Mr Godot was the first to arrive, but he was too early and no-one answered the door, so he assumed he’d got the wrong day. Vladimir and Estragon probably passed him on the driveway, but either they didn’t recognise him, or were looking the other way. They sat in a corner together for the whole evening, bemoaning the state of the world and juggling their turnip and carrot. Mrs Ramsay was rather cross with them, said they could have been a bit more sociable, or at least contributed their vegetables to the boeuf en daube.
‘It is a French recipe,’ she said, ‘of my grandmother’s. You’re French, aren’t you?’
But there was no talking to them.
Mrs Ramsay was relieved when Emma Bovary arrived. She at least would appreciate her efforts, knew the power of food, had thrown a wonderful banquet for her recent wedding.
‘That was a day to remember, ma chère’ she cried, embracing Emma like an old friend, though they were mere acquaintances. She lifted her hand to the younger woman’s cheek. ‘You are cold. Fear not, we are starting with oysters, they will perk you up and Mr Porter will give us a song. It’s very funny, trust me. From a musical about your compatriots. It will put everyone in a good mood and–’
She stopped. Emma was not listening. She was looking round for her husband.
‘He must have been called to a patient,’ she said. Mrs Ramsay, who was nothing if not an attentive hostess, looked up and down the table, frowning at the empty seats. She was a stickler for punctuality.
‘Now who am I to seat you with? We’re still waiting for Mr Godot’, she said, ‘and I can’t think what’s happened to the Americans. Henry,’ she called out to a man deep in conversation with a woman she had not recognised but had not dared to question when she arrived, so confident was
she, ‘Come and meet Madame Bovary. Just spare her your Catholic angst,’ she whispered to him when he got close. ‘She’s got enough of her own.’
‘Emma,’ she said, ‘This is Henry Greene. Writes books. Uses his middle name for them. No idea why.’
Mrs Ramsay flurried off into the kitchen.
‘And what is your middle name?’ said Emma, gazing into the man’s eyes.
‘Graham,’ he said. ‘I’d advise you–’
There was, at the moment the English novelist was about warn the bourgeois Frenchwoman not to fall in love with him, a bombilation on the gong and Marthe appeared in the open doorway with a silver platter of oysters. Behind her stood two wide-eyed children clutching snowballs, which were dripping onto the parquet floor.
‘This is the wrong house, you stupid boys, and it’s not Christmas either,’ cried Mrs Ramsay. ‘Back to Swansea with you immediately.’
The guests, who had by this time already got through five bottles of champagne between them and so had already dispensed with most of their inhibitions, fell upon the oysters. The mysterious woman (it’s Elena Ferrante, Henry Greene told Mrs Ramsay later, that’s why you didn’t recognise her) was very vociferous, insisting that it was a mistake to swallow the oysters whole.
‘Sip a little of the liquor,’ she said, ‘and then chew them to get the umami flavour.’
‘What is umami, Mr Fielding?’ Emma asked the man sitting opposite her. She had no wish to be formal but, confusingly, he had turned out to be another Henry.
‘Search me,’ he said. ‘In my day oysters were for the poor. Cheap food. Don’t know why you folk are so excited about them.’
The boeuf en daube was redolent with olives, bay leaves and wine, and the guests fell silent as they ate. The only sounds in the room were the clinking of cutlery and the small slurping noises made by the diners.
Marthe was clearing the plates after the iced dessert when the Americans arrived with fulsome apologies, more wine and expensive chocolates, so Mrs Ramsey immediately forgave them and called on Cole Porter to entertain the assembled company with the promised song.
‘You have a strange name, Mr Porter,’ said Emma, ‘but at least it’s not Henry.’ The wine had made her very giggly.
‘That’s true, ma’am,’ he said, ‘But my friend here, who is also called Porter – no relation
mind – writes under the name of O. Henry. We live in a mighty strange world, Mrs B.’
In Emma Bovary’s mind, afterwards, all the men at the party merged into one. She thought she remembered Mrs Ramsay saying that they could go to the lighthouse the next day, but that would have been such an odd thing to do; she decided the wine must have made her mishear. She was sure though, that no man called Godot had turned up. So she’d probably never know whether his first name was Henry too.
Cath Barton is the author of two novellas, The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review) and In the Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books). https://cathbarton.com/ @CathBarton1