There were 13 around the dinner table. We didn't know it then, but for one relationship, it was The Last Supper. For another it was the first.
My flatmate Sophie came up with the idea, to liven up a dreary Blenheim winter. I helped out with organisation and whole-chicken portage. It was our two lives that changed that day.
The plan was a Midwinter Christmas, with trappings and tramping. We measured map distances and trawled hut descriptions for a tramping hut big enough to accommodate the baker's dozen, accessible enough to pack in gourmet tucker and warm enough to permit ball gowns in lieu of puffer jackets.
The criteria proved harder to fulfil than we expected: too steep, too far, too small, too big. We settled on a cottage in Mistletoe Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound. Still rustic, but with the massive advantage of a working oven to roast those birds.
The walking crew set out from Anakiwa with laden packs and sagging backs. Our other flatmate Kirsten and quiz team buddy Quentin completed the Blenheim crew. Rachel came over from Motueka, Jane and Wayne from Nelson. Katie and my boyfriend of four years shipped in from Wellington.
Packing was tricky - how to adequately pad the endless wine bottles, avoid stilettos-in-the-back and minimise the risk of chicken-slimed satin. But not half as tricky as lugging the damn things around bay after bay.
The Sounds in winter is glorious. The breeze that whips up summer chop abates and the outboard motors that ceaselessly rake the calm have long since been sent into hibernation. But it's best enjoyed without two wine bottles and a size 14 chicken on your back.
Between view stops there was laughter and whining. The laboured crunch of boots on gravel was accompanied by not a few whimpers of "why the hell are we doing this?", or stiffer words to that effect.
But for me, that was mostly lost in the beginning of the end.
We'd never been one of those couples to fight or needle sores. It had been a crazy four years, most of it long-distance: Wellington-Palmerston North; France-Wellington; France-London; Wellington-London; Blenheim-Wellington. We travelled together 24/7, then spent nine months on opposite ends of the globe. But it had been a good four years.
Yet here we were, niggling at each other. Not enough for anyone else to notice. But enough for me to know.
The cheats arrived later, by car, trailing boas and beat boxes. Dave drove in from Motueka, and from Blenheim came Mark, Kyle and Penny - the new friends we'd cemented at our Love Boat party. (I was Isaac, the afro was real.)
Once the cooks scrubbed up and the bubbles were opened, any maudlin thinking was quickly banished by the task at hand. (Thank God there was no gin.) There was a pumpkin to roast, peppers to stuff with wild rice, and, of course, those damn chickens.
The result was a feast befitting the ministerial cabinet that spontaneously formed around the table. Who can imagine whose idea it was to turn the Midwinter Christmas into a midwinter debate. Or who on earth came up with the title Minister for Canned Cheese.
But it couldn't have been more achingly hilarious or more appropriate for this black-tie-and-backpack slice of the absurd.
After dinner we danced our last cheesy pub moves - my slinky satin dress skimming the wooden floor as everyone dribbled off to bed. A few weeks later we broke up. An awkward phone call on my birthday, an awkward meeting at the airport. Or was it the ferry? He left. I cried. Eventually, we both moved on.
So, too, the other relationships around the table. Now there are other partners, new babies, new joys and new, heartbreaking stories.
But for one pair that memorable night was only the beginning. Post feast, a tall dark semi-stranger began to appear at our flat. A James Bond party must have been the clincher - how can you resist a man who turns up in a wetsuit and strips to a tuxedo?
Now they're married with two kids and the Midwinter Christmases tend to be family affairs. For me, the tradition faltered before it could take off. But the ball dress is still hanging in the wardrobe and I'm open to a 15-year reunion, in 2017. Bags not carrying the chicken.
- The Dominion Post
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