It’s Christmas Lunch season in the Camber Valley and the members of the local chapter of the Midshires Countrywomen’s Guild have never been known to pass up the chance to don their bling and party like it’s 1956. So every year they hold their December meeting at the Abbots Ley Country House Hotel, with its sweeping lawns, strutting peacocks and tenuous connection with a Z-List Romantic Poet no-one’s ever heard of. It also, oddly enough, has a car park more suited to hiking boots than Jimmy Choos, and rumour has it that when there’s a big ‘do’ on, the local oiks camp out in the shrubbery with a couple of bottles of strong cider and place bets on which of the female revellers is most likely topple over with a startled shriek before gaining the safety of the tarmac drive.
On the day of this year’s lunch, I opened the door of my wardrobe and peered into the dark interior in the hope of finding something that wasn’t a tracksuit bottom, torn sweatshirt or stained fisherman’s smock – my normal choice of clothing for everything except job interviews and funerals. Quite where I hoped such an outfit was going to materialize from, I have no idea … but I peered anyway, before sighing heavily and getting out the inevitable secondhand weddings/funerals/job interviews combo of aubergine jacket, black camisole, and black trousers. Then I considered the venue, and the company I was keeping, and decided that a skirt was probably going to be de rigueur – which created a whole new set of problems. For instance, I wasn’t remotely sure I had a skirt I could get into nor, indeed, a pair of tights that wasn’t in shreds, thanks to the demented attentions of two overly-enthusiastic Jack Russells.
I tried on three skirts before I finally found one that (a) I could walk in normally without holding my breath and (b) didn’t look too weird with the jacket. Next task: find a pair of tights without holes, or – indeed – find a pair of tights of any description. When you live in variations on the theme of the rugby sock, fripperies like tights get stuffed to the back of the drawers, eventually to be shouldered out completely and end up at the bottom of the chest, crushed and unloved.
I rummaged fruitlessly in several drawers for a minute or two before finding a pair of tights in amongst the knickers and hankies. True, they were dangerously close to the dreaded ‘American Tan’, but they weren’t holed or laddered and as far as I was concerned, that was good enough.
Triumphantly, I hauled all the finery on and considered the end result in the hall mirror. I looked almost presentable. My hair needed combing, but there was nothing new in that: my hair always looks as if I spend my life running my fingers through it distractedly – mostly because I do. It was nothing some industrial strength hairspray wouldn’t cure.
All I needed now, I told myself, were my faithful boots … but then, with a sinking heart, I realized that I couldn’t wear honking great boots with a skirt. On a seventeen year old it looks edgy. Half a century later, it just looks eccentric.
I needed shoes. The sort ordinary women with normal lives wear. Not trekking sandals or flip-flops or sensible brown brogues, but neat things with heels. I had some somewhere. I had at least two pairs of plain court shoes that used to fit me and presumably still did, because your feet don’t get fat, do they? Not really?
Acutely aware of the passage of time and the fact that I’d been told in no uncertain terms, to be sure I was at the hotel no later than midday, I scrabbled around in the bottom of several cupboards, hurling aside sandals and boots in an increasingly desperate search for a pair of ordinary shoes. Imelda Marcos, I told myself, never had this problem.
Finally, dishevelled and pink-faced, I emerged with two – count them – TWO pairs of plain black court shoes: one with cuban heels and one with what I believe are called kitten heels. I tried the first pair on. Almost immediately tears sprang to my eyes, and without taking a single step, I knew I couldn’t even walk in them, let alone make it across the Abbots Ley car park with my dignity and ankles intact.
I tried the second pair on and for a few wonderful moments, I thought I might have cracked it. They looked good and felt reasonably comfortable … until I tried to cross the room in them. By the time I reached the door, I was clutching the furniture and hobbling like an arthritic ninety year old.
I dived back into the cupboard and started rummaging through bags and boxes in search of something – anything – I could put on my feet that wouldn’t look like kipper boxes without topses. I’d almost given up hope and decided to wear trousers and boots and to hell with trying to look respectable, when I found a pair of old black pumps shoved in a sports bag. I tried them on. They fitted. I tried walking in them and made it to the door without crippling myself. I looked down at them: they were scuffed and filthy.
Shoe polish. I needed shoe polish. Where was the shoe polish? I started hunting through the house. It wasn’t in the cupboard under the stairs. It wasn’t in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. It wasn’t in the utility. It wasn’t in the garage … Well, I say it wasn’t in the garage, but that’s probably exactly where it IS, except I still haven’t got around to unpacking it yet … which actually demonstrates just how shamefully infrequently I clean a pair of shoes.
I decided eventually that furniture polish would have to do – after all, no-one was going to be looking at my feet, were they? Women don’t look at other women’s feet, do they? Not when there’s food and drink to be had, surely?
The polish didn’t cover up the scuffing of course, but it did at least remove some of the dirt and impart a vague suggestion of shine, and as I looked in the mirror, I finally allowed myself a small sigh of relief.The reflection was of someone who would not only get across the car park in one piece but also be allowed through the front door.
And then I remembered those things called handbags … which you need if you aren’t wearing tracksuit bottoms and smocks that are plentifully supplied with pockets.
I checked my watch. I was running out of time.
Handbag. I had to have a handbag somewhere – other than the one which was on the back seat of the car when the Boy Dog had that volcanic intestinal accident after he helped himself to a packet of figs …
I arrived at the hotel in a flurry of gravel, nearly came a cropper on my way across the car park and dead-heated with the announcement that ‘Luncheon is served’.
Maggie – who is usually the last to arrive for everything – looked at me vaguely disbelievingly as we filtered into the tastefully-decorated dining room with a view out over the River Camber.
‘You cut that a bit fine, didn’t you?’ she hissed from the corner of her mouth. ‘Whatever have you done to your hair? And why on EARTH do you keep sniffing your handbag?’