Oh, special evening, indeed] Senses of humour had remained intact despite the hot weather. By late afternoon I had been called 'stupid' and 'fat' and 'cow' only once, and no one had argued over the cherry and chocolate cakes purchased at the village fete.
The whole family sat down on the recently clipped grass among the lavender and roses to rehearse a scene that was unfolding all over the country in households that possessed a patch of grass or area of concrete large enough to contain an iron tray on three legs. The ritual argument - 'when to light the barbecue' - was hotting up.
My family is not known for its reticence. Everyone has an opinion on everything and is not reluctant to express it. This occasion was proving to be no exception.
'Round about now,' suggested my elder brother, scratching his dark hair that was, rather uncharacteristically, in desperate need of a trim. Turning to my father, he complained: 'You always get it together far too late and we don't end up eating until midnight, either that or the food gets cremated.'
'Not quite yet, about two hours before we want to eat,' said one of my stepsisters.
'Rubbish]' chipped in the youngest. 'You don't know anything.'
My father, of course, was not listening. He is fortunate to have selective hearing: when you want to borrow money he professes profound deafness, but if chocolates with nuts are mentioned, even in a whisper, he suddenly pricks up his ears. On this occasion, helpfully, he sidestepped the dispute over the lighting of the barbecue and, dressed in the blue check shirt that comes out every summer, moved on to more important business.
'Who wants to have a drink, then?' he asked, walking towards the house. 'It's past six and my mouth is suddenly very dry indeed.'
He did not need to press or goad or twist arms. His Pimm's is so famously strong that most of the village refuses to indulge, but we were all ready for a swift one before the guests arrived. With a gleam in his eye, my father mixed and remixed, tasted and tweaked with all the precision of a scientist on the brink of a major discovery. 'Not too much ice,' he muttered as he poured out the glasses. 'Don't want it watered down now, do we?' He handed around the drinks and then, and only then, began to busy himself with the barbecue amid much sighing and exhaling. It was later than originally intended.
With a tribe of seven, preparing food is a complex business that requires careful co-ordination and a sharp pair of eyes - most of the ingredients tend to be consumed before the presentation stage. Fortunately Isabelle, chief co-ordinator, has a loud voice and an ability to maintain her humour even when half the olives and feta intended for the Greek salad are flicked across the table and shoved into the mouths of the junior cooks, who sit around the table smoking cigarettes, pretending to help.
It was at this point that my brother made a tactful and well-timed exit. 'Off to have a bath, OK?' he whispered. The rest of us made the garlic bread and pulled the ends off the thousand or so strawberries.
As the guests arrived, the barbecue began to belch forth grey matter that engulfed the terrace. Smoke seeped into the eyes and clung to hair and clothes, making the before-dinner bath and small slap of eau de cologne a pointless exercise. I had not seen most of the guests since before my O-levels 10 years ago, so there were tight, fixed smiles while I handed round the crisps and
'Haven't you grown,' said a blonde women, imaginatively.
'Yes,' I replied. 'Unfortunately, I have. No longer a size 10 but that's adolescence for you. Thanks for pointing it out, anyway.'
The barbecue smoked on and the Pimm's went down a treat. Somehow the tardiness of dinner seemed not to matter any more. Adults began to misbehave and children began to show off. A pillow fight on piggy-back lurched threateningly back and forth across the garden while a junior chef was sent sprinting into the shed to collect the chicken legs from the freezer. Someone had forgotten to defrost them. Half an hour under the grill and no one would know any better. The barbecue was still not ready, but by now most of the guests had lost their appetites.
Finally, it was time for action. But - wouldn't you know it? - all the sauces were in the wrong place, the tongs were lost and the sausages were on fire. My father's eyes were streaming, but he was thwacking the fumes with the panache of a stunt man. He was certainly becoming less interested in food.
We ate about 10.30. Old rugs, with vases of flowers at each corner, covered the lawn. The unrecognisable black chunks that sat surrounded by salad on our plates looked suspiciously like pieces of charred meat, but since it was now quite dark and there had been plenty for everyone to drink, no one really knew for sure nor, indeed, cared.
My father sat down to a few lettuce leaves. 'I always think that when one has been cooking so hard, one finds it almost impossible to eat one's own creation,' he said, taking a sip of Pimm's. For once, we were lost for words.Reuse content