A word of warning: don’t be in too much of a hurry to take an elderly relative off on holiday. A friend told me of a young couple who, out of the kindness of their hearts, asked Granny to accompany them on their New Year skiing holiday. Granny thoroughly enjoyed herself watching the young people on the slopes, and getting tiddly on Madeira in the evening. Then disaster struck.
At the end of a very cold day, the couple discovered to their horror that Granny had been left outside too long, and had perished in the cold. Apart from the shock of sorrow, there was a practical question of getting the body home from Switzerland. It was going to be exceedingly expensive. So they found the obvious solution. Their skis had been packed on the luggage rack of their Audi estate. It was a simple matter to put Granny into the ski covers and on to the rack. The cold, of course, ensured her rigidity. Abandoning the skis was a minor matter by comparison.
They overnighted at a smart hotel. Granny remained on the Audi, for thawing would have been awkward. The next morning, to their horror, the car had disappeared. The hotel told them that there had been car thieves about, which was why they accepted no liability. And the car was never seen again. So we must suppose that somewhere in Europe Granny continues her endless journey.
If you should be inclined to doubt that story, I can give you a clue: I heard the first version from my mother. This dated back to the 19th century. In this instance, dead Granny was propped up between two cushions in a train from Scotland. Relatives were asked to collect her in London from the third carriage back from the engine. The relatives, on finding no Granny, asked the station master what had happened to the missing carriage. They were told that, owing to an over-heated axle, the carriage had been detached at Crewe. So if you should encounter on a train a very still, and perhaps somewhat wizened, old lady, remember that she wanted to be buried in the Brompton Cemetery.
Urban legends have a long history. For all I know, there is an older, stagecoach, version of the Granny saga. What they have in common is a plausible anecdotal story with a good plot, and a surprise climax, which is either dramatic or disgusting. Some have argued that, like fairy tales, they give us deep mythological insight into human nature. But the simpler explanation is that we enjoy drama and disgust, seasoned by the possibility that it might just be true.
That is why I recommend urban myths as suitable conversation at the Christmas or New Year table. And they can provide a relief for internal family legends in which the details have been modified a little to give spice to some near-forgotten incident. Exchange too many of those and someone will leave the table in high dudgeon. I have seen it happen. So, here are one or two which you can use to restore the peace.
My mother, I suspect from her mother, had a number. One of these concerned an Indian army officer who, home on leave, visited the wife of a friend of his who had recently been killed on the Frontier. The widow, he discovered to his pleasure, had just given birth to twins. Heartily, he threw one baby into the air, and caught it. It came down stone dead. The widow screamed. The officer was mortified. “All I did, was this,” he said – throwing up the other baby. It came down dead too. He did not wait to make his excuses before he left. My mother could almost, but not quite, remember the name of the family. Nor could she identify the guest who had used the ashes which he found on his dressing table, under the impression that they were toothpowder.
Food, and contamination of food, is a rich source of stories. You would be surprised to learn of the extent and nature of the items that have reputedly been found in food. But since you may be introducing such anecdotes at mealtimes, you may find this one takes you far enough. It concerns a European couple who dined at a very smart restaurant in Tokyo. They asked the headwaiter to look after their pet bulldog while they had their meal. They were more than mildly surprised to find it presented to them as their main course – beautifully dressed and garnished as you would expect. The story does not tell us what happened next.
Perhaps it takes you too far. If so, restore your reputation by the story of the lady who saw an interesting electrical box by the roadside as she drove out of the council’s rubbish dump. Realising that it had been abandoned or fallen from another vehicle, she decided to pick it up. When she got home she found that she was being followed by three police cars. It turned out to be a speed camera. I think she is now out of jail.
My wife has just reminded me of another story from my mother. But I fear that it is too politically incorrect for this newspaper. I will see if I can gather the courage to use it on Secondsightblog. Meanwhile, have a Happy Christmas and, if you use any of this for light conversation, don’t blame me.