I've had lots of time off recently, and after much procrastination, actually managed to put some of it to good use by writing. I might have envisaged exercising every day and mastering the ukulele between Christmas my new job starting, but the reality has mainly seen me Internet shopping and finishing up the endless Christmas desserts.
The last time I spent some time at home with my parents was in 2012. It was then that we were invited to a rather strange dinner party, that has always stuck in my mind. This isn't the usual post for Tall Travels (although I may write more). I hope you enjoy reading my short story.
Dinner with Morris
We stood in the doorway watching in amazement. He was trying to flatten the pastry, hitting it with his hands, but he just kept making it worse. Morris finally looked up and saw us, slowly baring his teeth into a grin.
"Hello there . . . ah, yes, haven't got a rolling pin you see?" he offered. He took the bottle of Argentinian red I held out but put it down on the kitchen top instead of using it to roll the pastry.
"You must be the traveller I suppose," he said shaking my hand vigorously. "Returning to the parental nest what?" I brushed off the flour from black sleeve. We looked for somewhere to put our coats struggled to find even a square foot of empty space. Everywhere you looked there were signs of aborted construction. There were drills on all of the chairs and piles of cement dust. Picture frames had been left half made, and a host of other hardware items were strewn across the floor. I could tell that my parents disapproved, but the polite social conventions of rural Sussex living prevented them from saying anything.
Morris left the pie lid he had been working on to help us find a seat. He flew over to the table, clearing electrical cables and power tools as he went. We settled in for what was going to be a long wait for the food. The name Hedgehog Hall may conjure up images of expansive country estates with stucco ceilings and Gainsborough paintings. In reality, Morris"s house was an old stone cottage, with a confusing layout - angled roofs and uneven stone floors. It also boasted a large unkempt garden with a fish pond that hadn't been filled in years.
Being close neighbours, we had been invited over to a farewell dinner. Morris was selling up and the prospective buyer would be joining us. Most people would have tidied up; most people would be on their best behaviour. Most people were not Morris. Even though he was moving, he was still outlining his home improvement projects to us when the buyer arrived. My father listened to Morris"s visions with scepticism, offering the occasional "hmm," and managing to hold his tongue. It seemed to me that these projects consisted of taking things apart and then forgetting how to put them together again.
"Ah, there you are, David, lovely to see you again," said our enthusiastic host. Perhaps he was on his best behaviour after all. Morris wandered off to look for a seat for the new guest, and we introduced ourselves. The buyer, David Dudlyke, was portly ruddy faced and full of energy. My parents led the interrogation. Was he a suitable neighbour? They seemed satisfied with his answers. He worked in London as a geologist, so he would be using the property as a holiday home.
Morris returned with a large white porcelain "butler" sink. He turned to David, "I"m afraid you'll have to sit on this, old boy. The other chair"s not so strong and you've got a bit of a tum you see?" The guest registered a look of surprise at being denied a normal chair but stammered something about "making the best of it."
By this time I was in need of a stiff drink and went to open the bottle. Morris came over brandishing a corkscrew. "The trick is to oxygenate it," he stated. "You can really unlock the full flavour of the tannins in the grapes."
We watched as Morris pulled the cork out and took the bottle towards the dining table with a large carafe clasped in one hand. He set the container on the floor and from above his head, began pouring the contents in. The wine splashed over the rim all over his shoes and the floor. My father rushed over to save the wine by bringing the carafe closer to the bottle.
Morris had spilled malbec on his top too. He was wearing one of those rough cotton shirts that all sailing enthusiasts have, although he didn't actually own a boat. He was a tall wiry man of around 60 whose eyes held a manic intensity. They burned in constant vigilance behind his messy outcrop of white hair and grey stubble. As always, he wore his battered brown shoes, paint spattered trousers and a navy blue neckerchief.
He was a man of constant small movements and tics; he rarely sat still or listened. During conversations he would shoot off on unrelated new tangents like a miss-firing cannon. "A doctorate eh? My doctor told me I need to put on more weight so I should eat more butter. Trouble is I don’t care for the stuff, so I"ve started putting double cream into my bacon sandwiches. Not bad eh?" We waited in silence, afraid that any new topic of conversation might be hijacked.
Morris decided to bridge the gap in conversation with some music, and soon we were listening to the curt clipped sounds of a military march. "Rousing stuff this," said Morris "I find it perfect for work around house." The blast of trumpets didn’t seem the ideal backdrop for a dinner party to me and I noticed David looking through the back window, dreaming of his escape to the Napoleonic wars, or some other historical battle.
Every guest had a completely different set of crockery. David received a serving platter to eat from, my father had a children"s fork with a steak knife and I had a small terracotta plate. As if double cream sandwiches and the high-diving wine was not strange enough, we were served a bizarre array of side dishes to accompany the steak pie.
"What did you cook the mushrooms in, Morris?" my mother asked.
"I simply added a spot of blackberry jam." he replied. "Had loads of the stuff leftover from last year and I thought I"d try something a bit different."
"Well that"s certainly a novel idea" she said smiling, as she forced a few more onto her fork.
The man was like a real life Willy Wonka. He created oddities. He put things together according to his whims and wishes with no regard for the norm. He drank some gravy straight from his plate and I started to feel like it was all a hoax, like I was watching these events happen through a two way mirror. I felt as if I was in a dream, and my place at the table was actually empty. The sharp alcoholic taste of the courgettes brought me back to earth. They had been flambéed in Limoncello, another one of Morris’s improvisations.
With the brass band still blaring away on the stereo, David and my father took solace in the normality of discussions about renovations and D.I.Y. They considered the problems with the flood defences in the local rife, the correct way to wire underfloor heating, and the peak traffic periods for holiday makers. My Mother offered her sympathy as Morris regaled us with stories of failed projects, and the dastardly doings of his back-stabbing business partners.
"I"ve got a marvellous business idea!" he exclaimed, suddenly standing up and turning to me. "Put more charging points in airports, you always need them."
"A lot of airports do have them," I replied. " You don’t normally have to pay f—"
"Yes, yes. More power sockets is what they need" he continued, rubbing the stubble on his chin, "I know a contractor who could handle the work, perhaps I"ll give him a call. I"m always having these little ideas."
We moved on to a dessert which consisted of stewed fruit with the host"s favourite, double cream. We later discovered it to be persimon. After desert Morris insisted on pictures of the boat he was going to buy on his computer.
“She"s not seaworthy at the moment, but I"ll have her ready in no time.”
“It looks like it may need some structural repairs, Morris,” said my father, who was a navy man. “I"d be happy to take a look at it for you.”
“No need old chap, I got a quote from the chandlery, but I’m sure I can do the work myself.” We looked at the various power tools scattered about. I wouldn’t have wanted to board the S.S. Morris, that for sure.
I declined the offer of coffee fearing that juniper berries or caviar might be added in another one of the host"s inspirational culinary moments.
Since that evening, David and his family have moved into Hedgehog Hall and have begun undoing some of Morris"s handiwork. We haven’t yet heard if he bought the boat and sailed away into the sunset. Thinking back to it, the strangest thing about that night was how normal everything seemed to my parents. As we walked home they discussed the harvesting of the field and the Radio 4 schedule as if we hadn’t just been to the Mad Hatter’s house for tea.