It took all of Steve's reserve to resist his knee-jerk reaction to immediately close the door on the mismatched couple standing before him. Though having only met him once prior, Steve instantly identified the tall, good-looking chap with the wide, syrupy smile plastered across his face as none other than Susan's former love interest, the army-lad-gone-A.W.O.L. Paul. And he hoped against hope that the shorter, unfamiliar female dressed in jeans and fitted suede jacket standing beside him, a distinctly uncertain half-smile spoiling her otherwise pleasant facial features, was Paul's latest paramour.
"Hi," said Paul, his clipped Yorkshire accent prominent even from his first uttered syllable, "Steve, is it? Remember me? It's Paul," he waited for recognition, "Suzy's friend Paul. We met at the pub. It's been some time now. You probably don't recall."
"Right," Steve feigned surprise. He most assuredly did remember the man who'd had a rather lengthy and intimate fling with, as Paul referred to her, his Suzy, though Steve hadn't even know Susan back then, in their college years. "Adonis," Steve greeted him, Paul unaware of the snide remark made, the moniker a jealous, confidence-lacking-in-the-presence-of-this-particular-bloke Steve had dubbed the muscularly-framed, all around goodly-natured chap per his last visit.
"Nope, not Paul Adonis," said an oblivious Paul, "that's Bowman. My name's Paul Bowman. Well," he said with elation, "it's actually Paul Bowman-MacDonald now."
"Ah, is it? Have taken the wife's name, have you," said Steve sarcastically, nodding at the female standing next to Paul, "That's brilliant! Guess I didn't take you for the progressive sort. Elope did you?"
"I'm sorry? Elope," Paul questioned, confused, "Oh," he finally got the gist of Steve's comments, but only just, "no, no, this isn't my wife," Paul put his arms around the woman, "This here is Isobel, my girlfriend Isobel. Why did you take her for my wife?"
"It's your hyphenated name, Paul," Isobel pointed out, her patience waning, "Bowman-MacDonald. It was a joke. At your expense, no less," she said over her shoulder. With a wry grin she sized up the perceptive Steve, "Hiya," equally sharp-witted and keen, Isobel extended her hand, her shake firm and sure, "It is Steve, right? Isobel Anderson. Good to meet you. Sorry for the intrusion. Probably just nipped out for a curry take-away, put your feet up to watch a footy match, 'eh?"
"No, not exactly," said Steve, trying to keep any annoyance out of his voice. He desperately wished he could usher the pair off the front stoop before Susan learned of their presence.
"Only Paul insisted your flat was a must-see on our London excursion," explained Isobel. "Damn-near have the feeling it's the only reason we came," she laughed forcibly. "Well. Seems we're on queue here for a viewing with the Queen, doesn't it? Least it does to me. But we're here to see Susan, yea? Your girlfriend, I presume?"
"Yes Susan, my steady girlfriend, Susan Walker, yes," Steve turned away at the sound of what he thought was Susan's approach, questioning his territorial, insistent need to label Susan as his steady.
"No, I meant behind you," said Isobel.
"Blimey, not me," screeched Sally, "I'm a white silk bow-tie! And neither of you are a handsome Frenchman!" She stomped back down the hall, pushing past Susan, mumbling something inaudible about semi-soft brie leading to semi-soft hips.
Her comportment not betraying her formerly disheveled self, Susan, completely void of cooking gear, her honeyed hair let loose from the plastic clip, graciously glided down the corridor. "Steve? Who is it, darling?"
"Definitely not the Hoover salesman," said Steve, stepping out of the way of their guests.
"Please, invite whomever it is in. Paul," exclaimed Susan, stopping short. She laughed nervously, "Paul Bowman? What the heck are you doing back here…so soon? All the way down here in London!"
"Ah," Steve couldn't resist pointing out, "it's actually Paul Bowman-MacDonald now, dear," emphasizing, with a sardonic half smile—which Isobel did happen to notice, the pronunciation of Paul's new last name.
"Bowman-MacDonald," eyeing Isobel, Susan became momentarily puzzled. "Get married, did you? No, wait, what am I saying? That wouldn't make sense. You wouldn't be taking her name would you? That would be bucking the system, Paul. Not really your cuppa is it?"
"Ha! You've got that right," Isobel rolled her eyes, "Guess there's no questioning you knowing him well, huh? Hi, Susan I'm Isobel by the way. And before Paul here bursts a gasket let me set the record straight, shall I?" Isobel held up her hands wriggling them back and forth, every finger void of jewelry, "Girlfriend, not wife."
"Oh, I see," said Susan, wondering if Paul had brought her round for approval.
"And as for my name," explained Paul, "remember when I last left it was just after my mother had passed away and I was en route north to find the father I never knew? Well I did. Find him, I mean. I'm no longer an orphan!"
"But still a bastard," whispered Steve under his breath.
"Well, technically I am still an orphan because as it turns out he's dead as well! Always a day late and a pound short, me," Paul laughed. "Though it wasn't all for naught. At least I now know who he was, my dad—the former laird of Glenbogle!"
"The former laird of what," Steve questioned.
"Of Glenbogle—it's in Scotland, mate. And were it not for my quest to find a one Hector Naismith MacDonald—that was m'dad's name, I never would have found Isobel!"
"Here we go," Susan began handing dishes round the now cramped table. "First course, wilted salad."
"Wilted salad? Is that like potted meat or pickled herring, Susan," asked Denver. "Is this recipe new, something you've created? Or is it always made this way? It's quite tasty."
"Hmm, you've put feta cheese in the salad, Susan?"
"I have, Isobel. I'm assuming that's all right? Not allergic or anything," answered Susan flippantly, "I've a Greek theme going on here as I'm serving lamb with garlic and lemon."
"Yes and I detect a bit of oregano too, don't I?" Sensitive to Susan's icy delivery, Isobel added, "I only meant that the feta's sharp taste pairs well with the aggressive flavors of the mixed greens. Most people use Chevre in salads and I, often times, find it much too mild, bland even."
"You know Isobel," said Patrick, all of his attention focused on his friends' attractive Scottish guest, "I could never quite put my finger on what it was about Chevre that left me unsatisfied, but you're quite right. It's bland, ordinary! Feta is way more scintillating, you know, in a sensorial way. And, I dare say, it strikes a great balance in this salad."
"Ah," said Sally, a clear edge to her voice, "do we have a gourmand or two in our midst?"
"Well no," stated Isobel plainly, "it was just an observation."
"Yes," Patrick reinforced, "it was just an observation, Sal."
"Oh no," Sally thought to herself, "I can feel my arse spreading, oozing like melted brie out over the sides of the chair. I'm an oozing, melting blob of gooey brie. What was I thinking? Bringing a wheel of fat? To impress a Frenchman who isn't even here yet. I bet Isobel's arse isn't oozing off her seat, no. She eats non-fat, scintillating feta!" But before her brain caught up with her mouth, she blurted aloud, "My favorite's brie!"
"Another mild cheese that is, brie," offered Isobel.
"Yes, but it is rich."
"Quite," agreed Isobel. "But talk about ordinary, Patrick! Not really worth the calories for something so tasteless, is it?"
"To answer you Denz," said Susan, redirecting the conversation, "I'd call this salad an accidental miracle. I mean who knew a salad dressed nearly half an hour ago could still pass muster." Her comment, meant to be biting, stung her guest.
"Och, that's our fault, isn't it," said Isobel. "We, Paul and I, have disrupted your nice dinner party, haven't we? I can only offer you our apologies once again, Susan. It was kind of you and Steve to invite us in."
"Don't mention it," said the hostess, feeling the slightest twinge of guilt about her snippy attitude, "It's our pleasure."
"And you've brought a descent bottle of wine, Château Ver ye Mar Velous," said Patrick, raising his filled wine glass, "That's always a plus in my book."
"I brought wine," Sally spoke up, seemingly apropos of nothing.
"Yes, Sally and we finished off your middling vintage with starters, didn't we?"
Cutlery clinked and scraped against china for several long minutes as the diners quietly tucked into their salads, all casting furtive glances amongst one another.
Susan finally broke the silence, "On to the second course now everyone, yea," she suggested brightly, "Steve? Would you do us the honor of carving the lamb?"
"Thankfully," said Jane rather loudly, "I've considered the needs of those amongst us who don't partake in the consumption of meat and have brought along my autograph dish."
"I think you mean your signature dish, don't you, Jane?"
"Do I, Susan? Whatever."
"What is it," asked Paul.
"Macaroni cheese made with wheat free, flour free, gluten free pasta and dairy free cheese and milk. Oh and there's a smidge of nutless nutmeg, too. In case anyone has nut allergies. Here, let me pass it round. Maybe I can convert one of you."
"What? With that greige mush," said Steve under his breath, "not going to happen."
"Oi, Steve! I heard that. When we dated you used to eat everything I cooked. Remember my famous casseroles?"
"Infamous they were, maybe and yes, Jane I remember, but do you also recall the only common ingredient that made them at all palatable to me was a generous dousing of brown sauce?"
"Well Denz loves my cooking. And he doesn't smother it in any of that icky brown sauce either, do you Denny?"
"Nope, I most definitely do not. Never ever douse 'em with brown sauce. I much prefer hot pepper sauce, m'self."
Reaching for the crock, Paul said, "I'll take a helping, Jane," he smiled and winked at the outspoken woman, setting off Isobel's sensors.
"Brave, you are," whispered Patrick.
"How bad can it be," Paul quietly reasoned, "A bit like army rations, isn't it? Of which I've had my share. I'm used to tasteless fare."
Meanwhile, using a pair of golden tongs, Susan began placing an exact number of beans—an uneven number for luck—onto each person's plate.
"Mmm," said Isobel, "haricots verts? Lovely."
"Harry Colbert is lovely? And how would you know that," asked a desperate Sally.
Quite pleased Isobel had picked up on the star side dish of the evening and eager to, once again, divert discussion, Susan questioned, "Where does your interest in food come from, Isobel? Are you a chef?"
"Oh no," Isobel laughed, "hardly."
"She's a farmer, my Isobel is," said Paul, beaming proudly.
"A farmer," said the lot in unison.
"Well yes," replied Isobel, uncomfortably, "I now run the farm my Gran used to own in Scotland. But, I haven't always done…"
"Keep cattle and chickens, do you?"
"Aye, Jane, and I raise pigs too, yes. Livestock they are, really."
"Livestock," questioned Jane dramatically.
"Well yes, though it's a relatively small acreage I have."
"Bah, it's just as I suspected! A deadstock farmer's what you are!"
"You're a deadstock farmer. You raise the animals for food."
"Well no, Jane it's not that simple."
"When they're born they're as good as dead, yea?"
"So says the suit-vegan," replied Steve passing the tray of lamb in the opposite direction, "Here we go again."
"Well aren't they," Jane insisted.
"No. I mean yes, occasionally an animal is culled, sure. But mostly I farm them for what they produce while alive. Their donations, if you will. That's how I like to think of it. Their donations pay my bills."
"Hmph," Jeff cut in, "Didn't think it was compatible, that."
"What," Isobel cautiously asked.
"Their blood, I mean, 'eh?"
"What do you mean their blood?" Isobel feared the direction the conversation was going in and wished someone would change the subject.
"You know. The donations from the animals well, it's their blood isn't it?"
"No," Isobel laughed incredulously, "I meant milk from the cows and goats, eggs from the chickens, wool and sometimes even milk from the sheep."
"Oh, that's a relief," Jeff smiled, "because I was wondering. What you'd be doin' with all that blood. Not that I thought you a vampire. I mean your eye teeth are a little on the longish side but not exceptionally so. They're not vampiric or anything. Course you could be into that sort of thing. I s'pose we'd need to check Paul's neck to be sure though, 'eh? See if there are any bite marks."
"Yes thank you, Jeff," said Susan.
"So, no free borders at Isobel's," Jane pressed the issue, "Got them all working for their keep?"
"Well yes. Their donations are how I support myself now, Jane. Their contributions are vital to my cottage industry."
Jeff looked up, his fork poised above his plate he stabbed it forward to make another point. "Their donations are vital, yea? Imagine if we could, though. I mean if we humans could accept donations from animals. It could open up a whole new field, couldn't it? Blood banks could use the donations, surely. And what about vital organs," Jeff paused in thought.
"Dear Lord, vital organs?"
"Yes. And think of the other possibilities too, Steve. If a man were say short changed in a certain department. He could have himself a transplant to enhance himself. Call it an enhance-plant."
"Yes, Jeff," said Susan, "we have the picture and we're eating, for goodness sake! Do spare us, please."
"Besides," ribbed Steve, "think Patrick's already been that route."
"Yes," spoke Sally energetically, "I agree." Sensing all eyes were on her, especially Patrick's—though knowledge of his generously-blessed endowment certainly wasn't a secret amongst the group—Sally felt a redness creeping up her neck, seeping into her cheeks in a bloom of deep pink blush. "I meant that I agree with Jeff," she stammered, trying to explain her outburst and preserve a modicum of her dignity, "perhaps then Steve could get an enhance-plant for his underdeveloped left calf! Like breast implants, only these would be for the calves."
"Oh Sal, that would be fantastic," exclaimed Jeff, "Brilliant! Breast implants where calves should be—calf breasts. On women that would be quadruple the pleasure!" Jeff spoke in falsetto, "My real breasts might be a tad on the small side but wait 'til you check out my calf breasts!"
"Susan!" Steve stood up from the table, "How could you? That was told to you in confidence!"
"I never said a word, Steve! If you hadn't noticed, I've been a little pre-occupied this evening entertaining all of our friends!"
"Well I think," said Jane, her voice husky and seductive, "that Paul's calves are amazing. All even and muscular, they are. He's one chap who definitely could do without enhance-plants."
"Yes, you're quite right," said Isobel, "I do agree with you there, Jane."
"It wouldn't do, though if a woman had kankles," Jeff hypothesized. "If a woman with kankles got enhance-plants there'd be too much leg flesh. Not enough separation between calf breasts and ankles. There's got to be a clear separation between calf breasts and ankles. Otherwise they'd just look like two sagging breasts. Old lady breasts, like my mother's—four huge, sagging old lady breasts!"
"Wait," Isobel laced into Jane, "just how is it you're privy to this knowledge about Paul's calves? Paul? How does she know about your muscular calves? I thought you dated Susan? You said nothing of Jane!"
"Can we please focus on me for a moment," Steve implored.
"There's a simple remedy for your condition, Steve. Try one-legged squats."
"Yes, thank you Paul. Learn that whilst in prison, did you?"
"Prison," Isobel questioned, shocked, "You never mentioned you'd done time, Paul!"
"Yes," Jane purred, "I've slept with a fugitive! I was Paul's nick knack."
"A fugitive, what were you running from?"
"Relax, Isobel," replied Jane, "it wasn't anything serious, was it? Hadn't you simply gone over a wall or something, Paul?"
"I'd gone A.W.O.L., Isobel. It was right after my mother passed away. Instead of returning to the regiment, I went searching for my father."
"Oh Paul," said a softened Isobel, familiar with only a limited amount of his background, "that must have been a horrible time for you. Imagine it must've taken you some guts to turn yourself in."
"Well, it was the right thing to do, wasn't it?"
"Unbelievable! Again," Steve grumbled, "the Adonis manages to upstage me!"
"Wouldn't worry about it, mate," said Jeff. "It's all in the perspective you take, Steve. Don't think of your left calf as being underdeveloped; think of the right as being overdeveloped.
"Oh aye, play much at sports, do you?"
"Not unless you consider wHEE Game System sport," Susan snidely commented.
"Excuse me, Susan a little support here, please?"
"Right, go on then Denz. For the sake of argument, why did you ask if my beau here's a sportsman?"
"Well if he's a footballer then he's got Kicker's Calf, hasn't he?"
"Aye, Kicker's Calf," Denver clarified, "you know when one leg becomes more conditioned due to overuse. It's called Kicker's Calf. Though can't imagine the term's exclusive to footy. You'd think it'd have a negative sound about it, wouldn't you? Much like Tennis Elbow or Runner's Knee, call it Kicker's Curse."
"Hmm, doesn't sound like our Peg Leg, does it?"
"Pele, huh," said Steve, chuffed. "I mean yes, it's true, have played some football in my time. But don't think I'm yet qualified for the nickname Pele."
"Not Pele, Steve you daft bloke, she said Peg Leg."
"Peg Leg!? So, you've discussed my deficiency with them, Susan, have you?"
"Well of course she has, Steve," said a matter of fact Jane. "How else are we ladies to know how our own boyfriends compare? Which couples we're better off then? We've standards, haven't we? It's cutthroat. And yes, we're ruthless."
"I take exception to that! It's just like you women, isn't it?" Steve paced in front of his guests like a confident lawyer striding assuredly before a captive jury box. "See we men, when we toss back a few pints at a local pub and have a proper chin-wag with our mates you'd never hear us knocking our women, would you? No. Not judging them. Not laughing at their trivial idiosyncrasies. And why, you wonder? Is it because we males are the more civilized gender? Further along on the evolutionary chain? No? No. Because we men put our women up on pedestals, we do. Huge, blasted Corinthian columns they are. You, the whole lot of you, you're the top, in our opinion, the centers of our universes, the apples of our eyes. Your pulchritude, believed sacrosanct. But do you, you of the double X chromosomes, do you extend this courteousness toward the XY's in your lives? Ever turn a blind eye to our copious faults? Treat us equally unbiased? No, no. What do you do? You pick us apart! First chance you get. Pick, pick, pick! Over a bottle of wine and little bits of nibbles and canapés you commiserate, cherishing the dastardly act of critiquing your men behind their unsuspecting backs. Tearing us down like bulldozers bent on felling buildings of brick and steel. You discuss, with relish, things like underdeveloped calves, receding hairlines, stomach paunch and then, finally, tackle the issues of the nether regions. But we lads, we follow an unwritten code. Mates are willing to overlook your gapped front teeth, to not notice uneven breasts, ignore your carnal lists of unaccepted positions, and disregard blonde roots in dire need of a touch up. Oh yes, hens, despite bravely feigning disinterest in your latest coiffure we do notice when your roots need touching up! But we have the bloody decency to keep mum about it! Call it the chivalrous harkening of King Arthur's court, the last vestiges of knights in shining armor. In our eyes, we believe that you are, quite simply, perfect."
Steve resumed his seat at the head of the table and with a flourish placed his napkin in his lap. "Dessert, Susan?"
The evening having ended with a bit of measured laughter and polite small talk, guests and hosts, both congregated by the front door.
"So, have you two booked a room in town?"
"Yes, Susan," answered Isobel, inching her body closer to the exit, "at The Imperial."
"Wow, the Imperial? A bit posh for a farmer, 'eh?"
"Steve," Susan admonished with an elbowing to the ribs.
"Right, Steve. Haven't always been a farmer," Isobel was quick to clarify. "Know the City quite well. In fact, back in Edinburgh when I was wheeling and dealing, as they say, trips down to London were a biweekly must. I've still maintained my connections here."
"Will your London stay be lengthy?"
"Why? Thinking we might do lunch?" Isobel took a deep breath, wishing her reply hadn't sounded so snarky, "No, actually. I've some business to take care of in the morning then we'll be heading back after tea."
"Yes," Paul offered, "she's got chutney and pickles to vend."
"Chutney and Pickles," Steve chortled, "Is that a new rock band or something? Let's hear it for Chutney 'n Pickles latest hit, Relish, Delish!"
Isobel rolled her eyes. She'd hoped Paul wouldn't mention the real reason they'd come to London. "They're items from my line of homemade foodstuffs."
"Isobel's Edibles," Paul cheerfully volunteered.
"Isobel's Edibles,oh right, that would be the cottage industry you mentioned earlier, Isobel. Well, we must try some. Where will they be sold?"
"In a few of the gourmet shops downtown, fingers crossed. Though, tomorrow's just a formality, really. Papers need signing, you know how it is. Are we ready, Paul?"
"Sure," Isobel reached for the door latch, but Paul turned back to the group, "Hey, I've a brilliant idea!"
"Do you, Paul, really? Because it's nearing half ten—we should be going. I've an early rise tomorrow."
"Yes, well they're our mates, aren't they? You can't expect them to purchase your chutney retail."
"What do you suggest I do? Give them chits for discounts?"
"No, no. They can sample them fresh. On the premises! Brilliant, isn't it? You'll have to come up to Glenbogle, that's where I've chosen to reside."
"Visit Glenbogle," Susan nervously replied.
"Yes, the whole lot of you. We'll fix up some rooms in the estate, after all there are forty some odd, or, if you prefer, you could stay in one of the crofts on the property. It'll be a cracking good time."
"Will it," said Steve, mockingly, "Well, we'll certainly pencil you in."
"Great! I'll ring Suzy with the details."
"Really must educate you in the subtleties of sarcasm, Paul," whispered Isobel under her breath.
"Oh aye," Jeff enthused, "definitely! How's the fishing up north in them lochs, Paul? Got any freshwater lobsters need catching?"
"Doubt that. But there's plenty of salmon."
"Mmm, I love salmon!"
"Do you, Jane? But what about that whole anti-meat thing you feel so strongly about?"
"What about it, Denz?"
"Well isn't that where butchers get salmon steaks from, salmon?"
And so the evening ended…
Memories of another well-intentioned-turned-slightly-barmy dinner party recorded in the annals of posterity.
Amongst bawdy guffaws, ponderings whether or not Denz was for real, amidst half-hearted, though genuine goodnights, goodbyes, and wishes for safe journeys home, near and distant, a disenchanted Sally Harper slipped away into the night. She was half way down the street by the time Patrick reached her.
"That was some night, huh Sal?"
"Yes, some night."
"Share a cab?"
"Doesn't really make sense, does it, Patrick? You're going uptown and I'm…well, I'm not, am I."
"Right and don't suppose you'd fancy a night cap?"
"A night cap, hmm?"
"Only this mate of mine's opened up a little jewel of a place a bit off the beaten path. It's a cozy lounge over on Arcane Court, called Harry C's."
"Harry C's," questioned Sally, her voice redolent with disbelief.
"Yes. Have you heard of it?"
"No," she laughed, "no, sorry I haven't."
"The owner swears it's named after his father but I have a sneaking suspicion it might have to do with a silent partner, the C actually standing for Connick, Jr. or something."
"Uh-huh, it's a good theory."
"Well it's a nice place. It's different, quiet. They serve only the finest liquors. Music's easy listening but not what you'd call iconic 'lift' music. It's contemporary with a classic edge. Good place to talk."
"So you've been before?"
"I was invited opening night, yes."
"Ah, I see."
"Well I hadn't a date that evening."
"Yes, I know the spiel. No one quite fit your criteria as appropriate arm candy for an evening out swaying to smooth jazz."
"No, Sal. That's not what I meant. I was waiting to ask someone special."