The text simply read: ‘Bring torches.’ It was too late-we were already on the road, the long, waterlogged, windy, skiddy, branch-strewn road that was to take us to the house where we were to spend New Year. We had Christmas crackers, potatoes, puddings, Zam’s ham and a well-developed sense of foreboding. Power cuts seemed an entirely appropriate feature.
For many years, we have assembled the same cast for the event that engenders in one and all an emotional see-saw of post-Christmas exhaustion and as much good cheer as can be mustered for the marathon ahead. The sense of occasion is hugely boosted by one guest who usually brings fireworks, makes us to listen to Big Ben and single-handedly writes and directs the scavenger hunt for which the group is split into cars on New Year’s Day. I never drive as this would mean my team would lose before we’d even begun.
One might imagine a nephew who’d lived in the same house for 20 years would know whether to turn left or right out of the drive to head for a village in which we are to note down the inscription on a certain tombstone. This isn’t the case. The Y-shaped twig is easy, counting beech trees along stretches of road can lead to beech/hawthorn arguments when the papers are marked. Taking a photograph of a man with a moustache on a horse has its problems and finding the most amusing thing you can do with £2 is surely subjective.
But this year, the goalposts of success have changed. We care not about victory and competition. All we want to do is get through the 48 hours without one of these things happening: a dog not eating 75% of the fillet steak destined for New Year’s Eve dinner. Small children not unwittingly reading out other people’s wishes for the year ahead, wishes that are not meant to be heard by others (which are, in fact, meant to be attached to Chinese lanterns brought by the scavenger-hunt organiser, but which my brother forbids the launching of-ever) and which, when read out, drop into a stunned and horrified silence. And we will not leave Alfie in a churchyard and only remember this half an hour later. Nobody will persuade the pub to concoct a blue drink (clue number 18), drink it and have to take to their bed for two days. And my brother will not run over our dog.
Fletcher will not, therefore, bite my sister-in-law who’s trying to wrap him in a cashmere jumper and he will not be rushed to a vet, then another vet, and finally a small-mammal hospital, where he will not undergo surgery to repair a cracked pelvis. The hospital will not ring me and suggest that I collect him earlier than planned as ‘he doesn’t seem to get on with anybody’.
We will not spend January and most of February carrying a dachshund, who has been ordered to have total bedrest, outside at regular intervals. This is not a bad life for a dog who is chronically lazy and who has made a full recovery. My brother, on the other hand, is only just getting over it and when we arrive this year, Fletcher instantly starts using three legs in a pronounced fashion and fixes the man from behind the wheel with a baleful stare accompanied by unconvincing shivers.
In the event, the scavenger hunt doesn’t take place and the only moment of risk is when Zam tries to hack into the air-dried ham that’s been hanging outside our door for 18 months. He dismisses a few cloth maggots with a flick of the wrist, as three of us hold the haunch and he tries larger and larger saws to get through the leathery skin. Guests gingerly (loyally) nibble on the meat when it’s finally revealed and, amazingly, nobody is poisoned, there is no power cut, Fletcher is unscathed. And we leave the ham behind. As the children would say: Result!
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