Those of you who visit this blog regularly will know that I am not a sociable person. This does not mean to say I don’t like people – far from it. But I am not thrilled by having to meet lots of strangers all at once or having to find superficial chitchat for hours at a time, or indeed by facing up to that challenge to which I seem peculiarly unequal, eating and talking at the same time. So it is generally with a heavy heart that I greet the advent of Mister Litlove’s annual works Christmas party. He has stopped asking me now whether I want to go, as in his view attendance is obligatory, and just emails the menu over to me. This year the dinner was being held in Upper Hall in Jesus College, where we met as undergraduates and later married. So it was a nice venue, but that didn’t make it anything other than the office party.
We were leaving our son happily home alone. ‘Don’t be afraid if there’s anything wrong – anything at all – to text me,’ I told him, as I was being forcibly steered towards the door. ‘I’ll be happy to come home for your least worry, no matter how trivial.’
‘Your mother will enjoy herself,’ said Mister Litlove grimly as my son laughed, well aware of my disinclination for big social events. He has his father to lobby for the opposing view, so I don’t feel I’m determining his outlook. He snuggled down behind a warm computer, whilst we trekked out into the arctic wastes of Cambridge in a cold snap. I thought I must be mad, or loyal to the point of diminished responsibility.
‘It’s very good of you to come with me,’ my husband said dutifully as we drove to the college. ‘I’m very glad to have you along.’
‘You may not say that by the end of the evening,’ I replied cheerily.
In what felt like no time at all, we had arrived and entered the somewhat draughty Upper Hall with its rather interesting artwork on the wall, a floor to ceiling spiral of golden handprints, which is a lot better than some of the weird and wonderful stuff a previous modern-art-loving Master installed, including a huge wooden dinosaur in the grounds. I admit I had a certain curiosity to see the new women who had been recruited in the last few months to the company. Mostly my husband has worked in male-dominated environments so he can get a bit excited when real live women hove into view. And he is tall and handsome and quite princely, is Mister Litlove, with much charm and no vanity. However, I was content to see that the computer programmer was very young and girly, whereas Mister L has always liked quite grown-up women, and the new office manager, very stately in a strapless dress, was probably more woman than he would be confident to handle all in one go. He is intrinsically a faithful type, but it’s always good to be reassured.
We sat down to eat with a tremendous amount of shilly-shallying, as there were no place names on the tables and everyone was very hesitant to commit. We ended up with a couple of the male programmers and their partners and a couple of venture capitalists. As our meal began to be served, so I realized that an interesting feat of Chinese whispers between me, my husband and the office manager had transformed my no yeast, no sugar diet into a wheat intolerance one. This is one of the reasons why I mostly refuse to let other people cook for me. I feel marginally guilty leaving food I’ve been served in a restaurant, but I feel terrible having to turn down food that someone I know has cooked for me. I was handed a special bread roll with my soup and I felt so sorry that I couldn’t eat it. The woman opposite me, who actually turned out to be wheat intolerant, said she’d try the roll out and pronounced it delicious but wasn’t sure what was in it. Its bouncy, fluffy texture assured me that one ingredient was yeast. The soup, also delicious, was sweet potato and coconut, and I was at least halfway into it before realizing that part of its taste was probably due to a good glug of white wine. Alcohol is something else I’ve strenuously avoided for years. It’s easy to turn down in a glass (well, unless I’m with people who think me a party pooper for not drinking), far more difficult to turn down in food. I was having to do the eating and talking thing, though, which is not conducive to appetite, so it didn’t matter so very much.
Conversation was very jolly. I discussed creative communications with the wheat-intolerant lady opposite, whose job involved them (and thought about swapping dinners with her, as my turkey arrived with no sausage and bacon, and in a bright orange, thyme-heavy sauce). And we discussed the difficulties of learning foreign languages to a fluent standard with the other end of the table (one of the venture capitalists being Russian). Then the conversation somehow hitched up on the fact that my hometown of Colchester had spawned the runner-up in the X-Factor, the UK’s equivalent of American Idol. This was indeed a shock to me, as he is actually from nearby Witham (said Wit-ham), a place I never dreamed would ever garner media glory. I was most surprised to turn on the television Sunday night and see hoardes of screaming fans supposedly from Colchester, although I cynically think you can order hoardes by the square meter for television shows and bus them in. I suppose I shouldn’t be so amazed. The group Blur (who were musically quite classy) came from Colchester and the glam rockers The Darkness are from Lowestoft, just up the coast, a place that cannot ever have stocked a lycra catsuit in its long, long anglo-saxon history, although it may well have a tattoo parlour down near the docks.
Then it was time for dessert, which was the saddest part of my meal. Normally I just turn it away, but Mister Litlove assured me that something special for me was coming. At first he thought it was cheese, which I can and do eat, although it is not my favourite thing. But then he thought it was fruit, which is just fine. Alas, what turned up was a beautifully prepared pear cooked in red wine, surrounded by berries all coated in a sugar-dense coulis. Even the whipped cream had sugar added. All that unnecessary trouble someone had gone to! I urged Mister Litlove to try some, but although getting a dinner and a half has always been part of the pleasure of marriage to me, he was slowing down by the end of the meal. And the napkins were linen, so my usual strategy of wrapping up what I can’t eat and taking it home had been thwarted.
Once we’d finished eating, people started milling around, and one of my husband’s colleagues from the London office came over to chat. He had greeted me at the start of the evening with the somewhat unexpected phrase ‘I understand you are the Perez Hilton of book bloggers,’ which made me laugh uproariously, not least because of its delightful distance from reality. I really do have to wonder how Mister Litlove describes me in my absence. Anyway, he turned out to be one of those amazing people who have a tremendous range of knowledge, having studied literature at university before going on to be a computer person. He’d been on monastic retreats (‘You should try one,’ he urged. ‘We’re afraid she’d never come back,’ said Mister Litlove). He also had a three and a half year-old son. ‘And what’s he into now?’ I asked. ‘Being strong,’ he replied. ‘We have to feel his muscles all the time.’ He and Mister Litlove fell into a current affairs discussion, provoked by the information supplied by our new friend that the Iraq war had cost the country six billion pounds and the banking crisis sixty billion. ‘Which means we could have spent the money invading ten other countries and had the empire back,’ he ironically suggested. Now what really surprised me at this point was the rapidity with which Mister L. reeled off a list of possible countries to invade. I struggled to think of anywhere that would offer mutual benefits. France, not enough good shopping; Italy, too excitable; efficient, regulated Germany would be brought to its knees; America would be just too much country altogether, in the way the office manager would be too much woman for my husband. Eventually I suggested Luxembourg. ‘Pooh, who wants Luxembourg? What would be the point of that?’ my husband said. ‘I’m going for the smaller, vulnerable Middle Eastern states.’ Did this mean he had a plan already worked out? Is this what men think about in their vacant moments? I realized that the point of coming to parties was to see one’s nearest and dearest in a completely different light.
People were beginning to drift off now, so once our group broke up chatting I was allowed to go home. As we were saying goodbye, the woman who had sat opposite me pressed her business card on me. ‘I so enjoyed our chat,’ she said,’ I thought perhaps we could meet for coffee in the New Year.’ This was such a kind gesture that I didn’t mention at that point that I don’t drink coffee. ‘You see, you can be sociable when you try,’ said Mister Litlove. And it hadn’t been too bad, for once, but I am by no means a convert yet. The cloistered retreat will tempt me long before the party season swallows me up.