The following story took place across two different parties. If you had happened to have been at both parties, in the right rooms and at the right times, then you would already have the whole story.
The first party occurred in Edinburgh in the late 1990s.
It was a student party, in a student flat, in Newington. A second-floor flat which had been rocked in its time by numberless student parties; a flat with dough-coloured walls and dented wooden furniture which had been handed down, from student to student, since the first had enough clothes to need drawers and enough books to need shelves.
By mid-evening the party had flooded inexorably into every room aside from two trembling, flinching bedrooms, where coats were stored in piles. There were surplus bottles of beer and wine on every table and work surface, just waiting to be picked up, so that the party had come to resemble an off-licence during a busy closing-down sale. A greasy sangria, partitioned into a casserole dish and a pudding basin, held pride of place on the kitchen stove. The music, which had been abrasively loud earlier in the evening, was now trampled all over like grass by the raucous talking of the partygoers.
Andrew and his girlfriend Tori were students; he was studying engineering, she accountancy. They were one of those student couples who at first strike you as being stridently adult and only later, after you have known them for a while, as being obviously immature. They had lived together almost from the start, in a two-bedroom flat, and they had fallen thickly into a domestic routine which, to their friends, had seemed to lack the sprawl and spontaneity of proper student living. They would spend every evening together, as if their nights had come with the flat.
If you had had access to that current of honesty which flowed beneath the floors of their respective minds, you would have attributed the immaturity of this relationship to Andrew and the maturity to Tori. Up until the last year, Andrew had lived with his mother and she had doted on him as if he was a babe in arms. That Tori was a like-for-like swap for the mother was possibly so clear that it had never occurred to her. She enjoyed Andrew’s steadiness and dependability, his moneyed English calm, his outdoor gusto and the way that he always appeared to walk as if he was wearing Wellington boots. Yet she was conscious that she had recently grown too set in her ways; that there was something gross or vaguely obscene to this present calmness in her life. The revelation would stun Andrew as though one of his own hands had suddenly turned on him, but Tori was now biding her time, for a suitable break in their studies when she could drop him.
The couple arrived at the party, conferred, and agreed to separate. They drifted apart comfortably, only to quickly check up on each other fifteen minutes later. Andrew found Tori chatting to a furious little man in a blue suit. He had a fat beak for a nose and thickly framed glasses and a face so shiny that it looked like a prosthetic addition. His voice was nasal but without any particular identity – a voice from Dubai or Hong Kong. He was the only person in the party to be wearing a suit, and this variance seemed gauche, even insolent. It also made his streak of youthfulness more dazzlingly vivid. When Tori introduced the student to Andrew as Stuart, Stuart gave Andrew a glare and looked him up and down. Stuart was presumably on Tori’s accountancy course – where else could she have befriended such a person? Andrew smiled without interest at Stuart, before plodding off in search of a new drink for Tori.
When he returned, she was not there.
A thrilling feeling of crisis descended upon Andrew and he gripped her drink helplessly. He felt disconcertingly friendless and so he blundered back to the safety of an earlier room, where the friend who he had been talking to was also no longer there. Another friend was engrossed in a conversation with a pretty girl who he had captured. To Andrew’s frustration, the two were now like uncontactable figures who are enclosed behind glass, far at the top of a Ferris wheel. Andrew looked down to see that he was still gripping Tori’s drink. Back in the corridor, pouring himself through the tiny gaps between talking people, he saw that Tori was not in the queue of very determined-looking girls waiting outside the toilet. She was not in the kitchen, picking out another drink. Maybe she was smoking in the garden?
The party continued for forty or so minutes, a sequence of senseless encounters like in a dream, until Andrew was back in the kitchen in pursuit of another beer. He had drunk three bottles in this intervening period and he was still gripping Tori’s drink so that it was now as warm as tea in his hand. He brightened at seeing Tori standing beside the window, but when he took a step forward she did not move. She was set apart from the rest of the party and he found that he could not call out to her. She was smoothing her hair and she then turned unexpectedly and looked straight at Andrew, straight into his eyes, with a concentration that frightened him. But she did not appear to know him and her gaze bumped absently on downstream. Andrew left the kitchen, without a beer and still gripping her warm drink.
Later, he was waiting for her outside. She emerged, entangling herself drunkenly in her coat, to claim him as hers and to scold him for being away from her side for so long. She hurried them both into a departing taxi, where seats were being snapped up like peanuts in a bowl.
Back at home, she brewed them both coffee. He didn’t touch his: he intended to sleep for a couple of hours before uni. He would microwave it when he awoke.
His voice from the sofa was very small. “The last time I saw you, you were with this guy. A guy in a suit.”
“Stuart?” Tori chuckled. “We call him “capitalist boy.” He goes to all of the student political meetings and winds everybody up, all of the socialists. He gets very angry about it.”
Andrew grunted. He personally believed in organisation rather than politics – either the country was organised or it wasn’t, and usually, if you looked at the news, it wasn’t. Despite his reconfirmed lack of interest in Stuart, he remained faintly perturbed by the memory of that beak nose and that irate plastic face. “I didn’t see him again either. I don’t think he liked me.”
Tori eyed Andrew critically. “I doubt that you would get on. You wouldn’t annoy him though – there’s nothing in you that he would find offensive.”
The second party took place in the same flat, about a decade later. Once again, Tori and Andrew were at this party, though they had been long separated. For about a decade, in fact.
This time the flat belonged to me. I was new in Edinburgh and consequently, on a celebratory spending splurge, my little brother had bought this flat for me. I was going to hold a modest housewarming, with vodka and hot apple juice, and I had invited a selection of my freshest friends over.
I had never realised that Tori and Andrew were exes. Andrew was a mechanic in a factory where I worked down in Mayfield. I had dated Tori the month before and then we had had a kind of open relationship and lately we were mere friends, in a very spirited, somewhat apologetic way. Sexually, I knew that I had dissatisfied her, but she enjoyed my character sufficiently to not want to let go of it.
At the start of the evening, Tori had told me lightly that, “you know, I’ve been to your flat before.”
“At a party, a long time ago when I was a student. Naturally, there is all exactly the same furniture. There’s not even been a lick of paint.”
In the kitchen, she and Andrew crashed into each other like battleships.
“Oh my God, Andrew!” Tori could not disguise her curiosity, nor Andrew his annoyance.
“Victoria.” Andrew smiled a cross smile. “How are you keeping?”
They updated each other on the last ten years in less than a minute. Degrees, jobs, significant others, flew overhead as quick as rifle fire.
Andrew now had a daughter. Tori crooned in delight at the news and asked what the little one’s name was. Andrew looked flabbergasted until he managed to finally choke out that, “strangely… well… it’s…”
“But my wife chose it,” he added, his voice clattering. “Her mother’s name.”
“Of course,” Tori replied briskly.
Our friend Marcin had arrived and this evening Tori and I would have him to ourselves for at least three hours. He was so stoned, though, that he was weeping. He smiled at us through the tears with the velvety amicability of one who has been smoking throughout the entire day. He wanted to lie in a darkened bedroom and he next wanted me to cook him some bacon.
An intimate party, by candlelight, with my dozen or so guests nursing hot drinks in their hands. I thought that the smell of bacon rather undermined the ambiance.
At Tori’s suggestion, we decided to hold a séance. I placed an incidental table in the centre of the living-room and we pulled the sofas in all around it. Yet after Olaf had dislodged one sofa with a wrench, he was calling to me.
“Zbigniew, you know you have a trapdoor here?”
I didn’t. We all stopped what we were doing and came to look at it.
I made some quick calculations. “There obviously isn’t a basement – we’re on the second floor. If there is a cupboard or a vault of sorts, then the space has been annexed from the flat below.”
Andrew nodded with approval. “A bit cheeky.”
Tori and James were already working on the trapdoor. After a harrumph at being forced, the door swung open with an eerie noiselessness. James had rolled up his sleeve and he now had an arm in, fishing about in the dust.
“I know the layout of the flat below and I think that they have a large cupboard just below this space.” I remembered being shown around the downstairs flat; my neighbour had opened a walk-in cupboard with a grin to reveal that it was filled solely with old wooden doors. “There must be a false ceiling in that cupboard. The owner probably hasn’t noticed the disparity between the cupboard’s ceiling and the others.”
What would be under the trapdoor? It held such a wonderful promise – of hidden treasure or human remains. It seemed impossible that those who had prepared this trapdoor for us would be so ungallant as to leave us disappointed. Sure enough, James had soon located something. With a yelp of conquest, he ripped out a shoebox.
The shoebox had “TIME CAPSULE” written on the outside in red felt tip pen.
“Hello,” the enclosed letter read, “We, the tenants at 160 – Road greet you from the past with our lovely time capsule. It is full of things to show you in the future what life was once like here. Please put your own things in the capsule and put it back where you found it, to benefit more people in the future.”
“If I ever meet these people they’re going to get such a beating,” I muttered to myself.
The capsule did not contain anything remarkable. There was no alcohol. The people of the past had bequeathed to us a programme for T in the Park 2003; a Stop the War Coalition leaflet which represented Tony Blair as a poodle; an almost translucent copy of the Mirror with the outline of Hans Blix on the cover; the head of a Barbie doll; a crude sculpture of an octopus made out of bluetack and affixed to a shield of cardboard; two condoms (which were out of date even in 2003); and a photograph of themselves, printed off a computer and laminated. Some silly boys drinking red wine in my kitchen and waving affectionately to the camera, as if they were yearning for the people of the future to think them charming and witty.
“What shall we add, for the next people of the future?” James asked me.
“Maybe another condom. Is there anything else down there?”
A few more items were extracted. Two vagrant golf clubs and a suitcase which could no longer shut. The last thing that James retrieved was a folded square of cardboard. When unfolded, it was an arm span across and there was a shiny, complicated chart drawn over it with glitter pens.
We studied the chart. “Oh my God,” Tori exclaimed. “I don’t believe it.”
The chart was merrily entitled: “Accountancy 1B Kissing and Shagging Score.” The horizontal and vertical axis each featured, in alphabetical order, what were clearly the names of every student on the accountancy course. These names frequently crossed in the interior of the chart with little spangled Ks and Ss.
Some of us were laughing at these young accountants, at the picture of them all assembled in my kitchen eagerly drawing up their chart and panting over each scandalous K and S. Tori, however, was not laughing.
“Okay, so my name is there,” she admitted miserably and with an expression of defeat.
We all pretended not to look at the chart. “Tori,” I began solemnly, “if you would rather that your sexual history be placed back under the trapdoor…”
“Although they have gone to a load of trouble to preserve your history,” James reasoned. “It must have taken them hours to draw up that chart – it’s a thing of beauty. And, as people of the future…”
“These are different people of the past to the ones who had made the capsule,” Tori explained irritably. “These people were here when I last visited this flat. The party at that time was held by some girls from my accountancy course.”
“You mean, Accountancy 1B Kissing and Shagging.”
“Really? Stuart?” Andrew cried.
His voice was far too loud and we had all turned to stare at him in one go.
Tori blinked, impressed. “How could they possibly know about that?”
“Who is Stuart? He sounds quite outrageous, from Andrew’s reaction.”
I had snatched a glance at Tori’s entry on the chart and there were no Ks and only a solitary S. Olaf had spotted the same thing. “So you shagged him without kissing him? Sounds rough.”
“I think that Shagging incorporates Kissing,” James ventured. “Though I agree that it isn’t wholly clear.”
“You were with Stuart?” Andrew despaired in a voice of gentle woe. He resembled the ghost of a betrayed man, rising up from the roadside where he had been murdered and long forgotten. “I remember Stuart.”
“I thought that it was his first time. How could they know?” Tori marvelled. “How could they possibly know?”