A bustling hall: men in their standard tight, grey suits with high collars on the jackets and pencil-thin ties, women flaunting the elegant gowns they’ve bought for the occasion. The vibrant colours of the gowns glitter and gleam in the light from the grand chandeliers that hang low from the ornate ceiling.
Here and there small groups have formed. A constant flow of people, flutes of champagne in their immaculately manicured hands, enter and leave through side doors, looking for friends or groups to attach to.
Gentle music wafts through the room from a string quartet, discreetly positioned in a corner. It’s little more than background to the steady hum of conversation, punctuated by bursts of laughter.
The “chink-chink” of spoon on wine glass.
The music comes to an abrupt halt. The hall falls silent, everyone turning their attention to the centre and a frail-looking, middle-aged woman, supported by a tall man of similar age. People come in from other rooms; the circle that has formed around the couple becomes tighter as the room continues to fill.
“Friends …” the woman begins weakly.
“Romans and countrymen!” A man’s voice from the back of the now-crowded hall.
Laughter and a hubbub of chatter.
The woman chinks the glass again for silence.
“Very good, Alexander! You will miss my cues for your jokes.”
“My friends, and dear James.” She turns to the man next to her and squeezes his arm. “I thank you so much for coming this evening. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me.” Her ashen face seems to belie her words.
“And I thank you all for your friendship over the years. My lovely sister Constance,” she points to an older woman at the front of the ring, dressed in a scarlet gown and wearing a large diamond necklace, “Alexander and Frederick, Samantha … everyone.”
“Do not go yet awhile, Agnes!” a woman’s voice this time, from another part of the room.
“Thank you, Verity, but we all know why we are here,” Agnes continues. “As you are aware, I have not been well — what the news-sites would term ‘a prolonged illness’. Let us call it by its name: I have cancro, and it has found its way to my brain. My doctors say it is inoperable. In a matter of weeks, I would not be the Agnes you know, and within one or two months…”
She wobbles slightly where she stands; James puts an arm around her shoulders.
“Thank you, my darling,” she whispers to him, then addresses the audience once more.
“I have been asking myself how — when we have been able to design a mainframe the size of a fingernail, and put a colony on Mars — how we cannot find a cure for cancro. It is one of the sad wonders of our times.”
A murmur of agreement.
“But that is the way it is; I can only accept it. So, my friends, the time has come to take my leave of you. Be assured that I go willingly, and happily. And now, a chair, please.”
A chair is produced through the ring of people; Agnes sits, with James’ help. He fishes in his pocket and pulls out a small ivory box, from which he takes a tiny red capsule. He hands it to Agnes, who drops it into her champagne. It bubbles and fizzes for a few moments. Agnes raises the glass to the crowd.
“May Madiba bless you all. Farewell.”
She pauses for one last moment, smiles at James and downs the drink in one.
The crowd breaks into song: “Bon voyage! Bon voyage! Bon voyage!”
The smile is still on Agnes’ face as, accompanied by the singing and now applause, her eyes flicker closed and her body goes limp. James lifts her up gently in his arms and carries her out of the hall, the crowd separating as they pass.
“That was a lovely moment, was it not?” a woman remarks to a friend as they head for the balcony.
“It was. And it has been a wonderful party. Will you be at Fiona’s going-away tomorrow?”
“Oh, yes. I am looking forward to it.”
Behind them, the party is already in full swing again.