Melody said she would arrange the silk roses herself, for Mrs. Planchett had her work cut out for her. Like Mrs. Dalloway, on whose grace and assurance she would have modelled herself, had she read or, indeed, heard of Virginia Woolf, Melody was giving a party. And Chip, bless him, may he rest in peace, had always said that she was the perfect hostess and she had delighted in his compliment, fastening on her long, thin neck her cultured pearls, smiling a small, secretive smile at her reflection in the mirror before she stepped into the hallway to greet her guests with the natural nobility with which she had been endowed.
She could remember scene after scene in Purley where she had received Chip’s clients, people of influence, with titles even, like that dear Ted Spellings, ennobled for his efforts in putting before the public eye, through his frightfully witty hoardings, the merits of the Labour Party. And while one, heaven forbid, should never give the impression of being a Labour voter, one could not help admiring the raw energy, the creative spirit that had made the campaign so successful.
Ted Spellings, Lord Spellings of Effingham, what had become of him and was he still a bachelor who lived with his mother and why had she not thought to invite him, since he had never been a guest here at Quiet Pastures? She wondered whether it was too late to include him on the evening’s guest list and supposed it was, even though she would be quite prepared to include his current partner, despite doubts about the drawer, or even indeed, the basket, from which the latest partner had been plucked. One must, after all, be broadminded.
Now, here, at Quiet Pastures, she greeted the day with the fresh eye and wonder of the eighteen-year-old, stepping out through the French doors of the TV room into the rose garden, newly planted and raked, admiring the frost on the lawn, feeling that something wonderful was going to happen. For Melody was giving her party for Ray Flint.
Many was the time when Chip, bless him, had told her in his dry droll way that she had been made for the aristocracy and was more noble than the noblest Countess. How she had loved him and that habit he had of chasing her up the stairs and throwing her down on the landing to ravish her, quite ruining her careful grooming and doing little to satisfy her. How she had laughed at his little compliment while she secretly practised writing Lady Melody, Lady Brink, Lady Melody Brink on the corners of her blotting pad, and told him he was all she would ever need and she had meant it. But Chip was dead and life had to move on and if she did not get it moving at 57, where would she be but alone in her bed and lonely at 67, and after that death?
What then would happen to Quiet Pastures and did it matter that all this, the copse and the beds planted only with white flowers and silver leafed perennials, all this would continue without her? How could she cease completely, letting all this go on without her, for she feared that Sally had not inherited her own ability to run the grander kind of house? And although Quiet Pastures had a reassuring chintzy feel about it and the dralon and reproduction furniture may not be called grand in the old style, the size and careful grooming of the house, which one saw as an extension of oneself, certainly gave it the air of grandeur. What would happen to it all if she were no longer here and Sally became mistress of the mansion and its eleven peri-urban acres?
For Sally, alas, was a bit of a problem, bless her, who wore studs up her ears and short skirts and boots and day and night only ever seemed to dress in black, and Melody sighed and hoped that her daughter, whom she loved, of course, and cherished as a mother should but did not entirely like, would not arrive unannounced with her rather ugly, dearest girlfriend and ruin, with their slightly uncouth manners, her careful preparations for the feast.
What a feast she had prepared with all the choicest dishes Marks and Spencer had to offer; with smoked salmon and chilli bites and chicken buffalo wings and mini pork pies all arranged with parsley on silver-plated platters, which Mrs. Planchett would hand around. Dear Mrs. Planchett; how lucky she was still to be able to afford staff and such a reliable retainer as her dear Mrs. P, whose arthritis was playing up and she only hoped would not cause her to drop the platters, so heavily laden were they with the festive fare.
Her gift was for knowing how to blend people, almost by instinct, and she knew that the secret of a successful party was to feed her guests well; and if the way to a man’s heart truly lay through his stomach, and she for one had no quibble with that well tried notion, then Ray should be hers this evening when he saw her groaning board. Carefully blended though he would be amongst the other guests that Melody had assembled, she would know by instinct exactly where he was in the room and to whom he was talking and she would be able to break it up even before the connection had been made.
Though she had loved Chip, (oh, how she had loved that man with all the devotion and housewifely care that a dutiful wife and mother could bring to bear upon a long marriage entered into far too early, but she had never regretted it, far from it, for it had brought her satisfaction which she would never experience at Charteris and Bland Accountants, no matter how many promotions she may achieve) and though she had loved being Mrs. Chip Brink, wife of Bank Manager Brink, it was time to move on and become, before it was too late, the wife of another man, equally successful, albeit in the entirely different field of Used Car Sales. And what was wrong with that since variety, as she always said in her witty way, was quite definitely the spice of life?
She walked through the gardens and the copse, her straw hat on her head, bearing the trug in which she would gather stray dead heads, and hoped that Ray Flint would be equal to the task of taking up Chip’s mantle as lord of Quiet Pastures and would be a thoughtful lover and a satisfactory provider of the annuities which Chip, bless him, had not been able to gather together because of his untimely end.
‘How delightful to see you.’ She said it to everyone and it was delightful that they had gathered at her party and were wearing their finest frocks, except May Albright from next door who, delightful though it was to see even her, was wearing, as usual, her unpleasantly floral British Homes Stores skirt and blouse. She hoped that Ray Flint, who had not yet arrived and was late, (heavens, he could not have forgotten her invitation, surely not, with his lovely manners and his small moustache so well groomed, and his hands as well manicured as her own when last she had seen him?) would not think that May Albright was a chosen friend rather than merely a neighbour whom she had felt herself compelled to invite to her soiree out of a sense of neighbourly duty.
She glanced for the tenth time in as many minutes at her little gold watch in its zircon studded frame and although it was only 8.10 p.m. and the invitation had been 7.30 for 8 she wondered, as always, how much leeway you should give to your late arriving guests before beginning to feed those who had the courtesy to arrive on time. She gestured discreetly at Mrs. P, hovering in black frock and white pinafore looking so dignified in the doorway to the kitchen, just waiting for the nod before beginning to warm up the chilli bites and other hot food.
Then she glanced over and saw him out of the corner of her eye, and he was there, he had arrived and was casting his eyes appraisingly over her room and her guests and was carrying a bunch of chrysanthemums in disquietingly dark shades which she would have to arrange to show him how much she appreciated the thought. She glided through the room towards him, looking lovely in her black frock with the pretty, white-bleached ostrich feathers round the hem and she was by his side and it felt right that she should be there. ‘Ray, how delightful to see you’ she said, and he kissed her on both cheeks and thrust at her the chrysanthemums, and she blushed and took them and passed them sideways to Mrs. Planchett, who would have to delay heating the food while she searched for a suitable container.
Then Ray uttered the first words she had heard him speak for, oh how long must it be, at least ten years if not fifteen, and he had got fatter and lost a bit of hair but was still a fine figure of a man, if a little shorter than she remembered him. And if his voice when he spoke was rather more South London than she would have thought, in his job, surely, that was an advantage that he should not seem to be above his calling?
‘Melody my love’ he said and how she thrilled at his words and thought it an omen that he should have chosen to address her thus. ‘Melody, my love, long time no see’, he said and she mumbled and muttered and smiled her brilliant smile and was not quite sure what to answer. So she took his arm and tugged him silently across to the table where Mrs. Planchett, bless her, had just placed a bowl of buffalo wings; and my did they look good and he must be hungry, bless him, with poor Cybil so newly dead and no new wife yet to cook for him, and she urged him to eat and put some flesh on his bones, and he did eat and it was good.
Here was May Albright, making a beeline for the buffet table, and heaven forbid that she should be the first to engage him in conversation just as Melody was recovering the power of speech and was asking him how Cindy was. But he seemed not to know, at first, who Cindy was, then remembered that she was his daughter, and he smiled through his buffalo wing and he did seem hungry, bless him. Then he began to talk again, and she waited expectantly for his words, for Ray had always had a way with him, and he said ‘You don’t look a day older Melody’ and she remembered when they had first met and how long ago that had been and she had been just a girl and she wondered what life would have been like had she chosen him instead of Chip. She thought of how much she had loved Chip and how she hoped this new man she had chosen would come up to snuff.
Now he had finished, and she had managed to block off May Albright and divert her towards the Dodgsons, who lived in the parsonage at Cobham and who were just the kind of neighbours one treasured and enjoyed for their gaiety and their whacky sense of artistry and the jolly way in which they had painted each window a different colour; and they would certainly not take amiss May’s chain store attire. So she led Ray over to old Major Fainwright¸ who was even deafer than last time she had seen him, and he shouted at Melody ‘Lovely party, m’dear’ and she simpered and felt that all was right at Quiet Pastures and how blessed she was to have such a large drawing room able to accommodate without squash so many interesting and diverse people amongst whom to launch her relationship with Ray.
Melody was a born hostess, Chip, bless him, had been right about that and there was no doubt that the guests had eaten bountifully and were shouting gaily at each other above Pat Boone singing Love Letters in the Sand and old Frankie, so sad, his death, but his lifestyle certainly seemed out of tune with his most exceptional gift, singing Blue Moon Shining Above so that it brought tears to one’s eyes and made one long to rush out onto the patio with the man one loved.
But where was that man? Melody had taken her eyes, misted with longing and anticipation, off the object of her affections, who was assessing her beautiful room and its precious objects. And he had picked up her favourite bowl, filled with potato chips and was carrying it with him, emptying its contents as he made his way slowly to the door. He was about to go through it (surely not without saying goodbye, without taking his leave, without making plans for a meeting very soon?) There he was, absent-minded as she was herself with the emotion of the moment, taking her precious bowl through the door. But now he had spotted her trotting quickly towards him and he returned to her and embraced her saying ‘Melody. Lovely party. Must get together, sooner rather than later. So delightful. Shall give you a bell’. There he was away into his car and wasn’t it a lovely old BMW, even if only 3 series, but how much more comfortable it looked than her own old Golf?
She returned to the drawing room, and there was no sign that her guests were leaving and Mrs. P was looking quite doddery and heavens above, would have to be housed for the night if Melody didn’t soon get rid of the hangers-on and take Mrs. P. To Effingham Junction to catch her train back to Clapham.
And weariness descended like an old grey blanket upon Melody Brink, and the room became dull and cold and lost its heart, and she felt tired and old and began to clear up the remains of the buffet and hoped to heavens that her guests would take the hint and leave.