I blame my mother-in-law, Amelia. If she hadn’t been visiting us when my husband Greg staggered into the kitchen with his clothes torn and gently smouldering, announcing he’d finally got the time machine to work, no-one would have suggested throwing a dinner party to celebrate, and the worst night of my life might still be the sixth-form disco when I was carted off on a stretcher after hyperventilating during a slow dance with Dave Harrison.
On the night of the dinner party, Amelia and I were in the kitchen peeling prawns when Greg poked his head round the door and announced the guests had arrived. I followed him into the living room.
Oscar Wilde was standing on the hearthrug, reading from the copy of The Importance of Being Earnest I’d left on the mantelpiece for him to sign. In his other hand he held a lit cigar, which he was waving about for dramatic emphasis. Mrs Beeton, Amelia’s guest, was perched on the edge of Greg’s favourite armchair, surreptitiously running a finger over the top of the lamp table to inspect for dust. Reclining on the sofa was a young man in a gold-edged toga. He was dipping his hand into the potpourri bowl on the coffee table and popping handfuls of its contents into his mouth.
‘Your guest?’ I whispered, elbowing Greg in the ribs.
‘And he would be?’
There was a choking sound from the sofa, and several pieces of damp pot-pourri arced across the room and landed on the hearthrug, narrowly missing Oscar’s shoes.
Caligula jumped up, shouting obscenities in Latin, and tossed the pot-pourri bowl over his shoulder, decapitating the shepherd girl figurine Amelia gave us last Christmas. As the old adage goes, every cloud has a silver lining.
Amelia chose that moment to make her entrance. ‘Bonsoir, bonsoir,’ she beamed, lifting her kaftan and giving a little curtsey. ‘I am so enchantée to meet you all.’ Greg says his mother has been peppering her speech with French phrases ever since she took a Cordon Bleu cookery course in the seventies.
Amelia ushered us into the dining room, and to our places at the table, where a glass of white wine and a serving of prawn cocktail were waiting for each of us.
Caligula sniffed the wine and held his prawn cocktail glass up to the light. He slammed both glasses down in front of Greg.
‘I’ve got my own. Those are yours,’ Greg explained, returning the glasses.
Caligula shoved them back.
‘I think he wants you to taste them,’ said Amelia.
‘Whatever for?’ asked Greg.
‘Maybe after ingesting some of your dried flowers earlier, he thinks you’re trying to poison him,’ suggested Oscar.
‘Look -’ began Greg, but he stopped short when he caught sight of the expression on Caligula’s face. He took a sip of Caligula’s wine and ate a spoonful of prawns from his glass. ‘Yummy,’ he said, smiling broadly and rubbing his stomach as if talking to a toddler.
For the next minute and a half Caligula didn’t take his eyes off Greg. At last he took the prawn cocktail glass by the stem and tossed back the prawns in a single gulp. He did the same with the wine. He wiped his mouth on the edge of the tablecloth and gave a satisfied belch.
The main course was another of Amelia’s spécialités.
‘What is this?’ asked Mrs Beeton, suspiciously.
‘Chicken korma,’ said Amelia, proudly. ‘It’s very à la mode.’
‘And this on the side?’
‘Is it supposed to be that colour?’
‘That’s how it comes out of the jar.’
‘I see,’ said Mrs Beeton, her voice dripping with condescension. She prodded at the chicken listlessly, and then put a piece in her mouth and winced. ‘It has a rather … unusual consistency.’
‘Consistency is overrated,’ said Wilde. ‘I’ve always considered it to be the last refuge of the unimaginative.’
What wit. Oscar and I laughed like drains. I don’t think anyone else can have heard him.
Caligula must have decided we weren’t trying to poison him after all, because he polished off the chicken korma with aplomb, and motioned to Greg to top up his wine glass. He then leant across the table, took the pencil from behind Greg’s ear, and started drawing something on his paper napkin.
When he’d finished he gave it to Amelia.
‘And what has our budding Da Vinci drawn?’ asked Oscar.
Amelia put on her reading glasses and held the napkin at arm’s length, squinting. She turned it around a couple of times.
‘It, er… looks like a self-portrait… and he’s… mon dieu, he’s having sex with a horse!’
From the other side of the table there was a tiny gasp followed by a hefty thud, and Mrs Beeton disappeared from view.
Oscar came to the rescue with a bottle of smelling salts. When Mrs Beeton came round, she thanked him for his kindness.
‘My good woman, think nothing of it,’ he replied. ‘One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing.’
At that moment there was a horrible retching noise. Caligula was throwing up into the fruit bowl.
The arrival of Amelia with the dessert was a welcome distraction.
‘Tell you what,’ said Greg, ‘why don’t we have our dessert out on the patio? It’s a lovely evening.’ Everyone was happy to agree, and get as far away from the fruit bowl as possible.
Amelia’s dessert, tiramisu, was a great hit. Neither Mrs Beeton nor Oscar could find anything scathing to say about it, and despite his dodgy digestion, Caligula came back for thirds.
‘Have you left something on the stove, Mum?’ Greg asked, as he was scraping the last traces of dessert from his bowl.
‘No,’ replied Amelia.
I sniffed the air. There was a smell of burning coming from inside the house. I sent Greg to investigate.
‘I don’t want anyone to panic,’ said Greg when he came back, ‘but the living room’s on fire.’
When the fire engine eventually arrived flames were licking from the bedroom windows and a black pall of smoke hung over the whole street.
‘Been having a fancy dress party?’ asked the fire chief, chattily. I glanced around. An ageing ‘hippy chick’ wearing a kaftan and a headband was pacing up and down the pavement, taking photos of the blaze with a mobile phone. A young woman in a crinoline and shawl was sitting on a neighbour’s wall, fanning her face with a paper napkin, a man wearing a velvet smoking jacket and carrying a silver-tipped cane was chatting animatedly with one of the younger members of the fire crew, and a youth in a toga with a golden laurel wreath perched precariously on his head was throwing up noisily into the gutter.
‘Fancy dress?’ I said. ‘Yes, something like that.’
Greg came over to the fire chief and started blabbering incoherently about the shed.
‘Now calm down, sir. We have everything under control.’
‘I think my husband wants to know whether the garden shed is still standing,’ I explained. ‘He keeps his time ma- … I mean… his tools in the shed.’
The fire chief gave me his best ‘we’ve got a right one here’ look, but he made a call on his walkie-talkie, after which he was able to confirm that the shed was not only still standing, but was completely undamaged. Greg hugged him.
As soon as the fire engine had left, Amelia announced, ‘You two are coming to stay chez moi while all this mess gets sorted out. I insist.’
I didn’t have the energy to argue.
We all made a point of seeing our guests off. We said our goodbyes outside the shed.
Caligula was the second person that evening to be on the receiving end of one of Greg’s hugs. As Greg embraced the young despot there was a clinking sound, and as he pulled away, three bottles of wine fell out from under the Emperor’s toga and smashed on the garden path. Greg pushed him through the shed door with somewhat more force than was necessary.
Amelia turned to Mrs Beeton. ‘I’d like to say what a plaisir it has been to meet you,’ she said.
Mrs Beeton managed a smug smile. ‘Well…’ she began, but Amelia hadn’t finished.
‘I’d like to be able to say that, but I can’t. I’ve never met such a snobby, stuck-up vache in my whole life.’
Before Mrs Beeton could say anything in response, Greg ushered her hastily into the shed.
I turned to Oscar. ‘I’m sorry to have to say goodbye so soon,’ I said, ‘but I think, all things considered, it’s probably for the best.’
‘My dear,’ replied Oscar, ‘I am quite ready to return to my own time, thank you. As I always say, a little excitement is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
© Helen Lewis 2010