tagMatureDinner with Friends

Dinner with Friends

byoggbashan©

Copyright Oggbashan November 2004

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.


* * * * *

It started in September. I was out for the day with our pensioners' group. We are all fairly active so we had walked through the countryside for about five miles before settling down for a good lunch in a country pub. I was enjoying the meal because I had worked up a good appetite. A different five miles would lead us back to the country park's parking area so I felt I could indulge myself a little. That was my excuse for the Apfel Strudel and fresh cream.

Then the Jones sisters spoilt my enjoyment. They had foregone a dessert 'in the interests of their figures' as they put it mock-coyly. I saw them coming but I was trapped behind a table with half my Strudel unfinished. I swore under my breath but greeted them with a forced smile. Emily started the conversation.

"Jeremy? Have you thought about Christmas yet?"

Oh hell, I thought, now I'm for it. I hadn't planned this year's excuse.

"Not yet," I replied honestly, "I haven't spoken to the children. I might be..."

Mabel cut me short.

"If you haven't, we'd like you to know that our invitation to have Christmas dinner with us still stands... unless you have other definite arrangements, of course."

I thanked them as politely as I could and assured them that I wouldn't forget their kind offer. As if I could. One Christmas dinner with the Jones sisters had been enough for several lifetimes. They deluded themselves that they could cook. Mushy cabbage, bullet-like sprouts with half- charred maggots and singed turkey feathers still adhering to the flesh was an experience I wanted to avoid at all costs. They meant well, I thought with a silent sigh, but...

I claimed a need to have some fresh air. On the way out of the pub I stopped at the cigarette machine and bought a packet of 16 at a vastly inflated price. I still carried a lighter though I hadn't smoked for years. The thought of Christmas with Emily and Mabel would drive a saint to the demon drink. Thinking of drink I slipped into the other bar and bought a double whisky. Cradling the glass I walked out into the pub's garden, sat on a rustic bench, sipped my whisky and lit my cigarette. The two illicit pleasures together nearly took the unpleasant picture of a spoilt Christmas away.

I heard the door open behind me. I hid the cigarette in the palm of my hand. Most of the group knew that I'd given up smoking years before Ruth died. I missed her and her company. She would have been wonderfully verbose about the culinary failings of Emily and Mabel and would have invented wonderful stories to explain their incompetence. Forty years of companionship as husband and wife is only tolerable if you are friends as well as partners. Ruth had always been my best friend and most sympathetic critic ever since we had toddled around together as infants living in adjacent houses.

As soon as I saw who it was, I uncovered my cigarette. Hazel knew I smoked when desperate. She knew nearly as much about me as Ruth had done, and I knew as much about her. She and Ruth had been friends since University and our families had taken holidays together for years. Her son had married our daughter and then gone to Australia. They would return next summer for a short visit, bringing our grandchildren. Our son was out there visiting them. I suspect the Jones sisters knew that, and that therefore I wouldn't see the children at Christmas. Blast! Those sisters knew too much.

"Jeremy," Hazel said, "give me a cigarette, please."

I handed over the packet and lit the cigarette for her.

"That bad?" I asked.

"The Jones sisters," She said.

"You too?"

"Yes. They invited me for Christmas dinner," Hazel replied.

"And me," I moaned.

Hazel puffed her smoke out slowly and watched as the light wind eased it away.

"How do we get out of it? I can't endure another torture like that."

"We have to have a more important engagement, like I did last year."

"I noticed that, you rat Jeremy. You left me in the lurch. Dying great-aunt indeed! Any great-aunt of yours would have died decades ago, worn out with living on the wages of sin and pickled with alcohol."

"You don't get pickled with vintage champagne. As far as I know my two great-aunts drank nothing else. The last survivor died under her toy-boy. It nearly gave him a heart attack too. Good excuse though, wasn't it?"

"You'll need a better one this year. They have started their campaign early before you and I are prepared. What are we going to do?"

Now I was getting depressed. I sank the rest of the whisky and finished my cigarette.

"We have to think of something, anything. Can we discuss it on the walk back?"

"I'd love to Jeremy, but I promised June I'd stay with her. She isn't really up to this distance yet and needs distracting from her tiredness. And..."

"She's the best gossip around. Anything we said would be magnified ten times and around the town in hours."

"True. How about a meeting later?"

"A secret assignation? Sounds good to me, Hazel. When and where?"

"How about a meal out? Not tonight. This lunch will leave me too full to face anything except a light snack tonight."

"Then what about the new coffee bar in the High Street. It's open until ten. That do?"

"OK." Hazel stopped talking and glanced through the pub's window. "They're assembling for the walk. We had better join them separately. I'll go through the pub. You go round the outside."

"Yes, Hazel," I replied. "What time for coffee?"

"Eight," she said as she opened the pub door.

She was right. I didn't get a chance to talk to her on the whole walk back. She was almost carrying June by the time we reached our cars. Alex had been burbling to me about his new car. I didn't care about cars. If they went when they should and stopped when they should that was all I wanted. New model? New facilities? New super-dooper wotsits? Forget them. My car had been my father's. A 1956 Rolls-Royce that looked wonderful, behaved impeccably and was soothingly comfortable to drive. I paid a local lad to clean and polish it once a week, had it serviced by my local Rolls-Royce dealer every six months, and that was it – a reliable form of transport.

I was in a foul mood by the time I got home. I drove the Rolls into the garage, closed the doors, and made myself a sandwich to eat later. I slumped in front of the television until the soap I was watching became too puerile. I switched the television off and stomped around the house looking for something to distract me until I could meet Hazel. I even picked up the local free paper. That was a waste of time. I'd read all the news stories in last week's paid-for paper. However an advert caught my eye and started a train of thought. I wonder...

By the time I met Hazel that thought had built to a castle in Spain. I had mapped out a whole scenario of ideas. The sight of Hazel smiling at me as we met brought the whole edifice crashing down. I couldn't do that to Hazel. I liked the woman. She noticed my change of expression.

"What's up, Jeremy?" Hazel asked. "You looked happy and then as if you had been hit by a truck."

"I had an idea about Christmas but it was stupid." I said bluntly.

"I think you need that coffee." She said. "Come on. This time I'm paying."

You'll regret it, I thought. The coffee bar's prices are exorbitant. She didn't blink at the size of the bill. Hazel must be better off than I thought. Perhaps royalties on her husband's books were paying off at last.

"Out with it," Hazel ordered as we settled down in the deep armchairs. "What was this stupid idea?"

I blushed. I mean, at my age! How could I blush? I thought I'd stopped that years ago. Hazel laughed at me, a friendly laugh, not a teasing one.

"That sort of idea?" Her eyebrow raised.

"Sort of. I thought that we could say we were going away at Christmas."

"And...?"

"Together. But not really. Just let them think we are together but actually go somewhere separately, to hotels perhaps." I cleared my throat. "That might compromise you, so it isn't a good idea."

"And if I don't mind being 'compromised' as you put it so delicately?"

"Hazel!" I exclaimed.

"Assume that me being 'compromised' isn't an obstacle. What was the rest of your idea? Emily and Mabel might feel insulted if we just went away."

This was getting awkward.

"If we were secretive about it, and we made it clear that we were going away for the same period, to different places – which would be the truth," I added hastily, "then people might think that we were actually going away together for another reason..." My voice died away.

"Let me get this clear, Jeremy," Hazel said, leaning towards me, "We would let people deduce that you and I were going to have a dirty weekend together, only we wouldn't, we'd just let people think we were. Is that it?"

"Er,...Yes."

Hazel sat back in her chair and just looked at me. A different look, not at all as she normally glanced at me, or as she looked at me when we talked. An appraising look almost as if she hadn't seen me before and wanted to remember what I looked like. I blushed again. There was a long pause before she spoke again.

"I think that's too complicated, Jeremy. It would be difficult to maintain the act. We have to be apparently potential lovers trying to keep our love secret. That's hard to convey and easy to misinterpret especially as we aren't lovers. Our passionate glances might be mistaken for indigestion or some other ailment. If we were trying to be secretive we couldn't stroll round the town hand in hand, or kiss in the park, could we?"

Hazel seemed to want a response.

"I suppose not."

"If we were really going away for a dirty Christmas and we didn't care who knew it, and why should we? - We're both unattached and fancy-free – then we could do the hand in hand and the kisses. That would settle the Jones sisters. They could see that we'd rather be alone together than having Christmas dinner with them. We might embarrass them if we did the hand-in-hand bit at their dinner."

I spluttered into my coffee. When I had wiped my mouth with my napkin I said tentatively:

"Isn't that going rather far just to avoid dinner with them?"

"So is going away to separate hotels, Jeremy. That could be boring and far worse than the Jones sisters' meal. If we really went away together I think we would enjoy Christmas far more. Don't you think so?"

Before I could answer she stood up and came to my chair. My reply was stifled by a kiss that nearly made me drop my coffee. I don't know how long it lasted. My heart was beating much faster.

"That is a sample, Jeremy. Like to have some more samples?"

I made a decision. I put my coffee down.

"Yes, Hazel. I'd like some more."

"Then finish your coffee and we'll try the hand-in-hand bit in the park. That will do for a start."

It was. A start that is. By Christmas Hazel and I were recognised as a couple. We drove away just before Christmas in my gleaming Rolls-Royce. Tonight and the next few nights we have the honeymoon suite in a remote country hotel that is doing Christmas for us and a dozen or so other couples.

Tonight we will go beyond samples to the main course. I am sure we will enjoy it far more than Christmas dinner with the Jones sisters.

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