And you thought the evening was about trimming trees, pubic topiary and crushes Ancient & Modern? Think again. The cast is assembled: Andrea Gentl and Nancy Iacoi are alchemizing, Sivan Lewin, Constance Giamo and Ken Harris are at the beer and cheese, Marty, Lula and Sam Hyers at the tree, Sara Glick at the sink, Emily Anderson hawking American Sprits, Marc Hundley transitioning from hungover to drunk, India and Eden Adams at the breast, Ethan Palmer, Luke and Odette Meyer at the Angry Birds. And Selwyn, as ever, is manhandling pies: one Blakean Fish (‘did he who made the lamb make thee?’) one obscenely bloated Shepherd’s. So bloated, in fact, that it has burst its banks mid-bake, and is spewing a gouty brown Niagara onto the oven floor. This is in turn releasing vast plumes of smoke into the Bell End troposphere lending the occasion an eye-watering yuletide fogginess. It’s pure Jack the Ripper London, but without the forced intercourse and evisceration (more’s the pity). Ever the pragmatic Anglo-Israeli, Sivan steps in with catching trays to no discernable effect. Iacoi, of course freaks out like the Fifth Cavalry have arrived at her quaint Navajo village espousing rape and pillage. Selwyn giggles inanely, already too drunk to care. Glick does some windmilling Kung Fu shit, manufacturing her own vortex of clean air. Emily has another cigarette. Nonetheless; the hood fan is engaged and a few minutes of Airbus 380 suction renders the air clear enough for chemistry class to resume.
Cue the phone.
It’s lovely Cristina from the other carriage house, the one behind Bell End where she and Steve raise their two boys in an atmosphere of good cheer, enthusiasm and mutual respect. But on this occasion there’s an unfamiliar urgency – dare we say shrillness – to her voice. She’s not happy. Neither is she home; but she has just received a call from her sons’ nanny saying their house is full of smoke. And the nanny claims not to be doing anything to cause such a localized weather pattern; not smoking crack, not incinerating either of the boys in the propane grill, neither Santería hokum nor vaulting somersaults through flaming hoops. Bloated Shepherd’s coincidence? Selwyn thinks not.
He elects to don armour, mount charger and clippity-clop down the driveway to investigate. Upon opening the gate, he is confronted by an unsettled woman in her 30’s, clutching two young boys, moaning plaintively into a smartphone; bit like a Steve McCurry picture. Undaunted, he presses forward with a brisk “leave this to me, Madam”. Entering the premises, Sir Lancelot is greeted by a sickening pall of brown smoke and the unmistakeable tang of cremated man-who-herds-sheep; along with a distant alarm squawking like Kit Martin when the agency server goes down. And the truth hits him like knotty twigs on buttocks; only a Chinese construction crew could orchestrate venting in such a way as to ensure exhaust from the stove of one house disgorges directly into the living room of the next. Lowering his visor, he marches across the threshold, flinging open doors and windows with knightly abandon. The greasy fog begins to dissipate. He turns to go … and is greeted by a New York City fireman twice his size, wielding several axes and what appears to be Ahab’s harpoon. His breathing apparatus is slung over his shoulder like a pet squid.
“You the Super?” he bellows.
“Do I look like the fucking Super?” Selwyn wants to reply, “I’m English. I’m in a suit of armour, tights and chain-mail. And I’m carrying a pike with a festoon banner bearing the Lovely Coat of Arms and a parchment copy of the Mahabarata in Sanskrit.”
“No, I’m the next-door neighbour” Selwyn says “And I’m cooking a Shepherd’s Pie.”
The fireman stares at him with the kind of nose-curled disdain reserved for a person leaking human faeces from both corners of his mouth.
” … and I think I overdid it with the ground lamb, charred pork and portabella ragout, it seems to have burst through its potato, celeriac and roasted garlic topping and …” (he makes fluttering, volcanic motions with his hands).
Fireman moves into Maori spear-wielder attack crouch, his tongue flicking like an anemone.
By the time they both emerge from the smokeless building they are exchanging first edition Stephen Spenders and promising to meet at the Ca’ Foscari during Carnevale wearing Arlecchino masks. The Clinton Hill twilight is bruised by the son et lumiere of four fire-engines and a fire-SUV. Selwyn sashays back into Bell End in paisley dressing-gown, smoking a Balkan Sobranie, to find the place packed to the gills with further firemen. The fuckers are everywhere. On the stairs, in the toilets. One of them is playing The Way You Look Tonight on the piano. Iacoi is squeaking like a stuck pig, stuffing pieces of paper bearing her private Plum Reps number into any helmet she can find. Gentl is asking them to pose for ShakeIt iPhone pictures, their weathered hands resting gently on pomegranates. Hyers is emailing them inflammatory links to the Mayan Calendar and maps of Tikal. Hundley is making unappealing noises with his tongue. Emily is smoking another cigarette.
Eventually they depart; Waverly Avenue descends into familiar quietude, the gin-soaked crew of Bellenders seeping sweetly into couch 1, couch 2. The moment pushes gently away from its crisis like an old punt. Thoughts turn to love and beauty and to next Thursday; a Hetherington Santa and the resurrection of Bell End Marge, who once slew half the seed of Brooklyn one by one.