Title: Table for Three

Author: Vincent O'Sullivan

In: Sport 32: Summer 2004

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, December 2004

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 32: Summer 2004

Vincent O'Sullivan — Table for Three

page 232

Vincent O'Sullivan

Table for Three

Their names were Paula and Fran and Rebecca. Each of them was clever, but that was only partly why they were friends, and any two of them could be slightly gossipy if the third did not turn up for their fortnightly coffee at Kelburn's most agreeable café. The owner was a nice Frenchman. He had no idea how many customers who had spent a Gallic week or two in the Third liked to believe he carried an authenticity they at once were at home with.

Paula and Fran and Rebecca were friends from so long ago did beginnings matter? Yes, Fran thought. She was unashamedly literary, and much aware of origins. And no, Paula was certain of that. A successful columnist, she knew life was today, this afternoon, what was palpably in the air. Paula, as her lawyer husband liked to joke, was pure contingency. Rebecca had never said, one way or another. She was great fun, Rebecca, and each of her friends thought her the most reliable of the three, which perhaps had to do with the fact that she was the one without an obvious career, and was quite unbothered by the fact.

Two cappuccinos and a latte. They no longer had to stand at the counter and order. They went directly to their window table and the Frenchman simply knew. I suppose, Paula said, while she sank a spoonful of coarse brown sugar through the froth in front of her, I suppose if there's two of them we should say cappuccini? An eyebrow declared how fatuous she knew she must sound. If they'd heard someone else say that—Laura Sefton with her American accent and her Women's Studies solemnity, for instance, fussy Janet Greave teaching grammar at the Institute! Fran said with a slight lift to her voice that did much the same for her sentence as Paula's eyebrow had done for hers, ‘Imagine if we had the trouble with maori we have with other tongues!’ One could hear the full correctness of the macron. Rebecca, who felt slightly out of sorts, smiled so those dimples of hers that men now as much as page 233 boys thirty years ago were still fascinated by, set her moodiness in lovely inverted commas.

Rebecca had taken the chair beneath the magazine rack. She faced the window towards what, ages back, had been the Teachers College where her dear old dad had laid down the law, written his Listener reviews, gone through the paces of what Fran for one would now think of as a dated humanism. Paula sat with her back to the doorway. Fran faced north. The bank beneath the café sloped steeply to a jumble of comfortable houses, massed clumps of trees, a road that arrowed towards the rich greens and shadows of the Botanical Gardens. Here and there foreign embassy flags fluttered among the houses.

The sky the friends looked out on was rinsed and buffeted and so very Wellington. Should they raise their eyes a little, and crane slightly forward, each might see, above the suburban canyon, along one or another of its slopes and ridges, the house where she lived. A stuccoed mansion, Paula would have admitted, yucky as the word was, but yes, she supposed you might call it that. (A mansion if you vote like our neighbours, Tommy said. He did not have many jokes, but this was one of them. If you vote Labour as we do then it's simply a house.) Another was a handsome enough villa, but without the embracing veranda Fran had so enjoyed in Auckland before they came back to the capital five years ago. The weather down here, as she said, the kind of neighbours you were likely to be landed with up there—what was that expression about swings and roundabouts? The third house was smaller than the other two, a remote descendent of Bauhaus, with paintings on its walls that contrived a latter-day brutishness—slashes of colour, the energies of post-expressionist rage. Several of them were done by Rebecca's brother-in-law, a man even more reserved than her senior public servant husband. Well, dated to say the least, Fran called them, although ten years back they sold for a song. Her neighbour from Art History at the university pointed out that they were, as the saying went these days, totally unreferenced, the kind of thing you couldn't give away. Well, that's family for you, Fran said, letting her friend off the hook.

‘Don't tell me Allan doesn't rule your walls?’ Paula had teased her back, thinking of those lugubrious colonial oils, the stuff the National page 234 Library was likely to have on its Christmas cards. She herself preferred discreetly lit alcoves with Tanagra bronzes and placid stone buddhas. Objects de vol, as Tommy called them, loot and taste have been in cahoots for millennia. Tommy was a barbarian with a gold card instead of a sword, Paula explained. And justifying her own taste, she put forward that she simply couldn't take two dimensions very seriously. Affected trollop, Tommy called her. He had said it with heavy jokiness to Fran, who tilted her head so her fringe glinted like a licked lolly and her eyes were round as peppermints. A bitchy image I know, Paula admitted. As if there was anything wrong with how a family supported itself. Even rather flash ones, that made a mint out of packaged sweets. Paula had dipped eager schoolgirl fingers into bags of Maloney Big Ones a decade before she met winsome Fran, whose father's first gumdrop had burgeoned into a kingdom. But this morning the friends were warm and confiding and knew they were the women who quite mattered the most to each other. It was Rebecca's turn to order the second coffee.

Casting an eye around the table that from a little distance seemed to hover between the pleasant streets spread out beneath it, and the skid of cloud from one ridge to another, one might note of these three women: tall, medium height, a little shorter than average; the last copper-fringed, the first with measling grey in her close-cropped hair, the one in the middle with blonde hair bouncing at shoulder length, a touch très jeunesse for one recently grandmothered?

The taller woman's mouth was misleadingly sensuous, for Paula was the one who often looked from her study window towards the cold steel of the harbour before most of the city stirred. It was then, until the bed creaked in the room above her and her husband's feet impacted with a kind of expansive splash on the bare polished floor, that she wrote the weekly column that some readers loved and quite as many loathed. An intelligent and grammatical Alan Duff was perhaps the very worst that was said; Joan Didion with Lemon and Paeroa a remark that oddly pleased her. Fran was a little in awe of her, although for the life of her Paula could never see why. Regardless of her stature, Fran carried a bust so formidable that there had been songs about it in the days of student revues. In the Allen Curnow poetry course in page 235 Auckland, don't ask how many years ago now, she had quickly been known as Spectacular Bosom. Yet she was, if anything, a touch reserved about sex. She joined in with her friends when conversation took a turn that way, because she was, after all, a good sport, as well as quite a good poet. But she frankly disliked it when talk became, well, raw. She hated it when other women expected confidences of that kind.

Rebecca was the only one of the three who went to church. She took meals to the elderly two days a week, and did voluntary work for Amnesty and IHC. She also had occasional affairs she managed discreetly, but was quite unashamed of. She told her husband, ‘dear quiet Joe’ as her friends called him, and he positively romped as she conveyed their details to what was, without a shadow of doubt, an emotionally fulfilling marriage.

An observer might think it worth nothing too that the dress styles of the friends were poles apart. If one knew Wellington, one might list the friends—Paula, Fran, Rebecca, in that order—as Zambesi, Kirkcaldies, Beders. Paula was the one you might expect to see anywhere, although it was her journalist's nose and her sharpish reputation, rather than what she wore or who her husband was, that gave her élan and confidence and ease. Rebecca, frankly, could be fairly hopeless with those she didn't know, and people sometimes mistook her for a snob. She liked people to be genuine, and when she sniffed performance, she quickly moved on. Yet she knew how to talk to politicians, and Joe was grateful for that. Without trying to, she charmed. In fact it was only Fran, taking a leaf perhaps from her husband's shrewdness as an antiquarian bookseller, who knew with deadly precision where anyone stood in any social group. Sometimes when Allan's loaded friends talked too much about wine she told them how she and her husband had met as students in the Socialist Unity Party. She still thought, so she said, there was a lot to be said for it.

Yet that putative observer would be quite wrong to think the friends' differences mattered, as one of Fran's daughters would say, a bogan's toss. Accepting that stray bitchiness can be absorbed by genuine friendship, these three women liked each other in such a close yet casual way that they were hardly likely to mind too much what either page 236 of the others thought or did, so long as they were up front about it. Which was why Fran said she had read this thing recently that made her think wouldn't it be a hoot if they drew up a list of all they knew about each other, the good and the bad, wouldn't that be something? To know quite what it was your friends thought significant or defective in you? No! Rebecca and Paula shouted together. But they laughed and thought Fran's idea droll and couldn't help thinking how their own lists would go, as they looked across the table at each other and leaned back in unison as the Frenchman placed fresh steaming cups before them. There was a long pause which was not in the least uncomfortable, when the friends seemed to drift apart like those skydivers you see on television, and then after their moments of introspection, so effortlessly draw together again, a circle of ease and trust and floating intimacy. And Paula said as her spoon dabbled in the froth of her cappuccino, ‘You must have heard about the Japanese child bride then. Haven't you?’

For various reasons, none of them profound, the friends had never spoken much of Streaky Richards, although each knew the others knew him. Streaky since school days, although why that nickname from Hutt Valley High had come about was anyone's guess unless you were in the know. Paula's Tommy recalled the fourteen-year-old runt shooting up within a year to six feet three, streak of weasel's piss the school had called him, too wispy ever to think of using in a line-out, and the name had stuck, the ridicule kept on. And a career, would you call it good or bad? ‘Q.A.’ as his initials stood on his one scarcely famous novel, before taking off to Thailand? Cambodia? Somewhere East in any case, and one sometimes heard, ‘What's become of Streaky?’, although none of the friends had heard for at least ten years.

‘Quentin, for goodness' sake,’ Rebecca said. Quentin as his mother used to explain, she was not having him Grahame or Stuart or Trevor or whatever half those kids hanging round their clapped-out stripped-down motors on the front lawns of state houses were saddled with. Give a boy a name that helps take him somewhere. Quentin Richards, then, who in fact had related to each of the friends at different times of their lives, though who was to know that of the others? Hence the cry though of surprise, the clapped palms, a teaspoon's carnivalesque stirring, page 237 when Paula repeated the question she had raised for them. ‘The Japanese bride?’

‘But we simply have to know!’ Rebecca demanded, when her friend assured her that's all she could tell them.

‘You'll have to ask Tommy yourself.’

Oh, she would, Fran decided. She most certainly would.

A right goer, wasn't that the phrase they used to use? Rebecca frankly admitted it was not totally unearned. She and Quentin had been first-year students together, although God knows they were not in the least what Fran, so consciously using a word that was in, and yet one she disapproved of because of its American sitcom resonances, would now describe as an ‘item’. Rebecca's student amours had been legendary. She was the Easter Tournament, someone said of her. Other girls envied her good looks and popularity and wanted to be her friend. Just to be seen having a coffee with her gave plainer girls a temporary aura. And with Quentin, goodness, it had been only once, what one might almost call a slip of the tongue. After a party in Glenmore Street, a few doors up from the Chinese embassy. The week of graduation. The old wooden house smelled of stale carpets and generations of students, there was a big fridge in the kitchen with a missing door, and the old bath with iron claw-feet filled with bottles of DB, the loosened labels floating on the water that slopped across the lino when an arm dived for a fresh one. She and Quentin had become chums. They did the same courses and listened to the same Scotsman instruct them with unquenchable enthusiasm about the movement of English prose at eight o'clock in the morning, while Law students read their folded Dominions and the wankers in the front row smiled at the professor's jokes. At the party Rebecca had cried as she told Quentin how the actor Rex Moffitt had taken not a jot of interest in her though she as good as lay down in front of him with a placard announcing ‘This Space to Let’.

‘Likes boys I expect,’ Quentin consoled her. Laconic, kindly. And just a little wet, she thought, as she had walked with him another night, after an end of term binge at the Southern Cross, all the way back to Wadestown and her parents' house, when he had to turn round page 238 and head back to Adelaide Road. For most of the Glenmore Street party he expanded on his ambitions, now that his first story had come out in Landfall. She had listened and was happy that he so confided in her. That's what you did for mates. But she was stoned as a newt and Quentin offered to walk her back towards Adams Terrace, where she now shared a flat with two girls from Malaysia. She thought her friend hilarious as she clambered over the fence into the Gardens and Quentin simply and lankily stepped across, a stick insect on a human scale. He was cut out against the glow of the orange lights that looked big as descending spacecraft. The next thing she was lying there close enough to the duck pond to hear the soft panicky quack of a bird they disturbed. Quentin's face when she looked at it so close to her own was impassive and strained and in the distant glare of the street light made her think it was carved from Sunlight soap. Rebecca was confused next morning. One of her flatmates offered to sponge the back of the jacket she had worn the night before. When she and Quentin met again neither of them spoke of it. Until Paula threw his name at them like that, out of nowhere you might as well say, Rebecca simply hadn't thought of old Quentin for years.

Whereas he and Paula had indeed been something rather more than mates in her London days. Years before Tommy, that went without saying, before she'd even heard of Fran or Rebecca if it came to that. Never in her basement flat on the edge of Bayswater would she have dreamed it would all end here, in Kelburn, content with what she had then despised! Quentin's flatmate in Islington had done a runner two days before Christmas. Hansie from the Cape, as everyone knew him, took the rent money and a camera that had never lived up to what the Singapore shop owner had touted, and a necklace Quentin had uncomfortably bartered for in Morocco, and had not yet got round to posting home to his mother. Hansie had also hit on Quentin's wallet under a stack of New Statesmans. He was at the newspaper files in New Zealand House, feeling pretty low he could tell her that, when he knocked against Paula's tukutuku-design flax kete and heard the sharp crack of broken crystal. Well, that's that, said the young woman next to him. ‘Auntie doesn't get a present, does she?’

They had taken up from there. A week or two of caution and then page 239 headlong into it. Paula's flat, for all its vista of black railings at eye level and its damp map high in one corner of the room, was upmarket on what Quentin was used to. There was no pervading reek of boiled cabbage, no urinous stiffness to the carpet in the lavatory. And there was, as both said, an undeniable rapport between them. Quentin, to Paula's delight, was a more than passable cook. There was a cosiness when they came in from work on winter evenings and Quentin moved about at the bench in the kitchen, Paula sitting at the horribly black painted table with her comforting glass of Portuguese rosé, and the consoling fall and chop of the big culinary knife that Quentin had brought with him from Islington. And later in the evening the liberation of their undressing together, Paula bolder than her live-in lover, Quentin at first so tardy it was almost like getting an anxious child into the sea, coaxing him with her own example. They were compatible enough to make a go of it, if by that you meant something more than a casual encounter, and yet they did not. The trivial reasons for which people break up! She was back there, so vividly, when Tommy told her about seeing Quentin on the cable car. As she was again, as her friends took it in, that Streaky aka Quentin was back in town. She had remembered how she cried and packed her suitcase in a partly fabricated fury, and next thing she was in Vienna and ‘Q.A.’, as he then began to sign himself, had landed a newspaper job up north. Near Nottingham, which had been the trigger that set her off. Quentin came back from an interview and said how you could still feel it, the palpable presence. Of D.H. When he saw the brick pile of the university, when he saw the harebells growing wild in a patch of park, you could feel him, Quentin said. Paula had laughed outright at him when he told her that. ‘The ghost of our Bert!’ she shrieked at him. Not astute enough to realise that her cheapish jibes were tearing up the tracks between them, they had nowhere to go after that except to derail. ‘Couldn't go to bed with mum so shot down that great Hun zeppelin!’ She had no idea why she came out with such vile things. Later on, a writer herself—well, a columnist anyway—she guessed at her jealousy of the quiet hours when Quentin was content to sit at the kitchen table with his ruled quarto pad. She might as well not have been there. Hadn't Tommy even, the kindest and proudest, hadn't Tommy said to her that the day page 240 when she wrote her column was worse than detention at boarding school? One image stayed so clearly with Paula from the Bayswater flat she might as well have had a photograph pinned on the wall. Of Quentin so surprised, his eyes wide in the semi-darkness like those minstrel shows that used to be on the BBC, so surprised when she actually threw the blankets aside and sat on him for the first time. He was like a long pale canoe beneath her. And her not liking to think of it, even now, those silly remarks about Lawrence, and Quentin standing up and leaving the room, the door closed quietly and finally as a coffin lid! Fran told her not many months ago that some first editions had come Allan's way in the bookshop. He said collectors came in and handled them as reverently as if they were Dead Sea scrolls. She thought of The White Peacock, Quentin's excitement at getting hold of it, and his inscription to her. Fran told her a man had called off a trip to South America when the chance came up to buy a copy of that. Paula had sighed. The smartness of her column as remote as Everest. How the fucking wheel turns.

Which was a phrase, for all her poetic turn, that Fran herself would not have used, any more than she would have laid on wet grass within a stone's throw of a quacking duck, or brazenly thrown her leg across a man who reminded her of a canoe. She would not even have thought Quentin likely to get on with either of her friends, dear as they were to her. Quentin was tucked in her memory like a rabbit's foot whose charm she could not imagine working for anyone else but herself.

They had met, she and Quentin, on one of those Greenham Common marches which she now knew were the most important political events of her life. Quite suddenly and simply—as so much was in those days—there he was beside her, carrying a banner for a group from Brixton. He had offered her a piece of chocolate while they chatted in front of a row of police. You could smell the horses the fascist pigs were mounted on, that's how close they were. A woman with long blonde hair shouted out in a very Knightsbridge voice, ‘Do you want your children born retarded?’ It was an image that so stayed with Fran, the tall handsome woman calling out as the banner with its dark circle and inverted Y caught a quick light gust and billowed out ahead of her. Then Quentin's unmistakable New Zealand accent after page 241 the dip of silence that had followed the woman's cry. ‘Too late for his mum, anyway,’ he called, and the protesters' laughter rippled out and a horse ahead of them shuffled, its hooves clicking on the roadway. At first Fran had felt outraged. They were here taking a stand for humanity, for the future of the race, and her countryman came out with a cheap shot like that! But the good-humoured stirring around them quickly changed her mood. She found her duffle-coat rubbing closely against Quentin's, and his large hand folded about her own, warming her. There she was laughing, smiling up at him, holding one of the bright Rasta streamers that trailed from his banner. He looked down at her and said, well, he supposed there was room for dwarves too in helping to save the world. At that moment his gaunt gangling throat, his wide grin, made her think what a joke he was, what a nice joke.

That was how they began. They had gone to more protest meetings than she could ever remember, to IRA support groups with a science teacher she got to know while she taught at Alperton Grammar, and North Sea Gas rallies where the Scottish Nationalists made speeches she could not understand. There were evenings where she and Quentin sat hand in hand for hours, watching films about Basque separatists and raising funds for Iranian women. ‘Does it ever occur to you?’ he said to her during a December when it froze day after day, a night after they got drunk together on Australian red that was on special, and they turned the pages together of a calendar that showed ‘Hot Water Beach, Coromandel’, for January and ‘St Bathans, Central Otago’ if you turned to August. ‘Does what?’ Fran said. She didn't mind that he had raised her sweater and loosened her bra and they kept drinking with her sitting like that.

‘That it might even be, you know, some time.’ He sat there, big and angular above her, like an excited wharf crane, she thought. That's how drunk. She knew what he was trying to say. Time was it to head back? Call it a day, all this living like this, exciting as it was. And it was—she recognised the snobbery even as she said it—it was just a bit grotty, wasn't that the word, their fumbling together like this? Quentin's head slid down as she raised herself, slipping her breast back beneath the lowered jersey. He seemed content to ferret there for a lifetime, he had as good as told her so. But now, as sudden as their coming together page 242 on the anti-nuclear march, she knew she was a little bored with him. As any writer must be, who lives with someone who also wants to be a writer.

Youth excuses most things, Fran thought, knowing even as it came to her that it was a pompous phrase at any time, and she did not believe it in any case. She looked across the table at her two favourite friends as Paula dropped her bombshell about Streaky and his Nippon consort on the cable car. ‘That's what Tommy called them,’ she explained, knowing the description hovered not too far from being distasteful. And it flooded back to Fran, a deluge, the details she hadn't considered for years, even the stacked cushions that were all the thing at the time, the brightly stitched Indian designs with their fragments of tinny mirror. Her breasts in the meek light from the table lamp with its blue paper shade had made her think of something marine and delicate and hesitant, as she drew her sweater down, concealing them. Even that came back to her. And Quentin gone a couple of days later. ‘If you've no more faith than that,’ he had said, leaving the calendar as a gift, even though his aunt had written her Christmas greetings across the front of it.

Paula and Rebecca and Fran believed their husbands hit it off a treat. They laughed together about the Speights ads and said Jeremy was surely three sheets to the wind during the final session of the one dayer commentary, and Tommy sometimes said as he turned the steaks on the barbecue, ‘Nice one, mate’, an expression he would never have come at during the working week. Sometimes Rebecca egged Joe along when she put her hand on him later in the night and said she could quite easily imagine a six-some, couldn't he as well? Slag, he would tell her, drawing her closer. Paula, whose degree was in Classics, said she had read a recent book on Athenian social customs to see if the ancient world threw up anything similar to this kind of camaraderie among married couples, but wouldn't you expect it of course. The old Greek vice pretty near scuppered normal couples altogether? Fran though had attempted something a bit more, a poem to suggest the layered texture of an evening like this, the interweaving of interests, the memories they shared, time corrugating and straightening out as page 243 jokes and innuendo and gossip impacted and deflected, conversation as chain reaction.

The menfolk helped the fiction of convivial gatherings. Fran's Allan, who always wore a bow-tie, leaned companionably against the porch wall while Tommy flipped the sizzling meat with long polished tongs, running a neat hand across an almost totally bald head before delivering one of his sardonic remarks. Allan envied him his panache. For all that he knew about books and couldn't easily be faulted on historical facts, he knew his wife was rather cleverer than he was, which surely had much to do with his speaking of Fran with pride whenever she was not present, and tending to put her down when she was. She thought of this as intellectual sparring, which so many couples were quite incapable of bringing off. And Joe, so smart through the day at Treasury, seemed—Paula had said it, hadn't she?—seemed happily to leave his mind in neutral outside office hours. He and Rebecca would sometimes smile at each other in company and no one had an earthly what was going on. ‘Words do help a little sometimes, don't they?’ Fran once put to Paula. But Joe did know rather a lot about wine, they all conceded that. Yet even there he did not run to the exegesis Tommy would readily embark on if Joe wasn't there. A phrase or two, that's all Joe needed, but everyone knew they were the right ones. Or even a nod, as he held the wine for a moment in his mouth, and put down his glass. He was a man, Rebecca said about him once, who liked wine too much to want to catch it out. Fran and Paula had thought the remark was rather barbed.

This evening, then, a week after their last coffee morning, there was—how would one put it, Paula wondered—a certain discrepancy, wasn't that it? The women to begin with seemed to have taken more than usual trouble, Paula herself in a bronze lamé jacket that was on the verge of being almost too much for a casual outdoor summer get-together. Italianate, Rebecca thought as she saw her friend glint towards her, she had seen something like that in the last film festival. She herself, usually more conventional than any, had taken her sister-in-law's advice to challenge the years. She wore a loose lemon blouse, billowy and wide sleeved, chartreuse designer slacks, high platformed raffia shoes. Joe asked her did she intend seducing a vicar. While Fran—well, none page 244 of them had seen her with quite so frank décolletage. Her slacks, jokily striped to hint at Sixties tat, had running though them, would you believe it, lurex threads. Paula was surprised she remembered the word for it. What would you call it, this change in the dynamics of these old friends getting together? A festive hint? A touch of apprehension? Something hovering that none could have put a finger on? Joe, in his old black polo-neck sweater, leaned gently on the extended metal wings of the corkscrew, easing the cork from the first bottle of Twin Paddocks Tommy produced with some pride. Fran was thinking how colourful she and her friends suddenly seemed, an intricate image forming in her mind that would find its way perhaps to a poem, words like flame and bird-of-paradise and flare, all needing of course the lightest touch, nothing so heavy as irony to bring the castle down.

And of course they came round to the Long Q, as Tommy called him. There he was, he said, coming home from his office, sitting on the cable car, almost absorbed in his National Business Review.

Almost's a bit strong,’ Allan came as an aside, ‘have you ever tried to read the thing?’

‘As that may be’, Tommy said, ‘the fact is I raised my eyes and he was there, an apparition. Gangly as ever, a superannuated preying mantis.’ ‘My God,’ Joe said, shaking his head. Hadn't they been on the same floor at Weir House as students, was there anyone who didn't know Streaky?

The women realised they were in for a barrage of wit and reminiscence, now their husbands had as it were a bone to frolic with. But for the moment Tommy held the stage. He worked a finger inside his shirt and scratched energetically. They all were quiet enough for it to sound like sandpaper. Simply couldn't believe his eyes, he said again. ‘Well,’ Allan helped out, ‘any wonder? Streaky with a Nip dolly bird.’

‘I expect he's married a Japanese woman, what's so strange about that? He's been living up there for years.’ Paula spoke so quietly there was a sense of hush before Tommy carried on. ‘Racist I am not,’ he said, ‘but whatever he was with was—well, positively simian, the only word.’

Joe, rather more quickly than Tommy or Allan, picked up on the women's silence, their possible discomfort. He moved from glass to page 245 glass, refilling, topping up. Allan, blinking behind his thick lenses, said, ‘Some men find Asian women apparently incomparably superior.’

‘So much less hirsute, to begin with,’ Tommy said.

‘Just tell us,’ Paula insisted. There was such a thing as overdoing it.

‘It took me some time, actually,’ her husband kept on. Slightly aggrieved. The whole thing was funnier than any of them seemed to be taking in.

‘To realise it was Q?’ Joe said.

‘To even be sure it was a woman,’ Tommy said. ‘Dangling on him.’ His voice a hoarse whisper. Milking the moment for what it was worth.

Afterwards Paula remembered, from back in her student days, a story about tourists in Greece. The details were lost but the gist of it came back to her. Cultivated English tourists in a grove somewhere or other, and the veneer of civilisation crazing and shattering as the old god came among them, Pan descending and throwing them into turmoil, none of them understanding why. Their own evening turned to something like that. Old friends, a mild Wellington evening, the winds caged so the night seemed crystalline and flawless. She herself had been watching a lone star pulsing brighter by the minute above the hills across the harbour. Then Tommy stupidly said that, and their world turned a corner.

There was the shatter of glass as Rebecca, the most placid of them, mistimed her slamming down her wine on the garden table beside her. The glass's base clipped the table's iron edge and fountained out in fragments, the wine flaring across her lemon blouse. ‘For Christ's sake!’ she shouted, the one time anyone had heard her use the phrase. Joe walked across to their host and said without raising his voice, ‘It's been a long time Tommy but someone should have told you ages back what fuckwit actually means.’ Allan stepped back, appalled as he always was if people behaved badly. His cream summer trousers touched the searing rim of the barbecue, the cloth blackened and singed. He thought this is nonsense, our being here at all. He detested barbecues in any case.

‘People always have to go too far,’ Fran said. She was close to tears. For once she was unsure quite what her words might mean, although page 246 Allan froze, and Paula and Tommy were pretty damn sure she was having a go at them.

‘Fuck it, then!’ Tommy said. He threw down the long tongs, clattering them into the lid of the barbecue he had removed and set down on the patio beside him. You do your best to entertain them, to liven them up, which is a job John bloody Cleese even couldn't have made a go of, not with this lot. And the thanks you get for it. He saw Allan awkwardly twisted round, clawing at the back of his trousers to assess the damage done by the scorch mark and the ruled line of grease. ‘You won't get that off,’ Tommy said. He deeply liked saying it. Then Paula was the only one facing him. They were mates, he and Paula. Their marriage was A1. Their children liked visiting them. But now Paula said, ‘Joe might just have had something there, you know, Tommy.’

The Wellington night came down quickly. The star Paula had watched was now joined by others above the solid wavering line of the hills. She looked out from her study, standing in the dark. From below she heard Tommy rather timidly tidying up. She knew how hard it was to look at something so fine, the rise of land and the scattered brightness across the harbour, and to put it so that what you wrote did not sound too like a poster. Which is what Keiko thought it indeed did look, the city and the climbing ranks of lights, as she watched from the other side, from the deck of Quentin's brother's house in Eastbourne. She wondered why her husband seemed so melancholy, rather than being elated at coming home, when home was a place like this. He leaned closer and put his hand across her shoulders, which seemed almost to fit under the span of one large palm. He stooped towards her and put his lips against her hair. He thought, with rather tired self-irony, that it must be the writer's vanity in him, surely, that made him consider whether in all that tilted and pouring glitter of the city across the stretch of water, there was anyone who would give a damn, hearing he was back?

He tried to think of names.