8 - Inappropriate Behaviour

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, Thursday 1st June 1967
Gloria-Jane and Melvin were in one of their more annoying moods that evening, flirting and fighting at the same time.

‘Melvin, I can’t believe you are wearing black framed glasses and stupid side burns to a medieval party, you look ridiculous.’

‘Gloria-Jane, glorious girl, we all look ridiculous. At least the men do. Look at Nelson’s hat!’

‘No-one else looks as stupid as you. I don’t know why you didn’t get rid of those side burns before the party, anyone else would have done.’

‘You know the facial hair goes with the first summer holiday shamal. You wouldn’t want me to be inconsistent. You love me for my consistency.’

‘I don’t know that I do.’

Perhaps this conversation doesn't sound overly flirty. But Gloria-Jane was launching her verbal attack on Melvin while sitting on top of him and only half-heartedly wrestling the satin skirt of her medieval costume back down towards her knees.

They carried on like this all evening, roving the house and garden in search of mead and food and company while every now and then making fresh attacks on each other. Whenever I saw them I pulled her off. Goodness knows what the Simpsons and the Greens and the Aldertons made of it. They left quite early. I couldn't believe that Spencer had left me to it. What a louse. The hubbub around me increased my sense of isolation, and my isolation increased my indignation.

I looked for Robin, to tell her she must get off to bed and found she had retreated to the kitchen again, this time with Dynamite’s son Bergan. They were inspecting the budgerigars, trying to work out which was Benedict and which Bertha. I’d said they might both be Benedict, but this was an outcome which she refused to contemplate. We'd been told that the colours of the things above their beaks give an indication of budgerigar gender, but they seem to alter all the time, and the birds showed no interest of any kind in each other. Sex is so complicated.

Boyd remained the only man looking half-decent, quite an achievement while dressed as a medieval peasant. I'd learned from his inspection of Genevieve after she fell that he was obviously short-sighted but he still wasn't wearing his glasses. This was causing him to lean towards Gretchen in a myopic attempt to lip read as she explained her vision of medieval England. You know how some people when they’re not wearing their glasses can’t hear what someone’s saying to them on the phone? He was like that. She was clearly finding his body language very encouraging.

Genevieve had made an early getaway from the party when I wasn't looking. I think she was embarrassed by her fall. I sent Gretchen away to check the mead supply and took the opportunity to tell a tipsy Boyd that I’d heard from ‘a little bird’ that a ‘certain someone’ is not only a real gentleman, but terribly funny. So far  I hadn't noticed Boyd being even remotely amusing, but this never fails with men. The next day l would tell Genevieve that Boyd said she was a wonderful listener. Definitely true; or at least, since she hardly seemed to say a word while they were talking, I presumed she was listening.

Out in the garden Dynamite was drifting back and forth thoughtfully on the swing. The swing was top quality, imported American, but I feared for its life – they are not meant for enormous men.

‘Just tone it down’ I hissed at Gloria-Jane who was standing with Melvin pressed against her back as she leaned forward, hands on the veranda wall. Her dress was in place but she was pressing his hands to her chest and said,

‘Cleo, I was just saying to Melvin, isn't it marvellous how, no matter how hot the rest of you is, your breasts always stay cool? I love that. It’s so useful, sort of in-built temperature regulation. We must talk about it some time. I think the left one is cooler than the right but Melvin thinks it’s the other way round.’

I marched back inside, feeling more and more maudlin, and the next time Boyd caught my eye I give him a tiny brave smile. 

Bergan told me that he and his father are going back to America. He calls his father 'Dynamite', so strange. Dynamite may have to come back to Kuwait again, but Bergan probably won’t come. He just came this time because his grandparents who he lives with most of the time had to go away to a hospital because his granny was sick. We spent most of the party in my room talking. Mummy was too busy with the party to realise he was there and that I hadn't gone to bed. Most of the time we talked about our families. His father is always working, and his mother's not there, he’s not quite sure why, his father doesn't want to talk about it. His father leaves him with his grandparents most of the time, because he is away putting out fires, and they are really nice, but really old. 

Ben and  Glenn are my boyfriends. Ben is funny, so that makes me like him, and he says clever things as well as funny ones. Glenn never really says anything, to be honest. Bergan has even better hair than Glenn. His eyes aren't so big, but they are dark dark brown, even almost black. I have never seen anyone as beautiful as he is. He is as pretty as one of my international dolls collection. His head looks like it’s wider than normal. My brother Richard always says Glenn and Ben both have big heads. I think Bergan loves me too.

Finally it was over. Leaving last, as they picked their way through the wreckage to the door I asked Gloria-Jane why Melvin looked so odd.

‘He’s shaved off the side burns, look!’

And indeed, he had crept into our bathroom (guests were not supposed to be using the family bathroom, partly because the still was in our shower and we all maintained a bit of a front about the home-distilling) and used my nail scissors then Spencer’s razor to get rid of them. Some superficial injuries had resulted due to his intoxication levels, but the scars would heal, and Gloria-Jane was leaving her gratitude in no doubt. I envied them.

‘For heaven’s sake Gloria-Jane, get off him, you’ll never get through the door like that.’

The waiters had left once the food had run out, so no-one had been clearing up for a while. The fairy lights drooped off the pictures and lamps. The ashtrays were full and there were cigarette ends everywhere. I closed the doors to the veranda, glancing down to the garden, dotted with chicken bones, toothpicks, glasses. There was no-one to talk the party over with. How could I be sure it had been a success?

Go to Chapter 9 

7 - The Party Proceeds

Ahmadi, Kuwait, Thursday 1st June 1967
Spencer’s Important Embassy Friends arrived all together. It was nice to see Clara and Delbert, though she stuck to his side when I could have done with some help mixing the Ahmadi and the Embassy crowd. They had promised to bring Delbert’s stepson Boyd Gentry, the new Artemesia Club Manager. He had lived all over the world and been married several times. His latest wife was said to be extremely wealthy, and they were obviously separated. He had written some very amusing letters to Clara when she and Delbert got engaged, advice about marriage from ‘one who knows’, that sort of thing. He had been expected weeks earlier. When he did get to Kuwait they couldn't seem to make it over to ours and now some complication had prevented him from coming to the party. Delbert wound his way through an explanation and followed up with:

'Is there anything that lies in my power to improve the situation? An apology on behalf of my disgraceful son I believe would not suffice to appease a disappointed hostess.'

I sighed and once again felt sorry for Clara, and rather guilty for my part in getting them together, though she told me she was fond of him. Delbert was one of those old before their time men, probably born like that. And now that he actually was old he was a wreck – hunched in a creased suit, wearing a frilled neck ruff made of paper.

The men’s outfits were either like this – normal suits with a tiny nod towards the medieval theme, or daft tunics and tights. As Gloria-Jane had feared, Melvin’s side burns and glasses were utterly absurd with the medieval costume and Spencer looked ridiculous too. Just not as ridiculous as Melvin. The women looked graceful, magnificent, and in our beautiful dresses we moved like queens.

We had been swigging away at the ‘mead’ and things seemed complicated and simple all at the same time. The garden and the house were full of people in strange outfits behaving oddly. Spencer and Melvin were doing their Monster Mash dance – their favourite record, most unmedieval. The banquet was brilliant, and not a piece of cutlery in sight, except for Joan’s. We were getting to be as shiny as our satin clothes, between the flow of alcohol and the chicken drumsticks and sausages eaten in our hands. There were ashtrays all round the room and though the cigarettes undercut the illusion the smoke-filled air was rather in period I thought.

The Simpsons and the Greens and the Aldertons were huddled together on the big settee, not exactly mingling, but laughing a lot. I went to look for Spencer, to help me break them up a bit and introduce them to some of our soberer and more interesting guests. 

As soon as I found him, he said,

'Peggy, I'm so relieved I've found you. I've got to go. I am sorry, total emergency.'

Thank goodness I managed to keep hold of my dignity, and nodded as if nothing could be more normal. He went.

In the melee I bumped into Gretchen. Or she bumped into me.

'Cleo, I had to tell you, Spencer had to go.'

'Thank you Gretchen, he told me.'

'Yes. Gone. He didn't tell me why. Why has Spencer gone?'

'Oh, I don’t know, he didn't really say. Work emergency, you know what it’s like.'

So I was stuck as hostess with no help. The rumours about the tensions with Israel had begun to do the rounds, however much I tried to deflect them. People even thought that might be why Spencer had left. 

'How much do you love me?' demanded Gloria-Jane of Melvin, creating a diversion.

'Let me count the ways' he replied.

'Well, take off the glasses and get rid of the side burns.'

'That's a bit much.'

'There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,' someone murmured in my ear.

It was the Shakespeare 'Anthony and Cleopatra' thing of course. What were my parents thinking? Well, I don't really mind. I'm usually called Cleo, though Spencer calls me Peggy, but everyone knows that my full name is Cleopatra. I get a lot of jokes about it. I don't look much like the general idea of Cleopatra – since Elizabeth Taylor no-one imagines her as a blonde. I turned to see who had been quoting it this time, and saw the only man who was looking good that evening. Dressed for the occasion, but not in tights. He was wearing cream trousers tucked into knee-length black boots, a cream shirt with wide collar and billowing sleeves, open and showing just a little chest hair. The shirt was topped with a brown suede waistcoat reaching his thighs and laced across the shirt. I do love an unusual fastening. 

Not to boast, but he seemed struck with my outfit too.

Boyd had arrived. He couldn't stay away after all.

I ushered him over towards Genevieve, who still had her head down, pretending to read. As we went I explained she needed looking after because she was shy, and magic, his protective nature sprang into action. He looked extremely interested. I congratulated myself on the way I had put the case. A damsel in distress! But not serious distress! Perfect! I introduced them, and mentioned their shared interest in books, remembering some of his letters Clara had read out to me. I left them together. Half an hour later I noticed that Genevieve was reading again, this time curled up on the settee, almost leaning on Stanley Anderton. Not a very appropriate way to behave at a party, but I tried to be patient. Boyd had been cornered by Gretchen, and seemed to be peering down the front of her caftan. I hauled him back over to Genevieve and said,

'Genevieve! Boyd was just looking for you. There's this marvellous idea about a fancy dress competition for the children which you could organise at the Artemisia Club. I'm sure the two of you can sort it out!'

I left them alone again, hoping this ploy would work better than the 'shared interest in books' had. Constance was waving frantically from the kitchen. She feared supplies were running low. She was in charge out there and the waiters were ensuring a supply of replacement plates of food whenever one began to run out, and a constant topping-up of the mead bowl. I checked and thought we had enough to last. I came out with Robin, who had been hiding away with Constance, and we circulated again, taking some dishes round with us. 

The final guest to arrive was an enormous man wearing a Cruella de Vil style hat - white fur with black spots, the same fur trimming the hem of his white dress. A white dress which ended at his crotch. The dress flared out from armpit level (it fitted tightly over his upper chest) and had enormous puffed sleeves which stopped at his elbows. His tights were white too, and he was wearing scuffed brown suede desert boots. He strode towards Genevieve, who had lost Boyd and was reading in the corner. She looked up at the vision towering over her, appeared confused, staggered a few steps (because her dress had wrapped itself round her legs), pulled herself free of it and went outside to the veranda, where she dropped onto the low edging wall. It was Bill ‘Dynamite’ Kirkwood. He did not look so good with these clothes on, in fact I wouldn't have recognised him as the gorgeous vision at the Club pool. His son Bergan, the pretty oriental boy I'd noticed at the school, followed Genevieve out to the veranda, and Dynamite followed Bergan. As Dynamite walked towards her where she sat on the little wall, Genevieve’s eyes travelled up from his white tights to the fur round his neck, to the fur on his head. She had forgotten to move her head separately, and her body leaned back as her eyes moved up. She toppled backwards off the wall, flinging her feet into the air as she went. Dyanamite stared at the empty space. For someone in the rescue business he seemed a little slow to move.

Instead, it was Boyd who strode up the veranda steps from the garden, Genevieve draped elegantly in his arms, hair streaming as the final hairpins released their hold, pink shawl twisted round so it looked like a cowboy’s neckerchief, the knot at the back and the triangular bit at the front. I had unfortunately given way to a fit of giggles, most uncharacteristic but irresistible. It was something about the way she’d fallen I think. Between unattractive splutters I managed:

'Is she OK?'

The big man abruptly came to life, and tried to relieve Boyd of her.

'I’m Bill ... Dynamite'

For a moment both men were holding her, each seemingly sure of his rights of possession. As Genevieve awoke from what seemed like a swoon (most medieval) she struggled to break free, and fell to the ground between them. Intervening on Boyd’s behalf, I shooed Dynamite off to the kitchen for water. Boyd and I crouched on either side of Genevieve, who had landed heavily on her endearingly padded bottom and was whimpering. The little circle of onlookers on the veranda murmured. Boyd seemed to assume their concern was caused by the lack of an introduction.

‘Good evening’ he remarked to the crowd. ‘I’m Boyd Gentry, manager of the Artemisia Club.’ He fished some glasses from a pocket and peered at Genevieve. ‘No bones broken that I can see.’ He put the glasses away again. ‘Not very medieval’ he explained.

‘Oh.’ answered Genevieve. And followed it up with ‘Ow’.

Goodness, it was going well, I never even dreamed that Boyd would end up rescuing Genevieve from a fall and then virtually fighting over her. Marvellous.

Go to Chapter 8