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The South African Doctor’s Wife, the Palace and the Place in the Country

It was my first event at the Really Big Palace.  I had a couple of drinks on the way there.

The Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge was a great place to pick up Russian hookers in those days but on this occasion there was a forbidding ‘Residents Only’ sign outside. We needed dutch courage.  Not Russian hookers.  The Orchestra Manager and I were bordering on the fresh-faced and ‘the sort of fresh faces that those sorts of places want to have seen amongst their clientele’.  And we were dressed like high school prommers.  So we got let in.

Two mortgage-priced glasses of champagne each later we piled into a taxi and took great delight in asking to be taken to the Really Big Palace.   We were late.

On arrival, seventeen degrees of chaos seemed to be ensuing.  The Orchestra were rehearsing a piece that the Esteemed But Free Soloist had insisted upon but no-one wanted to play or hear.  Terrified-looking serving staff were being told the angle at which to lean into the table to ensure the ennobled in attendance received their meals with the requisite amount of confidence but discretion.

brown wooden coffee table below an uplight chandelier

The rest of the team were rugby-huddled and complaining in the furthest corner of the room about the protocol which required them to play the part of cabin crew, directing attendees either to the right or the left depending upon the amount of money that the guest presenting themselves had given – something that was denoted by a subtle spot in the corner of their invitation.  Donor apartheid, we called it.

There was the sound of a small child loose in the crockery and glassware department of Selfridges emanating from the next room.

I peeked through the gap that had been left between two thrillingly enormous doors and saw The South African Doctor’s Wife and the Surrey-Based Builder’s Wife at war. Throwing placecards at each other.   Sadly, plates and glasses themselves weren’t being hurled.  The racket was the result of the force with which the women were leaning on the tables across from each other and the ferocity with which those tiny, tented and calligraphied markers were being grasped and rearranged.

No words were being uttered.   The arrangement and rearrangement was being conducted in pinch-faced silence with occasional pauses for leaning heavily on the table and glowering through the table centres.   I rolled my eyes and walked quietly backwards in a manner than had, no doubt, been adopted many times before in this very room.  She’s been in the fucking hairdressers all day, I thought, reflecting on one of the ladies’ coiffures.

The South African Doctor’s Wife had spent what felt like the entirety of the preceding week on the phone to me, ensuring that she was at the expensive end of the room even though she had not paid the requisite amount to qualify.  “Lady Such-and-Such will expect me to be there”.   “You need me to keep the conversation going at that ridiculously boring table”.  “This is what you need to do Young Man”.  These were just some of the bargaining ploys that she had lobbed my way over the course of a barrage of telephone calls.

bride s hair styled with a hair ornament

But she was not done with her aggressively-asserted management of the occasion quite yet.  The introductions of her hunch-backed guests to individuals who she deemed important were conducted with the sharpest of elbows and a manoeuvre that made it appear as if she was materialising miraculously from under the armpit of a member of the previously-closed circle.

During the drinks reception I made my way through an additional three glasses of champagne and for the first time since suburbia I started to feel a little tottery around the knees.  I leant on a poseur table and noticed, in doing so, an ashtray.  Interesting, I thought.

The guests barged their way into dinner to find out what the Warring Women of the so-called Campaign Committee had arranged for them only, of course, to find that they had to sit in front of a cold, plated starter that would gradually reach a fragrant degree of room temperature as the Orchestra scraped through the tuneless showpiece delivered by the preening violinist who had now spent an hour, no doubt, jerking off in a State Bedroom.

Shit, I thought to myself. The Shipping Heiress is sitting next to the fucking kitchen.  I’m going to pay for that.

In the multiple skirmishes that had encircled the evening’s arrangements, the quieter participants in proceedings had been gradually but forcefully relegated from parts of the room that were deemed to be prime by the less quiet participants.  The Shipping Heiress had been uncharacteristically demur in the planning for this occasion and had been summarily demoted.

potted green leafed plant beside wall

I forgot my troubles and headed back to the reception room to see whether there was anything left to drink.  There was. Let’s see, I thought.  Are these ashtrays for show or are they for the purpose for which they were intended?  I reached into my cheap DJ’s fluff and extra strong mint lined pocket for some Marlboro Menthols and I lit up.  Smoking in the Palace, I thought.  I’ve properly made it now.

I kept drinking and smoking throughout the rest of the evening and was to be found at the end of proceedings at the bottom of the stairs, handing out commemorative cups. The South African Doctor’s Wife rolled down the stairs in the last wave.  Oh, here we go, I thought, through the fizzing mist that had long-since descended upon my eyesight.

“That was a thrilling – THRILLING – evening”, she said.  “Thank you so much for all your hard work”.

Whatever, I thought. That face peel’s effects aren’t going to last the night.

The recriminations from the Shipping Heiress came a few days later from left field.  A tabloid journalist called asking questions that suggested that I was in cahoots with a senior aide at the Palace to trouser the proceeds from the event in return for favours, access and enhanced seating planning.  It was a few days later, after receiving a similar call, when the Managing Director took me aside and told me that the rumour was that I was £30k better off as a result. 

I’d recently taken ownership of a ‘place in the country’ with The Boyfriend.

“You’d better keep that quiet”, said the Managing Director.  “They’ll think that’s where you spent it”.

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