The Ambassador’s Reception
‘Honestly Percy, you still look scruffy. Straighten your tie then run upstairs and ask nanny to brush your hair.’
‘She’s already brushed it.’
‘Well go and ask her to brush it again and wet it down where it sticks up at the back.’
‘But there’s nothing I can do about…’
         ‘Percy, will you kindly not answer back and do as I tell you. I already have enough to worry about as it is. Madame de Valery-Ponsardin is coming tonight and will be bringing Cedric with her. He is always smart and I simply will not have him showing us up again.’ As soon as she had mentioned Cedric’s name Lady Douglas-McDonald realised that she had made an error. There was no love lost between young Percy Douglas-McDonald and the eminently presentable Cedric de Valery-Ponsardin. Any attempt to goad Percy into action by comparing him to his disadvantage with Cedric was bound to be counter-productive. However, Lady Douglas-McDonald was an intelligent woman and it was not for nothing that she had been joined in holy matrimony with Sir Arthur Douglas-McDonald, currently British Ambassador to Belgium and generally acknowledged to be one of the keenest minds in the Foreign Office. If only Percy would take after his father a little more. But even if Percy’s intellect was less keen, Lady Douglas-McDonald was equally adept at manipulating both father and son. She knew their respective weaknesses and knew, more importantly, how to exploit them.
‘Please Percy, do as I tell you. If you look scruffy all the other guests, including the American Generals, will think that English children are more messy than French children, and that English soldiers are more messy than French soldiers, and that therefore France has a stronger army and is a more powerful country, and that will be the end of the special relationship.’
Percy knew that the ‘special relationship’ was important. He had often heard his father talking about it. As far as he himself was concerned, it meant that once a year he was invited to the children’s tea party at the American Embassy where ice-cream was served in huge frozen glasses and there were bowls of tiny marshmallows to be sprinkled on top of the ice-cream. Cedric had never been to tea at the American Embassy and Percy’s father had said that was because the French did not have a ‘special relationship’. With this in mind Percy scampered up the stairs to find nanny and have his hair wetted and brushed.
         If the French ambassador had never been invited to tea at the American Embassy it was certainly not for any lack of warmth towards his wife, the glamorous Madame Charlene de Valery-Ponsardin. At just over six feet tall and blessed with an ample bosom, she was a magnificent woman. She had not been born to riches, though she had corrected this divine oversight by the intelligent exploitation of her natural assets. A lucrative career in modelling had launched her onto the stage and thence on to the silver screen. The camera loved her languorous femininity almost as much as the bearded producers upon whose arms she disported herself at countless gala soirees. Madame de Valery-Ponsardin was an ambitious woman, although she was the mistress and not the victim of her own ambition. When she began to feel that the door was closing on her career as a screen beauty, she seized the initiative and made straight for the imposing doorway that led to the corridors of power. Early on in her advance she had met Monsieur de Valery-Ponsardin, a diplomat of standing whose aristocratic pedigree was  beyond rebuke. Their marriage was a happy one, though not characterised by any of the wild abandon which devotees of Madame Charlene’s cinematographic oeuvre were wont to project upon her marital relations. Indeed, the marriage produced just one child, Cedric. A delicate constitution combined with the asphyxiating love of an over-bearing mother had conspired to stunt the natural adventurousness of boyhood in young Cedric, thus making him a ‘typical weedy frog’ in the eyes of Percy Douglas-McDonald. However, it was this very same over-bearing nature, and the emotional superfluity it entailed, which had won Madame Charlene so many ardent admirers within diplomatic circles.
         The wives of Brussels-based diplomats were for the most part kind,  acquiescent, mousy women who sent second-hand school uniforms to the Red Cross in meticulously wrapped parcels and who played whist on Wednesdays. Madame Charlene de Valery-Ponsardin was quite outside their field of reference. Although her beauty had begun to fade she still had the sleepy Mediterranean eyes of her Roman mother as well as the expressive and extroverted gestures of that race. She attracted men effortlessly and, perhaps for that reason, struggled to win the affection of women. At ambassadorial cocktail parties Madame Charlene often found herself surrounded by a semi-circle of fawning diplomats and inflated Generals. Particularly the latter found something exquisitely delicious in her exaggerated gesticulations and in her scandalous honesty, so often a source of discomfort to her poker-faced husband. Indeed, Monsieur de Valery-Ponsardin would on occasion try to rein in his wife during one of her more compromising jeux d’esprit. However, on the occasion of the Douglas-McDonalds’ reception Madame Charlene’s husband was away attending a function in Paris and the Generals were already licking their lips in anticipation.
         There was much competition between the respective Embassies as to which could host the grandest party. Or perhaps ‘grand’ is the wrong word, for it implies a certain lavishness which would be too ostentatious and would  undermine the very refinement that this particular breed of ‘grandness’ seeks to achieve. In any case, during the half hour before the first guests arrived servants in white gloves wafted serenely through the reception hall, carrying trays of sparkling glasses, rearranging flowers and giving a last polish to Her Majesty’s silverware. Sir Arthur Douglas-McDonald sat in his study, running over the delivery of his brief though epigrammatic welcome speech. Lady Douglas-McDonald sat upstairs in her dressing room, delicately sliding rings through her pierced ears and distractedly observing through the window the empty, grey streets and bare trees of Brussels on a wintery afternoon. By virtue of her husband’s position she too was an important personage in this city. She was no stranger to the corridors of power. And yet, given the choice, might she not readily exchange all this for a small cottage in England, for guests who were real friends and not just passing acquaintances, for a house of which she was truly the mistress and did not have to fear the cold superiority of the outstanding Belgian cook nor the regular inspections of the Foreign Office sumptuary auditor? Would Percy not have been happier had he grown up with the fields and woods that had formed so central a part of her own childhood? As Lady Douglas-McDonald watched the drizzle on the window collect into drops prior to tracing rivulets down the glass she concluded that she did not like Brussels all that much. After all, she thought to herself, how can anyone truly love a city that is chiefly known as the birthplace of the diminutive and singly uninspiring sprout?
         Having wetted his hair Percy came rushing back down the stairs before his nanny discovered a blemish on his face and attempted to remove it by rubbing a spit-moistened finger on the offending area. Percy considered this a most disgusting habit. As he jumped the last few steps in order to escape his nanny’s attentions quite definitively (she never came downstairs when there were guests about) he found himself forced to pull up short. Opposite him, his hair gleaming with some smug French oil, was Cedric. Percy’s mother was greeting Madame de Valery-Ponsardin.
‘Ah Percy, well done my dear, just in time. I must introduce Charlene to the guests so why don’t you and Cedric run upstairs and play’. Percy scowled but did as he was told. In any case, if his mother was going to be busy talking to other grown-ups, Percy would have to wander about between strange people’s legs. Occasionally he would be forced to answer boring questions about school from inquisitive women who seemed to enjoy beaming idiotically at him. Yes, going upstairs seemed like a good idea.
         Percy scampered ahead of Cedric. When they got to the top floor they sat in silence. Neither boy really had anything to say. After the din of the talking and laughing downstairs it seemed very silent indeed.
‘It is very quiet,’ said Percy.
Cedric did not respond. Percy felt uncomfortable and started tugging small individual tufts out of the cream coloured carpet. Then he tried again,
‘I don’t know why they bother having parties. All they do is talk. It is so boring’.
Cedric looked up and smoothed his oiled hair across his forehead before replying, ‘But is this fun?’
Now Percy was stumped. However, a second later a large black house spider shot across the landing on which they were sitting. Although he was not afraid of spiders, Cedric recoiled with the initial shock. Percy, on the other hand, leapt forward and caught the arachnid in the small cell he had made between his curved palms. By parting his fingers a little he could open a window on the cell. The two boys took turns to peep at the spider within.
‘It’s a beaut’, said Percy in awe.
‘My God, she is huge. Like the Shelob’. The reference was lost on Percy who did not much enjoy reading.
‘Let’s go and let it out in the middle of the party and we’ll see if anyone notices.’
‘My mother she is terrified of spiders. If we show her she will scream.’ said Cedric.
‘Then that’s exactly what we will do.’ Percy paused. ‘Or are you too scared?’ Percy gave Cedric a searching look, but Cedric’s face was inscrutable.
‘Let’s go.’
The boys raced back downstairs and into the ballroom where the sound of talk and laughter was almost deafening. The room was packed. It would be very difficult for them to fight through to the middle, and when they released the spider it would be almost impossible to follow it through the sea of legs. But at that moment they caught sight of Cedric’s mother in the midst of a group of guffawing men. Madame de Valery-Ponsardin was clearly telling a story; she flung her arms around with the exaggerated movements of a dancer. The more the men laughed, the more she gesticulated.
Cedric’s mother caught sight of the two boys and beckoned them over. ‘Ah Cedric, mon amour, will you get me another glass of Champagne? The garcons here are so slow and I am nearing the, how do you say, the ‘hitting line’ of the story?’ It was widely agreed that Madame Charlene’s entirely affected idiomatic infidelities were entirely charming. She gave her empty champagne flute to Cedric before resuming her narrative. Cedric and Percy had barely gone ten paces towards the bar when they collided with a uniformed waiter. ‘For my mother,’ said Cedric, extending the flute. The waiter filled it and the boys turned to make their way back to Cedric’s mother.
‘I’m going to drop it in there,’ whispered Percy as he leant across and held his cupped hands over the flute, ‘she will get a fright when she sees it, and if she asks us we’ll say we didn’t know it was there and that it must have fallen from the ceiling.’ Percy parted his hands and the spider fell in and began to scrabble furiously as tiny golden bubbles attached themselves to its many legs. ‘Quickly, before it drowns,’ said Percy. They returned to the appreciative semi-circle. Madame de Valery-Ponsardin was building to a climax. Her eyes shone with the excitement of the story. Miming a character she held her finger to her upper lip to signify a moustache. ‘…and he said to me in German ‘Halt!’ And do you know what I said to him?’ This was the ‘hitting line’, and like any actress Madame de Valery-Ponsardin knew how to milk a moment. She paused. She looked at the faces ranged opposite her, challenging them to know what she had said. Silence. She caught sight of Cedric extending the champagne flute, took it gracefully from his grasp and swung it majestically to her lips, emptying its contents in one dramatic gesture.
         No one ever did find out what Cedric’s mother had said to the moustachioed German of the story. However, the screams, the retching, the tears, the fine spray of champagne, the bedraggled spider, the spankings, the apology letters and the lifelong sense of guilt all bear testament to the fact that Madame de Valery-Ponsardin never told a story without an appropriate climax.

Claus von Bohlen und Halbach 2004