“I hate dinner parties,” he says again, as if that explains everything. “They always seem like they last forever.”
I can’t bring myself to reply, but just watch him check his tie in the mirror. Two quick tugs – left, right – and then his reflection glances over at me for a long complicated moment, a hard-to-read expression on his face. Then he shrugs and dry swallows his heart medication, shoving the pill bottle back to the rear of the medicine cabinet. With that, he’s out of the room and pounding down the stairs. A door opens, and there’s laughter, and I lock myself in the bathroom and try very, very hard not to cry.
Almost all the guests have arrived by the time I drift downstairs. Maybe only half a dozen people cluster around the lavish little sitting room. I don’t know why they’re all milling around like this: the only other person due to come is Dom’s wife, and she’s not due for two long hours. But perhaps they aren’t to know this. They didn’t have to arrange a dinner party at this insultingly lavish summer house, didn’t have to make the calls and move the things around and placate the irate caterers, all to massage Dom’s ego. All these people had to do was receive their invites and then show up.
Speaking of Dom …
For someone who claims to hate dinner parties, he really seems to be in his element. When I come in, he’s by the appetizers (a philistine mix of antipasto and hors d’oeuvres that he keeps insisting was my idea) in the middle of one of his favourite anecdotes. I think it’s the one about the art gallery and the blue canvas. Not that it matters, they’re basically all the same anyway: some pseudo-intellectual tries to pull a fast one on him, he naturally sees straight through the ruse, and then tears the pseudo-intellectual a new one.
The guests eat it up appreciatively, unlike the appetizers.
Finally noticing me, he raises a half-full wine glass in my direction and does his usual smirk. Joining us after all then, that smirk says. He shouldn’t be mixing alcohol and medication, but I’ve given up trying to remind him. Adverse side effects, like bad publicity and consequences for one’s actions, are just things that happen to people who aren’t Dom.
“Oh, everyone, this my new P.A. Well, new-ish. She’s doing a terrific job, just terrific.”
He can’t even bring himself to use my name.
They look at me for maybe half a second, except really they’re just looking right through me, and then turn straight back to him. Forgotten instantly. He launches into a different but functionally identical anecdote, creaky with overuse, and neglects to tell them how much organising I did for this party. And when the caterers tell me that the main course is served in the dining room, and we lead everyone through, no-one compliments the table spread that took me days (and several Pinterest boards) to perfect. It’s fine. I don’t mind.
We all sit down to eat. A light patter of rain starts on the glass behind the curtains, the kind that on first impression seems innocent enough but threatens to get heavier as the night progresses. Perhaps there’s even a muttering of thunder somewhere in the distance. One of the guests, who looks rather like a weasel in a three piece suit, makes an unfunny remark about it feeling like the first chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.
“Yes, I’m sure you’d all like to stab me in the back, wouldn’t you?” Dom says, which he probably thinks is very wry. There’s a perfunctory laugh.
The weasel in the suit, trying hard to make lightning strike twice, wonders at what point in the evening we’ll discover the skeletons in Dom’s closets. Another laugh, more perfunctory than the first.
I don’t join in. Instead, I glance over at the clock on the wall. Still over an hour and a half before the wife arrives. It’s a little funny that after months of working for Dom, I still think of her as just “the wife.” Has he ever even told me her name?
Dom’s watching me over the rim of his wine glass. I catch him out of the corner of my eye, and turn to face him. He doesn’t even bother to look guilty. Instead, he raises an eyebrow. Why are you so interested in the time, the eyebrow seems to wonder, as if its owner didn’t know. I gear up to shoot him a glare, but his attention has already wandered elsewhere. I’m not feeling brave enough anyway. I’m not feeling anything.
I used to love being a personal assistant. Well, maybe not love. Perhaps that’s putting it too strongly. Perhaps I should have said I used to really like being a personal assistant. Mostly. I think it comes down to just enjoying helping people, which is one of those godawful things you say in job interviews and immediately regret, but in my case it’s also kind of true. And maybe I’m not as young as I used to be, but at least that means I’m not the kind of P.A. you have to lead around by the nose. I’ve done this enough times that I’m not afraid of making mistakes. I can be proactive, and that looks good to someone looking to hire a personal assistant. But over time it became clear that Dom didn’t want that kind of personal assistance. In fact, it quickly became clear exactly what kind of personal assistance he did want.
And it became very clear that he wouldn’t accept “no” for an answer.
The lady next to me, who looks a bit like a slumming Meryl Streep, seems to notice my existence for the first time since we all sat down. She glances at my plate and her face becomes awash with matronly concern.
“Are you okay? You’ve not touched your food!”
I’m fine, I tell her. To be honest, I’m not feeling hungry. Bargain Basement Meryl Streep makes sad but understanding noises, and then resumes her conversation with her husband, as if nothing had happened.
Dom’s watching me again, over his (third? Fourth?) glass of wine. He’d actually been right, though I’ll try not to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. This dinner party does feel like it’s going to go on forever.
Of all the thing he yelled at me in the bathroom earlier, I’ll give him this much credit: at least he hadn’t actually used the phrase “You’ll never work in this town again!” That would have been one cliché too far. He got pretty damn close though, in the sweaty, sweary half hour before the guests arrived. He made sure I knew how influential he was, how many people he knew in the business, how he could – and would – take an awful amount of pleasure from making my life a misery. Things he’d all said before, of course, as part of his usual power play. I’m your boss. I control all the power in this relationship, because I pay you, so I can do whatever I want to you. When he’d said these things before, I’d thought it was at least party performative, like his joking-not-joking comment earlier.
Except this time, after months of taking it, I’d decided to be proactive. What a mistake that was.
Suddenly it wasn’t a performance any more.
You see, I threatened to go to his wife, and tell her, simply and plainly, what kind of man her husband was. What kind of things her husband did with his personal assistants, and especially what kind of things her husband did with his personally assistants that he would not do with his wife. Dom did not take this well.
“Why now?! Why at the dinner party, for Christ’s sake?!”
There was a lot of yelling. Name calling. Silence from parts of the house where moments before there had been sounds of people working. Hands grabbing. The bathmat coming up to meet me. Two quick tugs – left, right. And a lot of sweating and swearing later, he was checking his tie in the mirror and reminding me how much he hates dinner parties.
The cake comes out. It’s huge and gaudy, covered in a thin veneer of edible gold leaf. Naturally, he loves it. It’s barely hit the table before he’s cut himself a huge slice and devoured it. “So moist,” he murmurs through a mouth full of chewed up gilded cake-corpse. It’s enough to turn your stomach.
It’s about now that the lady with who looks a bit like a slumming Meryl Streep excuses her to go to the bathroom. The weasel can barely wait for her to leave the room before he makes a lewd comment about her ass to her husband. They both laugh. Dom helps himself to more of the decadent cake. He’s not offered anyone else a slice.
A shriek tears through the house, high-pitched and shrill, the kind of scream that up ‘til now I’d thought only existed in cheesy old horror films and nowhere else.
She’s found my body.
The guests run upstairs to a bathroom still echoing with the woman’s shrieks. No-one should have to see this after a heavy meal. I managed to get blood places you wouldn’t have thought possible. It’s enough to turn your stomach.
The weasel, faking an attack of conscience, yells “What have you done this time Dominic?!” He’s not convincing anyone.
Dom fights his way to the front of the crowd, his bellows of “What’s going on, what the hell is –” cut short. He sees the wide open wrists, the blood-soaked tiles, the razor blade dropped on the floor. He looks back up, and accidentally makes direct eye contact with the accusing glare on the corpse’s face. “Oh Jesus,” he breathes.
Then as one, the guests at Dom’s dinner party turn and see me standing behind them. There’s a vertiginous moment as they look right through me, and this time I don’t just mean metaphorically.
A sudden, deafening eruption from outside. Thunder shakes the building, making teeth and windows rattle. The storm, which has snuck up on us all completely unnoticed, descends upon the house. Right on cue.
Muscles twitch, limbs spring into life. Panic seizes them all. No-one reaches for a phone. No-one calls the police. There are reputations to maintain, after all. It’s ugly for a moment as everyone fights to get down the stairs faster than the rest. Everyone, that is, except for Dom, who can’t tear his eyes away from all the blood. For a second, I wonder if he’s finally facing up to the consequences of his actions. After a moment’s thought, I decide it’s more likely he’s trying to figure out how much it’ll cost to clean this all up.
The guests run into the pelting rain, run for their cars, run for their lives. The kitchen staff too. I watch them go. There’s the sound of revving engines and wet gravel spraying, cut short as the wind blows the front door shut. They won’t make it very far though. Not in this weather. In my current less-than-corporeal state, I can make sure of it. I am briefly tempted to spare Discount Meryl Streep, but ultimately what would be the point? All she’ll ever do is make sad but understanding noises and turn a blind eye. No great loss.
Dom’s coming downstairs now. He’s short of breath, and stops just short of the end of the staircase. He sways a bit, grabs hold of the handrail. He tries to pull himself together, perhaps taking comfort in having the higher ground.
“Where’s everyone? What have you done with them?” He’s trying to sound authoritative, but his voice is dancing on the edge of hysteria. Oh, I can’t tell you how good it feels to finally hear that.
“They weren’t really enjoying the dinner party anyway, were they?” And now it’s my turn to smirk. “But I’ve made some calls, moved a few things around, and our new guests should be arriving any second now.”
His brow creases. For a second, his confusion overtakes his panic. But only for a second. Because one by one, the new guests enter the house. None of them use the front door.
Though the rain outside is coming down heavier than ever, none of the new guests are wet. None of them are wet at all. But that’s not the most striking thing about them. I’m sure that Dom, knuckles white on the bannister behind me, can’t help but notice that none of their feet touch the ground. But that’s not the most striking thing about them either.
No. What’s striking is what he did to them. To his personal assistants, the women he used, abused, fired, drove to suicide.
What he did to us.
Dom’s grip on the bannister slackens. He stammers, trying to get words out. He looks like he’s about to faint. It’s such a shame the weasel in the three piece couldn’t stay after all, to watch the skeletons claw their way out of Dom’s closets. Maybe he’d be surprised by how just many of us there are.
Thunder booms around the house once more. As if that was a signal, the crack of the world’s loudest starting gun, my ex-boss screams, clears the last two stairs in a single leap, and runs for the front door. He surprises even himself with his sudden athleticism. The door’s so close now, rattling in the frame. To hell with the storm, he’s willing to take his chances. Just two steps away now. Maybe only one. He reaches out for the door handle –
And instead clutches his hand to his chest. He doubles up, fingers clawing at his shirt, his breath caught hitching somewhere inside him, making great whooping noises like a wounded beast. His mouth falls open. And his eyes are wide and glistening as he turns to face us, pleading, and the only sounds are the pounding rain, and something else pounding, pounding so hard and so fast now that it might just tear itself right out of his chest.
He drops to the floor, one knee after the other. Two quick thuds, left, right. He lies face down on the doormat, where his wife (whose name I still don’t know) will find him in a little under half an hour.
There is a silence more deafening than any thunder.
And when Dom gets up again a moment later, his face is ashen and his mouth is shut. He looks around at all of us, as what must feel like every wronged woman in history line his driveway, and with a delightful expression of horror, he realises that this dinner party is going to last a very, very long time.