Guess who's coming for dinner

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The Independent Culture
I CAN'T quite believe it, but The Invitation is pouring like toxic waste from the sweet, precious lips of my partner in life, my soul mate, my fellow Ally McBeal watcher, my significant other, my rock.

"My God," I shriek as she puts down the phone. "What on earth do you think you were doing?"

"Inviting Adrian and Victoria to dinner this Friday."

"Have you gone totally insane?"

"But you always say we should have them to dinner."

"Yes, but you don't actually invite them. It's a sort of fantasy, it's not what you actually do."

She pours me a glass of water and fetches some tablets. Apparently, I am shaking like a leaf.

"There, there. You always enjoy yourself once they're here. We'll just do something simple."

What follows are three days of intense negotiations as we try to agree on what Something Simple really is. She likes to do something really complex, then pass it off as Something Simple on the night, whereas I like to do something really simple and pass it off on the night as Something Incredibly Complex.

We agree it has to be something seasonal, so my knockout warm seafood salad with tomatoes and basil will have to wait. Then we settle on spaghetti alla carbonara - until she remembers we gave them pasta last time.

"But that was eight years ago."

"They'll think we've eaten nothing but pasta for eight years."

It's like planning a war or, at the very least, a sophisticated marketing campaign. There are so many things you have to consider. Is this going to be a casual sit-at-the-kitchen-table noodle night, or is it the full take-all-the-crap-off-the dining-table and light-the-candles deal?

First, you have to consider the hapless people who have thrown your life into disarray. What type of people are they? Do they eat everything, or do they have a fashionable food allergy? How well do you actually know these people? Is Adrian a Jewish name? Is Vict-oria Muslim or does she just like wearing kaftans a lot?

You realise the table seats six. They'll think you don't have any other friends if there are only the four of you.

"What about Deborah and Vitek?"

"Is Victoria talking to Vitek these days?"

"I'll call Esther to find out."

Then there's the CDs. We bought our last CD about the same time we served pasta to Adrian and Victoria. Just as well REM are on the comeback trail. Then there's the house. Is grey really right for a corridor? Is there still time to get the carpet profess- ionally cleaned by Friday? How do the insides of lamps get that dusty? Good grief, there's that book I accused her of lending to someone three years ago. I'll just quietly slip it back into the shelf.

You find yourself wandering through your own home like a prospective buyer. The people who live in this place are totally alien to you. They also have five of everything, instead of six.

Then it's back to the food. Apparently, you can't do your favourite rice-paper wrapped Vietnamese spring rolls because everyone's doing them. Cous cous would only be appreciated by the truly post-modern. Your Portuguese fish stew is too messy to eat. The Novelli terrine of cassoulet is too fussy to make, and after all that work it ends up tasting as if you've pulled left-over cassoulet out of the fridge anyway.

It's Friday. The tiles in the second bathroom gleam. Adrian and Victoria walk in, see that the table is set for four, and cry "how wonderful, we were dreading lots of people". The Sicilian mussel and potato stew is a great success; not too Jewish, Muslim, over-exposed, postmodern, messy or fussy. The little baked custards hit just the right spot between homeliness and glamour.

One Champagne, one Sauvignon blanc, two Dindarellos and a half of botrytis Riesling later, and we are all singing the quartet from Rigoletto. Then Victoria turns at the door as they are leaving, and says: "You guys are definitely coming over for dinner." Adrian looks at her accusingly. "We'll just do something simple," she says.

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