Once upon a time, in the far north of London, lived a married couple called Mungo and Katinka Needham. They were by no means rich – Katinka was an assistant producer at The Shopping Channel, and Mungo a community worker in Islington – so they were forced to live in a street which the Evening Standard had described as full of potential for improvement.
After five years, Katinka saw no sign of any improvement. The only sit down restaurant within walking distance was still the handful of tables hidden at the back of the kebab shop, and the nearest delicatessen was at the bottom of Mare Street, a bus ride away. There wasn’t even a decent pub, one that sold Thai food and Belgian beer, not this side of London Fields. Sometimes Katinka despaired. The nice ordinary people in the street hardly seemed to worry, Katinka noticed. She admired the way they coped without somewhere to buy decent fresh tuna. That was the best thing about the area, Mungo always said. It was full of nice ordinary people. Real people, Mungo called them. Locals.
Katinka and Mungo’s next door neighbours Sally and Dave were locals. Dave worked at a van hire place off the Upper Clapton Road, and Sally did a bit of cleaning. Mungo and Katinka always had time to stand and chat to Sally and Dave if they met them on the doorstep. After five years, Katinka had come to think of them as… well, not friends, exactly, but certainly perfectly nice ordinary neighbours. Dave liked the football, and so, of course, did most of Mungo’s clients, so that was great. And Katinka was always trying to get Sally to come to Pilates at Mungo’s Community Centre, but she never came, though Katinka just knew somehow that she liked to be asked, that it made her feel included.
But when Katinka got a little promotion at work, she found herself with less and less time to stand and chat, or to get to Pilates, for that matter. She seemed to live at the office. Mungo, as usual, was too busy running the community centre to offer anything more than lip-service at home, and Katinka was fed up of trying to keep the place clean, and so one day, she went and knocked on Sally’s door, and asked if Sally would like to come and clean for her. Sally agreed, though Mungo was a little concerned that a boundary had been crossed.
“I wouldn’t say they were friends, exactly,” he said. “But they are our neighbours, and I just feel that it’s a little bit…
“A little bit what, Mungo?” said Katinka. But Mungo just shrugged, as usual. That was the problem with Mungo, thought Katinka. He never finished his sentences. He just shrugged.
But the arrangement with Sally seemed to work well enough. Katinka always left Sally an envelope with a note saying what wanted doing and twenty pounds, and she had had no cause for complaint.
After a few months had passed, Katinka made the mistake of telling her best friend India about it, over a pot of jasmine tea.
“God, how fucking bourgeois, Kat. Employing your neighbour as your fucking daily woman. What’s wrong with Mungo?”
“Oh come on, India. Mungo’s all in favour of feminism, god knows, but he never had to wash up a thing until he got to Durham, and even then it was only his mug. Sally does it well.”
“I expect she does, poor fucking cow, And does she pull her forelock when you meet her?”
“Of course not, We’re… well, not exactly friends, but we stop and chat. I was always inviting her to pilates.”
“Did she come?”
“No, thank god. I stopped asking her in the end.”
“Kat, you are such a fucking snob.”
“I am not.”
“You are. You so are. If you weren’t a snob you’d invite Sally and…”
“Sally and Dave round for dinner.”
“Oh, I don’t think they’d like that.” said Katinka
“You wouldn’t, you mean, snobby little princess.”
“Alright, I’ll prove it to you. I’ll prove I’m not a snob, I’ll invite Sally and Dave for dinner. And I’ll invite you too, LADY India.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said. “No one is supposed to know.”
“Well then. Will you come?”
“Of course I will. Can I bring someone?”
“Y-hah. I’ll invite Molly and Max, too.”
Katinka told Mungo that night.
“Oh Kat, no. I can’t stand it. It’s a horrible idea. It’s completely…” He shrugged.
“Well, it’s happening. I’ve already put a note through Sally’s door, inviting her and Dave to dinner on Tuesday week. It was the only time India and Molly could both make it. Because if you think I’m going to put up with being called a snobby princess by Lady India Mannerley, Mungo, you can think again.”
The next morning, when Sally came to clean, she left Katinka a note saying that she and Dave would be delighted to come, thank you.
Katinka decided that she would cook her absolute speciality, roast loin of pork. She had a little man at the Borough Farmers Market who did THE most wonderful organic Gloucester Old Spot. While she was there she bought some Bramleys and a bottle of calvados for the sauce, and some creme fraiche for her Dauphinoise potatoes too. For starters, she thought, langoustine, fresh as could be, and she sent Mungo down to Billingsgate on the day of the dinner to get them. And for dessert – a delicious Schwarzwaldtorte from the Austrian pattiserie near the studios.
India arrived first, with Charles, her ex.
Katinka kissed Charles, but made a face at India behind his back.
“We’re on again, darling,” said India.
“Oh. Good luck..”
“Thanks Katinka,” said Charles. “We’ll need it after the week I’ve had. Oil tanker gone down off Brittany…”
Charles was in reinsurance, and liked to talk shop. Katinka had never liked him much. Neither had Mungo.
“Hello Charles” said Mungo.
“Hello old mung bean.” said Charles. “Hows the community? I hear theres a couple of your types coming for dinner.”
“Our friends, actually Charles. Well, not exactly friends, but more like…”. Mungo shrugged.
“They’re our neighbours, Charles,” said Katinka.
Sally and Dave knocked at the door. They had bought a bottle of wine.
“Hello Sally! Dave hi! Let me pop that in the freezer. You know Mungo, of course.”
“Mungo,” said Dave.
“Y-hah, hi Dave,” said Mungo “And Sally… hi! Lovely to see you, come in, come in. This is Charles….”
“How do?” said Dave.
“Y-hah” said Charles.
“And this is India.” said Mungo.
“Hello.” said Sally, offering her hand.
“Lovely to meet you, Sally, at last. I’ve heard so much about you.” said India.
“Have you?” said Sally.
“Of course. You’re Katinkas little treasure. She never stops talking about you.”
Mungo fixed drinks for everyone.
“And what about you, Dave?” said Charles. “What do you do?”
“I work at a van hire place.”
“Do you? Where?”
“Off the Upper Clapton Road.”
“God, isn’t that funny. We hired a minibus off you chaps to go and see the Ba-Ba’s stick it up Taffs arse, years ago. India, isn’t that funny?”
“Ears,” said India. “Kat, I love your frock, by the way…”
“Thanks. You’re looking rather lovely too.”
“So Dave,” said Mungo. “Whats all this I hear about Glen Waddle?”
“Yes, sorry, Hoddle. Whats all this about him not liking disabled people?”
“Well, that was when he was England manager, Mungo. He said something shtupid about reincarnation, and how disabled people had probably done something wrong in a previous life, and the press picked it up. I don’t think he meant it, not like it came out.”
“Ah, but you would say that… as a Spurs fan.” said Mungo, hoping that he had got it right.
“Oh, are you a Spurs fan?” said Charles.
“That’s right,” said Dave.
“I follow Man U, myself.” said Charles. “Come on you Reds!”
“Right,” said Dave.
The door went again. It was Molly and Max.
“Molly! Max! Come in” said Katinka.
“Hello sweet kitten,” said Molly. “Do you like Max’s shoes?”
“They are rather gorgeous…”
“Did a piece on the shop for The Telegraph. Hello India… I love your hair!”
“Molly, sweetheart, how are you? And hows Max? Get back from Southwold alright?”
“He’s not happy.” said Molly.
“Ziz country is so fucking superficial.” said Max.
“Oh, don’t start him off,” said Molly. “Come and talk to him about Iranian cinema, Mungo. Its the only thing he cares about any more.”
“Molly, Max, this is Sally… and this is Dave.” said Katinka.
“Nice to meet you.” said Dave.
“What a funny little top,” said Molly to Sally. “Where did you get it?”
“Dave got it for me for my birthday.”
“Did he?” said Molly.
“Dave’s into football, Max” said Mungo, handing Max a glass of mineral water.
“I adore football,” said Max. “Vot could more perfectly symbolise ze preternatural pointlessness of post-industrial society?”
Katinka called everyone to the table.
“Come on,” she said. “Boy girl boy girl.”
Sally sat between Mungo and Max, and Dave between Katinka and India. Mungo chatted to Molly, and India to Max. Katinka served the langoustine, with some homemade mayonaise and a bowl of samphire.
“Darling,” said Molly. “Langoustine.”
“Uh.To die for,” said India, picking apart the shell, biting the flesh.
Sally and Dave did not seem to know what to do. They stared at the langoustine and each other.
Katinka said, “Try some samphire…. it’s heavenly.”
“Thanks,” said Sally, helping herself. “my dad was a fishmonger. He used to bring samphire home sometimes, ditnt he Dave?”
“Yes,” said Dave, reaching for some himself.
“A fishmonger?” said Max.
“Yes,” said Sally.
“Really, a fishmonger?” said Max.
“Yes,” said Dave. Max looked at Molly.
“These are wonderful, Kat,” said Charles.
Katinka watched Sally and Dave pick the shells from, but never actually eat, their langoustine. They just fiddled with them. They ate samphire, dipped in the home made mayonnaise. She thought, oh god. If Sallys father was a fishmonger, she must know all about langoustines. She can tell that they’re off. Bloody Mungo, I bet he didn’t go to Billingsgate to get them.
Mungo helped to clear the table. In the kitchen, Katinka said
“You’re sure you got the freshest ones?”
“So why didn’t they eat them?”
“I don’t know. They were really lovely, really. They probably just…”
“Just help me with the pork, Mungo.”
There were squeals of delight from around the table when Katinka carried the pork through.
“Katinka! Mmmm!” said India.
“And dauphinois potatoes. Yum!” said Molly.
Katinka helped Dave and Sally to a nice big slice of meat and some dauphinois potatoes. Again, they stared at their plates, and then at each other. Dave had gone a bit red.
“Oh, Katinka,” said Charles. “This is fab. Cheers everyone.”
Sally picked up her glass, but Dave was still staring at his plate.
“Dave,” said Sally. “A toast…”
“Oh. Oh right, yeah.” Dave picked up his glass. “Cheers.”
Katinka tried to talk to India, but really she was watching Dave push the meat and potatoes around his plate, and she was beginning to feel angry.
“Tell me about Southwold, Indie.”
India launched into a story about a scrabble game between Max and her aunt which had ended in tears, but Katinka was too upset to listen. Everyone loved her loin of pork, except, it seemed, the fucking cleaner and her husband. Katinka could see that Mungo was a bit upset too. He was certainly drinking more than usual.
“No, but Dave. That’s disgusting what Glen Waddle said.” said Mungo. “I’m amazed he can get a job after that outburst.”
“Hoddle” said Dave, poking at his potatos.
“Who?” said Molly.
“Glen Waddle The England manager. He said that disabled people were probably evil in another life, and were being punished.” said Mungo.
“He manages Spurs now, Mungo,” said Dave.
“I interviewed him and his wife, ” said Molly, “months before that, for Hello. Odious little man.”
“Horrible,” said Katinka. “What a disgusting thing to say.”
“Does Michael Owen still play for England?” said Charles.
Dave stopped playing with his food, and put his knife and fork down.
“I agree wiz Hoddle,” said Max. “I despise the sick.”
“Max!” said India, laughing.
Sally stopped pretending to eat too.
Katinka could barely swallow. She was choked with rage. How dare these people come here and not eat what was put in front of them? It was the rudest thing she could ever remember happening. She and Mungo cleared the table, while Max shouted at India about Iranian cinema, and Charles explained to Molly about ISA’s. At least Sally had the decency to look ashamed. Dave just looked aggressive. How dare he?
“How dare he Mungo?” said Katinka in the kitchen. “Not a word of apology even.”
“I don’t know,” said Mungo. “maybe they’re….”
“Don’t fucking shrug at me Mungo…. maybe they’re what?”
Katinka put her hand over her mouth and stared at Mungo.
“Oh my God. Mungo. I never even asked. Oh my god! And I’ve been thinking THEY were rude! Poor Dave. What must he think?”
“Too late to do anything now. I’ll get out the dessert wine. You get the Schwarzwaldtorte. At least theres no meat in that.” Katinka giggled, and kissed Mungo.
Katinka carried the cake through on a plate. Sally looked at Dave and tried to smile.
“Schwarzwaldtorte?,” said Katinka. “Sally? Dave?” They both said yes. Poor things, thought Katinka. They must be starving. She gave them both extra large helpings. She’d take Sally aside and apologise tomorrow. She felt awful.
“Ahhh… Katinka… , said Max, cream around his lips. “Wonderful. The German baker is an alchemist. Whatever he puts in his oven turns to gold!”
To Katinka’s horror, Sally pushed back her chair, and Dave stood up.
“We’re going now, Mrs. Needham,” said Sally.
“Whatever is the matter Sally?” said Katinka.
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Molly. “Sit down.”
“Fuck off, you skinny old whore,” shouted Dave. Molly picked up her bowl, and threw it at Dave. It missed, and hit Charles on the cheek.
“Look out,” he said, annoyed. Max laughed, and Dave went to hit him
“Come on Dave,” shouted Sally. “Come on! Leave it!” She pulled at Dave’s shirt.
“What’s happening?” said Mungo, but before anyone really knew, Sally had run crying down the hall, and Dave had followed her, slamming the front door behind him.
“Well!” said India. “Whatever was all that about?”
“I told you it wouldn’t work, India. I told you they wouldn’t like it. So much for fucking feminism.”
Everyone started to chatter and laugh. They were much more relaxed now Sally and Dave had gone. Max got out his cocaine. At least the evening hadn’t been dull.
Katinka was rather put when she got a note from Sally in the morning, saying that she couldn’t clean for the Needhams anymore. Katinka didn’t like the tone; she found it almost threatening. Sally had signed the note with her full name. Katinka pinned it up on the notice board for Mungo to see when he got home.
“Look at this Mungo,” said Katinka in the evening. “Saves me having to sack her. I mean, I know I should have asked have asked if they were vegetarian, but really, this is a bit much. Read it.”
Mungo read aloud,
“Dear Mrs. Needham,
I shan’t be coming to clean any more. After five years, Dave and I thought that you were nice neighbours, but it seems that you never listened to a word we said, or took any notice of what was going on in our lives in all that time. Dave thinks that people like you shouldn’t live around here, and I think he’s right. Yours sincerely….”
“Yours sincerely, Sally Levy.”
Again, Katinka covered her mouth with her hand.
“Oh God… I forgot. I just forgot. It wasn’t important to me Katinka. I never saw them like that I suppose”
“I’ll phone India. She’ll know what to do.”
Katinka was very upset speaking to India on the phone, but India talked her through it. And in the end, she even made Katinka laugh.
“No one will ever call YOU a snob again, darling,” she said. “Not just your cleaner to dinner, but your Jewish cleaner…”
That was the best thing about India, thought Katinka. She was always such fun.