Annus Mirabilis, so it goes, Annus Horribilis

Things were very different the last time we had seen each other, Carter and I. By things I mean the state of our lives and the universe around us. We were both strangers who happened once a year into each other’s life, if only for an evening, and then disappeared as though we never existed in the first place. Those new year’s eve parties, hosted by my aunt in the kitchen and the backroom of her house down a sodden avenue of my hometown, were mostly a familial affair, however Carter had been a close friend of my cousin’s for decades; he brought his daughter along, just the two of them. They mixed with all, and his daughter, a young teenager, found others to befriend. The clock was turning, the year was ending; it was a time to be friendly and all were welcome.
    It was twenty-nineteen, then it was twenty-two; bookends to lockdown; Carter and I.
    Despite the leaky glass construct of December’s backroom, it was hot from the bodies and the food – large pans of curry, rice, biryani, chutney – and a lighting rig that had been raised above the large speakers gazing out from beneath an understated but well-equipped DJ booth. Steam rose from all and collected above. There was only a white frame and darkness beyond; misty reflections of within. Often, without a craving, I would excuse myself from proceedings and venture outside to an empty beercan-ashtray I had placed in the darkness a few hours previous. It was cold, relished in a shirt only. Although my intention was to remove myself from the crowd to an alleyway of solitude, it was not a few drags before the side door opened and I was joined by Carter, who smiled politely down the steps and lit himself up an orange painting of a bearded chin and pursed lips.
    How had twenty-nineteen been? O, do go on. He was lonely, yes, most lonely. He sought a soul, he said, to calm down beside. It was all so turbulent! life was all so turbulent that he wanted someone to be his best friend, someone who he could fall in love with; yes, love. It was hard, he told me, at his age to meet someone to settle down with, for they, like him, came with a great many things, histories and so on.
    ‘What about you? How was twenty-nineteen for you?’ he asked.
    ‘Ah,’ I lied, concealing long-awaited joy—‘I won’t miss it.’
    It had been what Frank Sinatra called a very good year. When one is hitherto unimpressed by life, and in fact actively dislikes it, good years stand out like monuments angled to heaven. Twenty-nineteen had been a good year*. It had started well, got better, and ended on a high. At that moment, just Carter and I, it was firm in my mind that soon I would fly to Helsinki and see Her again. Every thought of it made me flutter with glee. Some things, some thoughts and ideas, are such that they cause the entire organism, so delicate and fragile, to tremble with immeasurable joy. It would be unkind of me to not acknowledge happiness. It would be unkind of me to revel in it with Carter peering right at me. There was a minor fizz as my end dropped into the beercan-ashtray. Back inside, the heat hit me like rhythm. My phone buzzed—
    Happy new year darling! She was two hours ahead of me.
    She sent me a self-portrait in some bar’s orange bathroom, its mirror besmirched with an angular tag, black coat, red nails, hoop earrings, red lipstick, the most beautiful woman in the world—First selfie of the decade 4 u lol.
    Four days later, I wrote—Romance is unfortunate when it is unrequited, and so I thought that that’s the way things were, luckily we had enjoyed each other’s company and nothing more; I did not want to fall for her again, but when it happened I understood that it was not so bad. I was excited about twenty-twenty. I felt like, finally, things were looking up.
    On new year’s eve twenty-two into three, I drank so much that I cannot remember much, nor by the end of the night could I stand up or hold a glass of water without dropping it. The decision of mine was that I would poison myself. No one sees how much you drink at a party, unless, perhaps, they are not having fun either.
    ‘I have never seen you so drunk,’ said my father the next afternoon over breakfast. ‘Your mother was worried you were gonna die or something.’ Indeed, the only other candidate for such an incident was at my aunt’s new year’s eve party back in oh-three into four, when I was equally miserable. A photograph of me that evening clutching the toilet is framed and hung on a wall filled with many other family memories.
    My mother put down her cutlery’d wrists on the edge of the table—‘I was! Hearing you snore was a relief because I knew you weren’t choking to death!’
    ‘O, for fuck sake…!’
    My brother—‘You were making some really weird sounds! I thought you were gonna throw up, so I got the bucket.’
    ‘O, you put the bucket next to my bed!’ It was a mystery I had tried, with no effort at all, to solve since waking up. Those who could remember recalled with amusement some of our antics from just before we left the party:
    My brother’s girlfriend had looked at me. I looked back, and she hurried to my mother—‘Why does he stare at me like that?! I’ve a good mind to punch him!’
    ‘That’s just his face. He stares at everyone like that!’
    ‘Well, he doesn’t stare at me like that!’ And she strode over, to where I had been minding my own business, drinking, staring into space. ‘Are you looking for a fight or something!’
    ‘Fuck you talking about?’
    ‘Why you giving me the evil?’
    ‘Fuck off. I ain’t giving you shit. This is just how I look.’
    ‘Don’t think I’m scared of you.’
    ‘I didn’t think shit.’ I motioned to my brother—‘Sort your bird out.’
    ‘I ain’t his “bird!”’
    ‘Whatever you are. I don’t care!’
    ‘I’ll punch you in the face, you know?’
    ‘Crack on.’
    ‘I will!’ she held her fist to my nose and shook it.
    I leaned forward—‘Fuckin go on, then!’ She did nothing. ‘Go on!’
    ‘I will! I went to boxing class. I’ll punch you in the fuckin face!’
    ‘Go on then! Come on! Punch me in the fuckin face!’
    She wound her fist up. She really meant to hit me.
    ‘I will!’ she said.
    But she did not. There was no impact. I leaned my chin forward and, with a playful grin, slapped her on the forehead with the back of my hand. She spat with anger and swung at me. I dodged and laughed! My brother flew in to separate us.
    I remember nothing of the incident, but had it told to me the next day as I – hungover and clinging to cutlery with life-raft-determination – chuckled sheepishly. My brother’s girlfriend was there at the table and hungover, too, but madeup, pushing lumps of scrambled egg onto a fork of smoked salmon, smiling. It was a new year. The calendar my mother had received from my sister-in-law was already pinned up to the kitchen wall, most punctually: thirty-one days holding aloft my nieces sat in a hotel room eating ice cream cones, their feet not touching the carpet, mouths smeared, eyes dazed with pleasure, posed in a soft wintery light betwixt the heavy curtains. Two more sausages on my plate, three pieces of bacon, half a cooked tomato, toasted granary bread, the beauty of thick butter! fat and protein, animals, brown sauce, tamarind, the British Raj, the sauce of baked beans straight from the tin, and orange juice so cold down my throat.
    ‘What an embarrassment!’ said my father.
    I laughed. I did not care, or at least I pretended not to.
    There was a fixed memory that stood out like a sanctuary lamp. It could not be shaken from my mind. Although Carter was ignoring me – as I stood next to him, both of us holding beers and listening to the music with nodding heads, and so on, just absentmindedness throbbing along to bass – I had arrived at merriness enough to broach hello. He acted glad enough to see me, as though we had not really been three feet from each other for the last ten minutes. I told him that he looked good, healthy, which was no lie, for he did appear slimmer, while I had certainly gained weight over the past three years. Drinking to get through will do that to you. Carter thanked me and then, without wasting a moment, beamed and turned to the lady who stood next to him—‘And this is my partner, Marie.’ Marie nodded pleasantly at me, and shook my hand quite ladylike. She could not hear what we were saying, for the music was very loud; just Carter and I heating each other’s ears.
    ‘So, you got a partner now?!’
    ‘Yes mate!’
    ‘Last time I saw you, you were gonna try online dating…’
    He pulled his head away, and glared at me emphatically from beneath his brow.
    ‘Didn’t go well, then?’
    Carter put his hot hand softly to my shoulder, leaned in—‘Mental, mate. I was with this bird from Reading for a bit…’
    ‘Reading?’ I asked—‘Shithole.’
    ‘Yeah, didn’t go well. Was on there for a bit, but nothing. Then I wound up getting a new job, and meeting Marie there.’
    ‘You did all this shit, and then met someone at work?’
    ‘Yes mate! She’s lovely. She’s fantastic!’
    ‘Fuckin hell, man. Amazing! I’m happy for you!’
    That was as far as my memory extended. The abrupt ending of a vision, furry at the edges, and look at it just disappear off the edge of the page as though it was never meant to be recorded. Lo, it returned to me when I lay in bed on the first, my tongue a dry stranger, muscular and foreign, pushing here & there. Carter was happy. Carter was in love. Twenty-nineteen could be disregarded if I did not hold it in such esteem. To me – in pain twenty-three, liquor’s new agony, self-inflicted year and pathetic – Carter’s happiness and love recurred, over & over. There was a brief memory of Carter and his partner on the dancefloor, after midnight, after the countdown that had failed, had never existed, simply one number into another, a hurried courtesy. Seeing them, yes, I probably fell under the weight of three years and how things that had seemed so promising fell apart. At that point, I might have come away from the stool, may have reached for a cigarette, maybe did nothing but be terribly unremarkable. My cousins – the children of my cousins – rang out to me in delight, dancing and fond of one another, in-jokes, choreography. The hairs on my arms twitched in their movement so close, Candy,and I was happy enough, at that precise moment, to observe proceedings. Carter and his partner were giggling. I watched them move away, waltzing, twirling. Who knew where they would sleep that evening?