Emma Sanderson-Ellis, her partner Jarrod Ellis, their “sensitive” baby of seven months, Moss, along with Kevin Irving and his partner Emma Beekman (the Other Emma) were coming over to Stella Martin’s in South Yarra on Saturday, 29 May for a modest two course dinner party, but 60 minutes before the big event, Stella, crushingly hungover and hampered by an injured left foot, recognised that because she still had so much to do and so little time to do it in, for several hours, until her guests filed out of her flat, there would be absolutely no opportunity to pause for a Marlboro Light, a weep or even a well-deserved scream. No. She simply had to move.
Misty-eyed she pulled open the meat compartment of her fridge and yanked out the large package of blue grenadier she’d bought after work from the fishmongers the previous day. Bloody rip off! Keep it moving, Stella. In went the fish into the baking tray, splashing its fishiness onto her apron. Whatever. She poured in the melted garlic butter and seasoned heavily. Now what? The fish didn't look submerged in the oil and butter. Flip them over. And again. Whack, whack. Foil on, back into the fridge for marinating. Well done. Now for the salsa verde.
Misty-eyed she pulled open the meat compartment of her fridge and yanked out the large package of blue grenadier she’d bought after work from the fishmongers the previous day
It shouldn't have been all so hard, but it was inevitable that it now was. If it hadn't have been for the impending arrival of Emma Sanderson-Ellis (ESE) things would have run a lot more smoothly. Of course! Stella would have consumed only half a bottle of Merlot the night before instead of the whole bottle plus four or so nightcaps from her emergency cask. It had initially felt so uplifting, getting hammered in her flat alone on a Friday night. It reminded her of the old days, the good ol’ days, the time before people became over 30-somethings and worried about being alcoholics. The old Friday night blackouts! The parties! The drunken sex! The drive-through fries strewn on the car floor. The mysterious bruises in even more mysterious locations. Where did all that go?
The previous evening had all started well enough. Two wines in, she had felt a lovely weightlessness. A freeing and loosening of ESE’s culinary judgment that had been stalking her consciousness all week. Sweet! Then the soft oblivion. All good so far. Then a sweet dimming. Christ. Then a nothing following quickly by the sun blaring through her bedroom window. Then a well-timed lunge, a toilet cuddle, a teary flush and the return of the inevitable - Melbourne’s finest dinner party cook and all-round super host, Emma Sanderson-Ellis, looming down from high, shaking her accusing finger. ‘You cannot cook and now you’ll cook even worse because you’re as hungover as a boiled turd.’
It didn't help that Stella had elevated unsuspecting ESE to the grandest of heights - Lord of the Kitchen, Chief of Chefery, Doyen of Dinner etc etc. Every dinner party over at ESE’s, even the ones post baby, was a revelation, a sensation, ‘a delight to the senses’, as Nigella Lawson would ravishingly put it. It was impossible to compete.
But then, is competition even really necessary? Stella sighed to herself, blitzing the parsley and oil while a brass band embarked on a steep crescendo at the back of her head. 30 minutes to go. Keep it moving. It would be so lovely to have a Marlboro Light, just one, to calm the nerves. But there is no time! Salsa verde in the fridge, check on the potatoes, looking good, let’s turn them over, turn the oven down to 150 otherwise they’ll be black by the time they get here, broccolini out, washed, ready for steaming, jug on. Set the table now. Five placemats, five forks, five knives, five dessert spoons - yes, set them on the table, but to the side. After the nibbles, people can grab those themselves. Yes, good not to make too formal. The wine glasses washed and there were no lipstick marks on their rims. Well done, Stella. Now put them on the table. Five large plates for the meal next to the stove. Nibbles - keep it simple. Pretzels, nuts, dried fruit. Meringue, raspberry sauce, cream, fruit, ice-cream were either in or on top of the fridge ready for assembling Eaton mess, the easiest dessert known to woman. It definitely was going to be a very modest dinner party.
The following remaining tasks were then performed at lightning speed, as Stella knew that instead of 25 minutes, she only had 20 available to recover her breath when answering the door with effortless composure so as to conceal the whole pathetic, bilious pre-show: lipstick application, a wiping down of the armpits and a liberal application of deodorant (no time for a second shower), floor sweeping, lighting of smelly candles, cleaning of the toilet, washing of hands, a guzzle of more mineral water to pull the poor head back into health. Live! Live little hungover head of Stella’s!
Ding dong. They were at the door. And… curtain up.
‘Hey, sorry, we’re...’ said a well-proportioned male head staring down at a well-proportioned male wrist, ‘on time. Jeez, what are the odds?’ It was Jarrod, the mid-thirty-something, younger partner of ESE, with baby Moss, who was harnessed on Jarrod’s chest in one of those baby contraption things. A furry brown head was already busy yelping out of protest of being alive.
‘That’s quite okay,’ said Stella opening both the flywire door and her smile a touch wider.
‘I smell Dutch creams!’ said a large, high mane over Jarrod’s shoulder. ESE was already putting her finely tuned nose to work.
‘Ha, yes! Good guess or you know your spuds, Emma!’ It didn’t help at all that ESE was 40 - younger than Stella by about four years. The tuba solo in Stella’s head was now helpfully joined by a ballsy trombone. Toot da da hoot. Poor Stella! She then saw movement behind Jarrod and ESE - the Other Emma and her partner Kevin were right behind them on the stairwell. ‘Hey’, they said in near-unison.
‘Hey,’ returned Stella by herself. ‘Come on in.’ She stood back to give a wide berth to the following entrants in the following order: the furious Moss on Jarrod’s chest; Jarrod, who was carrying two bags of baby-related luggage; the high-haired, well-groomed and smartly-dressed ESE, who was carrying one bag of baby-related luggage; the short, detached Other Emma, who seemed to be even further away from her surroundings than usual, who was carrying wine; and Kevin, the Other Emma’s well-adjusted partner, who was also carrying wine and who was wearing new, white sneakers. ‘Like your sneakers, Kev.’
They all marched into the low-lit lounge room slash dining room like scouts on patrol.
Stella had met ESE at The Department of Housing nine years ago when it was fair to say, they both generally cared less about most things - during the good ol’ days. Stella had stayed on in the department and was still there while ESE had moved onto consultancy work and then to motherhood. The Other Emma was ESE’s friend she’d met on a holiday in Thailand four years ago when both the Emmas were both looking for answers of one kind or another. The Other Emma and Kevin had become friendly with Stella through ESE’s extravagant dinner parties and spontaneous, well-planned barbeques.
They all marched into the low-lit lounge room slash dining room like scouts on patrol.
Stella exhaled in the hall and closed the door after them. She was doing great. Just great.
Jarrod had quickly taken position with Moss on the faded couch while ESE, in jeans and an off the shoulder top, had slid into a dining room chair and was starting to eye the nibbles and the cutlery.
‘Hey, what happened to your foot, Stell?’ asked Jarrod loudly over his roaring lap.
‘Oh, it was the most annoying thing. I opened a bottle of mineral water about three hours ago and when I could see it was going to fizz over, I lunged for the sink, but I was too late. It spilled onto the floor and I slid to the dishwasher instead. My foot went under and took some skin off. It’s okay now.’ Shh. Don’t reveal too much.
Did ESE raise an eyebrow? Maybe it just was the curve of her mane that was piled up with a casual purpose on her head. Kevin, who was a GP and had his own practice, and the Other Emma, who worked in a science lab of some kind - Stella was supposed to know which kind, but kept forgetting - filed in next to ESE at the table, plonking themselves and their good quality vino on the table. We’ll be needing coasters people!
Everyone thought that Kevin and the Other Emma were very well suited. Must be all that medicine and science they shared that kept them interested. Or genetics. They seemed to actually look like each other. They should do that spit-and-send genealogy test, thought Stella.
Stella went to the glass cabinet and retrieved some floral coasters that weren’t too out of date. The conversation had quickly turned to mortgages for some reason. Jarrod rocked Moss on the couch and tuned out, while Kevin, the Other Emma and ESE pawed at the nuts and complained about interest rates. Stella found it best to swing in and out of the kitchen at regular intervals, although the host-slash-cook role was certainly pushing her hangover to its rawest. Its tuneless blaring was surging through all her pores. Tootly toot. She sighed. Her hangovers always had a peculiar exit plan and couldn't be rushed, no matter how much mineral water or tap water she washed down.
The salsa verde was quickly smeared onto the blue grenadier and entered the oven. The potatoes were then removed from the oven and would go in again at the ten minute mark to warm up. What else? The broccolini needed to be steamed at around the six-minute-to-go mark. Easy. Everyone was helping themselves to drinks. Help away. Get sauced up. Do. Not. Care.
‘Need a hand?’ hollered ESE from the table. Stella glided as smoothly as her left foot would allow from the kitchen and met ESE’s stare. ‘I’m more than happy to give you one,’ continued ESE with red wine teeth. The cab sav was being enjoyed, clearly.
‘No, that’s okay,’ Stella said. Her dirty apron read, “Kiss the Cook”.
‘Kevin was just saying he and Emma were thinking of renovating their kitchen.’
‘Oh, really? I mean, does it need it? If anyone’s kitchen needs renovating, it’s mine. My landlord is such a tight arse though. He’ll never do it.’ Stella heaved and wiped her hands on her apron.
ESE smiled. ‘Oh, yes. But the great thing is that if you have a problem, you can just call the landlord. When you own your own property, you have to fix every problem.’ ESE had maneuvered her mouth in such a way as if to show that she really didn’t look too worried about the prospect of fixing any problem that might come her way.
‘That’s true.’ Stella said, rolling her body and her eyes back into the kitchen. Bloody ESE.
Now what? Standing in front of the oven, Stella realised there wasn’t any music on the stereo. Oh boy. ‘Hey, can someone turn my stereo on in there?’
Nearly dining time. Stella opened the oven door. The heat blasted her face. In went the Dutch creams again to warm up. Then, start on the broccolini. The kettle! Fire it up again. Boil, then drain. Open the oven again. Blast! Whoa, that’s hot. Out came the fish and the Dutch creams. The plates hadn’t been warmed. Whatever. It was such a tiny kitchen with no bench space - nobody could possibly expect her to be Nigella with the resources she had. Surely... not. And then the first plate was plated. And then the second. It all smelt good.
Stella stumbled into the dining room again and placed the white plates down carefully in front of ESE and Kevin - who had helpfully set out the placemats - before returning to the kitchen and plating up two more and hobbling back to place two more plates on two more placemats. This wasn’t too hard. And the fifth plate was for Jarrod, who was still sitting on the couch trying to shut up Moss who had been unharnessed. That kid!
Oven off, swig some more water, kitchen light off - ready to eat. A trickle of sweat down the side of the face. Far out. Don’t crack, Stella.
‘Can I have a wine?’ she asked, returning to the table, feeling shaky. It was time to get on it again and for Hangover to meet Alcohol and Alcohol to be civil about it. “How do you do? Nice to meet you. Now, yield!” Jarrod was still on the couch. The Other Emma promptly poured a glass from the second bottle and placed it in front of Stella. They all looked at her, the newly seated arrival at the table. She imagined herself to look like she’d just hit the ground after a bout of touch-and-go skydiving. But it was smiles all around. Cutlery was dispersed.
‘Bon appetit,’ someone said unhilariously. A pause. And then, thank god, coos all round. ‘Tastes amazing, Stella’, ‘Looks great’, ‘The blue grenadier has come out beautifully’, ‘It’s so soft and creamy’ and ESE’s offering, ‘Where did you buy the fish?’
Stella answered, ‘The market.’ The honking went down to 80 decibels. The flat was warm and cosy - the smelly candle seemed to strangely mingle with and enhance the food. The radio on the stereo was playing something from Rumours. Christine McVie’s angelic voice was doing figure eights in the air. Well done, Stella.
‘Such a tasty meal,’ said Kevin smoothly. ESE looked close to being pleased to be eating too. How pleasing for Stella.
‘This is the best blue grenadier I’ve tasted,’ said the Other Emma with ferocious seriousness. She was staring at Jarrod’s plate that remained untouched. Stella beamed, taking a big gulp of wine. This was going all quite well, really.
‘How’s things at work, Stell?’ asked Jarrod. He’d finally put Moss to sleep on the rug and was able to join the table. ESE raised her eyebrows.
‘Same old, same old,’ Stella stiffened.
‘How’s Ian, Stella?’ asked the Other Emma, shoving too much fish in her mouth. Stella froze. The big plus about the Other Emma: she was non-judgemental about most matters, except important things like unchecked property development and holiday reading. The massive con about the Other Emma: she was entirely clinical about entirely non-clinical things.
‘Still married,’ said Stella pointedly stressing the end to the line of inquiry. She prayed the Other Emma would register the urgency in her voice. She looked tightly at ESE. Don’t you pursue it, Bitch.
The Other Emma looked upward to the light towards things unseen. Everyone zoned in on their own plate and seemed to be eating slightly faster now. It really was a delicious meal. Not much elbow room around the small round table, however.
Then, all of a sudden, ESE jolted, let go of her fork theatrically and placed a manicured pointer on her cheek. ‘Oh yes! That reminds me, Kev, yes!’ she said. ‘I really have to get you, while you’re here, to check this mark on my face. I haven’t time with the baby to get to a GP to see whether it’s a sunspot. It’s new and it won’t go away.’
Stella couldn’t see a thing, just a caked, contoured cheek.
‘Sure. I can have a look after dinner,’ he replied, slurping.
ESE nodded fulsomely. They all slowed down a bit. There really was no rush. Stella looked over at ESE. Was ESE exerting herself to cut into her potatoes? Was she being a bitch or were they undercooked? Stella’s spuds were a little solid. Jesus Christ.
‘Sorry about the potatoes, folks. I think they needed about 20 minutes more.’ How mortifying. Tooty hoot.
‘Nonsense!’ and ‘No way!’ came the coos. ESE didn’t say anything. ESE was rolling the food around her mouth looking poised and thoughtful.
Then the conversation changed to ESE and her mother’s group, which, according to ESE, was filled with very dull, clueless people. Everyone talked about when was the right time for babies to walk, talk, roll, crawl - not in that order of course. According to ESE, the most important thing was to be yourself and not try to do everything. ‘I’m lucky I have Jarrod. He parents on the weekend, so I can relax a bit. But then it’s back to work for you on Monday, isn’t it Sweetie?’ said ESE, with a wide grin. Jarrod blushed but smiled too. That was cute.
Everyone helped to clear the table for dessert, which was very nice of them. Moss was now on the floor fast asleep. ‘He’s sensitive,’ said ESE, for the thousandth time since his birth.
The Eaton mess was a surprising sensation - lots of ‘delicious’, ‘sensational’, ‘you’ve done it again, Stell’. ESE helpfully suggested that peaches were also good this summer and were an alternative to all the berries, but Stella was making her way through the emergency cask now and didn’t care. She was pulling away from her pain into a new softness. It was easy to edge into the cask; the others had sunk a fair bit of red and didn’t notice. Nor should they, thought Stella.
“Leave your hat on” then came on the radio. It was time to dance, apparently. Jarrod peeled Moss from the rug; the vulture then promptly started crying again. There was no stopping that baby. Stella pointed to her bedroom down the hall where Moss could be put down. Maybe for good.
ESE, the Other Emma, Stella and Kevin hit the dancefloor rug. They all knew the words. To the most terrible song on the radio, thought Stella. And she was right.
Kevin was pretending that he was wearing a hat while mouthing the words about removing one’s clothes to the Other Emma, who was keen to plie deeply, bite her bottom lip and pretend she was being asked to reluctantly strip. ESE pirouetted by herself next to the smelly candle on the mantelpiece while Stella moved her upper body in a forceful, but attractive anticlockwise direction. Her foot was still very sore, however, and had to stay stationary. It was all happening on Stella’s lounge room rug.
ESE then pointedly stopped swirling. ‘Hey Kevin, can you now have a look at the mark on my face?’ she shouted, pointing again to her right cheek. Kevin stood up slowly, annoyed that he was now supposed to be himself and not Joe Cocker. He went over to the mantelpiece and went in close, looking at the spot ESE was pointing to. ‘The lighting. I can’t see in here.’
They both ambled over to the dining room table and the wine glasses. ESE positioned her cheek under the overhead light and Kevin zoomed in. Stella and the Other Emma continued to dance, but a little less enthusiastically now they’d been marooned.
‘Can you spit on your finger and wipe your foundation off? I still can’t see it properly’.
ESE huffed, putting two fingers in her mouth. She swept them heavily across her cheek. Ads came on the radio. The Other Emma and Stella came back to the table. Stella was puffed.
Kevin was looking closely at ESE’s cheek. Nobody was saying anything except the voice coming from the stereo who was talking to Jayden from Bayswater who was trying to dedicate a song to his mates who were going to be playing footy the following day.
‘It’s not a melanoma is it?’ ESE said, her pretty face screwing up. She looked like she’d been worrying about her cheek for a while, actually. Kevin said nothing.
‘Maybe we should have a Turkish coffee,’ offered the Other Emma, who was not Turkish. ‘Stella?’
‘Kevin, what is it?’
‘Oh no, I couldn’t have coffee,’ Stella said from somewhere far away on her chair. ‘I need more wine.’
‘What is it?’ pleaded ESE.
Kevin pulled away and stood back from the table a bit. His new sneakers shone brightly under the overhead light. He put his hand on the Other Emma’s shoulder and looked straight at ESE. ‘It’s just senile lentigo. You’ll be alright.’
ESE stepped back with her hand on forehead now. ‘Oh my god,’ she gasped.
‘It’s just a liver spot. You know,’ he shrugged, ‘like an ageing spot.’
‘An ageing spot? For fuck’s sake! I’m 40!’
‘Does anyone want a glass from the cask? It’s not very nice, but it does the job,’ Stella offered, leaning back on her chair, hoping they wouldn’t want her emergency wine and that she’d have enough for later. The opening refrain of ‘We Will Rock You’ came through the air. God bless KIIS 101.1. Stella vaguely hoped that the song would make Jayden's mates win the game.
‘No,’ declared ESE.
Shouting in the street, gonna take on the world someday, You got blood on your face, you big disgrace, Waving your banner all over the place
‘This song is the pits,’ said Jarrod coming around the corner into the living area, his sober tone startling ESE and Stella. Stella sat up and adjusted her apron.
ESE shot a look at him. Kevin sat down again on the couch, his original post, looking disdainfully at the radio. ESE scanned the room quickly and then referred to her watch. ‘I really think we’d better go, Jarrod. It’s getting late.’
‘Oh really? I just got him off to sleep in Stella’s bedroom.’
‘No, we really should go,’ ESE said wide eyed.
‘Right,’ Jarrod pouted. ‘I’ll go wake him up again then, will I?’
‘We should go too, Stell,’ said Kevin. The Other Emma nodded.
The dinner party guests filed out of Stella Martin’s flat in this order: ESE with two bags of baby luggage, Kevin, still wearing his new sneakers, the Other Emma, then Jarrod and the screamer.
‘Thanks for dinner, Stella. It was amazing/beautiful/delicious,’ they all mostly cooed.
Stella watched them descend the internal stairs of her building and closed her door softly. She hobbled back to the dining room table and again went for the cask on the table entitled ‘Fresh Dry White’. She grabbed her lipstick stained glass and tipping the cask on the right angle, poured. Then she worked her way into the kitchen, passed the mound of unwashed dishes and reached for the packet on top of the fridge. She was out of Marlboro Lights.