Monday, December 19

Window Above

For so long I had expected the evening to be a complete disaster. Since the announcement of the date, I had prepared for the worst. The last time that venue had been chosen for the office Christmas party, I drank until I urinated myself; I had been so bored and fed up by everything I drank and drank until I became blind. The bar is opposite our office so that even the title ‘office Christmas party’ becomes uncomfortably literal.
It was my last day at work for the year, and I had to put my affairs in order so that colleagues would not encounter any outstanding responsibilities in my absence. Although it had been a long week of socialising, drinking and very little sleep, I was in a sound mood that Friday evening, perhaps because I was looking forward to almost three weeks off and that very soon the equinox was arriving and driving away the darkness. (O, I can’t wait for the equinox! Come back to me, sun!)
On the day, every conversation in the office began—‘You going tonight?’ Many were, some were not, however they would not be missed. Office parties are strange things, seldom enjoyable. It’s true that I hardly regard previous events with any degree of nostalgia; indeed they are more likely to stir up feelings of boredom, shame and regret, in that order; but I had expected this particular evening to be such a complete disaster that it would be nigh on impossible for me to be disappointed. In fact, if I could make it home in one piece with all my possessions then the night would be classed as an unmitigated success. So people asked—‘You going tonight?’ while I ate through a hangover and tried to tie up all loose-ends. One girl sat at reception with her curlers in all day. At five-thirty, uncharacteristically punctually, the office readied itself, retreating into the toilets: the men to brush their teeth and spray fragrances; the women to put on their face and touch up their hair. While everyone else went straight to the bar, I went to the pharmacy to pick up some discount toiletries. The light in there was very bright and stung my eyes. The night was cold, the streets were busy as things began to happen, people were in high spirits. The venue was in a back-alley, and ours was a room on the first floor, which could be reached directly by climbing some stairs at the rear, also affording us a small alcove in which to smoke. I walked in and wandered around the room, alone, looking at the menus, examining the barman, touching the wallpaper, checking out the speaker manufacturer, removing my backpack and my coat; I took a beer from the bucket and uncapped it. I started to talk to my colleagues, the colleagues I liked, and took special precautions to avoid those I did not. One must be careful: those who are enjoyable sober may not be so when drunk, and vice versa. I chose my company carefully and quite soon I was relaxed and confident. It was busy, yes, but soon, when you did not notice it, the place would clear a little.
I saw her between the blur of heads and shoulders. The camera zooms. The sounds shuffle aside. Since learning she had acquired a boyfriend I had calmed my passion, it was only polite. My efforts aside, L— is one of the most wonderful women I have met in my thirty-one years. She is easy to talk to, relaxing to my nerves, her laugh is loud and dirty, she is an atmosphere of fun. But again I calm my passion! Amongst all that, she is stunning. Amongst the blur of heads and shoulders, leaning with a thin-stemmed glass nested in the nook of her elbow, she is quite so stunning. She has applied rose red to her lips. Hm, that is different! I have not seen her like that before. My thoughts are interrupted—
‘If you could have one drink right now,’ M— is beside me, ‘what would it be?’
Pause. ‘A white Russian, but it’s too early for that.’
Two minutes later and M— is next to me with a pair of white Russians; one for each of us. ‘What the fuck is this?’ she asks me. I explain. She is quite drunk, but that is her aim, she has already told me she is going to get drunk, and she is exceedingly able. ‘Let’s go for a fag.’ There is a small crowd outside. Steps descend and people stand in various spots, with ash messily speckled all over the place. We all greet each other and crack jokes. In the air is a mix of all different tobaccos, some harsh and some soft, sweet and some bitter. Others enter the conversation, others leave; the group is fluid. During one such cigarette I am in a good mood, an amusing mood, and I start to make people laugh, so I carry on, but I am not there for their amusement, I am there for L—‘s amusement. In the corner of my eye I can see her laughing so that she is doubling up. Others are laughing, too, but she is breathless with laughter and tears are going down her face. I do not look directly at her, like she is the sun, but I see her out the corner of my eye. Her laughter is such a sweet sound. That is it: there is nothing better than a woman laughing, and if she is your passion then it is the greatest thing in the world. After she is finished laughing she massages her jaw, still chuckling, and wipes the saltwater from her cheeks. My night is made.
Later in the evening, L— and I start talking. I am very happy because it is just she and I in the middle of the busy room. Neither is trying to make the other laugh, we are just talking, one to another, in turns. She is so wonderful and I try to calm myself. I am calm. It is a long chat and her lipstick is almost worn off. I witness the shapes her mouth makes when she conveys something that saddens her. ‘Fancy a smoke?’ she asks. We go back outside. Then, the following happens and, at the time, even in my drunken state, I thought that it was perfect and that I did not want it to end. Maybe you will not understand. Maybe it is such a trivial thing that I am being foolish to even consider it heavenly, but believe me that it was. It is simply the act of removing shoes. She removed her shoes in front of me. Propping herself up on the table, and with all the speckled ash scattered about, she removed her high-heeled shoes. She removed one at a time, of course, but after each she would put her feet on the cold floor and moan in ecstasy to be free of her heels. ‘You don’t understand how good that feels!’ she smiled. She was clearly enjoying it. She took the shoe between five long fingers and pulled it off, stretching her leg out and resting it barely on the floor, causing her to shrink several inches. I smiled at her because she was laughing at herself. She even looked like the sound of laughter.
Then things descended. M— was very drunk and could not stand. She stumbled about the place and her legs would not hold her, so I did. I said—‘Come on, M—.’ She could not. A moment passed and then she was in a fit of tears. It took me a moment to realise why: the girlfriend of a colleague she loved had just arrived, fluttering onto the scene uninvited. I thought M— far more delightful than this girlfriend, but hearts make no sense. M— was inconsolable, weeping loudly. Many tried to sort her out. I picked her up and took her inside. ‘Water, please, geez,’ I said to the barman. He gave it me with ice and I found a short straw, to take the edge off the ice, a straw just the right height for the glass. I forced it in front of her and said—‘Drink this. All of it.’ She did. She wept. She grabbed me and hugged me, sobbing into my shoulder. Apart from the colleague in question, I was the only one who knew the cause of her sorrow. She clung tightly and as tight as she clung to me I clung back. She said—‘I fuckin hate this.’ I told her that everything would be okay, but really I had no idea either. I put my hands into her hair and felt her skull as we embraced. It’s strange, but that was the most sincerely I had hugged anyone since my ex. It was an all-consuming hug, the kind that are not often made. She told me—‘I love you.’ And I replied—‘I love you. Don’t worry, M—, everything will be okay.’ I sat her down and fetched her glass after glass of water.
By now L— was leaving. I was sad to see her go but I knew that she must, and that everything would be okay. I did not know what to make of it, but everyone else she had given a peck on the cheek but me? she held out her fist for me to knock, and knock I did. She moved her mouth and shrugged her shoulders as she did, before walking barefooted away from the bar.
By half-twelve, there were only a half-dozen of us left. Everything was in marvellous disarray. Because it was a room reserved only for ourselves, I was able to hijack the music. I would choose a song, dance, and then return to put on another. It was only me and a girl dancing. If she disagreed with my song choice – which she did only once – I would hastily put on another. It was a pleasure, deciding the music. I danced and sung along and not a single Christmas song around. The night had come to an end; its natural end, with those remaining in a dazed state. I said good-bye to everyone, wished them a merry Christmas, took my bag and went out. It was beyond me to walk in a straight line, but I was in good spirits and just sober enough to make it home in one piece, with all my possessions.

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