Dinner party

‘OK, so it’s two gins and tonic and one white wine, one red and a water. Tap or sparkling?’ All smiles and distraction. They’re new here and he’s wondering if they want to be here, whether they weighed up the invitation in their scheme of things. They seem OK and it is only five minutes in, after all. One is very talkative, and the other has launched into an intense and quiet conversation across the room. The lights are down low and the room is filled with innumerable candles, tea-lights, Christmas tree lights and small flashing displays. It is a festive dinner
“Will I open a new one or do you have one open?”
“Use the one in the fridge door – yes. It’s a white rioja. What’re you drinking? More gin?’
‘No I haven’t decided, but probably the red.’
He busies himself with the drinks and she takes coats and the new guy is commenting on the tree, which is a suitable backdrop for the Christmas dinner – not as in turkey and the trimmings, but the respectable gathering of friends and new singletons who’ve landed in the town, without any roots. This is how they pitched it, how it was going to be. They might have had old friends and the conversation might have been more dangerous or heart-felt. They might have had just two and their exposure to truth more evident.
‘So Marie this is Jeremy. Jeremy has just moved to Wandleford and he’s renting out by the Oak. Marie is up by the church, Jeremy. She’s been here… How long have you been in Wandleford, Marie?
‘Oh, I’ve been here since the spring, but I’m hardly ever around. I travel a lot, as I’m involved in a number of international NGOs and the WHO and UNHCR, on behalf of the donors. What do you do Jeremy?’
‘Thanks. I’ll have red. I’m between jobs, I suppose you’d say. I…’
‘Hi Guys!’ That’s the familiar greeting for the sandwich filling, the friends who get on with people, who are here to ensure that the newbies are made to feel welcome, and to talk about how they grew up in Wandleford and how nice it can be out of season when the tourists have disappeared, even if it is cold and wet. They’re the sort of people who always make an effort and usually bring good gossip. They’re energised and they know what they want. These people say a lot about Wandleford before they start to talk.
‘Have one of these warm cheesy things from M and S’ He offers round the plate of warm cheesy things from M and S which are not only delicate and light, but tasty and elegant. They really have perfected the nibble. They understand their target market of time poor cash rich entertainers with standards. These are the perfect nibbles to slake their hunger in the hour when it is polite to drink a G and T, and even to accept a second, but impolite to talk shop, or to get stuck into a familiar conversation with someone you know well, when others you have never met are waiting to be introduced and not just to be served. This is the subtle time of maximising the use of one’s social skills to weigh up the dynamics. It is not a time to launch into a diatribe, or to spill the best stories, or even to ask any probing questions.
‘It’s been unbelievable. All the rain. Anyway, aren’t you about to go away somewhere hot?’
‘Yes, we’re… ‘
‘Oh Wow! That’ll be amazing. Are you looking forward to it?’
‘Yes, we’re…’
‘No, Melbourne was really full-on, but I had the most healthy experience I could have had, because I was barely in when I passed a cycle shop and went in and rented a bicycle. They had two yellow ones and a green one, so I rented the green one and while I was in there, I had a call from a friend I haven’t seen in ages who lives down town and he needed someone to make up his team at basket-ball, so the guy in the shop showed me how to get there and it was right across town, so I got on the bike and played basket-ball, and I was jet lagged, but it was great.’
‘Nigeria mostly. Have you ever been?’
‘No, I do worry about being attacked, but I’ve been many times and you get used to the corruption and…’
‘Do you think so? I never found that myself but I really enjoyed…’
‘I’m home for two weeks for Christmas and catch up with my friends and sleep and it’s lovely. No. I’m not there any more. I’m living in the South, and I’m working for this really great agency and I’m traveling a lot.’
‘Yes, I heard about it. It sounds fantastic…’
The nibbles are hoovered up and the fire in the sitting room glows white hot. The three parallel conversations are starting to blur into one intermingled cascade of words.
‘Brazil would be great… but they overcharge for medicines which cost a fraction of …I know. She’s always been like that… We’re planning to go walking in the jungle and sleeping in hammocks…. I’ll check on my database about the malarial strain and the best… no, they’re not as excited as all that but Ellie is only two… so he wrote his car off in a flood last week, and now they’re going to have to drive up north in her little runabout, and he hates being in a small car… We’ve booked a resort hotel by the Mekong…. Don’t forget the bread!”
It would be overly positive to say that the conversation flowed. It is fair to say that there was little time when any one of the participants was at a loss for words or for someone to listen to, or not. It was easy to seem like you were listening, to smile and nod and make pleasantries without actually processing anything. He looks at his hands while he talks. She looks you in the eye. He likes to push a forkful of food into his mouth while listening and she is staring straight at his mouth as he enunciates. Some ground is covered. Secrets shared. Insecurities aired. Jokes told, gossip spread. No challenges are laid down. Nobody firmly disagrees, because no-one cares deeply about the statements of others. Nobody is belittled intentionally, and little is misconstrued, but it may be hard to remember what is said when all is said and done.
The buffalo mozzarella balls, avocado slices in lemon juice and halved cherry tomatoes in vintage balsamic syrup and fresh basil have been followed by the great spectacle of the layered Chicken Fataya with its crisp pitta triangles and tomato puree, chickpeas and soaked basmati with dollops of Greek-style natural yoghurt, coriander and pine-nuts, and topped off with home-made chocolate brownies (the subject of some competitive banter in the kitchen during the afternoon), fruits of the forest and whipped cream. Not to mention the Baklava from Lidl. The wine has flowed, mostly down the gullets of the diners, but some into the recently purchased golden table runner. The tea has been made, because coffee will rouse the diners when they want to be subdued, and there is a harmony, replete with platitudes and shared jokes, with the mild one-upmanship of story-telling and a sense of social equilibrium. Everyone sits back and enjoys their performance, their self-control and affability. Some are still trying to finish their stories, and others are looking expectantly at their partners in view of the winding up and shipping out signals which are sent and received. It is the safe space between rushing and dawdling, between the acceptable and unacceptable stages of consumption, between muzzy headed and beligerent. It is the witching hour.
The goodbyes happen quickly, as two rush to get back for the puppy they’re babysitting which has probably chewed their furniture and crapped on the hearth rug, and the other two share a ride back to their singledom. Then the cleaning up starts and, with three pairs of hands, is finished double-quick time and only minor resentments over the washing up roles.

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