The Dinner Party – a short story

By Gabrielle Blondell

Anna Florin nodded her satisfaction as each guest took their seat. She had gathered the most interesting of people, the artist, the neurosurgeon, the novelist, the musician, a collection who needed to seem as if money didn’t matter by giving it away. She smiled at them in turn for she was the socialite, the person bred to gather such people and nudge them toward each other so they may learn the significance of other people’s lives. In her fashion, she continued her visual reconnoitre of the table until she came to the empty seat beside her daughter.   Anna raised an eyebrow at Madeline, and skipped her gaze back to the empty chair. Madeline shrugged.

“So where is he, this boyfriend of yours?”

“He’ll be here after he has fed the animals.”

“What animals?”

Madeline shook her head slowly, a gesture she inherited from her dead father. “Don’t be obtuse, mother. You know very well about the animals.”

Anna did know. She could not evade the topic on any of the occasions she and Madeline’s country vet boyfriend were forced by politeness to converse.

Anna continued her survey beyond Bernard’s empty chair (or Barnyard, as she had come to think of him). She was happy to see one her oldest friends, Angela Downey, her musician. Anna caught her eye and they smiled at each other like the reunited school friends they were.

“How is Thomas?” Anna asked.

“He’s dying dear,” said Angela.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Yes, well that’s the way it is, isn’t it?”

Anna nodded. Thomas had been ailing for twelve months. There came a point when the mortality of it was unavoidable. She leaned across the table and squeezed Angela’s hand. It does end, she thought to say, but didn’t, since the ending was the problem.

She left Angela to her grief and moved on to Nicholas Blair. He was her token novelist, her mark for the evening, just recently over from London and ripping through the younger Sydney women like a benevolent virus. Only her own daughter appeared immune.

“It is lovely of you to come Mr Blair,” Anna said.

“The honour is mine.” He dipped his head and shoulders in an odd seated bow.

Anna wondered whether all Englishmen treated older women like the Queen and, if they did, how strange.

Beside Nicholas Blair was Everett Stuart-Jespersen, a neurosurgeon, who had managed to isolate different emotions in the brain. Anna, while interested, was unsettled by the origin of love nestling up to the amygdala. Anna felt love’s origin to be in the chest. It was there she felt its rip, its scream, its sense of abandonment.

“You look lovely tonight, Anna.”

Anna sniffed the air and rotated toward Eddie Falconer, her artist. He was pulling out his chair beside her and perching there, his thin bottom barely touching its seat, at the ready to launch to someone’s aid. She’d seen it many times. He was an expert at the manoeuvre required to unblock airways, a fine practitioner of mouth to mouth resuscitation, heart massage and a deft hand with a carving knife and fork should the previous opportunities not present themselves.

“Thank you dear and you look very suave,” Anna answered him, reaching for and squeezing his hand under the table. She and Eddie were exactly the same age, born August 12, 1958 at 12:15 am and were aware of the exactness of their ages due to mothers with horoscope addictions. They were also children of rich men, who knew and liked each other better than they knew or liked their children. They had discussed, but not seriously, whether women with an interest in horoscopes were destined to be attracted to men with no interest in family life. Still, this shared date and time of theirs had proved itself resilient beyond a quirk. Anna squeezed Eddie’s hand under the table once again and then released it to address her guests.

“Thank you for coming. I know how busy your lives are, but I am faced with a difficulty. It seems the homeless of Sydney will die this winter without adequate clothing and warm meals. I cannot allow this and I need you to help me.”

Anna watched their faces. Those with experience in her method, like Stuart-Jespersen and Angela Downey, did not flinch, but her novelist, Nicholas Blair did. Anna stared openly at him, while he came to terms with the dark and thorny pit he had fallen into. Anna waited patiently, while he asked the silent question, “Can I refuse my host her very personal request or should I write a cheque and bounce it later?” She held his gaze as he worked his way through it and just when she sensed he meant to dupe her, she widened her eyes and thought of the homeless.

#

“Good evening everyone!”

Anna was so startled she jumped and her bad knee knocked painfully against the underside of the dining table. Barnyard stood at the entrance to the room shaking off his tweed coat and dropping it onto the sideboard.

“Hello, everyone. I’m so sorry I’m late. A new foal, you know.”

Bernard bent and kissed Madeline in that protective way he had with her, his hand resting reassuringly in the centre of her back.

Anna cleared her throat. “I must introduce Bernard Helmsalt, Madeline’s new boyfriend.”

Bernard sat with what Anna imagined was a flurry of horse hair.

“Partner, Mum.”

“Pardon?”

“Bernard’s my partner, not my boyfriend and we have been together now for three years.”

“Yes, I see,” Anna said, clasping for Eddie’s hand under the table. Their fingers curled together like twins.

Madeline addressed the whole table. “Bernard runs his own veterinary practice out in Windsor.

“Yes,” Bernard said. “I tend to favour large animal care. I’m rather interested in horses to be precise. Did you know they are among the most difficult animals to anaesthetise? They can simply give up the ghost.” Bernard nodded around the table emphatically.

Anna’s attention slipped from him to Nicholas Blair. The writer appeared recovered and careless of her previous request.

“Don’t scratch dear,” Eddie said.

Anna looked down, the prickling on her forearms had returned and become unbearable.

Soup arrived, carried by hired staff dressed in black. It was a spicy laksa. It was always a laksa. Anna found the heat stimulated her guests’ chequebooks.

Nicholas Blair bent to his bowl and took a hearty sip. Anna watched his forehead bead with sweat and turn red.

“It’s hot,” he said, spluttering into his napkin.

“Yes,” Anna said.

“So,” said Bernard, “have you done any work on animals?” Madeline’s boyfriend was addressing Dr Stuart-Jerspersen.

“No, I haven’t, but I find the horse’s difficulty with anaesthetics interesting. Why do you suppose that is?” the doctor asked.

“Well, there are certain physiological reasons of course, but I tend to favour their temperament as a cause. You know, they are built for flight, so highly strung.”

Stuart-Jespersen nodded. “Hmmm, its interesting isn’t it?”

“Oh yes,” said Bernard, as if nothing could be more so.

The wait staff entered the room and removed the soup bowls. Anna would have liked to check the level of Nicholas Blair’s bowl, but could not arrive at a reason to do so. Instead, she scratched her arms again.

The duck confit was served immediately. Anna saw no reason to dally between courses. Eddy poured glasses of wine for everyone and they bent to their meals.

“Ducks are highly intelligent animals,” said Bernard around his mouthful of the creature.

“Yes, I’ve read that,” said Blair. “I was writing a short story a while back and it came up.”

“You write about animals?” Bernard looked in a fit of excitement.

“Not really. Sometimes there is an animal or two, but usually only in the background.”

“Right. Right then.” Bernard returned to devouring his duck.

“I’m surprised you are not a vegetarian,” said Angela to Bernard. “You seem very taken with creatures of all sorts.”

Anna smirked. She couldn’t help it. She looked to Eddie to find him smirking also.

“Oh no. It’s in our nature to eat flesh, isn’t it. A matter of survival.” Bernard stared beyond them all to the chandelier, wisdom incarnate.

Anna scratched her arms once more.

“Mum, are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m fine, dear. It’s just my allergies flaring up.”

“Oh allergies.” Bernard nodded sagely. “Yes, as a vet, I’ve had my fair share of those. It’s an occupational hazard, I’m afraid.”

To Anna, Bernard looked fearful of nothing. She frowned into his wide, expectant face, hoping that was enough to end the conversation.

“Have you tried antihistamines?” Bernard asked.

“Yes, of course. I try to take as few pharmaceutical drugs as I can, Bernard.”

“Yes, I understand. At your age, you do have to be more careful.”

#

“So Mr Blair,” she said at the first break in conversation, “I imagine your writing includes issues of social justice from time to time?”

The writer propped, but recovered nicely. “Not often, Ms. Florin. I find fiction can be tested by too much… (Here, he searched for a word)…moralising.”

“I see.”

“Best to get on with it, I say,” said Bernard.

“What do you mean?” asked Nicholas Blair.

Bernard stretched and then placed his arm across the back of Madeline’s chair in an unconscious dramatisation of date-night at the cinema. “I’m an action lover, myself. Got to keep a person interested.”

“Hmmm,” said Blair. “I do understand what you mean. I think its through action that the emotion comes.”

“Right. Right.” Bernard nodded enthusiastically, but the nod gave way to head shaking. “No Nick, I guess I need help with that one.”

Blair leaned across the table, fully engaged now. “Well, let’s just say I put the birth of your foal into a novel, right?”

“Yes, yes?”

“Well, I would do that for a particular purpose. Perhaps I wanted to work on the character, so the reader would see him as a caring sort or maybe if I want to work on theme, where I need something after a sadder section to show that life goes on no matter what….that might work, don’t you see?”

“Yes, I do see, Nick! That’s very clever. It’s like you are pulling the reader this way and that and they don’t really know it.”

“That’s it, Bernard. In fact, I rather think I could use a scene like that in my latest book.” Blair smiled excitedly at Bernard. “Do you think I might be able to come along with you on your visits before I go back home?”

“I would love it, Nick!” Bernard turned to Madeline. “Did you hear that sweetheart? Nick’s coming along.”

Madeline laughed, “Yes I heard. I think its marvellous.”

Anna sighed deeply and turned to the doctor.

#

For the remainder of the main course, Anna found herself in conversation with Stuart-Jespersen and Angela. Mostly she listened. It seemed Angela had developed a keen sense for the medical since poor Thomas’s illness and she was following along nicely with the doctor’s explanation of brain imaging. Anna tried, but she was not herself. She grasped for Eddie’s hand under the table, but found a space. Eddie had pulled his chair closer to converse with Nicholas Blair. The wait staff returned to remove the used plates and Anna noticed Bernard’s was quite clean. She wondered whether he had licked it.

“Eddie dear. Perhaps you would like to show Dr Stuart-Jespersen the collection before desert?”

Eddie turned to her and Anna imagined he was reluctantly pulling himself away from a devastatingly riveting conversation. “Perhaps you could take Bernard with you. He seems quite a supporter of the arts these days.”

“Of course, darling. Of course.”

“Pardon? What was that?” Bernard’s narcissism rallied at the sound of his own name.

“Eddie is showing off the art, Bernard. He wondered if you might like to come while I have a chat to Mr Blair,” Anna said. “One of the Nolans has a horse in it, I’m sure.”

Bernard considered her invitation, but then shook his head and addressed Eddie. “I don’t think I will, thank you. I’m happy here.”

Madeline stood instead. “I think I’d like a walk through. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them with Eddie.” She bent down and placed a kiss on Bernard’s head. “I’ll be back for dessert though, sweetie.”

Anna shrunk from their naturalness with each other. She saw in their movements a flow not found in relationships on trial and she felt the widening gap between herself and Madeline. She turned to watch Eddie leave the room. Perhaps there was a time when they could have shared a more romantic love, but it had passed.

#

“So tell me Mr Blair, what causes do you support back home?” Anna asked, her eyes on the white tablecloth before her, her hands smoothing it and repositioning her dessert spoon. Once all was in order, she looked up and straight into his handsome face.

“I like to give to the animal shelters, myself,” said Bernard, as if this were of interest.

“I can imagine that,” Blair said, nodding thoughtfully. “I don’t give so much as participate,” he said to Anna.

“Really?”

“Oh yes. I often volunteer at my local soup kitchen.” He sat back in his chair and placed his hands flat on the table in front of him drawing his outstretched fingers toward himself.

“I see,” said Anna, whose interest was not in participation. “But where does the soup come from?”

“What do you mean?” Blair rolled his hands over in appeal.

“I mean –.” But the wait staff had returned with creme brûlée and pistachio nuts.

“Oh lovely,” said Bernard as his portion was placed before him. “I’m such a fan. It’s scrumptious, isn’t it — the old creme brûlée?

“So Mr Blair. I was saying about the soup at your soup kitchen. Where does it come from?” Anna asked, but it was difficult to concentrate above the sounds of Bernard tap tap tapping the crust of his brûlée.

“Oh yes. That’s right,” Blair said.   “Yes, I see. Without the soup…well.”

“Yes, my point exactly. I was wondering, if you might give a little to the unfortunate of this city, which has so warmly welcomed you?” In more ways than one, Anna added to herself, on behalf of the young women of Sydney.  It was nicely done, she thought, and Anna felt her strength return to her.  That was when the gurgling began.

Nicholas Blair jumped to his feet and pointed wildly at Bernard. “Fuck, I think he’s choking.”

Bernard’s face was indeed the very same shade of puce as her sitting room cushions. He clawed frantically at his neck. His mouth was agape.

“Don’t you think we should help him? I’ll get the doctor.” Blair stood and left the room.

Anna remained seated. It was over now. She knew it. There was no recovering the moment with Blair. As Bernard thrashed across from her, she picked up her dessert spoon, cracked the thick layer of toffee and dug into the softness beneath.

Gabrielle Blondell ©  2016

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