Everyone loved Julia’s dinner parties. She had such flair; be it fish or fowl a chap could not resist her toothsome alchemy. If only her book didn’t suck so regally, Ollie mused as he waited for the elevator in the overblown lobby. Not that he’d read that much of it. Whoever on earth had front-loaded self publishing should be shot once or twice in the head. He’d graciously accepted a copy of Julia's debut novel at her last dinner party – as did the other guests: each and all promising faithfully to digest the adventures of Lara: Psychic Detective. And even through the drowsy mist of a few too many cups...he’d discerned a certain homage paid – and due – a now that we’re both writers sort of thing.
He stepped into the elevator, reminding himself to mind his French while among such gentile company, but broke the oath immediately as he spotted Arabella breezing into the lobby. He quickly pressed the button. His sense of déjà vu heightened on the 13th floor when the inimitable Rodrigo came puffing through the fire escape doors with a notebook in (disposable-gloved) hand.
Mwahs duly exchanged, Julia led he and Rodders to join the other guests, but Ollie had already anticipated they would consist of her loyal readership from the last gig. They took their places at the table and waited for Arabella, though what she’d find to eat now that asparagus was out of season confounded even Ollie’s imagination.
At the foot of the table, Rodrigo busied himself polishing his glass and cutlery with several alcohol wipes before setting them in perfect juxtaposition.
A ring of the doorbell – and enter Arabella, smile freezing in place as she realized that her arch-enemy Simona was present, politically incorrect, and seated opposite the only vacant chair. This should be fun: fawning, yet tactless herbal hippy Simona in a rematch with anal, Chelsea socialite. Ollie smiled across to Dave, who was sweetly oblivious to most things – including the whereabouts of his wife’s G spot; not surprising that she’d jumped ship on him, really. She still exchanged the occasional orgasm with Ollie, though.
A tantalizing hint of roasting meat followed Julia out of the kitchen as she wheeled the night’s first delight toward them: Gazpacho soup, served in hand-painted Lolita cocktail glasses, and sprinkled with crystals of ice.
That was just it with Julia: the delicate touch to chill and clear one’s palate, arousing the senses to maximum. Ollie was starving – could now eat a horse – and if his nose wasn’t fibbing to him, there was one roasting in the kitchen. The hippy will surely be furious!
“So what did you think of my novel, Dave?” Julia asked while they waited for Arabella to finish playing with her soup.
Ollie smiled to himself.
“Erm yes,” said Dave. “Very good, indeed. Lovely cover as well. I’m still on the prologue – page sixty-seven, I think. Can’t wait for the action to begin.”
Julia seemed satisfied with Dave’s paltry offering and turned her attention to Arabella, who looked rather affronted at being placed on the spot.
“Reaally, Julia,” she oozed. “Now you know I’m saving it until I winter in Dubai. I’m sure my girl will have packed it already.”
Credit where it’s due, thought Ollie; not a bad excuse at all, that. Although it left him with fewer options; perhaps he could explain that his dog had eaten it? No, that wouldn't wash; it was fat enough to choke a goat. It seemed as though Julia was trawling her way around the table for feedback on ‘Lara’: if that were the case, Rodders would be next in the chair.
Ollie was far from disappointed with Julia’s tender horse steak, drizzled with wild-mushroom sauce. Simona was containing her vegetarian indignation quite well, so Ollie waved a meaty forkful to get her attention. “How’s the spicy tofu, m’girl?” he asked. “Chained yerself to any famous railings of late?”
Simona giggled. “Now don’t you go on about me getting my bag stolen, Ollie. I’ll chain it up as well next time…” She looked over at Arabella, who was carefully dissecting a green bean. “You really ought to eat more, love,” Simona said helpfully. “You look even skinnier than last time – it’ll do your spiritual aura no good.”
Arabella sat bolt upright in her chair, but settled for smiling her contempt back at Simona. Probably for the best, Ollie reasoned. Simona had won hands down at their last billing, thanks to her formidable lack of social skills. Every ball served by Arabella had strayed hopelessly high or wide.
Rodrigo’s turn duly arrived, après cheval, while the other guests, replete, tippled Louis Jadot and exhaled Sobranie or cigar smoke in lazy, satisfied clouds. Rodrigo reached for his notebook, gave it the alcohol-wipe treatment, and carefully opened it.
He cleared his throat. “Your first paragraph is eight and a quarter pages long,” he began, “which makes it very hard to follow.” He looked up at Julia, who blinked back and nodded ever so slightly.
“There is quite a lot of ambiguity in your descriptions; for example, you write: The old lady in the market was draped in a grey, worn cloak drinking steaming hot chocolate. I’ll give you the other examples when we reach them.”
Rodrigo turned the page. “I was confused by what I think must be a spelling mistake in the ferry scene, where it reads: ...Mariah Carey was whaling in the background. You spelled wailing with a w-h-a.”
Ollie almost choked on his grog as an image of the renowned singer sprang into his head: clad in oilskins, sporting a sou’wester and brandishing a long harpoon. But this wouldn’t do. Rodders was about to shatter the lovely Julia’s model into precise smithereens. He remembered how much it had hurt when the sniffy, fickle critics unearthed and clobbered his debut novel. Best turn the subject to a more favored one. Ollie leaned sideways and fixed Rodrigo with a searching gaze.
“I say, Rodders,” he began. “You’re looking a bit peaky – hope you’re not coming down with that nasty little virus I’ve just got rid of.”
Rodrigo stiffened. “No. I’m fine, Oliver.”
“That’s exactly how I felt at the onset,” Ollie replied, “but within hours I was reduced to a shivering, sweating wreck.”
“I do have a bit of a headache coming on,” Rodrigo conceded, and after a few more of Ollie’s clinical observations he politely excused himself for the evening. Ollie thoughtfully offered the services of Arabella’s chauffer who was waiting by the entrance below.
Last up on the trolley was peanut butter and jelly ice-cream sandwich. That very afternoon, Gordon Ramsay himself had found his way out of the Maze to help his friend Julia prepare his flagship dessert. Ollie could imagine Julia trying not to wince as the famous chef cussed his way through the preparation of her favorite pud.
Ollie realized he’d have to think up a pretty good excuse while herbal Simona gave a glowing review of Lara’s unlikely exploits. After all, she’d contributed as technical psychic adviser and would hardly shoot herself in either of her synthetic moccasins.
Julia turned to Ollie. “Did you anticipate who the murderer was, Ollie?”
Ollie flinched, ice-cream sliding from his spoon to cruelly punctuate his surprise at the jump in order – of course, she already had Simona’s opinion, in spades.
“Are you okay, Ollie?” Arabella asked, adding fuel to the pyre. The smug bitch couldn’t fully hold back the smile that accompanied her mischief. Right. He’d have to think fast. If he were to tell a lie now it would have to be a completely outrageous one. Where the hell was his muse? He’d have to buy some time.
“Actually, Jules,” he declared, “I have something very revealing about your book.” He paused for effect. “I was rather hoping to save it for coffee and mint time.”
The only consolation Ollie had gleaned from his shambolic marriage to Helen was the introduction to her schoolgirl chum, Julia. And he and Julia had become firmer friends since Helen’s funeral. Ollie never refused her kind offers of sustenance and relished each occasion with deserved anticipation. Helen would be spinning in her grave, of course, if she could see Ollie being tended to by the lovely Julia. And now, all eyes were expectantly upon him as he took to the floor, coffee liqueur in hand. The room fell silent, aside from the tidy tick of a mantle clock, and Ollie paused for an exact number of moments before launching into his rather hastily tacked-together account.
“Just yesterday morning, after breaking my fast, I set the logs crackling in the hearth and settled down in my rocker to follow Lara: Psychic Detective as she diced, no doubt, with hell and high water in her brave crusade against crime. Then the room took on an eerie chill; had a window blown open? I felt a strange unease as I returned, having checked them, to find the flames dancing devilishly fiercer than usual. ‘Steady on there,’ I said, ‘you’ll have the chimney afire at this rate.’ This seemed to appease whatever possessed it, and the licks of the flames diminished.”
Ollie drained, then refilled his glass before returning to his captivated audience. “The bitter chill returned even colder as I picked up the book and tried, in vain, to open the jacket. ‘Behave yourself!’ I admonished the book, as I continued to wrestle with its reticence. After a desperate struggle it seemed to comply, then a bouquet of Helen’s favorite perfume pervaded the room as the book finally relented and opened – I watched in startled fascination as each letter began to fall from the page to the floor, like termites shaken from a stick. I could not help but cast it into the fire, such was my trepidation.”