“Are you positively sure?”
“Well, Madam, as sure as a weatherman can be.”
“Which is not very…” Here she was interrupted.
“I don’t mean to be rude, Madam, but though I may sound divine, I am not. Neither can I promise you dry weather, nor can you order one.”
“If my garden party is spoiled by the rain, I will mention you in my goodbye-note.” She announced in a plaintive tone. An awkward silence followed. The wretched weatherman cleared his throat and made an attempt at amiable assistance concerning something entirely out of his range:
“Well, I’m not an expert in catering and organizing garden-parties, but according to my knowledge, they usually set up a marquee for that purpose. I mean, against bugs and leaves and rain falling into your soup.”
“Thank you for breaking this piece of old news to me.” Came the ungrateful retort from the other end of the line. “I considered getting one myself, but it would spoil the overall effect and prevent the stars from being present at my party.
“Well, just as you think, Madam. I really am at a loss for better advice.”
“I shall take my chances.” She heroically concluded.
“May your evening be dry and pleasant.”
“Thank you, and bye now.”
The Sheridans were a phenomenon indeed. Upon meeting them, one would inevitably get the urge to sort out the jumble of contradictory impressions that they never failed to leave behind. This urge was a kind of defense mechanism; managing to organize this chaos of impressions by giving it a form would have made it possible to get it out of one’s system. The attempt to make use of polite meaningless words like “nice” and “to like” would have been ridiculous. It was peremptory to try and be as daring as Mrs. Sheridan herself when it came to making a mental portrait of her, and it had to be accepted as a fact and she had to be forgiven for it in advance that she invariably burst out of every frame in the end.
Would it do her any justice to sum her up as a big loud flippant lady wrapped up in vulgarity, pearls, and dazzling pink shawls? Would it help in knowing where one stood if it could at least be decided whether one was attracted to her—to this person who had surely been beautiful once but now only faintly resembled her original self? She was an antique, a Denkmal of Beauty, who was as yet too vigorous to let dust settle on her monumental proportions. Yes, she was big but her bulk had the grandeur of Norman-style cathedrals, which sit like kings of the Earth on their eternal chair. But the Sheridan effect did not only reside in size; decadent, erotic and almost disgusting, there was the unmistakable Baroque twist to its Romanesque dimensions. But then again, although she would be abundantly adorned regardless of the time of day, she was anything but tasteless. She was a very rich cream or pastry. She was a cake called “Death-by-Chocolate” or the “Double-Chocolate-Decadence” that winks at passers-by from the shelves of American coffee-shops.
As for Mr. Sheridan with his slick and smooth manners and cool reserve, he was a very pleasant companion at dinners, parties, and golf. Though outwardly never running into extremes, inwardly he had to be drawn to excesses to have the sweet tooth to marry Mrs. Sheridan. But the question of just how much of her he could stomach supplied their friends with an inexhaustible fund for deliciously malicious gossip. Judging by a few ill-repressed facial contortions resembling that of a man with indigestion, he did seem to be stuffed at times, feeling physically sick at the mere sight of his wife. But, too far east is west, and when the Polish belle had immigrated to America and they were introduced, he instantly knew that she was the one he had always wanted.
They were about to give one of their famous dinners again. Mrs. Sheridan, hustling and bustling about, giving impossible commands to the cook as to the proper method and perfect angle of slicing a voluptuous piece of buffalo mozzarella, at the same time calling out impatiently for the maid to hurry up with the arranging of the flowers, and simultaneously thundering at the delivery boy for being late and spoiling the freshness of the ordered baked goodies, swearing to God that she would not be charged for stale and soggy buns, was, in a word, getting ready to entertain a few friends; about forty people.
In spite of the rich array of curses and an almost hysterical excitement, her heart within her abundant breast was dancing with joy at the mere thought of the forthcoming event. Her one great talent was to Entertain, which deserved to be spelled with a capital “e.” A handful of her less shallow guests once paid tribute to the success of one of her parties by calling her Mrs. Dalloway, a compliment that was at first lost on someone too busy with organizing parties to ever pick up a book. When one of the guests tried to save the situation by adding that Mrs. Dalloway was nothing less than the Perfect Hostess, under her mask-like makeup, Mrs. Sheridan went all red with delighted embarrassment. And indeed, besides being given the chance to boast of her beautiful apartment and obscenely expensive china and cutlery, her aim was to give pleasure and to see people satisfied and happy under her roof.
She wanted to fold everybody under her vast pink shawl as under the wings of a huge dove.
These occasions were grand affairs. A posh crowd, arrayed with designers’ clothes, glitzy cars, and glitzy wives, was to dine and drink way too much good liquor there that night. In Mrs. Sheridan’s house, as in an enormous blender, new money was to be mixed with old. Bankers and lawyers who had made a sufficient amount of money not to care; retired ambassadors; famous Italian wine-makers; factory-owners, along with people who had simply chosen their parents right and were brought up in wealth and in the spirit not to care, were to be mingled. This was further spiced up with Mrs. Sheridan’s yoga teacher, who was the most popular wellness guru of one of her frequently visited wellness farms, and with some “sweet” people she had met on the golf-course the other day.
And, last but definitely not least, the finishing touch to this curious mixture was an army of scrupulously dressed staff that would have satisfied the most finicky English lord entertaining in his country-sized country house. White-gloved and fleet-footed, they kept serving the never-ending flow of Martinis, champagne and caviar before dinner. The lights were low, the jazz played by a live-band was sexy and mellow, and there was a general buzz of voices chatting amiably, the well-bred harmony of which was occasionally disrupted by the shrill laughter of ladies whose spirit rose in direct ratio with the amount of champagne they consumed on an empty stomach.
Mrs. Sheridan looked around from time to time, and contentedly observed that the olives were plump and juicy in the Martinis, and that the champagne was golden and bubbly—not having gone flat, thank goodness, despite the murderous ignorance of a maid who had earlier been accused of deliberately intending to spoil Mrs. Sheridan’s affair by opening the champagne bottles in advance, as if they were red wine in need of breathing!
The guests were assembled in the living-room for cocktails while the finishing touches were being given to the dinner-tables outside in the garden. Time seemed to slide away smoothly, riding on the waves of aperitifs, and, indeed, dinner had to be served soon, the hostess reckoned uneasily, though a few couples hadn’t arrived yet. How impertinent of them, always late and always nearly upsetting the flow of her parties. Really, it cannot be such a huge favor to ask of people to try to be on time once in a while. And those submissive “wifeys”… sure enough, Mrs. Sheridan would know how to discipline her husband in their places; she would know how to make them leave their desks on time. It was completely inconceivable to her how most husbands were not like Mr. Sheridan, nor would they ever want to be, and how they could not be told when and what to do, especially not for the sake of a dinner invitation.
Though it has to be added that Mrs. Sheridan’s glamorous parties always had something more in store than regular swill-and-gorge affairs. They were sometimes simply smooth and elegant, but they often turned out to be rather scandalous. With such extravagant mix of extravagant guests, who knew what a liquor-ridden evening would amount to? About a year ago, one of the factory-owners got into such an elevated state of mind due to an awe-inspiring number of Vodka-Martinis that he started breaking the glass after each finished drink—in the Greek fashion, he assured the raging hostess. It was hard physical exercise to restrain Mrs. Sheridan’s enormous frame from jumping on the insolent guest and giving him a motherly thrashing.
The garden was of a semi-significant size the shape of an ostrich-egg with a pool in the middle resembling that of a quail’s. The layout was similar to a Japanese garden, but the selection of plants, the slender cypress in front of the fence, and a few picturesquely crooked olive-trees, also recalled a piece of Tuscan landscape. It was after the Asian fashion that lots of little lanterns were squatting on the lawn, half hidden behind some bushes and peeping out from among the shiny leaves like little girls engaged in playing hide-and-seek. The dinner tables were adorned with numerous candles and bouquets of fresh roses and tulips, and on every plate lay a few severed heads of edible flowers, testifying to the “up-to-dateness” of the hostess in matters of “gourmet vogue.” Beside every champagne-bucket a tray of recently deceased oysters were placed on a heap of crushed ice.
Well, it all looked so beautiful and complete that the dinner-guests, to whose enjoyment it was supposed to be destined, seemed to be no more no less than intruders stepping over the frame and walking into a still-life. The stars, whom Mrs. Sheridan’s kind intention it was to include in her affair by leaving the sky uncovered and abandoning the safety of a marquee, would have been more fitting guests, if, alas, they had not refused the invitation and hidden behind clouds instead. Whether out of divine jealousy or mere indifference, what had been made as perfect as possible by a human being was destined to be spoilt; as soon as the guests started to go outside and take their places at the tables, plump drops of rain began to spot the tablecloths. They impartially fell on the Dior dress of Mrs. Mikimoto as well as on the eternal “little-black-party-dress” that Mrs. Fitzpatrick always wore on such special occasions. They blurred the printed word of the menu-cards and diluted the mint-sauce on the duck-carpaccios; an array of thin rosy coins helplessly lying on great white plates.
The guests obediently sat by the round tables equally exposed and vexed. No one dared stand up and spoil the vision of the hostess that was to shape itself that night. In Mrs. Sheridan’s opinion it was either one of her enemies, or, which was practically the same thing, someone she had not invited, who was doing the rain-dance somewhere. Sensing catastrophe, she was whizzing around among the tables with the malevolently smiling members of her no longer stiff staff, bringing to mind ants and other species before a rainstorm.
“I should have known, I should have known.” She wailed and collapsed on a chair beside her husband, who, despite or thanks to the impending disaster, was in high spirits. “The little weatherman was right, I should have put up a marquee. I was too ambitious and I am punished for it.”
Realization of her own hubris or not, the raindrops continued to fall and it seemed that they were about to launch a further attack in the form of a proper downpour. They washed away the several coats of paint on the ladies’ faces, demolishing sensuous lips, long lashes and the almond-shaped eyes of all except of that of Mrs. Mikimoto. Dresses ruined, faces gone, they started to look alike; so many shivering creatures. Blankets and golf-umbrellas were brought to their assistance and they tried to huddle as close to each other as it was physically possible, heedless of manners and mores.
And then it happened. When Mrs. Sheridan summoned up enough courage to look around and gauge the depth of the catastrophe, she saw a bunch of childlike creatures, as carefree as ludicrous, laughing, singing and eating the soggy remains of the meal on her deluged lawn. The party worked.
Mrs. Boniment arrived late at the club. She had an appointment with her other lady-friends to play tennis in doubles from eleven-thirty. She was pretty, fashionable, and always late. She used to infuriate the other ladies who, according to their own opinion, were not of the kind to be kept waiting.
But now they seemed perfectly at ease, sipping a chilled mohito under the shade of the club’s marquee, the weather being fresh and sunny after last night’s storm. They were talking about Mrs. Sheridan’s party, which they had all attended and the pleasure of which Mrs. Boniment had decided to forego due to a particularly ominous weather forecast. It was a swell party, they said. In fact, the most original party they could remember.