You Never Can Tell

 

   Mark always seemed to be lucky with his parties. His strategy of inviting everyone he knew, making sure the music was good and ensuring all party supplies were catered for seemed to pay off. Once a year his house would be full to the brim with people. Some dancing, some chatting, laughing, romancing, messing about, sleeping, passing out, shouting, raging, once, even playing a sousaphone. It was a night to let it all out.

   At one such party, the house throbbing with music , the kitchen is full to bursting. People are shuffling in and out. New arrivals, still in their coats are searching for a place to leave their bottles. Sweat drenched, dance floor refugees are trying to reach the sink to fill up glasses with water. There’s a hubbub of greetings and surprise. Old friends re-meet and new friends are introduced. At the kitchen table, squashed in to a corner, three red faced men, with a small mound  of cocaine on a plate and a bottle of whisky between them, play cards and chat enthusiastically about nothing in particular.

   Running along side of the kitchen is a ‘lean to’ conservatory, full of  house plants. A UV light has been placed at one end, making the room glow like science fiction. A step down from the conservatory is the living room, which is alive with dancing. What was once two separate rooms is now a long space with a PA at one end. Coloured lights flit across the ceiling and the walls, the atmosphere buzzes with the charged particles of people being together. Close enough to touch. The strong, defined rhythm of the music leads the crowd to move together. Whoops and cheers punctuate the air.

   Standing just inside the conservatory, glass of white wine in hand, a very tall, broad, handsome man stoops slightly to watch the party through the doorway. Although the friend who brought him here has disappeared,  he’s content enough to relax and watch the evolving scene.

   Below him, from the other room, a small blond woman reaches out a hand toward him. He pulls her up the step. She thanks him as she lands in front of him, dwarfed by his size. ‘That step annoys the hell out of me. It always has’, she says. The man leans down to hear her better amid the noise. ‘I said, that bloody step. My legs are too short’. ‘Oh, aye’, replies the man. His Scottish seeping out.

   ‘I need to get past. The toilets up there’. The woman points beyond the man to the far end of the conservatory. ‘Of course. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking’, he replies. He had lifted the woman up the step then stood right in front of her. He steps back against the wall to let her pass. Smiling, she looks up at him and, clutching her handbag, makes her way through the plants. The man follows her with his eyes, as she disappears behind the bathroom door, then turns back to watch the party. He laughs as a young, drunken couple, half dancing, half snogging, fall in to the crowd before hitting the floor with a crash. A wave of breaking glass, swearing and laughter washes across the room as the dance floor re-arranges itself to absorb the mess.

   The man, feeling a tap on his back, turns to find the same woman, standing behind him. ‘Sorry’, she says, ‘I need to get by again. Trust me to get my period this weekend’. She tuts and makes a growling face.

   ‘Oh, right, yeah. That must be really annoying’, replies the man, doing his best to be comfortable with the woman’s honesty.

   ‘Actually, on second thoughts, I might nip out for a ciggi’, she continued, ‘fancy a breath of fresh air?’ She looked up at the man, who was stooping again to hear her. ‘Aye. Why not’, he replies.

   The man follows as the woman fights her way through the human soup of the kitchen. Swimming through voices and ducking under arms, she weaves her way skilfully towards the open back door. The man, being larger, must part the throng like Moses and the Red Sea, which takes a little longer. He apologises his way through squashed toes and eventually reaches the door.

   Far from being an oasis of calm, the garden is also packed. Tea light candles in white paper bags provide the lighting. Groups of people chat and laugh through a haze of tobacco, hash and skunk. The rhythmic ‘twist, crack, swoosh, ching’ of balloons being filled with nitrous oxide, echoes off the backs of the neighbouring houses.

   The man finds the woman sitting on a low brick wall beneath an apple tree. He ducks his head to avoid the lower branches and sits next to her. Watching with admiration the speed at which she rolls her cigarette. She clock’s him watching her fingers. ‘Do you want one?’ She offers him her tin. ‘Um…. ‘ the man pauses for a moment before deciding. ‘No, I better not. I’m still in recovery’. As soon as the words leave his mouth he is wishing he could suck them back in. The obvious line of questioning is something he’d rather avoid.

   The woman ignores the bait. ‘I’ve not seen your face before. Who do you know?’ The man feels relieved by the woman’s tact and senses he is being checked out as the party stranger. ‘Do you know Jane, the midwife?’ he asks. ‘I do’, nodded the woman. ‘I just started work with her this week’, he continued, ‘I’m a maternity nurse’. He looks over to see the woman’s reaction. He’s impressed by only the slightest raising of an eyebrow. ‘My names Roddy’ he says, stretching out a hand. Putting her cigarette in her mouth, the woman puts her hand in his. Noticing the size difference. ‘Clare’, says the woman through half closed lips.

   ‘So what’s your thing then? ’  Roddy asks as Clare removes her hand.

   ‘I’m in demolition’ Clare replies quickly.

   Roddy laughs out loud.

    ‘What?’ asks Clare, visibly affronted.

   Roddy straightened his face. ‘Sorry’, he said, I thought you were joking.

   ‘Why?’ Clare sends out a stream of smoke.

   ‘Well, you’re so…… You know, you’re not, well…you know, you’re…. ‘ Roddy senses he’s digging himself a hole.

   ‘Small? A woman? ’ Clare throws him ropes. She’s heard it all too many times. ‘You’re a bit big and hairy for a maternity nurse, if you don’t mind me saying’, she says, not looking at him. Roddy laughs and agrees that he is. ‘How did you get in to that then?’ Clare asks, keeping things moving.

   ‘Oh you know, I like caring for people and I like babies. I just put two and two together.’ Came Roddy’s well rehearsed answer. ‘How about you then? How did you get in to demolition?’ he asks. Clare realises she is biting her lip and her jaw is tensing. ‘Sorry’, she says, exhaling loudly, ‘I’m just coming up on a pill. I should get back to the dance floor before I make a fool of myself. There’s some banging pills about if you fancy one?’ She drops head slightly and pulls on her cigarette.

   ‘I’d love to’, says Roddy, ‘but I’ve just started this new job and it might not look too good on Monday, if you get my meaning’. They both laugh.

   ‘And you’re in recovery’, added Clare. ‘And that’, agreed Roddy, before asking, ‘So how did you get in to demolition?’

   ‘Simple’, said Clare. ‘My dad owns the firm. When I was girl, all I ever wanted to do was drive big machines and my family were open minded enough to let me’. She turns to Roddy and grins.

   ‘Lucky you,’ said Roddy. ‘My family ripped two tons of shit out of me. My Mum sort of got her head around it, but liked a good laugh. My dad is just embarrassed. We’ve not spoken in ages.’ Roddy looked at the floor.

   ‘Is that because you’re gay?’ Clare exhaled, her head dropping and pulling back up.

   ‘Who said I was gay?’ Roddy fainted annoyance for fun. This time Clare took the bait.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ said Clare, ‘It’s these pills. The words just come out on their own. Sometimes I just sit and marvel as I watch the shit that comes out of my mouth’.

   They both laughed again. ‘Good fun though eh?’ said Roddy. ‘It is that’ agrees Clare.

   ‘Everyone assumes I’m gay when they hear what job I do. I was only joking with you.’ Roddy gives Clare a friendly knock on the elbow. ‘I better try and find Jane’, he says, looking around the garden.

   ‘She’ll be in the chatting suite’, offered Clare, taking a heavy drag on her cigarette.

   ‘The what?’ asks Roddy.

   ‘You know, crunch, crunch, scratch, scratch, sniff, sniff, chat, chat’. Clare mimed the racking out of lines on an imaginary surface in front of her.

   ‘I see’, said Roddy.

   ‘So what was it then? Asks Clare.

   ‘What?’

   ‘That you’re recovering from’. Clare starts to gather the pieces for another cigarette, breathing through another rush.

   A sinking feeling comes over Roddy. He was hoping she’d forgotten about that. He aught to have just said he didn’t smoke. ‘Cancer’, he said, exhaling.

   ‘Oh, I’m sorry’ says Clare, getting busy with her fingers again. ‘Was it serious?’

   ‘Serious enough’, Here goes, thinks Roddy. In for a penny, in for a pound. ‘Testicular’.

   ‘Ouch’, says Clare, for the physical pain, Roddy’s embarrassment and her own awkwardness. ‘Are you alright now?’

   ‘Yeah’, replies Roddy. ‘The offending article has been removed and I’ve been given the all clear’.

   Clare senses not to pry any further, but imagines for a moment what Roddy must have gone through. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked’, she says as a young woman approaches and asks if Clare has a spare cigarette. Clare stands and hands her the one she’s just lit.

   Roddy stands too, hitting his head on a low branch. Clare offers her hand. ‘Nice to meet you Roddy’, she says. ‘Nice to meet you too’, comes the reply, with a hearty handshake. The sound of bass rumbles the walls around them. ‘It sounds like they’ve turned it up a notch’, says Roddy. ‘That’d be right’, replies Clare, grinning from ear to ear. Her pupils the size of dinner plates. ‘Before you go’, begins Roddy, ‘do you know if there’s any acid about?’ Clare looks, taking in the scene around them. ‘I should think so, wouldn’t you’, she says turning to leave. ‘Look for the chap in the stripy top’.

   ‘Thanks’, calls Roddy, to her back, just as a young man, balloon in hand falls backwards, in front of him. Roddy catches him and, with a light pat on the back, stands him back upright, before making his way back to the house.

 

 

Ben Greenland

 


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