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Even those close to me, who, I assume, share similar distastes and traits to myself, can often be seen, with unsettling regularity, engaging in grand socials. It would be prudent to note at this point that the author perceives even the most modest of barbecues, for instance, to be a ‘grand social’. Barbecues require a degree of planning – acquiring coal or other such suitable fuel, a functioning grille, meats, kebab skewers, invitations – that set them apart from other more informal socials, such as three men sitting in a small living room, drinking gutrot wine and listening to Toots & The Maytals. It has been almost four years since I attended a friend’s barbecue (and a fine experience it was, in which I won a vodka-drinking competition with a Polish labourer twice my size, and ate much Polish sausage and salads); it has been almost three years since I visited a friend’s ground-floor apartment to sit in a small living room, drinking gutrot wine and listening to Tom Waits (an all right experience, which left me aching the next morning, and reeling from a number of hot curries, ordered during a collective display of bravado and drunken foolishness); and it has been over a year since I visited a former colleague and current friend’s house (a civilised evening, most pleasant, where I was floored by a gang of beer, red wine (for red meat), margaritas, whiskey and limoncello, waking up without much memory and a job interview in four hours).
Every time I see one of these dear friends, seemingly every weekend, enjoying a grand social, I am perturbed. How can they endure, with such frequency, the gathering of friends and like-minded people! This very weekend, I had been invited to sit in the small living room of my friend’s ground-floor apartment, drink gutrot wine and listen to Tool, but it filled me with such dread that I apologised and told them that I could not make it. Indeed, the thought was so unsettling, that once I had delivered my reasons – quite frankly, I might add, without white lie or flourish – I felt a huge relief, as if a fardel had been removed from my shoulders! It is such a bother to imagine excuses, as it is such a bother to attend socials. Not once that evening did I wish I were anywhere other than where I was: alone on my sofa, in very little clothes from the heat, staring at the television set and trying unsuccessfully to summon the will to write.
O, and there was that time I went to a barbecue in 2013. At the end, all the women danced in the rain.
Sometimes, during quiet moments, I will imagine that I am a renowned writer, celebrated internationally. I would no longer be a mechanical engineer, but an author of universal adoration and cultural importance. Advertisements for my latest novel would not decorate train station platforms, but instead be spread across the odd-numbered page of a broadsheet. The Paris Review would interview me (second-highest selling issue to date) and the New Yorker would put out a piece on me, my tedious and unremarkable life story. I would be signed to the biggest publisher in the world and would already feature in their Classics line. Part of my duties, agreed during an enthusiastic and rushed contract agreement, would be to attend book signings and launch parties. One of the problems faced would be that I do not find champagne – which would be served by the magnum – quenches the thirst, nor does it taste very good to my unrefined palate. H— used to say—‘When someone offers you champagne, always say “yes”.’ And, although my mother found it most amusing, parroting it every time she gets the chance, I could not abide such a beverage being forced in front of me. Perhaps if H— were there, I might be inclined to say ‘yes’, but she will not be there. My agent would be there instead, taking the champagne on my behalf, and I would agree with them beforehand, in the cab perhaps, a secret code for—‘I cannot stand it here any longer and need a moment.’
Most likely, I would linger at the edge of the fray, visiting the bathroom far more often that I needed to, or taking my cigarettes in the rear, where I could not be found.
A journalist from the LRB would be in attendance, plucking hors d’oeuvres from a loaded platter and licking their fingers clean, constantly referencing our first interview and chuckling as though my nonsense answers ever meant anything. They would touch my arm and I would swallow my own vomit. ‘I’m sorry, I really have to use the toilet.’ Inside the cubicle, a sheet or two of toilet paper would mop up the perspiration.
Additionally, my wardrobe does not extend to such dress codes, and it always felt a shame to spend hard-earned money on clothes. I would look terribly out-of-place, either under- or overdressed, remembering a few disastrous dates where my appearance had got me into trouble, and I would swallow my own vomit again. The invisible noose tightens. The literary world would terrify me. I would find my artful peers abhorrent. Other writers are eczema. Anyone unfortunate enough to attempt conversation with me would not be spared insult or snaps, especially if it were my name on the flyers (flyers for launch parties, to be confirmed). However, be pleasant, courteous always, to the bar- and waiting staff.
Another problem is that, of course, I would be so popular, so sought-after and sexually magnetic, that women & men would throw themselves at me, as if they possessed an eagerness to be rejected or disappointed. There would be lots of attempted eye-contact; those little holes into the skull of another, black pricks of hollowness. They would seek to separate themselves from everybody else by any means, perhaps an esoteric reference (over my head), a niche literary quip (who?), the offer of some brandy from a concealed hipflask (makes me sleepy), or a casual contact against the wrist or the small of the back (actually offends me to my core). In the end, I would drink too much and seek the lady wearing a choker.
They would coo and ask me what I thought of “some novel” and I would have to reply that I had not read it, but my mother’s book club really enjoyed the imagery, even if they found it quite trite. My mother would be long-dead by then. I still would not be over her death. I would probably be dead, too. If I were not dead, I would drink more and more, I would mutter about my mother, and might reread some messages she sent me while I was smoking out the rear.
I still read and reread messages from ex-lovers because they are gone, so it only makes sense to assume that one day I will reread messages from my mother when she is dead. I will read them many times over because they will remind me of true love and of times when I did not have to attend launch parties. I am a sucker for loss and for longing. Last night my mother was drunk and I was not. She wrote me—‘I’m drunk and you are my world!!!! xx’ The fan revolved slowly, not cooling much of anything; clothes stuck to the skin; the sun had not yet sunk; the infernal heatwave was torture.
When the strangers inevitably throw themselves at me, I will start to regurgitate. Loosely, about the upper arms I will pick with my fingernails. It might be nice to imagine that I am Tanizaki, a monument to literature and sexual prowess, an amazing writer and lover, in equal measure. But of course, I would think of Miss Mellor from year-six who told me to never use the word “nice”. She, too, is most likely dead by now, an unshakeable odour of coffee and tobacco smoke, and she was old then, overweight. I have grown away from her; have aged, and she remains the same; she is dead now, too, most likely. Someone at her funeral said the word “nice” and they could not hide their shame.
‘There are so many other words you can use instead of “nice”.’ She spat the word out like a hair.
It might be wonderful to imagine that I am Tanizaki, a monument to literature and sexual prowess, an amazing writer and lover, in equal measure.
‘See? that’s better!’
The next morning, I would return, groggy yet eagerly, to my writing.
Two years ago, I was furloughed. The predicament, presented without choice and some disappointment, was thrust forward, and, eventually, leapt upon. It could not be squandered on lie-ins and laziness. Instead, the eight o’clock alarm remained, then down in the living room with a book, working through Russian and Japanese classics, in the muffled sunshine that straightened through the bay windows. Afterwards, settling down at the plastic desk and typing noisily on a keyboard, writing for four hours straight, lines coming freely. It seemed the best way to channel the absence of H—. She was hundreds of miles away in the Finnish countryside. In the garden, beyond the lid of my laptop, the sun burned the flowers to death, and they loved her for it. After lunch, I went for a long walk along the beach to watch a whale die. There were many people watching the whale die. It was, they said, an adolescent male. It was the biggest animal I had ever seen with my own eyes. It died and then the sun began to cook it. Returning home to edit what had been written, through pings of a teaspoon on the cup of coffee’s inside. Between the morning and afternoon seemed an age. Time went by slowly.
If there is a week between two minor socials, I find it overwhelming and intolerable; a dizziness and exhaustion, as though I had given two pints of blood!
The morning after the launch party, as I return, groggy yet eagerly, to my writing, I would be reminded of a meeting that evening with the Indonesian translator for my latest novel. My agent would choose and book the restaurant. The translator would be most affable, even likeable, and in the dimness of the décor, we would become acquainted and I would make every effort to derail their conversation on my choice of language to more casual topics. We would share two bottles of wine and I would order dessert, followed by black coffee. A more productive meeting would be scheduled the following day at the insistence of my agent and the polite agreement of the translator. In my bed later on, I cannot sleep for the heat. The fan it lands upon me, but I adhere to the sheets, I study the blue of the moon and wait for the curtain’s twitches to pleasure over me.