Only Time Will Tell

The Dinner Party

Only Time Will Tell

“Not spicy enough,” I thought, making to add another dash of paprika before panicking. “Or is it too spicy?” I had no idea how my guests would like it. I could only imagine the food they were used to might differ pretty tremendously. I took a mental glance down the list of my dinner guests for the evening and decided to add a little more paprika anyway. It was going to be quite an evening! I had showed my mother the list of guests last week over tea and she had expressed concerns about how they would all get along.

“That’s a lot of different cultures, darling, I’m not sure it’s so wise. What are you going to talk about?”

But I wasn’t concerned. What weren’t we going to talk about! Besides, she was only upset that she herself wasn’t invited. She hated to miss out on a party, but I doubted that she blamed me. 6 guests was the perfect amount, she had taught me that.

“No more than 6, no less than 4. If it’s less than 4, it isn’t a party, and if there’s more than 6, someone will always have a problem with somebody else.”

I poured myself a glass of wine and waited for the doorbell to ring for the first time, wondering which guest would be the timeliest.

It was a minute before 7pm when it finally did and I leaped up! Who could it be? It better not be my mother, I thought cruelly, and then secretly hoped it was. Being alone with any of tonight’s invitees was as exciting as it was terrifying.

¤¤¤

I opened the door apprehensively, and was hailed by Barack and Michelle Obama helping a barefoot Mahatma Gandhi along the cobbled path up to my house. “I know, I know,” Gandhi was saying, “but my last sandals were auctioned off in 2019!”

As the Obamas brought Gandhi closer I saw that Barack’s hair was black and sleek as it was before his presidency, though he walked with the same swagger as he always had done whilst in office. Michelle, of course, looked as beautiful as ever. I smiled nervously and welcomed them in, trying to think of the best way to greet my astonishing guests.

“Sorry about the stones, Gandhi” I cried, before immediately regretting what I had called him. What were you supposed to call one of the greatest civil rights activists of all time? I wished I had thought all of this through earlier!

“Please, call me Mahatma,” he said, the edges of his lips tinkering upwards kindly.

As they approached my doorway, Barack and Michelle turned around once again. Astonishingly, a white Tesla was pulling up into the driveaway and before I could wonder who it was, Nelson Mandela stepped out of the car. “Sho! It drives smooth, eh!” he yelled, smiling broadly and moving nimbly as ever as he waved towards me. I noticed Barack put up his hand in greeting before shyly turning it into a stroke of his hair.

“Welcome. Tata!” he cried instead, as the procession made their way into my house.

¤¤¤

A table scattered with De Constance stood before us, Nelson Mandela’s face plastered across each bottle. I wasn’t sure if serving Mandela his own wine was a crass or a kind decision and suddenly I fretted it had most definitely been the former, but the first black president of South Africa was as kind as history would have us believe he was.

“Ah, fantastic,” he said in his high-pitched, oddly punctuated accent, “finally I can taste what my daughter and grand-daughter have been selling in my name. This should,” he paused at an odd moment, “taste like freedom.’ He broke into a wide-eyed grin.

I went about pouring him a glass when a kerfuffle started around the work surface. Two smiling corgis had charged into the kitchen and were playfully yapping at Mahatma Gandhi’s clothes! I frantically finished pouring the glass (because it was only for bloody Nelson Mandela!) and rushed over to help. It must be said though that my new friend Mahatma was dealing with the spectacle remarkably well, performing a sort of jig around the dogs and plucking his robe left and right out of their way like some foreign ballet dancer, when a flowered hat powered by an eighty-something year old woman rushed into the kitchen yelling “Monty! Holly! Sit, sit, sit!” and Gandhi of all people looked up in shock at Queen Elizabeth II, frantically trying to calm her yapping corgis. “Not the first time my subjects have taken a turn against you before I even entered the building! My, apologies, Mahatma.”

Barack and Michelle Obama were both smiling broadly, but, I noticed, not making a move to greet The Queen in any way. “Oh don’t be silly dears, there’s no one watching! We may as well enjoy the privacy!”

And Barack Obama pulled The Queen Of England into a somewhat awkward, somehow impressive, one-armed hug.

“Your majesty,” said Michelle, “I am so so sorry that my husband could only extend one arm towards you. It has been a problem in our marriage before.” The queen laughed with her head back, her two corgis sat either side of her, and beckoned Michelle Obama into what I noticed was a very firm and decidedly two-armed embrace.

A loud, booming voice had sounded from outside.

“And WHEEERE is the champagne?!”

Winston Churchill had arrived.

¤¤¤

I rushed to the fridge where I had placed a bottle of Dom Perignon two days previously, and oddly thought of Sean Connery in James Bond saying the timeless words, “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”. I wondered if John Lennon and Sean Connery should have been on my guestlist too. Either way I was grateful that I had remembered to chill the bottle.  

“Wonderful, my boy! Wonderful!” Churchill shouted, as Michelle did the honor and me the kindness of welcoming the great man inside. “For tonight is a celebration! And no celebration is a celebration without champagne. Whilst Champagne is not champagne without a celebration!”

I popped the cork and beamed gratefully at Barack Obama, who had now taken Churchill aside with an arm around his shoulder and one of his famous deep smiles plastered across his face. “We, have a lot to discuss,” I heard him say boldly wth his deep and slow trademark delivery. “And err, a lot to laugh about.”

I watched in awe as Obama and Churchill disappeared to a corner, the white teethed smile forever frozen onto Barack’s face, and an ever-full and always emptying glass of champagne chained to Winston’s hand. Michelle and Queen Elizabeth stood by the work-surface, stroking The Queen’s corgis, discussing the uselessness of their respective husbands.

“I mean, it’s not that hard to cook a grilled cheese!”

And over by the dining table towards the corner of the kitchen I saw Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela locked in fervent discussion. I could not hear a word they said.

¤¤¤

I let the night continue for a while, bouncing between conversations, offering wine and not really contributing to anything, but still grateful for any role I might play in any one debate, or any nugget of wisdom I was able to pick up. “I re-read The Long Walk To Freedom whilst I was writing my book and it is as fantastic as it always was,” I heard Michelle Obama say to Nelson Mandela.

“That is what you named your book?” Mahatma Gandhi piped in. “But it was me that did all of the walking!”

After a wonderful hour of watching, learning, and being unfailingly surprised by Madiba’s love of my supermarket-bought cheese twists, I thought it was time we sat down for dinner.

“Erm, Michelle and I have been, err, been talking, and we just wanted to chat with you about who you might have sit at the head of the table.”

Fuck. Barack Obama had a great point. It was only a party of the most accomplished leaders of the last 100 years! Who would sit at the head of the table?? Another aspect of my dinner party that I hadn’t planned out at all! How on earth had I overlooked this? I didn’t want to offend anyone. What if I made Mahatma Gandhi feel second best to Nelson Mandela!

“I thought, that you might want to err, ask The Queen? It is her country after all.”

Thank heavens for Barack Obama, I thought, not for the first time in my life, and headed towards the Queen of England, who was still laughing with Michelle Obama now about what it was like trying to find her dogs in a ginormous home.

“Hi Guys,’ I said pathetically, “your majesty, we are about to eat and I wanted to offer you the seat at the head of the table?”

“Oh, don’t be silly darling! I am very happy sitting next to Tata Madiba and my new friend Michelle.”

Beaming a smile but also still wondering how on earth I had not thought through the seating arrangements for the night, I trotted over to Winston Churchill, a fresh bottle of champagne in my hands.

“Wonderful, wonderful!” Churchill exclaimed, “Top me up then!” and I poured yet another glass of sparkling something into his glass.

“Would you be willing to accept the honor of sitting at the head of the table, Winston?”

“Of course not my boy! I could never sit at the head at such an event! Her majesty The Queen is here!”

“In fact,” he confided with me in a rare moment of vulnerability, “I’ve always been a touch intimidated by Her Majesty. If it’s alright with you, I might sit on the other side of the table from her. We don’t have a vast amount to talk about these days.”

This was going from complicated to impossible.

I turned back to Obama, who was now joined by Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

“In the Xhosa tradition,” said Mandela kindly, and before I could say anything, “it is the head of the household who sits at the head of the table.” His eyes twinkled. “It is your party. We, are only the guests.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as Obama put his arm around me once again and led me over to my own dining table.

“We’ll sit once you do.”

¤¤¤

I looked around at my dining room table, which I had set so meticulously 3 days previously and left it untouched since. On my right-hand side sat Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, filling up Winston Churchill’s champagne flute. Along from him was Nelson Mandela, eyes still twinkling and surveying the guests as I did. On the other side of the table, Mahatma Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth II, both in extremely high spirits and getting on like a house on fire. And finally, Michelle Obama, who sat on my left, admiring her husband as he finished off Winston’s pour. What a night!

“And what are we to be treated to today?” Queen Elizabeth asked me over the table. I was about to reveal the meal I had spent all day preparing for us all, when the doorbell rung once again.

Who on earth could that be? If it was my mother arriving right as we sat down to eat…

¤¤¤

I looked through the keyhole and felt my stomach turn with dread. There was no mistaking that face. And it wasn’t my mother. Standing before me, was the unmistakable pale face and toothbrush moustache of Adolf Hitler.

¤¤¤

I did not speak. What was happening? What did I do? What could I do?

I opened the door.

“I got zie invitation, and was very, how do you say, excited to be invited!” This very young version of Hitler spoke in broken English, the words just leaking from beneath his evil mustache.

But I had not invited him! What dark forces had I set in play? Was this real? Was any of this real?

“May I come in? I do not get invited to many of zees parties so I do not know when I should have arrived.”

I still hadn’t spoken. Hitler appeared nervous.

“I voz also hoping I might be able to, how’d you say, use your restroom?”

I gulped and stood aside weakly, the chatter at the table behind me was still going on. I pointed around the corner.

¤¤¤

Coming to my senses, I rushed over to the table as Hitler disappeared out of sight. This was a disaster for my dinner party, but perhaps, I thought, this could be an extraordinary moment for the world. I didn’t know how things worked at mystical events such as this but I didn’t need to say out loud what was on my mind as I hurriedly and discreetly told the Obamas what had happened.

“He’s here,” I hissed.

“Who’s here?”

“Adolf Hitler.”

The words dropped from my mouth and landed on the table like ice in a teacup. The room fell silent. Only Mandela appeared unworried by the news.

“What do I do?!” I yelped, ‘he’s in the bathroom!”

Before anyone could answer, I heard the toilet flush in the room around the corner and Mandela’s face fell too. The chair on Obama’s right was empty. Hitler wasn’t in the bathroom, he was waiting outside. Winston Churchill, his body filled with champagne, had headed to the restroom first whilst I was opening the front door, and the man that led England out of World War II was about to leave my bathroom and look into the face of Adolf Hitler.

¤¤¤

Barack Obama scrambled to his feet. I followed him in a flurry as we rounded the corner and saw it happen, the bathroom door wide open and the small ceiling light casting an almost angelic glow over the towering figure of Winston Churchill, who was standing face to face with perhaps the worst man in the history of the modern world. Neither of them spoke or moved. They stood stock-still, eyeing each other up. Hitler, I thought, looked terrified.

And then suddenly, a great roar exploded from the gut of Churchill! But it was not a roar of fury! It was not even the sound of fear. It was a laugh! Winston Churchill was laughing! And then he was galloping over to me and shaking my hand furiously, great bouts of glee carousing his whole body.

“Good joke my boy! Good joke! Adolf Hitler at a dinner party! At our dinner party! Could you imagine! I must say, this actor has done a fine job. Almost had me for a second! More champagne, more champagne!”

And he disappeared around the corner, the clinking of glasses echoing in his wake. A very shaken Adolf Hitler, walked into the bathroom and shut the door.

¤¤¤

Back at the table, Nelson Mandela, Michelle Obama and Mahatma Gandhi looked serious.

“Winston may think it is a joke, but this is no joke,” said Gandhi.

“Reacting towards this young man with violence will only breed resentment against ours and other cultures in his true future. We cannot change the future with violence. Only with understanding.”

Mandela nodded in agreement.

“Forgiveness is the key to progress. Although what this man has done is unforgiveable, he has done nothing yet. He is young. He has not yet committed the atrocities of his later life. Perhaps we can change that today.”

I looked around in awe at the wisdom that sat at my table.

“So you’re just going to invite him to join us?” Said the Queen, incredulously.

“No. I’m going to talk to him myself.”

But it was not Mandela who had spoken this time. It was Michelle Obama, standing up and cooly exiting the room, her husband’s eyes glimmering proudly behind her as she left.

“You’ve got a good one there,” said Nelson Mandela.

¤¤¤

The fortunate part of hosting a dinner party is that when things do inevitably get difficult for a moment, you have something to do. And so, after sitting at the silent table for a few minutes, I decided this was as good a time as ever to check that Winston Churchill had not yet destroyed my kitchen. I stood up, but before I had even made my excuse I heard another great bellow coming from the room next door.

“Farewell sir!” And Churchill returned, an already emptying glass in his hand.

“Scattered like a sheep without a Shepherd that man! Looked a bit spooked. Perhaps I was a little too much for him! Hah!”

Michelle Obama followed Churchill back into the room and it was her that we looked towards somberly.

“What happened?” I blurted out.

“Only time will tell.”

¤¤¤

Churchill swayed at Michelle’s side and she grabbed ahold of his shoulder to balance him.

“Winston, you are drunk!”

“And in the morning, I shall be sober, and you,” he said drunkenly, “will still be lovely.”

Queen Elizabeth burst into laughter, and the rest of the table followed. Mandela and Gandhi clinking glasses, Barack holding my arm gratefully. The night was back on track. Winston Churchill, who still seemingly believed we had just had a great actor join our party before leaving in a hurry, laughed along with us, but looked bemused as to the reason for our relief. “Can we eat?” he boomed, sitting back down clumsily.

I lifted the pot on the vegetable Tikka Masala curry I had spent the day slaving over, the closest thing I could think of to something we might all enjoy, and suddenly wondered if we should say a grace.

“Wonderful!” Churchill boomed again, “the national dish of England!”

Gandhi looked slightly miffed at this, but before he could say anything, The Queen spoke up for him.

“I think you’ll find we may have borrowed this dish from another one of our guest’s countries, Winston.”

“Good point, ma’am, good point! And I must thank you, Mahatma for I have ended many big nights out with one of your people’s finest creations! HAH!” He roared with laughter. “Now can we EAT?”

I looked at the Obamas as I had done each time tonight that something had panicked me. Did we say a grace? There were so many different religions and cultures at the table. What sort of grace would we say? Churchill said it one last time, louder than before and with a touch of impatience in his voice. “Can we EAT?”

“Yes,” said Barack Obama finally. “Yes we can.”

fact or fiction
Jake Bennett
Jake Bennett
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Jake Bennett

Growing up between England, South Africa and the United States, I learned that in order to learn that we aren't so different from eachother after all, we need stories. Someone to tell them, and someone to listen.

I hope to do both.

See all posts by Jake Bennett