Q. After a recent dinner I found myself on a two-seater sofa enjoying the restful company of a woman who seemed happy to do all the talking while I just nodded and pretended to be listening. I regret my insincerity, not least because of what happened later, but I was slightly drunk. I came to my senses, however, when my wife wanted to leave. It was just in time to hear this woman saying, with a portentous look on her face, that she had never told anyone else what she had just told me. She said that now, having talked about it for the first time, she realised that the whole extraordinary story, although traumatic, had been the most important thing to have ever happened to her. She made me promise never to tell anyone else due to the high profile of the dramatis personae involved.
Mary, were I to know the life-defining secret of this normally standoffish woman, I would keep it to myself. But how can I find out what it actually was? Predicated on her assumption of a special intimacy between us, she is bound to want to discuss it further on our next meeting.
— Name and address withheld
A. If and when she asks, tackle this by saying ‘Before I give my view, let me test a theory. They say in Hollywood that the best stories involve a transformation. The main character starts out as one type of person, then all along the story arc dramas happen to transform her slowly but surely into a quite different, but better and wiser person. The classic example is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. How would you say that formula applies to your own story? Were you better at the end of your, as it were, story arc? Let’s go over it again, stage by stage…you talk, I’ll just listen.’
Q. We entertain a lot but have a problem with people spilling red wine. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to get the stains out. Is there any way in which you can still be civil and welcoming but only offer either champagne or white wine? It’s not just teenagers who spill drinks; only the other day a well-known military supremo put his glass of red down next to him and our dog knocked it onto a pale rug.
— A.E., Pewsey, Wilts
A. Allow people to have red wine at the table but say they must drink white when they ‘move through’. Explain that it’s not that you think they are clumsy, but your dog has caused a lot of spillage in the past.
Q. What is a witty or appropriate remark if you see someone looking over your shoulder at a party? I don’t think these people realise how noticeable it is.
— A.S., Petersfield, Hants
A. Why not punish them by saying, ‘I’m so sorry but I’ve just been looking over your shoulder too and I can see someone beckoning to me.’ Deep sigh. ‘Everyone’s just so desperate to hear my hot gossip. Will you excuse me?’
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