DISTANT COUSINS (STORY)
Stella couldn’t believe it when the square white envelope with the Norwich postmark arrived on her doormat.
Picking it up and taking it into the kitchen, she sat at the pine table and delicately ran her fingers around it.
She recognised the handwriting immediately: Dorothy’s, of course. The elder of her two cousins, Dorothy’s handwriting was much more robust and upright than that of the gentle, spindly lettering of Dorothy’s younger sister, Jenny.
Pausing to relish the excitement for a moment, Stella’s mind wandered to imagine what sort of possibilities the card inside the envelope might hold. Mentally, she ran through likely invitations to birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, dismissing each in turn. Dorothy’s two sons were still at high school, too young to marry, and Jenny’s only daughter was already married with a young baby.
She reached for her cup of breakfast coffee which had been cooling on the table and then, after taking a sip, went over to her kitchen drawer to retrieve her trusty, silver letter opener.
“Come to Tea”, announced the card. It gave a date, a time, Dorothy’s address, but no reason or dress code.
Tea at three!
Stella couldn’t remember the last time she’d been invited to tea at one of her cousin’s homes.
These days, their paths crossed, as briefly and formally as social convention would allow. A handshake and a word of condolence, at Bernard’s funeral, a nod at Dorothy’s daughter’s wedding but always followed by a very rapid excuse to move on to talk to the next person, once the briefest and politest enquiries had been made about Stella’s health.
It hadn’t always been so, Stella recalled with a sigh. She remembered childhood teas, games of dressing up, hop-scotch and her particular favourite game Tag when they ran round the cul-de-sac in her cousins’ road, chasing after each other. And childhood birthday parties: Blind Man’s Buff, Pass the Parcel and Musical Chairs followed by platters of tiny sandwiches, little cakes, strawberry jelly and vanilla ice cream …
No, it hadn’t always been so, Stella reflected, placing the invitation on the table. She didn’t really know why her mother had quarrelled with Dorothy and Jenny’s mother. All she knew was that the invitations had stopped coming, and what with Stella eventually growing up and moving away to London to marry Bernard, pretty much all contact had ceased, apart from the strictest protocol of family occasions and the annual Christmas card.
Still, thought Stella, although she may have lost all physical contact with her cousins, these days, thanks to the internet, which Bernard had spent many patient hours teaching her to use before his last illness, she could find out, at a distance and quite anonymously, much of what was going on in her cousin’s day-to-day lives.
With Dorothy, of course, it wasn’t difficult. Dorothy had been a local councillor, for many years, and Stella was able to read on the internet reports of her speaking at public meetings about all manner of worthy things from dustbin collections to road safety. She seemed to be a person of great standing in the community of whom great things were predicted.
And Jenny too, though always the quieter one, had a wide range of interests, and her modest successes were often reported in online versions of her town’s local newspaper: first prize for her much-loved sheepdog Bertie, in the local dog show, second prize for her Victoria Sponge in the cake-baking contest… It was amazing just how much you could find out about a person and Stella always devoured each detail eagerly.
Still, Stella thought, reading the brief invitation which by now had etched its words into her heart, this time would be the chance for them to get know each other all over again. Come to Tea! She wondered why they had finally softened toward her, after all these years. But then, looking in the mirror, at her greying hair and increasingly lined face, she sighed. After all, these days none of them was getting any younger. And really, you could never take anyone for granted, she thought sadly, looking at a photo of Bernard on a shelf on her pine dresser
The next few days were spent going round the shops finding the perfect outfit to wear, having her hair done and buying new shoes. She so wanted to look good for the tea party, for her cousins to see that she was actually a nice lady, somebody who they might actually like to get to know. Perhaps they could even come and stay with her. She had a nice spare room, after all, and she could even redecorate it a nice, bright, sunny yellow if they gave her enough notice.
At last, the morning of Saturday 3rd July came. Stella sat on her allocated seat in the train, holding a bunch of pink roses and a bottle of sparkling elderflower cordial. She had thought of champagne – after all, this was sure to be such a celebration – but then remembered that her cousins were tea total after all.
Two hours later, the train arrived at Norwich station. Stella, alighted, clutching the flowers and the bottle tightly against her new powder-blue, pleated dress.
It was only a few minutes later that she arrived at the address on the card and, with her heart pounding loudly, she rang on the doorbell.
The door was swiftly opened by Dorothy, looking a bit older than she had remembered at Bernard’s funeral, but imposing and elegant as ever in her charcoal grey suit and her dark hair tied up in an elegant chignon bun. Stella longed to give her a hug but was stopped by Dorothy’s automatic reaching out and shaking her hand. She put her handbag down in the hall, as Dorothy had indicated, and followed her older cousin through to the dining room, where Jenny, wearing a violet flowery dress, which complemented the purple flower in her long chestnut hair, was already seated at the dining table.
Stella was thrilled to note that places were set just for the three of them. Secretly, she’d been dreading the whole event turning out to be some huge collection of relatives meeting for a forgotten birthday party and her never receiving more than the customary nod and greeting from her cousins.
But this time, as Dorothy motioned her to sit down, and Jenny started to pour the tea, Stella knew that, at last, they could have a heart-to-heart, and that her dearest wish of feeling part of a loving family could once again come true.
Funny to be seated opposite her cousins after all this time, thought Dorothy secretly hugging herself. She had a camera in her bag, longing to capture this important occasion on film but thought she’d wait till after they’d had tea and had got to know each other again.
But where to start? What to say, after all these years?
In the end though, she needn’t have worried. For once, her cousins were really keen to talk to her. Very keen indeed.
“You see, Stella, it’s very simple. I’ve done as much as I can on the council, and now I really want to stand for MP as an independent candidate so I’m not bound to any one party’s policies. They say I’ve a real chance of winning. Of course, such a campaign doesn’t come cheap,” said Dorothy, pointedly.
“And it turns out that no-one else in the family is actually a match for me, and if I can’t get a kidney soon, I may have to go on dialysis …,” said Dorothy sadly.
“And we just wondered whether you might….” they both chimed in unison.
Stella sighed. Suddenly, it was all too clear why they had invited her there. It wasn’t her friendship they wanted or a chance to get to know her at all. Just her cash and one of her organs … And they never even asked about her or how she’d been coping after Bernard at all.
“Just a minute,” she said, “I’ll just go and get my cheque book. I’ve left it in my bag in the hall …”
She went to the hall, picked up her handbag, opened the door as quietly as she could, closed it softly behind her, and then ran as fast as she could all the way to the train station.
After all, she reflected, on the train going back to London, I was always a good runner after all those games of Tag we played as children. And perhaps, she thought to herself, some relatives are best kept at a distance, after all.