‘Jeremy, I want you to sit here next to me — unless you’re frightened of me?’ We were briefly introduced at her father’s funeral party; otherwise our hostess and I hadn’t met before. We were about to sit down in her recently deceased father’s house, which she has inherited, and this, she said, was her first dinner party. Her father and I became friends two years before he died, aged 82. Everyone told me he was a terrible snob with a vile temper but I only ever found him entirely jovial and an erudite and witty conversationalist. ‘Should I be frightened of you?’ I said.
‘I am who I am,’ she said. ‘What you see is what you get. I’m sorry. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I know I’m not. But I’m not going to change for anyone. Among my friends and family I’m known as “Marmite”. People either love me or they hate me. Understand?’ I gave her an ambiguous shake of the head that could have been construed as either solidarity or disbelief.
Now that she had made her defiantly uncompromising nature clear, she wanted to get to the bottom of the astonishing disparity between my Essex accent and my being a writer on a respectable magazine. She seemed to imagine that people who speak like me should be either petty criminals or pearly kings. I ought to have put her mind at ease by observing that vulgarity was not entirely incompatible with British journalism, but couldn’t be arsed. I volunteered instead a rough outline of my unexceptional career to date. She was enthralled. When I had finished, she wildly exclaimed that someone really must make a film of my life. The idea gripped and inspired her and she tried to recruit other guests at our end of the table to her project. When we had exhausted the possibilities of the biopic, she said, ‘You liked Dad?’ ‘I did, yes,’ I said. ‘He never lost his temper with you?’ ‘No.’ ‘Amazing. Dad could be very nasty, you know.’ ‘What do you mean by nasty?’ ‘Well, he used to say to me, “You are so fucking stupid.” He used to say it to me a lot.’ Then she caught her husband in breach of some minor rule of bourgeois table etiquette and gave him some tongue pie.
‘Do you drink every day?’ said the sprightly old girl seated on my right. Turning to face her, I had a powerful impression of slenderness, cosmetics and the clarity of thought and doggedness of purpose of a sleuth in a Simenon novel. And of burnt bridges. This was our hostess’s mother, her late father’s first wife, the first of three. (There were numberless girlfriends.) ‘No,’ I said.
‘Oh, I do,’ she said. ‘I love alcohol. Half a bottle of wine in the evening and the gin bottle at weekends is what keeps me going. That and sleeping pills.’ ‘Do you look forward to the first drink of the day?’ I said. ‘Enormously,’ she said. ‘It’s all I ever think about from the moment I get up in the morning. That and my sleeping pill at four in the afternoon. I take Donormyl. Do you know it? It’s marvellous. I buy ten packets at a time. Yesterday I went to the pharmacy and bought ten packets and some nail varnish and the pharmacist laughed and told me not to take them both at the same time. Wasn’t that funny? Don’t go giving me ideas, dear,’ I told her. ‘Is Donormyl an antihistamine?’ I said. ‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘It knocks me out, that’s all I know. With Donormyl I go right through till nine o’clock. Sheer bliss. But why on earth don’t you drink every day? I’m worried about you. You should. I absolutely live for my drink.’ ‘I’m a binge drinker,’ I said. ‘I drink hardly anything for a couple of weeks, then I get falling-down drunk. It wipes the slate clean.’ ‘Well, that’s better than nothing, I suppose,’ she said, baffled. ‘You liked my husband, I hear. It’s extraordinary.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘He was a good laugh.’ ‘He didn’t lose his temper ever?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Amazing. He was absolutely horrid to me. Cruel. Mad, actually. I met him on a train from Sunningdale to London. He was handsome and he had an MG. So I thought: “You’ll do.” Three months later we were married. The worst mistake of my life. How I stuck it for six years I’ll never know. Do you know what he used to say to me? He used to say, “You are so fucking stupid.” Can you believe it?’
I could well believe it. In his book there was no sin except stupidity. ‘Well, he did get a first from Cambridge,’ I said. ‘And my goodness didn’t we all know it,’ she said.