September 2023

Back to Issue 14

The Invitation

By Debbie Robson

Anna hands me the invitation. Glebe Point Road, Cocktails at 5. 1950s attire.

            “It’s your decade,” she says. “I know the dresses are nice with the nipped in waists but I always see them with aprons on, stuck in the kitchen.”

            I laugh.

            “What are you going to wear?”

            “My yellow checked halter neck.” I pause. “It’s going to be a nightmare to park.”

            “Yep,” she agrees. “But surely you know a little back lane somewhere.” 

            As it turned out I did and with thunder rumbling and a Southerly buster not too far away I climb the stars and knock on the door of the terrace house; the bright lights from the street illuminating the beautiful fretwork of the balcony. Cars whiz by below me, lightning cracks and as I move closer to the door, it opens and I sort of fall over the threshold.

            “Oh, hello,” a young woman wearing a turquoise dress with a square neckline studies my outfit. I know instantly the halter dress is wrong by the expression on her face.

            “Sorry, it’s the best I could do on short notice. Anna couldn’t come,” I explain.

            “Anna?” she asks.

            “Anna Muradyan.”

            “That sounds foreign.”

            “Well, yes. Anna’s Armenian.”

            “Armenia? Is that a country?”

            I’m too dumbfounded to reply.

            “Helena, don’t leave Nancy’s guest on the doorstep,” an attractive dark-haired man in baggy trousers, shirt and tie, says.

            “Wow, I thought only the women would bother dressing up.” Immediately I know I’ve made some sort of mistake. He looks embarrassed and remarks. “Just my office attire without my jacket.”


            “What cocktail would you like?” He ushers me into a spacious living room and I sit down, beginning to realise something is not quite right. Even the furniture is 1950s – the low Parker chairs and a boxy sideboard. Or is that a record player cabinet? It is, because one of the guests lifts the lid of the middle section and puts on a Nat King Cole record. My grandmother Nancy adored Nat King Cole but I don’t recognise this song. I’m starting to feel dizzy. I need a drink.
            “Anything will be fine,” I tell the good-looking man with the baggy trousers. I glance around the room. There are about five other couples; all the men sporting similar attire to Helena’s boyfriend or whoever he is. Not one man trying to be Marlon Brando.

            One young woman is wearing a slim fitting dress, featuring what looks like red stripes against a cream background only the stripes are made up of rows of small dots, I decide after squinting. I’ve never seen anything like it and the material looks like cotton sateen. What I could do with such a roll of fabric!

            “A mojito for our mysterious guest,” says a blonde man who looks vaguely familiar.

            “Thank you.”

            “And something to eat?” Helena asks offering me a plate of unidentifiable hors d’oeuvres with a sour expression on her face. I take two small biscuits and smile at her. She doesn’t smile back.

            And then suddenly she is in front of me – sleek auburn hair, jade green dress – my grandmother Nancy Adair looking younger than I have ever seen her, including in her wedding photos. I choke on the biscuit and Nancy looks concerned. And curious.

            “Are you gate crashing my engagement party?” Nancy asks.

            I gulp my mojito and pause.  “No. I’m sorry. I must have got the address wrong.”

            “I think it’s rather fun and you are welcome to stay. I mean you look like family,” Nancy adds and drifts off giggling.

            “A gate crasher. How fascinating!” the man who gave me the cocktail says, sitting down on the arm of the couch. His trousered leg is very close to my right arm. I struggle to take another sip of the drink but gag on a mint leaf.

            “So, what’s my name?” he asks.

            “What?” Are we now playing some sort of weird charades? This party is becoming a nightmare. “I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name,” I say weakly.

            “Ah, so we do have a gate crasher in our midst. Quite obvious really, as we only invited couples. And my name is on the invitation.”

            “Oh. I remember now,” I say, recalling how Mum used to tell me her father sounded like George Sanders. As a teenager I even watched the 1940s version of Rebecca just to hear the voice that sounded like him. “It’s Johnny Stevens,” I tell him.

            He narrows his eyes at me. “So maybe not a gate crasher.”

            There is an awkward pause and then someone changes the record to a slow number. It’s a woman singing about the Nile, Algiers, the jungle. I’m listening to the lyrics. So, he’s left her at home by the sound of it and she’s pining for him. Typical. I love the fashions, but could I really live here? Would I just be stuck in the kitchen, the home like pretty much all the other women, including my grandmother?

            Perhaps it’s time I left to see exactly where I am. Is this just a strange, twisted cocktail party? Or is there a quiet 1950s street actually waiting for me outside? The thought is ridiculous but somehow I can see it. No snaking line of parked cars. My favourite bookshops and cafes gone.

            Just then another slow number comes on and my grandfather holds out his hand. I’m completely flustered. I look around and can see the other couples are dancing. I have no idea where my grandmother is. I falter and remark how bad my dancing is but my grandfather ignores me. He takes me in his arms and we move slowly around the room. I can smell his aftershave and ridiculously notice that the pendulum light looks like a UFO. I’m hoping to extricate myself when the song ends but Earth Angel comes on and he tightens his hold.

            “What the hell are you doing? This is our song!” my grandmother screeches from nowhere. “I just can’t believe you!”

            “I was just being polite.”

            “Don’t give me that. I’m so sick of your flirting. It’s just never-ending.” Nancy is red-faced with emotion. “One time too many, Johnny! One time. The engagement is off.”

            Someone kills the record with a clunk and all the other couples are now motionless. We have stopped too, although the room is still pinning.

            “I think I’d better leave,” I tell them and stumble to the door. When I open it, I can’t even see any streetlights. Not a single one. What has happened? The southerly buster should have broken by now. I should be standing in the wind and the rain. I reach what I think is the street and blackness engulfs me. I am nowhere. I am nothing.