I never did like parties. Parties don’t suit my miserable, self-conscious, unsociable personality – but sometimes you can’t get out of them. I’ve noticed they get less frequent and more dire in direct proportion to one’s age. I’ve also noticed that my very presence at a party seems to guarantee dismalness…dismality…dismalaciousness…
So, the last party I went to was New Year’s Eve 2014. It was at my new neighbour’s house. Her ex-husband was there and between them they had cooked, or maybe bought (difficult to tell once out of the cardboard box and displayed on a reindeer plate left over from Christmas) a mountain of vol-au-vents, little quichey things, sausages on sticks and whatever. She said come over at nine. That seemed quite a late start but at least it cut down the amount of hours I could possibly be expected to be there. As I stepped over the wonky little brick wall that divides her house from mine I rehearsed my escape story. My sister had mentioned phoning from Canada at midnight our time. I just had to be next to the phone in case she did. So difficult to get a line from places like Canada and the States on a public holiday. All the ex-pats calling home at once. Etc.
I left it till ten past nine. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? And I figured it would be packed in there by that time and there would be less conspicuity involved. I tend to like to edge in sideways, find a seat and slither into it, and never leave that seat again unless forced to do so for a bathroom visit, throughout which I worry that ‘my’ seat won’t be there when I get back and I might have to stand.
So I knocked on the door and there was no one there, except neighbour and ex-husband in a rather startling red-walled living room; she had obviously been redecorating in the current local style – feature walls – visual indigestion. I loathe red. And there we sat. The ex-husband was conscientious about small talk. I did my best. None of us mentioned the fact that… well, that was the elephant in the room. All that food. No one to eat it. Then one other neighbour arrived with his girlfriend. He isn’t very keen on me, I think. He talked about long-distance lorry-driving a lot, and the correct way of loading a long-distance lorry, and the correct way of fastening a tarpaulin to a long-distance lorry. And eventually I remembered my sister’s imminent call, collected my coat from the knob on the end of the bannister, and went home. I felt this would be exactly the night for drinking half, if not three quarters of a bottle of Blue Nun all alone whilst watching TV till 2 in the morning and falling asleep on the sofa, but of course I had no Blue Nun so I microwaved myself some milk and put a teaspoon of honey in it.
The one before that was the Christmas before the Christmas before that. That was a lively one. Oh yes. I didn’t escape from that till one a.m. It was at another neighbour’s – the one down the end next the giant field that they seem to plough all year round, even in the middle of the night with floodlights on the tractor, when not spraying it with dung or pesticide.
The house is eccentric, being full of every sort of light imaginable. Everything lights up and moves all at once – pictures (waterfalls, etc) , fairy lights, a multitude of lava-lamps, the blue winking Christmas tree in the window, put there specially to annoy the neighbours over the road (‘Her and her Illegal Scotsman’) who were loathed and never invited; an enormous flat-screen TV with the volume up to 92 or thereabouts, which somebody kept flicking at with the remote control. I never knew a television could have so many channels and so many menus to find those channels on, or that you could watch five or six channels at once, whilst smoking packet after packet of cigarettes, dancing with children, drinking, telling jokes, and experimenting with a home karaoke kit. Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn’t take any moooooore…
Once again, I found my chair – or rather half a small sofa – and stuck to it. The springs were wrecked and I suspected my bottom might actually be on the floor. It felt like it. People kept coming and sitting next to me, which was nice, if stressful. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about as I’m slightly deaf. Normally I don’t notice it but in any loud environment all I can hear is multi-directional loudness. I am reduced to lip-reading. Although I have become quite good at this over the years, it’s difficult when people are talking about tragic events that happened in the neighbourhood long before you arrived. At twelve-fifty a.m. mine host started to tell me for the second time that evening the tale of the old lady who had once lived next to the Illegal Scotsman.
Old lady, she was, and we didn’t realise she had died. It was them little dogs, you see. When her son found her a week later she was scratched to ribbons – scratched to ribbons, she was. It were them little dogs. He thought she’d been murdered.
Just what you want to hear when you have a vivid imagination and live alone with a multitude of cats. And for the second time in one evening. I couldn’t bear it. My head was spinning, my eyes were watering with all the smoke and I was full of chocolate mini-rolls and mince-pies. I made my polite excuses. No one else was leaving. It all went a bit silent. But we’re only just getting going…
At one o’clock in the morning! Had I been expected to stay the night?
And then there were all those other parties, stretching back into my depressing, lonely past like the white plastic poppers of a necklace I had as a child. I wore it to the Methodist Sunday School party, which was in fact not too bad. The poppers got pulled apart and scattered all over the floor by some idiot boy when we were playing spin-the-collection-plate (oh yes, we Methodists knew how to party) but there were sandwiches, and jelly with dobs of ersatz cream; there were balloons, and crackers with mottoes in them and adult-sized purple paper hats that ended up resting on our shoulders, and little dangly ‘skellingtons’. And best of all we didn’t have to wash up. The grown-ups crammed themselves into the kitchen – a corrugated iron shed attached to the Sunday School room – to do that.
And then there was the one when we were supposed to go in fancy dress. That was soon after I got married. We made our own costumes, thinking that was what you did. I went as a tree because I happened to have some brown cloth and some green cloth. I think I had an apple or two attached. I can’t remember what my husband went as. Everyone else had hired proper costumes and stared at us. It was in an expensive cottage, half way down a steep hill. The sort where everything gleams.
And there were the ones where we suddenly realised dancing had changed since we were single, and that imperceptibly we had become a couple, and dull. And the earlier one where I met my husband – and I would only drink orange juice, which was rather acidic – and somebody was smoking pot, which worried me and I wondered if I ought to inform someone – and I was wearing this long flowery dress which somehow seemed now too long, and not thick enough. And my future husband (I already knew) danced, and that was both embarrassing and endearing because he looked like a scarecrow come to life, all angles and elbows and self-conscious jiggling about. And afterwards we had to stay the night, but there was only the living room so we spent the night together on folding camp beds of different heights, him with his long, long curly hair and his grey gypsy eyes and the trousers his mother had lengthened for him with strips of appalling curtain material, I in my long flowery dress which didn’t look right, securely tucked around my ankles. Horizontally but chastely we conversed – I from aloft and he from below – and played the same three Leonard Cohen singles over and over – and I supposed we must have slept because eventually light came streaming in through the kitchen window, and it was a new day.