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Crooked Billet

  • Joint fortieths, February 2001

    [archive post]

    51 of my & Jeremy's nearest and dearest converged on the Crooked Billet in deepest Oxfordshire last Sunday night. Low ceilings, warm fires, the darkest red walls in a long room flickering with candles. The young (my nieces at 4 months) and the old (Jeremy's father at 82) the short, the tall, the quiet and the loud and the distinctly other. Such an excited buzz as we walked into the pub. Cava and salmon, kisses and all the birthday wishes. Last minute panics forgotten once we'd got the nameplaces out.

    The excuse was our joint 40th birthdays, and perhaps a chance to make up for all those other celebrations that usually bring together the generations. Was it my imagination or were our welcomes a little reminiscent of a 'receiving line'? Did Spencer really stand in an ante-room clutching a tableplan discretely enquiring 'bride or groom?'.

    Earlier we'd walked up on Swyncombe Down: exercise, misty views and milky sunshine. We sat on the grass eating crisps and chocolate. Marc, Jeremy, Spencer & Piers in tailored dark blue overcoats like middle-aged popstars making a comeback or a clutch of clerics out for a constitutional.

    At the Crooked Billet the presents accumulated at a table close by the fireplace. Unexpected kindnesses of every kind. And a dawning satisfaction - even joy - that these were almost all the people we cared for and that together in all our ways over the last 24 years or more we'd somehow managed to make interwoven lives of richness and meaning.

    The food came promptly without fuss. Plates piled high with oysters; squid rings, avocado, half lobsters. Pheasant in a currant sauce, succulent slices of lamb, sea-bass and half a dozen more.

    And the room filled with the happy conversation - Jeremy's friends and mine mixed and matched. Nan discovered in Al another indexer. Mike and John that they had violins as well as IT and me in common. Sue got on famously with Lawrence and Caddy, demonstrating her voice production technique by ordering 'water!' in her fullest voice. Simon expertly drew Christian out in conversation. Whether through planning or chance all the combinations were a huge success. The Crooked Billet staff said what lovely people were gathered and everyone praised the gorgeous food they served so efficiently and discreetly.

    Little ripples of applause kept breaking through the hum of conversation. Philip the magician made rings disappear and produced the very card we had in mind again and again. There were gasps when he levitated and everyone wanted more. Only Linda managed to get his telephone number.

    I made a little speech and my biggest thrill was when I asked if people were having a good time. In a moment they roared "Yes!" And I forgot to give my mother credit for the most difficult bit and to thank so many for being gold medallists in the sport of waiting-for-David. But I meant what I said about the preciousness of friendship, especially friendship as long-lasting as that between me and Jeremy.

    Before coffee he and I sent two big rockets shooting into the foggy sky. Down the slope in pitch black, sparkling taper to four second fuse, then woosh, a huge bang, and great flowers in the sky.

    After the meal my mother held court in one corner with the lop-sided gravitas of a slightly tipsy magistrate. In another, Jeremy's vicar-cousin Simon found himself among friends and became more and more entertainingly raucous as the evening went on. By the evening's end he was a vision of contentment sitting by the fire bottle-feeding Sarah - Marcel Wagner offered a commentary, urging me on to the joys of nappy changing.

    By 11.30 people were beginning to fade into the foggy mist that made the pub seem even more remote from care. Because of illness Lee & John never got to meet Nan & John, and Rosie's John missed out too. Mark in Holland, Grace in Boston and Sophie on her way to Morocco couldn't make it either. But for us there was birthday cake and more singing and another round at midnight when it was Jeremy's turn to complete his fourth decade.

    What a night it was! What people were there! 24 hours later and the buzz and the specialness of it all is still with me. The pictures I took with the amazing new camera got wiped in an inattentive moment, so this and bright memories of such happiness at the end of a week of joyful celebration will be the reminder.