The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 13 Safari Supper

THERE IS, as my mother promised, lots going on. Boxing Day we went to ‘open house’ at Number Eight. Everyone took something to eat. As our contribution, I made coronation chicken with a lightly currified rice. “Thanks for giving your mum a rest,” said my dad.

Then the next day was the quiz evening, or more of a quiz afternoon in fact as we all trooped back to the Christmas Day restaurant and played the quiz then had a sit-down early evening meal. “A treat for your mother, not to have to cook,” said my dad! More of the same, I couldn’t help thinking. I found myself casting about for the attractive older man but he wasn’t there and he wasn’t at the open house either. I had to ask.

“Mum. What about that man, the older man I spoke to on Christmas Eve?” My mother frowned as well she might since ‘older man’ would fairly sum up at least eighty per cent of the males who attended the Christmas Eve party.

“She means Michael,” said my dad knowingly. Well at least he has a normal name. Most of the people here must have caused their school teachers no end of bother. Haven’t I read somewhere that teachers are sure that an unusual name means a greater degree of misbehaviour? I can quite imagine that there is a fair sprinkling too of double-barrelled names in Baker’s Lane and no doubt if she decently could have, my mother would have woven these into our conversations, but to drop them in casually without it seeming deliberate and contrived would be well-nigh impossible.

“Oh. Michael. He’s a widower you know,” said my mother. “Well, he does come to some of the things but not all of them like most of us.” So he’s not a merry widower I thought. Unlike most of the rest of them who are very merry representatives of whatever marital status it is they each hold.

“He’s very rich,” said my mother absently. Normally such a fact would be offered with huge significance attached. I guessed she’d dismissed him in her head as far too old for me. And of course she’d be right. My mother continued: “He’s one of the founder owners of Baker’s Lane. Actually he owns the development company that bought up the houses and sorted them out to be sold as houses not flats and he kept one for himself. Actually he kept several. Some of them are tenanted not owned and don’t they cost a fortune in rent!”

She looked at my dad who nodded his confirmation. “But he has all sorts of other interests too. And no children to leave it all to,” my mother finished, ever practical when it comes to marriage and money. A regular Mrs. Bennet if ever there was one. Thinking about it later, I recalled seeing in the registered Transfer that the development company was called Michael Something-or-Other Developments Limited. That was at least 8 or 10 years ago. Before dwellings in Baker’s Lane became must-have assets.

Today, it’s the twenty-eighth of December and tonight it’s the safari supper. It’s been organised with ruthless precision by Tarquin again, so that everyone participating gets to cook one course only but enjoy three or four. (“A treat for your mother, not to have to cook a whole meal,” says my father).

My father has printed off an itinerary. It is specific to us. We know where we’re going for which courses, but we don’t know who’s going to be our dinner guests tonight. We are however all to end up at Number Seventeen for coffee and liqueurs, though we have to go armed with our favourite tipples.

My mother has drawn a starter for eight people, us included. She made the pâté previously and it has been maturing in the fridge since Christmas Eve morning. I help by making the toasts, the garnishes, setting the table, putting the welcoming sparkling wine in the fridge to cool earlier in the day, making sure there’s enough ice for the bucket, decanting the red wine a couple of hours before anyone’s due to arrive, getting the butter out of the fridge, putting the onion marmalade into little dishes and of course getting out the pâté in the afternoon to warm to room temperature. Vacuuming the dining area; getting the candles ready to light. Going out into the courtyard garden and picking some myrtle and winter jasmine and arranging them in little vases on the table. Finding no sparkly bits or glitter, cutting up some silver foil into lots of tiny little shapes and scattering them randomly over the table top.

“Thanks for giving your mum a rest,” says my dad again.

Yes, poor Mum. She does normally have to work so hard!

I go and lie down myself for an hour.

THE GUESTS arrive. I ply them with bubbly. No one refuses and asks for a soft drink. Two couples are here. So there must be one more person. I hope it’s not Dominic. It turns out to be Michael.

Mum and Dad don’t appear to know the other two couples that well, so initially Michael entertains us by telling us about his forthcoming trip to Oman. He is apparently a keen amateur archaeologist and there is an on-going dig at Bat. It sounds romantic and attractive; living at close quarters, communal dining, the camaraderie, the excitement if there’s any significant find. He gives some background history of the area. I’m riveted. Too soon, my parents and the couples interject with their own travel stories of an entirely different and more mundane nature. They all want to bore everyone else about their holiday experiences and the cruises they’ve taken. Listening to them, I’m glad now that I passed on the opportunity for a festive Christmas cruise this holiday.

When the chatter starts to focus on the quantities of food on offer in the many on-board dining facilities, I turn back to Michael who is seated next to me and ask him to tell me some more about his hobby. It reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel. He says it’s not an expensive thing to do and lots of students take part in these digs, then he admits they probably get grants to do so. And he mentions some incredible old Empire-type hotels in far flung parts that must cost a bomb to stay at.

I wonder why some gold digger hasn’t snapped him up by now, though I’m sure he wouldn’t be happy with someone feigning interest in him who was really in it just for the money. I sense that he’s looking for female companionship and I think about suggesting to him one of the sugar-daddy/sugar-baby sites that apparently lots of girls at university now use to get them through their courses without having to work long hours at some low-paid menial job to make ends meet. It seems like an ideal arrangement to me if both parties are able to keep it on a sufficiently business-like basis. Maybe there are similar sites with the same basic purpose for older people. However I suppose that would be presumptuous of me. He might very well take offence and anyway he’s quite knowledgeable enough about life I’m certain to be able to seek out something like that for himself if he wanted to.

The meal finished, it’s time to move on to the next course at the next house on our schedule. The guests compliment my mother on the pâté and how lovely the table looked. We don’t bother to clear up. We need to get going. I tell my parents I’ll clear the table the next day. I don’t have to leave until the afternoon.

“Thanks, Anna. Your mum would appreciate that,” says my dad.

We compare our lists with the others and they’re all going somewhere different. As we all get ready to leave, Michael says to me in a low voice that maybe I’d like to go to his house for a nightcap later. He names Number Twenty-five and the time, which is the same time we’re all supposed to end up at Number Seventeen so I expect my disappearing could easily go unnoticed in the mêlée. I hesitate. I want to go. I want to spend some time with him but I don’t want to lead him on. I sense that he wouldn’t hesitate to move the encounter onto the bedroom as soon as decently possible. I don’t mean that he’s an out and out letch. He’s just a very confident person. I suppose you have to be to take risks and make a lot of money. I can’t see reticence or shyness suddenly overcoming him and I find that a bit frightening actually.

I quite like a little uncertainty in a man. I don’t mean a complete wimp. I mean I don’t like being taken for granted. I think a man shouldn’t just assume that one will go to bed with him even if all the signs are there. It’s nice to be able to make the final decision on the spur of the moment if necessary, not have it foisted on one because one has been friendly, even very friendly, even maybe provocative. Personally I wouldn’t myself make any assumptions about a man’s willingness whatever the circumstances, though actually that’s rarely a problem in practice.

I tell Michael I’ll try to get there if ‒ I want to say if I can make it not look too obvious, though as we’re both single that seems daft though also suggestive of a specific likely outcome. Instead, I say that I’ll be there if the timing of our last course allows it which I think is reasonable. If I were to be earlier say than him, I’d feel incredibly stupid standing around in the street outside his house even for a few minutes. And if we both had to slip away from the coffee and liqueurs together, that might be noticed by people, especially some people, notably my parents. Michael nods then we all go out into the cold street.

People have left their lights on and curtains open so it’s not dark. The street is alive with chatter. Others are out there too, checking their schedules, separating and eagerly marching to their destinations. We separate, and my parents and I go on to Number Three for our main course.

NATURALLY, I think about Michael’s invitation all through the second and third courses, turning it around in my mind. By the time I’m enjoying fruit pavlova with a slice of the most divine chocolate brownie and helpings of both cream and ice cream, I’ve started to convince myself that a little fling, a one-night-stand, might do me some good. Michael is good-looking. He has fine, chiselled features. Actually, a bit like an older version of Milton. He isn’t all jowly. His white hair is cut short but not too short. It’s just that he’s so old, to me at any rate. He has a lot of lines on his face, and his hands are wrinkly with liver spots, possibly from spending too much time in hot places out in the open digging up ancient artefacts.

But it doesn’t seem fair to hold these things against him from the point of view of a possible bed partner. Under the covers in subdued lighting, the wrinkles wouldn’t be noticeable. And I’d have my eyes closed. I could do with a real flesh and blood lover after months of abstinence. If I’m honest, a Christmas shag simply appeals. Though I still can’t make up my mind. That is whether I would, if offered, which of course might not be the case.

THE CRUSH of people now converging on Number Seventeen would provide cover for a good number of terrorists or interlopers or MI5 officers trying to access safe houses at the top of Baker’s Lane. Or someone surreptitiously sneaking off to meet a potential lover. There’s an awful lot of Friends and their guests, replete from their dining experiences, milling about in high spirits attempting to enter Number Seventeen in a not terribly orderly fashion. And none of them, thanks to Tarquin, appear to have ended up in the wrong houses during the evening eating the wrong grub.

I have no difficulty separating from the main body, slipping to Number Twenty-five and quietly tapping the knocker. Michael opens the door in an instant and he ushers me into his hall. For a second I think he may be about to sweep me into his arms and if he had I might well have succumbed but he just smiles cheerfully at seeing me and takes me into his back kitchen. It’s a large room with french windows leading out into the garden which looks pretty big. Of course it’s an end house so perhaps it has a larger garden somehow. I picture my parents’ downstairs rooms and they’re much smaller. It’s like being in the Tardis, far bigger inside than it can be from looking at the outside. Michael sees me frowning.

“It’s two houses knocked into one. It slightly puts the numbering out in that there’s no Number Twenty-six but I don’t think it’s that obvious.” No, it wasn’t to me until now.

“But,” I say, “I’m sure my parents’ garden is much shorter than this.”

“Well it’s the end house so I was able to buy more land at the back without it being hemmed in on both sides.”

It certainly isn’t hemmed in. Or doesn’t look it. It’s been carefully landscaped to resemble a woodland. You can see this as there are concealed lights on here and there on the ground and hanging from the trees, coloured lights, red and orange. And there are some statues too. It looks quite mystical and magical. There’s a herringbone paved seating area near the house which merges naturally with the woods, like two bands of paint allowed to bleed into each other.

“It’d be nice to go and sit outside if we could but it’d be too cold,” he says, “and I do so hate those patio heater things. So what can I get you to drink. It’s coffee and liqueur time according to Tarquin’s timetable.” He’s put a few bottles on the table and a cafetiere and he gestures towards them. I ask for a coffee and check the bottles. I opt for a small Creme Catalana. I’ve had it before. It’s similar to the Baileys I’ve become so hooked on of late as my comfort drink, but much lower in alcohol. He has coffee and brandy.

“Tell me some more about Oman and archaeology,” I say and he does. I watch him as he speaks. He’s turned the lighting down low. The walls are roughly plastered and painted burnt orange. It goes well with the exposed beams and the rustic french farmhouse furniture and range, but it also casts a soft flattering glow over everything in the room. It makes him look twenty years younger. Though that would still make him early fifties. Nevertheless his appearance is growing on me. He’s clearly very wrapped up in his subject and very expressive with his hands, describing things with sweeping though graceful movements. I can’t help but wonder what he was like as, say, a thirty-year-old, young enough to be still fresh looking and yet old enough to have started to have some maturity and to convey the confidence that oozes out of him. He’d probably have looked a bit like a young Robert Redford. Not Milton, now I observe him more closely. I got that wrong. He has a strong face and dark blue eyes. Oh, didn’t I mention that before? At length, he winds up his soliloquy and looks back at me.

“I believe you said you were leaving tomorrow, Anna,” he says.

“Yes. I may go into the office and do a bit of work the two days after even though the office is officially closed. It stops the post building up too much. And then of course there’s New Year’s Eve.”

“Oh yes. New Year’s Eve.” He says this with a jaded air. “I’ll be at the site by then. Some people arrive early to prepare. Still it should be quite a lot of fun. Scientists and academics do like to party. More entertaining than a knees up in Baker’s Lane I suspicion.”

“Well you did create Baker’s Lane. More or less. So I hear.”

“So I did, but I didn’t realise it would turn into a theme park for retired gentlefolk. And I didn’t create The Friends. They did that for themselves.”

I have to laugh at that. “I know what you mean. Although actually I’ve enjoyed it. And I’m glad my parents are happy,” I say.

“Yes. Indeed. Still, you’re going and so am I. I like you a lot, Anna. I wish we could spend a bit more time together.”

“Yes. So do I but I have to go. There’s the work and although it’s been fine up to now with my mum and dad, give it too long and it would start to degenerate.”

He laughs. “I’ve never had the opportunity to fall out even trivially with any children.” I don’t like to ask him to elaborate. “We, my wife and I, never had any. I don’t know why. We didn’t try to find out anything. It was sad for us. But we put up with it.”

“How long were you married then?”

He laughs again. “If I tell you that, it’ll make me sound so ancient.” He sighs. “We were married for fifty-two years and she died two years ago. We were pretty young when we married. Not out of our teens. We went through some very difficult times together until I managed to start making a proper living. She was lovely. Actually you look a bit like she did when she was young. And you have a kind of inner grace about you. I suppose that’s why…”

He shakes his head. I don’t know what to say. I certainly don’t feel graceful, inner or otherwise, a lot of the time.

“Anna, I won’t beat about the bush. I’m too old for that. I’d be honoured if you’d stay some time longer with me here. Perhaps stay the night with me.” He does look uncertain. Surprisingly not majorly confident of his ground. I find this appealing. I think of us together. Right now he doesn’t look that old to me. “I know I’m too old for you really,” he says, “but…” he smiles, “…I don’t think you’d regret going to bed with me. I only mean tonight. I’m not suggesting that we carry on seeing each other. It wouldn’t work. Just tonight.”

I think again how unfair it is that someone’s age should dictate against them in the realms of love. It’s hot in this kitchen. He has the sleeves of his jumper rolled up and his forearms look surprisingly muscular, not sinewy and flabby as you might expect. I can quite believe he probably would be pretty good to go to bed with. I actually start to feel aroused.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly, something intervenes. There is someone. If it were to come about in at least the reasonably near future that we should meet again and start a relationship, I wouldn’t want anything to have sullied that. I know what I’m like. To have had physical contact with another man would play on my mind. I’d probably feel forced to tell him and it may well then ruin everything. I can’t take the risk, however unlikely it is that this dreamed-of encounter may materialise. I realise incredibly that I’m being faithful to an image in a dream. I should stop this obsession. But I can’t.

And, I swallow, I’m glad the misgivings arrived when they did, not some time later when it might have been almost impossible to back out. I nearly break into a sweat at the very idea.

Michael sees me churning over these thoughts. “I know I’m too old for you. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s not that. Honestly.” He doesn’t seem convinced. “There’s someone, Michael. Someone I … think of a lot. I don’t know if it’ll ever come to anything. But in case it may, I can’t really … I just can’t. Not at the moment.”

His eyes soften. I think he believes me and that it’s not the age factor. “Well,” he says, “I hope it resolves itself for you.”

“Thanks. I suppose we’d better get off to the coffee and liqueurs proper.”

“I don’t think I’ll go,” he says. He gets my coat and sees me to the door. Before he opens it, I feel I have to say to him: “Honestly. I would have liked to have slept with you. But if there’s any chance with this other person, I don’t want to mess it up. Can I kiss you goodnight though?”

“With pleasure.” He puts his arms around me and the kiss is deep and warm and not at all as you’d imagine it would be with an old man. He smells nice. Not of mothballs or denture cream or … decay. His mouth tastes of the coffee with a hint of spirits.

“That was very agreeable,” I say. “I’ll remember that. Especially if it comes to nothing with this other man.”

“Me too.”

NUMBER SEVENTEEN is packed. My parents don’t even appear to have noticed my absence. They must think I was still at the last house. It had some nice paintings I was admiring while we were there. I don’t feel like staying any longer here tonight, trying to appear jolly with these hyped-up people. I excuse myself. I find Tarquin and thank him for organising tonight. And the Christmas Day lunch. And the quiz afternoon and meal. I tell him honestly I’ve enjoyed all these things immensely. I also seek out our two lots of hosts this evening and thank and compliment them again on their courses. I tell anyone who says goodbye that I hope the street party goes well the day after tomorrow.

All of this takes a half-hour then I’m blessedly out in the cold night air looking up and down Baker’s Lane’s picturesque facade, light spilling from the windows, the noise from Number Seventeen still evident out here. I walk slowly to my parents’ home. The whole thing with Michael is tinged with sadness, so bitter-sweet, so poignant. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again.

DRIVING along the A12 back to Essex the following afternoon, it’s already dark and the prospect of arriving at my cold home to be on my own for the evening is uninviting. Against all expectations, I hugely enjoyed my Christmas visit with my parents. I’m starting to re-think this business of advance information influencing the outcome or even being in the least useful. Absolutely none of my experiences since being separated were in any way assisted by my expectations. Even with Dennis, the bits and pieces I’d managed to find out about him before our ‘date’ didn’t help at all. In fact, they were probably a hindrance. I had to find out for myself. I can only be thankful that I’ve had opportunities since then to see him again and perhaps make some favourable impression. Who knows? No one really. I missed out last night on something that I’m sure would have been delightful, despite the age difference, provided thoughts of Dennis hadn’t impacted too forcefully. I must hope that my self-restraint was in a good cause.

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