By Request

After breakfast I was about to ready myself when Jean came. A later appointment had been brought forward and, so, her visit to me. Should she take her shoes off? “Are they difficult to put back on?” No. She wouldn’t eat or drink, because slimming. Par for the course. Unwontedly though she didn’t sit on the corner of the bed but perched on a stool, perfectly willing for me to go on with my preparation. I considered that might militate against the attention I gave to my invited guest and if she, a friend, didn’t mind me in déshabillé, nor did I and said as much, sitting myself down in the central chair facing her. Jean talked of a friend she hadn’t seen for years but that they picked up easily enough, which I took to refer also to us who don’t see each other often yet were talking at ease. She went on to her search for success, however that might be defined, assuming I did as much as she in its pursuit, citing a friend of hers who’d had loads of illustrations for other people’s books, was published but making no money from it. Publishers didn’t go for fifty year olds who’d trained to negotiate terms but for the young, the better to rip them off. And what had I been doing? I couldn’t think of anything except going back with John to make sure he didn’t do anything silly, self-harming and self-destructive, before going on with him to his PIP interview, Personal Independence Payment, when he dragged me in to be witness to the truth he didn’t eat much despite being fat, because of his drinking he hadn’t told Probation about. I could testify he’d had two drinks that morning and when he visited me would bring a bottle of wine he drank before going on to mine but that that was better than his shoplifting and taking heroin and crack. John dragged me out before I went on to marijuana. Jean gave me her mob no.

After she left, I shaved and dressed. Michele came, like Jean, with a card, some gluten-free shortbread, a box with a tumbler engraved with John 80th on one of its parabolically curved sides and a miniature Jack Daniels in it, plus two books by Jeffrey Archer I now must read though she kindly said if I didn’t want to I could give to John who came while I was feeding Michele the salad of caramelised carrot and fennel on corn couscous I’d made for her but with french and not mung beans. He came bearing gifts: a watch, a black zipped hoodie and steps to replace my use of a shoogly stool as well as a card. She doesn’t drink. I gave her a pineapple juice and soda. “My favourite drink!” She’d told me it was. John had a slice of savoury picnic cake I’d baked, mistakenly adding a second layer of crushed Jersey potatoes before inserting the filling I simply put on top beneath the cherry tomatoes to be charred, with its herb dressing, and greedy Michele had some of that too. I had a bit of both. She made a gesture of taking some champagne with us I added to on bringing out the caviar I doled out with a half-teaspoon, topping it as wanted with sour cream, on pieces of melba toast I’d browned from a gluten-free cob all night in a slow oven. John went on munching the toast. Michele had talked of other things but the relationship to her dead mother was the final refrain. She left before her parking time ran out.

There was a hiatus of John and me, neither of us much minding if that was it. I danced to Eminem for him.

Dan came with the book he’d published I wasn’t in, a neo-decadent anthology. I liked that his hair matched his cinnamon shirt. He had a wedge of the vegetarian pie I’d made of herbs whisked with egg, feta cheese crumbled over before the baking. I told him my book was coming out the end of the month and Jacyntha, the publisher, intended coming to the party. Had he met her before? He hadn’t. “It must’ve been a dream.” He asked if I was writing anything. Nothing apart from reviews. He wasn’t much into writing himself. He had some of the savoury cake. Since I’d been born at five, and it was shortly after, I lit the candles arranged on two cakes, one chocolate, the other not, in the shape of an eight or infinity and a nought. Dan made a remark I had to have them all ablaze before I’d blow them out, with a breath while making a wish. I brought out the good champagne, a Taittinger, to go with that and followed through by giving Dan a taste of the caviar. He brought up his book again John said I could afford to buy. “It’s a gift!” Dan said. I liked the cover and put it with the Jeffrey Archer.

Quentin started wiping his feet on the mat I knew enough about to ignore while attending to his drink, the last of the champagne, except to shout through, “Quentin’s a vampire somebody should ask in.” There was no response. Handing Quentin his drink stopped the incessant foot-wiping. Dan rushed to greet him. Later I glanced at his feet to see if he’d taken off his shoes and didn’t think he had so far as I could judge, quite unable to distinguish a lizard skinned shoe from a like-patterned sock. He had a quarter wedge of the pie like Dan and like Dan a slice of savoury cake, of cake, provided there were no almonds in it – there weren’t. “I’m only allergic to almonds” - and spoonful of caviar. I giggled at the wording of his card, not sure how ironical he was being in its fulsomeness, written on a train to Hounslow.

John was rolling a spliff. I may have mentioned he was in line for a job giving £125,000 a year. What did they think of that then? Dan said he wasn’t rich. “Dan’s not rich,” I added to what I knew of Dan, taken from the horse’s mouth. Quentin’s mention of an influx later made me wonder if he was countering a disappointment I didn’t have at the fewness of numbers or knew of one coming. Joe? It seemed he was expecting Dominika but I explained she hadn’t been asked; she’d asked herself to last year’s and hadn’t come. I had asked Joe again, despite his not coming to one before. We went out to smoke on the balcony. Quentin guessed the caviar cost £70. Nowhere near. I forbore to brag. I may have prompted John to talk of the coming interview for the job of reviewing prisoners for the Royal College of Psychiatrists. His monologue was going on too long. I thought he should give space for the two others to speak. They were adults who could fend for themselves without my intervention. Dan asked him, “What are your thoughts about it?” which I didn’t think helpful since that was what John was already doing, giving his thoughts, at length, and went on doing, quite oblivious to Dan’s interjection. “Once he starts,” I said to Dan, “he doesn’t stop until he’s finished.” Fiona arrived. “You don’t drink,” I said. “What!” she said, contemplating an evening of not drinking. “I do drink.” A delivery of wine shortly followed. “Does anybody have two fives for a ten?” I wanted to tip the man but not with £10 and kept him waiting till John came up with a five.

Fiona had a wedge of the pie. “Can I have another?” Of course. I resorted to sparkling wine faute de mieux. She also had some of the savoury cake and cake. I dispensed tots of rum to all four though Fiona asked if she could leave hers. Quentin moved from the chair to the bottom of the bed. John was talking again but so were the other two. When I inquired about what, I was gestured by John to zip it, “This is a private conversation.” In response I went into some sort of performance of some sort of wheedlingly protesting character. When Fiona and I were talking, silence fell, as Fiona noticed, “Are they listening to our conversation?” “No,” I assured her, taking a look, “they’ve just stopped talking and are refocussing. They haven’t got round to listening yet.”

Steph came, a carnivore at last. I broached the guinea fowl, cutting off a b-east and ladling out carrot, potato and french beans, not without difficulty, and reheating in the microwave. “Is it the same as last year?” That gave me pause. “Yes.” Steph’s great. She showed her clothes designs from a phone, helped herself to cake, sat in the chair, got up to move it - “It’s a swivel chair.” – swivelled it, looked for party music and found Shostakovich, worked the cd player with a will, only needing a quick direction at one point. She left a little b-east and potato. I threw the former out for the fox. Jon came. More guinea fowl. More left. Fox. He asked for beer. “John was going to bring some.” I had another time bought beer for Jon who hadn’t come. He settled for red wine. Steph had some of that. They move their barge every two weeks. It’d be too costly to stop any one place. He sat by Steph on the stool, swerving every time I passed going about my hostly duties, washing plates and forks to have clean ones available, making sure Quentin was totted up but not being detained by his arresting look. That Jon and Steph were affectionate with one another after so many years together was a pleasure to see. I recommended the savoury cake to them since everybody went for it but they weren’t having that. Fiona was on the steps. Wait a minute: I was sitting on the stool, trying hard to take in what Jon was saying. What was he sitting on? The stool too. Unless I was on a chair pulled out from the console which, by the way, I’d unfolded out that morning before Jean. I was fuddled by weed and wanting to find something pertinent to say. Jon had done research on 15th century Germany and wished it to conform to his ideological bent. I didn’t know what but presumed Corbynista left. But in all intellectual honesty the evidence didn’t support his theory. His intellectual honesty was commendable. “Did it put a dent in your ideology?” I asked, in retrospect quite pertinently. Apparently not. Wafting across was that somebody had a PhD in engineering, the likeliest candidate of those present being Dan, however improbably. [Jon] Jon tried the caviar but wouldn’t hazard a guess to cost.

Fiona said something to me in the kitchen. She looked nonplussed by my reply. “What did you say?” She repeated. “I misheard.” I read 8:28 on a timer, working out that that was the time and I didn’t have to take off two hours as from a twenty-four hour clock in what after all was after noon. “I think we can assume Jacyntha’s not coming.” Fiona said she was bonkers anyway. I’d thought she’d come for the food, being greedy, but had had no expectation either way and couldn’t speculate why she hadn’t. Dan and Quentin left, then Fiona, and Steph and Jon substantially later. I offloaded Fiona’s rum on him at leaving. John wasn’t up to going home and asked to stay. I couldn’t decide whether it’d been a good party or not. It seemed ordinary, nothing standing out, “except Quentin’s feet-wiping”, not worth having, no dream fulfilled of three publishers in the one room, no discernible art behind it to be revealed by writing, not worth writing out then. John assured me everybody had enjoyed themselves. That wasn’t the yardstick. We had the risotto nobody wanted for supper, the washing-up left, despite John, till the morrow.

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