The dinner is a Sycamore Avenue tradition, says my new neighbour Charlotte, when she calls on me with a winter azalea. It is early February and I’ve moved to the street – the best in town, ‘no question’, she claims – just in time to take part.
‘I’d love to,’ I tell her, because I’ve met Charlottes before and it is always best to co-operate. Though her visit is impromptu, I’ve abandoned my unpacking to fix coffee and shortbread and listen politely to a summary of the faults of the family who lived here before. The potted azalea sits on a plant stand in the window, untouched by the floor-level chaos of my move from London.
‘It’s a Valentine’s dinner for everyone,’ my visitor emphasises. She is slim, blonde and expensively booted: as I say, a type. ‘Not just couples, not just lovers. But nothing kinky, mind you,’ she giggles. ‘This is Hertfordshire. It’s just our way of rebelling against the status quo.’
Rebellion takes the form of a three-course dinner attended mostly by married pairs, but never mind that. No street needs a pedant (though most have one). The format is that each household hosts one course and is a guest at two others, the logistics of which are worked out by a man called Humphrey at number 28 and need not vex us. I will be hosting a starter, after which I must report for my main course to number 7, where Mark and Julie live with three kids and two fox-red Labradors. Pudding will be across the road at number 14. Then, everyone is to assemble at Charlotte’s house (the big one on the corner) for coffee and brandy.
‘You know, you seem very familiar, Jane,’ she says to me, as we say goodbye at the door. ‘Did you used to be on TV?’
‘Not that I ever saw,’ I say.
‘What’s your surname?’
‘Williams,’ I say, with a hint of intrigue. ‘Third most common surname in the UK, after Smith and Jones.’
Noticing the framed photograph propped up on the radiator cover, she narrows her gaze. ‘Hang on, is that the Kray twins?’
‘Yes. With Judy Garland in the 1960s, back when stars mixed with gangsters. You know David Bailey photographed the Krays? You couldn’t do that sort of thing now, not with social media, you’d be pilloried.’ I tilt my head, wistful, maybe even mournful. ‘Sometimes, I think we’re not allowed to have any fun at all.’
‘Well, that’s what our Valentine’s dinner is for.’ Charlotte peers at the fourth face in the photo, a slight young woman with long pale hair and sleepy, kohl-smudged eyes. ‘You don’t look old enough to have been around then.’
I admit I’m taken aback by the remark. ‘You’re too kind, Charlotte.’
For the dinner, I dress in a forgiving black jumpsuit and a poncho I’ve had in my wardrobe since the 1970s that always makes me think of Talitha Getty. I cook little onion tarts for my designated starter, with a few leaves drizzled with redcurrant dressing. Red for Valentine’s.
A nice New World Sauvignon in a mish-mash of glassware orphans from across the decades. My guests are Andy and Gwen and Ed and Sophie, who, though drawn at random, are next-door neighbours, their children besties from birth. They don’t mean to bore me, but they spend most of the allotted hour discussing schools, how they’d much prefer not to have to play the admissions game but, since they must, well, they’re bloody well going to win it!
Before we rotate for the next course, I excuse myself for the loo. Returning, I can hear that the subject has at last moved on.
‘I do feel like I’ve seen her before,’ Sophie says. ‘Or maybe it’s her voice. Oh my God, Ed, she’s not that magistrate, is she?’
‘Of course not. She’s just an old lady.’
It’s not the old, or the lady I object to, it’s the just.
Gwen says, ‘Didn’t you see that message from Charlotte? She definitely used to be someone.’
I re-enter, speaking smoothly: ‘I ought to tell you that I heard every word of that. I have a state-of-the-art hearing aid.’
Ed squints at my ears. ‘I can’t see anything.’
‘And I won’t ask why you were up in front of a magistrate, Ed.’
‘Just a speeding thing,’ he splutters.
Just, again. He’s dismissive. Arrogant. I thought his kind had been humbled by the Time’s Up movement – and time, generally – but his wife hoots at his every sneer, his neighbours respect him. Methinks Sycamore Avenue needs a gentle shake.
Gwen uses the loo, too. ‘Seriously,’ she says, when she returns, ‘were you someone, Jane? That girl in the photo with the Kray brothers and Judy Garland, is that you?’
Charlotte must have told her about it, I think, amused. They have a WhatsApp group called ‘Sycamore Mums’. ‘I hardly recognise myself in old photos,’ I tell her, enigmatically. ‘The past is a foreign country and all that. Now, aren’t we due to move on?’
We scatter in the darkened street, main course hosts dashing ahead to rescue their simmering pots. The sycamores sway benignly in the evening breeze as garden gates scrape and squeak the length of the street. I like this, I think. I mean, how many dinner parties do you go to where you know by the first mouthful there’s no one at the table to interest you?
At Mark and Julie’s, over bowls of sweet potato tagine and spiced couscous, the new lot are drinking like it’s the apocalypse. There’s more talk of children, including from the only couple close to my age – Geoff and Antonia – who observe the rules of discourse by listing their grandchildren’s accomplishments. Ellie is an unusually academic dyslexic, while Archie is off the scale with his piano (if we’ll excuse the pun). Lottie is the youngest in her year to sign up for volunteering in Borneo.
‘No one on this street seems to know any dunces,’ I remark.
‘You can’t say that word any more,’ Antonia tells me. ‘But you’re right. Low achievers have been eliminated from Sycamore Avenue by selective breeding.’
‘Your kids must be grown up, Jane?’ Julie tells me.
‘I didn’t know I had any,’ I deadpan.
‘Oh, we assumed you needed your big house for the grandkids?’
‘Not at all.’
They don’t ask what I am planning to do with all that space – my new house has six bedrooms and three living rooms – and so I don’t tell. The question they do ask is more banal: ‘I always wanted to know, if you haven’t got kids, who do you leave your house to when you die?’
I smile. ‘I thought maybe the council, with the proviso that it’s used as a halfway house for sex offenders. Everyone deserves the chance for rehabilitation, don’t they?’
‘That’s not funny,’ Mark grumbles.
‘That is funny,’ Antonia says.
Then someone’s phone buzzes: our cue to rotate once more.
While spooning their salted caramel parfait at number 14, my fellow guests eye me with open curiosity. Word has spread that I’m someone. Well, a former someone. By the coffee and brandy stage, they’re confident they’ve found their answer. It feels like a murder mystery game as they lay bare their findings.
‘You’re a bit of a dark horse, Jane,’ Charlotte’s husband says. I think he’s called David, but I’m losing track of the names by now (I mean this in the nicest possible way, but most of my new neighbours are interchangeable).
‘Cards on the table,’ Sophie says. ‘We’ve done a reverse image search.’
‘She won’t know what that is,’ Ed says.
‘Actually, “she” does,’ I tell him, coolly. ‘Which image?’
‘The one in your hallway,’ Gwen says. ‘I took a quick snap when I went to the loo.’
I wink at her. ‘I might have to report that invasion of privacy to the local constabulary.’
‘Jane Williams isn’t your real name, is it?’ Charlotte says, excitedly. ‘You’re Jane Hartley.’
‘Who’s Jane Hartley?’ asks one of the men, possibly Humphrey.
‘She was an actress, on the scene in the 1960s, according to Google.’
‘Not just on the scene, she went out with one of the Rolling Stones!’ Gwen cries.
‘Didn’t everyone,’ I say, shrugging.
‘You almost got that part in Barbarella.’
‘I wasn’t even close,’ I say.
‘But you were there, with all the stars. What was Judy like?’
‘We never spoke. But, of course, everyone knows how troubled she was.’
‘Were the Kray twins scary?’
‘What do you think?’
Even Ed isn’t saying just any more.
‘Wikipedia hasn’t updated your page,’ Sophie reports. ‘According to them, you still live as a recluse in Chelsea. I’m not surprised after four marriages!’
‘I didn’t know I had a Wikipedia page,’ I say, truthfully.
At the door, Charlotte gives us each a little organza bag of heart-shaped chocolates. ‘A huge success,’ everyone agrees.
‘I’ll walk you home,’ Antonia tells me, gesturing for Geoff to go on ahead. The night air is delightfully chill on cheeks flaming from the brandy. There’ll be frost tomorrow in our gardens. ‘You made quite a splash tonight, Jane.’
‘So it would appear.’
She links her arm through mine. ‘You’re not this Jane Hartley, are you?’
I laugh. ‘Of course I’m not. Nor am I Jane Birkin, Jane Asher or Jane anyone else other than Williams, a widowed accountant from Putney.’
‘I noticed you didn’t ever confirm it. You just didn’t deny it.’
I squeeze her arm a little. ‘Neither confirm nor deny, that’s my motto. Like the CIA.’
‘I like your style, Jane.’
We come to a halt at my gate. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘that was the best Valentine’s I’ve had since Mick took me to a recording of Ready, Steady, Go!’
She chuckles. ‘I’m going to enjoy having you on Sycamore Avenue.’
‘Buckle up, there are more where I came from.’ I tell her that this time next year, I’ll have co-hosts galore, a whole houseful of Janes. Women who used to be someone and – here’s the interesting bit – still are. I’m creating a residence for older women on their own, you see. Not a commune, a community.
‘How wonderful,’ Antonia says. ‘I hope you’ll keep the rest of us in order.’
‘Yes, or disorder.’
We say goodnight. Closing my door behind me, I glance at the photo that got my neighbours so stirred up and wonder what kind of Valentine’s Jane Hartley the Chelsea recluse is having this year. Kicking off my shoes, I unwrap a chocolate heart and put it in my mouth whole.
Perhaps I’ll keep a room free for her.
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