‘Come here Daphne; let me straighten your collar. The car will be here soon and you want to look your best for George, don’t you’
Daphne squirms and whinges as her father fiddles with the collar.
‘Stand still Daphne, I can’t get you tidy if you twist around like that,’ he says breaking his own resolve to stay calm.
‘I wish Mom was here,’ Daphne wines, her often repeated plea twist like a knife in his gut.
‘There,’ he says more gently. ‘Now you look perfect.’
He wasn’t looking forward to the next few hours. He hated these family gatherings. The whole event is staged for selected few to pose and strut, flaunting their insecurities. Today all eyes will be on him watching his every expression, ticking boxes, confirming their prejudices. He’s not and never will be ‘one of them’.
‘Douglas have you a clean kerchief? You know Grandmama will ask you and you don’t want to upset her on her birthday do you?’ He glances at his son who pats his coat pocket avoiding eye contact with his father. Since the accident the boys retreated into his shell; a quiet withdrawn boy at the best of times; a real mummy’s boy. She devoted herself to him, wrapped a protective shield around him, ‘home taught’ rather than sent away to The Groton School as is the family tradition. Away from home sometimes for weeks on end, he’d no common ground with his son. Now he worries about how the boy will cope with the future, let alone the next few hours. A feeling of helplessness engulfs him.
Daphne’ll be fine with his nonconformist outlook; she’s a real chancer like her Mom. They met at party in Atlantic City, lived in each other’s pocket until an unplanned pregnancy stopped her in her tracks. The family never really forgave her for marrying him; he was ‘all substance and no class’. She, hell-bent on making waves, casting off the straight jacket of her inheritance. Many said she got what she deserved. Something changed in her when Doug was born. She would sit for hours watching him sleep, suckling him at the slightest excuse, built an indestructible bond. He guessed she’d found something she wasn’t prepared to lose.
They wait holding hands on the sidewalk outside the house as if posing for a photograph. Presently a gleaming black Buick slides silently into view like a gondola on the Grand Canal and comes to rest beside them. George the chauffeur steps out and gives a little bow.
‘Sir, the car,’ he says as he reaches for the chrome dolphin door handle and waves his hand as if testing the temperature of bath water. He bows as each of them is consumed by the sweet smelling leather of the fancy interior. Daphne pulls down a folding jockey seat and grabs the silk platted hand hold. She’s as pleased as punch. Father and son sit on the button backed bench seat separated by an armrest and a prairie the size of the Dakota Grasslands.
George slides the glass window separating them and enquires, ‘Sir?’
‘Yes we’re ready, thank you George,’ he instructs feeling alienated from the man he’s required to be. He’d rather be in a yellow cab any day.
Tree lined streets, gas stations and farmsteads glide past. He and his son focus on the road ahead, Daphne’s like a jack-in-the-box.
‘Look Pa, cows, and there’s a dog chasing a tractor,’ she cries out. ‘There look, there’s some ducks in a pond. And look, a train’s catching us up. Hurry George, hurry!’
Minutes slipped by until at last the car slows as it approaches sweeping curves of stone wall and tall ornate wrought iron gate. The car stops. They wait. Eventually the gates began to open as if by magic, inch by inch until they lock open with a faint shudder. The car sails through down the long avenue of limes, in the distance the windows of the Great House glint in the bright sunlight.
Several limousines are parked to the right of the house, drivers smoking and chatting, leaning against a maroon Cadillac De Ville. They stand up and watch as the Buick comes to a halt at the flight of steps without disturbing the gravel.
‘Wait,’ Father says putting his arm out to prevent Daphne pouncing on the door handle. ‘Wait for George.’
George opens the door, bows and holds out his hand to help the irrepressible Daphne clambers from the car, expectant and excited. She loved a party. Her father and brother dismount unaided. The three diminutive figures turn to face the grand edifice of Blandfort Hall.
A footman appears, opens and secures two massive oak doors and stands aside. A hint of movement announces the appearance of Grandmama. He feels Daphne jump as the grand dame steps out into the sunshine in elbow length cream gloves, a long cream crinoline dress and a broad hat for all the world like a tiered stand of pastry confections. Holding hands, the three mount the steps and one by one they’re drawn up the incline towards the statuesque grand dame. She greets first Daphne who breaks rank and races up the last few steps and wraps herself around the legs of her grandmother. Douglas, head bowed, extends a limp cool hand.
‘Douglas, do you have a clean kerchief?’ she enquires.
‘Yes Grandmama,’ he replies barely audible, tapping his coat pocket.
Between the two adults no greeting exchanges. Their eyes meet and lock in combat. She senses his disregard and impatience. Words are not spoken but he knows full well this is the last time he will be here. From her, he feels her loathing, holding him responsible for the car accident that took her youngest daughter’s life. In that brief silence, lasting maybe thirty seconds, they both knew she will dispossess him of his children, caste him off and wash her hands of him without a backward glance.
Word count 997