A short story by Shereen Jackson
I did not want to go to the party. Instead, I had planned to put the kids to bed, eat ice-cream and watch T.V. But my friends, all divorced, all eager to live their best lives, convinced me to go. It was at an event such as this, they said, that I would meet a new man.
I rang the babysitter and showered and tried on six different dresses, and most of them were from another life, so they didn’t fit. I called Lisa who brought over a dress, and she also brought wine and drugs, even though I asked her not to.
‘The babysitter and kids are downstairs,’ I said as she cut the coke on the bedside table. Lisa had that look on her face, the one that said… we are going to have an amazing time, whatever the cost.
‘So?’ she handed me a rolled up twenty. ‘The babysitter is probably on k. Aren’t all teenagers nowadays?’
‘That isn’t very reassuring,’ I said. I snorted the coke. It stung. I immediately regretted doing it. I looked at my face in the mirror and tried to massage it into shape.
‘Here,’ Lisa said, throwing me a stick of concealer. ‘This is amazing. Every time I wear it, I get told I look ten years younger.’
I dabbed the concealer under my eyes, and I had to admit I did look better or maybe it was just the drugs making me feel more attractive. The dress Lisa had brought was tight on the hips but nice, designer.
‘You look incredible,’ Lisa said. ‘I wish I had your legs.’
Lisa was always wishing she had other women’s bodies, or at least parts of their bodies. I imagined us swapping body parts, like the cut-out paper figures I had played with as a child, with their changeable body sections, outfits and accessories. We could all take the best bits from each other to make the perfect body. If I had a choice, I would have Lisa’s breasts, Pip’s nose and Nisha’s waist.
After kissing the children goodnight and reminding the babysitter of the rules: no sugar, TV or video games after nine, Lisa and I took an Uber to the birthday party. It was at a house in the better part of Shepherds Bush.
‘Do I look all right?’ I asked.
‘You look amazing.’
We rang the doorbell and were ushered in by somebody who wasn’t the host but acted as if they were. ‘Friends of Renee’s? Welcome, welcome, come in out of the cold.’ We walked into a crowded room, shrugged off our coats and added them to a pile on a chair. Lisa put her birthday gift with all the other gifts on the coffee table.
‘This is nice,’ she said. Men or boys, or boys that had just become men, were standing holding trays of drinks. They were dressed in tuxedos. I wondered if they had been hired from a model agency; they all had beautiful skin, oceanic eyes and hair that looked as if it had been recently blow dried. Lisa tilted her head towards a woman in a black suit that showed the slope of her breasts.
‘The birthday girl.’ Lisa waved at the hostess, trying to catch her attention. ‘I’ll introduce you later. Let’s get a drink.’
We helped ourselves to champagne and made our way to the back of the house where we found Nisha and Pip in the kitchen, already drunk. They told me how much they loved my outfit and when I confessed it was Lisa’s dress, they said they knew, because Lisa had told them she was going to make me wear something extraordinary.
‘And your face, you’re glowing,’ Pip said, touching my cheek with the side of her hand.
We drank more champagne and Lisa tapped the side of her nose. I shook my head; my stomach was already churning. As the others left, I saw a waiter carrying a tray of canapes. I waved him over.
‘Are they veggie?’
He stared at the tray. ‘I honestly don’t know.’
He was tall; I had to arch my neck to look at him. He had nice teeth, white and straight, as if they had recently been tamed by braces.
‘I’m doing this as a favour. For my mother.’ He nodded at the bunting hanging above our heads. Triangles of coloured paper showed photos of the hostess in various setups: on the beach, playing tennis, holding an award that looked suspiciously like an Oscar.
‘That’s very noble of you.’
‘I guess.’ He laughed. He moved the tray from one hand to the other as if it was getting heavy. Little beads of sweat had gathered by the hairline near his ears. Fine golden hair, neatly trimmed, like the fuzz on a baby duck.
‘They look meaty,’ I said, glancing at the tray again. ‘I’ll pass.’
‘There’s crisps and stuff over there.’ He indicated the kitchen island. ‘I better keep moving. I need to get rid of these.’ He held the platter high, like a waiter in an Italian restaurant. His shirt became untucked, and I saw a strip of white flesh. I gulped down the champagne.
On the kitchen island I found snacks and drinks. I ate some crisps and held an ice-cube to my cheek. I made four large vodka tonics. When the girls reappeared, we grabbed our drinks and moved into the living room. Beyoncé was on the stereo, and everyone was dancing. Lisa waved to some of the people she knew. Pip and Nisha moved to the music, pressing their bodies against each other.
‘Come,’ Lisa said. ‘Let me introduce you to Lawrence.’
She ignored my protests and pulled me over to a man with greying hair tied in a ponytail. He was too short. I did not, as a rule, find short men attractive.
‘Lawrence, meet my friend Annabel,’ she said and left. Lawrence and I shook hands awkwardly, trying not to spill our drinks.
‘Do you work in publishing? Or film?’ he asked.
‘I work in a library.’
‘Oh. Right,’ he said. He took a sip of his drink. ‘The British Library?’
‘Ah. Wonderful. I’m a big believer in local libraries. Their closures have really irked me.’ He said the word irked like he was a person in a play.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘And what do you do?’
‘I’m a publisher.’
He told me the names of several books and authors he had published, some of whom I recognised and some which I didn’t. He also said that he was writing a book about a serial killer. He started to tell me about the issues he was having with developing the plot or a character or something and as he spoke, I felt my body become weightless, a floating object that existed far above this moment. From this other place I watched the party unfold: Nisha and Pip with their see-saw hips; drinks being tipped into mouths and slopped on to shirts, the white walls warmed by hundreds of fairy lights, and the hostess laughing. When I came to, I realised that Lawrence had asked me another question.
‘I asked if you write too?’
‘Me?’ I laughed. ‘No.’
I excused myself to go to the toilet. I couldn’t find Lisa. Nisha and Pip were still dancing, their faces flushed and glossy. I searched for a toilet, but this was a house where the doors looked like walls, and nothing was where you expected it to be. I went upstairs and looked behind doors until I found a bathroom. I sat on the toilet and peed. I washed my hands and stared at the bottles of perfumes by the basin. Chanel, Tom Ford, Guerlain. I grabbed the bottle of Coco and sprayed it liberally. There was a knock at the door.
‘Coming,’ I shouted, hoping I wouldn’t find the hostess on the other side. But it wasn’t her, just some guy looking drunk and sheepish.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’
I squeezed past him and hurried downstairs. In the hallway, I ran into Lisa.
‘There you are,’ she said.
‘There you are. Why did you leave me with that guy?’
‘He’s not bad looking. And he’s loaded. What happened to you? You smell like Duty Free.’
‘Too much?’ I asked. ‘I found it in the upstairs loo.’
‘You’ve been snooping! Naughty!’ Lisa leant in and sniffed deeply. ‘Mmm…Coco. Renee has good taste.’
We went into the living room and Lisa said, ‘Dance with me.’
We swayed to the music for a while, holding hands like teenagers.
‘Let’s say hi to Renee,’ she shouted. We moved to the other side of the room where Lisa hugged the hostess.
‘Renee, this is my friend Annabel.’
‘Happy Birthday,’ I said.
She smiled and moved to the music. She was a good dancer.
‘I met your son earlier.’
‘Rupert?’ she asked. ‘He’s just got back from uni. He wanted to bring his friends, so I thought I’d put them to good use.’
I thought about my children. I considered calling the babysitter. I looked at Lisa and held an imaginary phone to my ear. She nodded. Out in the hallway I realised that my phone was still in my coat under all the other coats. I walked into the kitchen. It was empty, everyone was dancing. Through the glass doors I could see the orange tips of cigarettes circling in the garden. I stepped outside. I hadn’t smoked in years. I watched as the figures finished their cigarettes and walked back to the party. As they moved closer, I saw it was Rupert and his friends.
‘Hey,’ I called out. ‘Can I steal a cigarette?’
Renee’s son pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights. I took one. He nodded at his friends, and they walked back into the house.
‘Did you get something to eat?’ he asked, lighting the cigarette for me.
I took a drag. I nodded. ‘Thanks. Rupert, right?’
‘Yeah. Are you a friend of my mum’s?’
‘Well, I came with my friend. Lisa. She knows your mother.’ I took another drag; the nicotine was going straight to my head; my legs were jelly.
‘Here,’ I said, holding out the half-smoked cigarette. ‘Finish it. I really shouldn’t be smoking.’
He laughed and put the cigarette between his lips. I shivered; my toes were numb in my ankle boots, the flesh on my arms had turned pink and goosy.
‘I should head back in,’ I said. ‘It’s cold.’
‘Wait.’ He walked to the kitchen door, stepped inside, and came back with a woollen blanket, the sort of thing that old people folded in their laps, or a dog might curl up on. He placed the fabric around my shoulders.
‘You are noble,’ I said.
He smiled. He ground the cigarette beneath his shoe and then rubbed his hands together, blew into them.
‘It is cold. Here. That blanket is big enough for two.’ He lifted the blanket from my shoulders, shook it and let it drop over our heads. We stood facing each other. Two bodies decapitated by a blanket. We laughed. He pressed tight against me. His breath was hot on my cheek. Was he going to kiss me? I tilted my head. His mouth found mine. He tasted of chewing gum and tobacco. I hoped my breath did not reek of vinegar from the crisps.
‘I’ve always wanted to kiss an older woman,’ he said.
I didn’t reply; my eyes were closed. I didn’t want to open them and discover that it was all a big joke. I wanted him to kiss me again. He did and then he slipped his hand under my dress, pushed my underwear aside and fitted a finger deep inside. I gasped. He knew exactly what to do, his finger rolled and pressed where it was hard and wet. I put my hand between his legs, and he said, ‘No. Not now.’ And then. ‘Christ you’re sexy.’
He made me come quickly, with tiny, deft moves. My whole body was shaking, clammy. It was hot under the blanket. Afterwards he pulled the blanket away like a magician revealing a trick. I breathed in the cool air. I wanted to tell him how beautiful he was. He glanced towards the kitchen, and I followed his gaze. The lights were turned low, the room was empty. He leant towards me and kissed my neck. He sighed. He said, ‘You smell amazing.’
I threw back my head and laughed. My body was still tingling.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Nothing.’ I smiled up at him. ‘Shall we go back inside?’