We were eight for dinner on New Year’s Eve: four men and four women with a combined age, I would guess, of around 500. A quarter of the company — two of the men — had been officially diagnosed as suffering from one form or another of dementia. We whose brains still neatly fitted the inside of our skulls were instead prey to all the usual anxieties, delusions, depressions and addictions typical of those wealthy, late middle-aged English people who exist in the strange limbo of expatriation. We sat there facing each other across the dinner table on the last day of the year, knackered, it’s true, each drifting aimlessly in a private universe of his or her own devising. Meanwhile, the two chaps diagnosed with dementia were the only ones who could be said to be truly present in the current realities. They were calm centres, wholly admirable in the way they were able to take circumstances at their face value. In fairness, we with our still flourishing minds recognised this, were grateful, and deferred to them as our superiors.
I’d bought to the party a Chinese-made plastic glass dome which, when plugged in, threw swirling coloured lights over the walls, ceiling and our faces. The lights would have danced and changed colour in time to the beat of the music but the music had been turned off while we ate. So they, too, drifted aimlessly, now this way, now that, dotting our faces in blue, yellow and red circles and crosses. The ceiling was a high one, perhaps 20 feet above us. I can’t explain why, but I find that the higher the ceiling above my head, the drunker I like to be. Three weeks earlier, for example, under the wonderfully high, ornate ceiling of the Naval and Military Club, I’d really gone for it. And this evening I’d turned up half drunk already on the three big gins I’d drunk while getting ready to go out. So in theory I was up for a big night.
But I found the first sip of my welcoming New Year’s Eve glass of champagne so unexpectedly repugnant that I left it. Likewise the red wine poured with the meal. On the other hand, the sparkling water in my other glass was the most welcome and refreshing drink I’d had for two weeks. I tossed off three more glasses of it in succession and decided to stick with it.
I was seated next to the veteran foreign correspondent. Five minutes later he pointed the red wine bottle at my still full wine glass as though exuberantly grappling with the nozzle of a power hose. ‘You haven’t drunk any!’ he said, appalled, when it dawned on him it was untouched. Ashamed but obdurate, I covered the glass with my hand to prevent him shoving in a couple of glugs nevertheless. ‘I’m fine,’ I said. For the next hour or so he hovered the bottle over my glass every time he poured himself another until, finally, like a sulky schoolboy, I said to him: ‘I don’t really like red wine.’ (Although true, I can be counted on to pile into the red wine with the best of them if that’s all there is.) The foreign correspondent, who has been in both Chechen wars, both Iraq wars, in Serbia (where he was shot and lost a kidney), in the Sri Lankan civil war (where he was taken prisoner), and who began his adult life as an officer in the Gurkhas, looked momentarily unmanned, as if my saying I didn’t like red wine was the most bizarre thing he had ever come across.
Fortunately his attention was now drawn to our host, who had disappeared briefly, only to reappear wearing just his pants, and was now parading before us in an exhibitionist manner with a broad enigmatic smile on his face. ‘What about this then, ladies?’ seemed to be the unspoken appeal. His pants were voluminous and baggy yet brief and revealing, like something Mahatma Gandhi might have worn while informally relaxing at home in the bosom of his family. It was a magnificent effort, I thought, to draw us out of our solipsistic, post-Christmas mental bubbles and invigorate us with a party spirit.
And what was the response, at a quarter to midnight on the last day of the year, from those as yet undiagnosed with dementia? Did we applaud and immediately and joyfully strip down to our undies, turn up the music and dance? No. Boringly, an emissary from among the not-yet-diagnosed contingent went to him and escorted him back to his bedroom to supervise him putting his clothes back on. And half an hour later I went home more sober than when I had arrived.