They all sat up, as they called it. The action was no doubt fixed in Rachel's childhood, when sitting up, rather than sitting down, was compulsory. Nevertheless, not wanting to appear rude, Joe sat up bolt upright with his chest forced as far forwards as he possibly could.
As Joe waited he scanned the oak runway counting the receptacles that cluttered the table. The contents of the red cast iron saucepan were transferred to a similar vessel then perched on ornamental trivets protecting the table. In time, these spuds and sundry veg’ would find themselves on plates ready to eat.
Derek, had been sitting up for Rachel nearly thirty-five years and Natasha, their youngest daughter, for over twenty. The Peterson family accepted having to sit up straight and, apart from slightly pronounced sternums, were (more or less) free of disability.
The wine waited dutifully by the fire. It was undoubtedly a good one, smooth, as wine buffs say, very smooth. Joe momentarily wondered whether it might be a fruity one, or perhaps possessed a hint of something or other, but he really hadn’t the nose for wine.
Sat at the top of the table Derek broke the silence: 'Fifty pence a bottle in France'. He hoisted the bottle to eye level and pointedly examined the label. Then, in a soft Anglo-French accent, proceeded to announce the grapes origin and hinted about the quality. 'Produce of St. Emilion 1982,' adding with the softest of sniffs. ‘You can't beat a good Bordeaux can you Rachel'? Lowering the bottle to within an inch of his not inconsiderable nostrils the connoisseur produced a bolder sniff, and after a short pause, concluded - 'superb'. Derek knew everything about France and planned to live there one day.
'Do you like a Claret Joe?' Rachel asked politely. Derek tilted the bottle and gave the label another once over. Joe knew Claret was wine, but what category it fell into was a mystery to him. What he did know was that if he drank anymore of it he would have a serious digestive problem later.
Natasha was placed sitting up straight next to Derek. Derek and Rachel, who was at last dishing up the vegetables, had been desperate for one of each before Natasha came along. It was such a nuisance having to have three children. Right up to the birth of their second child Derek was convinced Rachel was expecting a little boy. The Theory for the Origins of Male Offspring, according to Dr. Derek was nothing to do with chromosomes, or DNA, but personality. If, the theory went, one or other of the parents could be forceful enough a male child would be produced. To Derek this appeared the truth and remained so even after Natasha was born. At first Derek was unable to accept it. He had certainly tried, but perhaps, Derek thought, Rachel hadn't concentrated hard enough during the process? A couple of years later, an oh-so-determined Rachel and Derek produced Tarquin and at long last the Peterson's were a proper English family.
Despite the difficulty Joe was experiencing holding himself in a perpendicular position, he had waited to eat patiently enough. You see young Joe hadn’t built up the series of additional muscles that Derek and Rachel had and it was these that enabled them to complete the Sitting up performance effortlessly. While they waited, salivating like Pavlov’s dogs, Rachel commuted to and fro the Kitchen collecting salad, more vegetables, and finally the main dish, Chicken-a-la-Crème. In the end eighteen vessels of one sort or another took up all but a tiny triangle of table that was reserved for the wine. The anticipation was palpable. The Claret was due to arrive at any moment from its ideal warming position by the fire. It was all very odd. Not just because the lot of them had been sitting there parched for over forty-five minutes, but because the fire (guarded by two splendid ceramic King Charles Spaniels) wasn’t even lit. Instead a fake fire flickered in its place an impotent red courtesy of a special bulb that lit up a protruding piece of coal-effect plastic. While the fire was a poor substitute for the roaring inferno that used inhabit be Aunt Hilary's dining room, it was, nevertheless, a nice little example of 1950s electric heating.
Then, quite suddenly, the conversation on the merits of the French Stick paused. The air became still and strangely no sound at all came from the kitchen. No one dared move.
‘Please start,’ Rachel announced as if surprised that they weren’t already tucking in. Joes’s first reaction was to swiftly pick up my knife and fork, but he quickly realised his mistake as the other dinner party veterans made instead for a bulky looking handkerchief held loosely in an imitation ivory ring. 'Oh look', Joe thought to himself, 'I have one too…' Joe put down his temporarily redundant utensils and watched Derek and Natasha unravel their cloths and place them perfectly on their laps. Joe left his where it was being quietly confident that he could consume his dinner without soiling his trousers. Joe just knew that after years of being deprived of a trouser safety net that he could satisfactorily convey food from plate to mouth with no problem whatsoever. Judging by the frown on Joe’s face, however, he was less sure whether he could muster the same level of success filling the plate itself. Skills like these have to be learnt, he thought and he had no experience of loading his plate with shafts of asparagus at arm’s length.
Rachel was very kind and offered to help: 'Would you like some carrots Joe?' and, as if by magic, several lengths of lightly-buttered Carrot slid onto Joe’s plate. 'Want some Daddy?' Natasha asked holding out the carrot dish. Derek took the dish and in one seamless movement pointedly served himself. He then replaced what was left of the Carrots next to the Broccoli with a manual dexterity I had not seen before - or since. Natasha proudly told me later that she had once seen her father serve an entire meal of over sixteen items in less than twelve minutes and during the entire exercise had remained seated. It really was quite astonishing. In time they had their plates prepared with food and Rachel had joined them to eat.
'Are we alright?' Rachel queried as she sat down and they all said yes; ‘fine thank you. Well, all except Natasha and Derek who had the experience to add a: 'Mmmm... That looks scrummy...' A micro-second too late Joe stuttered an: 'I can't wait - Mmmm...' but it didn’t really work.
In the end Joe hadn’t done too badly. Three out of a possible thirteen foods served without assistance: Potatoes, Cabbage, and Parsnips. The rest were either provided by Rachel, or Natasha, who Joe had noticed looked a bit tense. Was it because she was unhappy with Joe’s performance serving himself independently, or perhaps Joe’s shoulders were too far forward as he spiked that miniature Courgette?
Read Chapter 2 | Tarquin
Sitting up is Chapter 1 of The Expensive Cravat a 65,000 word comic novel that I am editing for publication and serialising one chapter at a time. Any resemblance between my fictional characters and real people is probably, at some unprovable level, deliberate - I wonder if you're in it? More on The Expensive Cravat