“You look fine, Libs. Stop fussing. It’s a Christmas party, not the Paris fashion show catwalk.” Oliver fixes me with a stern stare in the bedroom mirror and goes back to knotting his tie.
Men just don’t get it. A Christmas party is exactly like the Paris fashion show catwalk. All the other women are looking at what you’re wearing, doing split-second calculations about where you got your dress from and how much it cost. If you don’t measure up, your reputation can be ruined forever in the first five minutes. And that’s just in Milton Keynes. Here, with the Woodhaven tiger-wives, reputations are made and destroyed in five seconds. It’s one thing mistakenly showing up to a coffee morning in scruffy jeans, but a posh dinner party…
“Are you sure this blue dress is OK?” I ask Oliver again. “I liked it in the shop, but I’m not sure now.”
“It’s fine.” He finishes fiddling with his tie. It’s bright green with little Santa hat motifs, and makes my dark blue maternity dress look much classier all of a sudden. “Ready?” he asks.
“I suppose so.”
I’d rather be sitting in front of the fire with a nice cup of tea, watching reruns of Friends.
“It’s a party, Libs. It’ll be fun. Jack will be fine with Maggie, so don’t worry about him.. And you look lovely.”
And at least my dress doesn’t have Santa cartoons dotted all over it.
* * *
“I thought you said this thing was at the country club,” I say to Oliver as he turns the car onto Main Street. “That’s the other way from here.”
“Didn’t I tell you? An idiot in event planning didn’t get the deposit to the country club on time and we lost the booking to some freemasons. We’re at some dive on Main Street now. Still, after the second bottle of wine, no one will notice. You’re OK to drive home, aren’t you?”
But of course. Pregnant woman = designated driver for nine months.
Oliver pulls into a diagonal parking slot near the village green.
“This is near enough,” he says. He pulls out a piece of paper from his inside pocket, squints at it, then points at the row of shops to our right. “Right there, in fact.”
I peer in the direction he’s pointing. “We’re at the Maxwell Plum?”
“It’s not up to much, I know, but at least they booked the whole restaurant for tonight. It might be all right, although from what Jeffrey told me, I’m not holding my breath.”
“Who else? Melissa was most scathing about our Christmas venue. She won’t even come tonight, Jeffrey says. It’s that bad.”
Interesting. I’ve been in this restaurant twice for coffee, and it’s never struck me as terrible. The coffee is fine, and there are no rats or cockroaches running around under the tables. I recall our first meeting with Melissa, when she claimed not to eat at the Maxwell Plum or to know the people who ran it, and yet she appeared to know everything about everyone else in Woodhaven…
“Well,” I say, feeling cheerful for the first time that evening, “if it keeps our dear landlady away, how bad can it be?”
* * *
It isn’t as bad as Melissa says, of course. That’s just her excuse not to come tonight — for whatever reason, I haven’t found out yet. The rough whitewashed walls of the Italian restaurant glow multi-coloured with the reflections of the log fire, dancing fairy lights, and votive candles. Chatter and laughter levels rise as the wine flows – although not in my direction – and Dean Martin sings “Memories are made of this” in the background.
We sit with Lee and Charlie, and Lee doesn’t once try to stare down my dress. Across the room, I see Julia and Caroline, the two tiger-wives from that first miserable coffee morning, and they aren’t intimidating any more. Julia has too much make up on, and her blonde hair is brassy, while Caroline, who I recall is also pregnant, looks tired and puffy, not svelte and unswollen as I remember her.
I smooth my navy-blue satin over my own stomach, which now seems a reasonable size for someone nearly halfway through a pregnancy, and try to stop a smug grin from spreading over my face.
“Having a good time?” Oliver asks me, as I laugh at something Lee has said.
I reach for his hand under the table. “I’m so glad we came.”
As our empty dessert plates are cleared away, Dean Martin stops singing, and over the speakers there comes the tapping and hiss of a microphone being tested.
“Not bloody karaoke,” Lee grumbles loudly. “I was just having a good time, as well. This is Woodhaven, not sodding Tokyo, for Pete’s sake.”
“No, you’re safe, sweetheart, it’s not karaoke,” a woman’s disembodied voice says. “Not for you, anyhow.”
Everyone laughs, and Lee goes red, although he joins in.
“It’s time for some live music,” the voice goes on, “from Frankie and Anna.”
Frankie? Isn’t the bloke who runs the restaurant called Frankie? I crane my neck, trying to see the owner of the voice – Anna herself, I presume.
She’s a thin woman, possibly in her mid- to late thirties. Her hair, a very obviously dyed black, jaw-length bob, has a bright red streak down one side and a purple one on the other. Skinny black jeans – Sandra would die for them, but this woman carries the look off so much better than my mother-in-law ever could – and a black T-shirt that says “Coexist” on the front, using different religious symbols to spell out the word. Black Doc Martens. Heavy eyeliner framing dark eyes.
“She’s not your average Woodhaven citizen,” I mutter to Oliver. “Where did she come from? New York? Outer space?”
Charlie leans across the table. “That’s Anna, Frankie Gianni’s wife,” she whispers at me. “Lived here nearly all her life, I hear.”
I stare at Anna, fascinated.
Woodhaven doesn’t breed exotic creatures like this. It breeds Melissa Harvey-Connor types, who shout from the side of football fields and drive unnecessarily huge cars to match their egos. It breeds highlighted-blondes, like Julia and Caroline, who compete to see who can sign their children up for the most activities with the Parks department and insist on private education, regardless of the local schools’ excellent record. It breeds little old ladies who drive ancient Cadillacs at a constant twenty miles an hour. It breeds fifteen-year-old princesses, who want nothing more than a new BMW for their next birthday. It breeds –
“Here’s one for those of you with Irish roots,” Anna says into the microphone, and clicks a button on the karaoke player.
The sound of a piano playing a sad, familiar melody, and Frankie warbling about spending Christmas Eve in the drunk tank.
All the Brits in the room burst into applause. “Fairytale of New York” – who’d have thought it? This Christmas song by the Pogues isn’t something you hear on KISS FM.
The tempo picks up, and Anna sings about cars big as bars. She’s no Kirsty MacColl, but this is my first Christmas in a strange country, and the song makes me feel as if I’m in the White Hart pub at home. Tears prick at the back of my eyes as she reproaches Frankie for his false promises about Broadway waiting for her.
Everyone in the room claps along with the beat, and roars in unison to the chorus.
I reach into my handbag for a tissue, and snuffle. Charlie, I notice, is doing the same. We exchange sheepish glances.
“Hormones,” I say to her. “What’s your excuse?”
“Homesick,” she answers. “Always, at this time of year.”
Frankie and Anna finish the song to more applause, and offer the mic to the room. Lee has had enough Chianti by this time to volunteer his services, and croons Blue Christmas while Charlie looks as if she wants to hide under the table.
As I gaze at one of the American staff members who is starting an off-key version of “Baby Please Come Home” I become aware of someone pulling up a chair near me, and I edge my own chair nearer Oliver to make more room.
“You must be Libby.”
I drag my eyes away from the singer who couldn’t even play an air guitar in tune, and turn reluctantly towards the person wanting to introduce herself. Another expat wife, no doubt.
“I’m Anna,” Frankie Gianni’s wife says. “Pleased to meet you. Maggie texted me to say I should come and say hello to the pregnant woman in the dark blue dress.”
I blink. “You know Maggie?”
Anna smiled. “Everyone knows Maggie. She’s a Woodhaven institution. But she feels you should meet some more people and not keep hanging out with an old fossil like herself. Her words, not mine,” she adds quickly.
I laugh. “Maggie is ageless, and I love hanging out with her. But I’d also love to meet more people. More Americans, that is.”
I look around the room, which is filled mainly with expat Brits. Caroline, Julia. Apart from their nationality, I realise, I don’t have a lot in common with most of them.
A commotion at the front of the room catches my attention. Frankie Gianni is standing by the microphone, making extravagant arm gestures at Anna
“Much as I hate to cut this conversation short, I think you’re wanted,” I say to her.
“Time for another number,” she says. “Baby It’s Cold Outside, I suppose; he’s been practising this one for ages. Look, why don’t you leave me your number and I’ll call you after Christmas, when it’s a bit quieter in the restaurant? Maybe I could show you around a bit.”
I scribble my number on a paper napkin, then as an afterthought, add my address.
Anna’s eyebrows, already plucked to a height that mine could never attain, raise themselves even higher.
“You live in Melissa Harvey’s old house? Heaven preserve us — no wonder Maggie thinks you need to get out more.”
“You know Melissa too?” Of course she does. “She said she didn’t know the owners here.”
“Wishful thinking on her part, I believe. I’ve known her since tenth grade. Frankie even longer.” Anna rises, and calls across the room. “All right, Frankie, I’m on my way. Have a wonderful Christmas, everyone” she says to our table.
* * *
Oliver unfastens the zip at the back of my dress.
“That wasn’t such a bad evening, was it?”
I step out of the dress, hang it up carefully on the back of the bedroom door, and slip into my warm, fuzzy, unglamorous dressing gown.
“It was a fabulous evening.”
I mean it.
“And you made a new friend, by the look of things.”
I lie on the bed, and reach for the remote control. There must be a rerun of Friends somewhere. Ah…there it is.
“Yes,” I say, thinking of the willowy Anna, and wondering why our dear landlady denied all knowledge of her.
“A good end to what’s been, all in all, a good year. Wouldn’t you say?” Oliver’s voice is slightly pleading. He knows he’s been the instigator in a major lifestyle change for us.
I smile at him reassuringly.
“One of the best,” I say.
© 2011 Kate Allison