He's an old friend and an entertaining and fairly pleasant one, so when he calls one morning and says he's in the area and would I like to
come out to dinner? I say yes, and we fix a time, seven pm. Later the house is full of people. Hot, sunny afternoon nudging towards golden
evening. Windows and doors open wide, lazy insects floating in and out. T is playing his way through the Debussy book at the
piano, J is flopped out reading in my pink sun hat. S and I, happy and covered in paint, are in the garden trying to fix a six-foot square of wet
canvas to a flimsy stretcher. Rose petals from the hedge keep wafting through the air and sticking to the canvas: we're just debating whether
or not to leave them there when I remember I have to go to dinner. Reluctantly I kick everyone out and start rummaging through piles of laundry for
something respectable enough to dine out in, but not too nice.
I am fond of A, but I know he has a crush on me. Sure, it's 'done and dusted', as my gran would say: it's been outed, kindly but firmly
declined and is now blithely ignored - or almost. I decided a long time ago not to let it get in the way of being friends with him, but it sometimes
makes me a little uncomfortable, as these things do. And there are other reasons why I am diffident about this evening, which are to do with the
way he is, or perhaps the way I am. Outside in the garden the sun chair is singing a siren song, bathed in golden light under the elderberry tree,
J's open book left invitingly on the cushions. Almost I am tempted to cancel - but feeling bad about letting A down would wreck my peace
anyway. So by seven I am all respectable but not too nice, and he arrives, bang on time.
Where are we going? We're going to the most expensive Chinese restaurant in town. What's it like? I ask him but he doesn't know,
he's never been there. In the car we talk about work (he's a news reporter) and he launches into a flood of gossipy anecdote while I admire his
jacket and his bone structure, which is perfect. When he talks about work he is happy and relaxed. Later, when I ask about his mother, his
hands tense on the wheel and he starts to gripe, so I steer the subject lightly away to something else and we reach the restaurant smiling. Red
carpet, red walls, lots of gold, pictures of dragons and girls on willow bridges. It's quiet, almost empty, and doesn't look like the most expensive
restaurant in town, but the other diners are all Chinese - usually a good sign.
A whispery waiter sits me in my chair. I order juice, A orders himself a bottle of wine, we select our food from a gilded menu and he asks
me about the canvas in the garden. The food arrives very quickly and it is better than good, it is a feast of colours and textures and wonderful
flavours, all sizzling on hotplates and smelling like heaven. Delicate pink flowers carved from turnips and I want to wonder and marvel at it, but
there is no space to do this for he is talking at me, very determinedly, about Art. He always does this. From somewhere he has got this idea
that I am highbrow, because of the books and the piano and the paintings, and that he must impress upon me his interest in such things. So
he tells me about his friend's exhibition and what his friend says about Art and this artist and that artist and so on and I do try to listen, honest I
do, but all I can think about is the tender melting flavours in this sesame prawn toast and the far more real artistry of the plates in front of me -
and how much I wish he'd just relax, and enjoy his food.
But he's on a roll now, unstoppable. The wine makes him talk faster and get thirstier. Another bottle arrives close on the heels of the first one
and now he's off art and slinging verbal mud at his girlfriend, and my 'mm's and 'go on's have less and less enthusiasm, but he does not notice.
The restaurant is filling up now, getting noisier. A is almost shouting at me, leaning forward, far too intense. My eyes are roving around the room
with a snicket of desperation in them when suddenly there's a sharp crackle from the speakers, ten video screens descend from the ceiling and
flicker into life, and a familiar tune starts up:
I got chills/They're multiplying
And I'm loooooo/sing control..
On screen is a hilarious Chinese version of John Travolta with a quiff about ten feet tall and green satin brothel creepers, shimmying fit to
bust his skintight pants. Text, presumably the words of the song in Chinese, is scrolling across the screens and over in the corner two guys are
up on their table, singing along - yup, we've come here on karaoke night. I am delighted, beaming, sitting back to enjoy the show but A is highly
disgruntled at this unexpected addition to his nice highbrow evening and thinks we should leave. Grumble grumble they didn't tell me about
this when I booked it and then he actually apologises for it, when it is screamingly clear that I do not mind at all. Let's go back to
yours where we can talk, get out of this racket, you can play me Skrjabin, he says.
But don't you want to get up and sing? I ask
him: and he rolls his eyes to heaven and snorts a disgusted snort from his perfect nose, as if it were completely impossible that anyone in their
right mind could ever want to do such a thing.
That does it. I invent a headache, he takes me home, I shut the gate firmly in front of me and behind him with a joyous relief that has almost
no guilt in it. In the garden, the canvas is nearly dry. The chair and the book are where I left them, adrift in rose petals: and under the stars there
is just enough light, still, to read.
with thanks to junkpile for reminding me of the strange uncomfortable formality of being taken out to dinner by difficult people