THE DINNER PARTY
by Jennifer Bryce
A man, hunched up, balding, presumes his way through the beveled glass doors of the Windsor Hotel Grand Dining Room and, flourishing his walking cane, strides towards my table – jaw set. It must be Charles.
‘Jessica, my dear. How are you? It’s lovely to see you … after all this time. Your invitation was such a nice surprise. I brought you these. Don’t eat them all at once!’
The little box feels like chocolates. ‘At our age, it wouldn’t really matter if I did! Thank you Charles.’
‘When did I last see you, my dear? That chapel dedication?’
‘At least ten years …’
‘This is all very grand, Jessica. February … might it be your birthday?’
The freckle just below his bottom lip is still there.
‘And two other places set. The old St Margaret’s crowd?’
‘No. I don’t think you’ll know them.’
‘Oh! Well, let’s have a drink. Shall I consult the wine list?’
He looks frail as he squints at the menu. It must be sixty years since we snuck up to his college room on Wednesday afternoons and made delicious fumbling love on his narrow student bed as tennis balls thwacked on the courts below. But now I’m eighty. Maybe I’ll never again make love?
The rest of the dining room gets on with its dinner – a low hum of conversation and the gentle clink of Sheffield plate cutlery.
Now this must be Guy, on a walking frame. Poor old dear. And he’s still wearing that tweed jacket. To think, he was once my husband! To think that I once trembled at the creak of the floorboard outside my college door when he came to court me with Vivaldi and sandalwood incense. Later, things were so bitter, when he ‘coped’ with turning fifty by having an affair with his twenty-something personal assistant leaving me silently fuming at home. Yet now we can be quite civil – even friendly – having Christmas together on the Murray with our grandchildren.
I introduce him to Charles.
Milton’s late. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t invite Cecilia. We’d better start ordering, even though he hasn’t arrived yet. I signal to the waiter.
I’m glad that Charles has taken over the wine list. He cups his ear a couple of times, then agrees to the waiter’s suggestion of a shiraz that will go well with my organic chicken and should do nicely with the chateaubriand that he and Guy have chosen.
It was rude of me not to invite Cecilia, I suppose. But, with her impossible dementia, I don’t think she could cope. Milton said in his last Christmas card that they’re living on frozen meals and have Council help. I’m sure it’s very hard for him. But I never did like her. She lured him away from me when we were teaching at Brighton High. She waltzed into the staffroom and within months they were engaged – a huge square cut diamond ring. I couldn’t help feeling that it should have been mine.
Here he comes now, guided by the waiter. Ugg boots! Bad feet – or did he just forget to change his shoes? His shirt is un-ironed, and that thin tie is a left-over from the seventies.
‘Sorry I’m late, Jessica. It’s hard to get away …’
The waiters are hovering discreetly in the background, moving cutlery and retrieving frequently-dropped serviettes. Everyone seems to be getting on all right, placing their orders, trying to figure out why I’ve invited them. It’s not long before they get onto football, and then, so as to include me, that pervasive topic of the elderly; how they’d hate to be young today with a future of climate change and depleted resources.
Charles raises his glass.
‘I’d like to propose a toast to Jessica. It’s her birthday, and she looks as beautiful as she did way back at university.’
They totter to their feet. Such an effort. These, the three men in my life with whom I’ve made love.
Tears are burning behind my eyes. I must remain composed. ‘Thank you Charles. Thank you for coming. I wanted to see you all together – silly, I suppose, but my mother once told me that life is down-hill after eighty, so I’m making the most of these few remaining hours before I lurch over the precipice.’
They titter into their wine, then, taking the lead from Charles, raise their glasses, ‘To Jessica.’ It’s as though it were my twenty-first birthday. False jollity? A little, but the well-known ritual at this very moment is consoling. Don’t look ahead.
Now we’ve finished our crème brȗlée and Guy and Milton are shuffling out, chatting together – getting on quite well, they can share a cab home. Charles and I stay in our places, sipping espressos from little demi tasses – who cares about losing a few hours’ sleep when you’re eighty? I think I can hear strains of Hoagy Carmichael coming from the piano bar – Stardust.
Charles leans towards me. A waft of musk aftershave.
‘I’ve so enjoyed seeing you, my dear. I hear that the production of Blithe Spirit at the Playhouse is very good. Would you care to come?’