And now I'm in a tent. It's swagged with pink-and-white polyester lining material, filled with those circles of chipboard covered in double cloths which you used to find all over Fulham in the Eighties, carpeted with sisal. Sisal was invented as a trap for women in stilettos. My calves ache from standing on tiptoe.
We've stood around drinking champagne and trying not to look too obvious about clinging to the butane heaters. Dinner has been served by grey-haired ladies with pussycat bows and twin spoons. I've been sandwiched between the DJ, because my hosts think I'm good with creatives, and one of the inbreed cousins. DJ has sulked and says he only does this part-time and really he's a film-maker. Inbreed cousin is a sweetie and sells local estates to townies. Once the winter pudding plates have been cleared, we've all leapt from our places without a backward glance.
And now it's three in the morning. The dance-floor is full of people pretending to be Mick Jagger to "Honky Tonk Woman". People have pretended to be Mick Jagger at every dance I've ever been to, though I'm sure they didn't dance as badly at 21. The men put their right palms in the smalls of their backs and skip, but the movement looks more surgical truss than sex god these days. I've suddenly realised that I'm seriously out of it; trying to drag a smile from the DJ required a lot of red wine, and it's catching up.
I've also, somehow, cut my elbow. I've only realised this when, after five minutes leaning on it, I've moved and found an ace of hearts spreading, d'Urberville-style, over the white tablecloth. Fortunately, my dress is black. I leave my guilt behind beneath a napkin, and totter - curse that sisal - off to find a friend.
Then I spot the old bloke. He's sitting there, by himself, in a white dinner jacket and brocade cummerbund, the red carnation in his buttonhole echoing the veins in his cheeks. He's half-way through a big fat stogie and glaring at the dance-floor. Aah, I think. He needs cheering up. I take my little glass of mineral water over to meet him.
"Hello," I say. He looks dolefully over his dewlaps. Crosses one thigh over the other and fingers his cigar. I tell him my name, extending my hand, and he looks away, mumbling his own inaudibly. We'll call him Clive.
"This is fun," I say, because it's the sort of inanity you have to come out with. He looks over, and down, at me. I know he's only keeping his chin raised so you can't see the folds, but I still feel like I haven't handed in my homework. "If you like this sort of thing," he replies.
"Are you a friend of Philip's or Hetty's?"
The suggestion that he might be on terms with his hosts offends him. "Neither."
"Oh. Whose friend are you, then?"
He slurps on his cigar. "I," he announces, "am not a friend of anybody's. I came here with my wife."
"Ah. And who is your wife?"
He mentions a name I remember from university. "Blimey," I say. "I didn't see her here. Where is she?"
He gestures at the dance- floor with the proprietorial pride of the much- older husband. There, doing that left-hand-in-right-hand-in parental hokey-cokey, is a woman I had assumed was a good decade my senior. Sensible haircut, sensible shoes, sensible bodice, sunbed suntan. Less jeunesse doree than vieillesse bronzee.
"Gosh. I didn't recognise her."
"How long have you been married?"
Clive merely looks at me again.
"How did you meet?"
"I employed her. She worked for me."
"How sweet. Then you fell in love."
"We got married."
"Well, she looks very, um, well." It's odd what happens to women who marry men 25 years older than them. In the same way that exotic dancers develop Raine Spencer hair and grand manners when they marry dukes, younger wives seem to race for the menopause when they saddle themselves with someone who won't dance.
"Your wife," I say, "is a friend of my sister-in-law. Maybe you've met." I say her name. Clive sneers. "Good, god. I can't be expected to remember all their names," he says. I finish my water and search for something else to say other than "Has anybody ever told you you're a pompous idiot?". I drum my fingers on my thigh, search the tent and spot one of my car- fellows sitting below an arrangement of arum lilies on a pole. I stand up, offer my hand up for spurning. "Goodbye. It was interesting meeting you. And so nice to see Melissa looking so well."
"Yes. She was very childish when I met her, but she's growing up."
Car-sharer is having a miserable time. "The place is full of 23-year- olds," he sighs, "and they all think I'm ancient. By the way, did you know you've got a smear of blood on your cheek?"Reuse content