Jonny Lair is coming to dinner. He’ll be here in 22 minutes and I’m upstairs, at the top of the house, dabbing at my wrists with perfume.
Dabbing. That’s not quite right; I’ve almost completely doused my arms in the most expensive that Penhaligon’s had to offer and I’ve sneezed eight times in the last minute, which must have smudged my mascara. Packaged like an elixir, the liquid stands in thick glass and it’s brown, heavy and Arabian, selected by the lady behind the counter who looked like an ageing poodle. She stood there, blinking, aware of her purpose in life – of her role as an image, her beauty existing only to propagate illusion. Recently she realised that time has thus rendered her redundant. Her nose drew a shallow u shape in the air as she turned her head back and forth, making a performance of her labour as to which bottle would contain my particular aura. I considered whether her high and oscillating nose was thus in order to save her sense of smell from annihilation. It’d have been a kind and blinkered notion, of course, and I’ve never been one to give the benefit of the doubt. This woman was the epitome of the grand show. By day she was expert at picking out the tourists and window shoppers and rendering them less than. Although I knew she counted her wrinkles by night and pulled at her skin to make it tight, I made my voice clearer and higher and I straightened my back. Her complexes were evident because I possess the same and perhaps this should have endeared her to me. It should have powered through a sense of sisterhood. It didn’t. I showed her my veneers and bought the pungent, extravagant thing, just so she knew who I was. This is the first example of my necessary hypocrisy. Another is that I will smile all the way through dinner. I will pass the butter.
She’d said that it had notes of cinnamon and star anise, but it does not contain notes of cinnamon and star anise. Rather it holds in its 100ml an entire orchestra of oils and spices, a full kitchen shelf playing a cacophony with all its power. I hope that its weight will subside in time and with this thought an irritation descends – I’m reminded again of the pretence. Most of the time I’m pleasurably blind to such theatre and I consider this my innate and essential sense of self-preservation.
18 minutes left and it’s proving fiddly to put on the South Sea pearl bracelets, when the doorbell rings. Somebody is early, four floors below. I’m tense, and my fingers scrabble and scratch to connect the clips, even though I’ve not opened the front door to a guest in years.
Stan will be ironing the tea-towels now, in the utility room on the first floor, so most likely he will open it. He will know to be dressed in his smartest black and yet he’ll still wear those badly scuffed shoes. He will open the door and say, “Good evening, Sir” and, “Can I take your coat?” I’ve heard him say this regardless of whether the guest has a coat, and Miles wants Stan to go. I don’t, so I tell Miles that as Stan is a little slow society will commend us for keeping him in employment. Miles likes this answer. The truth of it is that I like having him around.
The doorbell rings for a second time and the clips attach. My pearls and perfume are in harmony, working together to discordant effect. My guests will have that familiar expression of those who are delightedly impressed at my adornments and also insanely jealous of them. It rings for a third time and I find I’m shouting. There are bells in the house, installed a long time ago and connecting all the rooms. It would be archaic to use them on the help, besides they’d mock and tinkle over any instruction. My children used to love the bells. When the house is empty I pull the chains and laugh till I cry at my memories. I will call them once dinner is done.
From the second floor comes a thump, thump, thump, descending yet somehow maintaining one volume level all the way down. Marta is loud wherever she is in the house if she’s finds herself having to do work that she doesn’t believe to be her own. I enjoy her temper, and the manner in which she dismisses Miles. Often, Marta’s vacuum cleaner is her battering ram and Miles’s legs form her obstinate obstacle. I’m continually astonished by her disregard for the one whom she knows pays her. Baffled and angry on many occasions, Miles has told me to find another housekeeper. Each time I tell him that it is only her abrupt foreign way and that she gets the job done, but if he really wants me to I will. Marta has worked for us for three years now. She will wear a black apron stretched over her bulk and she will not say “Sir” or “Madam”.
With 16 minutes to go she knocks, does not wait for a reply and is now standing at the doorway to my bedroom. “Yes, Marta?” I have not got the resolve to talk and Marta knows this. But she stands there, with her strange scowl-smile expression and a large bouquet of white flowers as though they might make the impending hours easier. I force a weak smile, however, at Marta and not at the flowers which are Miles’s predictable idea of encouragement.
Miles will be in the house now, he will have put his briefcase down and will now employ the next 15 minutes darting about the place, moving chairs, moving them back, advising the waitresses on the wine of the evening and how to pronounce their names. He spends most of these 15 minutes in this undertaking and the young girls smile, show their teeth and nod enthusiastically, apparently pleased to be learning French. If they notice that they enter the house through the servants’ door then they don’t seem to mind. They lollop along the hallway and coo at the Picasso and talk loudly about the first year of their History of Art degree. I know they want me to ask what they do, and what they want to do. I do want to ask, but I don’t.
Miles is now in my room, saying something about taxes and now something about the garden. I wonder how he can be as animated as he is about rebates and topiary. His eyebrows mirror the brisk up and down movement of his hands and I think of how the lines on his forehead are deepening before his time. They scrawl squiggles across his forehead, and when we’re in bed I trace them with my finger. He’s waving a piece of paper in his hand with all the passion of a cotton handkerchief of the past, signalling a parting; a ship pulling away and breaking hearts. I’m not interested in what he’s saying, but perhaps I’d be more so if he’d chosen his time better. As it stands he has 13 minutes left and I wish he’d go downstairs now and inflate his ego with the waiting waitresses. “A swan or a duck?” I’m not sure that the leaves will be able to craft those options distinctly anyway, but it’s nice that Miles is including me in the decision. I say that a swan would do nicely and when it grows out in a few weeks a mallard might make a perfect change. Then I add a Thank You, for the flowers. My husband smiles broadly and sincerely at me, and I tell him that I love him. He kisses me and tells me not to be so soppy, which is ridiculous as I’m never sentimental in front of him. He leaves and I throw a cushion hard at his back. He turns sharply and his face is shocked, then puzzled. Finally, faintly amused, he says “Darling, will you stop it. I’m going to talk to the waitresses.”
Jonny Lair is coming to dinner in 11 minutes. I met him once, at a wedding and it was completely surreal, being who he is. He was more than he is now, of course, but this does not massage my shoulders to dropping. Presently they’re up high enough to reach and swing my diamonds. There have been virulent rumours stemming from the divorce, which was to be expected once the media sunk their collective incisors into it. A red head in her twenties, they wrote, dribbling and snarling. I saw a photo of her in one of the papers. Her curves made me want to run my tongue on them but that was the extent of her appeal. Enough for Lair, one supposes. Having said that, it’d be fascinating to talk to him, to be able to truly get to know him. I wouldn’t ask him about Red, because only the foolish care. I would ask him how it all went so wrong, and what he thinks of my perfume.
I rise from my dressing table and every step that brings me closer to the door is accompanied by an increasingly powerful wash of insecurity. I’m leaving the honest peach of my room to sit and be suitably interesting alongside Miles’s Strangers; to negotiaate the layers and snares of appropriate social conduct. At our last dinner, I found myself talking intermittently to one of Miles’s Strangers. My conscious swooped in and out of the conversation in dolphinesque dives throughout. I so enjoyed those underwater plunges when I played with our animals, cared for our sons, invented my health and beauty products and travelled the world all over again. Still submerged, I looked up through the water and saw the face of the man I was talking to, the face of Sir Ashtead. He was grey and balding, jowl wobbling as his wet lips opened and closed. He could easily be a fish of some variety, I decided, and I conceived him to be of the salmon family on account of his pinkness. But he wasn’t a part of my waterworld, he was in the other world and he was still talking. I thought how absurd and convenient it was that he hadn’t detected my absence, until I caught myself in the mirror opposite and saw myself nodding whatever my response was with gusto. I’ve known some of Miles’s Strangers for over a decade. Tonight we will sit in a long oval shape and talk about the country’s development and more importantly, what our personal roles in the progression will be. This is how democracy will play out. Lair schooled with Samuel who’s the brother of Williams’s wife. When I think of it, I’m nauseous to think that the future of England and its situation in the world is determined around tables such as our’s.
Stan passes me on the staircase with some coats, some guests have arrived. If they are Lady Delilah Sopworth or Miss Charlotte Danson then I will go back into my room. “Who’s here, Stanley?”, I spit. He moves in and says quietly, “The women that you normally do not wish to see, Mrs Francis, and a gentleman.” Stan notices all the essential things. I am composed when I tell him that I wish to see all of Miles’s friends, and that he shouldn’t say anything like that again. I smile as I say this and I go back upstairs.
Lady Delilah Sopworth is a lady of huge material worth but counts for absolutely nothing else. This is highlighted on events such as these but the sway of her signature carries weight. She melts around the men and they are attracted to the profundity of her vacuous simpering. One knee gives way when she speaks to them and she juts her hip out. In this way she is not stupid. This will be the hip on which she will place her lacquered and sparkling hand. The other will hold the champagne flute high, so that if a reply eludes her she can draw attention to her lips by playing them on the crystal. If less arresting, Ms Charlotte Danson is perceptive and contrived and I steer clear of her. Lady Delilah Sopworth will smudge her lipstick on my crystal and Ms Charlotte Danson will arrive and ask if she may join the conversation. She will ask what they are discussing and then she will offer her own developed but plagiarised opinion. The man in the trio – hitherto simply a pawn – will notice Danson for the first time and Sopworth will pose for the remainder of the conversation, and laugh when the others do. She will not associate past identical circumstances with this one.
I am upstairs because this scenario will play out whether I am present or not. If I go down I will skirt around them, light candles and say I will join them in a minute. Also, my short time on the stairs were indicative of the pain my new shoes would bring if I’d stayed in them. The suede and velvet are delicious, though, under my fingertips. The shade of fuschia is exquisite and plays off the emerald of my dress majestically but I will have to go with the coral. The mirror shows me to be quite slim, with curves where I want them to be but which are perhaps rounder than I’d like them to be. If I raise my arms to create a crucifix I have baby wings that might one day enable me to fly away. I’m getting rid of them, six times a week. Voices below me, and the sound gives me the welcome gift of relative calm. I’d never have believed that I’d so relish anonymity in my own house. Six minutes before Lair will ring the bell. I shall open the door to him to get it out of the way.
“Tansy! Oh! Tansy, you look divine.” So Sopworth found something to say, after all. “Delilah, thank you, and thank you all for coming. How very lovely to see you.” The candles, I see with despair, have already been lit and Miles is fussing around the dining room, lighter in one hand and that paper a hostage in the other. He looks as he always looks before our dinners: constipated and twitchey. I go to him and he puts his hand on the small of my back, turns me and returns me to the circle of guests in the reception room. As we walk, Marta places a flute in my hand, which I misjudge. It is as though we’d rehearsed it, and perhaps we had. The crystal makes a wincing, crisp scream as it hits the wood and shards of glass fly high and far, breaking and reflecting light to force a myriad of rainbow colours onto the ghoulish faces.
I am in my room again, and I have set Marta to cleaning the coral. The fuschia contorts my feet but they are very beautiful. Then, I am back downstairs with all the guests bar one. The bottle is in my hands and I am spraying it at Delilah, who is giggling like a simpleton. There is something in her naivete however, which warms me to liking her. It’s perhaps the same thought that urges me to blind Danson with the spray. Instead, I hand the bottle to her and she presses too hard, too fast. Suddenly the room is thick and suffocating with the swirling disease, and there must be one minute to go.
And the doorbell rings.