© Claire Whatley
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Battle of the Barbies
© Claire Whatley
A SHORT STORY
“Cathy, wouldn’t it be lovely to do a little Christmas party for all the children in the village?”
I catch my breath in delight, “Oh yes! That’s such a lovely idea!” As I speak, I hear my nauseating habit of echoing the intonation of the person I’m trying to please.
“We could organise it together…if you like.” Erica has the decency to sound diffident.
“I’d love to!” My insincerity reverberates in my ears. I'm an incorrigible people-pleaser. I take a sip of Erica’s rich coffee. The taste is every bit as good as its seductive smell. I lean my elbows on her vast new kitchen table, centrepiece of her vast new kitchen, determined to find some pleasure in the moment. It’s not every day I’m invited here.
I’ve politely overspent at her kitchenware parties; her jewellery parties; her children’s books parties, but then all the women in the village are invited to those. How could I have been vain enough to think she would invite me for coffee by myself unless she had an agenda?
Her extended and refitted kitchen is still new enough to smell of the showroom: I inhale deeply the aromas of new wood and something clean and chemical. They harmonise perfectly with the scents of Erica’s freshly ground coffee and home-made almond and vanilla biscuits. I feel as though I’ve stepped into an Ideal Kitchens photo shoot.
“OK, let’s do it!” she trills. Then, a serious face. A dramatic pause. A hand raised as though expecting a protest, “Straight the way down the line. Halves on the cost. I insist.” I simper and she’s all smiles again, leaning forward, “The thing is, Cathy, you’re so creative – you could organise the crafty stuff…um, I dunno…top of my head…home-made Christmas crackers! We’ll buy kits with all the snaps and what-have-you and then just buy tiny gifts to go inside. The little ones can do paper chains…er, maybe some simple baking…y’know – chocolate crispie cakes or whatever…oh, and tree decorations, of course! Gingerbread, perhaps…”
And that’s evidently not enough to keep me busy because she pauses for further inspiration, contemplating her lightly distressed kitchen cupboards, head tilted, finger resting on cheek. I mirror her pose and my gaze falls to the hand-painted wall tiles which, it’s rumoured in the village, she had ordered direct from a small artisan workshop in Andalucía. At the same time, columns of figures are forming in my mind and I’m adding up the cost of this party so far, wondering how I can factor it into our own family’s modest Christmas spending budget. Our joint income as a teacher and a school admin assistant isn’t in the same league as Erica’s husband’s merchant banker salary, but Erica would never be so uncouth as to notice the disparity. The residents at Erica’s end of the village never talk about money. The people at our end talk about little else.
Despite my sycophantic disposition running amok, I surprise myself by asking two pertinent questions, “Any idea how many kids there are in the village?” and “Do you think we should put an age limit on this?”
We settle on an age limit of eleven and using my fingers as an impromptu abacus, I estimate that will mean inviting fifteen children, including my four-year-old, Hannah, and Erica’s own two kids. Erica herself has a four-year-old daughter, who bears the burden of the name of Gigi, a family abbreviation of the even more unashamedly twee Genevieve. Gigi is the family princess, and wherever she goes, she brooks no pretender to her throne.
Hannah and Gigi attend the same pre-school, but barely know each other as Gigi is the doyenne of the dressing up corner, while Hannah prefers to frequent the play-dough and water tables.
Fuelled by caffeine, Erica’s gets into her stride. We’ve settled on the morning of 18th, and the scale of the party is growing exponentially. She lists the traditional party games: Pass the Parcel, Musical Statues, Musical Chairs. My immediate thought is that games mean prizes mean more expense. I step in, “Well, maybe just one game. After all, with all the craft activities and baking, and then a party lunch, there won’t be enough time for too many games. Plus,” and here’s my winning hand, “we don’t want them to get too competitive, do we?”
“Oh God, no. We mustn’t be competitive. That wouldn’t be in the spirit of Christmas at all! Just Pass the Parcel, then. Oh, I know! We’ll have carols round the tree! I’ll invite the vicar and he can play his guitar. If we run the carols just before the lunch, I can get on in the kitchen while you supervise the singing. It’ll be lovely.”
* * *
Erica’s sitting room is a vision of seasonal comfort and joy. A fire dances merrily behind the glass panelled doors of the wood-burning stove. Heavily berried holly and variegated ivy are thickly swagged around the picture rails; enormous, gold-sprayed fir-cones fill baskets to each side of the fire-place and the mantelpiece is adorned with some of the largest and most extravagant corporate Christmas cards I’ve ever seen. From each point of the holly-and-ivy swagging, alternate green and red velvet streamers hold vast numbers of smaller Christmas cards. I scan for the one we sent, but I can’t see it. The window sill bears a gargantuan display of ornamental gourds, a few sprayed gold, most left in their natural state of glowing yellow and green. And the tree! It’s a perfectly symmetrical, sharply scented spruce whose starry tip reaches the ceiling, its branches covered in a glorious multi-coloured hotchpotch of decorations, which, I would guess, have been collected from all over the world. They have an ethnic, homespun look, and absolutely did not come from the nearest out-of-town D.I.Y. superstore. Interspersed amongst them are dozens of be-ribbonned oranges, studded with cloves. Discreet fairy lights twinkle magically all around and are softly reflected in the dull gleam of the polished surfaces of the holly leaves.
Hannah and I have arrived half-an-hour early so that I can set up the arts and crafts in Erica’s dining room. Hannah, who is stubbornly opinionated on sartorial matters, is wearing a new pair of jeans and a boldly striped top, which I now realise I must have bought from the boys’ section of the chain store I was racing through at the time. She loves the top and those shades of khaki and orange suit her, but the outfit is neither particularly Christmassy, nor in the least princessy.
“Gigi! Show Hannah your box of Barbies. You two girls can play nicely in the sitting room while the Mummies get everything ready for the party.” Erica turns to me, “Dominic’s upstairs on the computer at the moment, so the two little girls can have some quality time all to themselves before the party.”
Gigi, garbed in a confection of deepest red velvet and silk, gives Hannah a look of utter disdain, “Why aren’t you in your party dress?”
“I like jeans.”
“I hate jeans. I like dresses. Your top looks like a boy’s top.”
Erica grabs a little hand in each of hers and ushers them brightly into the Barbie corner. “Well, Hannah, I think you’ll love Gigi’s Barbies! They have so many different clothes to wear and you can have lots of fun dressing them up while your Mummy and I get things ready! Here we are!”
I don’t wait to hear any more of their conversation, but race into the dining room with my carrier bags. The enormous table, thickly protected by layers of festive plastic cloth, will seat ten children comfortably and there is a smaller child’s table in the corner for the little ones’ paper chain making. I lay out a Christmas cracker kit at each of the ten places with a speed and efficiency I didn’t know I possessed. I spread out the paper chain strips in jolly array on the little table. I tear into the kitchen where Erica is leaning against a worktop, sipping something from a small, heavy tumbler. I ask her for as many pairs of scissors as possible, and she immediately lays her hands on eight pairs from a drawer that appears to accommodate only scissors. I hurtle back, distribute scissors next to cracker kits (two kids will just have to share), stand back to admire the effect, then head for the sitting room, prepared for tears and screams, if not actual bloodshed.
As I approach the room, I can hear the television. Before I’ve opened the door more than a centimetre, Hannah’s voice pipes above the TV, “Mummy, Gigi wouldn’t let me play with her Barbies.”
How did she even know it was me at the door? Do I open the door in such a distinctive fashion? I open it fully and sweep in, aiming for a look that’s kindly but authoritative. The two girls are sitting in armchairs on opposite sides of the room.
“She couldn’t play with my Barbies because she might break them and she doesn’t know the right clothes.” Gigi enunciates with grumpy precision and her pout is miserable enough to pass an audition for a soap opera. The blaring children’s programme on TV is so luridly saccharine that any human being over the age of five would need medication to endure it. It’s Hannah’s pet hate.
As an afterthought, Gigi adds, “Why isn’t she wearing a dress?”
I say nothing in reply to Gigi but give her an acid look. I turn to Hannah, “Well, I’m sure you’ll be allowed to play with them later when Gigi’s Mummy is here.” Another withering look at Gigi and a heavy emphasis on the word, Mummy.
Just as Hannah opens her mouth in a counter-attack, the doorbell chimes. I beam at the girls with all the steely brightness of a children’s TV presenter, “Gosh! Our first party guest! I wonder who it is. Shall we go and see?”
The four-year-olds dive into the hall, elbowing each other out of the way to be first to the front door. I stride out to overtake them. The arrival of more pre-schoolers would defuse the tension nicely, but instead I open the door to a pair of smirking ten-year-old boys, fists glued into jeans pockets. It’s barely above freezing outside but they’ve arrived coatless and shivering in their hoodies. I can tell at once that the gene that predisposes the male of the species to a hatred of Christmas cracker making is present in both. Chocolate crispie cakes, I wonder? Perhaps an age limit of nine would have been an idea.
“Matthew! James! How lovely – come in!”
The two girls are fazed by the presence of such towering examples of maturity and sophistication and shoot off back to the comfort of the TV. The boys slouch in and I close the door quickly against the chill. At the same moment, Dominic comes thundering down the stairs, “Hey! Matt! James! Come and play footie on the Wii!”
With loud grunts of approval, Dominic’s friends slope into the sitting room and I barge in behind them to rescue the two little ones from being crushed underfoot by the prepubescent giants. I whisk the girls into the dining room - Gigi whingeing loudly - settle them at the paper chain table, then race back into the sitting room where Lemony Marshmallow Pie and her friends have already been displaced by roaring digitised football crowds.
“Boys, great idea – football – excellent, but could you make sure you’ve finished by ten to twelve? The vicar’s coming at twelve for the carols. Keep the volume down, won’t you?”
“Dominic! You’ve got to turn it off at ten to twelve, OK?”
“Yeah, yeah. Cool.”
“And keep the volume down?”
I leave them to it. I bank on Erica being too busy in the kitchen to notice her son’s absence from the craft table. Returning to the dining room, I push the volume up on the CD player, hoping Thirty Greatest Children’s Christmas Songs will drown out the roars and whoops of the boys in the next room. The girls are working feverishly on their paper chains and before I can offer them any assistance or encouragement, the doorbell sounds again.
I deal with a steady stream of mothers, breathlessly grateful to be offloading their progeny for a few hours. Erica pops her head in and out of the kitchen like an over-wound cuckoo in a clock, greeting each guest effusively. Within ten minutes, the house contains the full party complement of fifteen, plus two more - if we’re sure we don’t mind - who happen to be visiting from Holland.
I’m increasingly nervous about the boys, but the buzz of activity in the dining room along with the tinny jollity of “Jingle Bells” and “When Santa Got Stuck up the Chimney” drowns any sound from the sitting room and I leave well alone.
An hour and a half passes as I’m caught up in the maelstrom of crackers, glue, glitter, gifts – “Oh, I wanted that one!” – paper chains – “She’s taken all the red strips!” – in the dining room, and melted chocolate, cereals, syrup, marshmallows – “Please, don’t eat them all, now, darling, they’re meant to go in the cakes” – in the kitchen. While I scramble between both rooms, Erica, elegantly apronned, is stationed solely in the kitchen, in charge of a few placid and biddable cherubs decorating gingerbread men.
It’s 11.45. I need to check on Dominic and co. I open the door quietly, and hear high-pitched boy laughter but no background of Wii football. I complete the door opening in a rush. The laughter stops. I am confronted with a lewd scene, giving a new meaning to the term, fantasy football. Sofas have been pushed aside. Gigi’s precious Barbies are engaged in a game of naked five-a-side football with a ping-pong ball. Their clothes are scattered about the room. On their knees, James and Dominic each hold a nude doll in the middle of a high kick, revealing their smooth, sexless nether regions. Ornamental gourds are arranged, rather neatly, as goal-posts. Matt, it would seem, is referee. I wonder how he managed to pinch the whistle from the pile of cracker gifts. The boys are waiting for my reaction.
I set my face at neutral.
My voice is still pitched at wholesome TV presenter, but with an edge of prep school headmistress – God! I think I’m morphing into Erica, “Right. The vicar’ll be here any minute. Tidy up this room. Get those Barbies dressed – nicely – and back into the box as quickly as you can and then go into the dining room and help clear up the mess in there. And you’d better make a good job of it. If your mother gets to hear about this, Dominic, you might as well forget Christmas.”
Dominic knows this to be true and they all start to gather up Barbie clothes with grunts of compliance. As I leave the room, I pop my head back to add one word, desperate to instil some sense of urgency, “Now!”
Somehow in the space of ten minutes, the children’s crafts are wrapped and stowed away in named bags, ready to take home, and the dining room more or less cleared of debris to make room for the party lunch. The paper chaining pre-schoolers have mostly gravitated towards the kitchen, with the exception of Hannah, who is by my side now, complaining about Gigi pinching her arm. She shows me a livid, ten penny sized bruise above her wrist, intersected by two thin, red lines. Trying to contain my homicidal feelings, I give the bruise a kiss and Hannah a cursory hug. I’m distracted from murderous thoughts by the sound of the doorbell.
I hear Erica greeting the vicar, “David! Thanks so much for coming. The children are really excited! Do come in! Come and have a comfy chair near the tree.”
Meanwhile, children are milling about between kitchen and dining room in a state of dangerous idleness during this brief hiatus between craft activities and carol singing. There is much jumping and spinning and – from the older children – increasingly rude versions of Christmas songs.
“Guys! Guys! Come on now – the vicar’s here! Time for carols – everyone into the sitting room!”
I shush and I chivvy them through to the sitting room, and gather up a couple of chocolate-smeared stragglers from the kitchen until, finally, every child is seated, the youngest ones cross-legged on the floor, looking up at the vicar like angels at worship.
I note that Gigi has grabbed a bikini-clad Barbie on the way in and now hugs the doll to her chest, giving Hannah a smug, taunting look that translates as that classic children’s favourite, ‘Na-na-na-na-na!’
Mild in manner and appearance, the vicar was born to his trade. He sits amiably strumming his guitar, smiling round at his little flock as he sings. The children are astonishingly compliant and I sing along for support. Erica remains in the kitchen, though I do hear her occasionally offering a tremulous descant while she works. I keep fixing Dominic, Matt and James with a warning glare but they sit like innocent lambs, bleating for their next meal. Feeling I can safely turn away from the boys, I become aware of Gigi. While sweetly singing, she is repeatedly pulling Barbie’s bikini top down to reveal her smooth, nipple-free breasts, then covering them up again. The top goes up, down, up down, and some of the little ones are starting to giggle. I can’t catch her eye.
Suddenly, with the speed of a frog catching a fly, Hannah swipes the Barbie from Gigi. Gigi looks stunned; Hannah triumphant. Thrilled with her prize, she looks across at me. I mouth, “Give - it - back!” She cannot mistake my meaning and I can see Gigi’s trembling mouth working up to a wail. Hannah pauses. The vicar croons “Away in a Manger”, apparently unaware of the imminent danger. I mouth again, “Give - it - back!”
Slowly and deliberately Hannah lifts her arm, raising bikini Barbie aloft. Then, with all the superhuman strength of a four-year-old’s hatred, she swings the Barbie down onto Gigi’s head. Gigi’s eyes widen and I wait for the scream. Some children have stopped singing.
But the scream doesn’t come. Instead she gives Hannah a wild slap on the arm and reaches to snatch the Barbie back, and now they’re wrestling on the floor, each tugging at the doll. Some children snigger and one or two, getting into the spirit, begin to play-fight and roll around the carpet. Dominic and Matt grab a couple of Barbies and they’re fencing with them like little pink swords. By now every child is wrestling, giggling, rolling, laughing and every Barbie is involved in the game. The vicar sings on, but he’s beginning to falter.
I feel I’ve been teleported into some Dante’s Inferno for Juniors. The Christmas tree wobbles alarmingly. In a moment’s eye contact - the vicar and I, amidst the din - we recognise kindred spirits: both non-assertive and eager to please, both terrified by Erica’s prestige and power. And we both know the time has come to act.
In a voice I didn’t know I had I yell, “STOOOOOP!”
The vicar yells something too, but I’m so deafened by my own voice I can’t make out his words. He has put down his guitar and is clapping vigorously. Silence falls. Erica opens the door with that quizzical expression that thinly veils a readiness to be outraged: lips pursed, eyebrows raised.
I tear my eyes from Erica and scan the room. The children are all in various stages if dishevelment as though a hurricane has recently passed through the room, but they’re unscathed, and they're suppressing smirks. All eyes are on Erica. The children smell the danger and one or two of the little ones stifle a giggle.
“Everything OK?” Erica asks, lightly.
I’m about to reply when I see my daughter arm-in-arm with Gigi. Gigi’s velvet dress has a split down one seam and the silk sash is torn. Both girls beam.
“Mummy,” pipes Gigi, “Hannah’s my new best friend. Can she stay for a sleepover?”