A Most Attractive Little Outing

My wife normally holds cocktail parties in the deepest abhorrence and goes to great lengths to avoid them. I was, therefore, taken aback when she said to me one morning that if I happened to be in the U. K. at the end of May, I might like to take her to what sounded like “an attractive party.” The matter was rendered the more unaccountable when it developed that the party in question was to be in London, on a night when — my wife being a passionate gardener, and spring in Sussex being at its most glorious — we should otherwise have remained firmly at our country place.

Observing my steeply arched eyebrows, my wife explained that the party was scheduled to take place aboard a ship on the Thames. Not, she added hastily, any old ship, chartered for the night by some wild segment of the Chelsea set, but a highly respectable vessel, the H.Q.S. Wellington, the headquarters of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, which is moored permanently on the Thames Embankment opposite the Temple. “Just think,” she remarked. “Sipping our drinks there on the river, the sun setting on the water, the hum of London’s homegoing traffic—rather charming.” Some vague allusion to the fact that the party was being held “in a good cause” followed, and I recalled that, from time to time, I had observed my wife hard at it with the knitting needles, turning out, as she revealed, garments for sailors working the chillier shipping lanes of the world.

Directly challenged again as to whether I would or would not escort her to the occasion, I said that I would, although treacherously aware that the odds against my still being within the realm three weeks later were stiff indeed. But the unlikely happened, and on the appointed evening there we were, duly alighting at the Wellington’s gangway.

The vessel turned out to be about the size of a medium steam yacht, perhaps three hundred feet long, painted white, and trim enough. But as we picked our steps up the gangway and through a group of pigeons, a fairly long experience of cocktail parties and their peculiar aura — for, unlike my wife, I attend many — caused me to ask her to check the engraved invitation in order to make sure that we hadn’t come on the wrong night.

For there was none of that coming and going that one expects; not much sign of life, other than a man who seemed to sport a bosun’s uniform. And once we were aboard and making our way aft along the main deck, no intimation of that confused roaring sound that is the true badge of any cocktail party which has been in progress for an hour or so. Instead, two subdebs waylaid us and deftly sold me a book of “entry tickets to the annual fair” for the sum of one pound sterling. Pressing on. we found ourselves at the heart of the matter. And it instantly became clear that this was no ordinary cocktail party.

Sitting primly on chairs around three sides of a hollow square was a company of perhaps fifty women and eight men. On the fourth side of the square was a table which bore a gavel and some documents. Waitresses in white aprons and black frocks were going the rounds with drinks and canapés, true enough, but I gained the impression that theirs was by way of being a strictly subsidiary role. My instinct was to remain standing, but having possessed myself of a red-hot gin and tonic and noted that the sun was indeed setting upon the Thames and that one could clearly hear the murmurous note of London’s homebound traffic, I found myself being introduced to our hostess, a lady of title, and then eased into a chair by a woman whose demeanor, in its blend of kindly tolerance and steely command, reminded me of the more elite sort of missionary. Having got me into the chair, she then handed me and my wife two mimeographed documents each. These proved to be the agenda for the day — a formidable listing — and a pledge for subscriptions.

I was still gazing down at these, with what bonhomie I could muster, when the lady was back, leading a man whose air of bafflement and uncertainty was patent. A man of early middle age, with patient, questing eyes, a nondescript lounge suit, and a certain dogged amiability. “Mr. MacColl,” cried the lady, as one who plays a royal flush at an indescribably unlikely moment, “I know that you will like to meet the Soviet assistant naval attaché.” I rose and shook his hand. He too secured a gin and tonic, gazed about him with growing bewilderment, and whispered, “Is a party?” “Well, yes,” I said. Then, seeking safety in conversational bromides, I added, “I have been in your country several times. Moscow, Leningrad, AlmaAta, Baku. . .” “So?” he said. “Last week I was in Bournemouth. The week before that, Brighton. Next week to Rosyth, your big naval base in Scotland.” At that, the lady missionary was back, pointing to a boldly produced chart, bearing certain sums against appropriate years. “Our goal this year, £5000.” She beamed. The Russian stared at her aghast. “This is one of Britain’s smaller warships,” I put in, with what seems to me in retrospect possibly doubtful taste.

At this point the titled chairman gaveled for order and we were in the toils. An ominous note was struck by the lady missionary, who announced briskly that a Mr. Hansford-Plantagenet had unfortunately had to leave before the meeting started, but had left behind him a check for one hundred guineas toward that £5000 goal. A considerable burst of applause greeted this intelligence.

We all plunged into the agenda. “Bottles, bottles, bottles!” cried the lady missionary. “It does not matter what they contain. But we need them; we need as many of them as we can get. For our Crazy Bar at the Fair. Always been such a success up until now. But, first, who will run the bar? You, Lady Dorothea? Or perhaps Lady Cynthia?” The two members of the audience named glowered briefly at one another, then Lady Dorothea stood, her extravagantly fringed hat dancing frivolously about her ears, and replied, “Well, you know, I’ve never done anything like this before, but, yes, count me in.” There was some hand clapping. Unexpectedly, the Russian attaché, who still looked pitifully out of his depth, placed his agenda slip in front of his face and behind its camouflage whispered to me, “Are wanting bottles?” “Yes,” I rejoined. At which he promptly raised a timid hand, as might the swot of the upper fifth who does not wish to be set upon by his less bright classmates when school lets out, and intoned, “Twelve bottles of wodka.”

“Twelve bottles of vodka!” called the lady missionary. “How utterly splendid ! The Soviet naval attaché is giving us twelve bottles of vodka!” At this, a hitherto somewhat inhibited gathering fairly let itself go. The very thought of so much vodka, as opposed to knitting products, and second-hand garments, and promises of droll little presents for the giant Christmas stocking, and lamps for the Lampshade Corner seemed wonderful. It was as if a brand-new Sputnik had abruptly gone into orbit directly over the Wellington.

Twelve was now, to some extent, a mystic number. For when, half an hour later, promises of gifts were in process of being solicited for yet another Giant Christmas Stocking (“And, please, not obvious things, like Christmas puddings”), a man with a very dark skin, who had arrived late, suddenly rapped out a comment. At which there was a fresh transport of delight, and the lady missionary announced, “The representative of the high commissioner for Ceylon has just promised us twelve pounds of tea!” In a way, this outdid the vodka. People stirred and smiled at one another, and there was a muted murmur of “Good show !”

By this time my smile was becoming fixed and I was aware that I must make a gesture of some sort. I had in the meantime spent a second pound sterling on another book of tickets, this time for the raffle, and scribbled out a modest check toward meeting that menacing £5000 goal, while my wife scowled at me. (But hadn’t the whole thing been her idea in the first place?)

Somehow or other, we had got around to bottles again. Again the cry was going up, “ Any sort of bottle, anything at all. Just as long as it contains something nice.” I sat up, reached forward, and touched the elbow of the lady missionary. “From me,” I whispered, “six bottles of champagne.” “Let’s announce this,” whispered the lady missionary in her turn, and the next moment it was being proclaimed: “Mr. MacColl is giving six bottles of champagne!” There was a scattered round of applause. I lowered my eyes.

The Russian naval attaché put his agenda slip over his lips again. “What,” he asked, “is now our duty?” “Another drink, I think, old man,” I answered, skillfully clutching a passing waitress by her apron. The notion was well received.

As we made our escape along the deck, I moodily toted up the damage: one book of entry tickets, one book of raffle dittos, check for fund, promised half-dozen bottles of champagne. Grand total? Call it $42.

A most attractive little party.

RENÉ MACCOLL is the globe-trotting chief foreign correspondent of the LondonDAILY EXPRESS. ATLANTICreaders will recall his “Tennis on TV” (December, 1958).