We finally made it round to Chris and Catriona's for dinner at the weekend. It's been months since they came here but trying to get everyone's schedules to match up for a reciprocal gathering has been tricky. They've been out at galas and posh functions, mingling with the rich and influential; we've been staying in, mingling with the winter viruses brought home to us by our loving, yet somewhat slimy, offspring. Nevertheless, they managed to squeeze us in last Saturday and we were all healthy enough to make it out the door. We caught the bus round to their house in the late afternoon, eager for a taste of my niece Lisa's cooking.
At least me and Sarah were keen - the boys complained about feeling travel sick before we'd left the house and Marie took a huff because we weren't going to visit Gran instead. Once we arrived, however, and my teenage nephew Ned let us in, the kids were all delighted to see him. Fraser challenged him to a computer game, Lewis demanded to watch him play a completely different computer game and Marie grabbed a couple of expensive-looking china ornaments and suggested a round of catch. I grinned at him and sloped off to help in the enormous and magnificent kitchen.
I found Catriona unpacking containers from an Indian take-away.
"Lisa's too busy revising for her exams to do any cooking, I'm afraid," she said, noticing my disappointment.
"But it's a Saturday night." I went to put some cartons in the bin, only to discover it was already entirely full of similar cartons. It appeared that Lisa had been too busy for a while.
"Goodness knows I've tried to talk to her," Catriona replied, bustling about, setting out the table. "You know what children are like." She was still smiling but there was an edge of tension in her voice. Then a thought struck her and she frowned at the dish of curry she was holding. "Will your lot eat this?"
"Not really," I said. "The kids won't touch spicy food, aren't keen on rice and generally don't like anything with sauce."
That wasn't exactly what Catriona wanted to hear but there was no point lying - the truth was going to become obvious as soon as my children entered the room and started complaining that everything looked disgusting. The chances of them eating anything much of the take-away were slim. Given a choice between what was laid out on the table and their own snot, they might find it tricky to make a decision.
I felt it best to keep this information to myself and attempted to rescue the situation instead. "They can have some poppadoms and naan bread. If you've got some fresh fruit or vegetables, I can chop that up for them as well."
Catriona was past caring. "Fine. Fine. You do that. I'll go and get Chris to find some wine."
I hurriedly set about chopping some apple and carrot and cucumber. A few minutes later, Chris wandered in, holding a bottle.
"Good to see Catriona's got you working hard in the kitchen already," he said jovially. "Might as well let an expert at it, eh? You won't know what to do with yourself once all your kids are at school. Better keep looking busy or Sarah will make you get a proper job."
"Ignore him, Ed," said Catriona, following behind.
"Uh-huh," I muttered.
"He knows I'm only joking," said Chris, slapping me on the back and fishing a corkscrew out of the drawer beside me. "I thought we might try this Merlot tonight. It's from Chile. It came highly recommended by one of my colleagues. Not too heavy and very fruity, apparently. It's not what I would normally..."
I interrupted. "Red, right?"
"Just checking," I said, hunting through the fridge for some cheese. Chris went on but I ignored him as instructed and concentrated on filling the kids' plates with stuff they'd eat. Unfortunately, I didn't quite get the plates to the table before Catriona rounded everyone up and ushered them through. Fraser and Lewis started complaining loudly about how horrible the food looked and how they didn't like rice.
Marie hid her face in her hands, threw herself to the floor and whined. "It's all yucky!"
"Be nice," I said. "Your food is over here, guys."
"Why isn't it on the table?" asked Lewis.
"Yes, how were we supposed to know it was over there?" said Fraser.
"I don't want that either," said Marie. "I want toast."
"Tough," I said, bringing their plates over. "Sit on your seats and stop being so rude or you'll all be on bread and water next week."
"Grrr," said Lewis. "Don't be silly."
"I'm being serious. We're visitors here. Stop being rude or you'll be eating bread and water for a week."
"But you don't eat water," said Marie, "you drink it."
Sarah spoke before I could reply. "Why don't you sit down and try some wine, dear? Chris was telling me all about it before we came through."
"Hmmm..." I said, taking a deep breath. "Maybe that's a good plan."
"Yes," said Catriona, "and do start helping yourself to the food. It's self-service tonight. Sorry we're all crowded round this table. I've got work spread out in the dining room and I didn't have time to clear it away."
"Don't worry about it - this is nice and cosy," said Sarah. "Where's Lisa?"
Chris gave Catriona a look. Catriona returned a quick shake of the head in warning and said, "She must be in the middle of something. I'll take her up some food in a minute."
"Tell her to take a break," I said. "I thought she had another three weeks before her exams started."
"She's got herself quite concerned she's not going to get the grades she needs for Cambridge, poor thing. She's working very hard."
"Well," said Chris, "if she hadn't put so much time into that show..."
"The show was good for her, dear. It helped take her mind off her school work. You could see just from the look on her face that she was enjoying performing."
Chris snorted. "And being surrounded by boys."
"Better she gets used to that now..." I said, half to myself.
"Better than what?" asked Chris pointedly.
"Well, er... She's very..." I tried to find a delicate way of pointing out to my niece's parents that she is, in fact, smoking hot and bound to be surrounded by drooling teenage boys the second she arrives at any university. "Er..." I wished I'd sipped at my wine rather than gulping. A thousand inappropriate conversational gambits opened up before me all at once.
Sarah came to my rescue. "I think Ed's trying to say that after so many years at an all-girl school, the chance to interact with a large number of hormonally-challenged males in the controlled environment of Malton House was probably useful preparation for Freshers Week, wherever she happens to end up in a few months time."
I remembered why she's in PR but I felt it was best to hurriedly change the subject anyway. "Yes and she played the piano very well. I thought Ned's scenery was excellent, though."
"I didn't know you saw the show, Ed," said Catriona.
"I caught some of the dress rehearsal while I was reconfiguring a bunch of laptops."
Chris and Catriona both frowned at me like I'd suddenly started speaking Dutch.
"You know, as part of my job..." This didn't seem to help their comprehension. "...doing IT support..." For some reason, they still weren't getting it. "...at Malton House..." Still nothing and I'd run out of sensible clarifications. I pressed on regardless. "...the wacky school full of hormonally-challenged males you send your son to."
"What?" said Chris
I turned to Ned who'd been keeping a low profile while shovelling all the food he could reach into his mouth. "Didn't you tell them I was working at your school?"
"I forgot," he said, nearly spraying me with rice.
"Did you forget to tell them you were good at art as well?"
"What?" His eyes widened in fear over where I was going with this but he couldn't really say much else without choking. We'd had a conversation about his future the previous week and I'd promised to talk to his parents on the subject. I think he'd kind of assumed I'd do it when he wasn't there, however.
"He's really good at art," I said to Chris and Catriona.
"Oh, yes, he always has been," said Catriona. "He gets it from me. Chris couldn't paint a fence, could you, dear?"
"The front gate needs painted," chuckled Chris. "Maybe Ned could make himself useful doing that."
I took another deep breath, restrained myself from slapping him and tentatively got to the point. "I was thinking more that, rather than sending him away to boarding school in the hope of improving his science grades, it might be worth letting him stay here and concentrate on art and design."
Chris dismissed the notion with further laughter. "A few hours with you and his marks have already got better. Get him away from distractions, give him some exercise and a bit of discipline, and he's bound to knuckle down."
"It's been more than a few hours - he's had months of one-on-one tuition and he's tried hard. At this stage, I don't feel that being shouted at to go on cross-country runs is suddenly going to unlock some previously undiscovered talent for maths. He doesn't have one."
"Heh!" said Ned, finally managing to swallow.
"Am I wrong?" I said, shrugging. "Do you want me to order you out for a jog and then force you to do trigonometry badly in order to prove the point?"
He thought about this for a surprisingly long time before making the sensible decision. "Nah."
"But..." Chris was beginning to realise I was being serious. "Art?"
I could see the mental calculations going on behind his eyes. He was figuring out how much it would cost to support his very own struggling Damien Hurst for an indefinite number of decades. I pressed on quickly before he was blinded by a large string of zeroes. "I'm not suggesting he goes and locks himself in a garret to work on some unappreciated masterpiece while living on nothing but own-brand Corn Flakes and absinthe. There are plenty of career opportunities. For instance, these days computer games need more artists to make them than they do programmers. Probably quite a few more. And, believe me, he'd make a better artist than a programmer. There are lots of other possibilities as well, aren't there, Ned?"
For some reason, I'd been hoping for a bit more back up than that but it was clear Ned was more than happy to let me do the talking. I felt it might be worth giving him an opportunity to fight his own battle, however, and if I could be out of the fallout zone, so much the better. It was time to run away. "Why don't you tell your parents what's out there then?" I said, picking up a spare plate of food and some cutlery. "Is this for Lisa? I'll take it up." I paused only to glug a little more wine and then made my escape.
"Er... ... ..." I heard Ned mumble as I went out the door. "S'pose there's website stuff..."
Feeling only mildly guilty, I headed upstairs and hunted out Lisa's room. It had a flowery nameplate on the door which looked like it had been there since she was seven. I couldn't hear any noise from inside but the light was on and so I knocked. This caused a gasp, two small thuds and some frantic rustling.
"Who is it?"
"Oh... OK. Come in."
The room was very white and scarily tidy - tidy in a way that suggested the occupant had taken to meticulous cleaning in an effort to avoid doing something else. Lisa was sitting at her desk, a couple of chemistry books and some notes spread out before her.
"I brought you your tea," I said.
I walked over and put the meal on the desk. "What are you studying?"
I pointed to a sign she'd stuck on the wall behind her desk. It was level with her eyes as she sat studying and it read 'CONCENTRATE!'.
"Does that work?"
The limited communication was beginning to get to me. "Have you been taking conversational tips from Ned?"
She smiled for the first time since I'd enter the room but it didn't last. "Sorry. I'm just, you know, thinking about chemistry and stuff. I should be doing English but I fell asleep yesterday evening and lost two hours so I had to rewrite my revision timetable and now I'm doing chemistry. I might be more talkative if I was doing English."
"You haven't been doing any work, though, have you?"
She reacted like the revision police had arrived and they could read her mind. "How...?"
"Woh! Relax. I heard you get your books out when I knocked, that's all."
She didn't relax much. "Oh."
"So," I said, "what've you been doing instead? Staring into space or panicking on Facebook?"
"Staring into space," she replied glumly.
"Ho well." I tried cheering her up. "You might as well come downstairs and take the evening off then. I obviously can't guarantee boundless fun but Marie would be delighted to see you and there's a good chance you'd get a glass of wine and an opportunity to make me look foolish playing Wii Tennis."
"I can't," she said, dutifully turning back to her books. "I need to do some work. I'll be OK once I get going."
"Well... OK..." I reluctantly started to leave but then turned and watched her for a moment as she tried to eat while reading. Neither activity seemed to go particularly smoothly.
"I got a place at Oxford," I said.
She looked up with a mixture of interest and confusion. "I thought you went to St Andrews."
"I did. I just found the whole place much more pleasant when I went to visit, so I decided to go there instead."
"Didn't your parents freak? Mum and dad have told everyone I'm going to Cambridge. They'll go mad if I don't get in."
"Don't worry about them. My school was pretty annoyed when they heard I'd messed up their statistics by turning down an Oxbridge place but when speech day came around they spun it into an example of how they produced pupils with courage, conviction and self-confidence. I'm sure your parents will manage to make whatever you end up doing sound impressive to their friends."
"I don't want them to have to lie."
"Who said anything about lying? They think you're great and that's just naturally going to colour everything they say."
Lisa perked up. "Really?"
"Uh-huh," I sighed. "Within minutes of the first time I met them, they were showing me a video of your nursery Nativity play. You were a snowflake and only came on for thirty seconds but they were talking up your talents even then."
She blushed. "Sometimes I wish they'd stop."
"Yeah," I grinned, "you're not the only one. A little less perfection from you might give us all a break."
"Hey!" she said, a proper smile finally shining through, even as she pretended to be offended.
"What? You want me to lie now? Come on, why don't you close the books again and join the rest of us. I'm sure taking an evening off won't make much difference. Besides, you might want to come down and put some of that talent to use sticking up for your not-so-perfect brother."
"What's he done now?" she said, grabbing her plate and following me towards the door.
"Nothing. I just forced him into a situation where he might have to talk to your dad."
"That was mean."
"It was for their own good."
"That's all right then," she said as we started down the stairs. "What did you bring for dessert?"
"What kind of cake?"
"Can't remember. It came in a box. Does it matter?"
"Not much. Cake is good."
We braced ourselves and entered the kitchen. Everyone was shouting at each other, Marie was wearing the wine and the boys had carrot sticks in their ears.
Boy, did we need that cake by the end of the meal...
Yours in a woman's world,