We are driving to a thing. We are lost. It is a lunch thing, so the children are in tow. They are babies really, happily unaware of the nervous glances my wife and I are exchanging in the front of the car.
No one we know will be there. Except the host. And we don’t even know her very well.
‘Whatever you do, please don’t say I’m a poet,’ I say. ‘I hate it.’
‘Of course not. I would never do that. Whatever made you think-‘
‘Just don’t. Please. They won’t understand.’
Outside it is bright London sunshine, the streets suddenly wide in an area we have not been to before. Even though it is daylight, no one seems to be about. We pass a sofa straddling a street corner.
‘It can’t be far,’ my wife says. ‘She said it was past the library on the left. Somewhere after the bus garage.’
‘We passed that ages ago.’
We arrive to the house of the thing late. We carry the babies who are ‘just as invited, darling’ up the steps and wait at the door. A distant siren. I suddenly realise I am wearing an polo neck jumper. How like a poet. I shine my shoes on the backs of my trousers, like Mr Banks in Mary Poppins.
‘Don’t,’ says my wife. We smile, cooing at the babies.
The door opens to a torrent of words, somewhere in the distance the sound of china and cutlery. A sitting down thing, I think. God.
Our host is in full flow, taking our coats, saying hello to the babies, and sending commands down the hallway to someone we think might be called Toby, her husband. She takes the bottle of wine we have brought. ‘Rioja. Marvellous,’ she says. My wife goes into the room with the cutlery-noises while I am shown down the hallway where the children of the other guests are seated, dinner party style, round a low table in the corner of the kitchen. A young woman is sitting with them, patiently chopping their food and talking sweetly to them. Each child has a name badge. She introduces herself, but I do not catch her name. I think it is Arabella.
The babies have gone to clingy-mode. Grabbing a chair I sit with them and begin chopping their food. From across the table one of the other children says in a very loud voice ‘But I do not eat broccoli!’ and slams her spoon down onto the table. My daughter leans in to me. ‘Do we have to eat it, Dad?’
‘No, my love, you don’t. Not today.’
‘I don’t want to eat any of it, Dad. It’s disgusting.’
‘Yes. Disgusting,’ says another child from across the table.
I notice that Arabella has vanished. I wonder where my wife is, and what happened to the man who might be Toby. I could do with a drink. ‘Just eat what you can,’ I say with a smile. I lever myself out of my chair and across the kitchen in search of a drink. I find my discarded bottle of Rioja. I am rattling around in the cutlery drawer, Rioja in hand, when Toby marches in, also in search of another bottle.
‘Andrew!’ he says. ‘Marvellous. You found the Rioja.’ He takes the bottle from me and marches out of the kitchen up the hallway.
Whining noises are beginning to come from the children’s table. None of them are eating, except my youngest, who is now eating with his hands including the food from his sister’s plate. I edge out of the kitchen and up the hallway. Behind me the table of unfed children, in front of me cutlery scraping on china. Someone is coming to the end of saying something, a person I realise with dread is my wife. ‘…a poet,’ I hear her say.
I am just reaching the kitchen when a voice erupts at my shoulder. ‘There you are!’ My host. ‘Where have you been, with the children I suppose, you are a darling. Toby was supposed to fetch you. He’s an idiot darling. Come in and have some food.’ She shunts me down the hallway, her hand on the small of my back.
‘What about the children?’
‘Annabelle will sort them out.’
The room is candlelit and is almost entirely taken up by the enormous dinner table in its centre. Though it is mid-afternoon, the curtains are drawn. Eleven guests fix their eyes on me as I enter with my host, her hand now clutching my waist. ‘This is Anthony,’ she says. ‘He’s a poet.’ I flash them a smile, my eyes briefly meeting those of my wife.
‘Hi, everyone. I’m sorry I’m late. I got embroiled with the kids.’
‘And you’ve brought their lunch with you,’ says a man at the end of the table. ‘Good plan.’
He points at my shoulder, where I notice a large smear of broccoli on my shoulder.
I am shown to the far end of the table, opposite Toby, who begins pouring me an enormous glass of wine. ‘They don’t fit into the dishwasher,’ he says, ‘but I’m sure you’ve got the space.’ He rewards himself with a nervous bray of laughter. I take a gulp of the wine, immediately wishing I hadn’t. I have still not eaten anything. All I can see on the table are empty plates and half-finished bottles of wine.
The host calls down the table in my direction: ‘What’s it like being a poet, do tell us, it must be such fun!’ My wife and I exchange glances.
‘Are you going to do a poem?’ says Toby.
‘Go on. Go on.’
‘It’s actually my day off.’ This does not get a laugh.
‘Darling, what’s that one about ‘There was a young man from Bude’?’
Toby clears his throat: ‘There was a young man from Bude−.’
‘Or was it Leeds?’
‘There was a young man from Bude−.’
”When this is all over…’ we said,/ and laughed and made that bed.’
Everyone is gawping at me. Toby has his mouth open.
‘Made other things seem trivial and unenduring,
lying there joking and seeming
equal. Yet so often now we are like strangers
guilty of acts committed in darkness.
Preferring not to talk we notice
how uneven the body is
in sleep and lie and listen to thoughts
which have no hope of finding voice,
even in these moments
after love, after everything is done, less tense.
Outside the clouds are vacant, lost,
at random. As we turn and shift to rest
with slow and separate movements
the wind bleats at our door, sounding human.’
There is a silence. ‘Fuck,’ says Toby.
‘Is that a real poem, or did you write it?’ says the broccoli-man.
Before I can answer my daughter appears at the door. ‘Daddy,’ she says, ‘there is a poo in the kitchen.’
‘Coffee, anyone?’ says the host.
Things are quiet in the car on the way home. I have conquered my room-spin with repeated refills of coffee. The babies are asleep in the back. The youngest has a feint tinge of green about his cheeks. My wife gazes out of the window.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
‘Fine with me.’
‘Fine with me.’
The youngest lets out a yawn in his sleep.
‘Tony was all right, in a kind of mindless way.’
”Such fun,” I say.