Surprise party

It has been quite a busy weekend here at the Dimbelby-Smyth residence. I had no plans other than visiting the Club, but all that changed yesterday morning when I received an unexpected telephone call from my old chum Dasher. He had heard from one of our old school friends, the old rogue Simon Fullerton, inviting us both to a small soiree he had arranged at his home in deepest, darkest Cambridgeshire. I have to admit to being more than a little surprised as I have not seen Simon since our ill-advised school reunion back in 2012. I had always thought it a bad idea and the events of that awful night proved that I was right. So to get an invitation to his family home was very surprising and I was not all that sure I was happy with the idea.

Dasher was quick to allay my years, saying that it was a much more formal affair and we were the only two friends from his school days that had been invited. I can’t say that I found this too reassuring and I couldn’t help feeling a little suspicious about Simon’s motives in inviting us, particularly at such short notice. Of course, Dasher knew I had no other plans so, in the end, I agreed to drive us both up there.  I thought, at least it will give me an opportunity to give the old Bentley a runout, and a party in the country might be fun.

The traffic out of London was appaling. I had forgotten just how bad the roads can be on a Saturday. I must say that the standard of driving these days is just not what it used to be. No one seems to have any consideration for anyone else. Whatever happened to common courtesy and the idea of giving way to lot other drivers through? Needless to say, I was quite stressed by the time we reached the quieter roads of Cambridgeshire itself, although even there we encountered far more traffic than I had anticipated. Added to this, I had forgotten that Dasher is hopeless and reading maps. He has never learned to drive himself and seems to have only the vaguest notion of directions. Consequently, we found ourselves heading in the wrong direction on more than one occasion, which didn’t do much to calm my already rather frayed nerves.

Simon’s family home is one of those old rambling halls with more chimneys than is really necessary and enough bedrooms to billet a small army. The house was built by one of  Simon’s ancestors back in the 1700s but the estate is much older. I believe the family has lived in one hall or another on this land for over 500 years. I have only visited the place on about three occasions in the past and each time it reminds me of something from gothic horror movies. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that it had been used as the setting for one of those ghastly Hammer Horror films that used to feature the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I was reminded of this particularly as we approached the house in the fading light of dusk. The only thing missing was the full moon and mist!

We were greeted at the door by Simon himself who insisted on showing us to our rooms. I was still none the wiser as to why we had been invited, and on such short notice, but Simon, with his usual bonhomie and charm, soon had us unpacked, changed and ready to mingle, as it where.

In fact, despite my trepidations and suspicions, Dasher and I had a wonderful evening. The drink flowed, the food was delicious and the other guests quite charming. Simon always was one for parties and never seemed to take anything too seriously. He used to get into all kinds of scrapes at school and from what I hear, he has been much the same as an adult. He already has two marriages behind him and is currently on the lookout for wife number three. Indeed, he spent an awfully large part of the evening with one particular young lady who, to my mind, is much too young for him. Not that he was exclusive at all in his flirtations. During the course of the evening, I came across him a number of occasions getting up close with several different women.

As I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Although I didn’t know many of the other guests personally, many were known to me either by reputation or as members of families with which I am acquainted. There were a couple of arty types, a few businessmen, several thespians and a fair smattering of local aristocracy, nit that I could name any of them by the time I arose this morning. And I must pay a compliment to Simon’s extensive cellar. There were several interesting Highland malts available together with some particularly fine wines. Needless to say, I had more than my fair share of both, which left me just a little tipsy. And it was whilst in this state that I seem to have invited Simon to join my little party at the house over Christmas. I don’t actually recall offering the invitation, but Simon reminded me of it this morning just as Dasher and I were about to leave. Had I been sober, I probably would not have been so rash, but in the words of Doris Day: Que sera sera. The invitation has been made and I can’t withdraw it.

We had a much better journey home, although I have to admit that my overindulgence of Saturday night left me feeling a little fragile. By the time we arrived back in town I was in desperate need food and drink so we wasted no time making our way to the Club. It can be quite quiet on a Sunday afternoon, but for some reason, it was extremely busy today. I came home a little after six, leaving Dasher at the bar.

Although I had felt my invitation to Simon was both rash and ill-advised, I have had time to reflect on it and I now do not feel quite as concerned about it as I did this morning. Knowing Simon there is a very good chance he won’t turn up anyway, and if he does, I am sure he will get along with my other guests.

Not a Hope-less cause

Yesterday evening Hope accompanied me to Cambridge’s latest charity soiree, and even though I say so myself, it was a great success. Old Cambridge throws these little parties of his from time to time, usually when a particular cause catches his eye, and they are inevitably always well supported, both in terms of numbers and the money raised. It must be two years since his last bash which I remember very well, only because I was ill at the time and on soft drinks all evening, Aunt Dorothy saw to that. That particular event had been to support a hospice or some such somewhere up North. Yesterday we were there for a charity providing schools and educational opportunities for children abroad, in Africa or Asia I think. Wherever it is, I am sure it is a very worthy cause. Cambridge himself is very keen on this kind of thing. He has often lectured me on the futility of raising money to simply feed people. Far better, he says, to educate them or provide ways to help make the self-sufficient. I know he is very supportive of local children’s charities which I find rather odd for a man who has never had any of his own. At least, as far as I know. There are rumours around the Club that he makes regular donations to a children’s hospice on the coast somewhere, but I have never asked him about it. After all, one should not pry into another fellow’s financial affairs.

Anyway, as you would expect, the whole thing was meticulously organised and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. I know I did.

I picked up Hope at a little after 7 o’clock as arranged, and I must say that as I saw her approaching the car the sight of her almost took my breath away. If anything she looked even more attractive than when I had first been reacquainted with her at the Sweetmans’ garden party several weeks ago. Her dress was a sort of shimmering blue with sparkling jewels around the top. It was full length but with a slit up the left that showed off a very shapely leg. I don’t know much about this kind of thing – I can’t tell one style from another – but it certainly looked expensive, and was very flattering. Hope has lost a lot of weight over the last few years and the way she was dressed emphasised her shape to great effect. She may not have the figure of a supermodel, but she is most definitely a very attractive lady.

For most of the evening, Hope and I were seated with several of the chaps from the Club. After the food, Cambridge held one of his popular auctions. I very rarely take part in these things, not because I don’t want to contribute to the cause (I always do that), but because the items themselves never really interest me. On this occasion, however, Hope persuaded me to bid for a weekend break at some healthy club or other out in the country. She told me it was a very expensive establishment with an excellent reputation, and although she had never been herself, she was sure I would enjoy it. Remembering my experience earlier on the week I was not too sure about that but took part in the bidding anyway.

Well, I must admit that once I started I found myself determined to win. No matter what anyone else bid, I was prepared to go higher. With the adrenalin pumping and Hope getting more and more excited, I just kept on going. It was just numbers, and I have never been very good with that sort of thing.

When the bidding finally stopped and we realised I had won, Hope was jumping around like an excited school girl and I must have looked a little like the Cheshire cat. Of course, I have no intention of going there myself, but I offered it to Hope and suggested she should take Charlotte along, make it a girls weekend. The look she gave me was one I think I will remember for quite some time. I hadn’t noticed before, but Hope has a wonderfully warm and inviting smile that seems to light up her whole face. She looked almost youthful and I was quite taken aback when she reached across and kissed me on the cheek.

A little later the dancing started. I had every intention of asking Hope to join me for a spin around the floor, but before I had the opportunity to do so, we were joined by a gentleman who was obviously acquainted with her. We were introduced but I can’t recall his name, only that he was something in the art world and seemed to have some business to discuss. I excused myself and made my way over to speak to Cambridge who was holding court at the far end of the room. Amongst those with him was Dorothy’s old friend Clara West. We had last met several weeks ago when Dorothy and Angela had tried their hand at matchmaking. I hadn’t seen her since and was pleasantly surprised to bump into her again. We chatted for a short while before I thought I had better return to Hope and ask her for that dance.

But when I got back to the table, Hope was not there. Assuming she must have gone to the ladies room, I sat and poured myself another glass of wine. It was only after I had been sat there a while that I spotted Hope at a neighbouring table talking with a group of mainly younger people. I could have joined her of course, but as I did not know any of them and wouldn’t really have anything to say if they were the arty sort, I decided to wait until she returned.

When she eventually did rejoin me I immediately asked her for a dance. It turns out that my assumption that all ladies liked to dance was a little wide of the mark. Apparently, Hope didn’t do what she called “proper dancing”. I must admit that I was a little surprised by this revelation. Within my own circle of friends and family, everyone danced, particularly the ladies. It is just one of those things one is expected to be able to do.

Shortly after this Hope said she was tired and was going to go home. I offered her a lift but she declined, saying that she would get a taxi. She suggested I should stay and enjoy the rest of the evening with my friends. It turns out that she was leaving early in the morning to visit friends in Bath. I spent the rest of the evening with Cambridge and Clara, and even managed a couple of dances before leaving a little after midnight. I was going to go on to the Club with some of the chaps but in the end, I decided against it.

I had a call from Hope around midday today. She was calling from her friend’s house and thanked me for taking her along to the last night’s soiree. Apparently, Charlotte was “over the moon” about the weekend break and Hope apologised for leaving so early and not dancing. I told her that was quite all right and that I had danced with Clara after she had left. The call then came to an abrupt end as she had to join her friends for lunch.

As I say, it had been a very enjoyable evening. It was very nice to spend some time with Hope. I really do enjoy her company. She is only a few years younger than me but there is something almost youthful about her. I find her very easy to talk to and find myself wanting to tell her everything. It was also good to see Clara again. It turns out she is back in London for a few weeks. I know she is planning on visiting Dorothy so no doubt we will meet again.

A new Hope

Now, before I say anything else about yesterday, I must make one thing very clear: attending Sir Arnold Sweetman’s garden party was not my idea. As a rule I enjoy a good garden party. They can, if the weather is kind and the wine properly chilled, be very jolly affairs. They are the type of social gatherings that usually attract the best people and offer a wonderful opportunity to mingle with family and friends.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s soiree was hosted by one of my Aunt Murdock’s business connections. Sir Arnold is a nice enough chap but his wealth is from trade and he is not renowned for his breeding or taste. In fact, he can, at times, be quite crude and vulgar. The guests were, for the most part, business people, and believe me, there is nothing so tedious as a group of businessmen going on about mergers, take overs, stock prices and trade deals. I can’t imagine anything more boring than talking about trade.

Of course, I had to go along for Aunt Murdock’s sake. And for her, the event was a way of killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. You see, she is not only trying to get me back into the business, presumably to take over from her at some point, but she is also more determined than ever to get me married off to one eligible young lady or another.

Yesterday was arranged as another of these blind date opportunities. When we last met she dropped enough hints, so I was pretty sure I knew who to would be. I was right, but more about that later.

Despite my misgivings about our host and the other guests, I have to say it was a fairly lavish affair and the weather was near perfect. By the time Aunt  Murdock and I arrived, the sky had cleared and was a beautiful bright blue. There was a slight breeze; just enough to mess up the odd hair do, but not enough to cause too much trouble with the catering. The house itself is situated just south of the river and is surrounded by huge trees that provided a little shade and some shelter from the breeze.

We had been there for about an hour or so and I hadn’t seen the old dear for quite a while. I had managed to make my escape from a group of stock brokers and had found myself a quite corner of the largest marque. Away from most of the crowd I was enjoying a rather fine Beaujolais when I heard Aunt Murdock’s distinctive and rather loud voice coming towards me from the other side of the tent. I can’t say I had enjoyed the afternoon thus far, but this was the one inevitable moment I had been looking forward to the least.

You see, I was sure  she had set me up to meet someone I already knew, Hope Greenwood, an old friend of my Aunt Margaret’s. I hadn’t seen Hope for a couple of years. We last met at a small gathering about six months prior to her husband Ronald’s accident. Mad Duck and her companion  were approaching me from behind. I could have turned to face them but decided to finish my drink and wait for them to reach me.

Well, imagine my surprise when they crossed in front of the table and there before me stood not the Hope Greenwood I had last seen almost three years ago, but a much slimmer and very much more glamorous Hope. A new Hope, as it were.

You see, Hope was one of those women who had, quite rightly, devoted most of her adult life to being a full-time mother and wife. In the early days of her marriage she had been quite a beauty, but in recent years she had sort of let herself go a bit. The last I heard she had started working for a friend in an art gallery. Not because she needs the money, because she doesn’t.

Anyway, Aunt Murdock made her introduction, physically manhandled Hope into the seat across from me, and then immediately rushed off in the direction or the afternoon’s host on the pretext of arranging a meeting.

So, there we were,  Hope and I, both slightly embarrassed by my mad aunt’s maneuverings and neither of us having the faintest idea of what to say or do next.

It’s strange how even now, in middle age, one finds oneself feeling and behaving like love struck teenagers. Just trying to find the correct words or phrases to get the conversation started seemed beyond the capabilities of either of us. All we could manage were a few meaningless “how have you been” and “how are the children” style questions. Of course, we already knew each other, but put into this strange situation by old Mad Duck seemed to have robbed both of us of the ability to start a coherent conversation.

We were spared too much embarrassment by the unexpected arrival at the table of Martin Oldman, a mutual friend and business acquaintance of Hope’s. The three of us chatted for a short while before Martin made to move on to discuss business with someone who had just arrived, leaving Hope and I to our own devices.

Now that the ice had been broken, as it were, I found it surprisingly easy to talk with Hope about how things have been, and what she is doing since poor Ronald died.

Despite my initial reservations, it turned out to be a very pleasant afternoon. The wine continued to flow freely and the food was excellent too, but the biggest surprise was Hope herself. When we last met she had just started working again and was, well, shall we just say she could have done with losing some weight. She also had a tired and put-upon look.

But yesterday she looked like a new woman. She has lost all the excess weight and has quite a glow about her. Once we got chatting she reminded me of when I first met her over 30 years ago, before her marriage, when she had ambitions to be a lawyer.

All I can say is that Aunt Murdock has really excelled herself this time. Despite the slow start, I found Hope to be a charming and animated companion. We spent a very pleasant afternoon together before she had to leave – something to do with her youngest daughter. We left the party with an arrangement to meet for lunch on Monday.

I spent the evening at the Club. A couple of games of snooker and a few drinks were the perfect end to the day.