Dining Rooms – what is their primary function?

A Twitter exchange leads me to offer this extract from ‘Word on the Street’, in which Shona has to cope with a Dinner Party…

Fenella’s husband Jimmy was very freckly. His hands, face and neck were so thickly covered that I had to distract myself from wondering if he was that freckly all over. I’d arrived first and when Gloria flung open the door to let them in, I had to back into the hat stand and a vast urn full of pieces of grass. Jimmy followed Fenella into the house, leaning over to grab the hat stand before it fell, and Gloria showered them in words. Fenella matched her and raised the stakes. Jimmy had a long-suffering half-smile in place and made no attempt to answer anything Gloria said to him. The word scrum moved through the hallway towards the kitchen, where Gloria struck up a refrain about how little effort she’d put into the bœuf en croûte. I stayed behind in the living room with Jimmy and he said, ‘So how do you know Gloria?’

‘I … we worked together.’

‘Tim, my stepson, was otherwise engaged,’ he said. My face went very hot. Then I had to show that I was relieved rather than disappointed, but of course I went overboard and it was less convincing that Gloria’s claim that she’d thrown the dinner together in about twelve minutes.

Minister Mike was also otherwise engaged and this challenged the nonchalance of the bœuf a bit because the croûte was drying out fast. By the time he arrived, I’d eaten all the nibbles and wanted to pass away quietly when Jimmy made a gentle witticism about my appetite. Gloria announced his entrance into the living room, twitching with the urgency of moving us all through to the dining room. I was hoping fervently there wouldn’t be a hatch. I can just about cope with the existence of a dining room, but a hatch tips me over the edge. Anyway, I was full of Vietnamese Rice Crackers and Kashmiri Mix, headachey from sherry and desperate for a can of Sprite and a lie-down. Minister Mike’s nose hair was less intrusive than it had been. Perhaps he’d clipped it a bit using one of those tools from the Sunday supplements. He wore, rather unsettlingly, a cravat. I had real difficulty not staring at it because I couldn’t remember ever seeing one in the flesh.

Gloria’s dining room had no hatch. It was a Victorian museum. The table cloth had been fiercely ironed and mats were aligned with the shadows of the folds. In the centre was a crystal bowl filled with water, coloured glass nuggets and rose petals (these had absorbed a lot of water during the delay and the effect wasn’t quite what it might have been). Fenella raved appropriately while we hovered for instructions on seating arrangements and Gloria made hand gestures indicating her lack of any forethought on this and then told us where to sit. My role as gooseberry was highlighted now because although Gloria had clearly shifted things around when Tim failed to show, you could see he’d been supposed to sit between me and her. As it was, I was marooned in the centre at one side, facing Fenella and Jimmy, with Gloria and Minister Mike at the far ends. Minister Mike was positioned for optimum drink-pouring duty and Gloria stood at her end plunging murderous instruments into the bœuf and pursing her lips about the croûte shattering everywhere. It looked like flakes of dry skin scattered over the tablecloth and some claret-coloured meat juice got splashed about too so it was all a bit visceral. Fenella jumped up and found a stain remover spray in the kitchen. I gazed at the water feature in the middle, wondering how I would manage to swallow any bœuf or croûte with a bellyful of vegetable oil from the nibbles.

Gloria had an electric cupboard on wheels from which she produced: brussel sprouts with flecks of bacon and seeds; matchsticked carrots in butter and sugar; miniature peas with twigs; and the nicest, crispiest roast potatoes I had ever seen. Not a prawn in sight. Fenella raved about all of it, collectively and individually, talking so much she managed to deconstruct the contents of her plate without eating any of it.

When Gloria declared it was time for pud and refused to let anyone help her clear away, Fenella got distracted for a moment in the scuffle and Jimmy began on an anecdote, directed exclusively at Minister Mike. I had to admire the glass nuggets again and try not to burp.

‘… I said fine: go through via our drive and up the lane. Take out anything on four legs, they’ll give you a medal. It wasn’t until half an hour later when we were happily gutting one in the back garden and a chopper starts hovering –’

Minister Mike looked briefly uncomfortable. ‘Joking aside,’ he said, ‘the cull isn’t a public sport.’ He made a politically ambivalent hand gesture. ‘Although rabbits I’ll make an exception for. There’s one who treats my garden like a salad bar – ’

‘What’s all this I hear about choppers?’ shrieked Gloria, sweeping in with an acre of tiramisu in her arms.

‘Six armed police officers,’ said Jimmy, and glugged his wine. Minister Mike shook his head and sat back in his chair.

‘She’d rung 999,’ said Fenella. ‘This woman. She said –’

‘We don’t know that it was a woman,’ said Jimmy. ‘What they told us first was –’

‘Well no, it was a woman.’ Fenella moved things about on the table to make space for the industrial pudding. Jimmy sighed. ‘No, no,’ said Fenella. ‘You tell it. It’s your story.’ She smiled at Gloria, and Jimmy circled the tip of his finger around the rim of his wine glass. Gloria handed me a horse’s portion of pudding, laughed and said, ‘What a hoot.’

‘Someone had rung the fuzz, anyway,’ said Fenella, receiving her pudding graciously.

‘Right,’ said Minister Mike. ‘Fair play.’ He gave Jimmy a man’s smirk.

‘They said there were reports of an angry-looking man coming down the lane wielding a gun!’

‘Six armed officers, two cars and a chopper!’ shrieked Fenella, folding her tiramisu in on itself.

‘Good Lord!’ said Gloria, and we all spooned pudding into our mouths in silent acknowledgement that this police response to reports of a gunman had been entirely unwarranted.

‘Anyway,’ said Jimmy, his voice thick with coffee cream, ‘it all ended well, with Graham arranging to go shooting with one of the policemen next weekend.’

Minister Mike guffawed and Gloria tinkled. Fenella put one hand over her face and slapped the table with the other. For want of anything else to do, I shovelled tiramisu into my face and wondered when I could leave.

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