“All of Toronto seemed to have shown up for that awful production!” Phil complained.
“It wasn’t so dreadful, was it?” someone asked.
Sybill’s eyes lit up, and she almost rose out of her seat to add:
“Yes, and didn’t Millie say she saw Christopher Plummer in the lobby?” Everyone turned to her end of the table. This was the first thing she had said since the three couples had arrived from a nearby theatre.
“No, dear,” Phil corrected her sharply. “Karine was the one who saw him. Said he was wearing a well-tailored black dinner jacket, and a cranberry-pink shirt.”
“I didn’t say any such thing,” Karine replied. “I wasn’t even there. Remember? …Fred and I arrived late, and just managed to slip in after the intermission.”
“It’s entirely possible,” Fred paused while addressing Phil, for everyone’s attention, “…that you’d been drinking at the time. Again.”
Phil stared blankly at his brother, who was smiling widely as if it was some sort of standing joke between them. But a waiter approached to top up their glasses and he said nothing.
“White or red?” Karine was asked. Her glass was still dry but without looking up she put her palm over it, continuing with her defense of the production against Christina’s preference for an off-Broadway staging she once saw.
Fred replied, gesturing, “That’s right; red thanks,” while Phil craned his neck to see past the waiter.
Sybill had sat back quietly. Her end of the table contrasted starkly with the hubbub in their circle and around the restaurant. It was one of Sybill’s favourite after-theatre places, and Phil’s, and on this night it was bustling. Amid the clatter of plates and cutlery, and of people entering, leaving, and squeezing between chairs to get somewhere, Christina began relating an anecdote about the lead in her New York production.
Several small lampshades on a chandelier behind Sybill bathed the area in an amber warmth. Beyond her, a picture window bordered by Christmas lights framed a street scene where traffic processed slowly, snow fell with an angular sweep, and now and then a cluster of pedestrians would rush past, huddling against the wind.
“Now just a second, Freddy; there’s no call for that kind of slur.” Phil declared, glowering across the table with a wry expression. His view was blocked again by the waiter, who began removing their dinner plates.
“It was Millie, I tell you,” Sybill sputtered from her end.
Everyone turned to where Sybill sat, her head nearly shrunken into her velvet collar, looking over-powdered and frail in her armchair. Her skin in that light had a faint orange hue and seemed dry as parchment. Her chin shook as she brushed something pearly from her cheek.
Phil was up right away, drawing out a handkerchief as he rushed to her side.
“I am sorry, dear: I didn’t mean to upset you.” When he approached his wife his hands came to rest on the shoulders of the young man beside her.
“Can I exchange seats with you after all, Paulo?” The offer was made earlier, but Phil had stayed with Christina to pursue the conversation begun while leaving the theatre.
Paulo grinned and got up to join Christina, eager for her company and for a change from the gloom where he had landed. Phil took his seat; even right beside her, Sybill looked tiny as she said:
“…and you didn’t have to talk to me that way…” She said it firmly, but her necklace’s gemstones were winking at him.
After the interruptions and the shuffled seating, Christina began retelling her story to her husband Paulo, until she was back to where she had left off before he arrived. Her eyes darted around the table, but Phil and Sybill continued talking privately.
When Christina reached the end of her anecdote about the death of one of Paulo’s relations, a respectful quiet descended on the party. Sybill also paused briefly.
Into the silence, a voice from another table rang out, dark and clear as if its owner was sitting among them, sharing his confidence:
“We’re only fifteen days into it, but I can tell 2011 is not going to be my year.”
“Oh, come on. There’s no such thing as bad luck,” came a reply.
Some shouting broke in when a kitchen door flew open, but it was stifled when it swung closed again.
Phil asked Sybill: “‘Still thinking about our little episode yesterday, aren’t you?” He looked her over closely, and added in a near-whisper, “What’s wrong with a little flirting? How could you think it meant anything? In fact…”
Sybill looked away, withdrawn, remote. Christina was trying to draw some link between the play and the death she had just related that Freddy, Karine and even Paulo could not grasp. While Phil was talking (“…just a cheerful check-out girl, and young enough…”), Sybill noted that the restaurant’s carpets had been removed. She felt she understood better why it seemed so crowded and hollow and noisy, and why her head was throbbing so.
“Oh, I’m finding all of this unbearable,” she interrupted vaguely, waving a hand around the room as if in explanation. “Can we go home?”