When you are young you can take a single gulp of air and then party all around the city without stopping, appearing in nightclub after nightclub. You will tumble down the stairs at the Liquid Rooms and be in an instant on your feet and laughing. Drunkenness is easy and merry; even the vomiting is thrilling and the hangovers have a sort of wonder to them. Years later and partying has become an ordeal which has to be prepared for. You will not necessarily do anything tangible in preparation, but there will remain a sense in the back of your mind that you are fortifying yourself psychologically. You will regard the coming party rather as a mole does the dazzling white light of the open air – as something agonising, which you can survive but in which you do not belong.
It is because partying is exclusively for young people. Adults are too stiff and nostalgic to do it any more, plated as they are in all the cumbersome armour of their adulthood. Look at them collected beside that finger buffet, with everybody fastened firmly to a half pint shandy and talking about their work. You want to grab somebody by the arm and scream “snap out of it!” Perhaps if some real teenagers came across them, these benighted adults would suddenly freeze, look around helplessly, and then finally understand that they were fakes.
I was hoping that Tori’s party would be different. I had not spoken with her for many months when she appeared unexpectedly at my work as a customer, evidently with the intention of lobbying me about something. She told me about her summer whilst I was taking her order: she was in a serious relationship with an ex-soldier named Toby, and they had purchased a studio apartment together in Leith. Toby had been recently discharged from a covert operation in the Iraqi desert, but he was likely to pick up another job before long in the security industry. Tori at last interrupted me as I was whisking away her plates. She was holding a party to encourage talented young artists and it was imperative that I attend. At this point she touched my arm, with the sudden intimacy of a lover, and her eyes were very bright. “Of course,” I assured her.
On Friday night I made my way to Tori’s new address by taxi, with my editor James and our amigo Pablo. “Covert operations?” I remarked to James. “I imagine that you’ll be pumping him for a story?”
But it seemed that Toby was old news and that James had long grown bored of him. “He’s a dope. There were three of them driving around the desert in a jeep looking for some antique vases which had gone missing from the museum in Bagdad. Unfortunately nobody on the mission was an antiques expert, and so they simply decided to confiscate every vase that they came across. The jeep ended up being so full of vases that two of the mission had to run alongside it. There were numerous gunfights with households which did not wish to surrender their vases, and I think that in one town there was actually a riot…”
Pablo smiled with satisfaction, as if this news affirmed a private belief about what the world was really like. “Oh but he’s very nice,” James assured us earnestly, not wishing to be responsible for an injustice. He was probably right – soldiers and policemen are always disappointingly likeable when you meet them in person.
Tori’s studio was an airy, rather featureless interior, with a high ceiling which the hubbub of the party could not quite reach or fill. It was as if the party was a pint and somebody had quaffed a couple of mouthfuls. I asked about Tori to be told that she was crying in a bedroom somewhere, drunk and panic-stricken. A dozen or so girlfriends were fussing over her.
Toby presented himself apologetically. He was a bland-looking man with the cropped skull and sprawling frame which one might expect of a professional soldier, but qualified by a subtly ruinous or sunken demeanour. He was like an inflatable soldier who had partially deflated. He was one of those men who look comfortable only when they are drunk, although I could tell that he was presently at a responsible, almost wise stage of drunkenness.
“Zbigniew,” I yelped as I took his hand. He had strong hands.
I blurted it out before I could stop myself. “I’ve heard that you’re big on antiques.”
To my surprise and relief he grinned ruefully. “So you’ve heard about that thing in Iraq? If I see another vase, I’m going to go fucking crazy.” The fancy took him and he suddenly gave a droopy little dance and paddled his arms, mimicking somebody going crazy. At that moment, I liked this man tremendously.
He disappeared and then he was back again brandishing a bottle of vodka. Next I had a little in a teacup and I snuffled it down, feeling for a moment not all there and massively refreshed. Pablo sounded Toby with a casual question, probably about drugs, and they were immediately established as conspirators.
Tori had appeared beside me, full of news and contained urgency. One of the artists who she was showcasing tonight was setting up in the conservatory.
“What do you mean by “artist”?” I smiled at her but she was frustratingly remote this evening.
“A musician.” She was now shooing me in the direction of the conservatory as if I was a cat which was in the wrong room. “Go and look!”
Inside the conservatory there was a small, bored-looking crowd arranged around a dumpy man with thick spectacles who was apparently tuning a vintage pedal steel guitar. Every time that he coaxed a sound out of this instrument he would lick his lips keenly and face the crowd, as if expecting to see evidence that they were impressed. Everybody began to edge forward, craning their necks, and they would bow their heads solemnly every time that there was a new chord. The dumpy man finally announced that his session was over for tonight. There was a smattering of astonished applause.
Tori was standing beside me again. She looked wowed. “Oh it’s so good that he’s getting attention – he should lap it up. At the Summerhall they give him nothing and it’s so sad.”
The dumpy man was now sitting on a stool, inspecting his instrument and blinking profusely.
Next up was a boy who could not have been more than twelve and a four-piece rock band who were all in their sixties. “This is the nephew of June Hurdies, from the Conservative Association,” Tori explained. “Those men are his uncles.” The boy looked jaunty and maddeningly self-assured; he had a shiny scarlet face and he was dressed in a green blazer with braces. The band erupted into action and the boy began to prance and strut about. He sounded almost exactly like Mick Jagger, except squeakier. It was not that he sang “Paint It Black,” but that he recited it, frowning as if he was concentrating on getting all of the words in the right order. The crowd whooped, in a sort of dazed, involuntary way.
For about fifteen minutes we stood there and watched this absurd apparition of the Rolling Stones. In between songs, the boy prattled to the audience and he accepted successive glasses of orange squash. “Yum, this is delicious!” he announced when he was presented with the third glass. The atmosphere in the room was now distinctly insane.
“Oh Tori,” I lamented out of the blue. “Are we losing the plot? What would Marcin have made of this… studio?”
“Marcin liked art,” Tori replied quickly and with assurance. “And he was generous – he would have given the artists tonight his support.”
“No he wouldn’t,” I snorted. “I can see it exactly – he would have lunged on to the stage and given your Mick Jagger a clip round the ear.” The band had commenced again and we now had to raise our voices to be heard over them.
Tori shook her head. “Typical of you. It hasn’t occurred to you that Marcin, wherever his present whereabouts, would be nowadays more mature and considerate than he was in 2006?”
“He wouldn’t have changed,” I replied gruffly.
“He would have found this music charming. He would have taken off his hat and passed it around the room to get that poor, talented boy…”
“…enough money to send him home on the bus.” It struck me that I had not really relaxed since arriving at this party because I was still clutching a Tesco bag filled with unopened beer cans.
Tori glanced at me with disapproval. “There will be glasses at the bar.”
“You have a bar?”
“It’s down the corridor. I could see that you’re supplied with drinks already, but Toby and I are giving out special pennies for the bar. One penny gets you a cocktail.”
“It’s okay, I’ll just drink from the can.” I pulled out a can of Tyskie and cracked it open, only to jump back as beer issued out in fluffy specks and a rapid torrent which pattered over the amp in front of me. There was an almighty clap and Mick Jagger’s voice was swallowed up in the air.
The room groaned and chuckled.
“Biggy!” Tori hissed. She flourished her arms at me with a face of fury and then she was gone.
“You fucking wanker!” the uncle-bassist pronounced loudly, glaring at me. I stood back helplessly; Mick Jagger had turned an unearthly white.
Tori returned with her arms full of hairdryers and an extension cord. She began to frantically plug everything in. Two of the uncles were recruited to wield hairdryers. The amp was laid on its side and the drones of the dryers met in a thick chorus.
“Can I do anything to help?” I inquired over the sound of the dryers. I had still not taken a sip of my beer, but I wanted to wait until nobody was looking.
“You can get Benjamin another orange squash,” Tori suggested over her shoulder.
I beat a retreat.
[Part Two will appear next week. Ed.]