"Good night, Bob, Maggie. Thanks for a lovely evening. The food was wonderful." I didn't mean a word of it, especially the bit about the food.
"Yes, lovely evening," said Susan. I immediately recognised the phoney voice that my wife reserved for her estate agency's most awkward customers.
We stood on the doorstep and shook hands with our hosts, then walked down the driveway to where Tom and Annie waited for us in their car. Susan and I clambered into the back seat, Tom started the car, and we pulled away.
Tom and I had been best friends for more than five years. We'd worked on several projects together, and our wives had become best friends, too.
"Well," I said. "That has to be the most boring dinner party I've been to this century."
"Mike! Don't be so horrible," said Annie. "Bob and Maggie tried really hard tonight."
"Come on, Darling," said Tom. "You can't tell me you had fun."
"I might have done. At least nobody told any dirty jokes, like they usually do." She turned around to glare at me.
I held my hands against my chest. "I'm positively offended, Annie. I never tell dirty jokes."
Susan playfully thumped my arm. "Stop teasing her, Mike. You tell dirty jokes every opportunity you get. It's one of your many talents."
"Oh? And what are my other talents?"
Susan giggled. "You know what they are." She leaned across to kiss me. Annie turned to face the front of the car, blushing.
Tom caught us kissing in his rear view mirror. "Please, you two—get a room."
"We've got one, thanks," I said. "And if you put you foot down and get us home, we can make good use of it."
Annie must have been really mortified now—even the backs of her ears had gone red. "Now look," said Tom. "You've embarrassed my poor, innocent wife."
Everyone, including Annie, laughed. Annie's embarrassment over anything remotely sexual was a constant source of amusement for rest of us. I freely admit that seeing Annie's face turn beetroot-red was one of the main reasons for my dirty jokes at dinner parties.
"Where are we going next Saturday?" Susan asked.
"Jack Hutton's," said Tom. "He's working on a new project with Mike and me. We're the only ones invited. He said he wants to get to know us."
"Jack's a good laugh," I said. "It should be fun."
"Well, it can't be any worse than tonight," said Susan. "Maggie gave me the recipe she used for tonight's curry. I'll be filing it under How Not to Cook."
"Don't be horrible, Sue," said Annie. "She tried her best."
"Why do we always end up at dinner parties on Saturday nights?" I asked. "They're the bane of my life."
"There was an article about it in The Times last weekend," said Susan. "They called dinner parties 'the plague of middle class suburbia in Blair's Britain'."
"Damn straight," I said. "I don't understand it. Everybody hates them, but we still go. Why?"
"Human curiosity," said Annie. "We want to see how other people live."
"And reassure ourselves that our taste is better than theirs," said Tom. "Then we throw our own because we want everyone to see the trappings of our success."
"I get you," I said. "Take Bob. He used to run around in a shabby old convertible when he was younger. Always had the top down, even in winter, and the stereo playing full blast. He was a right nutter. But this evening he spent nearly an hour extolling the virtues of his new conservatory."
"Well, conservatories are one of the best ways to add value to a property," said Susan. "Which is vital in today's slow market."
"Shut up, Miss Property Expert," I said.
"I was only offering the benefit of my vast knowledge."
"You were showing off."
"Well, yeah. That too. Did I mention we're up for the East of England Estate Agent of the Year award?"
"Once or twice," said Tom.
"Anyway," Susan continued. "Maggie is as bad as Bob. You never used to see her in any other outfit than her micro-mini and white stilettos. Now she's the model of a respectable housewife. She kept going on about her new Dyson." Susan put on a fake, high-pitched voice. "'Oh, it's so wonderful—picks up so much more than my old vacuum. James Dyson is a genius'. I swear, you'd think she was best friends with the man."
"I wish I had a Dyson," said Annie.
"Trouble is," said Tom, "Once you're on the dinner party carousel, you can't get off. Each invitation has to be reciprocated, and each party you throw results in still more invitations to still more dinner parties. It's a vicious circle."
"An endless merry-go-round of idle chitchat, experimental cooking and New World wines," I said. "Why can't we just go to the cinema one Saturday night instead? Harry Potter opens soon—I'd like to see that."
"Look at these houses, Mike. Aren't they lovely? All chocolate-boxy," Susan said as I drove through the village. "Houses like these are so easy to sell. They fly off the books."
"They're very nice, Sweet Pea. But isn't it expensive around here? I know that Jack and Gabby paid more for their house than we did."
"Well, you're paying for the postcode, really. Potter's Lodge is an impressive address for your headed notepaper."
"What number is it?"
"Here's Forty-nine ... Fifty-one ... There it is. That's Jack's car on the driveway." The black Mercedes was parked alongside a new Ford Focus. A blue BMW was parked on the road. "Looks like Tom and Annie are already here."
I parked behind Tom's car and then we trotted up the driveway. Susan clutched a bottle of red wine. I carried a six-pack of Carlsberg. Jack greeted us at the door before we'd even had a chance to knock. "Evening, Mike. And this must be the lovely Susan?"
Jack took Susan's hand in his and kissed it. "It's a pleasure, at last. I've heard so much about you."
"All good, I hope," she said with a wry smile and a wink in my direction.
"Of course," I replied.
Jack gave us the halfpenny tour of the ground floor. Susan took particular note of the magnificent Aga in the kitchen. The tour finished in the lounge, where Tom and Annie were chatting with a dark-haired woman.
"Gabby, this is Mike and Susan Towers."
Gabby stood and offered her hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise," I said.
"It's a lovely house you have here," said Susan. "I've seen a lot in this area, and this is definitely one of the nicest. I love the Aga. I've always wanted a big country cooker like that, but you need a big country kitchen to go with it. You don't get that in loft apartments like ours."
"Oh, they're wonderful. Come on, I'll show you." Gabby dragged Susan away to show off her cooker. I watched my wife leave. She looked as fabulous as ever in a white blouse and black skirt. Her blonde curls cascaded down her back and bouncing as she moved.
"Beautiful wife you have, Mike," said Jack. "Three beautiful women in my house at one time. I don't think it's ever happened before."
Annie blushed. I knew she wasn't used to compliments—it was usually Susan, with her lean body and long legs, who got all the attention when they were together. Jack offered me a drink and topped up Tom and Annie's glasses. It was like every other dinner party I'd ever been to. The main topic of conversation was the upcoming general election. Not the politics, heaven forbid. That would have been far too interesting. We talked about the media coverage instead, and how the campaign seemed somehow less exciting than previous ones. The conversations were just as banal over dinner. Jack, Tom and I discussed our upcoming project. Our wives tutted their disapproval of 'shop talk' and did their best to steer us in another direction.
"This lamb is wonderful, Gabby," said Susan. "You must let me have the recipe." She was right—it was fabulous. Although I doubted Susan would be able to do it justice.
"It's a Gordon Ramsey. I'll lend you the book if you like. Actually, there's not much too it. As he keeps saying on the telly, use fresh ingredients and then keep it simple."
"All these vegetables are from the garden," said Jack, "I only picked them this afternoon. You can't get much fresher than that. And according to the butcher, this lamb was frolicking in a field in Snowdonia just last weekend."
The dessert was simply heavenly—homemade apple and blackberry pie. The fruit was also from the garden. The six of us polished off three and a half bottles of wine during the meal, and we boys enjoyed a couple of bottles of Carlsberg each too.
"Shall we go through to the lounge, lads?" Jack asked after we'd all finished eating. "I've got a bottle of twenty-year-old Scotch that I've been looking for an excuse to open. Picked it up last summer on the Isle of Oban."
"Sounds good to me," I said.
"Aren't you driving?" Gabby asked.
"No," said Tom. "We've booked a couple of Scooter-men."
"Those guys with the foldable scooters?" Jack asked.
"Yep," I said. "They stick the scooter in the boot and then drive you home. It's cheaper than hiring a taxi, and at least you know where the stains on your own back seat have come from."
"Mike! That's disgusting," said Annie in her usual shocked tone.
"What's disgusting? I was talking about beer and ketchup stains. I can't help it if you have a dirty mind." Annie went bright red.
"Stop teasing her, Mike," said Susan.
"Yeah, stop teasing," said Gabby. "Or one of these days someone might just get their own back."
.... There is more of this story ...