I did have a book review scheduled for today, but as I was eating a packet of crisps this morning and realising that the sound of crunching was actually painful on the tender inside of my head, I understood that it wasn’t going to happen.
‘I’d say you had a hangover if I didn’t know you never touched a drop,’ Mr Litlove told me.
‘I do have a hangover, ‘ I replied. ‘An over-stimulation hangover.’
For today is the morning after Mr Litlove’s office Christmas party. Yes, I was foolish enough to say I would attend. The urge to please Mr Litlove combined fatally with the knowledge that I really must try and get out more and overcome my social inhibitions, and it only took one half-hearted maybe for Mr Litlove to be sending me menus over the email. He knows he has to take swift advantage of any weakening on my part.
So yesterday I went so far as to put on a party frock and face the problem that a friend of mine so neatly outlined when she said, ‘Science can put a man on the moon, so how come it can’t create a pair of hold-up stockings that don’t fall down?’ This is an excellent question. I was acutely aware that I was in the middle of a rather good book, and as I was putting my coat on in the kitchen a gust of wintry wind flung a rain shower against the windows. Oh lovely. So enticing, that black, wet night outside. The car was dank and chilly, but as I stopped at red lights, mumbling deprecations under my breath, a group of men passed by on the pavement, jogging, and the reminder that there’s always someone worse off consoled me. I parked in the underground car park, where some of my best nightmares have been set, and actually managed to find the steps up to street level (this clearly was a lucky night) and the hotel where Mr Litlove awaited me.
‘Are you all right?’ Mr Litlove asked as he guided me towards the reception room. I realised I must have that look of blind panic on my face. It’s those first moments when you sit down and commit yourself, you know? And you have to begin, not knowing when it will all end. This is, of course, completely the wrong moment to be given a bunch of strangers’ names. I had no sooner been introduced to the other people at our table than the data slid off my Teflon mind into oblivion. What we really ought to do, if only we could change social convention, is to be introduced to another person via a really good conversational gambit. Something like: ‘Now this man thinks that the magenta dress the boss’s wife is wearing is hideous.’ Or ‘this woman has left two children at home with a babysitter who she’s worried isn’t entirely competent, but given it’s her husband’s niece she can’t really say so.’ Then after a few minutes of chatting, you could be told their name with some semblance of hope you might retain it.
The room we were in was small, compared to the number of people packed in, and the volume of talk was already set at excruciating. Hotels are so odd. They have these huge sumptuous entrance areas, all marble and brass and curving lines, and then a range of ill-proportioned conference rooms without windows. They make me feel like a lamb being led up a gilt walkway into a mirrored holding pen in a crate on the back of a lorry, crammed full already of agitated, bleating sheep. The hotel staff were bringing in the starters, squeezing through the insufficient gaps between the backs of the chairs on tiptoe, plates held aloft. Mercifully, the food reduced the volume in the room to bearable, and the disco out in the atrium packed up for a while and I could hear myself think again. Not that this was necessarily an advantage as I then had to listen to my own stumbling attempts at small talk.
Our table was split between party-friendly youngsters and middle-aged senior staff. It was funny, the first time in ages I’d had the chance to compare myself to a large group of people. The youngsters were full of fun and vim, enough confidence in their beauty to pull funny faces for the camera and to launch themselves into just about any topic of conversation. They were ready, they’d decided, for the first company wedding, and were trying to decide who’d be a likely candidate to marry. The young woman they picked laughingly put them off, though admitted she’d reached the grand old age of 27. It surprised me slightly to remember that when I was 27 I had a two-year-old child and was lecturing for the university (though I was only a graduate student, no proper post at that stage). No wonder my own careless youth felt like a past life; I’d taken on so much responsibility, so young.
Then chronic fatigue had happened. Listening to the talk on the other, older side of the table where it was all about the food and holidays and children’s schooling, I felt it had been like the experience of sleeping beauty – I’d inadvertently slept for a hundred years and woken to a changed world. It has been such a strange and disorienting experience, chronic fatigue, I haven’t got anywhere near making sense of it yet, understanding what it has been in my life and how it has changed things for me. It definitely shadows everything I do; here I was, gratefully astonished to be well enough simply to attend a party, yet oversensitive still to all the ordinary things that used to spell disaster for my health – the over-adrenalised speed of social talk, the noise, the vivid sensations, food with sugar or alcohol in it, the late hour. It was remarkable to me that we were waiting for our main course at nine o’clock and I was just hungry for it, not spiralling down into a blood sugar low, starting to feel faint and shaky and anxious about having to pretend I was okay because the alternative, trying to explain, met with such complete incomprehension. Even now, I don’t know how to explain to normal, ordinarily healthy people that I struggle with confidence in my ability just to exist after more than a decade of horrible, undermining experiences that even when they were happening to me, I could scarcely understand myself.
Naturally, I didn’t attempt any such thing. I made unremarkable party small talk, just as if I were a normal person. Once the meal was over the room began to clear as people wandered out in search of the bar, or the small table that had been set up as a casino. Mr Litlove wanted a bit of a mingle, and I had just embarked on a genuinely interesting conversation (about books, of course) when the guy with the disco decided it was time to crank the volume up, and we were back to shouting at someone a hand’s span away and still not hearing their answers properly.
I thought we might give in to the party spirit. ‘Do you want to dance?’ I asked Mr Litlove. ‘Oo-err,’ he said. ‘It’s been so long I think I’ve forgotten how.’ We were just about remembering when his boss, the owner of the company, shimmied over to say hello. Now Mr Litlove’s boss is a party animal, thinking nothing of staying up all night, good grief he’d be dancing until the DJ keeled over. ‘What are you doing now?’ he asked me, agilely executing steps on the spot. ‘I’m writing a book,’ I yelled back, or at least I think I did; I couldn’t hear myself at all. ‘Who’s your publisher? Have you got an advance?’ he asked. I filled my lungs with air. ‘No,’ I shouted with all my might. ‘I’ve just got an idea.’ He nodded, keeping time to the beat. ‘So what’s the idea?’
Now this is a torturous twist that publishers haven’t thought of yet. Trying to pitch a book on a dance floor in competition with Ceelo Green’s Forget You song. I wondered how it was I always ended up in these situations rich with absurdity. ‘It’s creative non-fiction,’ I screamed, in response to a question about market orientation. ‘New! Exciting!’ Then I took the chance of looking around to send a pitiful ‘rescue me’ face to Mr Litlove, only to see him back in the room we ate in, deep in conversation. His boss beckoned to me to follow him into the thick of the dancers, but I took refuge in an energetic pantomime that involved a lot of pointing at Mr Litlove and which I hoped showed wifely loyalty but probably said louder than anything I’d managed vocally that I was Desperate! To! Escape!
I fell upon Mr Litlove’s neck and we did in fact leave at that point, before I could embarrass myself any further. My stockings were saying it was time to go home. We had that final test of initiative beloved of party-goers: locate the paystation in the vast multi-storey car park. And then we returned to the blissful quiet of our home and a sulking cat, who had been left lapless all evening and wanted to register a complaint about it. Oh I will never be a party person, but at least I didn’t have to endure the all-too-familiar experience of being made ill by things I don’t even enjoy. I’m a bit wrecked today – my throat is sore, my head still pounding – but it’s better than it used to be. I got through the whole evening intact, and that, my friends, counts as a success.