So, enough with the philosophy and reverie and digressions. Here’s my creative output for the day.
Thea wasn’t having any of it. Her brother was an idiot. “Why do you always have to spoil things?” she huffed, re-arranging the floral display at the centre of the dinner table, accidentally knocking off a couple of petals but deciding to leave them where they were. They were just daisies and roses from the garden. I don’t want it to look contrived, she thought. The Mackie family were known to have an immaculate house, but almost in protest she didn’t want Darren and Angela Mackie to think that she had gone to any trouble. Better for everything to be casual; she wasn’t even going to tidy the papers away, even though Ivan was on his way out and she usually cleared up his messes. She felt an anger that she couldn’t understand.
She had given careful thought to the meal tonight. She had visited the Mackie’s last month, and she had felt suffocated by the precision of everything, down to the little bowls next to your plate (for the pips and remains of each bit of lemon that had been served with the fish), and those tiny julienne strips of vegetables. She had fumbled and fretted with her white damask napkin. The wine made her pale skin flush.
Darren was charming and possibly flirting with her, although it was hard to read. He was probably just an expansive sort of person, Mr Dolce Vita, full of himself. He talked about their last holiday in Barbados, and said that Jelly (his pet name for Angela) had burnt herself to a crisp and had to stay in the shade for a week. “And didn’t you love it” she said, laughing, “heading off to the bar without me after a day spent out on the ocean; good job I’d taken my Kindle on holiday”. Thea thought it sounded wonderful, despite Angela’s sunburn. In her mind, she saw a hotel with ocean views and white beaches. She felt they had such a casual perfection in their lives because of the ease that money brought them.
Angela brought out home-made crème brûlée for desert, which was warm from the last minute blow-torch to the caramel topping. She started talking about her children who were both at university and asking what Thea hoped for Ivan. She didn’t ask whether Thea had hopes for herself; the implicit assumption (as always) was that she should be responsible for Ivan’s life instead of her own.
They were only accidental friends; Thea had looked after Darren’s mother at the care home until the end. Thea knew where they lived, but had always kept conversation professional. It was unavoidable when Angela spotted her coming out of her house in the small row of council houses just around the corner from her own modern executive mock-Tudor; Thea’s heart had sunk just a little, but she smiled and exchanged greetings. ‘Gosh, yes, isn’t it funny, living so close all this time…’ She wondered if Angela would rather not have seen her too. One thing led to another. Being invited for a meal felt like an act of Lady Bountiful largesse from Angela, but it would have been difficult to find an excuse not to accept.
So it became important that the meal today was simple, but impressive enough that Angela would know that she was in the presence of someone with a confident style of her own. She didn’t want her to think she was awed by her social superiority; she felt it keenly but was embarrassed by her feelings, which she knew had no place in her head.
She and her brother Ivan were both Gifts from God – quite literally, that was what their names meant (or at least it did until she changed from Dorothy to the more elegant-sounding Thea), but it felt more meaningful in Ivan’s case since he was such a late arrival in their lives – a full 15 years later than Thea. Their parents were both from religious backgrounds, and felt that the names expressed both their thanks and also blessings for the future. She wasn’t sure what her blessings were. In her late teens people had assumed that Ivan was actually her child, and she was sure it had put off any potential boyfriends. She hadn’t intended to be an old maid. Was 33 too young to think of herself like that?
Dad was long gone (not dead but departed all the same, despite his religious upbringing), and mum was likely to move into a care home herself in the near future with advanced MS (and not the nice care home that Darren’s mother had been in, but a cheaper one on the other side of town). Mum rarely made it out of bed these days, so would not be expected to join them for dinner, which was one less thing to worry about, since she was incapable of managing the cutlery anymore, and Thea couldn’t face feeding mum in front of the Mackies. She knew that if she did it with the same care that she had shown to Darren’s mother, her own mum would make fun of her; she planned to feed her before they arrived.
It was her own damn fault. She had tried so hard to create a professional persona at the care home; she paid attention to her diction, and painted her nails and had a good haircut. Somehow the person she was at home didn’t seem quite right. She had spent her life caring for everyone else – always Ivan who treated her like a second mother, then dad (girls do housework), and now mum as well. It was good to go out to work and be someone else. She was Assistant Manager now, although that just meant that Marion the actual Manager (who earned 3 times as much as she did) could swan off and leave her with anything at the drop of a hat.
She had decided on a Hungarian Goulash – it sounded exotic, as though she knew about international cuisine, but it was basically a one-pot thing that could be flourished at the right time, with a nice glass of red wine. Served with white rice, it sounded fool-proof. And she bought an apple pie from Marks & Spencer to serve with squirty cream: that sweet stuff that didn’t need to be whipped. Ivan loved that; he had a habit of squirting it straight into his mouth. She bought a new one, just in case he had licked the nozzle.
Angela and Darren arrived on the doorstep on the dot of 7, smiling at the neighbour’s children who were gawping shamelessly. They brought her chocolates. They did what she expected: they admired her house, her table, and her beautiful flowers, (“how lovely and natural” Angela cried in delight, “I wish I had your gift”) and her food (“lovely hearty meal, what a feast” Darren said as he stroked his belly). And surprisingly, Angela became wistful and said “Thea, you put me to shame – I spend my time doing stupid fiddly little things with food and here you are, doing something simple and amazing and you work as well, and take care of your mum. Isn’t she a marvel Darren? Maybe I should do something more useful with my time. But I’m sure I couldn’t work with old people – you are so special.” Darren patted her hand and smiled, with a hint of a tear in his eye. They were perfect guests.
At the end of the evening she saw them out with relief. She had been calm and in control, paying attention at the right times to the conversation and still managing to serve everything with a convincing air of “I do this all the time; this is second nature to me”. But she still felt angry with herself, for not allowing herself to even consider enjoying the evening, and with her deeply felt conviction that she would end up being friends with Angela.