Now that autumn is fully with us there is no longer any danger of having to find an excuse to turn down invitations to picnics. Gone are the days when tables and chairs were arranged in the shade of trees, if you were lucky, or in the full sun under an inadequate umbrella, if you were not. Sitting under trees in the garden brought you the added interest of bits of tree or a large variety of bugs falling down on you, while flying insects bit and stung you. Roasting in the sun is a particular pastime indulged in by the natives of these shores; at the first hint of a sunny day, Beloved will take off as many items of clothing as he can get away with, while still remaining decent, and spend all the hours of the day basking in the rarely glimpsed rays of the fireball in the sky. Siesta? Whatever for?
Picnicking close to home, in your own garden or the garden of a near neighbour will at least allow those squeamish souls who prefer to stay under cover during the hottest part of the day to find solace indoors; offering to do some washing up or freshen the salad bowl are accepted gladly and the prospect of a confidential gossip out of earshot of the party on the lawn will always find several takers.
Much, much worse is the summer picnic away from hearth and home, the kind of picnic which requires a general to organise and an army of foot soldiers to execute.
You set off in a convoy of cars, having spent the previous day assembling most of the food and drink to be taken. You get up early to cut sandwiches and make salads on the day.
The hour of departure arrives and you find that several parties are missing, aunt Edna and George and Kate are late; they finally turn up in a huff of bad temper; somebody got the time wrong and George spent half an hour searching for his favourite bottle opener.
However, you drive off and get there, only one car losing contact with the others; but, thanks to modern technology and mobile phones, which miraculously stayed on signal, this car is soon shepherded off the wrong turn and away from the motorway and back into the fold, delaying the start of proceedings by no more than a bearable forty-five minutes.
The picnic spot has been chosen in advance, an isolated clearing halfway up a hillside, reached by a bumpy track through a wood. When Dennis and Jacky first found the spot several years ago, they raved about it; the views were spectacular, they said, nobody ever went there and the air was fresh and clean.
Paradise, they said.
Dennis and Jacky are almost certain that the spot you finally arrive at is the one they chose all those years ago, but what is this? The view down the valley has turned into a huge new housing estate, partly ready and partly still being built; you have an uninterrupted view of JCBs, trench diggers and bulldozers, trundling up and down, as well as a camp site of caravans and pre-fabs to house the workers.
However, nobody complains; you assure each other that this couldn’t have been foreseen and that you won’t let this setback spoil your picnic. You spread blankets and cushions on the grass and bring out the picnic baskets, flasks, bottles, bowls and plastic utensils. Kevin and Mary have forgotten their share of the food; Mary admits it is sitting on the kitchen counter at home where she left it in full view, to make sure she wouldn’t leave it behind. You all laugh gaily, say ‘typical Mary and Kevin’; assuring each other that there is enough for everybody even so.
Sitting on the ground is not easy, stones dig into your bottom and you need a hand to prop yourself up. You bite into a sandwich with a squishy filling, egg mayonnaise, say, and half the filling shoots out and slithers down your pretty top.
George, ever the gentleman, reaches over and wipes the goo off you with his napkin, upsetting the open bottle of red wine propped up precariously between you; the wine which does not end up in the bowl of limp lettuce lands in Aunt Edna’s lap. Aunt Edna is elderly and unable to get out of the way quickly enough, but she does manage to swing her knees sideways, tipping up the dish holding chicken drumsticks, which were deliciously crisp when you packed them, and causing them to roll off the blanket in all directions.
There are a few giggles at this, but the laughter is just a touch strained by now.
Tea and coffee are poured, both tepid, the tea badly stewed. Slices of fruit cake are handed out and eaten quickly, before the army of ants, which has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, can get to the loaf.
The men make a half-hearted attempt to lie back, Dennis, embarrassed at not having checked out the location before persuading the others to choose it for their summer picnic, even raises his arms and puts his hands under his head, saying ‘this is the life’, but his remark falls rather flat. Although they would all bite off their tongue rather than admit publicly that the picnic has been a bit of a disaster, each one of them secretly vows ‘never again’.
I think I’ll start practising my excuses for next year now.