santa. If he did, it is possible he would feed it to Macaulay or flush it down a convenient, adjacent toilet. He hurtled around everyone’s feet, a hectic meta-level where time travels at twice the speed of ours, at shoulder height.
The lanterns were lit, and the lights turned off, and we gawped appreciatively. Our little Cinderella garden almost gave a little curtsey. Phil looked suitably gratified.
At which point, we decided to feast.
In the living room, with a Christmas tree, a pantomime was running though its paces on the television. I have never heard of it before: it was modelled on Jack and Jill. I stopped trying to understand pantomimes long ago. They betray their mummer-roots. They make very little sense and are just a glorious excuse for lots of men dressing up as women and women dressing up as men, and rather exhilarating silliness and lots of shouting.
Needless to say, Big Al was right there with it all. The pantomime’s enthralling tractor beam drew him inexorably in.
His verbal engagement with the panto’s plot seemed a little shaky, however. He made do with stomping around the living room declaring he was Santa, and uttering the immortal soundbite “Ho, ho, ho.”
Maybe the sugar from those chocolate marshmallows had done it: or maybe it was just Al.
The dog cruised like a shark. It is an advantageous event for Macaulay, this lantern party. It is a buffet, and so large amounts of food are inadvertently dropped on the floor.
He is not partial to salad: and so, as we swept up afterwards, we noted several slices of cucumber and leaves of lettuce on the floor, but nary a sausage roll.
He also has several contraband dog feeders on hand.
I am a dog food control freak. He has his food, his water, and that’s it: no scraps.
But jeepers, those peepers. All the dog with the scruffiest moustache in the land has to do is turn those limpid pools in the direction of the weak, the vulnerable, and half their plate disappears miraculously down his well exercised gullet.
I estimate there were at least three such kindly souls there tonight, and that Macaulay has put on about two pounds round that already well padded girth.
Maddie asked to eat with the grown ups, and spent a lovely evening listening to the chatter of some of her favourite adults. She had set up the Christmas stereo single-handed, wiring and all, and classic Christmas songs joined with the velvet aroma of mulled wine as we stared out at that lantern-lit snowscape.
When the time came to go everyone put on their coats and wellies and gloves and hats and scarves, and went out into the snowy garden to get a gander, the other side of the glass from the buffet.
It was lovely. And we stood there longer than anyone meant to, in the little snow-capped garden with the coloured lanterns and the fire burning in the chimenea’s grate. If happiness were money we would be rich as Roosevelt.
The guests pottered off out of the garden gate, and we turned to go inside. And Felix declared, with trademark seven-year-old enthusiasm: “That was just the best Lantern Party ever.”
Twas the week before Christmas: and all round the house, the lanterns were flickering, not one was doused. The children retired to their bedroom with yawns: and Macaulay the dog ate the last of the prawns.