We went today to a party to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of one of my school friends. She and I must have known each other for forty years, which is a solemn thought, and apart from her mother and brother I may have known her for longer than anybody else there today, though we don't see each other very often. She lives in Bromley, which is not somewhere you can pop round for supper starting from north Essex, and manages to combine having three children with being a partner in a City law firm. That doesn't leave a lot of spare capacity over for other things, especially given that her mother still lives in Devon.
We took the train. My initial reaction, when the Systems Administrator said that we could go on the train, was one of complete surprise. I am so used to there being engineering works at weekends on our line, and replacement buses for a stretch between Witham and Chelmsford or some such inconvenience, that the idea that trains worked at weekends and that you could use them to visit people did not occur to me. The trains ran more or less to time going there and coming back, though as we de-trained at Liverpool Street I did hear an announcement that the next service to Stansted was cancelled, with apologies for the inconvenience caused. No replacement buses for the Stansted bound passengers. They'll just have to miss their flights.
I did wonder, as I groped in the back compartment of my handbag for my one day travelcard for the umpteenth time and then struggled to put it away again one handed, why it was that I had opted to take a white peony and a box of eggs as hostess presents, instead of buying a bottle of fizz or a decent burgundy and making life easy for myself. Still, there were lots of bags containing bottles in their hall, while nobody else had brought plants and eggs that I could see. A peony is a good present for people who are not mad keen gardeners, as long as they have a reasonable sized garden. Provided it is planted at the correct depth, which is the same depth it's already at in its pot, it needs nothing else doing to it, ever, except to cut off the dead leaves at some point in the winter, and it will live longer than the recipient.
The forecast rain held off, and it was sunny enough for us to stand out in the garden with our pre-lunch drinks and nibbles. It was even sunny enough for me to need my sun hat, which I'd taken just in case, a retro style vaguely 1930s ruched number in white cotton, and warm enough for me not to be cold despite the fact that I'd forgotten my cardigan. I had a raincoat, but standing around eating sausages on sticks wearing a coat rather spoils the atmosphere.
Big set piece parties are like weddings and funerals, bringing together people from different stages and aspects of their hosts' lives. At work based events most people more or less know each other, and you can exchange politenesses with members of other departments before gravitating towards your particular mates. At beekeepers gatherings there are easy, if formulaic, questions to get a conversation going. Do you have bees? How many hives? Where do you keep them? Are you finding swarming really bad this year? Following which you can gravitate towards your particular mates. For weddings, and anniversary parties, I suppose the nearest equivalent is enquiring which of the couple other people know, and how, plus how far they've travelled, but you don't necessarily have any particular mates to gravitate towards, so you have to hope you'll strike lucky.
Fortunately we did, with a former housemate of my friend whom I recognised vaguely from our Oxford days, and her husband, who turned out to be kindred spirits. Keen gardeners, large garden, cats, liked poetry, arty people with a practical streak. It's a pity they live near Dorking.
So it was a very nice day, and we even managed to spend some time talking to our hosts, which doesn't always happen at parties, and I discovered how you combine being a partner specialising in intellectual property with having three children, which is that you have a formidably efficient nanny. The nanny was very nice, unmarried herself and with no children, and probably the nearest thing to Mary Poppins you will find in Bromley. I tell myself encouragingly that as my school friend and I have managed to stay in touch for this long, if we can keep it up for another ten or fifteen years she will have retired, and we'll have time to have lunch and go to an art gallery.