To take my mind off a visit from the Ex, I pour glass after glass of fizz for the Laird of the Manor

People don’t half ask some silly questions when they think you’re staff.

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The last few days have all been very Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party up here. A huge marquee went up on the lawn, and there was a great sense of anticipation. The Laird and the Lady of the Manor were celebrating 40 years of marriage. Forty years seems to be the proper amount of time for deep reflection. There’s the play by Alan Bennett; it’s the period of time that Colonel Clive Candy takes us back to as he plunges into the pool in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; and it’s the number of years since, I was recently reminded, Joy Division were working on their second and last album, and Ian Curtis was on the brink of suicide.

Maybe that’s inauspicious. The Laird and Lady are clearly still very happy with each other, and suited to each other, although I can’t help wondering whether the cost of a marquee, and the entertaining of 200 guests, will put a certain pressure on the Laird, who likes to keep his expenses to a minimum.

I find myself being dragooned into helping. They decide to put me in charge of the wine, which I concede does make a kind of sense, and involves putting what looks like not nearly enough sparkling and un-sparkling Vouvray into the refrigerated trailer, and opening what looks like not nearly enough Graves for the tables. I am also told to instruct Kelly, who has never done so before, how to open a champagne-style bottle. Matters are not helped when a co-worker shows her how to pop the cork so it flies right across the marquee.

“That,” I say, “is exactly how not to do it.” (Kelly turned out to be a natural.)

Meanwhile, I was nervous, thanks to an earlier conversation with the Lady of the House.

“I’d better warn you,” she said, that “H— is coming. With her boyfriend.”

This was not exactly a punch in the stomach, but it wasn’t exactly welcome news either. H— was the Ex who had, when we were still an item, introduced me to this place before going off to get a job in Gothenburg for five years. She was not at all happy that I was here now and had recently told me, in a brief but powerful email, that she would not be visiting as long as I was here. I anticipated some Unpleasantness.

At least I was busy enough not to brood. I stood behind the fizz bar and poured and poured. I found I got pretty good at pouring the same amount of wine into the flutes, and was extremely pleased that – so far – I had not knocked the table over or broken a single glass. Also I found that there was often a little nip left in each bottle that I could pour out for myself, in order to ensure a steady hand. But people don’t half ask some silly questions when they think you’re staff.

“Can I take one of these?” (Pointing at four dozen unclaimed glasses of fizz.)

“No, they’re for looking at only.”

“Excuse me, are these all the same?” (Pointing at four dozen identical glasses of fizz.)

“No, some of them are poisoned.” (I’m afraid I did say that.)

Meanwhile, I kept fretting about the amount of wine we had. Even if you discounted the Muslims and children and designated drivers, it seemed to me that there would be barely two glasses per punter. The bottles of red on the long tables, separated by yards, looked awfully lonely and beleaguered. There were six bottles underneath the table to be opened in an emergency.

Eventually, I sat down with Chris and Dick, the all-round handymen (Dick can do handbrake turns in the pickup, and I kept asking him to teach me how), and Aileen, who more or less runs the place.

“We didn’t know what to make of you at first,” she said, “but now you’re one of us.”

And then there was the dancing. This is normally my cue to hide under the table or feign an ankle injury, but for some reason – well, that wine wasn’t going to drink itself – I felt emboldened, and I even managed to dance a bit of a Scottish reel with Kelly. A Scottish reel lasts about half an hour and involves an insane combination of moves which are designed to baffle and humiliate the innocent Sassenach. Later on, the DJ played “C’est la Vie” and Aileen and I did the John Travolta/Uma Thurman dance from Pulp Fiction, even doing that thing of passing your fingers across the eyes, probably because I’d opened the last six bottles of red and drunk most of them.

The next morning I was invited to brunch with the family, and H— and her boyfriend, but what with one thing and another I felt a little peaky, and, after receiving a bollocking for opening the emergency wine, although in truth it was all a bit of a blur, spent the next two days in bed. Probably the best thing to do under the circumstances. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers