We have an old saying in Italy: “When your daughter marries you gain a son, but when your son marries you lose one”. I didn’t really marry Lady V, but this Italian saying is still applicable to us. Since our adventure began, Lady V’s family has wholeheartedly adopted me - and what a family to be adopted into! – while I have seen much less of my own family, mainly due to the fact that they live 2000 miles away and travelling with a small kid is much harder than without it.
At first, I wasn’t sure about the idea of becoming part of someone else’s family. I was particularly concerned about the moment when my ‘new’ family would find out about my God-given one, with its scores of decaying aristocrats, random convicted murderers, occasional B-list TV celebrities and clergymen of sorts. Not the kind of family one would talk about with ‘normal’ people without feeling a little queasy. But as soon as I met Lady V’s family - which sports a 1970s hippy commune, Oxford-educated mathematicians-cum-farmers, French-born aunts who speak in tongues and suicide brides – I realised her family was as bizarre and interesting as my own. And now these two families are one, united in the flesh and blood (and other bodily secretions) of the Boychild. Bloodlines, I realised, only mix when they have something in common, otherwise they would repel each other like oil and water.
The uniqueness of Lady V’s family came to the fore this Christmas, when we visited her native Lake District to celebrate her mum and dad’s 40th wedding anniversary. The whole event took place at Lady V’s sister’s huge Georgian farmhouse, where she lives with her climber husband and scores of children, which she seems to produce at the rate of one a year while simultaneously running a hugely successful business. And when I say ‘simultaneously’, I mean it literally: the last time she gave birth, she was still sending emails while contractions were less than a minute apart. She only stopped when a midwife grabbed her Blackberry out of her hands and forced her to concentrate on the pushing.
The 5 of us - Lady V, DJ S, T, the Boychild and myself - set off from London on St Stephen’s Day, after a wonderful Christmas at home. I drove the first half of the journey, following detailed instructions from Lady V (“Go North!”), who spent most of the journey passed out in the back seat next to the also-sleeping Boychild and DJ S. Three hours later we switched, and as T and I dozed off in the backseats, the girls proceeded to get completely lost and leave the motorway in favour of narrow country lanes winding down the Peak District. I have no idea what rationale they were following, but the result was that we added two hours to a journey that was already pretty long. By the time we got to the Lake District, it was dark, raining and while the Boychild was in dire need of a nappy change, we were desperate for a J.H. (A J.H. is a very stiff drink, named after Lady V’s mum, who has the wonderful habit of pouring some of the strongest G&Ts known to mankind).
A J.H. is exactly what we got served as soon as we arrived. Getting hammered seems to be the default coping mechanism of Lady V’s family when it comes together. Before I knew it, and soon after putting the Boychild to bed, we were all highly intoxicated, sitting in the living room and watching a DVD entitled “Memories”. It was a collection of Super 8 reels taken in the summer of 1976, the year Lady V’s parents moved into a dilapidated farmhouse with another couple – generally known as “the cousins” (more on them later). They were real hippies, and these were the ‘70s, a time when growing your own food was considered an act of rebellion. I don’t know who the ringleader was, but I suspect it was Lady V’s dad. He was the above-mentioned Oxford-educated mathematician-cum-farmer, but he was also the village vicar, and a theology expert with a weakness for atheism. A mathematician, a farmer and a vicar all wrapped into one rather fine specimen of young lad, lean and muscular, as the movie made clear every time he appeared shirtless and performing one of many acts of torture onto the farm’s animals. These acts ranged from castrating little lambs to pulling teeth out of newborn piglets (“they bite their mummy, you see”, commented Lady V approvingly, making me wonder whether the reason why the Boychild only has 2 teeth so far is that he had the temerity to bite her once, and is now being punished with regular teeth extractions). Sometimes, it was Lady V’s mum J.H. on the tractor, usually in a bikini, smiling and looking glamorous in the sepia-toned colours of the movie. God, I love the 70s.
Lady V’s parents had embarked on this adventure with another couple, composed by J.H.’s cousin G. and by his French wife A.M., a slender and dark-haired woman prone to attacks of religious fervour, who had converted from Catholicism to Evangelism when moving from Bretagne to the Lakes District and was clearly another powerful force to reckon with on the farm. The two couples produced 5 kids in total – 4 girls and 1 unfortunate boy. I say unfortunate because I saw the effects of what growing up with 4 dominant sisters had on this particular young man: he’s got the look of a Holocaust survivor.
Legend goes that on one occasion the 4 girls – led of course by Lady V – whipped him with stinging nettles until his skin broke and eventually tied him to the rail-track that ran behind the farm and on which a train passed at least twice daily. They left him there for hours, until he managed to free himself and crawl back to his mum, crying. The boy was 7, maybe 8. If that isn’t enough to break a man, I don’t know what is. Unbelievably, the boy – now a fully-grown man in his late twenties – didn’t turn out gay, but still likes women. He is, in fact, marrying one this summer, a half-Dutch virago with the attitude of a prison guard. I think his condition is called Stockholm Syndrome.
The video also contained a number of images of Lady V aged 2 or 3. She looked, back in the ‘70s, very much like today: small and mischievous. She was often naked running through fields, occasionally dragging a terrified-looking smaller little girl with her (one of her sisters). And most of the times she was simply the portrait of joy, bouncing like a little blond ball down haystacks and chairs. I saw a lot of the Boychild in her, and this made me happy, although I also wondered whether he might have inherited not only Lady V’s bouncy personality, but also her penchant for torturing siblings. We stopped watching the movie and started chatting late into the night with J.H. and Lady V’s dad, as they recalled old memories of Lady V’s youth on the farm. She denied everything, growing purple at every turn of the story, until she eventually sniggered and admitted it all. It was, once again, a remarkable reminder of what an amazing family I have mixed my blood with, and how wonderfully odd they are. Compared to them, I almost feel like a bastion of bourgeois conventionalism.
The following day, we headed to Lady V’s sister’s farmhouse well ahead of the event. When I accepted the invitation, I thought I’d simply turn up at the Lakes for a couple of days, chitchat my way through the anniversary soiree, and go back to London happy and restored. In fact, the event was far from restful, since T and I were asked to cook for the 50 guests that were going to turn up that night. I have cooked for large numbers before, but 50 meals beats my respectable CV, which peaked at 30 at my friend PDF’s 40th birthday weekend. T and I assessed the potential damage, then decided to go for it. We equipped ourselves with all the baking trays with could find in London, several kilos of vegetables, mincemeat and Parmesan cheese, and proceeded to cook 7 trays of lasagne for everyone.
Just as T and I were placing the last tray into the oven, and were beginning to get the kitchen back to its original state, the first guests started to trickle in, at least 30 minutes before the official invitation time. This would be seen as heresy in London (or in any city, really), but in the Lake District it is apparently the rule. For a brief moment, as the aroma of the roasting lasagne filled the air, T and I were left alone in the kitchen surrounded by a menacing group of Cumbrian spectators, watching every one of our movements as if we were aliens with giant almond-shaped eyes and infinitely-long limbs.
I tried to break the silence with some inane chitchat, but they were having none of it. They just stared ominously at us – I could tell – with the look of people who can’t help thinking: “They are the gays!” Soon, I started wondering whether we had made a fatal mistake, and weather a bad supper would trigger a manhunt and ensuing burning at stake. We were, after all, in the middle the countryside, miles from any form of civilisation, and even if we had tried an escape from a crowd of angry Cumbrians, the cold rain and sticky mud all around us would have certainly killed us. Feeling increasingly nervous, I made my excuses and went upstairs to get changed.
Once upstairs, I found Lady V and her siblings all gathered in a room, signing a book of family portraits for the celebrating couple, which had not arrived yet. The younger brother was sitting on the bed, occasionally humiliated by one of his sisters or by his fiancée, whom I hadn’t at first recognised until she barked in my direction something about being rude, which I took as an invite to kiss her on the cheek three times, the French way. Babies had all been dispatched to bed in various rooms, and the oldest cousins were warned that if the Boychild woke up they would be held personally accountable. Clearly, torturing children was still en vogue up North. I sat on the floor, observing the scene. The 4 sisters looked radiant. All were in their prime, having given birth to a child in the last year or so, and were busy comparing notes, telling stories about their children’s achievement (or lack of), despite the fact that most of them could barely crawl, let alone talk.
After we had all signed the book, we made our way downstairs, just as Lady V’s parents walked through the door. They had dressed for the occasion in ruby-toned Edwardian costumes, J.H. in a long gown with a tight blouse and straw hat, her husband the mathematician/farmer/vicar in dark red tails. The sight was extraordinary, the crowd ecstatic, everyone kissed and hugged them with genuine affection. They hadn’t seen some of their guests in 10 over years. But I was distracted, because finally, the moment of truth had come, and the 7 lasagne were making their appearance on the large kitchen table. People looked suspiciously but gratefully (everyone had had a few drinks by now and hunger was beginning to bite) at the foreign dishes being displayed. As the Cumbrian mouths and stomachs came into contact with my Bolognese family’s centuries-old recipe, sudden eruptions of delight filled the room. Old ladies, barely able to walk, pushed their way to the kitchen table, no longer needing their niece’s help, demanding a second helping. Wives who had been dieting for months trying to lose their 5th child’s baby weight ignored their husbands’ surprised looks and gorged themselves with yet another layer of pasta. It was, in other words, a culinary triumph. They turned to Lady V with looks of approval that said: “They might not be real men, these gays, but damn, they can cook! You are a lucky woman!”. And Lady V returned their looks with grace, promising lasagna recipes all round, and ignoring my pleas that it was a family secret and I could be killed for passing it around carelessly.
As we drove back the following day, tired but happy and with a trunk full of new noisy toys for the Boychild, I thought how lucky I was to be part of this new family, and how much I looked forward to my son growing up amongst it.