Table Places

'To be or not to be.' That may or may not be one of the world's great existential questions, but I live in France. Here the great bard has long been surpassed by the great guide... the Michelin guide to restaurants. For here in France the greatest of existential questions is: 'To eat or not to eat.'

It's strange that for the past few years our centre's greatest annual event, the annual board members' dinner, was presided over by a foreigner. But if anything surpasses the French love of gastronomy, then it's their servitude to protocol. And protocol insists that the centre's director presides. In previous years this had meant little more than being the head-man on the evening itself. This year things were changing. Thérèse and Guillaume who had previously done all the behind the scenes work for me, were away on a well-earned holiday. Thérèse' place in the kitchen was admirably filled by Morgana, but there was no avoiding that most challenging duty of all: placing the guests at table. You might think, there's nothing in this, but you do not live in France.

Accordingly, it was with fear and trepidation that I collected the list of those who would attend from the office and barricaded myself in a small meeting room in the centre, far away from the possibility of any disturbance. This task required my fullest concentration. True, I had already done some little preparation. It was only a few months ago that 'Home and Food' magazine had concentrated a whole issue to this question of where to place people at the table. I had read through the whole thing, and some articles I had positively chewed over whenever I had a few spare minutes. With the proof of the pudding in its eating, we would now see, if it truly lived up to its reputation.

In all, we had ; and for once luck was with me. We actually had an even number of male and female participants. You can only imagine the relief of having a naturally balanced table, once you've experienced eight hours of nightmares in which I myself was transformed into an avenging sex-change surgeon out to wreak havoc on all my enemies. The courage this gave me was reinforced by the content of a bottle strategically placed by my secretary next to the personal files on each of the guests. There was a file on each guest detailing their comportment at previous dinners, whom they were placed next to, and various other factors to be considered. Armed with these previous documents I set to work and emerged (I won't tell you how many hours later) with a song on my lips, an empty bottle in my hand a the elaborately drawn up table placement, on top of a much larger annex justifying my decision. So here goes.

It took me just a few minutes to figure out the first two positions. Tradition had it that the president took pride of place at the head of the table, accompanied by his partner at the other end. To be perfectly honest I was far from excited by this obligation having hoped to have Morgana there to hold my hand for my welcoming speech. But it was not to be and so I decided to make do with Mada, one of longest-serving volunteers, and respected of our reading and creative writing groups. A bookworm, her conversation was always scintillating and would enable me to book-title-drop at various other meetings over the next few weeks. Indeed, the reputation I had for being a self-taught, blue-ribbon intellectual was to a large extent due to Mada's influence. On my left, I placed Marie, a timid young lady who rarely said a word and preferred remaining well out of the limelight. Listening to Mada would enable her to do just that, but I'd have to make sure I found someone to go next to her who would bring her out a little bit.

But before that, I had a far more serious choice to make: where to place Mimi. Mimi, as they were affectionately known as were Michael and Michelle, an elderly couple who had met and fallen in love at last year's dinner. Michelle had up until that day been a lively spinster in the prime of her life and she took up with Michael, a hopeless pessimist and part-time depressive following last year's meeting. With all the determination in the world she set out to reform him but the tables were turned on her and she soon became as bad as he. Nobody would want to sit next to them, so I decided to put them together, a faux-pas that would certainly be forgiven by those who had the good-fortune not to have to make conversation with them. Placing them in the middle of the table meant they could occupy each-other without disturbing anyone else.

To Morgana's undoubted charm I trusted the firebrand company of Bernard and Antoine. Bernard was a slick manager type, full of his own abilities and not amiss to reminding the corporate world that he was on the rise and in a big way. Antoine was his nemesis. Long time militant for a greener world, anti-corporation campaigner and part of the team that helped French Saint (all, of course depending on you point of view) José ransack two McDonald restaurants. Unlike, his boss Antoine did not receive a pardon, so now has a chip on his shoulder against any- and everything including those of his own party. It was Morgana's express wish that she be placed next to these two and I was convinced that her fiery red hair and her unshakable resolve would be more than a match for the two. I was just glad to have two of the three about as far away from myself anyone could imagine.

But by far the most dangerous of all the guests was Nicola Grangeberry. Acclaimed for her seductive charms and for always taking home whatever and whomever she set her sights on. Her weapons were simple but very effective: a slit along her leg, what we might call a distinct lack of material on the upper half of her dress and a voice whose cadence would send the most ardent bachelor into paradise. She was hot stuff and I had to find a way to neutralise her. Indeed, the only interest Morgana showed in the table was to make sure I was kept well out of her reach. What better a place could there be for her than right opposite the Mimi two. And Antoine was certainly not going to fall to her charms. So that left just Richard, and whose white hair and somewhat advanced years, probably disqualified him from being a candidate in her habitual little games of seduction. Besides, I had other plans for Richard. An old friend from way back when, Richard's easy manner and charming conversation would make him the perfect table-partner for Marie. If anyone could instil in her enough confidence so as to get her to talk, then it was Richard.

So, there it was my table was finished. No doubt, there was potential enough in my arrangements for fireworks, but it was the best my humble self could come up with. So I would have to make to with it and leave the rest in the hands of the gods.


what an excellent piece of writing, paul... as an ongoing reader of an ongoing story... i enjoyed this i guess b/c of the character descriptions and a door opening to simon's simple thought processes... not that he is simple but your description of each character was a most enjoyable ride from start to finish... who knew life at a dinner party could be so complex...

23 January 2009 at 02:28  

You really have nailed the art of seating at a French party. By your diplomatic skill, I am guessing the mythical Gensdouce is in Haute Savoie.


31 January 2009 at 15:06  

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