Every time I try to play Mrs. Dalloway and have people round for dinner, it goes wrong. Last time I was mid break-up, though I didn’t know it for sure until the other party knocked on the front door, wine bottle in hand. I opened it, he crossed the threshold and kissed me on the cheek. And that was when I knew. I’d gone for the lips – that was what we did. I pretended not to notice or care and led him through to the sitting room. I couldn’t look at him though, and didn’t really know what I was saying as I introduced him to one of my best friends and her other half. The first chance I got I escaped to the kitchen and remained there for as much of the evening as possible.
So this time I invite couples. Safe, right? Wrong.
‘I don’t want to sound like someone with Asperger’s,’ I say to Gus at the desk opposite, ‘as in, I’m aware that the real tragedy here is that the couple is having issues…’
That’s not the real tragedy.
‘…and not that I don’t know how many crisps to order!’
That’s not the real tragedy either. No, the real tragedy as Neighbour wouldn’t hesitate to point out at great length is that millions of people around the world have no food at all. And I’m fretting about the guest list for a dinner party.
Gus looks sympathetic.
That night I get in late, too late to make the pudding for the following evening as planned. There’s a text on my phone from Neighbour, unanswered, and a draft reply, unsent. I consider the draft a while, move the sentences around, but it’s no good. This isn’t like one of my work marketing emails: it’s not the phrasing that’s wrong, it’s the medium. I delete the whole thing and dash off a question in its place.
Ten minutes later I’m sitting on Neighbour’s sofa, politely listening to his flatmate talking about farming practices in Australia – or pretending to while actually wondering if Neighbour can sense what’s coming. A short while later the flatmate goes up to bed. I turn to my neighbour – in every sense of the word – take a deep breath and begin.
The Final Act
A Fine Thing
Mr. Chips: Parts I & II