Towards the end of last week my visits to blogland were a bit thin on the ground. The reason was that we had a big party chez nous, at Valley’s End.
I am still mad enough to do most of the work myself; when the idea first comes to me , say two weeks beforehand, the whole thing seems a doddle, something I can do in between shooting off blog posts, running the household and winning the Nobel prize for services to the advancement of mangelwurzels.
The rough guest list in my head gets an airing; I also decide which kind of party it’ll be: the stand-around-with-a-drink-in-one-hand-and-a-sausage-roll-in-the-other sort, or the grab-a-plate-and-a-chair-and-if-you’re-lucky-a-table sort.
By about a week before the event the guests have been invited; unless Fido has just died or the whole family is in quarantine due to an outbreak of galloping gypsophila everybody accepts. Believe me, all you good folks living near the fleshpots of civilization, you do not turn down an invitation to any kind of jolly when even a visit to the village hall, where they are showing last year’s blockbuster movie with an interval for a choc ice on a stick while the DVD player is cranked up for the second half, is a major social event.
Now it’s time to make lists; food lists, drinks lists, nibbles lists; you count the glasses that haven’t got broken since the last party, the paper napkins left over from the charity coffee morning, the crockery and cutlery. If you are short, you borrow. From bitter experience you know whose cutlery is not dishwasher-proof and whose crockery is a family heirloom. Glasses we have plenty ourselves; the local supermarket has an everything-for-£1 aisle; several years ago they had a special consignment of practically unbreakable glasses at 3-for-a-pound, which have since done the rounds of the village for every party going; no point in more than one household having a spare box or two containing glasses, each carefully wrapped in kitchen roll and tied with a piece of string for easy transport.
Three days before the party it’s time to panic. But it’s a controlled, well-organized sort of panic. Panic often enough and it becomes routine.
The decision was to serve a-plate-and-fork dinner, cottage pie and vegetables for the main course, apple and plum tart for pudding and cheese and biscuits for any one still hungry. And believe me, my cottage pie is filling. The guests numbered twenty seven, that meant 27 portions of everything, at least, with a bit extra for unforeseen emergencies, like somebody saying, at the last minute, auntie Gwen is visiting, can she come too?
Would the Aga cope? Of course not, it never does. So cooking has to happen in stages. Stage one, two days beforehand, cook the meat part; stage two, one day beforehand, cook the potato crust and grate the cheese topping. Also, defrost the tarts and prepare the vegetables; here Beloved comes into his own, he is a mean carrot baton chopper and his peeling and bottom cross cutting of the Brussel’s sprouts is second to none.
As it is November, the party day dawns wet and windy and the river ‘is almost out’, which means, that if there’s a lot more rain during the day, half the guests won’t be able to come because they live on the wrong side of the bridge, i.e. the side away from our side of the bridge, if you get my drift. A detour of many miles would become necessary, all adding to the by now almost unbearable excitement.
Seven-ish is kick-off. There’s always the couple arriving just a touch too early, catching you swearing uncontrollably at each other because neither of you will accept responsibility for having forgotten to cook the French beans, or unwrap the cheeses or not having thought to get the alcohol-free juice from the shop, thereby turning any driver present into an instant criminal. Beloved invariably falls back on his favourite ‘but I thought you said’ routine, looking extremely hurt and innocent of all wrong-doing.
Suddenly, at 7.20 there is a huge commotion at the front and back doors, half the guests are arriving in a bunch, all divesting themselves of their wet overcoats and rubber boots in your pristine lobby and scullery respectively. You rush to welcome them, carrying piles of coats and shedding coat hangers like matchsticks from an upturned matchbox on your way to the coat cupboard. The rubber boots remain behind to trip you up as you rush to the scullery freezer to unpack the forgotten juice and shove a kilo and a half of French beans into the microwave.
From now on all is organized and orchestrated chaos, glasses have been filled beforehand, nibbles have been distributed, further guests let themselves in singly and in pairs, are greeted and swallowed up by the throng. Noise levels rise steadily, the party is up and running.
An hour later everybody is eating, you have found a quiche for the chap who has become vegetarian since you last met him and there are plenty of bottles of wine distributed around the rooms for guests to help themselves.
You have done it, you could even grab a bite and a glass yourself now, except it’s time to cut the tarts. If you don’t want fruit splodged all over the kitchen you had better load the cake plates yourself, you are probably the only one still sober enough to manipulate a cake slice and a sticky, fragile cake. Not to mention pouring the cream.
Beloved has disappeared into the mêlée, he has been very good and introduced the one couple who insist on being out of things and sitting on the sofa next to each other instead of mingling, to the hostess’ favourite guests, the trio who can be relied upon to judge any situation nicely from the initial friendly smile and warm handshake to the eventual telling of risqué anecdotes. Actually, you have made a mistake inviting the couple, this party is probably going to scar them for life.
Country people keep early hours, even on a Saturday the last guests are ready to leave by midnight; once you have locked the doors behind the last of them you survey the battlefield. There is rarely any damage, you can shut your eyes to the mess for the present, the two of you can put your feet up and wind down over a final, small drink before going to bed.
Once you’ve cleared up the next day, all that remains to be done over the next week is await the pretty thankyou notes and watch the invitations flood in.