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For the old boot’s birthday, I bought a dozen red roses and a copy of Anthony and Araminta Hippisley Coxe’s “The Book of the Sausage”, knowing full well that there’s almost nothing that Joan can resist less than a sausage.
She opened the book and grunted - barely glanced at the flowers. She went straight for the attached card with a hopeful look on her face. It read: “Happy Birthday. I love you. Ralph.”
“You termite,” said Joan, having read this message.
“What did you expect,” I asked, guessing what was in her mind, “a proposal?”
“If you had any class at all, .....” said Joan and left the conditional clause hanging, like a pickpocket on the gibbet turning in the Tyburn breeze.
It was no good saying that I had actually considered saying this, although I had actually considered it. Really. In the florist. In a romantic upsurge that practically had me in tears there in the shop, it came to me that the only present that would really be appreciated was a card with the words “Will you marry me?” on it. But, and here’s the nub of it: Joan knows full well that I don’t want to get married. I mean, if I was going to get married to anyone, I’d doubtless get married to her. But I don’t want to get married to anyone.
But strewth. Come the dinner party.
The guests were supposed to be Eric and Chloe, Orson and A.N.Other, and Fiona, Joan’s boss from the restaurant, with her boyfriend, Dick. Well, Dick’s one of the millions who now work for Channel 4. He’s some species of writer and he claimed he had some deadline breathing down his neck. The fact of the matter is that he thinks we’re all beneath him. Dick the dickhead! And what with Joan being off work, and one of the other girls being sick or something, Fiona had to cover for her. So, so much for them.
And, despite the fact that Orson has been diligently slutting off to the Subway for the last few nights, he failed to come up with an A.N. Other, so it was just Orson, Eric, Joan, Chloe and me.
While the five of us were sitting down, and I served the first course, Eric was telling us about this fireworks party he went to last night, where, instead of setting off fireworks, they burned money.
I was shocked. “That’s disgusting.”
“No it’s not,” said Eric. “I mean, Dave reckoned he’d spend about two hundred quid on fireworks, which is two hundred quid up in smoke anyway, so he reckoned it would be more of a gas to burn the actual money.”
I put Joan’s starter in front of her.
“Who wants mine?” she said.
“But darling,” I said, “it’s shrotted pimps. Your favourite.”
“Look,” said Joan, “you may as well all know, I’m on hunger strike.”
“I’ll have them then,” said Eric, who is phenomenally greedy.
“Eric!” Chloe remonstrated, as he tipped Joan’s portion onto his own plate and tucked in.
Then Chloe said to Joan: “What is this? What’s going on?”
So Joan explained that she is on hunger strike until I say yes or no to marriage and children and all that crap. Chloe’s reaction was typical. It was all my fault. She laid into me.
“Oh come off it,” said Eric, through a mouthful of shrimp, “she’s not serious.”
“I am,” said Joan.
“Why don’t you want to marry her?” demanded Chloe.
“I don’t see why I should get married, if I don’t want to,” said I.
“Well why not?” Chloe persisted. “What have you got against getting married? Everybody gets married. We’re married.”
“Oh Lordy, Lordy,” said Orson, who becomes markedly camper after sundown “you breeders are so defensive.”
“Please don’t call us breeders, Orson,” Chloe snapped. “I find it incredibly rude.”
“QED,” said Orson, archly.
“You should get married, you know,” said Eric.
“Why?” I wondered, standing up and clearing the plates.
“The presents,” said Eric. “That’s why we got married. We really cleaned up on the presents. You’d be amazed how well you can do if you invite the right people.”
“That’s it, is it?” I inquired, testily. “The only reason you two got married? So you could get lots of presents?”
“God, Ralph,” said Chloe, flicking her expensive fringe, “you are so bourgeois.”
“That’s pretty rich,” I said, “coming from you.”
“Hey, man,” said Eric, “what happened to your sense of humour?”
“I don’t have a sense of humour,” I replied. “All I have is a sense of ……..”
I stopped, and they all looked at me, expectantly.
“What do you have a sense of, darling?” Joan prompted.
“Doom,” I said. “Impending doom. Tinged with disgust.”
That shut them up, while I dumped the plates in the sink. I switched off the oven, and the gas beneath the potatoes. My timing was perfect. I drained the spuds in the colander, put some milk in the now empty saucepan and boiled it. Then I put the potatoes back in the milk with a couple of ounces of butter - and mashed the fuckers to perfection.
While I was doing this, Eric, typically, rolled a joint.
“Now, my dear,” said Eric, “I’ll bet you anything you like you can’t smoke this joint without succumbing to overpowering munchies.”
Eric lit the joint and handed it to Joan.
“No thanks,” said Joan.
“She doesn’t need dope,” said I. “I defy a man who has just eaten an eight course dinner at the Dorchester to be able to resist a portion of my stew.”
I placed the casserole on a mat on the table and removed the lid. Ambrosial fumes rose into the atmosphere. A rocket exploded in the sky above us - we all looked up through the kitchen’s glazing and watched the stars fall down.
Chloe had one helping. Orson and I had two helpings. Eric had four helpings. Joan’s only comment on the stew was that she thought it looked too oily. This was an outrageous statement.
“You always make it too oily,” she said.
“I always make it exactly how I like it,” I said.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she said and stood up and went to bed. Chloe followed her through into the bedroom.
“What I suggest,” said Eric, who was busy rolling another joint, while Orson cleared away the plates, and I retrieved the cake from its hiding place on top of the fridge “is that you make a suppository of this excellent Red Leb and slip it up Joan’s bum, when she’s asleep.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “She’d wake up.”
“Not necessarily. You could borrow some of Orson’s K.Y.”
“Up yours,” said Orson.
I put the birthday candle on the cake.
Chloe marched back into the room.
“She really is on hunger strike,” she announced. “She hasn’t eaten since Monday night.”
“Shit,” said Eric. Then he said: “Mind you, it’s not all that long. She’ll never last.”
“What are we going to do about it?” asked Chloe, glaring at me.
“We?” I wondered.
“Alright, what are you going to do about it?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll deal with it.”
“Don’t interfere,” said Eric
“If you think ....,” Chloe began.
“Eric, give me your lighter,” I said.
Chloe went on: “If you think that I am going to stand by and do nothing while my best friend in the whole world .... “
“I thought I was your best friend in the whole world,” interrupted Eric.
He handed me the lighter, and I lit the candle on the cake.
“While my best friend in the whole world, “Chloe persisted, “starves herself to death, because this wimp is too wimp-like to make up his mind, you’ve got another think coming.”
“There is no way,” I said, “that anybody is going to let Joan starve to death.”
“What are you going to do, Ralph? Force feed her?”
“Look,” I said, “she’s bound to realise that I’m right, long before we reach that stage. Come on.”
I led the way through into the bedroom, carrying the cake. They followed me. There was Joan, propped up against the pillows. We sang Happy Birthday To You, then I took the cake over to her, and Joan blew out the candle.
Orson said: “I hope you made a wish.”
“Of course,” said Joan.
“What did you wish?” Eric demanded.
“She can’t tell you that,” said Chloe, “or it won’t come true.”
“Ralph knows what I wished for,” said Joan, wistfully, “don’t you, darling?”
Orson came to the bed and kissed her.
“You look like La Dame aux Camélias, darling. Happy birthday. Must dash.”
“Where are you slutting off to?” Eric wanted to know.
“None of your business” said Orson. And off he went.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of actually eating any of that cake is there?” asked Eric.
“I think we should just go,” said Chloe.
“I want some cake!” Eric complained.
“Why don’t you take it with you?” I suggested. “You can give it to the kids.”
Well, Joan wasn’t going to eat it. And I’m not really a cakey person.
I put the cake back in the box and handed it to Eric, and they left. I saw them out.
By the time I returned to the bedroom, Joan was asleep.
So I came into the kitchen and surveyed the mess. A firework exploded not far off. I jumped. It’s bad enough having to put up with them on Guy Fawkes night - but this day after business is too much. When I take over, I shall put a stop to it. I began thinking about this party that Eric went to yesterday, and this friend of Eric’s - the money burner. The more I thought about it, the more depressed I became.
I took this book out of my tuck box, sat myself down at the table, and now I’ve written all this down.
I thought that writing things down was supposed to cheer you up, put things in perspective, get them off your chest.
Well maybe it does. Maybe it does make you see things more clearly. And what do I see?
Nothing. I see nothing.
You know, I’ve been following the harvest in Bordeaux. All indications are that 1982 is going to be a mother of a vintage. Great early flowering in June. Hot July. Slightly shaky August, admitted, but then an absolute cracker of a heatwave in September. So, super-ripe fruit and fantastic tannin levels. The way I see it, 1982 could be another 1961 or 1966.
And I won’t be able to taste it.
Because I’m a fucking alcoholic.
And I know that just one sip and I’ll be back in the gutter from which I was rescued by Joan.
I thought that I was the Master of Wine, but wine became the Master of Me.
If I was a pianist, and devoted my life to becoming the world’s greatest pianist, and then Mozart came back to life again and wrote his finest concerto just for me, and then some mutant gene caused me to walk into a saw mill and chop off my hands …… well, you get the picture.
I have decided to take the Instant Death pill. I’ve just stood up, crossed the room and reached it down from the top of the dresser. It’s now sitting there, in its little plastic bag, in the egg cup, on the table here in front of me.
My darling Joan - This has absolutely nothing to do with you. I have simply decided that I no longer want to be a member of a species that burns ten pound notes as a joke. Be happy to live - as I am more than happy, nay eager, to die.
All my love.
I am so eager to see what tomorrow brings...