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Neighbours

I recently went to a party where the hostess, whose eightieth birthday it was, had invited a number of elderly neighbours. As her next-door neighbour I had planned to have a celebration for her in my own house, for my understanding was that none of her close relatives would be visiting her on the day and I felt that her advanced age deserved some recognition. But she would have none of this. "I would rather throw my own little party," she told me, imperiously.

The guests were due to arrive at six o'clock in the evening it being generally accepted that the aged would be content to partake of one or two glasses of wine and a twiglet before retiring from the party and to bed. But it was to be an "assorted bunch" my friend told me. Knowing her partiality for gentility I realised what she meant by this was different accents, different lifestyles, and readers of different newspapers. In this way many of us seek to define those people we think may be interesting to know and those we decide are hardly worth the effort. A mixture of intellectual and social snobbery few of us would care to admit to.

On the night this young thing (me!) answered the door to a little queue of old people and conducted each of them to various comfortable, or at least, supportable, seats and sofas. Several people were suffering the aftermath of operations and one man, who had spent some time in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War, came in on crutches. I collected up walking sticks and found a suitable corner to park them in while the hostess, looking svelte in a black dress and pearls, requested the services of a man of sixty-something to take charge of the drinks and refill glasses when they became empty. Knowing this man's capacity for alcohol I worried somewhat for him but even more for the people whose glasses he would be replenishing.

Conversation was a bit slow, the weather being discussed in desultory fashion. We were all neighbours, acquaintances and familiar faces but otherwise we knew little about each other. I disappeared into the garden to refuel my nicotine addiction. Re-entering the house about ten minutes later I was happy to find white heads bobbing up-and-down as neighbour chatted to neighbour. Jokes were being told and there was much laughter. A wartime experience was being recounted. The history of this road we all live in was being revealed by people who have dwelt here for yonks and interesting comparisons being made with how it is today. Politics were discussed but without enthusiasm. It was agreed that politicians couldn't be trusted no matter of what political colour. And six hundred quid demanded for Council Tax and nowt to show for it! Everybody peered into their empty glasses and sighed unanimously. Man in charge of drinks came round again. Then "Speech, speech" someone cried (I think it was me). The hostess was only too eager to oblige but after about fifteen minutes everyone stopped listening to her and talked to each other. Suddenly the opportunity to escape television soaps from behind lace curtains night-after-night seemed an attractive proposition to men and women who no longer got invited to "smart" parties. I know about smart parties I've done the rounds over the years—sitting on hard chairs at dinner tables forced to endure conversations about other people's careers, cars and mortgages, until I wanted to scream "I'm a socialist!" at the top of my voice. Once I did.

Not this time. I revelled in the sociability of people who were grateful to be together, these days perhaps not being seen as party material and so finding the unexpected chance to mingle enjoyable. There can be a dignity in old age, the aged knowing they no longer need to compete (if they ever did) with the young ambitious; having discovered that it is a pretty worthless pursuit anyway.

Ten o'clock. Man in charge of drinks came round for last refill. There were cries of "Whose eightieth birthday is next on the list?"—one or two admitted to having already had theirs. I collected up walking sticks, handing them round, often to the wrong people and it took a bit of time sorting it all out. Down the path they all went talking nineteen-to-the-dozen. The hostess was beaming. "It's been such fun," she said, "we must do it again sometime."

HEATHER BALL