The Garden Party

Derek McCoy had only known Samantha for a month. He first met her when she came to the counter at Chandler’s Dry Cleaning where he worked. She was the first customer all day and he’d normally stand for hours, alone.

When she first came in the dry cleaner’s, Derek hadn’t noticed her until she threw a dress down on the counter in front of him. It was a white lace dress like a wedding gown, wrapped up in a plastic cover which made a soft crackly sound when she let go. She then looked at Derek as though she’d already asked him a question.

‘Can I help you?’ he said.

‘Can you do this?’ she said. ‘You do dresses?’

‘I think so,’ he said. ‘I mainly do trousers.’

‘Huh?’

‘I mean, yes, it’s fine,’ he said. ‘I can do the dress. What do you want doing?’

There was a great, mechanical crack and a loud hum that came from the conveyor belt which held about a hundred suits and suit jackets all lined up like a firing squad. For a moment it was quiet, and above the sharp, sweet smell of perc, he could smell her perfume, which was also sweet, but not as harsh.

‘Just clean it,’ she said. ‘It’s dry cleaning, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’

She placed a hand on her hip and pouted. Derek wasn’t a lazy person and he didn’t mean to come across as indolent, it was just the boring non-existence of customers, the sweet soapy smell, and all the suits with nobody in them.

‘My name’s Samantha,’ she said.

‘Nice to meet you, I’m – ’

‘For the dress, I meant.’

‘Derek.’

‘Hi, Derek. How long does it take?’

‘Only a few hours,’ he said. He tore off a yellow piece of paper and handed it to her. It had a few printed numbers and her name in pencil. ‘Just bring that with you in, like, two hours.’

‘Okay, thank you,’ she said and left.

He couldn’t think straight, but he was extremely attracted to Samantha. Maybe it was her long blonde hair tied up, maybe it was her smile, her perfume? He tried to remember her body, the way she stood in front of him, hand on hip. His mind was going off in different places now, it was probably just the continual motion of the hanging suits and one dress, like people, going around and around. Then stopped.

That was the first time Derek met Samantha. She came back an hour later instead of two, but Derek had her dress dry cleaned and ready within 30 minutes.

 

They saw each other almost every day for the next weeks. He’d asked her out for a drink when she collected her dress and she agreed to. From then, they woke up together, ate together, heard each other urinate, went on plenty of walks through the park, and once it got cold in the evening, they stayed at his flat, where she was always the first to fall asleep.

On one of these nights, she didn’t fall asleep, and Derek was finally drifting off when she said, ‘Will you come with me to meet my family?’

‘Yeah, I’d love to,’ he said.

‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot,’ she said. ‘I think it’s time you met them. They’re having a garden party at their house in a few days. It’s this formal gathering they like to do every now and again, so you’d have to wear a suit and tie, I’m you’d look lovely though. I have my dress all sorted. You cleaned it for me, remember?

‘I remember.’

‘It’s not a big deal, this party. I suppose my family can get like that, they like to show off and hold these parties. It’s all about looking good. But don’t worry, they’re not judgemental. And I’m sure they’ll like you.’

‘Well, thanks for asking. I’m sure it’ll be good.’

‘I’ve got a big family,’ she said. She laughed once, then turned silent, watching the television.

‘How big?’

‘Mum, dad, brothers, you know.’

‘Okay,’ he said.

Soon they both fell asleep.

 

The next day they travelled to the countryside to a large house that looked more like a country club than a house. It was a great brick building that was covered with green ivy that traced up like veins. They trailed off near the gable, which was solid and sharp and looked incredibly old but very well looked-after.

They pulled-up on the gravel driveway and when they got out of the car they could hear music and people’s voices over the stone wall. It was classical violin music, and Derek had already guessed it would be that type of music, which made him laugh.

‘How are you feeling?’ Samantha asked him. She was carrying a bottle of white wine.

‘I’m okay,’ he said, carrying the red wine. ‘Just trying not to be nervous.’ He laughed again, this time hearing his nervousness in it.

Instead of going through the house, they walked around the front garden to the side entrance where they were immediately greeted by an old fat, but well-dressed, man with a bulbous red nose and whose 19th century mutton chops made Derek, somehow, feel out of place. The man, whom Samantha spoke to as Edward, was a friendly man but very loud. Derek could smell the Scotch on Edward’s breath every time he leant in and patted Derek on the back.

Edward said, ‘Let me get you a drink, dear boy, I’ve had three of these already.’ He laughed so loud some people further in the garden heard him and looked over.

As they walked in, the people who had looked over met them halfway. Derek hardly had time to take in the huge garden with the lining of trees, massive conservatory, marble statues. They reached the people and they kissed and hugged Samantha, and Derek suddenly found himself shaking hands with them. They were Samantha’s parents.

Samantha’s mother was petite like her daughter, with blonde hair. She was very friendly and polite and was attentive to whomever she spoke. Samantha’s father, on the other hand, came across as extremely powerful. He had a loud voice, but calm unlike Edward. He had a full grey-brown beard and wore what Derek thought was a military uniform, all strapped up with his back perfectly pencil straight. It was all very friendly and faux formal, making Derek eagerly make for the beer.

There was maybe 50 people in the garden standing around with beers, wines, sandwiches, salads. Samantha apologised to him because he didn’t expect there to be so many people.

‘I just didn’t think,’ she said. ‘I’m just so used to seeing so many people that it didn’t occur to me.’

‘It’s okay,’ Derek said. ‘Really.’

‘Sometimes they invite friends, and their friends invite friends. Everyone knows each other so they all just come.’ She smiled awkwardly at him.

‘It’s okay,’ he said, and kissed her on the forehead.

About half an hour passed and the sun was setting, and the music had stopped so there was really now just the noise of talk. What Derek had noticed though was that everyone called Samantha’s father “father”. He thought he couldn’t be everyone’s father, that would be ridiculous. Even old mutton chops called him father. It was a strange term of endearment, but it just made Derek think it was a joke he’d missed.

‘Thank you, father,’ an old lady said to Samantha’s father, when he handed her a drink.

‘So, what does your dad do?’ Derek asked Samantha. ‘Is he a priest?’

‘What makes you say that?’ Samantha said, smiling.

‘Everyone calls him “father”. I was just wondering why.’

She laughed. ‘Yeah, they do call him that, don’t they?’

‘And he’s not everyone’s dad.’

She looked at him with a smile. He didn’t know what the smile said.

‘No, he’s not everyone’s dad,’ she said. ‘He’s my dad, but not everyone’s. It’s just something they call him. Like sir or captain, you know?’

‘Oh right.’

‘Do you love me, Derek?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘Good,’ she said.

 

Later that night when it got dark, they lit up the garden with fairy lights around the gazebo and the fence. A fire was burning, and some had set up deck chairs near it to keep warm. The chill in the air caught Derek off guard and he felt it under his shirt. He thought it would be time to go. He didn’t like being too cold and he also didn’t want to stay long enough to be invited inside. He looked at his empty glass. Time to go.

Samantha’s father came over to Derek. He gave him a plastic cup of red wine. ‘Don’t worry,’ Samantha’s father said, ‘it’s just because it’s night-time now. We normally put all the glass away in case any break.’ He winked.

‘Oh, it’s no problem,’ Derek said. ‘Thank you. And thanks for having me it’s been – ’

‘You love my daughter.’

Derek was caught out by this. It sounded like a statement rather than a question, which made him unable to answer straight away.

‘Love is a powerful thing,’ Samantha’s father said. ‘I love you, Derek. We all love you.’

Several of Samantha’s family members were looking at him. They smiled but he didn’t know what the smile said.

Samantha’s father turned away and thanked everyone for coming. Everyone seemed happy enough, their teeth and eyes shone in the fire light. He toasted to the family and many plastic cups of red wine lifted into the air.

They all drank. Derek lifted the plastic cup to his lips but decided against it. Then the first one fell down. Then another. He didn’t see Samantha until she was dead. In the morning, he sat next to her body. He was still holding his plastic cup. The air was cold. So many suits and dresses around him.

 

© Michael Holloway