I had to talk myself into going to this party. It's for my friend S, who is bugging out of Cambridge in a robust grab at a normal life with his girlfriend. I tend to think that moving will be the death of his PhD, so I'm not sure I'm behind this move, even though I get the whole Cambridge whackjob toxicity factor. On the other hand letting his PhD die a natural death might be no bad thing. Or maybe I'm just bitter. In short, I'm conflicted all over the damn place and anyway I have a paper to write and I don't feel like getting into party gear.
Ultimately I reason that I can sit at my desk feeling snarky and conflicted and bitter and full of shame, as per the usual cocktail when faced with the recalcitrant empty text-window, or I can go give my friend a send-off with cheap red at a party. Where, you know, there'll be music and stuff.
It is noisy and dark. Coloured lights on the bannisters. Pupil-bashing fluorescence in the kitchen. I manage to eat some incongruent Dutch ginger biscuits in the living room, shuffle up a bit of smalltalk and mix myself something borderline toxic from the serried alchoholic ranks before I come across my friend B, whose heart just got broken. His woundedness is almost palpable, like he is actually bloody. We sit outside in the dark on the edge of S's fading vegetable patch. B holds my hands and cries and I watch the light glancing off the copper tape that the slugs don't like.
We're interrupted by a cheer-up-old-fellow posse. Back in the kitchen there are strangers, boys standing in the poses of men unknown to one another. I shake their hands and mix drinks. Here.
I'm sentimental about this house. All sorts of long late nights with cheap red wine and Batman Begins on DVD and people eating my baked goods out of brown paper parcels tied with striped butcher's twine. The tiny bathroom in the cupboard under the stairs with the pocket-sized sink and the loo-roll perched on the foot of the ironing board leaning against it. Checking my mascara in the miniature mirror with the silvering failing at the edges. But tonight the house is crackly with the percussive novelty of many strangers and the familiar hum of people about whose lives I know almost every detail.
One of these strangers is a boy who's slightly behind me on our way out of the living room. I poured him a drink earlier. We have exchanged scraps of conversation, cross-legged on the floor. But mainly he has wandered the house saying surprisingly little, watching the party with thoughtful, considering eyes which he hides under very dark lashes when you notice that he is looking. He speaks very quietly, too quietly for the glee-fuelled cacophany in here, but I discover that when we talk he laughs, a gorgeously throaty and melodious laugh so unforced that I find myself wondering about the contrast. I will wonder again, but I don't know that yet.
For some reason, or hundreds of reasons, or no reason at all, he fills me with delight. I can feel my eyes crinkling up at the edges while we talk. I angle to hear the laugh again. He sees that I am doing this and arches his eyebrows with the slightest of mockery. He looks at his hands -- nimble, deft hands which make shapes as he forms thoughts -- and then at me. Unhurried green-eyed gaze. Suddenly I think, how do I get to kiss this man? I've completely forgotten how this works.
He's behind me, following me around the corner. I'm leaving because he asked, because he came into the room and somehow we're leaving it. Some pretext or other. Thank god, for there was some other male attention going on that was the kind of sooty, acrid blend of exasperating and boring that was making me rub the curling soles of my Converse together in frustration. This man with the eyes and the laugh is saving me.
I turn to track his progress round the familiar corner. I think I expect him to pass me down the corridor, but he doesn't. He just stops walking. He smiles from under the lashes and I'm struck again by how delighted I am just to be standing here. I wonder what time it is, how many hours I can reasonably spend seeing if I can be in the same room with him.
The lashes come up and he puts a hand to my elbow. This startling, liquid gaze, as direct as anything I've ever seen, and I realise that it's already happening, he's already there, he's going to kiss me.
We sit on the turn in the staircase and the party goes up and down and past us. In three weeks' time I will be watching him smoke a cigarette on a windowseat in Wales. Tobacco and sea-salt and the sound of the sea. But I don't know this yet.
He wears his belt buckle over his left-hand pocket.