Olive made sure that she thanked Hilary enthusiastically for organising the jubilee event. After all, it had been Hilary who had befriended her when she had first moved into the village and who now came over to greet her at the barn entrance, inviting her to sit with her and her son Ben during the jamboree. Hilary had placed the three of them at one of the smaller tables, strategically chosen, Olive imagined, because of its proximity to the buffet tables which were already covered in an assortment of refreshments. Even once the buffet had begun and she had sat down, Hilary would easily be able to jump up from there to replenish the plates of food from the reserves already ranked on some straw bales nearby.
Looking around her, Olive could indeed appreciate the effort that had gone into sprucing up the rather ramshackle barn that the Donaldsons had made available for the occasion. Placing those strings of twinkly lights around its rafters couldn’t have been easy, and the heavy trestle tables must have been carried by hand all the way from the village hall before being re-erected and decorated with gingham cloths. An evening bar area complete with a barrel of beer and a jokey ‘Bar(n) 70’ sign had been created at the far end of the space. Currently afternoon teas and coffees were being dispensed from there by cheerful volunteers.
Olive had already placed her plates of spam sandwiches, garnished with cress, with the reserves as requested. She had been happy to bring them of course, however irksome she had found the laborious process of smearing the thin bread with authentically cheap margarine and struggling to open the tins of meat before somehow cutting the slithery pink blocks into slice-like pieces as best she could. It had reminded her of what it was like to be a young teenager at the time of the coronation; of the sheer drudgery and dullness of life with parents who scarcely spoke to each other or to you. Now, as then, the smell of spam had made her faintly nauseous. To Olive the whole idea of celebrating anything that came out of the fifties seemed bizarre. She had had more than enough to do with it already.
Even so, she was content to sit quietly next to Ben away from the hubbub and pleased that he had chivalrously made his way to the bar to bring her back a cup of tea. Olive had not met Ben to talk to previously. She gathered that he had been a studying abroad for some time. Then he had returned unexpectedly some months ago under circumstances that were not entirely clear, but that Olive thought it best not to inquire about. She had not wanted to appear too nosy to Hilary, especially as she herself preferred not to talk in any detail about her own family. Olive had never lived in a small village before, but somehow felt sure that to be seen to take too much interest in your neighbours would be a misstep. Now, however, she was in a comfortable position to observe freely the other, mostly elderly, single villagers as they arrived. She watched them pause at the barn entrance as their eyes adjusted to the inner gloom, before they got caught up by the general convivial current and pushed along by it round the dance area and towards the tables and chairs. Here they would come to rest at any table where there was space for one extra and where they would be welcomed or at least tolerated.
Hilary was also single though obviously considerably younger than her. That explained why the food lists prepared by the jubilee committee had reflected as much Hilary’s nostalgia for her formative years as the desire for historical accuracy. Hilary had brought the photocopied lists round a few weeks ago and had stayed for a cup of tea, presumably out of kindness to her. She had been her usual smiling self, but Olive had sensed that she was distracted by something other than the task in hand of planning a jubilee party. Olive had bristled slightly at the platitudes Hilary had fallen back on during their rather desultory conversation but had nodded in tacit approval and made approving sounds, feeling that it would have been churlish not to do so.
‘It just seems worth marking the day,’ Hilary had said. ‘And it must bring back such memories for you …to think it was seventy years ago… a second Elizabethan Age … such a reminder of how people made do with what they had…they turned out … they celebrated together’.
Hilary had put the emphasis on the word ‘together’ and Olive had not had the strength to challenge her confidence in the past.
Instead, she had scanned the food lists as Hilary talked on, noticing how far the suggested contributions exceeded a fifties remit and encompassed instead such extravagant delights as quiches and vol-au-vents that belonged to the more exotic leaning 1970s. In fact, she herself had made plates of both for her local silver jubilee street party thirty-five years ago. She could recall rowing with her husband on that morning and how relieved she had been when he had stormed out, ostensibly to help set up the trestle tables, just as she took the vol au vent cases out of the oven to cool. The children had been staying the night with their friends next door. It had meant that she had been able to stand at the kitchen counter, assembling her savouries and crying quietly without interruption or consolation, before bracing herself to emerge into the street bearing her offerings. Later, raising the expected toast with her neighbours, she had tried at least to conjure up some cheering image of the future, but the blurry pictures in her mind had remained as stubbornly indistinct and unsatisfactory as the black and white instant polaroid photos the children had so delighted in taking that day. She had not said a word about her unhappiness to anyone of course. She preferred to suffer in silence.
Olive glanced across at Ben as she reached for her cup of tea. She knew that she must brace herself all over again to participate properly in the here and now. She must show an interest. Thinking that it would break the ice nicely with Ben, she asked him casually if he would be helping his mother with the performance of her little pageant ‘Two Elizabethan Ages’ later in the evening.
‘No…’ he said. He stopped as if he wanted to say more but was uncertain that he could.
Olive resisted the urge to fill the silence. She realised that she did not find it awkward at all to wait, to give this young man with his dark eyes and erratically styled hair, the time he needed.
‘I haven’t been well,’ he said. ‘I ….’
She kept her gaze away from him now. He was not hesitating out of shyness but had simply stopped because to go on must be beyond him at present. It was best then to ask him nothing more and to sit quietly. She was aware particularly of resisting the urge to touch his hand. That might have seemed to him to be patronising when what she wanted to convey was, in fact, her understanding, and even more than that, her admiration. Whatever was troubling him, he had begun at least to put it into words. Perhaps, given time, he would be able to say so much more. It seemed to Olive that even to have the aspiration to articulate your thoughts was a kind of triumph. It had taken her so very long to begin to admit, even to herself, the effect of the suppressed misery that had emanated from her parents’ enduring, but joyless marriage, and so to escape the constraints of untold failed ambitions and guilt by ending hers.
When Ben began to speak to her again, Olive knew that she did now have her own small cause for celebration. Even if she really had so little by way of consolation to offer him, Ben had chosen momentarily to confide in her.