A Bachelor's Dinner Party by Sarah MacAllister

Wednesday, April 24, 2024
Hendricks goes to great lengths to prepare the perfect dinner for Charles - it's a pity that Gemma is coming too.

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The cellar air tasted cool and rank. Hendricks selected a horizontal bottle from the wine rack and blew dust from the label; an aged Montepulciano D'Abruzzo. He carried the bottle upstairs to the kitchen and twisted the cork out upon a round table laid for three people. Fumes breathed from the bottle. Charles and Gemma would not arrive for several hours. To prevent dust from settling within the polished wine glasses, Hendricks overturned them by their delicate stems.

Steaks marinated in the fridge. He'd perfected the art of searing flesh to a charred crust that sweated blood when cut. Charles was a meat-eater too, devouring burgers and kebabs after rolling from the university bar every Friday. Hendricks knew he would love the steak. Music presented more of a challenge because Hendricks favoured classical scores and couldn't comprehend Charles's eclectic tastes, which spanned Britpop, punk and heavy-metal. Silence, then.

The cat mewed from the cellar and scratched the door. That would not do. Hendricks turned the handle and allowed the marmalade creature to slink half-way through, then slammed the door on its spine. It screeched. He stamped and its neck crunched. That was better.

Hendricks gathered the cat into a bin bag and deposited it in the wheelie bin outside. A breeze writhed around the courtyard, loosening yellow birch leaves like old teeth. Bonfire smoke drifted from another garden and next door's empty swing creaked from their barren pear tree; their children had long since fledged the nest. Damsons dropped in Hendrick's yard every autumn. Sometimes he boiled their skins off to make jam.

Whiling the hours away on his laptop, Hendricks parsed lines of code and crashed the staff intranet. He planned to leave it like that for twelve hours and watch the outraged emails flood his inbox, knowing that, after he returned their service, he could count the number of emails expressing gratitude with one hand.

The doorbell sounded from the hallway.

Hendricks folded his laptop and walked across the marbled tiles, then opened the front door to Charles and Gemma, who stood arm in arm with fine drizzle sparkling in their hair. Hendricks invited Gemma to cross the threshold first and folded her anorak over his arm. She smiled like a sycophant at his show of manners.

Charles raised his eyebrows in greeting. His hoodie hardly ever came off. The sleeve was blotched with a small stain. Hendricks guessed he had already eaten.

"Smells good, Hen," Charles said.

Hendricks chuckled as they followed him into the kitchen.

"Well, I love your house. Isn't it perfect? And you have it all to yourself?" Gemma asked her questions that didn't need answers, and Hendricks allowed them to fade away.

"This is your seat, Gemma." Hendricks gestured to one of the chairs. She sat, while the two men continued to stand. The wine breathed on the table, while ruby shadows danced beside the bottle. Hendricks poured two glasses for Charles and himself. He hesitated before streaming wine into Gemma's glass too.

"Chin-chin," Hendricks said, and Gemma leaned clumsily over the table to clink her glass, too concerned with not spilling to make eye contact. "Thanks for joining us for dinner, Gemma. Charles and I go way back and he's told me all about you. I feel that I know you already." He winked.

Hendricks ladled discreet pasta bows, oily with sauce, into small bowls and grated parmesan upon them.

"Charlie scoffed a bowl of pasta with cheap jar sauce before we came! Your culinary skills are wasted on this one." Gemma laughed, accepting the steaming portion passed down to her, as Charlie settled on her right side and flattened a serviette upon his lap.

"Still hungry, Hen. Always hungry," Charles said.

Outside the sky was deep blue, the trees and houses black silhouettes like stage props, and the wind stroked the window panes with feverish attention.

"Where's your cat, Muesli?" Gemma asked. "Out on the prowl?"

Hendrick shrugged, as if to say who knew. He went to the pan and turned the hob dial, waiting for the oil to sizzle, while Gemma and Charles finished their hand-rolled pasta bows. They were speaking together in soft, hurried tones; some gossip from Gemma's Saturday job at the pharmacy about one of the assistants dumped by her boyfriend because she wore high heels to his golf club.

"She was stamping little holes across the green without even noticing! Stanley thought she did it on purpose."

The steak hissed as it hit the pan, and Gemma started in her seat. A smell of burnt flesh singed the air.

"Uh, sorry, but I'm a vegetarian. Didn't Charles say?"

"I prepared a mushroom stuffed aubergine for you. Chanterelles."

Over their main courses, Hendricks listened intently to Charles explaining the technical details of his project developing a new material to use in cathode ray tubes, to enable maximal electron emission while increasing recycling potential. Gemma's impatience was palpable as she feigned interest in the contents of her fork, scraped the aubergine skin clean, and her eyes roved around the kitchen as if searching for something to derail the conversation.

"But I'm boring Gemma..." Charles said, touching her lightly on the shoulder.

"Not really, it's just making me feel stupid."

"Well, we can't have that. Tell us about something that makes you feel clever," said Hendricks, his fingers a steeple beneath his chin. Gemma flushed and looked down at her plate.

"You're not stupid. You've read so many books," Charles said, gallantly.

"Indeed? What are you reading at the moment, Gemma?"

"It doesn't matter. Carry on talking about cathodes. I'll wash up." She gathered their plates and moved to the kitchen. Hendricks followed and caught her wrist as they both reached for the tap.

He whispered into her ear. "Don't piss on Charles's bonfire. Not while he's trying to improve the world."

Gemma pulled her wrist back into her body and cradled it, staring at Hendricks as though seeing him for the first time.

"Take a seat. I'll bring dessert. Honey roasted pears and rosemary ice-cream."

Hendricks poured from another wine bottle; a syrupy amber stream flowed into the sparkling cut-glass. Charles looked uncomfortable as Gemma's ice cream melted to a puddle on her plate.

He offered to eat it himself. "Too good to waste."

Hendricks watched Gemma's eyes grow dark, her pupils dilated as though by belladonna, but he knew it was only the mushrooms taking hold. She seemed interested in her empty hands. The time to act had come.

"Charles, could you help me down in the cellar please? There's another wine I'd love you to try, but it's behind a heavy barrel, an old thing I bought last weekend and haven't had time to move yet."

There was a scraping of chairs, as Charles and Hendricks rose together and walked over to the cellar door, leaving Gemma entranced by flickers of refracted light.

"It's so pretty. Wait! Guys, I can see electrons! Electrons!"

They ignored her and creaked down the wooden staircase to Hendrick's cellar, which was filled with an assortment of furniture and his large collection of wines. In the far corner, blocking the last section of the wine rack, stood a peat-brown barrel.

"Charles, I don't think Gemma deserves you."

Charles laughed and squinted at Hendricks in the dim light that followed them down from the kitchen. Hendricks moved closer and touched Charles's arm, feeling the strength there. His hand was left hanging in the air when Charles stepped back and began rolling the barrel aside. Hendricks brushed past him, smelling the sweat beneath his tacky aerosol spray, and dragged a bottle off the lowest rung of the rack, his rarest Tawny Port.

Something crashed above their heads and the ceiling shook.

"What was that?" Charles ran upstairs in alarm, while Hendricks trod after him, holding the bottle with care. He heard Charles shout: "What the hell are you doing?" and smiled in grim satisfaction.

On the kitchen floor lay the upended table surrounded by broken glass with Gemma lying on her stomach, calmly flicking shards of glass in straight lines across the tiles.

"Making a scene, Gemma?" Hendricks said.

"Stop it!" Charles fought with her to take away the piece of glass, while Gemma giggled and tried to pull him in for a kiss. Hendricks winced.

"Gemma? Are you alright? She's only had one glass of wine. We'd better call it a night, Hen. I'll take her home."

"Yes, of course. I'll call a taxi for you. Try to keep her safe." Hendricks moved into the hallway and pretended to speak to a taxi handler on his phone, before setting an alarm. "They should be along in five minutes." He said upon re-entering the kitchen and beginning to sweep away the broken glass.

"So sorry, Hen." Charles held Gemma on his lap, as though she were a tall baby. Indeed, she began blowing spit bubbles and popping them. The alarm buzzed. Hendricks answered his phone.

"What do you mean you need one of the passengers to come outside to wave down the taxi? That's ridiculous! I phoned for my friends, surely I can -"

"It's okay, Hen, I'll go and grab the taxi. Can you look after Gemma for me?"

"Of course."

As Charles marched to the front door, Hendricks pulled Gemma to stand and conducted her through the back door. "Do you want to see Muesli?" Gemma nodded excitedly, looking around for a cat in the garden, until Hendricks steered her towards the bin and opened the lid.

"Look inside the bag, Gemma."

She peered inside at the dead cat, which looked grey rather than ginger in the darkness.

"You killed her, Gemma. You did it."

She backed away; she was shaking her head and crying, stuffing her knuckles into her mouth, and biting hard to stifle her sobs. Hendricks guided her back inside where she slumped to the floor and clutched her knees.

"I waved down a taxi." Charles burst in and strode to Gemma. He bent awkwardly and lifted her into his arms. She continued sobbing into his hoodie.

Hendricks watched them go. He righted the table, poured himself a small glass of port, and stroked his stomach, replaying the moment down in the cellar and wondering whether he had imagined the gleam in Charles' eyes. What on earth was Charles doing with Gemma? Unless it was a cruel joke. Perhaps Charles was baiting him, seeing how far he would go.

At midnight, Hendricks scraped the food from the cat bowl into the bin and rinsed it under the hot water tap. He recalled the pitiful mewing when the cat begged for food, rubbing around his legs, and staring up with its amber eyes. But Charles hated cats.

In bed, Hendricks closed his eyes and began another fitful night, dreaming of Charles, and writhing for Charles like a worm on a hook.


  1. What a beautifully deranged story with great characters - I know I shouldn't like Hendricks, but I do. It comes as a real shock when he kills the cat, but its delightfully insidious. I also couldn't help but think of Hannibal Lecter with the rick descriptions of gourmet food and the obvious psychosis. Great read - thoroughly enjoyed this.

  2. So wonderfully creepy! The pacing was steady...like an 19th Century horror story. Every action took the same amount of time...stacatto...like a heartbeat. But the Hendricks in his story was very 21st century. Well done!

  3. This is a well written story. I was intrigued from the beginning to the end. I fear that it might offend some people, but artistic freedom is a must.

  4. I took an almost instant dislike to this story, beginning with the cruel murder of Hendricks’s cat. There are myriad plot lines a writer can pursue, but child abuse, sexual and elder abuse and abject cruelty to animals are among those directions that a writer really has no business traveling. Perhaps Sarah was simply trying to stress the quasi-crazy nature of Hendrick’s character, but no matter: I find nothing to cheer about this fiction.

    1. As the owner of several cats…that was very hard to read for me, too.

  5. A psychotic villain kills a cat and tortures a woman.
    (It’s a scene, but as there is no change to the main character, I am unclear on how this is an actual story. What is the story arc?.... I guess you have to be a fan of the genre?...)

  6. As usual I miss a lot. Was Hendrick's set up a plan to get next to Charles? That is as close as I could come to making sense of Hendrick's actions. Mr. Mirth

  7. I too love cats, but I also like this story. I thought the cat killing was key. It set the stage for Hendricks' sociopathic poisoning--dosing?--of Gemma. I also like the story's ending simile. It sets an ambiguity for who is being hooked. He desires Charles, in some form. But is Hendricks really the bait?

  8. Despite the brutal scene with the cat, Hendricks didn't really chill me until the midpoint when he told Gemma not to "piss on Charles's bonfire," that was when I thought, uh oh, don't eat the mushroom dish! Loved that line. Envious of the lush descriptions of food, wish I could do that better myself.

  9. This is a gorgeous story perfectly told in the gothic tradition. It's creepy and wonderful and the pacing is excellent. The last sentence is so good.