THURSDAY: A Capital Dinner

BY MEL MASSEY

Copyright is held by the author.

NO MATTER how I scrabbled in my overcoat pocket I found only wads of tissue and candy wrappers, there was no money for bus fare. As if reading my mind, the number seven bus heaved around the corner and pulled up in front of me. I could get on and plead poverty to the driver, but that would be fraud or some other offence since I knew I didn’t have the quarter.

I was a very junior lawyer who was supposed to be meeting a client in 20 minutes, unfortunately I had slept in. Now there wasn’t enough time to run home to call a taxi even if I could find money for the fare. Joanne my wife had left in our car hours ago. At my firm, juniors were never late.

“Say buddy, do you have a problem I can help with?” someone said behind me.

Without thinking I had started up the stairs into the bus, and then froze. Time had passed and now the driver was looking down, his face puffed in irritation. He was a heavy man with a red face, slumped over the wheel. I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to order me off his vehicle if I couldn’t pay.

I turned. The man who had spoken to me had a long face and I registered something friendly.

“For sure,” I said. “I left my wallet at home. Just need the fare.”

“Can’t ya hurry up?” the driver said his meaty hand pounding the steering wheel. “We don’t got all day here and I’ve got lots waiting on me. There’s a schedule ya know.”

That’s how I met George. He paid my fare and insisted on lending me five dollars for lunch. In Ontario fashion this transaction became the basis of our friendship and gave him lines like “the only time I gave a lawyer a bonus” and his pleasant command to “bring a tin cup next time, willya, Bruce?” He was a formal guy and very happy with himself but I found him a lot more interesting than the commercial types I worked with.

Later, after a few more encounters on the bus, we became familiar enough for him to offer to lend me a razor to remove my moustache. Then I was able to do George and his wife, Annabelle a favour by preparing a minor document.

In Ontario, a good turn deserved . . . payment. Our new friends decided to reward us by preparing a “supper with all the trimmings.” It would be an occasion in our socially impoverished lives.

My wife and I had moved to Ottawa from Montreal in the late-seventies and it was an unexpectedly painful transition.

We discovered that the high point of Capital cuisine was the Montreal-Style Smoke Meat Platter and Indian restaurants were unknown.

However, there were more differences than cuisine. In our trendy neighbourhood, casual dress-up for ladies ran to track suits; at the office the gents wore knit polyester suits. When Joanne was looking for work, an interviewer asked her whether she was planning to “come to work or go disco dancing.” The next day, she put away her Montreal dress-up clothes and bought grey slacks and sensible shoes.

We didn’t fit in and we really didn’t want to. But we couldn’t live suspended between our past in Montreal and the future we had committed to in Ottawa. We had to reach out and make an effort because slinking back east was unthinkable.

So we attended the dinner parties which were the principal form of entertainment in the civil service metropolis. Being youngish educated Montrealers we were opinionated and argumentative, all forbidden in a city where everyone knew everyone’s slot in the civil service hierarchy. “Go along to survive” was a mantra and your place in the ranks determined income, status and career prospects. We weren’t government employees and we had started to feel out of touch and misplaced. But our luck was going to change.

Dressing for our night out with John and Annabelle, I pulled on my fitted jeans. I thought Joanne was bright as a new penny in her Suedeine pant suit and high heels. She had bought the outfit just before leaving Montreal, expecting that we would be attending “functions.” However, this was the only outing for us this winter half a year after our arrival and we were desperate for friends.

I had to pull the waist up over my growing solicitor’s belly and Joanne surveyed herself in the mirror.

“I’m getting as big as a hippo,” she said, but I managed to head off her flood of current doubts and the memories of her happy life in Montreal by saying she looked fantastic.

We felt good as we scrunched up the snowy steps of our friends’ house. It was our first visit and we were suitably impressed. The four of us sat around an intimate table in the small dining room, surrounded by walls covered in white wallpaper flocked with delicate patterns. The settings were Limoges china and a crystal wine decanter sparkled under the silver candelabrum. Even the tableware was precious, “family stuff from Lancashire. That’s in the UK, England,” Annabelle said.

She and George had prepared a special treat for us; a moose roast. I had never eaten moose or any wild animal and I was looking forward to the experience. It was an event I could tell my Montreal friends about, who remained after the Anglo dash down the 401 to Toronto.

“Look at you, all dressed up,” Annabelle said to Joanne, “I wish I could wear that type of clothing and go dancing.” Our hostess was wearing a wool plaid skirt it would have been charitable to call ‘dowdy’ if it hadn’t been so expensive and sourced from Ogilvie’s, Ottawa’s emporium of fine clothing. George was wearing his black double breasted work suit and looked distinguished. As we talked, I pulled my chair closer to the table to hide my fancy jeans.

After we got comfortable, George skewered the tines of a big meat fork through the slab of roast and sliced at it with a carver like a small sword.

Even before we started to eat, I upended the gravy boat. I don’t know how it happened, my finger hooking the elaborate handle. Perhaps, I was laughing and not paying attention. Anyway, there it was, shockingly fast, the urn lying on its side, a lumpy brown puddle spreading across the whiteness of the table cloth towards the candles.

When these things happen, people go silent and there’s a sort of hush as thoughts follow one another helter-skelter; “God! What a Mess, glad it wasn’t me” or sympathetically, “how can I help clean this up so we can get on with what we were doing?” Unfortunately, it was me! My fault, clear and simple, ALL MY FAULT. But our hosts were nothing if not stiff-upper-lip gracious Ontario in the presence of “lower orders.” Charity prevailed and I wasn’t thrown out . . . then.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll soak it overnight and it’ll clean up in the washing machine. I’m sure the fabric is made for that,” Bella said bravely, her oval face distorting as she puckered her mouth and draped a fresh napkin over the stain. I remember the involuntary horror on Joanne’s face. Where Montrealers would have made off-colour jokes or poked cruel fun at me, here in Ontario, it was “let’s pretend nothing happened.” Soon, we were all smiling around the table, albeit strained as our male host pursued his wine hobby.

“Mel, have you had the Lalande de Pomerol ’73?” he said.

“What’s that?” I said, “sounds French.”

“Of course it’s only a petit terroir. Bruce, you know that means more than just the simple land, it includes the essence of the soil and countryside expressed in the grapes.”

“I do know,” I said, examining my moulded silver fork.

He continued. “So Bruce, why don’t you consider jumping over to the civil service? Of course, you’d have to get rid of that fuzz on your face, but it’d sure be worth it. The Pomerol is a bit of a celebration, the only good Bordeaux I can afford on a director’s stipend.”

I looked up my admiration corroded by envy.

He smiled at my surprise. George’s civil service job was handing out money to the artists his committee deemed worthy of subsidization. He also travelled across Canada expensively lunching the countless peer review groups he oversaw.

I had never described to him my long hours and the constant anxiety that I would make a mistake in the dozens of files I processed each month. There was little basis of comparison between our jobs. He was making almost twice my salary and had health care and paid life insurance. From my clients, I knew civil service salaries and realized he must be making at least forty thousand.

“You got a big bump!” I said, “You’re going to be a big shot, like those swinging dicks over at Treasury.”

I saw the flash of my wife’s eyes and realized I had veered offside Ottawa table talk. Our hosts’ silence and Annabelle’s subtle eye roll, confirmed my mistake.

Then George poured from the decanter. I saw how the wine coated the inside of the crystal and downed half my glass in a swallow heedless of Joanne’s frown across the table. This is our night out, isn’t it? I thought, now isn’t the time to suppress the urge to have a bit of fun – after long days reviewing documentation and making nice to annoying clients. Some days I figured I might as well be working in a department store as a law office.

“This is great wine,” I said. “It goes down smooth, none of the rasp we get with that foxy stuff we buy at the grocery store in the Laurentians.”

“The Pomerol suits the roast, doesn’t it?” he said looking down his long nose through gold rimmed glasses. “They say the mouth-feel complements the closed grain of game viands. But Bruce, you’re looking a bit peaky these days, why don’cha just relax?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I made conversation. Actually, I was finding the meat tough going. George had sawed my slice off the end of the log of meat on the sideboard. I saw that seams of brown gristle branched through my portion. It was too rare for me, frankly red in places and rank. But I chewed another mouthful and chased it with a slug of wine. “That’s it,” I taking a last swallow. I was wrong.

“So, George, where did you get this roast? Someone you know shoot it this autumn?” I said.

The women were chatting and I was content, Joanne seemed to be making a friend.

“Nope, year before last,” he said.

After the wine and talking about his promotion, George was a lot more relaxed and his speech drifted back to the casual banter of his birthplace on the outskirts of Sudbury.

“That’s more than two years ago,” I said.

“Yup, buddy of a friend got the critter up North and hauled it down in his truck. “Don’t get your knickers inna knot, big game keeps up to five years if it’s frozen hard like this sucker. We had it down in the basement, inna freezer. Took us near three days to thaw it in the fridge. More wine?”

Without waiting for a reply, my new friend reached the decanter over and filled my crystal goblet.

“To our health,” he said lifting his glass.

I must have had a delayed reaction to hearing that I was eating ancient moose meat from the basement freezer or to its taste, strong and stinky. I heard stuff gurgling in my belly.

I can’t go on with this, I thought as I reached for my glass. Maybe I was flailing or George had put it down closer to me after he poured. Likely both facts combined to produce horrible consequences.

The back of my right hand slapped into the wine glass (a set of four our friends said they had purchased on their honeymoon in France) and sent it flying into the wall. I couldn’t have flung it harder if I had practiced. The full glass smashed into the fabric wallpaper and coloured liquid streamed down the wall into the mess of broken glass on the carpet.

I would like to say “the rest was silence,” and I suppose it mostly was, at least on my part. I left for the bathroom retching quietly, overhearing Joanne talking with our friends, promising to replace the irreplaceable set of wine glasses and have the wall and carpet cleaned professionally. They went through a box of salt trying to soak up the wine before the stains became permanent.

“Feel sick, better go home,” I said to the room and went out. But I took a wrong turn into a bedroom. I was about to be sick again, when I heard George’s raised voice, “Just go straight down the hallway.”

We had parked across the street from our hosts’ house and I could see only the roof of our little Chrysler under the heaps of snow the plow had left. When we arrived, I had been too excited about the supper to notice the “No Parking, Snow Clearance 7pm – 7am” signs. The operator of the snow plow had a job to do and no time to chase down the idiot who had left the car.

I clawed at the snow with my hands until George came down from the porch and planted a shovel in the snow on the front lawn. “Hey, why don’cha use this,” he barked, and retreated up the stairs.

I shoveled the packed snow away from the car, stopping occasionally to vomit onto the road, then more shovelling and spewing until I was empty and bent over like an old man.

Later, the hosts and Joanne came onto the porch shouting whether I was okay.

I was wretched and my throat burned with acid as I inhabited a private internal terroir in which I loathed my own pretentiousness, my habit of finding fault and ‘holier than thou’ attitude. I was always ready with clever remarks and criticism but I was a curious specimen, out of place in both Ottawa and Montreal.

I felt Joanne’s hand or my arm.

“I couldn’t get out until now,” she said, “I’m sorry not to have come out earlier but there was a parfait-type desert that must have taken hours to make and some walnut liqueur. Do you feel terrible?” My wife’s voice was the only living thing in the frigid night.

“I wouldn’t even put that stuff in my mouth,” she said.

I looked over and saw her reach under her overcoat and pull out a white lump.

“I couldn’t leave the stuff on the plate so I got some toilet paper and when everyone was were talking, I wrapped up the meat. Couldn’t leave it anywhere so I crammed it into my pocket, probably ruined the slacks. Also poured the drink into the plant.

We drove home in silence and it was months before I called our ex-friends. Perhaps Joanne made arrangements to compensate for the fiasco but we never talked about our Ottawa night out.

One comment

  1. Michael Joll

    If you’ve never had moose, it is, um, strongly flavoured. I had it once, forty years ago. I might have it again in another forty years, if I’m unconscious. More than that, though, the story mirrors the immigrant experience, never quite at home in either place, no matter how long you live there. There is always a slight feeling of alienation which came over well in this telling. The main course was excellent, Mel, if the dessert, the final paragraph, was a little week.

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