“I don’t exactly know why he’s done it,” I announced to the other residents of my house on Saturday morning at breakfast, “but Laurence has invited us all to his street party tomorrow.”
“What’s a street party?” asked Mother suspiciously.
“It’s a party. In a street. You know perfectly well what it is.”
“Why would anyone have a party in a street?”
“To pretend they like each other. To satisfy their curiosity about their neighbours. To get rid of surplus frozen spring rolls. I don’t know. Perhaps the people in his street genuinely get on.”
Peony scoffed. “Ugh. Grotesque.”
“I like Laurence,” said John.
“You haven’t met his family, or his neighbours,” I reminded him.
“I’ll be too ill tomorrow,” said Mother.
“If I’m making an effort then you’re making a bloody effort,” I said and I got up and left to prevent further prevarication.
And so we set off yesterday – a warm Sunday afternoon – and we drove all the way to his rather ornate neighbourhood, which is that much nearer to Town and, therefore, more expensive. He is a doctor, remember.
“What I hate about contemporary living,” Peony told me from the back of the car, “is bunting. If there’s any bunting I’ll come over all queer.”
“Brace yourself, then,” I warned her. “There will almost certainly be bunting.”
“What’s bunting?” asked Mother.
“You know what bloody bunting is. I know what you’re doing. You’re doing that thing when you pretend to be all weak and confused. You can cut it out now. There’s no way I’m going to feel more sorry for you than I do for myself so don’t waste your energy.”
“…dragging me to a party in the street,” she growled.
In the event, of course, we couldn’t park on the street because there was a party taking place on it so I slid several quid into a metre half a mile away and we trudged back in silence through the dust and racket of the busy avenues of this wealthy borough.
When Laurence noticed me it was like witnessing a prisoner being released from the rack. He couldn’t believe his luck. It was so touching.
I stood by his side and secretly brushed the back of my hand against the back of his. He smiled. John came and stood by his other side and got his hair ruffled in recognition. The place was buzzing and lively and knots of people stood or sat brazenly on the carless road, drinking Pimm’s. Swags of floral bunting had been strung across from opposing windows.
“Ah Peony, good to see you,” Laurence beamed and reached out a hand.
My daughter was scanning the street and was distracted.
“Do we have to pay for this?” she wanted to know.
“Excellent,” laughed Laurence. How sweet – he thought she was being witty.
“Where are we?” asked Mother, faintly. “I can’t see very well.”
Laurence glanced at me. “Is she alright?”
I brushed his hand once more. I was finding it easier to communicate that way.
And then suddenly there was Vanessa, his sister, advancing towards us, with a vast black cake on a platter. She was in what they call a maxi dress now but what used to be called a kaftan when I was a kid. Its fabric was a vivid jungle design. Her lips were frosted pink. I felt Peony’s hackles rise.
“Ah Imelda,” said Vanessa. To me apparently. “I must talk to you about the works of that genius Leon Bogrush. But first I’m about to cut the cake. I made it, by the by. Let’s all tuck in.”
“What is it?” asked Peony, not at all politely.
“It’s chocolate. Gluten-free chocolate cake.”
“Oh,” sniffed Peony. “I only eat gluten. In fact, I can’t get enough of it. I have to have it with every meal just to keep my levels up.”
Vanessa eyed her chillingly.
“Who’s Imelda?” asked John from my side.
Slowly I was beginning to consider letting myself enjoy things. This always happens. When my family’s behaviour goes way beyond my control, I seem to let go at last and watch the awfulness unfold as though it can’t touch me.
“What’s gluten?” asked Mother, not at all vaguely this time.
“Gluten,” said Vanessa, placing the cake on a garden table beside us, “is the scourge of the modern gut. Its consumption leads to a whole string of ailments, from lethargy to chronic bowel conditions. It’s a bloody ticking time bomb, is what it is!”
“Oh,” cried Mother. “That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. Too much gluten in my system. I can barely go on.”
“Thanks for that,” I murmured.
It was then that I noticed a tiny wisp of an elderly lady hidden behind Vanessa’s kaftan, as though she’d got attached somehow and been swept along. She had the sweetest smile and a gentle, frail light in her eyes. She emanated tenderness.
Laurence followed my gaze.
“My mother,” he said.
The sweetheart beckoned to me and I stepped away from our party and joined her by her side. I had to bend down to catch what she said and in fact didn’t hear her at first, so weak and refined was her tone.
“I’m sorry?” I said, charmed by her intoxicating manner.
She grasped my hand with her two. Her skin was worn smooth like veneer.
“I said,” she smiled benignly and tilted her silvery head to the side as though she were an amiable little sparrow. “Who’s the whingeing old bitch?”
We all just about endured each other for another forty minutes and then I explained that the parking meter would be running out and we ought to go.
“I’m sorry about my mother,” said Laurence. “She’s not senile, just evil.”
“Mine appears to have acquired a gluten intolerance.”
John had his arm wound round my waist and I kissed the top of his head. My boy. How soon until we ruin you?
I looked back to see Peony wresting a plastic box of some kind of salad from Mother’s arms and dumping it on a table.
“But it’s a quinoa and goji berry salad in a pomegranate dressing. I need it for my intestinal tract,” complained Mother.
“Come on, Grunma,” said Peony, dragging her forcibly away by the hand. “These people are arsing my brain up. Let’s score some gluten.”