6 - Party Planning

The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard and the impressions of her seven year old daughter Robin.

Ahmadi, Kuwait, Tuesday 23rd May 1967

I'd been getting the wheels in motion for the party. Spencer was so preoccupied I could barely consult with him, so I took the decisions by myself, as he had snappily suggested when I’d asked him a couple of simple questions about tables and menus.

Things snowballed slightly, which Spencer had virtually sanctioned by suggesting the Embassy people. The Simpsons and the Greens and the Aldertons were on the list. 

For a distraction from party planning I met Gloria-Jane at the Artemesia Club – I wanted her to inspect the decoration with me. As President of the Club Spencer wasn't taking his responsibilities seriously enough. It was looking awful; tatty and old-fashioned. Even the big steps outside and the concrete entrance arch were chipped through the white paint to layers of colour that had been tried in previous years and even to the concrete in places. The interiors were beyond out-dated. I wanted to have a plan ready to present Boyd Gentry with when he arrived to take up the reins as the new manager. Someone needed to take matters in hand.

Lying on the terraces after a swim, a snack, and a bit of a gossip with Joan, who was heading off to buy some especially powerful new antiseptic she had heard was available at the Ahmadi suk, Gloria was curious about my interest in Boyd.

‘I've got a tiny plan. Gloria-Jane, don’t you think Boyd sounds PERFECT for Genevieve? After my success with Delbert and Clara, I'm going to sort those two out. And this time I'm not going to let a friend of mine marry someone who will not let her come out when I need her. When they're married she’ll either stay at the school, or come and help him out at the club. He'll be busy here in the evenings, so she’ll be able to come to dinner parties when my numbers are wrong just like Clara used to.’

Gloria-Jane didn't seem totally sure. 

'And I've got more plans! I've decided on a theme for the party – I'm going to do Medieval. People are more relaxed when they’re dressed up. And I'm inviting Absolutely Everybody. And you and me are going to have matching costumes.'

Gloria-Jane was happier about this.

That evening I tried to tell Spencer about the party, but it was pointless. So I gave up, and asked him what was on his mind.

'I'm beginning to dread that noise as V.N. tears off the morning messages from the telex machine. I can tell when he thinks it’s especially bad – it’s as if he tries to knock and walk in more quietly, as if the news will disturb me less.'

'Heavens! Well, not to worry. Nothing like a nice big party for taking people’s minds off their troubles.'

I kept using the word 'big' to describe the party to Spencer. Because he wasn't letting me talk about it I was afraid he would be startled on the day. I didn't think the war thing would come to anything, and if it did, how could it affect us? We had lived through a real war when we were children and teenagers. The Kuwaitis were on to an incredibly good thing. They had the oil; we had the know-how. Without the company Kuwait couldn't make the oil into money. What were they going to do? Chuck us out?

Sunday 28th May 1967

Gloria-Jane and I had sorted our outfits at the Ahmadi tailors. They didn't exactly match, but chimed. Gloria-Jane's was bright orange, mine was pale green and they were the same shape and material – shiny satin with sweeping sleeves and hems. Hers had a frill at the neck and black trim and mine had a collar and gilt trim. We both had tiaras. We were queens. Or princesses? We got Spencer and Melvin matching black tunics with silver thread woven in and enormous black tights. Rather absurd. We had great shoes to match the dresses too, and the men had silly black pointed ones. 

I love that Connie is always here. She lives in two little rooms off the courtyard and she has another one for her hole in the ground where she washes and goes to the toilet. There are metal bits with ridges so you can’t slip either side and a hose. Some of the people have two servants and one lives in each room and they share the room for washing and going to the toilet. Connie likes her rooms and so do I – she has so many lovely things in such a small place and it’s so cosy. I don’t often go there though and most of the time she is in the kitchen, but if she's not she doesn't mind if I go out of the kitchen into the courtyard and call for her. We have air conditioning, so I'm never really hot inside at home. I like Connie’s water thing with straw that makes her room cool. It’s a wire box with straw and water going through it and a fan that she told me makes the water go into air and makes the air colder. She doesn't have any windows so that helps to keep her rooms cool too.

Spencer came home from work all het up.

'Cleopatra. I hear we’re not having a dinner party; it seems we’re having a Medieval Banquet!'

‘Ooh, that's a good name for it, excellent idea. But I'm afraid it won't really be like a banquet. There’ll just be bits and pieces to eat. But with your fingers, you know, so that will be medieval.’

‘And apparently everyone at work is invited, so people came up to me all day, saying ‘Thank you so much for the invitation. It sounds SO jolly’.

‘I've got a nice outfit for you to wear darling’ I said. Spencer gave a small groan of frustration and walked away singing softly to himself.

‘My dame hath a lame tame crane. 
My dame hath a crane that is lame. 
Pray gentle Jane, let my dame's lame tame crane 
Feed and come home again.'

Thursday 1st June 1967

Outside was lit with candles and inside with Christmas fairy lights – I borrowed every single string anyone would lend me. There was a long table dotted with food but no cutlery. I had got my friends to come early so it would look as if the party was in full swing whenever the important guests arrived. Never hard to persuade them – they knew there would be a full bowl of Flash fruit punch. I had experimented with the Flash punch and had adapted it by using Canada Dry ginger ale and mostly apples cut up instead of a mix of fruit as I usually did. I called it Medieval Mead. Gretchen arrived dressed in the usual caftan, with extra brocaded braid for medievalness.

Joan didn't look very medieval either, and only had one concern: ‘But can I use cutlery? I don’t think it’s very sanitary to eat with your fingers. I can use your Dettol can’t I?’

Our ayah Constance was used to Joan raiding the under-sink cupboard.

Candida couldn't come after all, fortunately, as she had been called back to London to help out with her father’s funeral. He had been terribly old, and infirm for ages I’d heard, so quite a blessing all round.

By nine in the evening the party was getting crowded. I was getting Robin to come with me round the room while I talked and she handed round food. We found Genevieve in the corner of the room. She was engaged in that tempting party activity for the shy - pretending to read a book. In this case ‘The Comedians’ by Graham Greene. She was wearing glasses, which slid repeatedly down her nose as she peered down at the book, pushing them up every time she turned a page. She looked unlike any other woman there, and utterly adorable, obviously wearing the only thing she could find that might be suitable for a night out, totally missing any nod to the medieval theme. It was an old-fashioned tight black satin evening dress, long enough to drag on the floor. I think it was meant to be worn with high heels and that she didn't have any. I was pleased that it was black, as I was still sure that she should stick to black or white. It had a very low neckline, and she had tied a tiny pink shawl in a knot under her chin in a failed attempt to cover her cleavage. Her hair was pinned up, but without hairspray was collapsing onto her shoulder on one side and beginning to leak brown hairpins, which didn't look good on the red hair.

‘Cleo - on the invitation you did say to bring someone, so I thought I'd ask Bill Kirkwood, you know, Bergan’s father, the boy who's in Robin's class at the moment. I'm so worried about them - Bill's father is really ill, so he had to bring Bergan from Texas, where he normally stays with his grandparents when Bill has to travel for fires. I think he’s going to have to bring Bergan too, they've got no-one here. I didn't mean to be forward by asking them but I think they're lonely. And you did say I could ask someone.'

'I'm sorry, Genevieve. Who's Bill?'

'He's Dynamite - you know.'

'He's dynamite?'

'We saw him at the Artemesia Club that day. He was there with Bergan. Oh, I should have asked...’

Clearly my face wasn't being quite as poker as I might have hoped. Boyd would be arriving any moment, and Genevieve was going to ruin it by having a cowboy and a child in tow. I pretended to be concerned about Bergan, to explain my long-suffering look.

‘Poor Bergan. No, Genevieve, of course it’s ok. It’s just that the others have been told not to bring their children. Heavens, it’ll be nice for Robin, won’t it Robin? Maybe he can help hand things round with her.’

But Robin had gone.

Go to Chapter 7

5 - The Saundersfoot Yacht Club

The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard and the impressions of her seven year old daughter Robin.

Thursday 18th May 1967 

Our red and silver Chevrolet station wagon bounced along the dusty tarmac road through the desert to the Yacht Club. I had decided we would take Genevieve, and Robin and Ingrid were in the ‘back back’ where the crazy pet-owning people put their dogs. Fortunately I’m good at tuning things out, but Robin and Ingrid pretending to be dogs did get really yappy. Genevieve professed to be enchanted.

We settled on the Yacht Club veranda with Seven-Up or Canada Dry, looking out at the beach, mapped with strips of yard-wide brown sack matting to save us from the burning sand. The heat could strike through our thin canvas shoes or even through the thicker soles of flip-flops. The children ran off the matting to the sea then threw their flip-flops onto the beach. When they came out they belted up to them, a moment of triumph if they were right way up and facing away from the sea, some frustrated hopping if they were upside down, if the plastic uppers had twisted or the centre piece pulled through. Then back to the matting, either placing each foot carefully so as not to flip the hot sand up and onto the toes, or another careering run, depending on personality. I wore my shoes in the sea – canvas ones soon dry, and you can hold flip-flops on by tensing your toes.

Ingrid and Robin had shot out to the beach with a bunch of friends. Most of the girls were dressed in the look of the month – a towelling outfit of striped shorts and short sleeveless striped matching tops with fringes, doubling as clothes and swimming costumes. Their project for the day was building something out of sight of the clubhouse, using sand, driftwood, and anything else that had washed up. They also had wedding plans to complete. Robin was set to be bride, with competition for the role of groom. So proud.

I talked about how inviting the sea looked and sighed about not wanting to risk getting my hair wet. Genevieve was easily tempted, and peeled her dress off over her head to reveal my triumph of the day – my white bikini, the same effect as the black – neither the top nor the bottom quite big enough.  She left her shoes and we were riveted, watching her wriggle down the hot matting and then sprint over the scorching sand to the sea. The children laughed around her. I turned to Spencer.

‘Look, isn't Robin adorable? I do miss Richard though. I know it’s the right thing for him to be at boarding school, but it isn’t easy.’

‘Oh, Peggy, I know, it’s awful for you.’

Brave face.

‘I’m worried about you, Spencer. What is it? You can tell me.’

Head Office in London thought there might be trouble. But I wasn’t worried, I’d heard it all before. Israel threatening Syria. Jordan and Egypt threatening Israel.

I didn’t think Kuwait would get involved. Spencer said,

‘A lot of people, maybe even people working for the Company, think the British and Americans in Kuwait are on the side of the Israelis.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that Spencer, I’m sure they all realise they are on to a good thing with the company. I was thinking...’

‘Peggy, honestly, don’t worry about it, I’m sure no-one would attack the refinery or our workers...’

‘Ok, no, heavens, it’s fine. Look, why don't we have a dinner party on the 1st of June, invite Boyd Gentry, the new Artemesia Club manager, you know I was telling you he's Delbert's nephew, help him to settle in, since you're the Club President. We could have the Simpsons and the Greens and the Aldertons. I'm sure he'd appreciate an introduction.’

‘Oh, so we’re not talking about the Arab-Israeli situation any more?’

‘No, well, it will be fine I’m sure. And it would take your mind off things.’

‘Very kind of you, Peggy. So, what? Invite our friends and Delbert and Clara and the rest of the Embassy people, and Candida to smooth the wheels? I’d rather not see the Simpsons and that lot, God knows I get enough of the men at work.'

Some people loved the Embassy people because of their easy access to alcohol that hadn't been made in stills in their showers like the rest of the ex-pats – when full prohibition came into force in 1964 diplomats were exempted. When you went to the Sheraton with the Embassy people they gave their lovely proper Embassy alcohol to the staff and the staff decanted it into silver teapots. So it all looked the same, and you had to pick a teapot and sniff before pouring it into a glass. Red wine, white wine, whisky, brandy. It was absurd, but it made the evening more amusing somehow. Robin went with us once and she loved the Sheraton and the Embassy people – more for the pool than the alcohol (she’s not really allowed any). Spencer loved the Embassy people more for their high level access to information and posh conversation than either the alcohol or the Sheraton pool. I didn't love them at all. Superior bastards. Half of them were at Eton with my brother, chinless wonders. Delbert was the only one worth anything. 

‘And exactly how is Candida supposed to ‘smooth the wheels’? Since when did we invite our employees to our parties? I notice you’re not suggesting we invite V.N.Sharma, who is actually your secretary.’

‘Candida is a colleague, Cleopatra. She knows all the Embassy people. She went to Rodean. You know, cultured. Educated. Not that...’

Spencer calls me Cleopatra when he is annoyed. He wasn't the only one who was annoyed.

'Right. Candida is EDUCATED. Properly educated. Not like your wife, who got sent to a poxy tiny girls’ day school so her parents could keep my brother at Eton and left at 16 because it was so mind-bendingly dull. Who got a job, a proper job to stop her parents going on about the burden of children and left it for you because the civil service wouldn't let married women work. But what you want at your party is a teeny weeny properly educated person. Someone to talk about theatre and literature and CULTURE. Someone who isn’t boring and limited and doesn't spend her time looking after you and your house and your CHILDREN.'

I didn't actually say that. I just let Spencer's half-finished sentence hang, making him feel bad. I've read that suppressing your thoughts and feelings is meant to be bad for your blood pressure. Honestly, I’m surprised I haven’t exploded yet. 

God, Candida. That wretched girl had worked for the Big London Man so in Kuwait she was the secretary of the Big Ahmadi Man, even though he had a perfectly good Indian man as an actual secretary. She wasn’t even that good looking, for a 20 year old.

At the Sheraton they have a little pool which is indoors and downstairs and has lights under the water and the water lights the room. There was a girl from the Embassy called Verity. She had yellow hair and huge blue eyes. She had beautiful clothes – she had one thing on, then a swimming costume, then another thing, when I had to put my first clothes back on. I think the second thing was to go to bed in, because we were out so late, but it didn’t look it. The grownups didn’t swim, they sat round with their silver teapots. We saw who could hold their breath under water for longer. It was me, because I do that all the time. I only swim under the water, so I don’t get very good at the different badges where you have to do all the strokes on top. Richard is brilliant at all the swimming and he has all the badges, except the five mile one, but he could easily get that too. I had my badges on my old costume, but not on my new one. I don’t think Verity's mother would put badges on her costume. When we came out of the pool in the Sheraton they wrapped us in towels and we had heavenly food and they let us go back in. They usually say food will make us sink. Verity lived in Kuwait city and she didn't come to school in Ahmadi so Ingrid didn't need to meet her.

I didn't tell my parents anything about Vaughn and Auntie Gretchen and Uncle Daniel and Vaughn being adopted. I told Connie though. 

I regained focus just as Genevieve was wallowing towards the shore, obviously about to exit the sea. I began hoping for Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’.

Her wonderful red hair was hanging in wet waves, forward over her shoulders, doing its reaching her nipples thing, some of it plastered into her cleavage. Was she going to...? Yes! As she stood up in the shallows, ankle deep in water, she reached up to squeeze her hair out, just like in the Bond film. The cleavage lift was tremendous, and a little sigh escaped from the watching group in the clubhouse. She then fell over the children, poise gone, but little girl in need of looking after effect increased. 

She came to the veranda, dress back on over damp bikini, which made the dress cling to her curves. Candida wasn't a patch on her. Who should I unleash her on?

The Tuttles arrived, and Melvin settled in for his stint behind the bar, never happier. Gloria-Jane looked glorious, absurdly over-done for the Yacht Club, but heavens, she got away with it. And she doesn’t like the sea, so no chance of the make-up getting washed off. They agreed to take Genevieve home, and we ladled Robin and Ingrid into the back back, where they quickly forgot to yap and fell asleep on each other. Spencer carried them to the house, they woke up long enough to eat a little with us, then snuggled into Robin’s bed while we showered and snuggled into ours for a chance to make up. Not that Spencer even realised there was anything to make up. I loved those Thursday afternoons.

'All things bright and beautiful', said Spencer.

Go to Chapter 6