Short Story: No Room at the Inn

My son Billy was married today to a luscious Trinidadian wrapped in cream. The organist played that flashy Widor exit march – you know the one, with triumphant trills to show that somebody has done something clever; in their case, marriage; in mine, having Billy.

He’s like his Dad, is Billy, without the bad bits – like Brian would have been if life hadn’t spoiled him. Billy’s had a lot of love and it beams back out of him. His wife’s a loving girl, too.

‘What do you think of mothers-in-law, Katrina?’ I asked her as I kissed her after the ceremony.

Quick as a flash she said, ‘So far, Karen, I have no complaints about you.’

It’s starting well.

They won’t be sharing the honeymoon bedroom with me, though, as I did with Madge. They’ll be on the barge on the Thames and I shan’t set foot on it. That is progress – genetic mutation for the better.

I didn’t plan to invite Madge into our room but I should have spotted her edging in. Brian didn’t want her at the wedding. He wasn’t even going to tell her he was getting married. My parents would never have forgiven me if I hadn’t told them. There wasn’t a space as thick as tissue paper between us. My mother wanted to know everything and opened my letters before I did and searched my drawers for evidence of contraception. I couldn’t have kept an engagement secret from her.

‘Did he hold your hand? Did he kiss you? Are you in love? Are you getting married?’ she’d ask me after the first date. I thought holding hands and kissing were all you needed before you agreed to marry.

‘You must tell your mother,’ I said to Brian. So he rang her in England, told her we were engaged, then passed the phone across to me.

‘How old are you?’ she asked. The answer seemed all right. ‘Are you taller than him?’ I was but I said ‘no’. Brian was short then and he’s shorter now. ‘Amazon woman,’ he called me and I wasn’t sure he meant it as a term of endearment. But you can’t be holding hands and kissing all the time so I ignored it and wore stilettos when he wasn’t around. He had his good points, though. He held the door open for me. My father used to do that, too, and these little traditions are important, aren’t they?

We married in December, in Johannesburg, where we both worked. Madge was a widow. She came out alone for the wedding and, as bad luck would have it, nobody invited her for Christmas, not even my parents, who did not seem to be hitting it off with her.

My father mentioned one of the reasons much later. On the way back from the reception, Madge, in the car with him, was crying her eyes out. He tried to comfort her but she wasn’t having it. He said,

‘They’ll be fine together, Madge. You wait and see.’ Dad said she sniffed and nearly spat at him.

‘It’s not that I’m bothered about. It’s just, fancy my son throwing himself away on a girl like that.’

I wanted to start things off right with my mother-in-law so I invited Madge to join us for the Christmas bit of the honeymoon, on the Transkei coast. We got her into a hotel 25 miles away from our Hotel Cormorant, which was full.

We arrived ten days before her and, to tell the truth, we were having a couple of honeymoon teething problems. Little things, nothing very important, like Brian blocking his ears and humming when I sang. He couldn’t stand screeching women’s voices, he said, and you had to respect personal preferences, didn’t you?

I shan’t go too much into the sex side of things. Well, my generation didn’t, did we? Brian was a Catholic, brought up by the Jesuits since his mother, who lived a busy life, sent him, aged seven, to their boarding school, in another land far from home. You know that Jesuit saying ‘Give me a child for the first seven years and he’s mine for life’? Well, they got Brian after he was seven but I think they caught up on the wasted years. I did try to discuss children and timing but Brian said ‘God will know what is right,’ and wouldn’t talk about it again. Well, to be honest, he felt so strongly about it when I mentioned contraception that he stuck his fingers in his ears and hummed. But you had to respect a man with such firm convictions even if you didn’t share them.

Once she had arrived, the time it took us to fetch Madge ate into our honeymoon. There we were jolting about in Brian’s little Ford Anglia, along the untarred road between Qoloqa and Kentani. Talk about red dust, it was more like crossing the Red Sea, in and out of those bumps. There was many a time when we just missed a goat, wandering carefree as you please across the road, with no sense of danger. I felt sorry for the village women, bowed down by the wood they carried on their heads, but Brian said you couldn’t afford to be sentimental in Africa and, besides, it made their backs strong. Now I remember those African journeys as one of the best bits of my honeymoon.

Madge wasn’t happy with her hotel. The food was not up to much and the beds were lumpy too, so Brian asked at Hotel Cormorant whether there wasn’t some little corner where they could put her up and they said sorry but there was no room at the inn, it being Christmas. Then Joan, who owned the hotel, said, quite hesitantly, that if she could stand it they could put a camp bed on the games room. And Madge said of course she could stand it.

She made herself cosy in her camp bed in a corner of the games room and wove a web of clothes and cards and pictures across the six dining-room chairs around her bed. On the closest chair she put the glass for her whisky nightcap. Funny, I noticed Brian made the same kind of wall with boxes of work papers he had brought so that time didn’t hang too heavy on our honeymoon. But looking after Madge didn’t leave him with much time, so he just kept them there, for safety.

All was peace for a while, though I wasn’t seeing much of Brian because he had his mother to look after. I wasn’t altogether sorry to tell the truth, because he was a bit irritable, with her on the spot, and I was pleased to have him out of the way so I could finish the jersey he’d asked me to knit for him. I didn’t like knitting much but Brian said if I did enough of it I was sure to improve and I needed to be able to do it for the children.

Madge set herself up in a deckchair on the beach, placed so she could keep an eye on what we were up to. Next to her was a footstool carved from one piece of wood with a smiling, black man’s head holding a tray with her bottle of sherry, her Camel cigarettes and her lighter. She like a ciggie and a drink, did Madge. Every morning she wrote Christmas cards, just to the people who had sent them to her. That was protocol, she said, her husband having been a high-up captain in the army. She was economical. Brian said ‘Nothing wrong with that.’ She cut the picture off last year’s cards and wrote on the back; ‘With best regards and Christmas greetings from Madge and Brian.’ After lunch she had her afternoon nap and sometimes Brian and I had time for a nap ourselves. Then he would take Madge her tea and that was how we spent our days.

The peace and quiet did not last long. On the third day, as Brian and I were settling down for a couple of hours by ourselves I heard her shout,

‘I can’t sleep while you lot are playing badminton!’ Brian shot out of bed and over to the games room and I got dressed and followed.

Joan was there, looking anxious but Madge seemed cheerful, considering the noise she had just been making. Joan said

‘I’ve had an idea. There’s a spare bed in your room. Would you mind?’

I did mind, being on honeymoon, but I felt a bit shy so I left it to Brian. But he had lost his tongue, too.

We’re divorced now. The marriage never really worked. But Billy’s wedding was a time to celebrate and forget the past. I looked over at Brian and was about to have a few friendly words with him. Just then, he glanced at me, his face all crinkled and sour. I walked across to Billy instead, who put his arm around me and whispered

‘Leave him, Mum.’

So I walked away with my handsome son, humming the organ exit march by Widor. And I did feel quite grown up and clever, then.