November 29 2009
Chloë’s first misgivings arrived with the e-mail from corporate lawyer Susie. “How about some tennis?” it said brightly. “I still have a mean serve and would be happy to play any of your guests.” As the only one still resident in Cambridge, and with a large, hospitable house, Chloë had thought it would be nice to invite a dozen of her college girlfriends for a weekend to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their graduation from St Aloysius’ Hall. But her idea of recreating chummy evenings of cocoa and confessions in the communal kitchen at Ally’s was being blown off course.
She planned a celebratory restaurant dinner followed by a restorative walk next day along the Devil’s Dyke at Newmarket, a pub lunch and a trip round their alma mater, then a homecooked supper and companionable reminiscing. She hadn’t minded when someone suggested bringing partners, some of whom didn’t know each other or even all of the sisterhood. She wasn’t worried when her e-mailed list of Tourist Board B&Bs was met with requests for bookings at the Hotel du Vin, and, after asking for restaurant suggestions, she ignored pleas for the Michelin-starred Midsummer House and booked the newest modern Moroccan instead.
But now this, closely followed by a message from energetic charity director Alison asking for a more strenuous walk “because I’m training for my fundraising trek round the Annapurna Circuit and don’t want to lose condition” and one from hedge-fund manager Andrea asking if Cambridge’s streets were safe to park her Bentley convertible “because in Chelsea we have underground parking”. Meanwhile, free-spirited opera singer Tasha announced that she was now vegetarian and her new partner, a musician called Jake, was a vegan but would bring his own tofu and quinoa.
Chloë began to wonder if this odd assortment, with other partners including a senior investment banker and a political journalist, would be riven by competitiveness, something she abhorred. She was a clever economist with a PhD on world debt, and she could have commentated usefully on the credit crunch had she not married her even more brilliant tutor, Sebastian, and subsumed her career to his, producing children at widely spaced intervals and never going back to work.
She was proud of her family’s achievements, her children succeeding on a welter of scholarships and fast-tracks, the eldest already a special adviser in Downing Street. Despite his learned manner, Sebastian, now a professor, had gained recognition for books making economics accessible, and he was one of the government’s pet experts and in line for a gong, though she doubted this would impress her erstwhile friends. The Moroccan meal confirmed her fears, with Sebastian’s pontificating punctuated by sniping from the political correspondent – “Are they paying you to say that?”, while Alison brayed about exotic meals in far-flung places – “We had roast beetles in a tribal village two days off the road in northern Laos – delicious!” – and her wine merchant husband Nigel asserted that “the ’98 from a tiny property called Al Tissar is the only Moroccan wine worth drinking, and this isn’t it”.
Next day, Andrea refused to join the walk, instead marshalling a battery of BlackBerrys and mobiles to chase up PAs, housekeepers and her possibly errant husband doing his own deals in Monaco, and flounced off back to London when she could not reach him. The journalist was so determined to beat Alison on the walk that he sprained his ankle and spent the afternoon in A&E. The college visit was cancelled in favour of tennis but everyone was too afraid of rangy, single, man-eating Susie to play – except the overweight banker who, having once faced her over an acquisition’s due diligence, had a score to settle and took her on only to slip a disc.
Dinner at home was even more excruciating. Despite their pretensions to a healthy life, Tasha and Jake took to the terrace for ciggies. The evening ended in a blizzard of blue flashing lights when the aroma from Jake’s “cigarette” wafted into the next-door police commissioner’s garden, who felt it his duty to call his colleagues. “Well,” said Sebastian morosely when he was finally released by the constabulary, “that’s finished the knighthood even faster than the recession could.”