Kit picks at a plate of cheese and pickles and crab stuffed into pastry balls garnished with brown dill. We are at an apex of a cacophony of second-hand voices and shrill laughter and the hearty crab-stained chuckles of too-old-to-be-trendy insurance brokers make my ear drums sting. There’s a group of four men with shined shoes and scarves thrown over their shoulders even though they’re standing under a vertical outdoor heater and they laugh hysterically and deeply at things I can’t hear but I know aren’t funny. Jokes about a friend no one has spoken to since Halloween nineteen ninety six.
In another group the brunette woman touches the arm of the prettiest man in the ring, he opens his legs, and she tucks her hair behind her hair. Another man who kissed the brunette once at a work party in the toilets over the vomit of their colleague looks on laughing loudly. Already a couple has split off, sitting neatly at the bottom of the garden by the statue of a cherub in the bushes, kissing each other secretly and quietly, holding hands and forgetting that they’re at a party, with other people, who watch them with a type of curious envy.
“Let’s get drunk,” I say.
“That’s the spirit. Let’s find the spirits,” Kit replies grabbing my hand.
She dashes through the party and I follow. Her hair streams out behind her and it reminds me of the first time we ran like this, the sun and a hundred exploding daffodils spreading their seed on our clothes and on our skin and in our mouths. She looked –
“Here. What’s this,” she says, “whiskey?”
I grimace, “I’ll drink it.”
“You’ll drink it if I drink it that’s for sure.”
She takes the first swig. I take the next. Over and over we drink from the bottle and we are invisible. We do character studies.
“Guy in the grey blazer,” I suggest.
“Has an interest in artisan chocolate. The matching tweed suit suggests he was once good at polo before he got so. Got so big. I reckon he put on weight after his dog Fido ran away. And that his wife left him,” Kit says, turning a little red faced under the whiskey-light.
“Positive start,” I say, “as ever.”
“Okay, your turn then. Lady in red.”
“That’s more of a burgundy but I get you. She has it more together than our grey-jacketed friend but she is also in debt four thousand pounds. Horse gambling. Two loan sharks came to get her last night and now she’s on edge. Look, you can tell, her hands are red-raw from nervous chewing and I swear that looks like sucked split ends to me.”
She laughs and takes another drink. She passes it to me.
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you too,” and it sinks my mood like a torpedo to my rusting guts.
I don’t know if she notices my face fall or not but Kit says, “We should wander off down the garden to find our esteemed host,” and giggles with the gurgle of a whiskey-warmed stomach.
We spot Christian, like a gorilla with prongs, stood at the barbeque, his flabby gorilla man-tits lactating cooking oil, dropping coal like steaming turds and laughing, spitting, chewing. The pack of bitch-chimps and frantic fucking bonobos gathered around him like monkeys to a bucket of bananas. Sally in his circle stood quietly, not watching a blonde woman flirt endlessly with Christian.
“He’s an asshole,” Kit whispers.
“I know. Look at Sally’s face,” I say with a nod.
Sally is pulling at her hair and trying to look at everything else other than the blonde woman’s hand on Christian’s arm. She laughs hysterically and then tries to speak but no one takes any notice of her. Suddenly Sally turns to us and sees us watching, she glances at Christian and the blonde quickly, then walks towards the house. She doesn’t look back at us. Christian doesn’t notice she’s gone.
“I think -” I begin, but Kit has already gone after her.
“Oh, Edward, you made it!” Christian shouts when he notices me standing alone and his disciples turn to me in wide eyed wonder; newcomer, newcomer the whispers sound in cultist hush.
“What’s up Christian? Sausages look good,” I say, smiling and settling myself in their circle.
“Free range pigs. I own the farm,” says a large man with bovine lips and poultry eyes and shaggy equine hair.
“Fascinating,” I say. “You raise them on which grain mix, the Froster B-Combo or the Alejandro Sautee?”
He looks at me dumbly. My words ripple slowly around the circle. Christian raises his eyebrows, his cheeks ruddy like an ass in the cold.
“It’s a joke,” I say and Christian laughs loudly so the others join in although not as enthusiastically. The farmer just stares at me opening and closing his mouth.
Christian jumps in, a social navigator: “Edward’s a writer,” and his crowd murmur and nod.
“And what do you write?” asks the blonde woman at Christian’s arm. She’s in an ugly pink dress with frills around her veiny breasts.
“All sorts. I recently finished an article on the conservation of the pale-breasted South African water-otter. A pet project of mine,” I say and they nod and a few say “That’s good,” “Very interesting,” and “Someone has to look after them, otters are important!” to which I nod and smile. Christian seems pleased.
“Yes, he’s married to Sally’s friend Kit,” Christian says, as to cement my role in the social engine, “where is Sally?” but no one, not even himself, pays attention to his question.
“Oh fantastic, fantastic, have you any kids?” asks a generous looking man with his finger tucked into a pair of braces. It’s the twenty-first century and he’s wearing braces and asking prying questions. Christian grimaces slightly.
“No. Not yet,” I say.
“Edward spoke to my one of my clients the other day, for a writing project. She came asking for travel insurance – oh, you’ve already heard this story. Well, no less, a few days later she comes back and says she had spoken to my associate, Edward. This guy! Pretending to be my associate, it’s almost fraudulent!” and there’s a little titter around the group, “anyway, she comes back to me and says I want the insurance. I want the insurance now. Edward said I could have it. I’m sat there like well, missy, he doesn’t decide who or who doesn’t get insurance but she wouldn’t take that as an answer. Said she was going to sit there till I gave it to her. Never seen anyone so determined in my whole ten year career. So I gave it to her. Worked out nicely for her, didn’t it Edward?”
I begin to say something, but from behind Kit says: “Who’s ‘her’ Edward?”
The group tenses and inhales. Their gossip feelers extend from their bulbous skulls. As I turn to her Christian catches my eye and bites his lip.
“I. Christian’s client,” I say.
“When did you see her?” she asks. Her voice curls around me like the silk scales of a cobra.
“I. On. On Monday,” I can barely speak. I can barely look at her. I’m choking.
“On Monday. On Monday, yes. On Monday. An agent, hm? An agent, Edward? An agent!” she shouts. The coil snaps tighter, her voice gets louder, people turn to look at us. Christian attempts to placate the murmurs of the gathering party but Kit continues, “You lied to me.”
“I. I didn’t. I didn’t exactly-”
“You lied. This whole project is a lie isn’t it. A fucking lie!”
I move towards her holding my arms up as if to say we’re at a party, come away, come away somewhere private, but she stands firm, her feet like oak roots.
“All this time. All this week. All lies. Did you even go to see Ruth or was it another young woman? Was it, Edward?” she sounds desperate.
“It wasn’t like that,” I say.
“Then why lie. The baby and now. Now you. Now you hit me with this. Sally told me you called Christian at four in the morning,” Kit says and there is a deep growl from behind me. Christian the gorilla has been enraged, he suddenly says: “How did she know that?” and the crowd bristles and vibrates with excitement. I desperately want to leave.
“Sally!” Christian roars and storms up off the garden. I stand staring blankly at Kit. She carries on.
“You called him to talk about some girl at four in the morning. When I was in bed. Next to you,” she says as the tears start. I want to wipe them away. I want her to feel okay. This was never. This was never meant to happen. This isn’t the end. Not yet. “The insomnia. The guilt keeping you awake.”
“Kit, let’s go. Let’s get out of her. Let’s talk about this -” I plead. There is a stabbing pain that runs up my left leg and cripples my chest. I grasp at it and I try to choke out more words but she continues.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. You couldn’t even fuck me. After everything we’ve been through this is how you choose it to end,” she shouts and that’s it for the onlookers. Some people actually gasp. Where are the television cameras, the director, and the canned applause? Kit looks at me one final time and turns and runs back towards the house. There is an awkward silence in the garden. I grab the bottle of whiskey from where it has fallen to my feet and stumble through the gate in the fence adjacent to the house. I don’t stop to say goodbye. No one says goodbye.