I don't know why I say what I'm about to say, but I say it. I say: 'He prefers Dick.'
Freudian or what? Your gay son brings his partner home for Christmas Day and the first thing out of his mouth is . . . .
The moment pauses and replays endlessly. Then, in a classic example of group telepathy, we mutually decide that I never said anything, not one single word about Richard preferring you-know-what.
It was many years ago and I've forgotten why I invited my then lover to Christmas lunch with my family.
Oh, that's such a lie. I do know exactly why. I did it because the parents of gay children too often expect their homosexual progeny to return automatically to the nest for the Yuletide season, an obligation seldom visited upon their heterosexual siblings.
Yes, yes, my brothers and sisters do try and make surprise guest appearances. If they should fail to show, well, that's OK. They have real lives. Responsibilities: babies, neighbours and friends popping in, turkeys to stuff, frosty in-laws to thaw. The unspoken assumption about the gay child is that you have nothing better to do, that you live a marginal existence, that otherwise you'll be . . . lonely this Christmas.
So you have a partner? So what? It's not like having a husband or a wife, someone you'd mind being separated from. No point in inviting him; after all, he'll be going to his folks, too, won't he?
Actually, Mother Dearest, he won't. I thought Richard might come to see us.
I know it's a farce but I have to do it, have to bring my life to the people who gave me it, instead of leaving it behind.
My mother's voice, crackling over the line, was high and hectic, as if she were about to clap her hands and announce she does believe in fairies (aptly enough). Bring Richard. Everyone would like to meet him.
The front room: my younger brother instantly begins to tell queer jokes: 'Hear about the gay cowboys who rode into town and shot up the sheriff?' Nerves, though later he'll maintain he was putting Richard at his ease, while I wonder about such classic psychological terms as 'unconscious hostility'. A subject I'm forced to ponder throughout the long, long day as my mother dumps steaming Brussels sprouts into Richard's lap and my father jettisons beer down the front of his new silk shirt. Take that, and that . . . .
My sister flirts with Richard. 'You're barking up the wrong tree' I interrupt, as his confusion becomes comically evident. 'He's cute,' Sis hisses conspiratorially. Lunch. Everyone's on auto-pilot. The nearest and dearest are digesting, along with the turkey, the idea that my gayness isn't a solo deal - that it requires the active, not to say enthusiastic, involvement of someone else. The evidence is before them, asking for more roast potatoes and complimenting my mother's cooking. (My father stares at Richard as if he's lost his mind along with his taste buds: an honest response at last.) The knowledge is resented, but it's the best Christmas present I'll ever give them. They just don't know it yet.
You can smell the relief when Richard announces his departure. Duty has been reluctantly done: season of goodwill to all men etc. Still, I'm touched when my Mum suggests I should walk Richard to the door alone. He walks down the garden path, his shirt and trousers ruined, and I have a sudden pang of guilt. He stops at the gate and looks back. The clan are clustered at the window - damned if they're not waving. Richard waves back. 'Next year,' he says, 'how about us visiting my lot?'