" A dinner party takes several unexpected turns due to a rather eccentric neighbour "
We stood in the doorway watching in amazement. He was trying to flatten the pastry with his hands but he just kept ripping it and making it worse. Morris finally looked up and saw us, slowly baring his teeth into a grin.
“Hello there . . . ah, yes, haven’t got a rolling pin you see?” he offered, whilst looking down at pastry on the counter. He took the bottle of Argentinian red I held out but put it down on the kitchen top instead of using it to roll the pastry. At least it could be used as a segway to talk about the last year I had spent in South America.
“You must be the traveller I suppose,” he said shaking my hand vigorously. I looked the flour that he’d just rubbed onto my black coat sleeve, brushing it off discretely.
We removed our coats and looked for somewhere to put them but struggled to find even a square foot of empty space. Everywhere you looked there were signs of aborted construction. There were drills on all of the chairs. There were piles of cement dust. Picture frames had been left half made, and a host of other hardware items were strewn across the flagstone floor. This was certainly not in keeping with the neat and organised ideals of rural Sussex living. My parents looked around disapprovingly.
Morris left the pie lid he had been working on to help us find a seat. He flew over to the table, clearing electrical cables and power tools as he went. We sat and prepared ourselves for what was going to be a long wait for our food.
The name Hedgehog Hall may conjure up images of expansive country estates with stucco ceilings and Gainsborough oil paintings. In reality, Morris’s house was an old stone cottage, with a good number of confusingly situated rooms. There were inconveniently angled roofs and uneven stone floors. It also boasted a large unkempt garden with a large fish pond that hadn’t been filled in years. Being close neighbours, we had been invited over to a farewell dinner as Morris was selling up. The prospective buyer would be joining us and with so much at stake, most people would have tidied up. Most people would be on their best behaviour. Not Morris. He was still excitedly explaining his home improvement projects when the buyer arrived. My father listened to Morris’s domestic visions with scepticism, offering the occasional “hmm”, and managing to hold his tongue. It seemed to me that these projects mostly consisted of taking things apart and then forgetting how to put them together again.
”Ah, there you are David, lovely to see you again,” said Morris enthusiastically. Perhaps he was on his best behaviour after all. As our host wandered off to look for a seat for the new guest, we introduced ourselves and my parents assessed their prospective neighbour. David Dudlyke was portly and energetic. He was a successful geologist from London, and was looking for a holiday home for his young family.
Morris soon returned with a large white porcelain ‘butler’ sink. He turned to David, “I’m afraid you’ll have to sit on this old boy. The other chair’s not so strong and you’ve got a bit of a tum you see?”. The guest registered a look of surprise at being denied a normal chair but stammered something about ‘making the best of it’.
I was searching for a means to open the wine in the kitchen and Morris came over brandishing a corkscrew. “The trick is to oxygenate,” he stated confidently. “You can really unlock the full flavour of the tannins in the grapes”.
We watched intently as Morris pulled the cork out and took the bottle towards the dining table with a large carafe clasped in one hand. He set the container on the floor and from above his head, began pouring the contents in. I watched the wine splash over the rim and onto the floor. My father rushed over to save the drink by bringing the carafe up to meet the flow of wine.
Morris had spilled malbec on his top too. He was wearing one of those white rough cotton shirts that sailing enthusiasts have. He didn’t actually own a boat. He was a tall wiry man of around 60 and was sporting battered brown shoes, paint spattered trousers and a navy blue neckerchief. His eyes held a manic intensity. They burned in constant vigilance behind his messy outcrop of white hair and grey stubble. He was a man of constant small movements and ticks. He rarely sat still or listened. During conversations he would shoot off on unrelated new tangents like a miss-firing cannon.
“A doctorate eh? My doctor told me I need to put on more weight so I should eat more butter. Trouble is I don’t care for the stuff, so I’ve started putting double cream into my bacon sandwiches. Not bad eh?”
We waited silently for the pie which seemed to take an age to cook. Morris decided to bridge the gap in conversation with some music and soon we were listening to the curt, clipped sounds of a military march. “Rousing stuff this,” said Morris “I find it perfect for work around house.” The blast of trumpets and the thumps of a bass drum didn’t seem the ideal backdrop for a friendly dinner party to me. I noticed David looking through the back window, dreaming of escaping to the Napoleonic wars, or some other historical battle.
Every guest had a completely different set of crockery. David Dudlyke received a serving platter to eat from, my father had a children’s fork with a steak knife and I had a small terracotta plate. As if double cream sandwiches and the high-diving wine was not strange enough, we were served a bizarre array of side dishes to accompany the steak pie.
“What did you cook with the mushrooms in Morris?” my mother asked.
“I simply added a bit of blackberry jam.” he replied. “Had loads of the stuff leftover from last year and I thought I’d try something a bit different”.
“Well that’s certainly a novel idea” she said smiling, as she forced a few more onto her fork.
This man was like a real life Willy Wonka. He created oddities. He put things together according to his wishes with no regard for ‘the norm’. I started to feel like I was watching these events happen through a two way mirror as the guests struggled to realise if it was all some big hoax. I felt as if I was in a dream, and my place at the table was actually empty.I was brought back to reality by the contrast of watery courgettes and a sharp alcoholic taste. They had been flambéed in Limoncello, another of Morris’s improvisations.
With the brass bands still blaring away on the stereo, David and my father took solace in the normality of ‘homeowners’ discussions’. They considered the problems with the flood defences in the local rife, the correct way to wire underfloor heating, and the peak traffic periods for holiday makers. My Mother offered her sympathy over Morris’s stories of marital misfortune and back-stabbing business partners.
“I’ve got a marvellous business idea!” he exclaimed, suddenly standing up and turning to me. “Put more charging points in airports, you always need them.”
“A lot of airports do have them . . .” I replied timidly. “Some of them you even have to pay for”.
“Yes, yes. More power sockets is what they need” he continued, rubbing the stubble on his chin, “I could put more in without a problem and charge to use them. I’m always having these little ideas.”
We moved on to a dessert which consisted of a mystery fruit with the host’s favourite, double cream. We later discovered it to be persimon. I declined the offer of coffee fearing that juniper berries or caviar might be added in one of the host’s inspirational culinary moments.
The rest of the evening passed without much incident, and after a shaky start David began to warm towards Morris’s eccentricities. I’m sure they had plenty more awkward moments throughout the course of their property transaction, but eventually David moved in and started the clear up operation. The strangest thing about that night was how normal everything seemed to my parents. As we walked home they discussed the harvesting of the field and the Radio 4 schedule as if we hadn’t just been to the Mad Hatter’s house for tea.