:: Article

The Dinner Party Wars

By Matthew De Abaitua, art by Carrie Crow.

 

The gunfire began just as Janis Sawyer was serving the main course, a platter of glazed duck with cavalo nero that she was loathe to drop. Shot studded the wall of the lounge. Her guests took cover beneath the cherrywood dining table. Janis dithered. She had plucked, jointed and baked the wild ducks herself, and the urge to protect dinner momentarily overrode her instinct for self-preservation. Dodging a fusillade from what sounded like flint muskets, she hopscotched across broken glass and splintered studwork to lay the platter upon the occasional table.

She dimmed the lights, then inched on her elbows toward the Remington gun case. She knew her way around the calibre drawers by touch, and even in the dark she could pick out the right shells for her husband’s Winchester and her own pearl-grip Smith and Wesson revolver. She also unhooked some mid-nineteenth century Sporting rifles with which to arm the guests.

The guests were Morton Eakins, work/life balance consultant, and his wife Tamara Eakins, sorting through her shoulder bag for a cask of black powder and a sack of shot. Crawling like a bear toward the shattered window, the corpulent media fixer Sebastian Blast, and behind him, cowering with his arms over his head, Sebastian’s protégé, a young man from Lancashire called Nelson. It was Nelson’s first dinner party amongst the urban middle classes and he was finding the etiquette complex and disturbing.

The man of the house, Michael Sawyer, peered out of the window in search of their attackers. He saw two middle-aged men jogging back to a people carrier. Sebastian was soon at his shoulder, breathing heavily with the exertion of getting to his feet.

“Is that it?” whispered Sebastian. “One round and they flee?”

Michael didn’t reply. Instead, he employed the standardised hand signals for close combat engagement, in this instance, holding his right hand to his ear to indicate they should all listen out for further attackers.

Reassured by silence, he held up two fingers and made a steering motion with his left fist; they had two shooters returning to a car – either to reload or to run away, it was too early to say. With his index finger, he traced three sides of a square, warning of a possible ambush outside their front door. Then a swirl of that same finger instructed the guests to secure this position. Eakins and his wife took up point in the kitchen in case their attackers came through the garden. Janis blew her husband a kiss and made for the stairs, to cover the front door. Sebastian Blast loaded a Flintlock blunderbuss from the gun case then moved with a surprising, fat man’s grace across the room to the cowering Nelson.

The amber hue of the streetlights behind him, Sebastian’s beastly silhouette bore down upon the youth, his breath foul with carrion and cigars.

He grunted, “Come with me.”

Even though he was a strong tall Lancashire lad in his early twenties, there was something of a yelp to Nelson’s question.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re going outside.”

With an urgent chain-yanking motion, Michael made his feelings clear to them: haul ass! Sebastian pulled the reluctant Nelson into a crouch and the two men scuttled down to Janis’ position. She handed Nelson a bayonet then Sebastian went clomping down the stairs, the brass barrel of his blunderbuss glinting.

He popped the deadbolts on the front door and slowly inched his bulk outside. The house was a three-story Victorian property with a refurbished rented basement. Sebastian took up cover behind an ornamental pillar, with his eye-line at street level. The adjoining gardens were clear. It seemed that the attack had been just a rattler, some suppressing fire to disrupt their main course. Although Michael and his wife Janis had long entertained in this Hackney preservation area, its rising reputation meant their hospitality was starting to attract the Barnsbury and Hampstead heavyweights, the Montefiores and the Bornoffs, the Hellfire diners of Dollimore and the maverick suppers of Ashe.

Sebastian turned and beckoned to Nelson: come. The lad was uncertain but he’d seen enough cop shows, he knew the basic moves.

“Follow me.” Sebastian jiggled down the pathway before diving painfully behind a parked Land Rover. Nelson down slid beside him. Then Michael and Janis came racing in formation out of the house, the one covering the advance of the other until the husband was in position to let off a shot at a reversing Renault Espace. The speedbumps impeded quick getaway. The exhaust rattled and clunked. Janis fell into a kneeling position to fire three rounds at the retreating car. She was a terrible shot, and succeeded only in pruning the elaborate arched hedge outside number 84. The retorts of her shots raced up and down the terraces, sending Nelson sprawling back behind the Land Rover. To his anxious inquiries as to what the fuck was going on, he received only a malign grin from the obese Sebastian Blast, who took the opportunity of all the adrenalin and confusion to grope the boy, reaching up from his sprawling position for a pawing of the lad’s cock and balls. They were tight with fear. Receiving the subsequent slap to his chops as mere foreplay, Blast slumped back on the pavement and roared with laughter.

Three months earlier, Nelson had arrived in London with a rucksack of clothes and a few notebooks. It was a snap decision, to leave Liverpool behind. He had bedhopped across the city, exhausting the patience of old university friends. He spent a month on a floor in Putney but after eavesdropping on the commuters as they spilled from Putney Bridge he knew had to leave. Moving on to the inbetween zone of Acton, Nelson slept in the lounge of a condemned terraced house beside the A40. In the telephone box beside the carriageway, he essayed hopeless job interviews with media sales houses.

“If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”

“An animal who wants to work in media sales?”

Nelson lost afternoons wandering the Ealing Broadway. There was nowhere to sit. He couldn’t afford the cafes and the benches were occupied – at different times of the day – by a committee, a council then finally a court of street people. A dispatch rider/artist explained it to him – “the city cannot abide a low velocity presence. We must flow like capital.” So he kept moving, reading Crime And Punishment on the Overground line and subsisting on flapjacks. Rattling around the inhalations and exhalations of London, it only a matter of time before the city hawked him up and spat him out. Then he met Sebastian Blast at an evening of performance poetry in a converted garage off Old Street. Nelson found the women there provocatively pallid, outrageously gothic. He was talking to a tall witch with a silver scarab necklace; he fixated upon it, the glinting beetle was a faux adam’s apple, jerking in time to her ferocious laughter. Nelson wasn’t even being that amusing but he was delirious with self-invention.

“I’m from Lancashire but I’ve been living in Liverpool, doing freelance security. I had to take down a gang of shoplifters at B&Q. They were running right through the tills carrying patio doors, half a pint of scotch in their bloodstream. There was a lot of fighting in the car park. I did a few shifts at an all-night garage in Fazakerley. This bloke kept sticking things through the porthole – his cock, a syringe, a shotgun barrel. My only weapon was a stick leaded with ball bearings. It had ‘Knucklebreaker’ stencilled down the side.”

“Did you break knuckles?” asked Scarab lady.

Nelson shrugged. “Your ethics are all upside down at four in the morning.” He was considering further boasts when a musky, meaty cologne fell upon them all like a villain’s cape.

It was Sebastian Blast.

“I hope you are not auditioning him for one of your soirees, Hecate.”

Hecate received kiss one and kiss two upon her cheeks.

“This is Sebastian, and Sebastian this is Nelson. Nelson wants to write but he also does security.”

“I heard. Do continue with your story. You were just getting to the good part.”

“No, I was finished.”

“Didn’t I hear you imply that you hit people for a living? I want to hear the details. I think we all do. At the garage, did you whack someone with your stick?”

“On the hand.,” improvised Nelson. “They reached through the porthole to snatch at the till. I grabbed him by the wrist and brought Knucklebreaker down sharp. The blood licked up against the partition. We had to crack open a packet of baby wipes to clean it up.”

Sebastian smiled, “It is so hard to steer a moral course at night, isn’t it? In the shadow world, the umbra terrae, one becomes one’s own doppelganger.” A pause to dab white scurf from the corner of his mouth. “If you stick around until midnight, you will see the birth of my own evil twin.”

“You are being modest, Sebastian.” Hecate caressed the fixer’s rude gut. “Surely you have evil triplets in there.”

Sensing the large man was there to be mocked, Nelson asked Blast what he did for a living.

“I am a cultural catalyst. I make things happen but remain unchanged by them.”

“Sebastian dines,” clarified Hecate. “He is very desirable guest, that is both his work and his play.”

If he had not been distracted by the last of his pint, Nelson would have seen an aurora flare up between Blast and the scarab-wearing Hecate; coloured bands of innuendo, antagonism and sexual history momentarily caught in the earth’s magnetic field. Somewhere in this silent frenetic exchange of charged particles, Hecate acceded to her former lover’s demand that he get first crack at the lad. She had a soft spot for Sebastian, or was it a bruise?

“Let me get everyone a drink,” Sebastian smirked at his new protégé, “and then I would like to hear more about those docks.”

After his first dinner-party shoot-out, Nelson began to notice wounded people on the street. Wandering Upper Street in Islington, he realised that the recent fashion for eye-patches was not an affectation. Although the rules of engagement of the dinner party wars insisted upon antique weapons, there was still enough lead flying around to seriously wound. Peering hungrily into the restaurants, Nelson counted a pair of crutches or a wheelchair on every fifth table. A young woman passed him by and put her mobile phone to an ear missing a section of cartilage.

The cardinal rule was that attacks were only allowed during a dinner party. Otherwise the nurseries, good schools and gastro pubs would be ablaze with violence. Even if the guru of the dinner party wars, Jeffrey Montefiore himself, paraded through Chapel Market with his entourage of fusiliers, Nelson couldn’t touch him. He cultivated a hatred for Montefiore and his TV show ‘Who Not To Invite’. The compiler of the lavish bestselling hardback book ‘1000 Great British Guests’, Montefiore flapped his wattle at the likes of Nelson, at lads so gauche they didn’t even know what gauche meant. He hankered after taking an antique Spanish hunt bayonet to Montefiore – fantasised about it, even.

Nelson’s ignorance of haute bourgeois mores contributed to Sebastian’s ardour for the lad; how delicious to meet someone who goes to a party and cannot sense who is Jewish, and who is not? Oh, the delightfully self-absorbed young male ego. Nelson didn’t remember the names of anyone he was introduced to. He knew nothing of brown shoes in town. Wine was merely red or white to him, and so was cheese. Best of all, he was broad, tall and strong, and – as he boasted to Hecate – accustomed to confrontation rather than compromise. Sebastian had decided that Nelson, while lacking a propensity to violence, did have a facility for it. In fact, he was good guest material. Thanks to his book learning, he would not be too boring over the aperitifs then his naivety would amuse everyone during the starters. For the main course of fighting, he would come into his own, and for desserts Sebastian hoped to fuck the lad until he screamed for his mother.

The older man’s groping was not the first homosexual advance Nelson had received, but it was the least welcome, and that included the car-full of men who had tried to pick him up when he was fourteen. He had no doubt Sebastian would be brutal in the act, turning what could be considered a moment of sweet experimentation into an agonising exploration, the effects of which would require surgery to correct.

Nevertheless, Nelson moved his rucksack of clothes and books from his Acton squat to Sebastian’s place, a pied-à-terre on Spurstowe Terrace just down from London Fields. He slept in a box room with his feet against the door. On the odd evening when Sebastian was not dining, Nelson would be expected to make himself scarce, to go and watch the football in the pub and leave the older man to sit in front of the television eating whatever shit he had picked up from the Texaco garage. There was no dining table in the house, and no gun cabinet either. At home, Sebastian never entertained and he moped about with his shirt untucked over sweatpants, dipping into a bag of crisps, then his underwear, and then back again.

Nelson and Sebastian were, once again, enjoying the hospitality of the Janis and Michael Sawyer.

“The people in Islington are genetically different from me,” said Sebastian. “I’d almost say, genetically superior. There is a dignity there, a radiance that comes from temperance and exercise. On Upper Street, peering into window of Fredericks, or up in – god forbid – Barnsbury, I am eavesdropping on a superior phenotype. There is a physiological difference in the bourgeois castes, that is why internecine violence is so popular. I can see, just by looking at them, that their interests are inimical to mine. Resources are scarce – good property, good schools, an acceptable environment, working transport – so if you carve up the right catchment area for your tribe, you can secure competitive genetic advantage for generations.”

Throughout this theorising, another guest – Morton Eakins – chewed and nodded, working toast and mackerel pâté out of his molars before speaking up.

“That is why we must hit Montefiore. We must humiliate him and throw the order into flux. It would only take a small migration from N1 to further advance our area.”

Eakins’ shirt was taut over the bandages on his right arm. The work/life balance consultant had been exposed as a spy while attempting to infiltrate a Moroccan buffet. A risk management officer and a patent lawyer held him down while the hostess went to work on him with the dinky blowtorch she used for crème brûlée. Even weeks later, just speaking forcefully almost made him faint.

“We have been thinking about this for sometime,” Michael Sawyer looked for the assent of each diner in turn. “The problem is how to get close enough to Montefiore to actually hurt him. His family home is in Barnsbury but he entertains in a gorgeous four-storey Nash house off Albany Street.”

“Three bathrooms. Dining room on the second floor. Spectacular views over Regent’s Park,” added Janis Micheal.

“A hit from street level would be hopeless. Also, the house is in a small enclave, hard to get in and out fast, especially since they lock the gates when entertaining.”

Sebastian waved such problems away. “You know my feelings on this. You can get in anywhere with a child. I suggest we continue with our efforts to tap up National Childbirth Trust lunches in the hope of turning up a reputable woman with post-natal depression. Then it’s just a matter of her running into Montefiore’s house with a papoose full of dynamite.”

“Sebastian could get in,” said Nelson. The rest of the guests laughed.

“And what exactly would I do when I got there?” Blast patted his belly. “I am not exactly at my fighting weight now am I?”

“What if you took a guest who was?”

“We’re all too well known,” said Eakins, “and I have the burns to prove it.”

“But I’m not! I’m nobody.”

“They would search you.” “I’ll use a fish knife if I have to. Or a Le Creuset pan, they are pretty hefty. Montefiore is your rival but he is my oppressor. I have chippiness on my side, generations of class hatred.”

“Montefiore’s humiliation would be the highlight of the season,” said Sebastian.

“If you do it, I’ll get you a job at the BBC,” said Eakins.

Michael Sawyer nodded slowly. Then he mimed a telescope and tapped three fingers on his left bicep; the close combat engagement signal for seeking out a rival cell leader.

In the cab on the way over to Montefiore’s house, Nelson broke out into a filthy city sweat, a dew of toxins and pollutants. He tried to rescue his shirt, plucking it free here and there from his skin. The starched white collar greyed as his agitation seeped into it.

“You have become fat,” observed Sebastian.

“I am just filling out into manhood,” replied Nelson.

“Your face is bloated with booze. The crotch of your trousers is riddled with horizontal creases. It is the strain of your waist and seat. Are you sure you are still capable?”

But they could not turn back now. They had come so far. Four months had passed between the decision to attack Montefiore and finally securing an invitation to dinner at his house. Four months of aspirational dining. One wall of the flat was taken up with a hand-drawn map of the significant dining networks and circles, some of which necessitated journeys out to St Mawes in Cornwall or Walberswick in Suffolk. On their sleepovers in the country, Sebastian no longer bothered trying to seduce his young charge. It wasn’t just the fat. Too often, he had stumbled in on Nelson shunting into their hostess in a summer house or in the barn conversion, blundering cock-out into the tedious psychodramas of other people’s marriages. Adultery is such a banal transgression. It cheapens everyone involved.

His drinking was also becoming a problem, and not just in volume. When he overheard the lad request a kir royale, Sebastian strode over and slapped him right there and then. Come the main course, Nelson could not shoot straight and sometimes even failed to get a shot away at all. Thank god the invitation from Montefiore came before Nelson had cemented his reputation as a hopeless dullard.

Their taxi pulled up outside the Montefiore residence. At the bottom of a tall staircase, security gave them the once, the twice over. Waved through.

Upstairs, Sebastian set to gossiping with the other guests.

“Did you hear about what happened to the Dollimores? It was quite a bloodbath. Antique Gatling gun in the back of a transit. Just had their brickwork re-pointed as well. Ashley Dollimore took a bullet to the mouth. Lost half her tongue which has rendered her useless as a hostess, she can’t taste, she can’t talk, and her fellatio is now just hopeless empty sucking.”

Nelson was under strict instruction to brood silently at Blast’s shoulder. He was too nervous to talk anyway. Standing apart from the conversation, he rediscovered a sensation familiar from his security work: the humiliation of hanging around for a superior caste, so self-conscious that the muscles in his back groaned with the effort of holding back his gut. There was no question of airing his Lancastrian burr here, not for the amusement of these Brahmins. He caught a whisper as a wine waiter went by. Jeffrey Montefiore had not come down yet because there was a VIP reception upstairs for a guest of quite exceptional wattage: Bob Dylan. The name rebounded around the room, and there was an agitation of status as the various guests wondered why they were not upstairs with Bob.

“Bob Dylan’s here,” Nelson blurted it out to Sebastian.

“I know. Montefiore has been flaunting Dylan all day. It’s not like Montefiore to be so careless.”

“You think someone might try and snatch Dylan?”

“Not someone. Everyone. Every vaguely leftie over-privileged baby boomer in town will besiege this house long before the petit-fours. It might be just the distraction you need to strike.”

After the champagne, Montefiore’s staff ushered the guests up to the large dining hall. The table was set for twenty-four. At a nudge from Sebastian, Nelson gazed at the colossal gun cabinet. Its most expensive items, the vintage Boss game guns, dated from the 1920s and so were forbidden for combat. Sebastian’s favoured weapon, the blunderbuss, was present in both late eighteenth century French and British vintage. At short range, they were devastating. Nelson preferred the flintlock fowlers, with the provincial look. Good for taking down a duck and unlikely to take a fatal chunk of flesh from a rival diner, unless you were very unlucky.

As the guests took their places, Sebastian held forth on the matter of the Dollimore massacre, the first dead guests of the season.

“Is it just me, or is a gatling gun beyond the pale?” he asked the great and the good. “Would you have me revise the rules?”

It was Montefiore himself, finally deigning to attend his own party. Composed of a single calligraphic stroke, the host was more formidable in person than on television. Of medium height, his sharp features and lean flanks spoke of a rigorous exercise regime. Admittedly he was getting a little long in the lobe, and it was hard to tell where his tan ended and the liver spots began, but his chin was still cut with a dimple and he clung onto three-quarters of his original allocation of hair. By contrast the witchy marionette behind him – my god, was that really Dylan? – stood there decrepit and over-accessorised. He wore a wide-brim black hat wedged on a heap of curls, in wraparound shades and cowboy boots. His Americana clashed absurdly with the Savile Row formality of Jeffrey Montefiore, but what happened next was even more ridiculous.

The waiters set down the vegetable soup and then Dylan stood up to speak.

“I am not Bob Dylan,” he said, in a Yorkshire accent.

Sebastian was alarmed. He bolted to his feet, his napkin dangling from his collar. With the soup served, the staff trotted from the room. The dinner party had officially begun and under the terms of Montefiore’s etiquette handbook, there could be an attack at any moment.

“You’re luring them in, aren’t you?” asked Sebastian.

“Eat your soup, Mr Blast, the main course is imminent.”

“They’ll come for your Dylan and you’ll be ready for them.”

“It will be an act of self-defense.”

“There could be upwards of fifty armed guests out there. You are mad to attract such a force.”

The rest of the diners shuffled awkwardly in their seats, wondering if this most desirable of dinner parties was going to be their last. The soup was tinned. It was a fake dinner party. A fake Dylan. Uncertainty riffled through the guests. The cream of the metropolis looked shabby and over-lit. The first volley of shot punched through the window and into the ceiling, and they scattered. The men scrambled at the gun cabinet, the women went for the ammunition.

“I think you’ll find it is locked,” said Montefiore, still seated and sucking up his soup. A second volley, fired from a low elevation, pockmarked the ceiling. Plaster tumbled down onto the silverware.

Sebastian scrutinized his host in search of a hidden reasoning.

“If you don’t return their fire, it’s only a matter of time before the rival dinner parties breach the front door.”

Montefiore shrugged and beckoned in the staff. The waiters had to skip over and around the confusion to remove the mostly uneaten soup, then returned with plates of fish fingers, chips and peas. Between his long murderous fingers, Jeffrey Montefiore held a fish finger and waved it at Sebastian.

“Death, railing at our door, makes even this a delicacy.”His eyelid aflutter with the ecstasy of his own derangement, Montefiore took a bite of the fish finger and savoured it as if it were a blini of Belugan caviar.

The scuffling, chanting crowd were close, their shouts echoing around the dining hall. The next volley of gunfire struck a newspaper editor on the shoulder. It seemed they had gained the terrace of a neighbouring property. After passing the wounded man a napkin, Montefiore held out his hand to Sebastian.

“Won’t you join me in greeting the late arrivals?”

Sebastian dumbly followed their host. All around, people crawled for cover or pleaded with the staff to unlock the armoury. Nelson slipped away, heading down to the kitchen in search for a weapon. When he found what he was looking for, he ran panting back up the stairs in search of his master and his quarry.

Montefiore strode along a hallway toward the terrace, with Sebastian taking ever slower steps after him. The more agile of the mob had shinned their way up to the first floor. Nelson could see hands grasping at the ironwork. This would have been cause for alarm, were it not apparent that Montefiore was about to unveil his masterstroke. At the end of the corridor stood a ten-barrel, thirty-caliber Gatling gun, mounted on two cartwheels.

“I was just warming up with the Dollimores.”

Montefiore pulled on a pair of leather gloves and clapped on some ear protection. He swung the terrace doors wide open, then pushed the gun forward.

“Isn’t it glorious, Sebastian? The dinner party wars have cured our class of its doubt and anxiety. In place of self-hatred and soul-numbing compromise, we have a courage and a pride not seen on these shores since Empire!”

With another shove, the machine gun rolled out onto the terrace.

“Best of all, we can finally come clean. We hate each other. We really hate each other!”

Montefiore turned the crank with a vile lust. Bullets tore into the flowerbeds and the road, the whitewashed walls and the cars, the lawn and, occasionally, the people below. The juddering action of the rotating barrels made Montefiore’s body buck and thrust as if in orgasm, his shout of “Hate! Hate! Hate!” lost in the noise of the infernal machine. Nelson and Sebastian lay face down with their hands over their ears. When the ammunition was finally exhausted, Montefiore had time for one last ejaculation before he was spent.

“You fucking liberal bastards! These are the first shots of the new Civil War!”

After a little prodding from Sebastian, Nelson realised this was the ideal opportunity to strike Montefiore across the back of the head with the cast-iron Le Creuset grill pan he had secured from the kitchen. He did so. The old man went down like a bag of leaves. In truth, for all his suggestive boasts, this was the first violent act of Nelson’s life. Even so, no further cajoling was required to persuade the young lad to hit their host again, and again, and again.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew De Abaitua’s first novel The Red Men (Gollancz) is near-future science fiction set in Hackney and Liverpool and was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Sam Jordison’s interview and discussion about The Red Men is here. The directors Shynola adapted the first chapter of The Red Men as a short film, ‘Dr Easy’, for Film4 and Warp Films, and it can be watched free on Vimeo. An announcement concerning the publication of his next two science fiction novels IF THEN and The Destructives is imminent.

ABOUT THE ARTIST
Carrie Crow is a fine art, performance,and horse racing photographer, whose work has been exhibited internationally at the Queens Museuem of art, Newspace Center for Photography, Kunst Altonale,and Galleria Perela, during the 20011 Venice Biennale. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, The New York Post, Time Out New York, and North Sea Jazz Fest. Born and raised in Los Angeles and a long time resident of New York City, Carrie frequently travels and works in Paris, France.

Using pay-telescopes at tourist sites around the world  Observatorio isolates micro-landscapes within the vast panorama, creating a possibility for quiet observation in the midst of oftentimes dense congestion.  Typically positioned in the outdoors, the pay-telescopes have weathered the ravages of time and each lends its unique properties to the image—light leaks, vignetting, dust and scratches—which register not only the subject at hand, but the history of the device and the conditions at the moment of seeing.  By using a pay-per-use medium alongside a digital camera, Crow aims to slow down my own photographic process and arrive at a method that is both traditional and modern.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 22nd, 2014.