Jim Saunders had been dreading it for at least three weeks. The very thought of it had frozen his moments of happiness and slowed everything down to a leaden-footed apprehension; leaving him to deep-sea dive in anticipated unpleasantness. When Lisa Jarret, his girlfriend, had told him that she’d spoken to her parents and arranged a dinner party for them all to finally meet, Jim had gulped visibly and made that cartoon sound. But he was inwardly troubled.
Jim came from what he’d describe as a lower middle class family; the outside toilet was only slowly receding from the collective memory and there was always a loitering smell of Sunday lunch around the thin, terraced house. Lisa’s father was wealthy; he’d inherited an incalculable amount from his own father who’d created a countrywide network of factories producing automatic egg-timers. The Jarrets inhabited a universe only glimpsed in coloured supplements; where you were served by ubiquitous, uniformed flunkies, unsmiling and white-gloved.
Although Jim made a strict distinction between his parents’ tattered attempts at respectability and his own iconoclastic posturing he could still sense a non-navigable expanse of social ocean marking him off from people like the Jarrets. Outwardly he purported to disdain the artifices of social hierarchy, but, nonetheless, he knew that a kind of force field existed, separating unspokenly certain sets of people. He was, because of the outside toilet and cooking smells, exiled to the outskirts by the geography of class while the Jarrets crouched just under the summit of social achievement.
The afternoon before the dinner party Jim undertook a glum inventory of his clothes, hoping to find something, anything, that wouldn’t strike the Jarrets as too clownishly lower class. He winced as he realised that his so-called iconoclasm had melted away into a sludge of gutless conformity. He selected a pair of beige trousers with no visible stains and a faint echo of a crease ghosting down the front of each leg. Then he sniffed through his shirts to determine which smelt the least. He then used his bedsheet to buff up the ox-blood brogues that had walked him through various weddings and funerals.
It was around this time that he started to feel a distant turmoil in his lower stomach area. He’d eaten a tinned suet pudding and grease-glazed fingers of chopped corned beef at midday. Throughout the continuation of his sartorial deliberations he was obliged to undertake hot-footed expeditions to the doll-sized toilets at the end of the landing. Each time his southern hemisphere was emptied copiously into the grateful bowl and he sat there enthroned and knowing that there would be further installements.
Finally, after choosing a tweed jacket that he’d bought at a car-boot sale, he set off for Lisa’s digs four streets away. Mrs Leverson, Lisa’s amphibious faced landlady, opened the door to him:
“Mr Saunders! Well I never! Look at you! All done up to the nines, you are. Never thought I’d see you looking so smart and all. Now, you come in and sit yourself down in the front room with Ron while I nip up and get Lisa”
She showed him into an aggressively wallpapered room, and he sat down on a permanently plastic-wrapped settee. To save it from wear and tear said Mrs Leverson whenever anybody asked about this transparent covering. On the only armchair, watching the rugby league on a squat black and white telly, was Ron Leverson, a bloodless man with a complexion like the underside of an uncooked steak and kidney pie. He looked up at Jeff, nodded, and went back to watching the colourless match. Jim looked around the room at the brace of fake silver pheasants on the mantlepiece, the framed photographs of long-gone relatives, and a coffin-sized record player that was rarely, if ever, used. The only voice to be heard was the excitable trilling of the commentator. Two tries had been successfully converted by the time Lisa arrived.
She was wearing an off-white lace dress that stopped an inch or so above her knees and was done up around her neck like a Jacobean ruff. Mrs Leverson, standing in the obscurity of the hallway, called out:
“Doesn’t she look a picture?”
Ron again looked arounded painstakingly, nodded, and turned back to the telly just as the referee blew for full-time. Jim got up and stood facing Lisa:
“Mrs Leverson, you’re bang on the barrel. Lisa, you look a picture”
“And you don’t look bad yourself, Jim”
They had to take a 37 bus through the spiderweb of terraced streets where unwashed children kicked threadbare footballs about and shirt-sleeved men stood around in clusters smoking and laughing. The bus dropped them off just as the countryside was starting to cancel out the reach of the redbrick buildings. The trees spread themselves leaflessly into the bleached, autumnal skies as they walked arm-in-arm down the drizzle-jewelled country lanes. Jim’s apprehension was now rattling away inside him like a saucepan of reheated Irish stew coming angrily to the boil. He was trying to hide it from Lisa but she could feel the tension pulsing out of his fingertips:
“Jim, mummy and daddy are perfectly harmless. Once they’ve rooted through your family tree and checked out the balance of your current account they’ll be as sweet as pie”
“Thanks, that’s most reassuring”
She squeezed his hand and kissed him on the side of the face:
“Silly, I’m only teasing you. They don’t care where you come from. They only want to see that I’m happy”
“Well, we’ll see, shan’t we?”
They continued to walk their way towards Lisa’s parent’s imposing home. The house was a late Georgian edifice that had been put up by a prosperous slave- trader. When Jim saw an actual peacock on the manicured lawn his stomach started to liquefy. Lisa didn’t let herself in, instead she pulled on a worryingly ancient looking chain that then activated a distant, hectoring bell The door was opened by a dark-suited man with all expression exiled from his features:
“Ah, Miss Lisa. How good to see you. Your parents are just about to come down. Please go into the drawing room and I’ll have Hedges bring you drinks”
“Thank you, Stephens, and don’t bother Hedges; I’ll sort out the drinks myself”
“As you wish, Miss Lisa”
Jim noticed that Lisa played her part in that scene seamlessly, with absolutely no signs of unease, whereas he’d stood there feeling decidely shop-worn and low-rent. They stood in the drawing room drinking the largest gin and tonics that Jim had ever seen, let alone drunk. He felt irredeemably intimidated by the mahogany furniture and leather armchairs groomed into antique suppleness by generations of well-fed arses. When he was about a third of the way down his glass he felt his bowels shriek and rush southwards. Lisa pointed him towards the nearest lavatory and he propelled himself into the sumptious stall, pouring his innards unbrokenly into the gleaming porcelain bowl. When he got back to the drawing room he found Lisa standing next to two people he presumed were her parents: a middle-aged man with impeccably side-parted hair and a three- figure suit alongside a woman under a faultless, laquer-frosted hair-do. Introductions were made and Jim, armpits scorching, stammered his way through his potted life-story and even made the Jarrets laugh once or twice. In fact, he could see that it wasn’t necessarily going to be such an ordeal after all.
After several more glasses of gin and tonic everything seemed to have fallen into place: Jim talking comfortably with Mr Jarret about, of all things, D H Lawrence, whilst Lisa and her mother giggled conspiratorially across the room. The dinner was a flawless furtherance of the easy atmosphere that had already been developed downstairs. Jim even managed to blank out the discomfort he felt at having a waiter hover at the walnut sidetable just behind him. During the dessert as they laughingly discussed, of all things, taxidermy, Jim felt his intestines implode. He asked for the nearest toilets and, with as much dignity as he could muster, staggered out of the room. Inside the toilets, as he was surveying the high-ceiling pristine antiquity of the conveniences he realised that it was too late. The mopping-up process took up quite a few minutes, five flushes, and several yards of the most considerate toilet paper he’d ever come across. And at the end of it all he was left with a pair war-torn underpants, irreparably soiled. These couldn’t be flushed away and there didn’t seem to be a bin, so, thinking quickly, Jim picked them up daintily, opened the only window in the room, and threw the underpants out into the darkness.
Back in the dining room the conversation had carried on unimpaired by Jim’s absence and he slotted back into it effortlessly. By the end of the evening he had really established a cast-iron comraderie with Mr Jarret, and Mrs Jarret seemed to be especially taken with him. A perfect moon had hauled itself up into the star-studded night and Mr Jarret offered to run them back into town in his Jaguar. They all exchanged kisses and Mrs Jarret watched them as they crackled their way across the gravel over to the darkened car. It was almost pitch black out towards the further end of the vast drive and they had to grope around with their outstretched hands to get into the unlocked car. Jim and Lisa sat in the back seats and Mr Jarret settled himself behind the steering wheel. He inserted the key into the ignition, the engine growled into action, and the headlamps came on.
It was immediately apparent that something was lying across the windscreen. Mr Jarret switched on the wipers and they thudded into the indistinct object without in anyway displacing it. Mr Jarret then switched on the Jaguar’s interior lights, and they all found themselves staring wordlessly at the faecal-treacled underpants plastered over the windowscreen. After a silence that stretched lengthily Lisa spoke up;
“Aren’t those yours, Jim?”