Last week, Friday evening, Linda and I went to a dinner, invited by a woman whom we hardly knew. It was one of those invitations to which we couldn’t say “no” but which was hard for us to look forward to, because we found ourselves in a situation totally controlled by others.
We were in our car parked outside a one-story clapboard house, generally referred to as a “villa”, in a highly gentrified area. The street was solidly parked up. The houses were uniformly white, each with an immaculately green patch of lawn, dotted here and there by white picket fences. We were early. The invitation was for 6:30, so the required time to arrive was 6:40, but there we were at 6:20. So we waited in the car and listened to the radio. The car’s atmosphere was slightly tense, because we really didn’t know what our reception would be. Twenty minutes later we emerged from the car and walked to the door. The door was opened to our ring by a very tall woman and a short man. We were greeted warmly with handshake and embrace and introductions. Linda had previously met her once at a concert in a gallery. Because of my hearing loss, I didn’t catch either name, so I immediately assigned names to them. The tall woman, all in white, I mentally called Hostess since that’s what she obviously was. She was wearing multiple strands of large beads, perhaps African, painted white. The short man—whom I assumed to be her partner—had a very earnest manner, so I called him Ernest.
We were led down a long, narrow corridor, passing from the older part of the villa into a new addition, a large rectangular room stretching to the right and left and measuring at least 15 meters wide and 10 meters deep, with a three-meter high ceiling. At each end was a solid wall, and the fourth wall in front of us was completely made of glass, facing a courtyard. The summer night’s view revealed only a bleak artificial lawn and the white, unornamented back garden wall. The rectangular room was painted white: white ceiling, white floor and white walls. The room was assigned three functional areas. At the right end against the wall was the kitchen, separated from the rest of the room by a bench. The kitchen itself featured sleek white cabinets and concealed refrigerator with no visible handles. The high-gloss enamelled finish was everywhere. Nothing visible hinted at any food or food preparation. Next was the dining area with a table set for eight. Then came the living area to the left, with an L-shaped sofa on a piece of rug. A television was mounted on the end wall, which also had a fireplace. The long arm of the L-shaped sofa faced the fireplace; the short arm faced the garden. Four plastic chairs, two with their backs to the fire and two facing the short arm of the sofa, completed the conversational grouping.
I looked up to the ceiling and saw 50 to 60 recessed pot lights. They grouped above the kitchen, dining table, and sofa. With the exception of the television and the fireplace, which were black, every single surface and every item in the room was a dazzling white. Our hostess was dressed in layers of white beneath her white hair. She was locatable in that room only by her bright red lipstick.
Two people had already arrived and settled down. A large woman of indeterminate age somewhere between 40 and 60, sat at the juncture of the sofa, wearing a 1980s banker’s suit, dark navy, pin-striped, double-breasted with wide lapels. On the left lapel she wore a gold brooch in the form of a lioness head in profile, with open mouth, showing its curved teeth. Her hair was sculptured into a helmet. She evidently modelled herself on one of our former ministers. Her companion stood up from one of the chairs as we approached. He was older than the woman, moustached, with a distinguished forehead and small hands. He smiled, bowed slightly and extended his hand in the manner of an 18th-century courtier. I mentally called him “Courtier”.
Introductions ended, and as usual I didn’t get any names. Linda was offered the long end of the sofa, and I was assigned to a chair. The small man I called Ernest was busily serving drinks. The White Ghost sat at the short end of the sofa. She appeared to have a tranquil expression, which I decided came from a chemically-induced serenity.
Small talk ensued. A conversational pattern began to emerge. Linda and I and the hostess were audience. The woman with the lion brooch exuded an air of power and competence and employed a style of conversation that consisted of statements issued in bullet-points like a PowerPoint presentation. Then the Courtier provided a expanded narrative to embellish the points and project how important she was; he used the term “mover and shaker of the city” to show her importance. I mentally named her “Mover and Shaker” and immediately simplified it to “M & S”. Meanwhile, Ernest passed a white bowl of almonds, which he produced from the kitchen end of the room.
Shortly a man and a woman appeared, ushered in by Ernest. The woman had the looks and manner of a local television news reader. Her dress was casually restrained. She wore a plaid skirt with a slightly off-kilter hem and paired it with a differently patterned top, not outlandish but awkward. As she entered the room she laughed—not one of those polite chuckles, but a full-throated Hah Hah. The man I assumed to be her partner was over 190cm tall, thin, in red, tight jeans and a tight black football jersey. His head was olive-shaped with black hair combed back and a pronounced beak nose. His very large feet were enclosed open sandals over heavy wool socks. He had a bird-like walk, placing each foot like a crane. I almost thought his knee was jointed backwards. Introductions, and as usual I failed to catch any names, to which I supplied “Presenter” and “The Crane.” She sat on the long part of the sofa with Linda. The Crane refused to sit on the chair indicated for him, and instead stood behind it. For the next few minutes, he stared intently at the white area rug, with his head tilted to one side. I thought if a frog jumped out of the rug, he would instantly catch it.
The Courtier went on with his flamboyant praise of M & S, only intermittently interrupted by loud, short bursts of laughter. Ernest’s head was poking above the white freestanding bench (the “Hollywood Counter”) at the kitchen end. The light over the kitchen now was up to full power, and the kitchen looked like a shrine, but without food. The White Ghost smiled serenely. Linda and I exchanged a look; we were enjoying the entertainment. I smiled and extended my legs and leaned back in my chair. But I began to wonder if there was going be any dinner. Just then, to my relief, Ernest appeared beside our hostess, and she tranquilly announced dinner was ready.
We all stood up and walked over to the dining table. I sat at the hostess’s left, and Linda sat to her right. Linda looked a bit surprised at the revelation that we were the guests of honour. Beside me was the Presenter, and beside her on the other side was the Courtier. Ernest was at the other end. Beside Linda was the Crane, and beside him was M & S. Wine was poured, and that was when I made my first faux-pas. I quietly observed to the Presenter on my left, that all the table settings were completely white. She immediately let a loud and hearty laugh. Everyone looked at me, as if I had made some naughty remark to her. I was in no position to explain.
The White Ghost announced the dinner would be Italian vegan. The antipasta course consisted of black olives, stuffed red peppers, vine leaves wrapped around rice, sun dried tomatoes. Two plates of these items (four of each) arrived on the table. They all looked exactly like the offerings at our local grocery store.
The conversational pattern was different now. M & S stopped issuing statements, and the Courtier didn’t have to elaborate upon anything. Linda tried to converse with the bird-like man, but he merely nodded and focused on his olive. Now the White Ghost offered random items for conversation which were warmly supported by Ernest. I made noises of approval to encourage any topic.
Ernest disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a salad in layers of vegetables: cucumber, radish, tomatoes and rocket leaves. On top of the leaves were three white stripes of what I imagined was a salad dressing. I managed to extract a cucumber slice without disturbing the composition.
The main course appeared next: a lasagna without dairy. It was a cube, in such a precise shape it appeared to be uncooked, and I felt convinced it was made by a 3-D printer. The conversation moved on to a book by a Japanese woman about reducing possessions and ensuring everything is in its right place, with no untidiness. The White Ghost announced with great conviction that following the Japanese woman’s advice resulted in a spiritual lift, and the revelation of the “object in its right place” spoke to her inner self. I was very intrigued by this statement. I commended her on her enlightenment.
I took a bite of the corner of the cube of lasagne. It was totally tasteless, so I reached for the salt shaker. In the corner of my eye, I saw the hostess’s left hand reach out and replace the salt shaker in its right place. My second faux-pas of the night had been to put it back in the wrong place. For the rest of the dinner, I focused on communicating with the salt shaker, to encourage it to connect to my inner self. It was a total failure.
Ernest finally produced dessert on a large tray: some kind of blob in a wine glass topped with an artificial whip (obviously not cream). I discreetly pushed the wine glass aside.
The dinner came to an end with murmurs and laughs but not any coherent syllables from either the Crane or his wife. Ernest dimmed the lights over the dining table and turned up the lights over the L-shaped white sofa and the plastic chairs. We all dutifully returned to our previously assigned seats. In the distance a green light appeared in the kitchen shrine area. Eventually, Ernest produced coffee and tea. Conversation was desultory. My hearing aid announced in my ear that its battery was down.
Then came an awkward silence. From the juncture of the L, M & S announced she had an early flight next morning to Sydney where she was attending a conference. The Courtier immediately expanded the statement, explaining she would be playing a critical role in a climate-change conference. M & S stood up, and we all dutifully followed. Down the narrow hallway, single file, we followed the White Ghost. Each declared what a wonderful evening, good dinner, and said goodbye to everyone. As Linda and I walked toward our car, I calculated my total food intake of the evening: a black olive, a slice of cucumber, a radish, and a corner of an unknown lasagna. As we drove away, Linda said quietly, “I know a pizza place on Dominion Road that will still be open.”
Suddenly, all the lights in the car started blinking. Organ music played loudly from the back seat. Trumpets blared. Angels danced on the roof of the car. Through the windscreen the pizza rose like the sun in a blaze.
It spoke to my inner self.