Hello, lovely to see you, how are you. You are looking well”.
Thank you, I am well. Are you well?”
Thank you for coming, may I take your coat?”
Greetings are effusive. Kisses are exchanged. The pre-lunch, drinks and nibbles, 85th birthday party is in full swing when we arrive, or should I say, gently swaying; ‘swing’ is quite definitely the wrong word; most of the guests are very elderly and their swinging days are long over.
“Would you like a drink?” The attractive dark haired women asking is the host’s middle-aged daughter. “What would you like? We have wine, sherry, juice?” She raises a black-painted, inquisitive eyebrow.
Glass in hand we enter the birthday room. The hostess, the birthday girl, is sitting in a comfortable armchair, looking frail. There’s so little left of her, you feel that the gentlest breeze could blow her over. Or perhaps her thin body would allow unhindered passage through. She smiles a watery old woman’s smile, her manners are still intact. “Thank you for coming”, she quavers, “ I’m afraid I can’t get up, I don’t have enough blood to the brain, I get dizzy. I have been told that I must stay in this chair.” First things first, ill-health is a very important topic at these gatherings.
I can hardly believe that this is the same woman who, ten years ago, ‘volunteered me’ to serve on a very difficult and unpleasant committee and, even more astounding, that I let her bully me into accepting the office.
“Happy Birthday, my dear”, I say, bending over her, receiving and returning a delicate embrace. “Glad to see you looking so well”, I lie and kiss her papery yellow cheek. Eighty-five is not an extreme age in these parts, but some weather less well than others.
As I look around I recognize many other faces, nod to them and exchange “how are yous”. If you can’t see their spouse, you ask after his/her well-being too. Unless you are quick at turning and politely smiling at the next in line you will receive up-to-the-minute information on the reason why the other half couldn’t be here. “He’s had the operation, but his knee is still bothering him, he finds standing very difficult.” I know what she means. “I’m sorry to hear that, do give him my love, won’t you.”
Platters and platitudes are being handed round in equal measure. I help myself to a mini meatball and choke on the spiciness. I search the area round my feet for a sign of the small white terrier whom I caught earlier stealing a cocktail sausage, including stick, from a plate left on the lower shelf of a serving table. He is back, his wet black nose exploring other delicacies. Shooing him away, and lifting the plates out of his reach, I surreptitiously drop my spicy meatball. Now it’s his turn to cough and splutter.
I‘ve done the required circuit of the room and find a space on the sofa next to two ladies in animated conversation. With a bright smile I interrupt them, they turn to me and very soon we are discussing the
rapidly ageing population of Valley’s End and the consequences this has for the social life of the village.
“Social life used to be so much livelier”, we say; “when we first came here - most of us at this gathering are incomers - there were parties all the time, we were always entertaining or being entertained; remember those lovely concerts we had in the summer ?” We remember them well. “Of course, we are all so much older now and, frankly, I don’t have the energy”, my neighbour on the sofa says. We decide there and then that we must do something, that we must organize a party where everyone invited is asked to bring a plate and a bottle. The ladies look to me expectantly. Our house and garden are of generous size and I have had many such parties in the past. “Of course”, I say hastily, “winter has been so awful this year, the roads were so bad, nobody thought to do very much. Besides, these endless grey skies hanging over us these past two weeks have made everybody feel miserable and depressed”. The danger is not over yet, so I excuse myself and make for the dining room. I have two major dinner parties planned during the next two weeks and can’t possibly have a bring-a-plate event as well.
I make a mental note to review the situation later on, in April or May maybe.
The dining room is witnessing important business, by the look of things. Six or seven men are standing in a circle in the middle of the room, their faces serious, earnestly plotting parish politics. All of them have reached the end of long years of dedicated service; they find it hard to relinquish the reins and let younger men take over. As they are all conservative in outlook and political preference, they might be discussing matters of national concern. The cabal breaks up as I enter; I seem to have a knack today for getting in the way of established conversations. They know that I am one of these wishy-washy liberals, my opinions are definitely the wrong sort here; besides, these are gentlemen of a bygone age, serious talk must be kept away from ‘ladies’. The group breaks up, several leave the room to mingle. Others turn to me politely. Well-bred, old-world charm takes over until the ensuing flirtatious banter makes my teeth itch and I welcome the attention of a pompous old chap, an ex army colonel, who has heard that I mess about on this internet business and write stuff for other people to read. “What do you want to do that for”, he barks, “and what have you got to say anyway? That you go for walks with the dog?” “Something like that”, I reply. “Does anybody want to read that sort of thing?” He isn’t finished with me yet. “Oh, one or two”, I say. “Harrumph, what a lot of nonsense, if you ask me”. He is probably too polite to tell me what he really thinks. I beam my brightest smile at him. His eyes narrow and frown, he is clearly cross with me and a little unnerved.
I move on into the kitchen where I just catch the hosts’ daughter, granddaughter and niece discussing family matters; another member of the family recently confided to me that problems over an inheritance had caused bad feelings; the slightly forced smiles greeting me tell me that I am interrupting unresolved mild hostilities. Wrong place, wrong moment, again. I am not going to get it right today.
I give up, put my empty glass on the kitchen table and leave the room. At any rate, the party is almost over. I thank the hostess, hug her good-bye, wave to everybody else and make for the door. “Eleven to One” means eleven-thirty to one-thirty, it’s one-forty now and we can go. On the way out I see the one person with whom I would have loved to have a longer chat, catch her eye and we stand in the open door, blocking the way, and make a quick date for coffee.
If we discuss the party at all, we will say how nice it was to see everybody again and how well the hostess looked, considering.