Oliver and I aren’t dinner party people. We’re pub people, dysfunctional family party people, and under-sufferance office dinner people. Social activities that involve lots of noise and scant opportunity for intelligent conversation are our gatherings of choice.
But this isn’t Acacia Drive, it’s Woodhaven. Dinner parties are how we do things in this corner of Little Britain.
When Charlie first mentioned us going to dinner with her and Lee, I envisaged an informal meeting – weeks away, if ever – in a chain restaurant with too-loud background music and lots of interruptions from waiters. Instead, she phoned the next day to invite us to their house with another couple and their offspring, and told us to bring Jack along. He could play with the other children, she said, and leave the grown ups alone to chat.
“I’ll get pizza and a DVD for the kids,” she said. “Do you and Oliver like Thai food?”
Oliver, as I’ve mentioned before, isn’t adventurous. But he used to like sweet and sour chicken from the local Chinese takeaway back home. Thailand isn’t far from China. It must be pretty much the same.
“And please don’t bother dressing up. We’re very casual here. Shorts will be fine.”
OK. I know the Woodhaven expat definition of ‘casual’ now. Little black dress it will be – with a high neckline for Lee’s benefit, obviously.
* * *
“This is Anita King and her husband Sam,” Charlie says when we arrive. “Sam works with Oliver and Lee, of course. He came from the Newcastle office. And Anita buys her earrings at Wal-Mart.”
Anita’s earrings might be Wal-Mart, but her LBD certainly isn’t, and I’m relieved I’ve ignored Charlie’s dress code advice.
Oliver raises his eyebrows at the introduction. “Earrings?”
“Inside joke,” I tell him.
Another man appears, carrying a power drill.
“And this is Jeffrey Connor. He’s works at the same place as our guys, but he’s in Finance, so maybe Oliver hasn’t met him yet.” Charlie propels him toward us. Jeffrey is slightly-built, with the glimmerings of a bald patch, and a miserable expression which is possibly the result of his 1970s-relic moustache.
“Don’t mind me. I only came to borrow Lee’s drill. Mine’s had so much use recently, it broke.” The flat vowels make his expression and moustache seem all the sadder.
“Are you sure we can’t persuade you to stay for a drink?” Charlie’s tone is unnaturally cheerful.
“No. Thanks, though. I’ll just take the drill and get back home before she starts to complain. No rest for the wicked. You know how it is.”
Everyone choruses their goodbyes, wreathed in too-bright smiles, and Jeffrey leaves.
“And so he shouldn’t have any rest, the git,”Anita says, smirking into her gin and tonic. “Bet he wishes he’d stayed in England now.”
You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Anita, I decide. Jeffrey seemed nice enough.
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that,” she says.
Anita composes her features into a serious expression. “You’re absolutely right. Whatever will our newcomer think of us?”
What I’m thinking, of course, is that they shouldn’t start intriguing dialogues and stop halfway through, but it’s hardly good manners to ask them to spill the beans.
Maybe I can bring up the subject again later.
“Curry and pizza must be ready now,” Charlie says. “I hope everyone’s hungry.”
* * *
It turns out that Thai food is nothing like the bright red sweet and sour pork from the Chinese takeaway. Oliver downs six glasses of water and three glasses of wine before he manages to finish his green curry. When he finally does, he sinks back in his chair, breathing hard, with damp circles spreading under his arms. He keeps throwing longing glances at the children’s box of abandoned cheese pizza.
I don’t think the curry was all that hot – sometimes my mum and I used to go for an Indian buffet when we were out shopping – but Oliver’s idea of spicy food is a smudge of English mustard on the edge of his plate of roast beef.
When everyone has finished eating, Lee takes Oliver and Sam down to the basement to show them a wine cabinet he’s built.
“That’s got rid of them.” Charlie smiles at me. “We can talk properly now.”
“Indeed we can.” Anita pours a little more wine in my glass, and empties the rest of the bottle into her own. “Oh dear. Another one gone. Tell me, how do you like Woodhaven, Libby?”
“I’m getting used to it. Lots of the time I wish I was at home, though.”
For a town so beautiful on the outside that I fell in love with it at first sight, it sure has a lot of ugly politics and residents underneath.
Anita nods. “As you say, you’ll get used to it. The HR people advise you not to visit home for a few months, and with good reason. They know you’ll find it hard to come back here if you do.”
“But I suppose people still do, right?”
Anita hesitates. “You’re living in Juniper Close, I hear. Someone else from England used to live there. Have you heard about it?”
“Anita…let’s not go there yet.”
Anita ignores Charlie. “Jeffrey, who you met earlier, he used to live there, with his first wife. Who was your realtor, as a matter of interest?”
There’s a subtext to this conversation I don’t yet understand. “Someone called Melissa,” I say.
“I thought as much. Gave you the hard sell, I expect.”
“No, I…” I try to remember. We’d liked the house, and Melissa had tried to hard sell every house we’d looked at, but thinking about it now… “She was very helpful, to be fair. The first few houses we looked at were awful, and this last one was the nicest, and she had to argue later with the landlord to get it down to a decent rent.”
“I’ll bet she did.” Anita snorts. “Do you know the story of Jeffrey Connor? He’s a fixture. Been here about five years. He and his wife Shelley went back for Christmas in England after they’d only been here a few months, and that was it — she wouldn’t come back here. She took the kids and went to live with her parents. He stayed in the house where you are now, on his own, and completed the two year assignment. Then he signed his divorce papers and married this American he’d shacked up with.”
I can feel my eyes bugging out. Still, these things happen, I tell myself, with or without the expat complications. It was unfortunate, though, that it happened in our house; it gave the place bad vibes. Perhaps Oliver should take that realtor woman up on her offer to read the feng shui, or whatever it was she did.
Anita sits back in her chair, watching me. “Have you met your landlord?”
I shake my head a little to clear my thoughts. “The company pays the rent directly to them. I don’t actually know who the house belongs to.”
“It will be on your lease somewhere, but I can tell you. It belongs to your realtor, who should have mentioned that little detail when she was showing you round. Everything gets out sooner or later in a small town like this. Melissa Harvey Connor owns that house.”
“Oh.” So maybe she should have declared a conflict of interest, but as we didn’t have any direct dealings with her, I can’t see what the problem is. “Was she Jeffrey’s landlord too?”
I sense Charlie stiffen. Voices in the hall as Oliver makes his way back to the dining room and stops to talk to Jack.
“She was his landlord, yes.” Anita leans toward me. “And then she became something else, Now she’s his wife, hence her last name. And rumour has it that Shelley didn’t stay in England because she missed her mum, but she stayed in England because Jeffrey and Melissa we getting rather more friendly than a conventional landlord-tenant relationship requires. You might want to watch out, the first time you need to approach her because the guttering needs fixing. Word in the sewing circle is that she and Jeffrey aren’t love’s young dream any more.”
“You’ve had too much to drink. Take no notice of her.” Charlie looks very upset.
Oliver comes back in the room carrying Jack. “Jack’s tired, Libs. Maybe we should think about leaving soon.”
I make a pretence of checking the time, and stand up.
“You’re right, we should get going. It’s been a lovely evening, Charlie. Thank you so much.”
I look directly at Anita. “You too. Thank you. Really.”
© 2011 Kate Allison