She had looked forward to spending quality time with her family. She knew the weekend would work out well, and the many preparations worth it. How memorable it would be again to see the nieces and nephews play together from dusk till dawn, and have them rolling in bed, tired and black-footed from running around barefoot all day in the spring weather. It promised to be a warm weekend. She marvelled at the coincidence of George’s party being on the same weekend, and in little town nearby. George was a close study friend of both her husband and her. He could have picked any location in the world given he had worked internationally since they graduated. Then again, coincidences do not exist, do they?
Yet first things first. She wanted to see her parents and give them a hug. Their car was parked at the far end of the cottages. She decided to take a few items out of fridge and head over. It had been almost a year since she had seen them. She would bring the cheeses, knowing they would be directly opened and appreciated. They would go well with the wine, undoubtedly already at the table. White or red? It was comforting how certain things never change. She scribbled a quick note to her husband. He would arrive in an hour or two directly from his business trip. She was happy she had opted to make this weekend trip into a mini-holiday. The long drive up here had been relaxing because of the few day stop in Northern France to visit her friend. It had proven the welcome opportunity for her and the kids to wind-down. And it had allowed her to go shopping; she was grateful for her friend’s advice in finding a dress fitting George’s party.
It was a pleasure to see her parents. Warm hugs were exchanged. No one seemed to have changed, or was that just what she wanted to see? Her sister and her boyfriend enjoyed a glass of red wine. She wondered whether this would be the weekend they would announce their marriage. They had decided to come a day early and judging their rosy cheeks, had enjoyed the outdoors much. Her mum had already taken the cheeses from her, and was preparing some to go with their drinks. She wondered who had brought the sausages this year, which lay invitingly in the middle of the table. None of the grandchildren were inside; supposedly they were having a blast outside.
She was happy they had decided to go for an easy dinner this Friday evening. She did not feel like dressing up, or taking the kids away from the games they were playing. Instead they would have the formal dinner on Sunday evening and each would go their separate ways early Monday morning. She remembered how stressful those Friday dinners used to be, each coming from different lives, having not seen each other for months. Everyone always did their best but the atmosphere was often tense if not explosive, especially when kids were younger and everyone tired of the travel. She was glad that this tradition had been open for change. She could relax tonight. After a few glasses, and once her husband had arrived, the group made the short stroll through the woods to a local restaurant. The restaurant turned out to be a famous place, making their Friday dinner a lively event. Most customers seemed to have exchanged the city for the countryside, seeking a different quality of life, while still being attached to particular ‘city life’ customs. At a certain point it crossed her mind, this might be an area where she could live. That is, if the near future would bring her back home. Funny, how she noticed she used the word home. Where was her home?
The good-humoured teasing that had started during the Friday drinks continued Saturday morning at breakfast. Most of the teasing was centred on her insisting to go to the party of George. Also her husband joined in the teasing. It clearly amazed them all that she was adamant in going. Usually she would be advocating spending as much time together as a family during the reunion weekend. And to be honest, over the years she had become less and less interested in partying. The fuss, ‘bling-bling’, and superficial conversations about nothing in particular increasingly bothered her. Somehow, she felt this party to be different. Reading George’s invitation brought back memories of the various student parties, large and small. How she had enjoyed them, and the connection she had felt with particular people. Genuine talks, and spending time together, while the surroundings and outfit did not seem to matter. Connecting and being interested in the other was what mattered. Although, to be honest, she could also remember that for some events countless hours were being spent on decorating, arranging the entertainment, and picking the right outfit. How were the parties of those days different than the parties she was invited to these days? Was it because their classmates were like-minded? It was true; they had all made a conscious decision to study something, which was definitely not mainstream. Or was her memory playing tricks on her and only focusing on the good ones?
It was not only the memories of her time at the university that made her insist on going. The invitation was different, both in the wording and the quality of the paper. It made her curious. It was luxurious paper, not over the top or boastful, but fitting and simply a class apart. She knew George would be well off by now, having worked for more than two decades internationally in well-paid jobs, not having to support a wife and family. Yet, she also knew, though mostly from stories, that he had not changed much over the years and still liked to show off with fast cars and latest gadgets. However, the character he had possessed as a student seemed to have been replaced, over the years, by a blunt arrogant rather rude personality. Judging what she saw and heard of him, it seemed almost as if he did not care about others any longer. The wording of the invitation did paint an entirely different picture, which intrigued her. It kept her busy she had to admit. He would celebrate his 45th birthday and had invited those that were dear to him to celebrate it together with him. It looked like it would be an event where he sincerely would appreciate their (or, as she read between the lines, her) presence. She was hoping she could see through his demeanour and find the side of George she cherished most.
She assumed that quite a few of the other classmates would accept the invite. She looked forward to seeing them in person. The Facebooks, Skypes, LinkedIns, blogs, and hearsay were only superficial means to an end, providing a good reason for her to stay away from it mostly. They were no comparison to seeing someone in person, feeling their energy, listening with your heart and being able to ask the questions that popped up right there and then. Questions you could only ask in person, because the benefit of ‘how you say’ rather than ‘what you say’ was at your side. Why was she defending herself (and justifying the amount she spent on the dress)? Also her husband had been very steadfast about accepting the invitation. He had kept in touch with George more than she had.
Above and beyond
Her family calmly demanded that she showed her new dress before setting off. They sat in the living room waiting and it reminded her of going to her first ball. And also this time, they were taken by surprise. The dress adorned her body and brought out something in her far beyond her pure physical appearance. Her brother said she radiated a beautiful energy and he was proud to be her big brother. Amazing, how a dress could give her the extra confidence she felt she could use tonight. After several hugs, they set off. Her husband had suggested taking the car to the venue, as she usually did not drink. It would give them more flexibility, especially as he had heard that many people would be coming, and taxis could be limited in the small town. She was surprised that he did not see her point of view that a cab would avoid any parking problems and would allow her to relax on the way up (and down). He was inconvincible. They spent the one-hour car ride in a pleasant silence; occasionally wondering out loud if so and so would also be there. She felt getting more nervous the closer they got, and it made her chatty, mentioning little incidents of their student lives that brought smiles to their faces, but no healthy laughs that could have replaced the stress they both experienced. She noticed her husband being absent-minded or was it pre-occupied? He seemed ready for a drink. Perhaps they should have taken a drink before they had left. However she had insisted on leaving early, hoping her anxiety would disappear as soon as she knew which of her many scenarios would fit George’s party.
Arriving at the venue aroused her interest even more. There was a line of people waiting underneath the most luxurious party building she had ever seen. It had been put up for the occasion. They were obviously not the first to arrive, nor the last! The building turned out to be a waiting area to provide comfort and, if needed, shelter against the weather. It made an exquisite display: people in evening gowns covered by rows of elegant red and white hard plastic umbrella-like structures. It blended surprisingly well with the 18th century castle behind it, despite the contrast. There was a fairytale glow to it. They joined the queue and were soon engulfed. It felt as if people were coming from all parts of the world. And indeed they did judging the variety in languages and (national) dresses! She recognised a few classmates dotted in the crowd and was about to joyously greet them. Instead, she noticed that only soft-spoken words came out, her arms staying closely to her body. The mood of the crowd had affected her: upper class people waiting patiently, actually so calmly that it felt to her as if they had just finished a group meditation session. She had never experienced anything like it. It was as if the entire crowd was one, held in suspension, similar to a football stadium, in dead silence, collectively following the ball toward the goal after it has left the foot of the legendary forward. It was clear to her that most people were positively surprised by all the efforts that had gone into organising this party. The crowd’s energy sent pleasant shivers along her back and lifted her up, while at the same time it finally calmed her nerves.
Further along, it became apparent that the security checks caused the queue. Now she understood why the invitation said you had to carry your passport. She was glad she had not been as stubborn as she, at times, used to be as a student. Why security, she pondered. What has the world come to? She then quickly realised that she would not invite strangers into her house either. And if you asked this many people, a passport check was probably the quickest and safest route if you did not fancy standing at the door all evening ‘checking in’ your guests. The security guards quickly checked her bag and she could proceed through one of the electronic gates. She observed many security staff standing idle, keeping an eye on the scanners, in addition to the many cameras placed around the waiting area. It made a very professional impression. Guests were well taken care off, and cost did not seem to matter. And all of this for a birthday party? She had a gut feeling that George had a hidden agenda, like in the olden days.
Two hours into the party, she looked outside and noticed the line of guest was far shorter, yet still out there. It fitted the conclusion she had reached by now that George must have invited everyone he had ever known: people he had worked with, went to school with, childhood friends, neighbours, and family, and many more. She had discovered it included also all the executives he had worked for, and worked with, both in competing and client companies. This explained the security, wouldn’t it? Anyway, the security she’d better forget about and enjoy the grand atmosphere instead; everybody seemed to be enjoying himself or herself. This evening, George seemed to have a big heart, and wallet! A thought crossed her mind that he might be ill and wanted to celebrate in style before leaving this world? She was looking forward to seeing George and hoped he would create some time for her. Where could she find him?
Inside the castle meticulous effort has been spent to transform the majestic rooms and halls into an authentic celebration setting. Each room was differently decorated and entertainment subtly arranged. Nevertheless, a common theme remained, giving a pleasant ambiance for those floating from hall to hall. The event was taken seriously, and several people must have spent countless weeks or months turning a world-class idea into reality. Fairytale might be a more adequate description. This party somehow possessed energy of its own. Was it due to the anticipation of a highlight of the evening, or the fact that all came for the same reason. The atmosphere certainly vibrated, though very delicately, in tune with the settings. She found it hard to describe what she saw and experienced. Some of it reminded her of the Arab parties she had attended while they lived in the Middle East. Parties thrown by people with money in a different order of magnitude and a hunger for lavish displays of their wealth. The high percentage of Arab staff and Arab speaking guests added to this impression. She had not yet figured out why there would be so many Arab catering staff.
During the evening she preferred speaking with classmates. Most of them had made the effort to accept the invitation. George somehow had this effect on people. He was gifted in many ways. And very sensitive, she knew, although he hardly showed this side. The high marks he had gotten as a student never made as lasting an impression as the efforts he put into make his stay at university beneficial to those around him. He had a tendency to brag, especially after a few drinks. To her it was a clear sign of an insecurity he tried to hide. He could relate well to most people, including the professors and business representatives that often frequented the university. It had proven the foundation for the successes he had experienced in his business ventures.
For sure, her classmates had changed in certain ways. On the other hand, she found they had stayed the same in many more aspects. But maybe that was what she recognised. It certainly made it easier to pick up where they had left years ago. She found it fascinating to observe that around them she experienced the same emotions and thoughts as twenty years ago. Almost as if she was still the same student inside a body that had aged. Yet she knew, more than two decades later that she was now better able to observe and let go. She could shrug off and laugh at certain behaviour that would have negatively affected her back then: guys she felt insecure about, people she thought were so much her senior, the ones that made her feel like a little girl, the few people that she often felt irritated with, the ones she could not say “No” to, and the ones that automatically got her into a bidding war of who had achieved most.
In the middle of a conversation, one of her classmates looked at his watch and took her slightly apart. He asked if she had been in the blue room. “Blue room? No,” she replied. He then gently took her by the elbow and they walked through several hallways, up and down stairs. Along the way, she noticed a few signs ‘Restricted area’. They never ventured into any of those rooms. Suddenly she stood in a doorway looking at a lovely room with blue curtains, supposedly the blue room. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the right. It was where George stood. Her heart skipped a beat. His posture was erect, calm, his usual self, and a little tense maybe? It was good to see him after those years. He beckoned for her to come over. The person he had been speaking to left quietly. Their classmate brought her over and then disappeared as well.
How wonderful to see George and have the chance to talk to him, one on one, at a party this size! Though filled with people, the blue room gave her the feeling there was ample privacy when talking to George. The others kept their distance and did not give them any attention. She only learned later from her husband that this blue room setting had been planned as part of the party. Her husband and a few good friends of George took up the role to find and bring back those people George wished to speak to at his party. And it was clear to those invited into the blue room that one could linger but not interfere with any other conversations George had. Politically, the set-up was brilliant. No one at the party was offended. Everyone had the idea they could bump into George anytime, but understood if they wouldn’t it was due to the size of the party. And at the same time, George could also enjoy his party, and surely network, ask and return a few favours.
From the start it was clear to her that George was not interested in chatting. She immediately recognised the ‘serious’ George she knew from the occasional evenings when he had persisted in her (and others) answering confrontational and philosophical questions. She enjoyed this side of George and warmed up to him. She was older now and found it easier to voice her feelings than in the olden days. It seemed what he needed, because shortly into the conversation it was George who spoke more than he used to. She found his words deep, yet at times too philosophical to be specific. She felt it was quite cryptic when he mentioned that he was ready for the new phase in his life. She knew it would not work to ask for clarification, which he clearly was not in the mood to give. She listened while he continued sharing, “I have started to ‘let go’. This conversation forms an important part of that process. I wanted to thank you for the role model you have always been to me. At several points in my life you have, unknowingly, made a difference. In those tricky situations, where right and wrong were not clear-cut, thinking of what you would do has helped me stay level-headed.” George did not give any examples, but she could easily think of a few, based on the stories she heard about him through her husband. In his life it would have been easy to become the victim of politics, money or power play. George continued talking and moved a little closer to her, as if he did not want others to hear what he was about to share. “My primary reason to speak to you today is to let you know that I have had a crush on you since we were students.” It made a faint smile appear on her face, an expression of her recognition, of her intuition back then. “No, I better rephrase,” he corrected after a moment of silence. “I feel a love for you.” He paused. And they enjoyed the silence in which they felt each other’s presence; it was comforting. He continued and explained, “I knew it would not have worked for us to have a relationship, because we were too different. Besides, I could never give what your husband so evidently could. A simple look at your radiance since you and your husband have started dating was enough to make me feel falling short.” His compliment on her radiance took her by surprise, and made her feel her love for her husband even stronger.
…… This is the end of the taster.
Curious how the story ends?