I don't always have the sunniest disposition, but excelled myself this morning, not having slept well for several nights. I growled through a shift at XV, the draughty old fen's charity shop, then went home for some kip. Awaking a bit more refreshed, I was still a bit unsure about going to a Valentine's night dinner at a place in another old fen I'd never been to before.
When she'd dressed up, Maxima looked amazing, and indeed looks better on a daily basis than I think of giving her credit for. An older friend of ours had laid down the law to me that I was NOT to have her cycling through the country in her good frock, so some friends called to pick us up.
Our destination was a barn that's functional around harvest time, but for the rest of the year it has flooring put down and gets hired out for weddings, dances and general events. It was high-roofed, with an intricate array of beams supporting the roofing, and tables waited on by a mixture of professional staff and local clergy.
I'm told that Cambridge and its environs has the highest concentration of choirs per square mile in the world. I don't know if that's true, but the local old fens have their fair share of singers. A group of four of them sang Grace in Latin before we started eating. I calmed down - food tends to do this for me. The dinner was exquisite beyond my descriptive skills. But the night was composed of far more than food: candles burnt on every table, with a little wooden heart, painted red, for everybody and a rose for every woman. I initially had a headache looking at Maxima through a candle-flame, but once some of the wax had melted I realised she looked amazing by candle-light, her eyes glittering like Loch Lomond under the full moon.
There was a "silent auction" whereby guests could submit bids for a list of promises, from an hour's conversation with a French-tutor to the whole works for a dinner-party for eight. In many of the old the fens, poverty and riches live cheek-by-jowl, as they have done for centuries, and even now ideologues of a certain political hue haven't managed to set the relatively poor and the relatively rich at each others' throats - but that's for another time.
I believe there were some pretty good bids made, by people who make a reasonable living out of doing jobs that need to be done, and doing them well. And amidst the bolting of stable doors almost a decade too late because of the actions of a few madmen, some are upping sticks and heading for foreign climes where they aren't treated as pariahs, and all the best to them. Settings like tonight's are where payouts and bonuses are recycled quietly - the auction, and indeed the whole night, was set up by Rector Pellegrina to help build a primary school in the diocese of Vellore in India, which is the twin diocese to that of Ely.
Our singers treated us to madrigals from different ages, starting from Hélas Madame by Henry VIII; I hope they were singing it because of the serial widower's facility with a bon mot, and not through any insights he might have had into keeping a partner. They took us, in several sessions alternated with a local girl playing music from Bach to the Bee-Gees on the piano, through Victorian times to the roaring twenties, then left us with what they (rightly, in my opinion) described as the best love-song ever: Robert Burns' My Love is like a Red Red Rose. I can't find it in madrigal form, but here's Scots songstress Eddie Reader singing it:
I am never in any doubt about how good Maxima looks in my eyes, but it was good to see her light up when other people told her she was looking lovely. Note to self: tell her how good she looks more often.