21 December 2017
After The Party
The shame, the embarrassment, the humiliation…
By Neil Tidmarsh
Clive Bartlett hid for two days after the party. He didn’t leave his flat. He didn’t even get out of bed. He pulled the duvet over his head and decided he was going to stay there for the rest of his life.
God, the shame, the embarrassment, the humiliation…
What had he been thinking? What had got into him? Why hadn’t he just kept quiet, like he always did? Why had he been so stupid? Why had he been such an idiot?
Well, there’d been all that loud music and dancing. He certainly wasn’t used to any of that. And there’d been all those Christmas lights and Christmas decorations and festive spirit. Enough to make anyone lose their head and get carried away.
But most all there’d been Elizabeth Green.
Elizabeth Green had moved into a flat on the second floor four months earlier. The first sight of her that August evening had hit Clive with the force of a divine revelation, an instant conversion to a secret and mysterious religion. He’d been on his way to the porter’s lodge to collect his post, and there she was, at the mail-boxes ahead of him. She was tall and slim and golden. Long legs, long golden hair, golden skin. It had been a gloomy summer, but now it seemed to Clive that the grey clouds had cleared at last, that the sky was a pure and perfect blue, that the glorious sun – almost too warm, too bright – was shining its brilliant smile on the whole world. And when she’d turned and tripped past him, elegant on high heels, waving a handful of post and smiling a polite “good evening” at him, he’d thought he was going to pass out.
“There’s no way someone like her would be interested in someone like me” he’d told himself over and over in the days, weeks, months which followed. But that hadn’t stopped him from hanging around in the car-park or corridors or stair-cases when he knew she’d be passing. They never spoke – he didn’t have the courage to introduce himself – but she always had a polite smile and greeting for him, as she did for everyone else. He plucked up enough courage to ask Pete the porter about her – Clive was naturally shy and timid, and he was particularly frightened of the rough, tough and alarmingly outgoing ex-squaddie porter. That’s how he found out her name and her job – something in public relations. But no more than that – Clive suspected that Pete wasn’t going to squander valuable information on the likes of him.
She was the only reason he’d gone to the party. The barrister with the huge apartment on the third floor threw a big bash every Christmas, but Clive had never been to any of them. He wasn’t a party sort of person. This year he’d been about to dump the invitation in the rubbish as soon as it had arrived, as he always did, but then the printed words “all my neighbours” had caught his eye. Hang on, he’d thought. Elizabeth Green. She’ll be invited. She’ll be there. Won’t she?
On the night, he’d arrived much too early. She wasn’t one of the mere half a dozen people who were already there. The dancing hadn’t really started (not that he danced anyway) and he was frightened of small talk, so he took up a solitary position by the drinks table (after helping himself to an orange juice), pretending to busy himself with bottles and glasses but actually keeping an eye on everyone who came in through the door. The lights grew dimmer and the music louder. More guests arrived – but not her. The place began to feel crowded. People began to dance. People began to raise their voices, laughing and shouting to make themselves heard. Where was she? Wasn’t she coming, after all? The fear that she wouldn’t be there had tormented him for weeks. He’d wanted to ask her whether she would be, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do so. Now he felt awkward and out of place. Perhaps he ought to go home… A tide of wine and beer flowed over the drinks table, out of bottles and into glasses and down throats. Clive kept helping himself to the mineral water. He was tense and nervous and there wasn’t anything else for him to do while he waited.
And then she arrived. She wasn’t on her own. She was with another girl – a neighbour from the first floor – but Clive only had eyes for Elizabeth Green. She was wearing a loose sleeveless top covered in sparkly golden sequins. Bare arms, bare shoulders, bare upper back. Gold bangles round her wrists and a gold chain round her neck. Her long golden hair was pinned up elegantly on the back of her head, and her long legs were sheathed in tight black (or was it purple?) velvet trousers. High heels.
Everything seemed to stop for a moment. The music faded, the laughter and shouted conversation disappeared in silence, the dancing figures froze. Clive realised he’d stopped breathing. He gasped a fresh lungful, and everything came to life again. The music and laughter and conversation were louder than ever, the dancing more frantic than ever, the room more crowded than ever. It was as if her arrival had moved the party up a gear. People were shouting her name, reaching out for her, drawing her into the crowd, asking her what she wanted to drink, inviting her onto the dance floor. Soon she was laughing and shouting, drinking and dancing, just like the rest of them. Clive waited by the drinks table. Surely she’ll come over here to refill her glass, sooner or later, surely… But everyone else was queuing up to get drinks for her.
And now she was on the dance floor – god, she was a good dancer – and that cocky bastard from the top floor was moving in on her. That tall, rangy, long-haired, good-looking, tattooed scruff who played base guitar in some band which had apparently had a string of top ten hits in the last year. He called himself Stango or something like that (his real name was Nigel Liverthwaite). Clive didn’t like him, even though they’d never spoken. Stango (Stengo?) stood out among the other residents of the building – lawyers and bankers and accountants – and he knew it, strutting around the place like a peacock among crows. Now they were off the dance floor and Stongo (Stanger?) was standing right up against her, his mouth to her ear to make himself heard above the noise of the party, his arms more or less around her, and she was laughing and nodding and shaking her head and playfully pushing him away. Only playfully, mind. And he, playfully, spread his arms wide as if imploring her… God, the bastard. Clive couldn’t watch. He turned back to the table and refilled his glass with orange juice. His head was spinning, the music was thumping in his ear, his eyes were blinded by the lights flashing in the darkness. He blinked, and shook his head, and turned away from the table.
And there she was, coming right towards him, straight to the table, on her own, one hand sweeping that magnificent cascade of long golden hair out of her eyes (it had all come loose while she was dancing) and the other clutching an empty glass.
Clive froze. Now she was right beside him, peering at the bottles in front of them. Ask her what she wants, a silent voice screamed at him. Take her glass from her, fill it up for her. But he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move. She was so close, he could smell her perfume, her hair-spray. He could hear her voice, softly singing along to the music. She was nodding, sort of bopping to the beat, as she looked through the bottles. Her skin shone – bare arms, bare shoulders, bare back – her hair shone, her loose sequinned top dazzled. Say something! But what? Tell her a joke! A joke? Yes, this is a party, people are laughing, having fun, that’s what it’s all about! But I don’t know any jokes. Yes you do, what about that one old Scott told in the office the other day, you remember, “What hides in the…?” But I’m useless at telling jokes…
Then she looked up at him and smiled. Her teeth were brilliantly white, her lips were red, her eyes were the clearest blue. Suddenly they were the only two people in the whole wide world. At that moment Clive felt like a king, an emperor. “What hides in the kitchen at Christmas?” he blurted out.
She squinted at him, frowning. She couldn’t hear him, the music was so loud. She leaned closer, turning her head, one elegant long-fingered, scarlet-nailed hand drawing her long hair away from her delicate star-dangling ear.
Clive leaned closer. “What hides in the kitchen at Christmas?” he shouted.
She squinted at him again, still frowning.
“A mince spy!” Clive laughed.
Still squinting at him, still frowning, she shook her head.
Clive was still laughing. “A mince spy… not a mince pie, but a mince spy…”
Her expression didn’t change.
Clive’s laughter was awkward and uncertain now. “A spy, hiding…”
She didn’t laugh, she didn’t smile. She looked puzzled. No, she looked disgusted. She was looking at him with disdain, with utter contempt. Who are you? Why are you laughing like an idiot? Was that a joke? Can’t you do better than that?
Clive fell silent. Wait, he wanted to say. Wait, I…
But she was gone. Clive watched her walk away, back towards the dance floor and the group waiting for her. She said something to Stengo. Stengo laughed, and turned to look at Clive. Then Stengo said something to Elizabeth, and she started laughing, too. She looked back at Clive, still laughing, and took a sip from her glass. Then she handed it to a girl standing beside her, said something to her, and she and Stengo returned to the dance floor. The girl holding the glass for her glanced back at Clive. She was laughing, too.
Clive was shaking. Sweat was pouring off him. They’re laughing at me. They’re all laughing at me. The shame, the embarrassment, the humiliation… He felt sick. He felt like crying. And he would have burst into tears, right there, right then, if he hadn’t also felt so angry with himself. What on earth did you think you were up to? What on earth got into you? Couldn’t you have kept quiet, like you always do? Why did you have to be so stupid? Why did you have to be such an idiot?
He began to panic. The laughter all around him seemed to get even louder, seemed to drown out the music, the shouting, everything. Everyone was laughing, and they were all laughing at him.
He ran from the party. He ran back to his flat. He locked the door and buried himself under his duvet. He didn’t stir for two whole days. Forty-eight hours. He hardly slept that first night. And whenever he drifted off during the second night, his humiliation at the party replayed itself in his dreams and the disgrace of it promptly dragged him awake again.
Luckily, he didn’t have to go into work – the office was closed until after Christmas. The office party was in a couple of day’s time, but he hadn’t planned to go to that, anyway. He might never have stirred from his hiding place if he hadn’t suddenly realised – reminded by another troubling dream jerking him awake with anxiety – that he hadn’t yet sorted Pete the porter’s Christmas tip (a bottle of Scotch, and a ten quid note in a Christmas card), and if he didn’t do it straight way then it would be too late. And that would be another disaster, another embarrassment. It would be asking for a whole year of hostility from the one person in the building whose goodwill was essential. Pete the porter was never exactly helpful towards Clive, but active obstruction would be even worse.
Clive forced himself out of bed (he was still fully dressed), out of his flat, out of the building. He’d imagined the corridors and landings and car park crowded with his neighbours lining up to laugh and jeer at him, but the whole place was eerily quiet and to his relief he encountered no one, not even the porter as he slipped out through the gate into the street. He bought a bottle of whisky from the off-licence round the corner and withdrew some cash from the hole-in-the-wall.
Pete was feeding a big armful of post into the mail-boxes when Clive returned. Clive unlocked his own mail-box and took out his post. Pete ignored him, whistling tunelessly between his teeth. Has he heard about… about… the party, Clive wondered? Is there an extra edge to his disdain this morning? He forced himself to be civil. “Good morning!”
Pete turned and looked at him, as if only just noticing him. “Awight, Clyde?”
Clive swallowed. He knew how Pete addressed the other residents. Good morning, Clive. Good morning, Mr Bartlett. Good morning, Mr Bartlett, sir. “Clive. I’m Clive.”
“Right.” Whatever. Pete turned back to the mail-boxes.
Clive glanced over his post as he walked back to his apartment. Christmas cards, no doubt. He recognised the handwriting on some of them. An aunt, a cousin, someone he knew at university, and… His heart almost stopped. Elizabeth Green. Yes, he knew her hand-writing. His heart lurched back into action, and starting racing at twice its normal rate. Fear and anxiety. Calm down, he told himself. She’s probably sent cards to everyone in the building. It’s nothing. But he was gasping for breath by the time he got back to his flat. His hands were shaking. He was dreading opening it, he couldn’t wait to open it. He forced himself to put the bag from the off-licence down in the kitchen before he could drop it, then he looked closely at the envelope. Was he imagining it? No, it was her handwriting, he was sure, “Mr C Bartlett, Flat 29” in her neat and tidy feminine hand. He tore it open. He pulled out the card. A scarlet and gold nativity scene on the outside. And on the inside… lots of words, in the same hand. God, she’s written me a note, a whole message… Clive read, his heart pounding, his eyesight swimming.
You are funny! Yes, you did amuse me at the party, even if I did come across a bit ‘Queen Victoria’! I’m really sorry about that. You deserve an apology, and thanks, because you did help to cheer me up, and you deserve an explanation of why I decided to keep you at arm’s length, so to speak. You see, my dearest CB, you’re very sweet and you’re very funny, but are you serious? Can I take you seriously? Could you take me seriously? Because if we can’t take each other seriously, I don’t think there’s any point in taking things any further, to be honest. I’ve had plenty of relationships with fun and cheeky people, and none of them have really worked out. Because I am, underneath everything else, a Serious Person, and take things Very Seriously (perhaps too seriously), especially my relationships. So what I want and need now is something and someone Serious. But is that what you want? I fear and suspect that it isn’t.
There. That’s my explanation. I have to be honest with you, Cheeky Boy, and I don’t think it’s unfair to expect you to be honest with me, too.
I’m not too serious, however, to wish a very Cheeky Boy a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Liz G xxx ”
Clive was stunned. He read it through twice, three times. He smiled. He laughed. It was a miracle! A Christmas miracle! A whole choir of angels burst into song, filling his flat with glad tidings of great joy. Alleluya! A miracle!
That stupid joke – it had made her think he was frivolous, flippant, superficial. But he wasn’t! That was the whole wonderful thing! He was quite the opposite – everyone who knew him knew that, criticised him for it. The serious and sober Clive Bartlett, too serious and sober and boring for his own good. He’d always thought it was a curse, but now – what a blessing! All he had to do was to let her know, put her right, correct her first impression, and then what a golden, incredible future beckoned!
He wanted to rush round to her flat straight away, hammer on her door, explain everything face to face. But then, perhaps, that would seem too impetuous, too wild. And she was probably at work, anyway. Then phone her… but he didn’t have her phone number. Email her… didn’t have her email address. No, best of all would be to sit down, sort out his thoughts, and write them down soberly and seriously. He took out a Christmas card, wrote her name and flat number on the envelope, then began writing in the card.
Thank you for your kind note. It was good of you to explain yourself – your honesty is much appreciated. You say that you expect me to be honest with you, and I will try to be as honest as I can in what I write here. Of course, I would never try to be anything other than completely honest with you.
I apologise for giving you the wrong impression at the party – it seems that I led you to believe that I am a frivolous, flippant and shallow hedonist. I assure you that that is far from the truth. Everyone who knows anything about me can reassure you that such an impression is utterly wrong. The complete opposite is true. I am known to be serious and sober. I take life and the world very seriously indeed, and have no time for people who do not.
You say you are a serious person – well, so am I. You say, with regard to your personal relationships, that what you want now is something and someone serious. Well, so do I. My dearest Elizabeth, I have never been more serious, when I declare that I have loved and adored and worshipped you from the very first moment I saw you. You are the most beautiful woman I have ever met. Your declaration of your true, serious nature proves that your personality and your soul are just as beautiful, too. You are the centre of my world, my life is yours, and both life and the world are meaningless without you.
I believe that the future holds wonderful things for us, if we go forwards into it together, united by a proper, serious respect for all that is true and good in the world.
I look forward to hearing from you again soon, my beautiful, beloved Elizabeth.
With all my love
CB (Clive Bartlett, flat 29).”
Those angels were still singing, his heart was still bursting with joy, and he was still laughing with happiness as he slid the card into the envelope and sealed it. Now, put it in her mail-box straight away. But he shuddered at the thought of those mail-boxes, out there in the public space by the porter’s lodge, dominated by the overbearing, crew-cut, muscle-bound Pete. No, better to slip it under her door, deliver it directly into the privacy of her home.
It was very quiet in the corridor outside Elizabeth Green’s flat. Was she in there? Should he knock on the door? No. It was too quiet. She must be at work. He knelt down and slid the card under the front door, then walked away, his heart singing, his footsteps light with joy.
Back in his flat he wrote a card out for the porter, sealed a ten-pound note inside it, and put it in the bag with the bottle of Scotch.
Pete and Stengo were standing outside the porter’s lodge, chatting and laughing away. They both ignored Clive, and he hung around a few yards away, irresolute, waiting for a break in their banter so he could present his gifts to Pete. Stengo had just got his mail from his box, and he was absently opening it and going through it while he chatted to Pete. Suddenly he stopped, puzzled. He peered, frowning, from the torn envelope in one hand to the Christmas card in the other. “Here” he said. “This ain’t right. She’s got it wrong, stupid cow. Made a mistake. Put the wrong card in the wrong envelope.” He showed both to Pete the porter.
“Well, happens all the time.” Pete shrugged. “At least she’s gone to the trouble of sending all her neighbours a card, the sweetheart. Can’t say that about everyone here, can you?”
“My name and address on the envelope, all right.” Stengo scratched his head, and peered at the card. “But whose name is this in the card? Mr C Barker? Mr C Barrett? Who’s he?”
The shock was physical. It was as if someone had hit him over the back of the head, thumped him in the gut. Stunned at first, and then pain flooding in as the numbness receded. “Bartlett” he groaned. “Do you mean Bartlett? Mr C Bartlett?”
“Yeah. That’s it.”
“I’m Mr C Bartlett. Clive Bartlett.”
Stengo laughed. “Well this is your card then, ain’t it?” He handed it over.
Clive looked at it. The same scarlet and gold nativity scene on the outside, but inside… Just his name written at the top – “Mr C Bartlett” – and her name written at the bottom – “Elizabeth Green” – and nothing but the printed message – “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” – in between. Clive thought he was going to cry.
“Here, this means you’ve probably got my card, doesn’t it? I mean, if she’s put your card in my envelope, I bet she’s put my card in your envelope? Know what I mean?”
“No. No, I haven’t received anything.” Clive shook his head vigorously. “Nothing at all. Not a thing.”
Stengo peered at Clive, as if noticing him for the first time. “Didn’t see you at the party the other night, Barker, mate.”
“I was there. And the name’s Bartlett, Clive Bartlett.”
“Didn’t you fancy it, or something, Barrett, mate?”
“No, no, I was there, I did go to the party. And it’s Bartlett, not Barrett.”
Stengo shrugged. “Well, you didn’t miss much.” He shook his head. “Boring. It was boring.”
Pete laughed. “What, Stengo? Nothing doing, then? She didn’t go for you, after all?”
“Nah, seems I’m not her type.” He sounded sullen and sulky. “Not sure she’s my type, either.”
“I thought they were all your type, Stengo” Pete chuckled, teasing.
“Yeah, well, not if she keeps calling me ‘Cheeky Boy’. Right pain in the neck, that is.” He shook his head and waved the torn envelope at them. “Look, that’s what she’s written. ‘Mr C Boy’.” He rolled his eyes. “Laugh, or what?” He crumpled the envelope up and chucked it into the bin by the door to the porter’s lodge. “Right, I’m off. See you, Pete.” He didn’t give Clive so much as a nod of the head.
Pete chuckled as he watched Stengo stride away. “He was a Cheeky Boy, all those years ago, before he became the rock god he is today. Did you know that?”
Clive frowned, puzzled. “A Cheeky Boy?”
“Yeah. The Cheeky Boys. Remember them? One of them crap boy bands, ten years ago? No? Well, perhaps not. Didn’t make much of a splash. A one hit wonder, after all, and even that was a rubbish song, one for the little girls and the big gays, know what I mean? No wonder he doesn’t want anyone to know about it. Embarrassing for a proper grown-up rock ‘n roller like him.”
Clive was sobbing by the time he got back to his flat. He seized that card – “Dear CB… Cheeky Boy…” – and tore it into little bits and threw them in the bin. And my card to her? He shuddered at the thought of it. How am I going to destroy that? How am I going to get it back before she sees it? How?
Fish under her door with a thin wire or something. Smash the door down. Get Pete to open it with the porter’s spare keys. Or… No. Nothing would work. It was hopeless. Hopeless. He was shaking and trembling. Panic was a hair’s breadth away. He was desperate. He had to do something, anything, to keep it at bay…
He realised that he hadn’t handed over Pete’s gift. There it was, the bag with the bottle and the card. He reached into it and pulled out the bottle and unscrewed the top and put it to his lips and poured a stream of whisky into his mouth. He spluttered. God, that was foul, disgusting… He swallowed. But it was hot! And fierce! And alive! He felt the heat fill his veins with its flaming life. That was… good! God, yes, it felt great! He took another mouthful.
The whisky began to scour the fear and shame from his soul.
One stupid joke. One little pathetic joke. It wasn’t as if he’d puked on anyone, or pissed himself, or punched anyone, or grabbed a handful of… No, it was nothing! Nothing at all! And she probably hadn’t even heard it! That’s why she looked… well, as if she hadn’t understood what he’d said. It had been too loud, the music and the shouting and the laughter, she hadn’t heard a word he’d said and she’d forgotten about the whole thing a second later. They hadn’t been laughing at him. They hadn’t even noticed him. Nobody had been laughing at him. Nobody had noticed him.
He tipped the bottle back and took another slug of the amazing liquid fire. The strong medicine blasted savage anger through every nerve in his body and every synapse in his brain.
Bastards. I wish I had puked on someone, punched someone, groped someone, pissed myself. Yes, I’d do it right now, if I had the chance. I’m ready to party now, all right. If only the party was tonight, instead of… Hang on… He had a thought, an idea, so momentous that he took another swig of whisky before he could give it serious consideration.
The office party… that’s tonight isn’t it? Or have I lost track…? What’s the day today? All right! And what’s the time? Yes! I’ll make it, no problem! I’ll go there, and I’ll party like it’s the end of the world! I’ll throw up all over the arrogant and supercilious Mr Somerville (serve him right for trying to take over my office last month), and I’ll punch that yob from the post-room who’s always taking the piss out of me, and I’ll get the managing director’s secretary under the mistletoe, and I’ll tell the managing director’s glacial wife that her husband is having an affair with his secretary, which is nothing but the truth, after all.
But it’s a black-tie event. I’d better take a shower, have a shave, get changed. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for nearly three days now, I look like I’ve slept in them, which I have, I stink like a tramp… No, sod it, can’t be bothered, I’ll go as I am.
And that card? That message to Elizabeth? Sod that too. She can keep it. She can do what she likes with it. Show it round the building, give everyone a good laugh. Who cares? Pathetic, absurd, hilarious. Makes me laugh too.
“Here, you all right?” Pete the porter called as Clive staggered out through the front gates.
Clive waved the bottle of Scotch at him. “No whisky for you this year, Dave” Clive said. “Because I’m drinking it myself. And no tenner, either. Because I’m going to spend it on another bottle as soon as I’ve finished this one. Dave. Mate.”
“I’m Pete” Pete said. “Not Dave. Pete.”
“Whatever.” Clive took another swig. He felt like he might be sick, but he reckoned he could hold on until the arrogant and supercilious Mr Somerville’s dinner jacket was within vomiting distance. “Anyway, I don’t think you deserve any whisky or cash, do you, Dave? You know why. But – I tell you what – show a bit of courtesy come the New Year and I might have something for you next Christmas. Dave.”
Pete narrowed his eyes angrily, but he saw something alarming and even frightening in Clive’s face – a fierce new fire – which shocked him into civility. “Where are you off to tonight, sir, if I may ask?”
“Prison, I expect. Via an office Christmas party.”
“Well, sir, Mr Bartlett, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, sir!”
“Thank you. I intend to.” Yes, thought Clive. I’m going to party as if it’s my last night as a free man. Which no doubt it will be, if all goes to plan.