Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'There's an awkward silence as Matthew starts mopping his brow in an exceptionally hammy way'
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The Independent Online

Our Christmas Card Row is an annual event that, for us, represents a kind of winter solstice (the summer solstice being the Garden Furniture Row). It starts one week from the arrival of the first festive card, which is always, without fail, the one from Michael Winner.

Winner's card flops on to our mat on either 1 December, or, if that is a Sunday, the following day, and it has been like this since 1996 when Matthew wrote in a national newspaper that the millionaire film director and restaurant critic's low sperm count was "God's idea of damage limitation". Amazingly, and impressively, Mr Winner saw a funny side and so from such an unpromising beginning burgeoned what it pleases Matthew to call a friendship. (Michael also sends a card to my in-laws in acknowledgement of Matthew's mother's incomparable chopped liver. That's how close we all are.)

Having arrived and been read out in the style of a politically important bulletin from a distant, war-torn land, the Winner (and indeed "winning") card then assumes its traditional pride of place, alone, above the fire.

Precisely one week on, Matthew took a momentary break from the Weakest Link, looked up at the mantelpiece, sighed and said "Marvellous, isn't it, how popular we are. One card from dear, dear Michael and that's our lot."

In response I told him, as I do every year, that it was still early days and that Michael was always first out of the traps. But Matthew had already gone into a decline and was mumbling the opening lines to our quarterly "We have no friends" debate, which creates a sort of row within a row, and within seconds we were in full swing - me arguing that no one except Michael Winner sends Christmas cards any more anyway so our largely empty mantelpiece is in no way indicative of our popularity or lack of it, and Matthew insisting we are the only people he knows who cannot lay claim to a single friend.

"Except Michael," I said.

"Except Michael," Matthew agreed.

Then he poured a drink and, sitting back down, said in a fatalistic manner, "There is only one thing for it. We will have to steal cards from other families' mantelpieces. It's no good buying them for ourselves and then writing fake names and greetings in them - you can always always tell when someone's done that." (This said in a manner that would suggest he knows dozens of cardless couples who behave in such a way.) "No, we will simply have to steal them." When I said I hoped he was joking, he said he wasn't and suggested we have a bet. To win Matthew must steal seven cards (seven being his lucky number) from the mantelpiece of the friends (see, we do have some) we are visiting tomorrow. We are going to their house in the early evening to view their new baby and then we are all going on to a restaurant. If Matthew fails he has to pay me £100 - which I have already mentally spent in Brora on cashmere mittens.

The following morning, amazingly, there are four new cards on the mat and I am optimistic that Matthew can be persuaded that there is no longer any need to steal any. Unhappily this is not to be. The first card is from someone called Marie, who has helpfully written "osteopath" in brackets, otherwise neither of us would have had a clue. "Lovely though Marie is," said Matthew, "I am afraid I do not count her among my closest, or even most distant of friends - therefore this card does not count."

The next was from the Ajanta Tandoori and instead of being pleased to receive it Matthew appeared miffed that we have yet to get one from the Kathmandu Inn until I reminded him that he fell out with the Kathmandu back in October over some "aubergines, so overcooked as to constitute a premeditated act of war against the vegetable kingdom." Again, this card did not count, and nor did the other two from the vet and the dentist.

"So many cards!" says Matthew. He is now standing next to our friend's mantelpiece and so maniacal and fixed is his smile that he resembles none other than Lord Charles, the ventriloquist's dummy. "You have many, many cards! But nothing from Michael Winner, I see."

Our friends look confused and say: "No, we do not seem to have received a Christmas card from Michael Winner."

Then there is an awkward silence before Matthew starts mopping his brow in an exceptionally hammy way. "What a good fire this is," he says, "I think I shall have to shed a layer or two."

While it is clear to me that this procedure is integral to his plan, our friends look a little panicked as Matthew makes a tremendous performance of removing a layer of clothing while asking our hosts if their osteopath has sent them a card yet. Before they can answer I suggest that we leave for the restaurant and we are a few yards down the street when Matthew cries, "Would you believe it, I've only gone and left my sweater behind. I'll go and fetch it. Don't worry, your baby-sitter can let me in."

Throughout dinner the sweater remained carefully folded on Matthew's lap. When we got home he held it up to me with such joy, like a little girl showing off the blackberries in the skirt of her apron. "Go on," he said, "take a peek."

I do concede that there were seven cards, but I still win the bet because five of them said: "Congratulations on your new baby."