State of Disgrace

Charlotte Fox hates weddings, anniversaries, birthdays - any type of occasion where her over-the-top, posh family require her presence. But life doesn't seem so bad if her older brother Tom is there to make everything better. [story for the oneshot competition. some strong language.] *WINNER - BEST STORY in the ONESHOT COMPETITION*

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1. STATE OF DISGRACE // ONESHOT

I’d always hated weddings. Or any other large-scale family get-together for that matter. In fact: I’d go as far as to say I despised them, with all the unnecessary pomp and circumstance, the empty and futile promises made at the altar and the excessive amount of money spent not only on the day itself but the many events leading up to it. Because in the Fox family, the wedding day on its own just won’t do: no, you needed about half a dozen engagement announcement parties, another few pointless champagne-fuelled get-togethers, a hen/stag do that lasted about a week and a wedding rehearsal at a minimum before anyone get anywhere near making any vows.

 

The superficiality didn’t just extend to weddings. Anniversary celebrations, birthday parties and even bloody Bastille Day were stretched to the extremes in order for my family to spend money. I tried to make my excuses for most of them, but somehow my mother always twisted the invitation into something compulsory, like my attendance at said events was unavoidable. As my late teens turned into my twenties, I soon realised that my attendance was only obligatory in order to make my older brothers (and my pretty, tall younger sister) look good.

 

Every large family has one. Out of six children, one of them has to be lagging behind the rest. And that child just so happened to be me. It wasn’t that I wasn’t intelligent or pretty or accomplished enough: it was because, in monetary terms, I wasn’t as “successful” as my siblings. This was a factor constantly brought to my attention whenever my family decided to emotionally torment me further by demanding my presence at yet another party. This time, my dad was celebrating navigating another year of his existence and even though sixty-eight didn’t strike me as a particularly special birthday, having a quiet meal in a restaurant wasn’t an option.

 

“Oh, look how beautiful Annalisa looks,” my mother gushed from next to me, “Isn’t she beautiful, Charlotte? So elegant. I didn’t think Germans could be so elegant.”

 

I smiled tightly at my mother in response. My mother was a graceful, well-dressed woman of sixty-six, who had suffered (well, I called it suffering) through a childhood of elocution lessons and spent a good chunk of her late teens and early twenties at one of those frightening finishing schools in Geneva. She had gently curled white hair which curved round her sloping cheek-bones, bright hazel eyes that I failed to inherit and lips that constantly sat in a slightly wry smile. Her casual racism was bypassed thanks to her impeccable manners – picked up in Switzerland, no doubt, where her days were spent walking down a hallway with a book on her head and fashioning roses.

 

The Annalisa in question was my older brother Arthur’s latest conquest: an embarrassingly beautiful woman who I felt ridiculously intimidated by. It didn’t shock me that she hardly spoke a word of English; neither did Arthur, really, as he was one of these preposterously offhand and cool people who only uttered a word if really necessary. She had a small, heart-shaped face and skin as clear as new porcelain, a frame so tall and willowy that even in nude six-inch stiletto heels her footprints didn’t make a sound when she walked. I’d dared to Google her name when we’d been introduced and the first result was her on the front page of German Vogue, then on a catwalk for some Berlin fashion brand.

 

“Arthur mentioned to me that she’s doing a photoshoot for British Vogue next week,” Mum prattled on, “Imagine that? She’s so beautiful, Charlotte. It was comical, earlier, when you were stood next to her. My Gosh, the height difference!”

 

Great. Now even my brother’s girlfriend of about two minutes was serving as my comparison. But that was the life I lived and I’d long since accepted that I always wouldn’t be good enough for my mother.

 

Mum took another sip of champagne from the gently bubbling flute on the table. As was common with these situations, the lawn which surrounded the front of my parents’ house was littered with billowing, calico marquees, each of them filled with tables and chairs and champagne towers and chocolate fountains. My parents had hired a string quartet as entertainment, the gentle breeze of Pachelbel’s Canon drifting in amongst the guests, intertwining with small laughs and indecipherable chatter. All around me there were people I vaguely recognised: endless friends and distant family who all asked me what I was doing with my life and if I was going to be the next Fox child to get themselves up the aisle. I’d just laugh flippantly and pretend I had somewhere to be, preferably grabbing a bottle of wine and wandering alone into the acres of unkempt woodland that surrounded my parents’ home.

 

Even when I’d lived there, I’d found it strange calling Amberley Manor home. It was an excessive, monstrous Georgian mansion in very rural Cambridge, passed down through generations of the Fox family and would eventually be handed to my oldest brother, William. I found the house accurately represented my family values: it was superfluous, haughty and completely unnecessary, made entirely of tan brick with hundreds of small-paned windows across every available surface. It had more rooms than anyone could ever really need, and that was coming from a girl who had grown up there with four older brothers. It reminded me of a smaller version of the Pemberley Estate from Pride and Prejudice and every time I was faced with it after long periods apart I felt as if I was in an Austen costume drama.

 

Whereas I hated the house and its constantly empty rooms, mum and dad were incredibly proud of it and prided themselves on its upkeep (“it’s a nightmare to keep the brickwork going,” dad would state, shaking his head, like he’d maintained the bricks himself and didn’t hire in the same construction workers that the Royals employed). Having a party was not only an excuse to spend money but also a reason to show off how beautifully maintained Amberley Manor was.

 

(And to use the phrase we’re related to royalty, you know. George VI came here in 1934 and met Christopher’s grandfather. There was barely an occasion where I hadn’t heard that line at least once. Yes, we were related to the Queen, but so faintly that I hardly deemed it worth mentioning – my parents made it out that we were invited to William and Kate’s wedding and were on the Duke of Edinburgh’s Christmas card list, when in reality I doubted the Royals even knew we existed.)

 

“I wonder where your father has got to,” mum mused, looking around the tent, “We’ll have to do his cake soon. You couldn’t go look for me could you, Charlotte? I’ll get the staff to round up the guests.”

 

I didn’t say anything and merely rose from my stool. To any onlooker, my mother’s words sounded like a gentle suggestion, rather than an ingrained demand. My champagne glass pinched between my fingers, I knew my mission was now to somehow locate my father – amongst hundreds of guests, many of them sharing my dad’s thin, greying stature, the task was going to be a lot more difficult than it sounded. My heels were holding me back; sinking into the grass and making me ungracefully hobble across the lawn. I could just hear my mother’s voice ringing in my ears. Oh, look at beautiful Annalisa. She walks so gracefully in her heels, don’t you think?

 

I pushed my mother’s tones out of my head. Fuck her. Why should I have to feel so inadequate when I wasn’t even in her presence?

 

I muttered quiet apologies as I pushed between the tables and chairs, occasionally colliding with one of the tuxedo-clad waiting staff, hovering over each person with a gold-plated tray laden with canapés or tiny desserts. Various guests, anonymous to me, tried to catch my attention. All I could was say excuse me and avoid looking at their faces, instead taking in swathes of silk or satin or over-the-top fascinators. It was a birthday, for Christ’s sake. The way everybody my parents’ knew was dressed made it look like we were on the lawn of Buckingham Palace.

 

After a few moments of pointless wandering and not even a ring of my dad’s booming laughter, my eye-line caught the uneasy smile of my older brother Tom, stood awkwardly by the newly-built water sculpture positioned a short walk away from Amberley’s front door. The open-mouthed dolphins erupting streams of snow-white water into the elaborately designed basin below made me feel uneasy. It was so overly tacky, and only Tom and I were the ones to agree on that observation.

 

(“Isn’t it lovely?” mum had gushed, presenting the sculpture, “One of your father’s old school friends designed it for us. For a fair penny, mind you, but worth every single one.”

Tom had whispered in my ear: “Old school friend? Bet it was that Malcolm. We could all tell his aim in life was to make Dad look like a prick and he’s finally done it with that fucking sculpture.”)

 

The guy he was talking to – a short, balding man who obviously couldn’t hold his alcohol as he was swaying on his feet – quickly (but clumsily) dispersed as he saw me approach. I narrowed my eyes at Tom, him shrugging in response.

 

“I have no idea,” he murmured, answering my question before I’d even asked it. I supposed I’d always had that sort of relationship with my brother.

 

Tom was the youngest of the Fox sons at thirty-one, just four years older than I was. He’d always been very tall; lanky and spindly as a teen, completely overshadowing me, but he grew into his height as he got older. He had dark, cropped hair, mellow brown eyes and a smile that always managed to make me feel better, somehow. Despite having the same age-gap between me and Tom as me and my younger sister Liliana, we were always closer, probably because Tom was kind and funny and not a stuck up pain-in-the-arse like my other siblings.

 

“You haven’t seen dad around, have you?” I asked, the gushing of the water slightly distorting the volume of my words. “Mum wants to cut the cake.”

 

Tom just laughed in response. “It’s typical, isn’t it? Its dad’s birthday and mum’s the one who wants to cut the cake.”

 

“A sound observation, Tom, but you say that as if it’s a surprise.”

 

“No, I’m not surprised,” He looked over at my champagne glass and I noticed that his hands were empty. I debated for a second before handing it over. It wasn’t as if I needed any more, as mum had chirpily added earlier. He drank the dregs of bubbling liquid back quickly. “Just… stating the obvious.”

 

An amorous silence made its way between us. Tom’s arm slid round my shoulders, squeezing my tiny, petite frame into his muscular body. The embrace was comfortable and welcome, his smell so archetypically Tom, reminding me of his house and the scruffy red sofa I’d slept on for weeks in my post-student days. It struck me then that I hadn’t ever been held by William or Arthur or Rupert before; just an impersonal kiss on the cheek was as far as they got in regards to showing me any affection. I often thought about Myra and Eleanor, their wives, and of course Annalisa – were they as cold to them as they were to me?

 

“How are you holding up?” Tom asked quietly, “Mum got her talons out yet?”

 

I laughed a little: he often compared mum to an eagle like creature, hooked nose and wicked claws, but only ever to me. Even though mum was far more judgemental when it came to my life choices than Tom’s, he was always the next one in the firing line even though he tried so hard. We both knew that William and “little Liliana” were mum’s favourites, made glaringly obvious at family dinners and similar functions.

 

“She had them poised and ready way before any of us arrived,” Tom offered me a small, sympathetic smile, “All she’s been going on about is bloody Annalisa. Yes, mother, we all know she is the most stunning woman alive and I, mere Charlotte Fox, will never compare to such a beauty.”

 

“Bullshit,” Tom exclaimed, eyes wide in disbelief, as if I could never say such a thing about myself, “Oh come on, Charlotte, it’s only because she’s new. She’ll get bored of her before long.”

 

“I wish she’d get bored of me,” I grumbled, pulling out of my brother’s embrace. Tom laughed slightly, looking down at the bottom of his champagne glass.

 

“She commented on Polly’s dress choice earlier,” Tom snorted, “Said she was “brave” for wearing lace. What the fuck does that even mean?”

 

“God knows,” I said – Polly, Tom’s wife of two years, was one of the most beautiful people inside and out that I’d ever met. A Cambridge scholar, like Tom, the two of them had met in university and had stayed together ever since. Polly and I quickly became partners in crime as it was nice to have a female ally who wasn’t a minor relative of the Queen or of a similar aristocratic origin, like Myra and Eleanor. Despite being one of these people I found impossible to find fault with, my mum somehow managed to pick out senseless errors in Tom’s wife.

 

Tom’s mouth quirked into a half-smile. He reached out and gave my shoulder a comforting squeeze, my own hand closing round on top of his. Thick as thieves, dad had described us as kids; those two are trouble when they’re together. I was grateful that I’d grown up with someone on my side. Horrible birthday parties, mind-numbing weddings and horrific anniversary dinners didn’t seem so bad when I had Tom stood next to me, and maybe I could just about survive this one if his kind words (and my own wavering will-power) somehow kept me sane.

 

“Come on,” he tugged on my arm gently, “We can get through a couple more hours. Once the cakes been cut and dad has made his speech, we can sneak out the back door and get the hell out of here.”

Unlike everyone else I knew, Tom made promises and stuck to them. For better or for worse, he would always be there for me.

 

“Thank you for existing,” I grinned up at him.

 

The smile he returned reminded me of childhoods spent playing hide-and-seek, crouching low behind the chaise longue in my parents’ bedroom. “Race you?”

 

Before I’d even had chance to reply Tom was pelting back down the hill, a deep, tenor laugh carrying in his wake. I shook my head in disbelief, throwing my heels behind on the lawn. He would be damned if I was going to let him win this one.

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