Over the years I’ve had my share of having to attend various sorts of business dinners and events. If I’m honest, at times it’s been something of an endurance test because the business whatever it may be, has never had anything to do with me, I am there merely as the spousal appendage.
It’s my job to scrub up well, make polite conversation and support my husband. A nod of the head, a sweet smile, a little tinkly laugh at the appropriate moment when the boss is telling a joke, that kind of thing. If this is all beginning to sound a bit 50’s housewife, then you’d not be far wrong.
I don’t find attending these dinners gets any easier, but over time I’ve developed a strategy for making sitting for long hours at a table, surrounded by people that I either barely know, or whom are total strangers, and listening to their often boring talk a bit more fun.
A bit more fun for me that is. Last night Irishman and I had to go to a dinner in Jakarta. The occasion was to mark the end of three days of meetings regarding the possible linking with another university from abroad. Aside from my husband and one of his colleagues, there was no one that I had met before. The conversation was all quite stiff and formal and I was bored witless so I decided to ratch it up a notch or two by asking if anyone around the table was exchanging bodily fluids. Unfortunately my comment went down like a lead balloon, but there are occasions when my off the cuff questions work like a dream; for instance the time when I asked Irishman’s prospective boss if he knew where he was conceived. It could have gone badly wrong but it didn’t. Instead this somewhat serious and earnest man had us all transfixed as he animatedly told us tales of the jungle, pirate ships and much of his fascinating life story.
In my twenties and thirties, I was married to a lawyer. There were various functions that I had to attend ranging from VIP black tie dinners, race meetings, opera evenings, ‘informal’ suppers at the boss’s house – that sort of thing. Networking is essential for all businesses and part of being a lawyer’s wife was to host dinner parties for potential clients at home. The idea was was to pull influential business folk by seducing them with an amazing dinner, brilliant conversation, and fine company. The only problem was that for the first decade I was producing babies like they were going out of fashion and for most of the time I felt, and most certainly looked like a frazzled, chaotic wreck.
It does help if you love cooking, but it doesn’t help if you have a baby who wants breastfeeding at just the moment when the first visitor arrives or a toddler that decides to come downstairs and show you his dirty nappy at the precise moment the soufflés need to be taken out of the oven. It also helps if you can look the part – nice clothes, neat hair, presentable – not shoulders covered in baby puke, or laddered tights, or having grown too fat for your one neat skirt. Remembering to brush your hair is a good idea, not looking in the mirror at some frizzy mop that you know is riddled with head lice that you’ve caught from your darling offspring.
I remember one evening in particular; I was under pressure to get things right not just for my own personal satisfaction, but because we were expecting some important clients. As I was cutting up the last of the vegetables, suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a hairy apparition as it darted across the kitchen floor. Startled, I put down my knife and went to see what it was. There, whizzing around underneath the babies’ high chair was the hamster that we had given up for lost 6 months ago. In its new free-range habitat it appeared to have almost trebeled in size, but it seemed that it was not just the feral living that had caused this significant growth spurt, it was also it’s new diet.
After Hamish’s escape, an odd thing had started to happen to our dirty knickers in the laundry basket. Mysterious holes began to appear in the gussets of the entire families underpants, including my husband’s boxer shorts. Only the gusset area was affected, the rest of the knicker was left untouched which led me to suspect that we had a knicker sniffing hamster at large. With just minutes to go before our guest’s arrival I was now set on capturing the filthy crotch-munching beast. Crawling around on one’s hands and knees, getting hot and sweaty whilst trying to capture a feral hamster with questionable habits is not something to be recommended if you wish to greet your guests without laddered tights and a face the colour of a tomato. I never did manage to capture Hamish and he wasn’t the only family pet to add spice to one of these client evenings.
One memorable evening, just after I’d finished serving the first course and sat down, one of our guests let out a startled shriek. Unbeknownst to me, Arthur Airedale had sneaked into the pantry, devoured the cheese course plus, which included an entire Chaume weighing a hefty 4.5 lbs. Having binged on this colossal amount of cheese, he then came into the dining room and proceeded to vomit up the entire contents of his fromage laden stomach in front of the assembled company, inches from where we were sitting.
I found having people to dinner was always the easy part. A bit of wine, a bone fide excuse to leave the table because one of the children needed me, something in the kitchen needing my attention, all meant that before you knew it the evening was over and hopefully a job well done.
It was the going out to dinners that I often found particularly hard and painful. Of course it’s always easy when the conversation flows, and you are sat next to an amusing person, and the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial. It’s the dinners with what my Mother would describe as the ‘stuffed shirt brigade’ that were worse than death. Painfully dull conversation, tedious company, desperate food and the fact that you knew that at some point in time, purely out of politeness you’d have to return the invitation and have them back to dinner at your house.
On one occasion we had been invited to dinner with some folks who were involved in the wine trade. I felt honoured to be sitting on the right of my host and I loved how he kept discreetly topping up my wine glass. It seemed like it was a bottomless glass as every time it got perilously close to the half glass full he would lean over and quietly re-fill it. I was having such a good evening, and such good fun until the moment that the host and hostesses dog, an ancient black Labrador, wandered into the room and I decided to stroke it. As I put my hand down to pat the dogs back I slowly slid sideways off my chair and onto the floor. There I lay, paralytically drunk, my dress half way up my back, laughing uncontrollably until my red-faced husband came to rescue me. It was at this point that I suddenly became aware of a deathly hush around the table. After what seemed like a lifetime my host got up, pushed his chair back under the table and announced to the speechless company, ‘I think that the evening has been ended’.
The next day I sat down and ate humble pie via a very apologetic letter to my shocked hosts. My husband said he doubted if we would ever see them again and I suspected that he was right. Over a year passed, and it seemed evident that I had blotted our social copybook with the wine traders forever. But the world moves in mysterious ways and one day a stiff copper plated invitation arrived in the post. The occasion was a black tie dinner, hosted by none other than the couple where I had made such a terrible drunken fool of myself. It was my turn to be rendered speechless.
We did go to the dinner, and when the time came for us to be seated, I was surprised to find myself once more sat to the right of my host. The only difference being, that this time a bright yellow life jacket had been draped over the back of my chair. My host put it on for me and then tied the belts securely to the back of my seat. The look on the faces of the other guests was a picture.
These days being a quite a lot older and a little bit wiser, I try not to be such a liability at business events. If I could, I would avoid having to attend them like the plague, but I love my Irishman and I shall support him to the end even if it means falling head first into the soup course through boredom.