The Nicklebys: A Story for Catholic Children
by: Sue Felton

CHAPTER TWELVE: The Dinner Party

Dad loves to cook. He likes nothing better than to cook a feast for a crowd of people. His dinners are famous.

A lot of Dad's friends live quite a drive away. He doesn't get together with them very often. So once a year, Dad cooks an enormous dinner and invites all his friends. It is always a very special occasion.

"I think I will cook an Indian banquet this year," says Dad. "I'll make several curries, lots of rice, some sambals and a few different types of Indian breads. What do you think, dear?"

Mum's mouth waters at the thought of all that food. She loves curry.

So it is decided. Dad is going to cook an Indian feast. Mum is going to send out the dinner invitations.

Soon the invitations are posted and now Mum and Dad have to wait to see how many people would like to come along. They expect there will be a lot of guests. And they are quite right. Replies come flooding back. Everyone is looking forward to Dad's dinner party.

Dad and Kate search through all the cook books for curry recipes. They make a long, long shopping list. Then they make an expedition to the supermarket to buy all the ingredients. They push two trolleys up and down the aisles. By the time they get to the check-out, they have enough food to feed an army. Dad piles all the shopping bags into the boot of the van and heads home. He is tired. He needs a cup of tea. He leaves the unloading to Edward and Joe. It takes them a long time to carry everything into the house where Mum and the girls can unpack it all.

Soon Dad's energy is restored. He is ready to start cooking. He has decided to cook as much food as possible ahead of time. He is going to freeze all the curries and thaw them out on the day of the dinner party.

Before Dad begins, he gathers all the children together. "I need some helpers," he says. "Who would like to be a chef?"

All the children want to help Dad. The kitchen is always a great place to be when he is cooking. Dad makes jokes and laughs a lot. He pretends to be a TV chef. He lets everyone have a turn at chopping and stirring and licking out the bowls. Dad doesn't seem to worry about knives. Not like Mum. And he tells the most interesting stories while he works.

Mum pops her head round the kitchen door every now and then. She begins to wonder if the pile of dirty pots and pans can get any higher without toppling over. The kitchen is a mess. Mum thinks she'd better volunteer to do some washing up.

By the end of the day, all the main courses for the dinner party have been cooked. Dad has transferred all the curries into large plastic containers ready to put in the freezer. The washing up is done and the bench tops are wiped down. Edward sweeps the floor and Joe mops it. Kate is going to make a big mug of tea for Dad. He looks like he needs it.

Mum looks at the clock. It is time for dinner but no-one feels like cooking another thing. "Let's go and get fish and chips," suggests Mum. All the children cheer. They don't get fish and chips very often.

The day of the dinner party arrives. The curries are almost thawed out. They will just need reheating before eating. Dad has been shopping again. This time for all the fresh items, like fruit and vegetables, for the sambals. He has made the doughs for the bread. The rice can be cooked just before it needs to be served.

Mum and the children have cleaned the house from top to bottom. They have found some large trestle tables and lots of extras chairs so they can seat all the guests. Kate is responsible for setting the tables. She hunts out the white tablecloths with matching napkins. In the centre of each table, she places an assortment of candles in glass jars. The candles are all the colours of the rainbow. They will look beautiful when they are lit later that evening. Mum has sorted through the crockery cupboard. She has plenty of plates and cups and bowls. They are not all the same colour but that doesn't matter. They will match the rainbow candles perfectly.

Dad is very organised. He has cooked so many dinners for crowds of people that he knows exactly what to do. The preparations are going like clockwork. The dinner will be ready at exactly the right time. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

Dad has been so busy he hasn't had time to look out the window. When a flash of lightning shoots through the sky, followed by a low rumbling of thunder, he looks up. "How long has it been raining?" he asks Kate.

"For some time," Kate answers. "The rain is getting heavier and heavier." A huge storm has rolled in. Everyone stops work and watches the sky. The light show is quite spectacular.

"It'll all be over in a few minutes," predicts Dad. But he is wrong. The rain continues to fall in torrents all morning. The rain is so heavy, it bounces over the gutters like a waterfall. "We haven't had rain like this in years," remarks Dad. "I am glad we are all safe at home. I wouldn't like to be out driving in this weather."

Suddenly Mum remembers the guests. They will have to drive in the heavy rain if they are coming to the dinner party. She hopes the weather will improve before the guests have to set out. Some of them have a long journey ahead of them.

It is mid-afternoon. The phone rings. It is one of the dinner party guests.

"I'm very sorry but I won't be able to make it to the dinner party. The weather is too wild. The roads around our house are beginning to flood." The caller sounds rather wistful. She'd been looking forward to feasting on Dad's food. "I hope you understand," she finishes apologetically.

Dad does understand but he hopes none of the other guests will cancel. It is not long before the phone rings again. It's another person who doesn't want to go out in the wild weather. "Two less guests won't make much difference," soothes Mum. But the phone hasn't stopped ringing. It rings again and again and again… Mum keeps crossing names off her guest list. By afternoon tea time, every single name has a black line drawn through it.

"I was looking forward to seeing all my friends. I haven't seen some of them for a long time," says a disappointed Dad. "Look at all the food we have prepared," he continues, pointing to all the pots and pans and containers spread around the kitchen. "What will we do with all this food? It is far too much for us to eat and we can't freeze it again."

"We will have to put on our thinking caps," says Mum. There must be a way of saving the day."

Everyone sits quietly for a time and then Celeste says, "We could invite Mrs Kerry to dinner."

"That won't help much," says Joe scornfully. "I bet she hardly eats a thing." Mrs Kerry is a small lady. She reminds everyone of a little bird.

"It might help," says Mum thoughtfully. All the children turn to look at Mum. They wonder how it could possibly help. "Mrs Kerry, by herself, won't help but what if we invite the whole street to dinner? There will be plenty of people to eat all this food."

"But we know hardly any of the people who live in our street," protests Dad. "We can't just invite strangers to dinner."

"They are not strangers," persists Mum. "They are our neighbours. Even if we do not know them, they are the people who live with us here in Top-of-the-Hill."

Dad is thinking. "Yes," he agrees. "Our neighbours are important. We should make an effort to get to know them. This might be the perfect opportunity to make lots of new friends."

"Won't everyone think it is strange to get a dinner invitation from a family they don't know?" asks Edward. "Inviting strangers to dinner isn't something normal families do."

"But we're not a normal family," says Dad and he grins at all the children.

So it is decided. Dad is going to finish off the final dinner preparations. Mum and Kate are going to visit all the neighbours and invite them to dinner. "There is plenty of time for the neighbours to get ready," says Mum. "And it won't matter about the rain. I think everyone can manage to splash their way along the street to our house."

Mum knocks on all the doors along their road. Each time, she introduces herself and then invites the neighbour to dinner. Some of them look at Mum a bit strangely. Perhaps they do think Mum is a bit weird. "It's time we all got to know one another," says Mum quickly. "We all live close to each another. Perhaps we could all be friends."

Maybe it is Mum's big smile or perhaps it is the thought of the huge Indian feast, but practically everyone accepts Mum's invitation. Mum and Kate rush home to tell Dad of their success.

Several hours later, Lizzie and Annie have gone to bed. Celeste and Joe are watching a movie in the family room. Edward and Kate are going to stay up late and help with the dinner. Their first job is to welcome the guests.

The door bell starts ringing at 7 pm on the dot. The first person to arrive is Mrs Kerry. Then comes the man who always roars up the road on his enormous motor bike. He doesn't look quite as daring in his yellow raincoat and gum boots. His name is Mr Knott. There is a middle-aged couple from further along the street. They introduce themselves as the Bagleys. Mr Bagley is tall and thin. He is often seen power walking down the road towards the bush tracks. He is very fit. His wife is shorter and very jolly looking. And then Mr Arnold arrives. He is ‘the man with the beautiful house.' Dad will want to find out how he manages to keep his garage so clean and empty. He obviously doesn't have six children. There is a steady stream of people splashing up the street towards the house.

Kate and Edward expertly shake the wet umbrellas and raincoats and deposit them out of sight. Mum leads all the guests to the dining room. She pours drinks for everyone and says the chef is almost ready to serve the feast.

The guests are seated around the tables. They all look very stiff and rather uncomfortable. They look at each other trying to think of things to say. Then Kate and Edward and Dad appear with dishes piled high with curry and rice. Everyone's noses rise into the air. There is a lot of deep sniffing. The food smells delicious. Smiles appear on people's faces as their plates are filled to overflowing with the wonderful food. Dad says grace and thanks all his neighbours for coming. Then everyone tucks into the feast.

Now that the food has been served, Mum and Dad can relax. They want to get to know their guests. Sitting next to Mum is a young couple called Mr and Mrs Allan. Mrs Allan has a gorgeous sleeping baby tied to her front in a sling. She looks rather tired. Mr Allan looks tired too. They are glad their baby is sleeping so soundly. "I do hope little Harry won't wake up until we have finished eating," says Mrs Allan. "We haven't been out for dinner for such a long time. It's so difficult to go anywhere with a baby."

Mrs Kerry leans across the table. "I know just what you mean," she says. "I had eight babies of my own. None of them liked going out in the evening. We'd just arrive somewhere for dinner and the baby would start protesting. We never stayed long." Mrs Kerry and Mr and Mrs Allan are soon deep in conversation. Mrs Kerry is a very experienced grandmother and knows so much about babies. Mrs Allan has lots of questions about babies she wants to ask.

Dad notices an old man hunched over his dinner. He isn't talking to the people seated around him. Dad draws up an extra chair, sits down and introduces himself. The man's name is Mr Gregg. "I'm sorry," says Mr Gregg. "I'm out of practice with conversation. My wife Betty was the talker of our family but I'm a widower now…" He sighs deeply.

Dad is good at making people feel at home. Soon Mr Gregg is having no trouble talking. He is telling Dad all about his favourite hobby: woodwork. "I never learnt to do more than chop wood," says Dad. "I can use the axe but I wouldn't be able to use a saw and make something useful. I haven't been able to teach my boys anything about carpentry."

Mr Gregg's eyes light up. "The boys could drop by one Saturday morning. I could show them how to handle a few tools." Dad is delighted by this suggestion. The boys will have wonderful time.

By now, everyone is feeling very relaxed. All the guests are enjoying themselves. Mum and Dad no longer have to encourage the neighbours to talk to each other. Everyone is chatting away. Every now and then a peal of laughter rolls across the room.

Mum is now talking to Mr and Mrs Brady. "We've seen you at Mass," says Mrs Brady, "with all the children." Mum wonders if Mrs Brady has noticed how Annie likes to wander out of the pew. She wonders if Mrs Brady has noticed the other children fidgeting and poking and yawning and pulling silly faces when they should be praying. She decides, unfortunately, that it would be impossible not to notice her large brood of lively children.

"Your children are so beautiful," says Mrs Brady. "I like to see children at Mass. We hope to have a large family too. I know it will be hard work but we shall follow your example and bring everyone to Mass with us." A big smile spreads across Mum's face. She feels encouraged.

Dad has also found a neighbour who goes to the same church as they do. Mrs Perkins is a very well dressed older woman with bright pink lipstick. "I've just had a wonderful idea," says Mrs Perkins. "I am the president of the Catholic Women's League. We have a big fundraising dinner every year. Would you be interested in cooking our next dinner for us?"

Dad certainly is interested. He likes the idea of cooking another big dinner. Already possibilities for the menu are floating through his mind.

The next morning Mum, Dad, Edward and Kate are very tired. Even though all the neighbours stayed and helped with the washing up, they still got to bed very late. But the whole family still gets up early for Mass. Other people have got up early too. Mum sees Mrs Brady smiling at her across the church. She sees Mrs Perkins and several other neighbours.

At morning tea time, everyone is discussing last night's dinner party. "It all turned out wonderfully," comments Mum. "The food didn't go to waste. There was hardly anything left at the end."

"I missed seeing all my friends who were supposed to come to the dinner party," says Dad, "but I did enjoy making a lot of new friends. It was such an enjoyable evening. We met so many interesting people. We now know our neighbours."

Mum starts telling Dad how Mrs Kerry is going to baby-sit for Mr and Mrs Allan. But Dad forgets to listen. He is thinking about cooking more big dinners. Suddenly he gets up and heads towards the bookshelf. He starts to thumb through the cookbooks. "For my next feast I could cook…," he begins. Mum smiles.

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