Thea came out of the kitchen, wearing bra and pants, laddered tights and green wellingtons. Pax did not ask her why she was cooking Sunday lunch in her underwear. It was her usual outfit when they were expecting guests. It was the best way she could think of for not getting splashes and spots on the dress she planned to wear. The Browns did not go in for aprons. He suspected she was the only woman in the Square whose knickers you could inspect to know what you were having for lunch.But why the wellingtons?
"I dropped a jar of mint sauce on the floor. There's broken glass everywhere. I don't have time to clean it up."
There's a reason for everything.
Pax rummaged in the top drawer of the stripped pine sideboard. It was full of broken pencils, half-used candles, bits of Lego, useless keys and other rubbish no-one dared throw away.
"Where's the corkscrew?" he asked.
Thea picked up the bottle of wine from the top of the sideboard. He knew she was trying to curl her lip, It came out a leer. He was much better at lip curling. "You're not giving them that are you?"
"It's perfectly good plonk. Nothing the matter with it. They won't know the difference when it's in the decanter. Your brother couldn't tell if it was Ribena and meths."
"You know perfectly well that Nick knows a lot about wine."
"Then why does he carry round a plastic card in his wallet that tells him where the wines come from and what the good years are? He left his little crib card in his other jacket at
Christmas. He told me he'd rather have a red Bordeaux than a claret any day."
"What's wrong with that?"
"They're the same thing."
He brandished a rusty corkscrew that had been lurking in the back of the drawer. With the point he ripped the plastic off the top of the bottle.
"Oh look. It didn't need a corkscrew after all. It doesn't have a cork."
"I'm surprised they bother with a bottle. An old bleach jar would do for that stuff. I wish you'd open another one."
"We haven't drunk this one yet. Waste not want not."
"Please, Pax, open another bottle of wine."
"I tell you what. We'll use your brother's trick. He always serves his wine in a decanter. At the beginning of the meal he pours himself a drop, tastes it, wrinkles his nose, passes it to whoever his wife or girlfriend happens to be at the time. She agrees it's off. He rushes to the sideboard and drags out a bottle of Mouton Rothschild and flashes it around so we can all see the label. He takes it off to the kitchen to open it. Woman of his dreams stops him half way and tells him to empty the decanter down the sink while he's about it. Exit Nick with full bottle and full decanter. Enter Nick again with full decanter. He apologises that it hasn't had time to breathe but it'll do. So we all drink the jollop that was in the decanter in the first place."
"That's not true. It's another of your inventions."
"It's not my invention. It's his. And he puts his ideas into practice. He's done it twice on us in the past year."
"No such thing as coincidence. There's a reason for everything. The last time he had a party I looked in the broom cupboard for tonic and found the unopened bottle. The trouble with Nick is he always gets found out."
He knelt down to look for the decanter in the bottom of the sideboard. He unloaded onto the carpet a clump of half finished macramé, a distorted wicker bread-basket and a children's bicycle stabiliser.
"While you're there, could you get out the place mats please. I think that's why I came out of the kitchen. I probably wanted something else. Then I'll remember when it's too late. And now I'll worry about what it was I really wanted and burn the vegetables. But it was probably the mats all the time. So don't worry."
"London Street Cries or the straw ones my mother brought back from Tangier?"
"Thomas took three of the straw ones to school last term for his crib. They never came back. Give me the others. They'll need a wipe."
"They'll need more than that. Look, we had spaghetti last time ."
He followed her through the louvred pine door into the kitchen with an empty Malvern Water bottle to fill from the tap. His shoes crunched on the floor and the scent of mint and vinegar rose from his feet.
"It smells lovely in here. Like an embalming room. We should scatter herbs on the floor every day."
"We do. And carrots and mince and biscuit crumbs. And then your mother comes in before I've had a chance to clear it up."
He put his arms round her from the back while she rinsed the place mats. He kissed the back of her neck and caressed her birth marks. She carried on rinsing. He wondered whether pinching her bottom would get a reaction.
"I wonder what she's like," she said.
"Who do you think? Nick's latest girlfriend."
"Blonde. Sexy. Thick. The usual riff-raff he leaps in and out of bed with."
"She's a model."
"Like I said."
She tore a length off the toilet roll that served as kitchen paper and wiped the place mats. She took a handful of forks out of the sink and wiped those too. She wriggled out of his arms, turned round and thrust the mats and the cutlery into his hands. Bits of toilet paper were clinging to the teeth of the forks.
"Can you draw the curtains in the dining room so I can lay the table?"
"If you wore matching underwear I wouldn't have to do that."
He went back through the louvred door and dumped the mats and cutlery on the table with a clatter. He took the plastic cap off the wine bottle and held it upside down over the upright decanter. The wine bubbled and gurgled and made a red froth like an ice-cream soda. Thea shouted through the door.
"You're always so unpleasant when we're having people in. If you don't want them to come, don't invite them. I'll do fish fingers instead of wasting my weekend cooking Sunday lunch. You asked them to come, not me. I don't know why you bother."
Pax put the wine down on the sideboard. While he composed a reply to Thea's outburst he stuck his middle finger down the neck of the decanter. He wiped away the pink scum that the wine froth had left behind when it subsided. He was careful not to get his finger stuck.
"We invite people for parties and dinner and drinks for the same reason everyone else does: so we're invited back to their place where we hope we'll have a nicer time than we do in our own. We're all going round in circles trying to find a good time."
"Then let's stop. Right now. I'm going to phone my brother and tell him not to come."
Pax licked the acid scum off his finger and put it back in the neck of the decanter for a final wipe.
"You wouldn't do that. You want to see what his latest floosie's like. She might turn out to be your sister-in-law. Anyway, if we didn't invite anyone here we wouldn't get invited back. Then we'd feel lonely and inadequate. That's why we put up with other people making a mess and drinking our drink and wasting our time when we could be reading the paper. The only consolation is that we do the same to them when we go back to their houses."
He wondered whether he should use the toilet paper instead of his finger. Bad idea. Bits of cork floating in the wine were socially acceptable. Bits of bog roll were not. Thea burst through the door brandishing a saucepan. "You make me angry. You're petty minded and cynical."
She clumped back into the kitchen, her wellies leaving a little trail of mint sauce on the carpet. The swing door slammed behind her. Pax could see her shadow through the slats and hear her banging saucepans in the sink. He took a swig out of the decanter and tried to suppress the rictus in his facial muscles. It was bloody awful but he couldn't back down now and open something else.It was obvious to him why Thea was on edge. She was always nervous when she met her brother's new mistresses. By convention, Nick always referred to them as his fiancées. If Nick's previous relationships were a guide they would indeed get married as a necessary prelude to getting divorced.
"Better send your bridesmaid's dress to the cleaners," he shouted..