Monday, July 22, 2019 10:36

The Eye Of The Beholder

If I’m honest I’m pissed off. I’ve come out with a simple shopping list for my dinner party and am having a major problem spending my money. My guests will probably not consider a new dress and shoes as important to their culinary fulfilment, but to me they will be the cornerstone of my evening. I am resolute in my effort to be not just the hostess with the most magnificent food and drink but am determined to wow the men present with something sartorially breathtaking. I want the women to envy me for my taste and the men to spend the evening hoping to taste me.

I already know what Jessica is going to wear. Jessica is like an open book when it comes to secrets: She tells her husband Adam, Adam tells my husband Mark and Mark tells me. Jessica makes dinner parties so easy.

Leaving the red halter-neck and red-leather strappy platforms off my shopping list is no big deal anyway. I hate red for its aggression – and love Adam for his indiscretion.

Lucy is a wholly different kettle of fish. Lucy, if rumour can be believed, is the most beautiful woman in the world and is married to a man named José. My husband is vague on the subject of José. All I know is that he and José are in some sort of business together.

Well, tonight I am going to be the most beautiful woman in the world. I am going to delight in seeing the envy in Lucy’s eyes. How dare Mark tell me someone else is more beautiful!

Finally, of course, there’s lovely, adorable, funny – and very young – Grace. Grace hasn’t grown into a real woman yet. She has tits and hips and is old enough to bear children, but she lacks style both in the way she dresses and in the way she talks. Grace is never happier than when chatting about texting and mp3 players.

Grace thinks Jimmy Choo is the name of a train.

Don’t get me wrong, Grace is no slouch; six ‘A stars’ in her exams puts her right up there with the brightest of the bunch. It’s just that she lacks nous. Ask Grace her opinion of the bottle-green satin gown I’ve got my eyes on and she’d probably start searching for its mobile phone pocket.

Please don’t ask why I invited Grace. I cannot bring myself to face the truth. I guess I’m a little ashamed about my motives.

Mark hasn’t asked me to buy him any clothes so my guess is he’ll be wearing his cliché cowboy look. I love my husband in his cowboy look; clichéd or not: He has a fabulous bum, and legs that go all the way to his ears. In jeans and a crisp white Texas shirt (rose embroidered) he becomes instantly shaggable. Add the Luchesse boots and he’s my film star.

José probably plays the Spanish guitar or something. I can only hope he doesn’t decide on the matador look. Too many sexy men and I’ll be dribbling Chablis Grand Cru Valmur 2000 down my front all evening.

I have no idea who Grace will be bringing or how he might be dressed. All I know is that neither he nor Grace is likely to draw too much attention from me.

After exiting my third dress shop I’m in a panic. I go for shoes. I think that if I find the shoes it will make the choice of dress easier. It has.

With a pair of silver diamanté ankle strap sandals in my bag to accompany the 400g tin of borlotti beans (Borlotti Bean & Pasta Soup for starter) I head back to the most horrendously expensive dress shop in town. I decide to compromise; I take the satin gown with its enormous bow at the back and the heather gray turtleneck. The turtleneck has long sleeves and a high hem. The blurb says it’s made of a new fabric which resists wrinkling and creasing. I can only hope it doesn’t have to cope with wine spillage.

The meal is no problem to me. My cook, Mrs. Higgs, has done every one of the dishes before and I am filled with confidence. If only I felt the same way about my guests.

Across the hallway from the kitchen I can see Mark playing with the wine and the Edinburgh crystal. I hold my breath every time I see him using my George III Sheraton satinwood secretaire the way a potman would use the formica-topped bar at our local pub. I try to resist the temptation of peeking round the corner of the room to see what horrors Mark has in mind for my pride and joy. Described as a Georgian side table, cross-banded with a central oval cartouche in tulipwood and standing on slender cabriole legs, this item cost more than anything we have ever bought in our married life, excluding our house and the Lexus sitting in the garage. Actually, we didn’t have to buy the Lexus. My table is the last word in beauty and I am very, very protective of it. It is the one thing in the whole house that I treasure after my husband. I just know Lucy is going to be impressed as soon as she sees it. It is because of Lucy that I’m going to all this trouble. Jessica all but lives here in my house, and I’ve had to stop Grace using my table for writing on more than once. My table is a statement. It is class. It is my baby. I’ve not heard much about Lucy, but I know she and her husband have got money. Lucy and José live in Chelsea. Need I say more?

I glance at the clock and realize I have only an hour in which to get dressed. Panic grips me. I call out to Mrs. Higgs and ask her if she has everything she needs then run upstairs as quickly as my legs will carry me. My shower takes me twenty minutes. I choose items of underwear that I know will show off my figure to its best then climb into my turtleneck. I look in the mirror and am horrified that the hem is disastrously high. I’m sure it wasn’t that short when I tried it on in the shop. I desperately want to use the ‘F’ word to express my dismay. But the ‘F’ word never helps solve a problem. You cannot use the ‘F’ word just once in any given situation. The whole effect is lost if it isn’t repeated over and over again. I haven’t got the time to use the ‘F’ word. Besides, Mark and I have an agreement about the ‘F’ word; we have to pay a penalty if we use it. And to be honest I have spent so much on my clothes today that I just don’t have the ready cash to put in the box. The French manicure I had done this afternoon took my card over its limit. I’m broke and I’m frightened to tell him.

I grab the silk gown and struggle with it. I scream at Mrs Higgs to come upstairs and tell me what she thinks. She says she likes it. I put the turtleneck on again. I slip my new sandals onto my feet and look again. It’s better, true, but I can only guess at what Mark is going to say when he sees me. I can feel the first sting of tears in my eyes. I’ve spent a king’s fortune on two dresses and neither is going to make me happy.

Do I mean make Lucy envious?

I grab the box of tissues from the bedside cabinet and go to the bathroom to make myself up.

When I discover that my Sparkling Blush lippy is entirely the wrong shade to go with the colour I chose for my nails I know things are set to go badly wrong. I’m going to end up looking like a bad mix from the high end of the visible spectrum. I am convinced my guests will go away and gossip about me. I am convinced Lucy is going to turn out to be the editor of a fashion magazine. I am convinced one of my guests will have a camera with them and suggest a group pic. Panic grips my stomach as I notice there’s just five minutes to go before my guests are due to arrive.

I’m just fluffing my hair up with my fingers as the door bells rings. The mirror tells me I look a million dollars. My brain tells me I look like a slut. Saying I wanted the men to taste me was intended only as a metaphor. I didn’t set out to make it an achievable goal. I know I have to go down now and greet everyone. I have to put a smile on my face that will belie the deep anxiety I feel about the way I look. No end of brilliant gold and precious diamonds around my neck and hanging from my ears is going to make me feel good. Mark has answered the door and there are voices. I sense a lot of air kissing going on and hear animated greetings. I hear the voices grow silent as I descend the stairs. I sense everyone has turned to look at me. I know the first thing they’re going to see is the sandals. Then there will be that long stretch of leg before the hem of my dress becomes visible. I’m trying to imagine Mark’s face. Poor Mark.

Will he grab me by the scruff of the neck and drag me back upstairs with a demand that I put on something less provocative? Will he take a handful of tissues and swab the lippy from my lips? I am so nervous that I’m sure everyone will see my legs shaking.

I catch sight of red strappy platforms and know it’s Jessica. I breathe a sigh of relief because I know she will take my side. We are the same age and have grown up together. We love one another like sisters. I reach the bottom step of the stairs and throw myself into her arms. She wants to hug, and that suits me. I bury my face in her long auburn hair and hope it hides the uncertainty on my face. We kiss each other on the cheek and pull apart. She looks me in the eye and I see her approval. I don’t need to ask what she approves of; I know it’s her way of telling me ‘I sense you are unsure about yourself, but it’s okay – you look fabulous.’ I kiss her again and tell her how much I like her dress. I tell her how clever she is to have chosen just the right thing to wear. How red suits her so much. Adam is standing behind her. Adam is of average build and height, probably slightly shorter than his wife which is unfortunate because Jessica never goes anywhere without four inch heels. But Adam has a face straight out of Hollywood. He has chiselled features and that unshaved look. He’s the sort of man that would be so easy to fall for. I kiss him on the mouth. Nothing sexual, just a light kiss that says ‘you’re a special person.’

I know this is the moment when I must turn and look my husband in the eye. Now is the moment when I find out what he thinks. I glance across the hall at him and wonder if he’s in a trance. I reach out and take him by the hand. It has the effect of bringing him back from his reverie. I see moisture in his eyes as he mouths the words: ‘You look so beautiful.’

I am barely able to contain the joy in my heart. I want to take him somewhere private and kiss him. Then the mp3 player arrives. The mp3 player has Grace attached to it. Well, actually both she and the young man she is with are attached to it. They are sharing an ear-piece each. I can hear Amy Winehouse singing about Valerie. I only know its Amy Winehouse because I’ve become accustomed to her voice through the headphones at the gym. Grace and her young man have found their way to our front door by virtue of their eyes picking out the rectangle of light against the darkening eastern sky. Their brains probably remain on the seat of their car parked out in the street. Grace suddenly comes round from the effects of the music and realises we’re all staring at her. Grace has chosen a kilt skirt in green and white check which she’s wearing with black tights and kitten heels. Her cream crocheted top shows just the hint of a cream bra beneath. Her long naturally blonde hair flows gracefully across her shoulders. She looks fabulous, but not so much so that she’s going to draw too much attention away from me. She introduces Mickey.

Mickey is a sallow faced young man with jet black hair and the hint of a moustache. He’s wearing jeans and a Boss T shirt. Mickey isn’t going to present any threat to the other men. We all embrace and kiss one another. With each new arrival my spirits soar.

Then I see the approaching Oscar de la Renta. The full length jewel embroidered fuchsia gown is worn by a woman with the body of a Goddess. She has the most gloriously long tresses piled on her head in a show of elegance that makes Aphrodite look like a garden gnome. My stomach turns over at the sheer indulgence. I know enough about fashion to guess that the owner of this dress didn’t get much change from £6,000. I also have the savvy to know that my desire to be the very centre of everyone’s attention this evening has been lost. Even my newest Rand-cut diamond and emerald necklace and eternity ring pale into insignificance when compared to the bling this woman is wearing. Mark and I do the welcome thing. He kisses Lucy on the cheek, José and I likewise. We say all the right things. I reach out for Lucy, greeting her as if I’m used to seeing this sort of wealth on a daily basis. I try to be the gracious hostess and all the time my stomach is in turmoil. I could kill Mark. Damn him for doing this to me. I’ve spent a bloody fortune today and I look like a tramp compared to this woman. The awful woman didn’t even have the decency to look me in the eye when we embraced. It is I who am suddenly filled with envy. I make my excuses and head for the safety of my kitchen leaving Mark to settle my guests with drinks. I need time to think. Need to consider whether I should go back to the satin gown. Maybe even claim sudden sickness. Common sense prevails. I cry instead.

It seems like an age before Mark comes into the kitchen to find me. I see him throw a glance at Mrs Higgs. She gives him a look that says a thousand words. I think Mark knows what I’m feeling inside. He puts his arms around me and tells me I’m the most beautiful woman in the world. I tell him what a bastard he’s been to me. How could he have done this to me? How could he have let me plan so much? Have such high hopes? I am so angry I slap his face.

Mark takes hold of me firmly by the shoulders. It hurts me. I know he’s going to try to talk some sense into me. I don’t need that sort of sense right now. I tell him that women like Lucy have everything, and why doesn’t he go back to her now. Go back and enjoy his bloody evening. Let her take the limelight.

‘She can never enjoy the limelight,’ he says firmly.

I feel sarcasm fill me. I’m good at sarcasm. ‘Oh how so very philosophical,’ I sneer.

‘Sarah, look at me,’ Mark demands. ‘Lucy will never see the beauty that you and I take for granted. She will never have the pleasure of seeing a Georgian side table with cabriole legs.’

I cannot help feeling a little puzzled. I want to lash out again. I want to scream at the top of my voice that some women have all the luck. That some have nothing. I guess I’m thinking of me.

Mark’s grip eases a little on my shoulders but he’s still looking me in the eye. ‘Sarah,’ his voice is tender again now. ‘Lucy is blind.’


Copyright © J E Emberson 2007