Wednesday 26 December 2012

Ten Parties

Update, 2 January 2013: competition over. Answers now added at the foot of this post. Five female authors and five male: this wasn't deliberate, it's just how it happened, but it works nicely and ideally I'd like to invite them all to an eleventh party. Congratulations to the winner, Averill Buchanan, who got every one correct. It's reassuring to know that there is someone in the world who has read everything.

First correct naming of author & novel/story from which all the following extracts are taken wins £50 of CBe books. Email to

Actually I think I’m pretty safe here. One or two are obvious but several are well off the beaten track. So a couple of free CBe books to the highest score over five received by 2 January.

The Prime Minister was coming, Agnes said: so she had heard them say in the dining-room, she said, coming in with a tray of glasses. Did it matter, did it matter in the least, one Prime Minister more or less? It made no difference at this hour of the night to Mrs Walker among the plates, saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans, chicken in aspic, ice-cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens, and pudding basins which, however hard they washed up in the scullery, seemed to be all on top of her, on the kitchen table, on chairs, while the fire blared and roared, the electric lights glared, and still supper to be laid. All she felt was, one Prime Minister more or less made not a scrap of difference to Mrs Walker.

Mary smoothed the skirt of her party frock and taking short steps crossed swiftly to the table on which rested sandwiches, glasses, soft drinks and a bottle of Gloag’s Old Grouse Malt Whisky. She said, very quickly:
‘It’s rather smelly, but never mind. They seem to have organised the eats.’
Vaguely, Pink looked round at the pine panelling, the scrubbed floorboards, the glassy blackboard and the narrow gothic windows set safely above boys’ eye-level. He tried to define the missing ingredient.
‘Sex?’ he suggested, sniffing once or twice and looking up at the dark space between the overhead lights and the high vaulted roof. Mary, grabbing a sandwich, shook her head, then spoke with her mouth full.
‘We’re jolly lucky to have it.’
Pink put his thumbs in his pockets. He was still sniffing the air. He made a further suggestion.
‘Sex cruelly denied?’

On this blue night, this starry night, the best of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated far and wide, plied its seductive, destructive craft. Wine from afar heated stomachs, sweetly numbed legs, dulled brains, and summoned belches as resonant as the call of battle horns. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had pulled in three days before from Port Said, had smuggled in big-bellied bottles of Jamaican rum, oily Madeira, cigars from the plantation of Pierpont Morgan, and oranges from the groves of Jerusalem. This is what the foamy waves of the Odessan Sea throw onto the shore, and this is what Odessan beggars sometimes get at Jewish weddings. They got Jamaican rum at Dvoira Krik’s wedding, and that’s why the Jewish beggars got as drunk as unkosher pigs and began loudly banging their crutches. Eichbaum unbuttoned his vest, mustered the raging crowd with a squinting eye, and hiccuped affectionately.

What – ?!’ I gasped. Naomi’s bottom reared above me, seeming to watch me with a suspicious one-eyed stare, pink mouth agape below as though in astonished disbelief.
‘A bidet. It’s what they’re for, you know, washing bottoms.’
‘Yes, sure, but oddly I was just thinking about –’
‘Can you beat that,’ said Dickie, tossing the towel over Naomi’s bent back. ‘I always thought they were for cooling beer in.’ He leaned close to the mirror, scraped at a fleck of blood in front of his golden sideburns. ‘Oh, by the way, Ger, I don’t know if you saw what’s left of the poor bastard on the way up, but Roger’s no longer with us, you know.’
Roger – ?!’ It was like a series of heavy gates crashing shut, locks closing like meshing gears. I stumbled to my feet.
‘I knew it!’ gasped Tania, clutching her arms with wet hands.
Dickie unzipped his trousers and tucked his shirttails in, frowning at the bloodstains on his vest. I braced myself on the cupboard shelves. ‘But … but who – ?’
He raised his eyebrows at me in the mirror as though to say I already knew. And I did. ‘They used croquet mallets,’ he said with a grimace, zipping up.

General Lowenhielm, who was to dominate the conversation of the dinner table, related how the Dean’s collection of sermons was a favourite book of the Queen’s. But as a new dish was served he was silenced. ‘Incredible,' he told himself. ‘It is Blinis Demidoff.’ He looked around at his fellow diners. They were all quietly eating their Blinis Demidoff, without any sign of either surprise or approval, as if they had been doing so every day for thirty years.

She was working for the caterer of this affair, helping in the kitchen and bringing around the food. She wore a gray-and-white uniform and had her hair bunched under a black net and she looked very plain. But that only accentuated the aura of her mischief. She moved among us with a tray like the secret queen of some criminal enclave, casing the joint. As I reached for one of her hors d'oeuvres, she smiled and said, ‘Hello, Michael Reed.’
It had been a month or so since we’d met at Ted MacKey’s, and then only briefly. Tonight I’d noticed her right away, but I hadn’t expected to be remembered. I was astonished. I probably looked it. She smiled and passed by.
Before we all sat down to eat, I made sure to find out her name. This was a nerve-racking endeavor, not entirely to my surprise. Less than two weeks earlier, I’d been staring at her naked privates. I tried to intersect her path as if by accident.

Houda was simultaneously aware that she was in a room full of creaking chairs and hot bodies. Toby, pawing at a dish of cold leavings, looked ugly; his lips were greasy. Those people who sat nearest the guitar had already begun rocking their heads and bouncing their knees like marionettes; while others suffered a certain milky washing of the eyeball, undeniable symptom of that condition when being bored to death is synonymous with being moved to tears, since the second is the natural outcome of the first. ‘And I had been turning over in my mind the benefit to be gained from knowing these people, and whether it might be possible for me to lead a “normal” (Good God, “normal”!) life!’
It was necessary to leave at once, if she was to show Eugene the full extent of her contempt.

She could accept his going away. These things happened to women. It was something else that bothered her. At first glance he seemed all of a piece and in complete control. But then, if you were a woman and looked a little closer, you saw that he was little vague, a little careless, a little scattered. Why was one of his silver cufflinks missing? Why hadn’t he brushed the dandruff from his shoulders? Why was it that the colour of his socks didn’t quite match? There was something odd too about his behaviour. While chatting away with Imelda, Boniface was simultaneously smiling at the Cardinal and being stern with the American Ambassador. It was as if different bits of him were going off in different directions. This was what perturbed Zuna as they stood in the Nuncio’s garden ablaze with orchids, smiling, sweet-faced Monsignori and beautiful bra-less women.

Gerda’s line as a hostess was of adorable inefficiency; with the air of a lost child she tottered among her guests, in one hand a glass dripping sherry, in the other a semi-opaque yellow drink in which the skewered cherry appeared as a threatening shadow. Wherever a glass was put down a small sticky ring stamped itself: she pounced on these rings with her handkerchief with little reproachful cries (no one advised her to wipe the underneaths of the glasses). She bewailed the quality of the cigerettes, the heat of the room, the (so far) absence of Gilbert; she upset a saucer of olives. She was followed around by a young man she had known in the Navy, who each time she succeeded in placing a drink with a guest smiled proudly, as though she had sold a raffle ticket.

Finally, she vomited. It all came up, the salt water and the gin and the food she’d had, a mess. She wasn’t pretty at all. It was a nuisance, and ugly. Of course, the dogs had to come over and smell it.
But at least she could breathe now; or rather, wheeze.
They wrapped her in blankets and took her into the house and gave her a cup of hot coffee. Nobody seemed too intensely upset. I got the impression they more or less expected climaxes like these at the parties they gave.
‘Who brought her?’
‘Benson, wasn’t it? She’s going to taste salty for a week.’
‘Somebody ought to put a picket fence around that ocean. It’s a public menace.’

Answers (added 2 January 2013):

1. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
2. James Kennaway, Household Ghosts
3. Isaac Babel, 'The King'
4. Robert Coover, Gerald's Party
5. Isak Dinesen, Babette's Feast
6. Denis Johnson, The Name of the World
7. Rosemary Tonks, Emir
8. Nina Fitzpatrick, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia
9. Elizabeth Bowen, To the North
10. Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to See

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