Moments like theseby Listener Archive
A pocket guide to eating out with visiting writers - and hangers-on.
The reception for visiting writers had begun, and we were scattered around various tables, among pillars of the community.
The phenomenon that you didn't know is called the Lombard Effect was manifesting itself, as voices rose to be audible above the rest. I'd already heard from Vernette on my left (the other flanking chair was empty) that she'd always wanted to earn the right. Umm, the right to what, exactly? Oh, she wanted to learn to write! Silly of me.
As dinner was announced, the empty chair beside me scraped back. A tall, bony elderly set of XY chromosomes eased himself into it, and assessed me. "Ah'm Merrill," he announced. "Pleased t'make yahr acquaintance."
"Hi," I said. "I'm D*v*d H*ll from New Zealand." I indicated my nametag, which claimed the same. "Noo Zealand?" echoed Merrill. "Ah'm frahm Coralville." His tone left no doubt which was the real world power.
And what was Merrill's connection with the arts? I enquired. "Ah used t'run the Music Supplies Shop in town. Always come to these receptions. Y'get a right good meal here."
On cue, plates holding a traditional Fly-Over State selection of turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberries were set on our tables. A dish of rather delicious-looking post-dinner mints was placed in the middle of the table. Merrill set to.
"You've lived here long?" I asked next, as my neighbour's dinner dwindled. Merrill considered this. "Ah'm 88 next month." He checked himelf suddenly and put a hand to his shirt pocket. Hell, he wasn't about to have a cardiac incident across the turkey, was he? Apparently not; he returned to his dead fowl.
I repeated my question about how long he'd lived here, etc. Merrill nodded, while his jaws kept time. "Near 70 year now. Ah'm 88 next month."
I shot a glance at Vernette, hoping for conversational assistance, but the table's other writer, Farhad, had given Merrill one perceptive look and claimed Vernette as his own.
The plates were cleared. The post-match mints sat there invitingly. Later, perhaps. We'd been promised entertainment, and I didn't want to interrupt it with rustlings.
Sure enough, Igor from Georgia and his guitar stepped up to the microphone. Alas, the phone was very micro, and sound was meagre. "Cain't hear a word!" Merrill declared. "Can yah hear a word? Ah cain't hear nothin'."
Then Igor launched into a stirring allegretto, and feet all around the room began tapping. I noticed with surprise that one of Merrill's was tapping loudest of all. Suddenly he rose and clutched at his thigh. "Ah get a lotta leg cramps these days."
Igor glided into a quiet adagio. The audience sat hushed - except for Merrill. "Harrkk!" he went. "Harrkk!" As I turned to him in some alarm, he pointed to his larynx. "Ah got a bitta lettuce stuck in mah throat."
It had already been announced that two poets from our group would be reading in their native languages. Texts and translations were on our tables. Anja from Saxony stepped up and began. "Wo ist mein Herz? Mein Herz ist ..." Merrill, clearly puzzled, turned the pages in front of him. Anja had just reached the third stanza when Merrill informed the rest of our table, "Gahd! She's talkin' German!"
Kim Sa-in from South Korea was introduced next. He told everyone he hoped they would enjoy the sound of the Korean language. He got to his fourth stanza before Merrill spoke. "What yah reckon? He's Chinese?" His hand moved to his shirt pocket again. His heart pills were there? How many should I insert - and where?
Official thanks and acknowledgments were spoken. The performers were wonderful. The occasion was memorable. And - "And the sound system was lousy!" opined Merrill.
He stood. "Best meal ah've had all week. Enjoyed talkin' t'yah."
Left alone and palely pondering, I reached for a dinner mint. They were gone! All of them! What -
At which point, I belatedly understood why Merrill had kept patting his shirt pocket.