Friday, 18 December 2009

Seasonal Greetings

Note to self:  Don't blow your nose on the tissue you've just used to blot your lipstick...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

End of perfect days

The rest of the day passed in a pampered blur.  One of the guests yesterday gave me a hugely generous gift card for a Day Spa on Madison Avenue which I spent on a facial with every conceivable treatment known to woman, and a few silly ones I'm sure they made up.  When I came out of the salon it was already dark and great big fat flakes of snow were falling lazily on to the street.  I felt like I was in my very on New York fantasy as I walked across Park Avenue and back to the house.

Within an hour we were leaving again to go downtown to dinner and a concert in Carnegie Hall where we had another box shared with two elderly ladies, one who had a cane and another who had two canes - both with three wheels which meant manoeuvring them between the gilt chairs took some effort, as well as a large, ominous dressing taped to the side of her face.

'Introduce yourself because I've forgotten her name.' whispered my friend after greeting both dowagers warmly.  I looked at the one cane lady and smiled. She smiled back.  What do I say? 'Hello I'm Marion McNobody and why the heck would you care?'  I was suddenly crippled with shyness but feeling the weight of my friend urging me to do my social duty, I opened my mouth obediently but nothing came out.  The old lady smiled at me again uncertainly and then turned her head tremulously like one of those nodding dogs on the back seat of a 1960s Ford Escort back to the stage onto which members of the orchestra that we had come to hear, were carrying their instruments.  I sighed with relief and began to clap with the rest of the audience as seconds later the orchestra launched, conductorless into Mozart's ballet music for Idomeneo, and I watched them sway to and fro like corks in a musical sea, my anonymity preserved.

At least until the interval by which time she was asleep.

Monday, 7 December 2009

What every woman wants...

Back home I found a box of flowers and a parcel.  The first contained a dozen red roses and the second, I noticed with surprise, came from Worcester. 

'Perhaps it's a jigsaw.' said one of my fellow Pedants at work when I mentioned that he'd called me to wish me a safe trip and said he was going to sent me something.

'Ha bloody ha,' I retorted, though knowing full well that it was unlikely to be a box from Tiffany's.  For those of you who are wondering about the significance of jigsaws in this sentence it's because I met him when we published Margaret Drabble's 'Pattern in the Carpet' about - yes - jigsaws, because, erm, yes - he makes them - as in manufactures them - as in runs a jigsaw factory.  I know, I know, you can keep the jokes, I've heard them all before, and even made a few...

As it turned out, however, my colleague was right.  The fabled gift was, indeed, a jigsaw.  However instead of the obligatory chocolate box picture the box bore a photograph of my own fair self. 

Ahhhhh.  Sweet.  Really sweet.  I was touched.

The implication only dawned on me later when I had another look at the photograph.  It was taken on a boat in Lake Como.  The last time I saw him.  The weekend we split up.  Now commemorated in a jigsaw.

Broken up into little pieces.

If that's not a metaphor then I don't know what is.

December 5th

It's not the way you usually spend a Saturday - going to a funeral in Long Island, and yet, nevertheless, to a funeral I am going.

In a stretch limousine.

There are four of us, and it's raining.   It's pelting water from the sky as though there's a prize for it.  I swap my pink coat for one of my friend's black cashmere shawls, while she's in a 1950's clinched waist suit from the wardrobe department of Mad Men (via Dior) with a sable collar than cradles her shoulder like a mother's arm.  The silver fox is in a dark suit and raincoat while another friend, also in black, whose silver hair is in a bob, wears a hat.  Together we pick our way through the puddles on the sidewalk ignoring the row of cabs behind us which honk at the limo for blocking the narrow cross street, and we drive off.

Deerhurst, Long Island is an hour and a half away, but the ride is like being rocked to sleep in one of those big cushioned prams in which old fashioned, uniformed nursery maids used to push their charges round the park.  I am falling asleep until our friend starts to tell us about the war of attrition in her apartment building between those who object to the Christmas tree and those who want a full creche complete with flashing star on the barn like it's a casino in Vegas.   One of the residents said to her one morning:  'There are wreaths hanging in the lobby.  Who put those goddamn things there? Jews don't like wreaths, they're offensive, who do we have to speak to in order to get the mother-fricking things gone!'  (Religious and profane...)

''Then the next day,' she goes on, 'I come in and there's a dime store menora on the charger.  I think to myself, oh-oh - this is going to be a problem, and sure enough, I'm riding in the elevator with Steve Abrams and he turns to me and says - "I'm a nice, ordinary Jew from from the Upper East Side who likes a Christmas tree - why the  hell do I have to have a menora in my face when I get home?"  So, I asked Arthur the doorman about it and he just shrugged his shoulders and said he couldn't tell me anything, but the next morning as I'm going out I see the dime store menora is gone and in its place is an antique silver one - so now we've got a Christmas tree, wreaths on the front door, evergreen bunting hanging from the awning and an heirloom menora the size of a side of beef - all we need is Santa on an elephant and we've got a parade.'

I can't believe anyone gets so worked up about a harmless Christmas tree and the religious implications of the wreaths escapes me.  We're, nominally at least, Muslims, and we have a tree with a battered, one eyed doll called Paul dressed in a pink tutu (he's very gay) at the top of it, hand of Fatima candles and a baby Jesus from Mexico on the mantelpiece.

'Yeah, well look I tried to tell them that actually the tree is a pagan symbol that really has nothing to do with Christianity but was just mopped up by them as a way of getting more members but I know that isn't going to carry any weight.  Especially when I discover that the fancy menora belongs to the Chairman of the Resident's Committee.  But in the end I said we should get rid of everything and just have some nice neutral flowers and make the place look classy.'

I ask her if she won.

'Nah - the menora vanished.  But we kept the tree.  The stupid thing is I'm the only Christian in the whole damn building and I don't believe in any of that crap.'

The story takes us deep into Long Island where through the vertical rain I see us drawing up outside a small red brick church with firmly closed doors festooned with - you've guessed it - wreaths.  There's a spire that looks more like a turret and blood red stained glass in the windows.  It's all very Gothic.  And deserted.  Apparently, we're the first people here.   We file into a pew half way up the echoingly empty church.  The pastor who is having trouble lighting the pink and lilac (yes really) candles sprints up to us and hands us the order of service with a hymn on a printed sheet.  The words 'don't believe any of that crap' ring in my ears as I look in vain through the hymnal for anything I recognise - and see with a heart that would have sunk if there had been anywhere further south than hell for it to go - that all the hymns seem to have been written after 1978.  The church is an evangelical, born again, happy clappy one and it soon transpires that everyone, apart from us, the bereaved whom we are here to support and - in fact - the deceased whose daughter belongs to the church - have been born again (probably a bit of a bummer since it's too late to remedy it now that he's been carried in by four short square Italian men with rain glistening on their shoulders like dandruff.

We sing the first hymn.  Nobody knows it except the pastor and one soprano with bad phrasing who happens to be standing behind me and hits the high notes right into my ear.   The pastor conducts from the pulpit with one hand that is alternately praising the lord and punching out the tempo - a flat palm pointing upwards for anything at the top end of the register.  That disposed off he begins on his sermon:

'All the prophecies are coming true and the signs are clear that Jesus will soon walk amongst us once again at the end of days.  We the righteous who walk with the Lord and who love the Lord and who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ his son as our saviour will soon be going home. We have nothing to fear, because Jesus is coming for us.  Jesus is coming for all of you!' He spreads his arms wide to include the congregation - about twelve of us, half of whom Jesus is just not going to tap on the shoulder any time soon.  He casts his eyes over us dubiously.  We are so obviously sinners it's a wonder the floor doesn't start leaking flames.

To round things off we sing 'I Cannot Tell' to the tune of Londonderry Air - aka Danny Boy.  I figure I'll give it a go - it seems the least I can do to join in with the spirit of things I don't believe in, but when I get to '...but this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture...' instead of 'but come ye back when spring is in the me-e-dow' and I give up.  I just can't do it.

It seems crazy that less than twelve hours ago I was watching a waiter in a bow tie come upstairs to the drawing room with the first plate of appetizers at my birthday party- tiny lobster rolls and chicken wraps cut into slivers.  A glass of champagne was placed in my hand.  The table was set with a row of vases full of white anenomes and my friend's son arrived with his girlfriend, quickly followed by another son with his girlfriend as the room filled up with other guests - some of whom I've known since conception, others since last New Year in Brazil.

Then the rest of the appetizers arrived in waves - tiny lamb sliders, duck rolls, tuna carpaccio with mango on flatbread, teeny won ton parcels, ricotta with truffle oil, I was dizzy with them, and speechless since every time someone asked me a question I had something in my mouth.  The main course was queen scallops and venison with diced saute potatoes, spinach salad and butternut squash.  More champagne.  Pinot Noir.  Two birthday cakes and darn it - candles - and everyone sang happy birthday whilst circling the cakes.  Except that they had to hold off as there was a speech to made which I got almost the way through before my friend started crying, and then so did I, and a few guests' tears were hastily wiped away (I think I have a gift for making people weep, but sadly I'm usually shouting at the time)... before finally they got to eat the cake.

My last memory was drinking Grand Marnier after everyone had gone.

Which was when someone carried up the presents.

I am jolted out of my avaricious reverie as Danny Boy comes to a resounding close on the badly played organ with 'the saviour of the world is King' to follow the coterie out of the church.  It's still raining outside and the sky is a coil of dark, boiling clouds, so low they seem to be sitting on the roofs.  I kiss my bereaved friend who rolls his eyes in wordless horror and make my way back to the car before I realise that I'm nearly climbing into the hearse which is, if anything, smaller than our stretch limousine parked in front of it.  My hostess puts up her umberella - it's black with scalloped ruffles.  Her husband turns up the collar on his coat which flaps behind him in the biting wind.  Our other friend puts on her dark glasses and her silver hair glows in the gloom of the day.  Her hat's at a jaunty angle.  I wrap my borrowed black cashmere wrap around my shoulders with a theatrical flourish and in a sombre uniformly black line we pick our way over the leaf sodden lawn  piercing foliage on the end of our heels until we are swallowed up into the creamy leather upholstery of the sleek black car whose door is held open by a man in a peaked cap.

Readers we are like something out of the Adamms Family.

We're creepy and we're kooky, mysterious and spooky...

And it's actually my birthday.  It's not the most conventional way to spend the anniversary of the day you were born, but I don't think Morticia could have come up with a better way to celebrate it...

Da da da da, click click.

In Style

Jamie meets me in Bendel's and we brave the crowds on Fifth Avenue where we try to find a coffee shop eventually settling for a place the size of a shoebox with a stools at a counter redolent with the smell of French toast and home fries.  The wait staff are Spanish and a man with a cold sore is on the cash register.  Funnily enough, neither of us are hungry.  We order iced tea (tepid brown water) and catch up.  She's moved back to the states with her son who is an internationally successful model and her husband - who commutes to Washington - and is in the process of buying an apartment in Chelsea so they can escape their home in rural Connecticut where she is slowly going crazy.

Just that last sentence makes me crazy.

Before she moved here she lived and worked in Hammersmith where her kids went to school and where her husband stayed home all day and cooked.  How do you cope with such an upheaval after twenty five years in England?  A house husband in Hammersmith one day to manless in Manhattan the next?  I wonder this aloud, as the squat waiter reaches over my head and takes a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs over to a well dressed man in a business suit who is reading the New York Times.  On the other side of me a guy in worker's overalls, boots and a hard hat is eating a BLT.  An old lady with lipstick over the edge of her lips is drinking coffee in one of the booths.

I'm having culture shock and I'm just a tourist.

Earlier I took my courage in both hands (no easy task when they are already full of shopping bags from Bloomingdales, Crate and Barrel and Williams Sonoma) and braved Abercrombie and Fitch where in my naiviety I thought I'd pick up a sweat shirt for one of my kids.  Inside it's darker enough for braille garment tags and loud music booms out at deafening volume so that you have to yell at the sales assistants who are difficult to find since the shop is simply packed with foreign visitors speaking in French and Italian and Russian.  It's Babel with plaid shirts.  I pick one up and look at the price.  Eighty dollars.  Eighty freaking dollars for a check shirt that looks preworn?  I put it down again and walk round in a trance until I find a t-shirt.  I approach a young God whose shirt is unbuttoned to his crotch, and then thinking better of it, find a female who at least seems to wearing underwear and ask her if she has this in another colour.  She tells me that they are all around the store.  I look into the heaving mass of bodies and see that indeed the store seems to be colour coded and that if I want to get it in blue and pink I have to walk round to each individual area and find it.  I drop it on the counter (in the orange section though it's blue) and head for the door.  I'll take mail order over male model order any day.  I am getting old.

Jamie has been to Barney's where twenty sales assistant leap on you and ask you how you are today before the door has even closed behind you.   I've had much the same treatment at Victoria's Secret where a girl accosted me on entering and said: 'Buying pandies today?' as I tried to find some for my daughter.  It is my ambition to go to my grave without anyone ever asking me this question in public ever, ever again.  Particularly since I don't think there are any in the ruddy store that fit me (ergo pitying look).  I find myself stammering no as I back out the door.  Daughter is not getting pandies for Christmas.  Or a t shirt from Abercrombie and Fitch.  I'm wondering how she feels about a set of non stick spatulas from Williams Sonoma.  It's quiet in there.  They give you Christmas tea...

In the diner, I duck again for the chicken pot pie and fries and the check is slapped down unceremoniously on the table - it might be time for Jamie and I to say goodbye.  She picks up the tab.  It's four dollars.  I want to frame it.  Four dollars is the tip I gave the cab driver on the way here.

'I love your hair..'  She says as I gather up my bags.

'Yeah, thanks.  It's the most expensive blow dry I have ever had in my life,' I say as I toss my glossy curls outside in the street, and now, I think it probably smells of grease.  We kiss goodbye and she goes off to meet her sisters to see a play.  Next up I have a manicure and a pedicure.  At seven thirty there are fifteen guests arriving at the house for the party.  This morning ten boxes of orchids, roses and anenomes were delivered and, as I speak, the florist is arranging them into elaborate displays.  And, though Natasha the cook has made two birthday cakes, apparently she isn't cooking for the party and instead a team of caterers will be there at half past six.

As I said, I'm only a tourist.  But what a way to travel.

Agnes b list

The Met.

A gala dinner for Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann.

My friend, whose name is on the program, is wearing a floor-length, gold Christian Lacroix coat with a matching gown and a great many diamonds.  I'm in the same Agnes b dress I wear every time she takes me somewhere glitzy - from the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race Ball to the Opening of the V&A Couture Exhibition where she was photographed on the red carpet.  My seat at the table for dinner cost more than my entire outfit - hell, hiring the car that drove us through Central Park cost more than my entire outfit since the dress is ten years old and the velvet coat I'm wearing over it is vintage (ie second hand) from a shop on Goldborne Road, as is the grey taffeta jacket which came from the same place.  Actually, to be absolutely accurate - even the blow dry I had in a salon downtown earlier in the afternoon cost more than my outfit.  I think I paid about the same for the root canal I had done the last time I went to the dentist - but it hurt a lot less.  My hair is so bouncy it's like there's elastic in the conditioner.

I try not to feel like one of the ugly sisters which is relatively easy since I've borrowed from the safe and huge chandelier earrings dangle from my ears crusted with diamonds and semi precious stones while on my right wrist there's a five inch cuff made of quartzes and tourmalines the size of a giant's cough sweets.  I'm like Wonder Woman, but with bling.  You can kiss my big fat amethysts....  And though I'm not going to win any beauty contests, I'm at least able to walk unaided and my skin - while lined - hasn't been tacked behind my ears into a death's head mask.  Despite the glamorous occasion and the copious number of furs,  approximately fifty percent of the audience seem to be bordering on geriatric - so much so that if you forgot that you were in the Met you might easily imagine you were in a very well appointed nursing home where all the inmates were insanely rich.  If you were ever in any doubt that it was possible to live too long, a gala evening at the Metropolitan Opera would clear that right up for you.  Women (and yes, sadly it is mostly women because the men have done the sensible thing and died earlier) with walkers, with carers, with wheelchairs, mechanical and electric.  Women with crutches and walking sticks, and brittle bones, and terribly bad plastic surgery so that they all look like they have some odd leonine genetic disease, with wizened elbows and withered arms and shriveled decolletages, but very plump lips, startled eyes and breasts like snowglobes, except they don't shake.  Most are tiny little candy canes, bent out of shape by age and osteoporosis, glittering with baubles and swathed in ostentatious furs, but with dresses that went out of fashion before I was born and shrouded with the dusty patina of age.  The women look like they too have been stored in a plastic garment bag for the last twenty years.

After we've eaten tepid butternut squash soup and a veal medallion, we glide across the dress circle - named after one of the benefactors who is sitting at another table, towards our seats.  We settle ourselves in our box - my friend and her husband the silver fox, two handsome uncles, my friend's son in law who has been dragged along as my companion, and a young attractive couple who are colleagues of the host.  The women get to sit in the front row to show off their frocks, or in my case, my borrowed jewelry, and the curtain goes up.  The music is absolutely beautiful though I'm less convinced by the women stomping across the stage in pasties and high cut knickers with their buttock cheeks hanging out (I don't think the men are complaining because you know - those girls are singers, and there's as much bounce on stage as there is in my blow dry). 

The basic plot seems to be that Hoffmann (Joseph Calleja) is remembering his past loves - Olympia, a wind up doll (Kathleen Kim), the sickly Antonia (Anna Netrebko) and a courtesan Giulietta (Ekaterina Gubanova) - all facets of womanhood pretty much represented there then, wouldn't you say? - before deciding that they are all really different parts of the same woman - his current love - Stella (Anna Netrebko again).

The man has a point, I think as I zone in and out of the performance like a badly tuned radio station, swapping sleep for static every now and again (I was jet lagged).  Haven't I really been dating the same sort of person for the last year or so as the one I was married to for twenty five years - first with an Italian accent, then with an English one?  From uberhusband to husband lite, I've pretty much sought out the same sort of type time and time again - it's Freud's urge to repeat.  I just do it less musically.

I struggle through the second act after a glass of champagne and a dessert for which we withdraw, once again, to the little gilt chairs on the dress circle surrounded by the creme of the decrepit while tiers of people stand leaning over the balconies above us, watching us like we were in a zoo.  Note to self - sugar and alcohol are not friends of the somnolent.  I pinch myself.  I kick myself.  I hold my eyes open while pretending a rapture I can only summon up for the idea of curling up in bed. I count white hair.  I count members of the cast. I count people sleeping and then my chin slips.  Only afterwards do I discover that sitting in the box next to the arm that's propping up my head is the General Manager and his party.  I sincerely hope none of them see me nodding off.

By the third act, however, I am suddenly wide awake again.  A state which I manage to prolong until three am (eight am Pedantic time, when usually I’m just getting into work).  Tomorrow night it’s my birthday party.  Somehow, I don’t think I’m exactly going to sparkle…  There’s just not enough bling in the safe.  Pass me my zimmer frame.