THE first faint turning of the autumn leaves marks the beginning of my Christmas season, not as a reminder to shop early this year if never before, but as a hand-at-the-throat realization that the little something should be on its way to Hong Kong; and after that deepest Africa, and, by the time the pin oaks are bronze, India. Being married into one of those large English families that feel an inherited allegiance to the far corners of the earth ensures a grounding in the study of geography and transportation, but it induces a pre-Christmas satiation and repugnance before early December. By the time I have taken care of Christmas in distant corners where it means something just to get a letter in the mail, I can regard even little cards to fatted friends at home as an unnecessary elaboration, if not a downright flogging, of the Christmas spirit.
And there is the different attitude of Englishmen and Americans towards the mails to be considered. To me the whole postal system is romantic and miraculous. I aim a letter from my desk through a slot in our post office at some swamp in Nigeria, and months later I receive warm thanks and a cheerful anecdote of making peace between two warring tribes by letting them settle it with a canoe race on the King’s Birthday. I am grateful that my letter was not wasted and impressed by the age in which I live.
On the other hand, if I were English I should command the post office. From my desk, complete with little weighing machines and an infinite assortment of stamps and stickers, I should look up everything in advance — ships, planes, routes. Even in wartime, when I should not know about departures, I should keep in mind the days Harry and Michael say their runners leave the port, and direct my letter with that in mind. The resolution of this British attitude that the mails are there to be used like a beautifully functioning machine, even when in the last and finest intricacies it may involve barefoot runners over mountain passes or paddle-wheel steamers in muddy shallows, shows in my own mail here at Christmas time. In the last week before Christmas, when I am still struggling with little notes that will now have to say ‘Happy New Year’ to Cornwall, the foreign letters and packages arrive, direct hits from China, South Africa, and some lonely coconut palm.
Even in the usual family mails all through the year, even in wartime, nor tide, nor bombs, nor submarines can stay, for instance, my mother-in-law in her regular letters to each member of the family. Where others take to the air and doubt how even that gets through, my mother-in-law writes calmly on by sea, and not once has she failed to get her firm and friendly eighty-year-old assurance that all goes well into our peaceful letterbox. Her letters even arrive on Mondays. Don’t ask how. That is the way she is. That is the way the English are.
But this year, when, just as the first tinge of crimson in the swamp maples made me catch my breath and remember Hong Kong, a photographer telephoned, it seemed as if Providence had settled things for me. Last year I had sent everyone chocolates — a long list of addresses that had given pause to the lipstick-stained pencil of the girl who waited on me: Mahabaleshwar, Kowloon, Upanti . . . Every thank-you from England had rather defensively spoken of the abundance of food, so that there was really no need — although, of course, they had enjoyed the thought. . . . And Upanti wrote that the messenger had opened the chocolate all over the green baize desktop. And in Mahabaleshwar . . . It seemed as if an attractive picture of us all might be a solution.
The photographer arrived, and the minute he stepped over the sill I realized how wise Nature is to make us forget life’s most difficult and messy moments, such as childbirth and having one’s picture taken. The photographer was dapper and handsome, humorous and friendly — just the person to captivate a family group. He flung himself into an intimate man-to-man relationship with the nineyear-old John and affected to show him exactly how to take a picture, so I felt he had only himself to blame when John helpfully brought him a lot of plates which turned out to have been exposed during the last seance. The photographer had applied progressiveschool methods to a child with an oldfashioned upbringing, making him feel he could be a photographer in his own right after a brief inspiration.
Tim came into the room very cautiously and set his ten-year-old face to look as nearly as possible like his father. Diana arrived with her curls and skirts crisply expectant. The photographer brightened perceptibly and announced the moment was upon us. But when I saw his first act was to stoop to cross Diana’s ankles I hastened to make our position clear. I had telephoned the office, I said, and explained to them that with my husband away for two years in the war, and many relatives to remember, I wanted just a picture of us all as we were, not a work of art. I said I liked uncrossed ankles and people simply sitting about as themselves.
The photographer looked as if he had met me before and won, so he knew it would not take long now, but it was a nuisance.
‘Parallel lines,’ he said softly. ‘You can’t have parallel lines . . . just two straight legs. The ankles should be crossed, but —’
He arranged the small black patent-leather slippers in what used to be called the first dancing position, or maybe the second — anyway, only the Frog Footman looks well in it.
I said I liked straight legs. He sighed, threw all legs to the winds, and took a fresh tack. He gathered us all by the fireplace, which was full of ashes left for the rose bed and the winter’s fire base, but no fire. I pointed this out, and he said they would paint a fire on top of the ashes. I was not reassured. When I found him ushering me into a big chair with a boy behind and beside and Diana trying to share the seat of the chair with me I spoke again. A pyramid of mother love with everyone trying to read one book at the same time before a painted fire would, I promised him, be merely wasting everyone’s time. I suggested letting us sit in a simple line — a row. He was very near to tears, and so was I. A row, he tried to tell me, is not a composition. It is worse than parallel legs. He could never go back to the office with parallel legs and everyone in a row. . . .
Obviously they had sent me the wrong man for my purpose, and his career was at stake. One could see there was a rule for each combination : a mother and baby in an oval, mother and two in a triangle, and mother and three in a pyramid. I wondered what he would do with more, and considered getting rid of him at once by insisting our golden retriever be worked into the picture, but the thought of Christmas all in one click stayed me.
We all tried, straining in our pyramid. The boys stood and leaned and stretched, and Diana and I looked here and there and let little smiles flicker on command. We were all miserable. Then, with one final snap of the fingers and a ringing laugh, the last plate was exposed to us, and in a twinkling the children were off upstairs, and the perspiring artist was drinking ginger ale. We parted politely but with no hope in either heart.
A week later the proofs arrived, all pyramids. In every one John’s left cheek bulged over an all-day sucker. He confirmed my guess and was terribly surprised to find that his secret actually showed. He had certainly kept it hidden from all but the camera. We had to send the proofs back and speak of another meeting, perhaps in time for Easter in Africa, but in the meantime I lined the children up myself, parallel legs and all, and sent off the results with pride.