The ornate silver fork fell from Maeve’s hand into her porcelain dinner plate and rattled to a stop on the gold-trimmed edge. Sir Mark Roofer, their self-possessed host continued glibly protesting his innocence to his guests and the young women who accompanied them. He appeared tall and long faced. At first appearing blonde, but on second glance his white hair proved bleached in places by the South African sun. He might once have been handsome. But he surely always had that touch of “goofiness” in his features. He certainly didn’t look like a criminal mastermind. His practiced, polished performance contained just the right amount of pathos with all the innate charm that an English accent can bring to these moments. He never noticed Maeve and Roxanne’s response. However, his mother , the former prime minister of the world’s largest commonwealth did.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Sienna?”
Maeve, was still too dumbstruck by the realization to respond.
“Oh, I was just telling her a joke.” Her sister Roxanne Scamander explained. “Are you familiar with Halloween?” The elderly stateswoman sitting on the other side of Maeve nodded pleasantly and waited for the red-head to continue. “In the United States the children dress up on the eve of All Saints Day, as demons, hobgoblins and … fairy princess…” That finally provoked a response from Maeve; a smile and a smirk. “and go door to door begging for treats.”
“It's more like exhortation.” Maeve corrected. “It’s called, trick or treat.” She explained while glancing pointed at the tines of her upturned fallen fork.
The former prime minister chuckled. She’d shrunk since her hay-days. Her hair was still robust but now white. She wore a matronly outfit and seemed overdressed for the weather. She seemed quick, lively and as sharp mentally as ever. Her laughter proved an honest, deep, hollow noise. Roxanne liked Baroness Roofer, but that was a given they both being red-heads once upon a time.
“Anyway,” she continued, “ one boy came to my friend’s door. He carried a knife, was covered in blood and was collecting his treats in a large “Rice Crispies” box. ‘Do you know what I am?’ he says to my friend. She said, no. ‘I’m a serial killer.”
Baroness Margaret Roofer did just exactly what everyone else does when Roxanne tells the joke; she grinned widely with a blush and laughed loudly. Roxanne was delighted, as the triumph shake of her cascading coppery locks revealed.
“I’m so glad your girls sat with me!” Margaret hooted.
Actually it was Margaret who insisted “the girls” sit with her. The Scamanders and Siennans had been invited to a “barbeque in the country” by some friends. They’d driven into the country with their friends to a rambling home at the foot of a forested mountain overlooking a vast plain. Their husbands arrived at the party in their swim suits, Hawaiian shirts and barefoot. Worse yet, Maeve and Roxanne wore Mumu’s matching their husband’s shirts. Instead of steaks on the grill, they arrived at a catered formal dinner where the men wore linen jackets and their “girlfriends” wore short sequined cocktail dresses. They quickly reassured their host that they’d be changing before dinner. Mr. Sienna’s valet fetched wraps and jewels for the Maeve and Roxanne and suits for their husbands. Margaret later told them tongue in cheek that they “cleaned up real good.” However, changing clothes in the pool house (and donning shoes) made them last to sit down for dinner. There were two seats at one table and two at another. Margaret had called “Please sit here ladies.” While patting the empty seat nearness. Maeve and Roxanne accepted her invitation and their husband’s sat at the adjoining table. Margaret introduced her husband Dennis on her right and the ladies were chatting when their host began pontificating.
“So tell us about your children?” Roxanne suggested.
“My son, the baronet, of course.” The baroness began. He raised a water glass before her mouth to cover the conversation, but her subject was oblivious to everything but what he said. “As you can tell he has a charming little bracelet on his ankle and hasn’t been off the property for a few months; an investment in an oil exploration company that went bad. This is his crowd. I can usually make up my mind about a man in ten seconds, and I very rarely change it.” Roxanne nodded vigorously, until she realized they were talking about a different kind of “sizing up.” Margaret’s eyes lead the gaze of the sisters’ around the room from right to left, naming a few as they went. The threesome exchanged looks at several of the more notorious names. “All of whom, including my son, the papers described at one time or another as “nefarious.” In response Maeve and Roxanne could only smile and go back to eating. “Oh, and I have a daughter of course.”
“A journalist…” Maeve said with an approving nod of encouragement.
“Well, if being a journalist is writing books and filming documentaries about your parents, she is one. I think she’s used up all her childhood memories and family connections. She makes her living now as a celebrity in reality television. No man, no children. Of course, Mark has two darling little tikes. And you ladies?”
Roxanne had already pulled out her “Grandma’s Brag Book”. The Baroness was engulfed by a photographs of dark-haired tan children, most of whom had bewilderingly similar names and features. Sir Roofer or “Surfer” as his cronies called him nodded to his majordomo. Sherry and cigars were passed around as the chatter’s people cleared the dinner dishes. All his coarse acquaintances happily accepted a Cuban or two. Their dates did not. When the box passed by Sir Dennis and Baroness Roofer, they both took one. Maeve and Roxanne shook their heads and whispered, no thanks.
“Oh goodness. My manners. Would you ladies mind if we smoke?”
“Not at all.” Maeve responded with a sad smile. “My first husband smoked. I’ve always loved the smell of tobacco smoke.”
This comment got a surprised look from her sister but Roxanne had no chance to speak as “Surfer” rose from is chair, sherry in hand. “Before our guest of honor enlightens us with a few words about the future of this continent.” Roxanne and Maeve leaned forward to follow their hosts gaze and on the other side of Sir Dennis spotted the octogenarian prime minister and gasped. “I would like us to raise our glasses in honor of absent friends. In particular to Simon Black whose been unbelievable accused of leading a coup d’état in Buranda. Here’s hoping our friends…” here is shifty eyes returned to his parents and guest of honor. “…can use their influence for his speedy release.” He put on a gracious smile and then added confidentially, “ You don't have to tell deliberate lies, but sometimes you have to be evasive. To Simon!”
Margaret groaned in recognition of the quote. It was from her political days. Sir Dennis grunted quietly in disgust at his son, but all raised their glasses politely. As the crowded returned to their sherry and conspiratorial whispers. Margaret turned to find, the two sisters wide-eyed and preparing to vacant their seats.
“We didn’t realize this was the main table.” Maeve apologized as she prepared to leave.
“Maeve! Roxanne! Please don’t leave.” Margaret exuded. “They always put such bores next to me at theses thinks. If you leave one of Mark’s parasitic thugs will move over here with his moll. Plus I was so excited when I discovered that Ralf and Jenny had invited you. While in the government I’d heard so much about your family’s import/export business and I so wanted to meet you both.”
Roxanne and Maeve promptly and proudly sat back down. For all the trappings of a far-flung commercial empire and their vast influence in society, the sisters were generally so preoccupied with grandchildren, family and planning birthdays, graduations and weddings that they little knew nor actually cared what other’s thought of their family.
“Ladies, I happen to know that “Forbes” actually estimates your family’s wealth as “endless” rather than the smaller number they list annually. And from personal experience I know your influence is unimaginable. Trust me. Governments all over the world talk about your family business all the time. Now, to what does South Africa and I owe the pleasure of your company?”
Roxanne’s ruby cheeks glowed in response. “My oldest daughter is getting married this weekend at Crystal Mountains National Park. She and her fiancée visited there a few years ago and fell in love with the place. Have you been there?”
Margaret shook her head and Roxanne went on to describe, a high-altitude forest rich in orchids and begonias, with the highest species count of butterflies in the world. She spoke of crystalline pinnacles rising sporadically above the oasis of fog shrouded juggle below. And high in the stratosphere; the “Elfin Forests”; The pygmy bonsai trees growing between the thin air and the mossy carpet.
“Isn’t that on the Buranda border?” the baroness asked absently. Easing closer to her new friends . “That wouldn’t have been too good if there had been a coup d’état in Buranda.” She winked and then glanced about the room to see if anyone paid attention. “I’ve heard…” she whispered “…that the Siennans have the best private intelligence network since the Rothschilds. I’ve heard how you handled the kidnapping of your youngest son’s fiancée. No one will ever touch any of your grandchildren after that. I also happen to know that an anonymous tip alerted the Rhodesian authorities to the 737 full of heavily armed “oil workers” stopping to refuel at their capital. “
Maeve and Roxanne exchanged knowing looks with the former prime minister, but said nothing until the guest of honor rose to speak. At which point Maeve whispered, “All I can say is you don't have to tell deliberate lies, but sometimes you have to be evasive”