Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Dinners of Mrs Donaught

Mrs Donaught was one of those women who generally excite the topic in terms of questioning why some people are in high society. In high society she certainly was, sweeping into parties and gatherings on Long Island with an almost excessive regularity, fashionably invited, decadently attired. Oh yes, she excited a kind of juxtaposition – even in appearance, with her customary bottle-green dress and red smock which she seemed to wear incessantly as if collecting the respective fragrances of New York residences. We assumed she was a sentimentalist by nature, as although she was aging unfashionably now – with some guesses being in the region of fifty – when the band of the evening thumped out a foxtrot or some kind of tune, she would hold her highball glass between slim fingers almost as if it were another body, mimicking the movements of the dance. Sometimes it excited a few laughs, but Mrs Donaught hardly noticed. It was that factor which only made people notice her further.

Wherever the party was held, seemingly customarily, she would always be the first to head to the dinner table, though executing such as if making a retreat. She moved with sharp staccato motions, almost like a small bird, which gave onlookers the ideal opportunity to evaluate the strange airy appearance of her tightly-curled blonde hair and heavily rouged cheeks where the bones greased against the skin. There was always a kind of mystery about this time of the night, as up until dinner, Mrs Donaught would not speak. I would usually be at an adjacent point in the room, with my hand wrapped lazily around Annie or Lily-Mae or some girl I had accompanied that night, and I would watch Mrs Donaught shuffling through stale smoke and female exclamations, speaking silently under her breath and moving towards the table. Although the nouveau riche at the time, still bathing in the new enchantment of recent adulthood would attempt to regard her with a kind of sullied contemptuousness, when Mrs Donaught headed towards the table, the rest of the party would instinctively follow – even Harvey Cunningham who would sneer into his champagne flute through that horrible twisted throat of his and fondle his shirt collar with his free hand, would follow all the same.  Everyone followed.

It was when I attended Gertrude Bell’s party hosted in a marvellous Baroque affair just outside Manhattan that I really began to notice Mrs Donaught, finding myself swept along in the general excitement towards the dining table as Mrs Donaught led – I was only a young man of twenty two then and still subject to it as everyone else was. She always had a particular place of sitting, somebody told me amidst the hubbub, usually at the far left corner. I saw that it was certainly the case, Mrs Donaught sitting down in a kind of stylised resignation, letting her wrists cross limply in front of her on the table and thus thrusting forward an indelicate array of thick silver rings which adorned nearly every finger. It was not acceptable, but certainly it was fashionable, evidently so as a girl sat across from me on the long table hissed towards her in an apparent exclamation of envy. There was something almost awfully excited in these young women by Mrs Donaught’s presence – it made them terribly self-conscious, anointing their cheeks and lips with a rouge which seemed to only allow them to blend in with the general artificiality of the room. I just looked more intently at Mrs Donaught.

Gertrude Bell evidently began to have an issue with this interruption of proceedings and hastily called for the menus – after all, as she declared earlier in the evening, she wanted a formal affair, none of this ‘buffet nonsense.’ The ploy seemed successful in that the painfully handcrafted menus with their lace fronts temporarily engaged attention, before the waiters threaded almost weightlessly about the party, taking orders. I ordered a confit, but I cannot remember the actual substance of it, whilst Annie ordered a mixed leaf arrangement with some kind of dressing, saying it was ‘good on the figure.’

Perhaps as she had anticipated in her seating choice, the waiter arrived at Mrs Donaught the last, his stroll towards her accompanied by her sharp shutting of the menu an in almost superior fashion. She flashed him a smile, which seemed somewhat odd, her teeth appearing too small and fine for her painted mouth – as if they had been brushed to such an extent of perfection they had worn down. For some strange reason I felt sorry for her.

“I’ll have the duck, please,” Her speaking voice was so distinct, I immediately recognised it at every party I subsequently attended – there was a clever, attractive emphasis on the last syllables of each word and an enchantingly feminine tone to accompany it, her lips seemingly letting the words escape, one by one.
But after absorbing the actual content of the words, the whole party seemed to revolve in a sudden shock – there was no duck on the menu! The waiter also knew this, bending his face closer to hers which only captivated the rest of the party to crane forward uneasily, the women’s dresses ruffling uncomfortably across the linen cloth.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but there is no duck on the menu,” He was evidently attempting a tone of authority, but I believed him just as captivated by Mrs Donaught as the rest of the party was, his eyes seeming to widen a little as he spoke.

She looked upwards more earnestly and placed a hand confidentially on his, speaking simply.

“Ask the chef, and see what you can find.”

Although her voice was not strictly imperative, the intensity of her stare and the strange apparent pressure of her words seemingly sent the waiter onwards without comment. Then, sitting back, it was peculiar – it was not a flavour of triumph which adorned her features, but a kind of child-like innocence, gazing almost playfully at the tableware. She met my stare once also, but proceeded to do nothing about it, nothing intrusive, just looked curiously and moved on. Sometimes she muttered a little tune beneath her breath and ran a silk napkin between her fingers. Her little pearly earrings glittered in the bulbous silverware of serving dishes as the food arrived. Gertrude Bell rose to make a declaration, the pale peach of her dress crackling eagerly, though noticing the general focus about Mrs Donaught, she sat down again huffily. A female servant was called to get some tissues and ‘get rid of that foul woman who is spoiling my party.’ But not even Gertrude Bell seemingly had the true heart to send Mrs Donaught away, and soon attention was lost in the receiving of food, and the usual crass comments on taste and texture, high-minded comparison with similar dishes in Paris and London.

Mrs Donaught was served last. The waiter seemed to almost tremble towards her with the dish, his voice perhaps unconsciously amplified as he declared.

“And for you madam, the duck.”

He plucked the silver lid away, and there, almost certainly, was duck – the quite dark almost caramelised meat with a little sauce and some wildly gesturing vegetables. Mrs Donaught smiled with a fondness which almost seemed emotional, and she began eating, delicately but determinedly, apparently unaware of the multitude of faces utterly fixated upon her.

Annie suddenly spoke out beside me – ‘And duck wasn’t even on the menu!’ – and this started a general hubbub among the women, expressions of disbelief, and generously painted lips moving ravenously over words rather than food. It was the same with the men, ranging from guttural sighs of awe, to a muttering incensed with alcohol and too many cigarettes – ‘And I would have enjoyed duck as well!’, and similar.
By the time the waiting staff re-appeared to remove the plates, believing they had given a suitable, polite duration for the meal, it was fair to say, that hardly any of the food had been touched – people were still absorbed in conversation, in amazement at the behaviour of Mrs Donaught, some women even slouched gracelessly across the table to feel more included within the satisfying surround of speech.

The plates were taken away, and there was evident focus on the fact that Mrs Donaught had almost cleaned hers – everything apart from a morsel of meat still attached to the bone. As the waiter exited with an armful of plates, attempting not to distinguish that of Mrs Donaught, Gertrude Bell gestured for him to come towards her.

“Give me that plate,” she managed, almost breathless with frustration, seizing the silver which she had seen taken from Mrs Donaught’s place. Gertrude gave what appeared to be an angered exclamation which caught the back of her slender throat before plunging her delicately lacquered fingers into the meat. The party leaned forward urgently, momentarily more concerned by the outcome of the action than its grotesque nature.
“And it is duck!” she declared simply, but with a note of hysteria trilling through her tone, slamming her hand heavily on the cloth.

It was not long before Gertrude Bell was escorted to bed in a confusion of tears, whilst conglomerating groups of party guests talked drunkenly about whether they should complain about Miss Bell ‘short-selling them with the menu.’ I sat in a darkened corner with my arm around Annie, feeling the bitterness of the olive from a martini pervade my mouth, letting my eyes wander through the general excited crowds, over to Mrs Donaught, still sat in her dinner chair, and back again. She looked upon the excitement of the other dinner guests with a kind of quiet satisfaction, seemingly unconcerned that she was the subject and apparently content in her seclusion, her well-heeled shoe tapping a little gaudy tune on the floor.

There were other dinner parties that month, parties I made an effort to attend, knowing that Mrs Donaught would likely be there. It was the case indeed – and thus the usual pantomime unfurled of her heading to the table, absorbing an almost ravenous attention, ordering an item which had never even graced the menu and still receiving it. Alice, a girl I was going with at the time, stared at Mrs Donaught with a kind of intense disgust which set little creases rippling across her pale forehead, plastering her pale mouth as she declared that Mrs Donaught may well have a good array of friendships with chefs, and thus was nothing much remarkable. But it was difficult to believe that was the case.

It was during another dinner party at George Adam’s place, a grand pillared house set back from the road in the usual expression of gentry, that Mrs Donaught ordered a chicken pate and received it – adorned with little leaves and crystallised circles of preserved orange – without it being on the menu. She ate with the same polite relish as she had done on every other occasion, and as had been the case at every other occasion, the dinner host requested her plate afterwards so they could trawl his or her hand through it and experience the subsequent horror in realising that it was indeed food never seen on the menu. Needless to say, with the strange social-consciousness of the times, it dissuaded many of these people from hosting another party again. It was sweetly scandalous. These people dwelled in disgrace, whilst Mrs Donaught only extended higher in the public eye.

“You know,” At George’s Adam’s party, an unremarkable woman with cropped dark hair and red lips leant over to whisper in my ear “She’s not even married, but goes with the title of ‘Mrs’ -  I’ve looked into it, no husband on the records, you know. Now what do you think of that?”

The woman’s voice was horribly ringing and nasal as she finished with an alcohol-incensed laugh, her eyebrows rising like little blades which mutilated her entire expression. Drawn-on or something.

It was a couple of weeks after that before I felt I had the endurance to attend another party where Mrs Donaught may well be present - it was not she was the problem, only the people so incensed by her presence that their voices would become amplified, almost hysterical, they would move with the exaggerated gestures of shock and distress which usually sent more than one wine-glass smashing to the floor and could not sustain unrelated conversation for the merest interval. Mrs Donaught, on the other hand, was looking healthier than ever, her cheeks seemed tipped with natural colour rather than the trickery of rouge and her lips relaxed in a way when she smiled absently so that her teeth did not seem so small and frail. It was strange compared to the general dishevelment and disjointedness of the other guests.

This was certainly the case at a party given by an old college friend – Amelia Chain – at her residence in Long Island. Mrs Donaught was wearing her usual party attire, and I , being unaccompanied for the night, as Alice was in bed with a head-cold and sniffing lavender-salts languorously, decided to follow Mrs Donaught as she went to the table. I anticipated that this would be an unusual state of affairs for her, as typically the chair at either side of her was left unoccupied, as if she was an exhibition.

It was strange, therefore, that she showed no visible shock as I sat myself uneasily down in the chair next to her – I sat next to Mrs Donaught, the uninvited connoisseur of nearly every party New York had known, sat next to the odd spiracles of air seemingly trapped beneath that fine gold hair, watched her thin mouth searching for words.

“You have to ask for things, assume things” She spoke airily; seemingly directed at no one specifically, though perhaps spurred by my proximity “Like my husband, I assume him.”

Her hands crossed an uncrossed, though in a gentle way, the deep blue veins almost like a kind of jewellery against her translucent skin. She seemed to suck down on her bottom lip, as if tasting the undulations of her own voice.

“It’s strange how things are,” She mused, almost fondly “How odd everything seems to be – as if the younger generation has completely lost its social decorum!”

She lowered her voice, gesticulating towards the rest of the table with muted, but still evident  movements.
“It’s almost like insanity.”

Her mouth seemed to expel the last word like a ring of smoke and her fingers clasped the menu shut before she had even scanned the pages.