I hadn’t seen cousin Claire for five years. She was as lovely and as enthusiastic as ever as she welcomed me into her barn, where she was throwing a party for her mother and father’s golden wedding anniversary. She clocked the tie — the White Park Cattle Association tie — immediately. White cattle heads on a navy blue background. ‘I recognise that tie!’ she exclaimed, clasping her hands together and buckling at the knees with surprise. She’d kept several specimens of this ancient breed as a hobby for several years, but gave them up, or was persuaded to give them up, because they can be a bit touchy and she had young children around. ‘I’m on the committee,’ I said. ‘Vice-chairman.’ She almost fell over backwards. ‘No!’ she said. ‘I am,’ I said. ‘Seeing yours ten years ago got me interested in the breed and I became involved, and last year I was elected to the committee.’ She gaped as if it was the most astonishing thing she’d heard for a long time. Except it wasn’t remotely true. Before she could regain the power of speech I came clean and admitted that I’d borrowed the tie from her father, to whom she’d given it many years before as a birthday present. The power in Claire’s punching arm was impressive.
Most of the guests had already arrived. These days I only get to see my country cousins at weddings and funerals. But I virtually grew up with them on my uncle’s pig farm in Essex and there is a great sentimental attachment. Claire’s husband is mainly in arable. The three brothers are in pigs and free-range eggs. My uncle has exchanged pigs for ornamental fowl. Of the four cousins, I’m closest in age and affection to Robin, whom I also hadn’t seen for many years. I plunged into the crowd and there he was. ‘Did you go, boy?’ he laughed, crushing my soft hand in his calloused one. He supports West Ham and was referring to last week’s West Ham–Millwall game. Before I could tell him sadly no, a woman neither of us knew interrupted.
‘Your face is very familiar,’ she said to Robin accusingly. ‘Where have I seen you before?’ ‘His face should be familiar, love,’ I said. ‘He’s on telly enough.’ She was thrilled. ‘On telly! I thought so! What are you on?’ ‘Crimewatch,’ said Robin. She raised her eyes to her Saviour heaven in love and gratitude. ‘But I love Crimewatch!’ she trilled. ‘My favourite programme! Here, let me kiss you.’ She was typical. They were a friendly, country crowd, many of whom were blood relatives I hadn’t seen for five, ten, 20 years and some I couldn’t remember meeting at all. I had a fabulous afternoon going around telling them all whoppers. To one of these distant, unmet ones — a lovely elderly man with cornflower blue eyes and the saintly, shriven demeanour one sometimes encounters in retired farm labourers — I told the biggest pack of lies he’d probably ever been exposed to.
Old Edgar the postman, 86 years old, who my uncle and aunt have known throughout their married life — he was there in his best suit and slippers. At every family celebration that I can remember since I was a child, Edgar the postman has been present, in his suit, looking about 86. He and I discussed the current levels of immigration to this country. His opinion was that it is getting out of hand. With Edgar I restricted myself to just one extravagant lie, which was that the population of our Devon village has been roughly doubled by a recent influx of Somalis — when in fact there is to my knowledge not a single one.
While I was talking to Edgar, a woman I had yet to meet stepped forward. ‘You’re Jeremy, aren’t you?’ she said. I admitted that I was. ‘You see that lady over there?’ she said, pointing. ‘That’s my sister. You probably don’t remember us, but we used to play together when we were children. All her life, my sister has suffered from claustrophobia. It’s been a blight on her life, to be honest. And she’s always maintained that what started it off was when you were both about ten years old you were in bed together, and you laid on top of her and tried to smother her.’
I looked across the room to where an attractive lady of about my age was looking shyly and a little reproachfully at me. ‘You’re winding me up, I take it,’ I said confidentially, as one wind-up merchant, and one Clarke, to another. She closed her eyes and slowly shook her head. It was no wind- up. Pushing my way through the crowd (and guessing that it would probably be like this when I die and all of my sins, both known and unknown, are read out), I went over to apologise.