The Dinner Party

By Logan Russell

Chain Border

Elaine was barely holding herself together. Only yesterday, for instance, she'd sat down on the sofa to watch TV and forgotten to turn the TV on. After twenty minutes she realised that she didn't know whether she was standing up or sitting down. She tried to think whether this had ever happened before, but the circuitry of her brain returned only a glassy unyielding numbness. She was distantly aware that the simplest way to find out would to be to look down and check for either lap or floor, but it seemed like a silly thing to do, so she didn't bother. Another ten minutes passed, and it began to really trouble her, it just seemed like something she really ought to know, but her body was sending back no signals about how it was arranged.

Eventually she could stand it no more. The grey slab of the TV screen showed a reflection but she couldn't make out which bit of the jigsaw of edges was her. Standing up? Sitting down? She decided she needed to know, and she set about finding out. She tucked her right hand into her right armpit, so that the backs of her fingers were against the side of her chest, and slowly ran her hand down. She vaguely felt the ridge of her bra under her fleece top. 'I'm wearing a bra,' she said aloud, though there was nobody there to hear her. 'Bra' felt like a funny word to say, and it pleased her briefly so she said it again, repeating it over and over until the word lost its meaning and became just a strange noise. 'Brabrabrabra,' she murmured as her hand continued its journey down. When her hand reached her hip, she found that it was more comfortable to turn it around, so the palm of her hand was against herself, and as she moved it down a few more inches, she found her leg at more-or-less a right angle to her body. So she had to be sitting down. Good. That was that cleared up then.

She didn't stop her hand as it crept on down her leg to her shoe, and reflected that she'd never really felt her shoes before. They didn't feel like she thought they would, they were somehow harder and more detailed. She tried repeating 'shoe' out loud, but it was nowhere near as good as 'bra' so she went back to that, and pretty soon she realised she needed a pee. A few minutes after that she found that she'd had a pee, but had forgotten to go to the bathroom to do it. And that's when she surfaced from her hour of daytime downtime.

'Jesus Christ!' She leapt from the sofa in horror and quickly ran upstairs to change.

Half an hour later she had the bath filled with warm water and Persil and was swirling the sofa covers around; her own soiled clothes rotating gently in the washing machine. After rinsing the covers and wringing them out as best she could with rubber gloves on, she put as many as she could fit into the tumble drier and set it going. In the living room, a fan-heater played gently over the flayed sofa.

When Jim got home from work the covers were back on the sofa and everything was well.

'Hello love,' he said as he came in, 'busy day?'

'Oh, you know,' replied Elaine, 'Went to Sainsbury's, washed the sofa-covers, usual sort of thing.'

She assessed his manner. He'd been having an affair for some time and he didn't think she knew. She hadn't found out by any conventional means, no lipstick on collars or florist's receipt in a pocket. It was his manner that gave him away, however much he tried to appear normal. But no he hadn't fucked his little tart yesterday. Yesterday was Friday and he hadn't fucked her since Tuesday. Working late at the office. My arse.

She'd known about the affair for a month and a half, and she was finding it hard to cope. She hadn't said anything to him, because she was being stoical and hoping it would fizzle out but it hadn't, at least not yet. It was too much of a burden to bear though, and she kept having these funny episodes which seemed to her like the seductive little kisses of a nervous breakdown. It was rather like a voice telling her what it thought she wanted to hear. It kept inviting her to give up being strong. Be weak, it urged, stop coping. Be bold - don't defrost any kievs for dinner. Don't wash the spinach, leave the grit in. Piss on the sofa. Scratch 'FUCK YOU' on his car. Put meringue in the Dyson to see what happens. Scream at the unfairness of it.

Every time the insanity advanced a little she managed to fence it back, but it was a battle. It had already taken its toll. She'd lost her job at the bakery because she'd given in for a few minutes and spelled out 'COCKMASTER' in Smarties on a child's birthday cake. She didn't know why she'd done it, or why she'd done the 'k' entirely in orange Smarties, she just knew that it seemed like a fine thing to do at the time. She was very sorry afterwards, though, and understood why she'd been sacked. Of course she couldn't tell Jim, which meant she'd have to watch her spending so he didn't notice that some of their pin-money was absent. It was all more pressure.

Saturday, though, Elaine was on top of things. She had to be. She had to prepare three courses for six people and it required concentration. Her day was strictly ordered. At eight in the morning she had got up and got started. She'd filled a ramekin with olive oil, and added two cloves of garlic and some fresh thyme from the garden and left it to infuse. She'd use it later to brush small rounds of ciabatta before grilling and topping them with hot, roasted goats cheese with a hazelnut crust. This would be followed by bouef-en-croute, which was fiddly and required the time consuming creation of duxelles pate and flaky pastry. This was to be served with stir-fried broccoli with pine-kernels and mustard mash. Finally she planned to serve dark chocolate crepes, filled with a white chocolate and Grand Marnier mousse, garnished with caramelised physalis.

Actually, although it was quite a lot of work, she enjoyed it. Having taken her eye off the ball sanity-wise recently, it was nice to have something to occupy her so completely and to have such a rigid structure to adhere to. She was known for the high standard of her dinner parties, and it was nice to have that reputation to maintain.

Elaine was not a team-player in the kitchen. She did not enlist the help of others. When each course arrived at the table, she wanted to be able to accept all of the credit, and she knew that the downside of that was accepting all the blame if things went wrong, but they rarely did. She liked the kitchen to be her domain entirely. If guests came and hovered round her while she was preparing food, she shooed them away. It seemed pointless to spend time arranging garnish and artfully drizzling sauces if your audience were there watching the process. You wouldn't watch an artist mixing his paint.

As she was chopping the broccoli heads into tiny florets, she noticed a funny thing on the chopping board. On close inspection it turned out to be half a caterpillar. Briefly, she thought she was having another moment of insanity, and she reacted by reaching for a swig of the brandy that she'd got out to baste the beef. It tasted nice so she had a few more gulps. The furnace-like warmth in her stomach made her grin slightly. She checked on the caterpillar-portion again. Still there. It was bright green and as tightly curled as half a caterpillar can be; it looked a little like a corrugated pea. 'Corrugated pea' seemed like an interesting phrase to repeat to herself so she did and it began to sound like the noise a train makes as it clatters along its tracks.

She discarded the half-caterpillar, and as she did so, realised that the presence of half of anything implied that the other half was probably also around. She had, of course, washed the broccoli, but obviously had failed to dislodge its stowaway. It was possible that the caterpillar-chopping incident had happened at the packaging plant, but - as far as she could tell, and she was no expert - it had looked like a freshly chopped caterpillar. A thorough search of the broccoli proved fruitless and so, after a few more swigs of brandy, she set about caramelising the physalis.

She'd been drinking quite a lot lately, and had become very adept at concealing it. On the day she'd lost her job, for instance, she'd come straight home and done half a bottle of vodka before taking her coat off. When Jim got home, the room was spinning fabulously around her, but he never suspected a thing.

Apart from drinking, she'd also been doing a fair bit of crying. Every-so often, the knowledge of her husband's infidelity lunged at her like a punch-bag that she couldn't keep from swinging back. She and Jim had been married for five years, and she loved him with an intensity that frightened her. In her more lucid moments she knew that this was why she couldn't confront him. To talk about it would make it true, whereas keeping it in the shadows left her with the comforting knowledge that she might be wrong. But, oh, it made her so sad. Great waves of grief washed over her sometimes and she would sit or lay sobbing huge painful sobs, but again she packaged up the agony and just kept the lid on. More pressure building.

Trudy and Carl were the first to arrive, and they all had to troop outside to admire Trudy's new BMW Z3, which she had taken delivery of that week. Elaine admired the leather seats and the electric hood, but declined Trudy's offer of a spin round the block because she had things to do in the kitchen. Elaine and Carl went back inside while Trudy took Jim for a drive.

Elaine knew Carl well, he was a former work-colleague of Jim's, they socialised often and were comfortable with each other's company. They drank red wine while they waited for Trudy and Jim to return, and when they did they brought with them Lydia and Richard who had been parking their car as they pulled up. Lydia was an old school-friend of Elaine's and she adored both her and her quiet, gentle husband.

Elaine busied herself in the kitchen and shortly produced their starter. The goats cheese sitting high and bonnie on its ciabatta raft, inside a ring of lamb's lettuce dressed with raspberry vinegar.

'Seems a shame to eat it!' Someone said, as someone always did.

Elaine's head was singing with all the brandy and red wine, and she barely tasted her food. It was well received though, and the compliments came thick and fast, before the conversation moved on to the sort of week they'd all had.

'Half-term for me, so the kids have been at home,' said Lydia.

'Work, work and more work for me,' said Trudy. 'Oh and I started a new aerobics class on Tuesday.' A flicker of a glance passed between Jim and Trudy. Jim rapidly topped up everyone's wine. A cold feeling took root in Elaine's guts.

'Was that Pru Wellington's Step Class at the squash club? I've heard she's very good.' Elaine said quickly, impressed with herself.

'Yes,' said Trudy, 'she was excellent. Not sure I'll have time to go again though.' She looked a little uneasy, thought Elaine, as well she might. Pru Wellington was a name that Elaine had just made up, based on the fact that she'd been looking at Pru Leith's recipe for beef wellington earlier in the day.

So, Trudy was lying, and she was lying about where she was on Tuesday night. Tuesday night when Jim had lied about working late. The quick spin in the car Trudy and Jim had taken earlier…it all made sense. Jim was having an affair with Trudy.

For a moment, Elaine waited for something explosive to happen. Perhaps she was going to piss herself again, or break a wine bottle and shove it in Trudy's face. It seemed like something dramatic ought to accompany this moment of clarity, but she just felt drunk. The truth of the affair had suddenly become a bleak, frosty thing that would have to be dealt with and not some louche paranoia flamenco dancing through endless what-if scenarios in her mind.

Elaine looked up at five sets of eyes, and she wondered briefly if they could see what she was thinking, but it was simply her turn to speak. 'I'm sure Carl would still love you even if you never exercised again and had a bum like a rhino,' she said.

Trudy, though slim, was very sensitive about her weight, so Elaine enjoyed the inference that she really ought to exercise. Elaine gathered the plates and returned to the kitchen. The brandy caught her eye and she took another generous swig.

She closed her eyes and gathered herself, prodding at this knew knowledge. It seemed rubbery and distant. A fact, no more and no less. Just a piece of information. Then, somewhere, a dam broke. A single sob escaped her. The calm gave way to the storm and she felt the strength of the thunder it brought. Why should she be questioning her sanity? Why should she be tiptoeing around people's feelings when she was the one who was clearly being wronged? Wronged on a massive scale at that. Husband and close friend furtively nobbing, and shooting glances at each other right under her nose. Laughing at her. She felt briefly for poor Carl, cuckolded by his own friend. She wondered if he suspected. She briefly allowed herself to think about her love for Jim, and found that it was easier than she thought. There's a fine line between love and hate and the cheating bastard had just hopped, skipped and jumped over it.

She could feel un-processed alcohol sluicing in her stomach as she began loading the plates into the dishwasher. As she put a knife in the cutlery rack she noticed something in the bottom of it. She picked it out with a fork. It was the other half of the caterpillar. It must have been stuck to a knife when she'd run the dishwasher earlier. It was paler than the other half, having been effectively poached, but definitely recognisable. She put it on the draining board, then rummaged through the bin for the raw half.

She began plating up the main course. For what it was worth, the beef was perfectly cooked, and the duxelle pate intense and incredibly rich. She sliced half-heartedly at it before remembering her cordless electric carving knife, which was far more suited to her current mood. She imagined it was a revving chainsaw, and that she was hacking off Trudy's great big floppy tits. It was altogether very satisfying. But the resulting uneven chunks of beef and shattered pastry lacked her usual finesse. She could barely remember a time when such a thing would have mattered. Funny though, her guests would notice the difference. How odd, that you could lose your job, start drinking heavily, start pissing yourself in the Living Room and cover it all up, but when the quality of your food presentation dipped a little, well, alarm bells would ring for sure. That was middle-class life for you.

Giggling, and swigging a bit more brandy for good measure, she poked the raw caterpillar half into the duxelle pate on one plate, and the cooked one into another. 'For the lovers,' she said to herself and giggled a bit more.

She'd been an awful long time in the kitchen, but her guests and her husband knew better than to offer assistance. By the time she returned to the dining room she was lurchingly drunk and oddly happy. She gave each of them their main course, then went straight back to the kitchen and got dessert.

'Can't be frigged to go back in the kitchennemore,' she slurred, sitting down heavily. 'Fill 'er up Jimbo!' She added, waving her empty wine glass at him. She noticed for the first time that there was a cheap readers'-wives quality about Trudy. Funny, she'd always kind of admired her.

'I'll make you some coffee sweetie,' said Lydia kindly, squeezing Elaine's shoulder as she passed. 'I'm in the kitchen if you need me.'

'I'll help,' added Richard, following his wife. Elaine felt bad for them being caught up in this, and she scrawled a mental note to herself to apologise to them later.

'Eat up,' Elaine boomed, 'I've worked fucking hard on this.'

Trudy and Carl began to eat. Elaine hoped she ate the caterpillar and she hoped it was poisonous.

The silence lengthened and Elaine became bored. 'Whassat perfume you're wearing?' She sniffed loudly at Trudy.

'Oh, do you like it? It's Cartier.'

'Nah,' said Elaine, then beckoned Trudy to come closer, ' not being funny, but it makes you smell like a fat old bitch in heat.'

'RIGHT!' Jim slammed down his knife and fork. 'Why don't you calm down and tell us what's going on?'

Elaine gave a hollow rasping burp and only just stopped herself being sick. 'I'm fine,' she said brightly, 'eat your caterpillar and Shut. The. Fuck. Up.'

'Trudy, Carl, I'm so sorry about this,' said Jim. 'Elaine. What's got into you? You were doing so well. Perhaps you should go to bed.'

Elaine had scooped up a spoonful of dessert and was holding it in 'flicking' position, aimed at Trudy. 'I've got mousse,' she giggled, 'and I'm not afraid to use it.'

'Was tonight too much for you? We thought it was a bit soon when you invited us, but we thought "good on you" all the same.' Trudy appeared to be showing concern. 'A miscarriage is hard for a woman.'

'DON'T SAY THAT WORD!' Elaine screamed and released the spoonful of mousse, which splattered against the wall. 'It's got NOTHING to do with that and everything to do with you fucking my husband.'

Lydia and Richard returned with a cafetiere of coffee, and seeing the state her friend was in, Lydia instinctively hugged her.

'What's going on love? We know things have been hard for you.'

Elaine was feeling distinctly confused. The word 'miscarriage' seemed to have opened a trap-door in her mind and everything she had been feeling had slipped away and she was left with a howling sense of loss. She concentrated on finding some words.

'Jim and Trudy are having an affair,' she said clearly, and began sobbing into Lydia's shoulder.

Lydia looked over Elaine's head at Trudy and Jim. 'Are you?'

'Of course not,' said Jim and now his voice was tender. 'Do you really think that four months after my wife has a miscarriage, and three months after she's released from psychiatric care, I'd be messing around like that?'

Elaine looked up, her face streaked with tears. 'Well you weren't working late on Tuesday, and YOU weren't at any aerobics class. Where were you?'

A small collective 'Ah,' went round the table, but Elaine didn't notice, she just clung onto Lydia. Richard spoke up and she found his voice penetrating but soothing.

'Elaine, I can see what's gone on here. Richard wasn't working late, you're right, and Trudy didn't go to a class. They were both at our house and so was Carl. We were going through some brochures. We've been planning a surprise for your fortieth birthday - we thought we'd all go away for a long weekend somewhere, so you could get away from here and Jim was going to arrange for some decorators to come in while you were away and redecorate the…' He fell shy of saying nursery. 'So you didn't have to see it anymore.'

Elaine looked round her group of friends, the question evident on her face.

'It's true,' Lydia murmured into Elaine's hair.

'I'm going to be sick,' said Elaine, and Lydia helped her to the bathroom.

***

After Elaine had thrown up, she was far too embarrassed to face anyone, so she asked Lydia to help her to bed. There, with the room spinning frantically around her she closed her eyes and fought for the relief that sleep would bring.

Downstairs, after Trudy, Lydia and Richard had cleared up the kitchen while Carl consoled a visibly upset Richard, it was decided that it would be best if everyone left. Caring for Elaine after her tragic miscarriage had been hard on them all. They all knew that at nearly forty Elaine's chances of motherhood were becoming slimmer all the time. They all cared for her; she had been a good friend to each of them.

So it was not without some guilt that Trudy stepped into the kitchen with Jim when no-one else was looking.

'That was too damn close,' she whispered.

'I know Wudy,' replied Jim, and kissed her quickly on the lips. 'But they all made it seem so innocent for us. I think we've got away with it.'

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