“The whole N. family is coming for an impromptu lunch at three o’clock,” says my friend L. “Why don’t you come, too?”
I know N.’s family. An artistic painter father, a philosophical mathematician mother, and a polyglot, poly-talented daughter who could reason Descartes out of his logic. Russians. I arrive shortly before three. L. sweeps out of her kitchenette, built entirely in the vertical and designed for skinny, people over 7 ft. White hair in disarray, wearing a flowy skirt and a blue-patterned kaftan, she gives me a warm, earthy hug and a kiss on the cheek. “The Russians are late,” she says. “Not sure when they’re coming – probably around four – and I’m still not ready.”
I take off my jacket, and offer to help. We sit a few minutes at her dining table to catch up on news. I munch Polish gherkins and English cheddar, and sip Spanish red wine. L.’s studio flat, brimming with books, music scores, paintings and colourful knick-knacks – all scattered in laissez-faire style, looks even more cluttered with dishes and bowls overflowing with food. There is not a square inch of free surface. Even the upright piano is covered in towers of reclining books, and objets d’art. The whole place is a cacophony of colours, shapes and textures which, somehow, seem to concord in an atmosphere of joy and mentally stimulating discussions.
I try and clear the table, and the cloth which vibrates with poppies, daisies, bluebells and sunflowers. “Pass me the plates,” I say, and get handed large, heavy plates with a colourful mock Chinese design of wisemen, willows and dragons. “How old are these?” I ask.
“Oh, very old,” she says.
From what I know of L. I imagine they must have been in her family for at least three generations. I arrange six place settings, then go to the cutlery box. There I pick out knives and forks. There are not two that match, but each is a carefully crafted individual. The water glasses are also different colours and shapes. I arrange the settings to suit the personality I attribute to each guest. There is not enough room on the table for all the food L. has prepared, so I clear a space on the windowsill, to accommodate the large bread board. I slice the spelt loaf and the sperlonga, try and arrange the slices somehow artistically but give up. L. hands me something that looks like a ceramic flower pot, and I throw all the bread into that.
The doorbell rings. It is L.’s partner with the N.’s husband. They are deep in conversation, and do not appear to have noticed that they have arrived. “Where are the women?” asks L.
“I don’t know exactly, but they’re on their way,” replies N.’s husband.
The two men sit at the table, and continue their discussion. L. and I exchange glances. “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee,” she says.
I watch them, from the kitchenette doorway. Nothing can interrupt their animated exchange of ideas. It is like a chess board they can carry with them wherever they go, without disrupting the game. N.’s husband, light brown hair tousled, narrows his eyes and purses his red, full lips, which makes his pasty face into an impression of freshly-kneeded bread dough. Bare elbow on the table, he shakes a podgy fist to drive the point home. L.’s partner listens, his round glasses low on his nose, pale eyes sharp. His head is shaved. He makes return comments in the rich Russian baritone of his actor-trained voice. A dark moustache curves around his lips, corners descending down to his jaw. L. offers them a drink, in English, but they do not hear. The Russian dialogue continues with unwavering intensity. I listen, and soon realise it is punctuated with non sequiturs. “It’s like a scene from Gogol,” says L.
“With some Beckett thrown in,” I add.
Although L. and I both speak Russian, for some reason, our exchanges are in English.
“So where are the others?” L. asks again.
The artist picks up the ‘phone, and dials his wife’s number. “They’re close.”
“Let’s start eating,” says the actor. “They’ll be up in a minute.”
The logic, therefore, of waiting for them occurs to no one. Large dollops of food are spooned onto the plates. Flaxen mounds of steaming, buttered mashed potatoes; glossy emerald spinach and blood-red beetroot, drenched in olive oil and feta cheese cubes tainted in balsamic vinegar; glistening black olives. L. lifts the lids from two earthenware stockpots. First, the air is filled with purple aubergines, scarlet tomatoes, green courgettes and white garlic; then, rusty chicken, burgundy wine, and brown cardamom.
Within minutes, the doorbell rings again. N. and her daughter arrive with apologies for the delay. L. and I pile up food high on their plates, while hugging and kissing them at the same time. N. sits next to me. A small-framed, dark-haired woman in her middle years, dressed in quiet, elegant style. She is full of ideas and projects. Her daughter, opposite me, has her father’s alabaster skin and moon face, and her mother’s black-brown eyes, which sparkle with a love for theories and ideas. I watch her, and think of the Russian beauties of my grandmother’s fairy tales.
The table is alive with voices. L.’s soft Irish tone encourages umpteenth helpings of food, while N.’s daughter is telling her about her recent travels, in English. The men start a new debate in Russian, with more non sequiturs. N. and I discuss future projects, our sentences made up of Russian and English words – with the odd French je ne sais quoi.