Of course I remembered the box and I remembered exactly where and when it was buried. It was the first time my brothers and I had been allowed to take part in the New Year celebrations our parents held every year.
My mother had planned the party for weeks. It was not going to be the biggest party ever seen and certainly not the grandest party that had ever taken place in the old house, but she claimed it would be the most original. “We are going to have the most unusual food, the most spectacular fireworks and the most interesting people,” she said, writing a list as she began her preparations.
We were celebrating the end of the twentieth century and the dawn of a newer and better age, or so we thought. The older adults talked of putting all wars behind them and living on into a glorious, healthier retirement, my parents talked about how they would be able to afford the school fees as well as saving for their old age, while we children talked about how we could sneak off and watch forbidden programmes on TV as soon as our moral guardians had drunk enough wine.
My mother planned the whole evening with exasperating detail, irritating us all with her fusses over napkins and place cards, recipes and cocktails. Christmas had raced by because of this; our festivities had been subsumed by her impatience to dispense with presents, mince pies and turkey and proceed to the party of the year, indeed the century.
We had first heard about her ideas one Sunday in November, just as we were finishing our lunch with apple pie and custard. “I’ve been thinking about how to make the New Year dinner really special this year. It is the end of an era after all, so I want the meal to reflect all the centuries that have gone before.”
“But Caroline, that’s ten centuries altogether,” my father said. “There’s ten in a millennium.”
“Exactly. So I’m going to create ten courses. And each one will represent a century. That should keep everyone busy till midnight.”
“You don’t think ten is going a bit too far?” He scraped his bowl and licked his spoon. “That was delicious, darling. I couldn’t have a teeny bit more, could I?”
“Just a little. You know you shouldn’t, David.” She passed the bowl back to him with a shake of her head. “And as for the dinner, it will be fun. I know it will.”
I had been counting on my fingers while they were talking. “Mummy? What did people eat in the ten hundreds?”
She smiled at me. “Probably rotten swedes and turnips.” She laughed when she saw my horrified expression. “Don’t worry, darling. It will all be edible. Maybe we’ll start with a soup. You’ll like that won’t you?”
After weeks of thorough research, sampling and experimentation ( on us), she finally decided on each dish, chose drinks for each course and typed up her menu. We were to start with black rye bread and nuts, then eat our way through Elizabethan rabbit, Victorian venison and welsh rarebit to a conclusion of stilton and port ( ribena for the children).
My wonderful mother, now so frail, but then so very efficient, also prepared a programme of activities. Guests were staying both before and after the dinner and all had to be entertained. So she arranged clay pigeon shooting for the men and a pantomime matinee for the children, suggested walks and stacked books and laid fires for the less able. She proposed pubs to visit and parlour games to enliven the afternoons. And I remember her pinning timetables on the bedroom doors.
“People always like to know when they’re meant to be around for meals,” she said. “And I certainly don’t want everyone congregating in the kitchen while I’m cooking. Much better if they all have something to do.”