Thursday, November 10

Part II: Different shades of blue

EVERYONE THOUGHT at least once during their time of knowing the married couple that they would not last. But it was their fortieth wedding anniversary and November was not so cold the night of the party. They lived in a small thatched cottage on the edge of town on the side of a hill with a dog that could not sit still and drove the couple mad, especially when they had visitors. The visitors did not mind so much.
A hundred guests were invited; sons & daughters, grandchildren, brothers & sisters, nephews, nieces, mothers (the fathers were dead), distant relatives, relatives of relatives, friends of their children, old friends, old friends, old friends, the best man now hobbling, old & young.
The party was held in the hall on the top floor of the Town Hall. I had lived around the town—going to school and college there—for twenty-three years and had never stepped foot in the Town Hall. As I entered with my mother and father’s mother, I looked around. There were marble busts, oil paintings, a throne with Queen Victoria sitting upon it, medals, certificates, plaques, and a desk for the man on night-watch to sit. The front door did very little to keep out the breeze and the sound of people on their way to observe the town’s Guy Fawkes display. A man made of straw was being lifted on to a woodpile.
I was still tired from the night before. The alcohol had been rinsed out of my system and when I got back from the shop with my tobacco I felt relieved enough to sit and play guitar until the rest of my family were ready to leave. However, I could still not shake the sight of her holding hands with someone who was not me. The movie projector had jammed on that one frame.
“Will you cheer up?” said my mother.
“Will you not ask me to cheer up?” I retorted, thinking I should have feigned illness and stayed in bed. Now I knew the destructive power of holding hands.
I noticed the incorrect grammar on a hand-painted sign that read MAYORS PARLOUR. The building had an old smell to it of old leather and red carpets. Music came from the hall at the top. My aunt and uncle greeted us all and I kissed them hello. My aunt grabbed both sides of my face, staring right into me, “L—, there is a free bar tonight so we expect you to get slaughtered!”
My reputation . . . “I was thinking about a night off, Sue. I drank enough last night for two nights.” I had been drunk the night before, too, but I did not want to go into that.
“Make it the third night then.”
Maybe if I avoid it for a while, then, I thought. Just inside the entrance was a table covered in flutes of champagne. I took one, drank it quickly then picked up another to carry around the hall with me. I walked in big circles, avoiding speaking to people—who mingled and gaily spoke to one another—and paid attention to the hall.
There was the pale smell of fresh paint. The ceiling panels were painted different shades of blue. There were six very large oil paintings of former Town Mayors. Above the free bar was an overwhelming portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, wearing her crown, wearing white, wearing fur, staring into space, a thick blackness surrounded her. The painting made her look alone and without help. She had been a young woman once.
There was a bottle of red on the table. I poured myself a glass, sat down and looked around. There were many old faces. Some would not recognise me.
The wine tasted good. If there were two things my uncle knew they were wine and curry and both were on the menu for the evening. The wine went down very easily and was the best red I’d had for a while. I looked for my uncle in the crowd before me. I like him. He has a deep voice and when I talk to him I get that he understands me.
I spotted my Nan on the table next to me. She stared in the same regal and lonely manner as Queen Elizabeth II. There were conversations occurring around her but her hearing and vision had almost completely gone so, as often was the case at gatherings, she zoned out. I picked up my wine and went over.
“Hello Nan.” I kissed her cheek. Her skin was like the skin of a peach that has been sat in the bowl too long.
“Who is this?” she asked me.
I told her who I was. “You should feel people’s faces when they talk to you, if you can’t see them.” I suggested. “Like this,” and I put my hands on her face and felt her features. She laughed.
“How are you, sweetheart?”
I lied—“I’m OK.” I told her a little about the night before but I left out the holding hands.
Then something triggered inside of her. It was hard to tell because she could hardly hear or see so you were never sure what she heard and what she didn’t. “L—, darling, don’t waste your youth. Please. Don’t waste it. You will get to my age and wish you had done more. You are young. Sieze it. Go out and have fun. Sleep with women. Have one night stands. Be careful, but do it. Enjoy your youth, darling. It will not happen again.” Then she paused for breath and turned away from me.
I had not meant to but during the course of her advice my eyes had begun to water. The more you wipe watering eyes the worse it becomes. My Nan had been overcome by silence and her hand was rested on my knee. She focused on the crowd. I wiped my eyes anyway.
Just then another of my aunt’s appeared at my side.
“Nan was just giving me some advice.”
“Really? What did she say?”
“I told him to go out and have fun.”
“She’s right, you know.” said my aunt.
I think my eyes had dried.
“We all worry about you, L—,” my aunt informed me. I did not know that. “Yes, we worry about you.” The two of them faced me now. “Tell me, are you happy?”
“Why not?”
I didn’t want to go into why I wasn’t happy. “I’m just not. I don’t think I should be happy. I’m just not. Happiness doesn’t interest me a great deal. It’s not something I feel I should try to be.”
Just as she started to talk to me some more, dinner was called and we were asked to take our seats.
Afterwards, with a cigarette to relax my stomach, I stood on the steps of the Town Hall and watched the people return from the fireworks display. Children waved sparklers in the air, writing embryonic letters, and cooing. Their numbers were everlasting; a rich flow of young families, their children armed to the teeth with sparklers, and the November night slowly bringing the temperature down, while Queen Victoria sat behind me, an overruling female.

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