As we entered the capacious knock-through living-cum-dining area, with its mahogany panelled integral units running down the full length of one wall, Olga’s husband Cliff stepped forward to greet us. A self-made man and proud of it (“I’m a money maker, not a philosopher!”), Cliff ran a company which supplied raw materials to the building trade. Then, as now, these products were in great demand, due to the burgeoning mid-1980s property boom.
“Michael! How are you, young man?” Cliff raised and tilted his whisky tumbler toward me, expansively. “What is it you’re doing these days? Computers, is it? Champion! Well, they’re the future, aren’t they? I mean, ha ha, I know nothing about them myself, but you young uns, you’ve got to get in there, haven’t you? Now, have you all met our friends Ray and Molly?”
The group divided. Towards the rear of the room, my father, Cliff and Ray fell into business talk, with Molly looking on. In the lounge seating area at the front, girls’ talk was the order of the day, as S and Olga began to catch up. Naturally, K and I gravitated towards the latter group. Olga was holding forth about the delights of the estate.
“Of course, all the other houses have only the one telegraph pole in their back gardens – but we’ve got two telegraph poles in our back garden. Oh, S darling – let me get you an ashtray for that…”
My stepmother, not exactly on her first drink of the day, was waving her dangerously ash-laden Embassy Slim Panatella around, with reckless disregard for the state of the shag-pile. Or, if I am to be strictly accurate, a reckless disregard mixed with a certain veiled, f**ked-if-I-care contempt. Oh, I knew her too well.
The talk turned to cars, which gave Olga another excuse to lament the state of the back-seat cigarette lighter in the Rolls. Sorry sorry, one of the back-seat cigarette lighters in the Rolls. Just in case we hadn’t picked it up the first time.
“So what’s that you’re driving?”, she asked K, who proceeded to tell her all about his pride and joy, the 1972 MG Midget. With chrome bumpers. And round wheel arches. (Amongst the community of MG owners, such details are critical. Chrome bumpers wave at other chrome bumpers, but never at rubber bumpers. The very thought.)
Olga looked unimpressed. “Well, I’ve just picked up that new MG Maestro”, she explained. “You know, as a little run-around. It would leave your thing standing”, she added, with an air of dismissive finality, allowing herself a sharp little victory puff on her Players No. 6.
With her elaborately lacquered and bouffanted jet-black hairdo, with “beauty spot” to match, Olga cut a singular figure in the village. Her early 1960s Elizabeth Taylor look, unchanged for the past two decades, flew right in the face of prevailing fashions, and was the cause of much comment. Apparently, Cliff had some sort of “thing” for women who looked like this, and had insisted that the look be maintained at all times.
People sometimes spoke sympathetically of “poor Olga”, and not without reason. An essentially sweet-natured woman and a loyal friend to many, Olga was, it was felt, trapped in her role. Still, she was allowed considerably more stylistic freedom in her clothing, today’s ensemble being “golfing casual”: a black V-necked Fred Perry sweater over a polo shirt, and matching pegged trousers.
My step-sister C had recently announced her engagement, and plans were underway for a big summer wedding, with a reception at one of the local country clubs.
“She must be so excited!”, beamed Olga. “Oh, I’ve had an idea. Would C like to be driven from the church to the reception in our Rolls Royce? It would be such a thrill for her on her special day! Of course, we’ll have to get that back seat cigarette lighter fixed first – I don’t know what we’re going to…”
For the first time that afternoon, Molly piped up from the other end of the room.
“Or there again, maybe C would like to be driven in our Rolls Royce? Because of course, our Rolls Royce is open top.”
If daggers could kill, as one of my barmy line managers at the council once said.
On our way out (Cliff’s parting shot to me: “Get climbing that ladder, son!”), K shot me a stricken, what-the-f**k-was-that-all-about glance, which I returned with a rueful, welcome-to-my-world, better-get-used-to-it-darling glance. To this day, it remains one of his favourite stories – which is why I have retained such an accurate recall of its salient details, none of which (lest you should think otherwise) have been exaggerated for effect.
How very unlike the home life of your own dear author and his beloved civil partner, in their stylish and elegant “new rustic minimalist” weekend retreat in the Derbyshire Peak District. (As featured in Period Living magazine, and did I ever tell you about that?)