Quentin’s birthday party

Starting out late and taking the slow train to Waterloo, changing at Euston from one Northern line to the other, I was yet making good time for a party starting from 7:15 at Argyle St, King’s X, and was only ten minutes late, “Good timing!” coming across Quentin and Agnes outside Oscar’s door. Quentin said something about knocking that I didn’t pick up properly, thinking he’d knocked before. The door was opening.

I hesitated on how to greet him.

Oscar resolved the hiatus with a hug I wasn’t expecting. Since my mouth was at his neck I kissed it. Joe and I didn’t hesitate. “Have you got thinner?” “No.” “Good.” I appraised his brown eyes, teeth and pale face. He’s kitten-hipped.

In the kitchen I took Mark I mistakenly called Malcolm, thinking I’d got the name right after recalling the Ma, into my arms. He didn’t seem to mind. The party “is all the better for you being here.” “Really? You flatterer.” He asked did I only drink champagne since that’s all he knew of me. We meet at occasions. “This is the last bottle but I’ll buy more.” I’d brought a sparkling cava too.

Oscar went out for plastic glasses. “We could’ve used mugs,” not that any mug was visible. “What do you normally do?” I would ask Oscar on his return. Drink from the tin. He was out some time and I didn’t catch his explanation why. In the meanwhile I switched on the phone for John’s call at nine as Quentin confirmed ironically, “It plays a tune when it’s on.” I gave Quentin his card for a fortieth birthday. He was forty last year. I’d got the birth date right and there was nothing wrong with my arithmetic; it’s just I’d subtracted from the wrong year, 2012 whereas this was 2013, a mistake anybody could make! “That’s easily rectified.” I’d unwontedly brought a pen and inserted a big 1 after the forty. “Is Daniel coming?” I’d brought the pen in case I needed to write his name on the envelope of a card with £12 in it to give for my sale of a book my poems are in. “Dan’s ill.” “That’s the card saved.” Quentin was also given a cd of Webern that didn’t play on my new player and a duplicate first volume of Plutarch’s Moralia I explained was essays. “The Lives are better.” In the containing envelope were clippings on magic mushrooms which have as ingredient, pissylogcabin. Quentin corrected my pronounced stab as “Psilocybin”, so
he knew of it and that it alleviated depression. Mark also had a present for Quentin he excused as bought at short notice, a booklet of David Bowie in states of undress to be cut out and put together. “You should’ve bought him a doll to blow up.”

Quentin knocked over his tin and Agnes was quick to mop up with a washing-up pad wrung into a pan. None of us men so much as thought to.

On Oscar’s return I was easing open the champagne when distracted by Quentin about John. “He,” Quentin, “primes me so he can stand apart,” I accused. “He,” John, “wants to marry me – once he’s divorced. I don’t understand marriage. He wants me. That’s… big. I sometimes feel like Groucho Marx; there must be something wrong with somebody who loves me, and of course there is – he’s a convict!” I’d taken my hand off the bottle which exploded. I quickly shut it up with my palm. A neck’s volume was lost to the eruption. I poured five glasses when there were six of us so decanted a little from each into a sixth. We toasted Quentin. Joe and Oscar sat in the window opened on the street.

“I have a present for you too, Oscar, a house present,” a pot of cacti Oscar was a bit worried he might damage as I showed him he needn’t fear by righting with my finger on their heads the ones lopsided from transportation and by briefly giving the instructions he wanted on watering, and to repot them once and then keep pot-bound, “or they won’t flower. Are you pleased?” “Yes.”

I facially queried was Joe with Agnes now. He head-denied he was. He’s very affectionate so it was hard to tell. I asked was Dominika coming. Joe said she was in Australia and withdrew. Mark suggested I might be indiscreet, but I knew nothing about which to be indiscreet, conveniently forgetting what I did know. Quentin told me Dominika was married to an Australian Mark said I’d met. I couldn’t remember. Because, Mark suggested, “He wasn’t wearing a broad-brimmed hat with corks.” “I’d know by the accent. Nobody tells me anything! Too soon after Joe not to be a rebound,” I turned to Quentin, wondering if I hadn’t been indiscreet. He demurred: more a marriage of convenience. “No sex?” That didn’t sound like Dominika. “She wants to be an Australian?” More the other way about, Quentin suggested. “He wants to be Polish!” More… European.

Mark said he would read my story, in Dadaoism. “He hasn’t read my story!” I expostulated to Quentin, “never mind my poems in Sacrum Regnum II.” “Buying the book’s the main thing,” Mark contended. Debatable.

Mark was telling a story about drunk men pissing and drinking I made a joke about, that the one should drink straight from the well of the other. Somebody else made it and everybody laughed. “That’s my joke!” I complained to Oscar. “You made it ten minutes earlier,” he appreciated.

Quentin was organising the chronology of events. Oscar moved a stool from the table to provide him with a soapbox. He sat on it. “You’re supposed to stand on it.” He stood on it and laid down the law until he got to changing the sequence, “if we don’t think it’s right”. “He was doing quite well,” I commented to Mark “until he got to that ‘we’,” which Quentin immediately corrected to, “if I don’t think it’s right.”

Other people had come into the kitchen: Rachel, Oscar’s housemate, Nina and Ben, James and Heli. “I’m keeping my eye on Nina,” I told Mark, “because last time she lost how to socially mesh but found it, and I want to see if she does it again. She was drunk.” Mark said something about wishing to be young. “I’m not going through that again!” “That is a thought,” he agreed. Heli isn’t Finnish herself but named after somebody who is. Ben said, “Come here you,” and gave me a hug. I ruffled Joe’s hair of gleaming anthracite. “He’ll go grey here,” I touched, thinking maybe I shouldn’t’ve said that. Ben’s twenty-five. “I’m three times his age!” I marvelled, “or will be, come July.” Ben said “John can’t be that old.” James said he was twenty-six. He’s acting in Cambridge.

Part of the sequence of these increasingly inconsecutive events was making pina colada from coconuts. I looked for a skewer in a drawer and found an empty cutlery tray. Oscar supplied Quentin with an electric drill he applied to a shell. “You’re supposed to do it through the holes,” I was forgetting the holes are called ‘eyes’, which I couldn’t see for tuffs of hair. “Two holes! Or it won’t pour.” Quentin did do it properly with the next three coconuts and admitted it was easier boring through the holes. The coconuts were emptied into a plastic glass. I found a sieve through which to clear the milk from one glass into another.

After the pina colada came the picture show. We were ushered upstairs, every door a fire door, into a room with a big screen where in a corner on the same side as the couch Quentin and I sat on, Oscar set up the B feature, a film of an aging rock star in close-up I didn’t recognise until certain features, mouth and eyes, bore in upon me this was Quentin in a wide-brimmed hat donning feminine patterned garb that wasn’t a corset. “Did you direct this?” “Yes,” said Oscar. I didn’t understand why Quentin moved from beside me to get a closer look but a less good angle. He went on to be portrayed as the Dying Christ or Gaul in a headless but oddly still recognisable – “Is that Joe?” – man’s arms. The main feature was of the recently dead, Annette Funicello, in Babes in Toy Town. Full face, “She has a syphilitic nose.” Oscar sat briefly by me and I stroked his thin back. Everybody disappeared except Quentin, me and Mark, who complained endlessly about wasting that screen on this picture. I was unconcerned John hadn’t phoned. “I’m going to sit down beside John Cairns,” Mark declared. “You’re welcome,” or something such I said, and he sat down very close to me and he put his hand in mine. That was unexpected. His fingers in the cup of my hand stirred my loins, a feeling I wanted sustained.

It seemed easy to be faithless. I saw a thin transparency between us, easily breached. Was my morality loosening with age?

I looked at Mark whose face was set in profile. It wasn’t to do with looks but with being wanted and John might want me most but I couldn’t be exclusive and not give what was wanted to others as I chose at any point in the proceedings in accordance with direction from beyond consciousness. The important thing was we were clean, Mark from faithfulness. There was no reason he should not get what else he wanted. I’d tell John. If Mark was balking at that, I’d done clandestine before. I didn’t squeeze Mark’s fingers incitingly but did subsequently caress his hand or so I think, take it again and squeeze above his knee, not farther up.

He went off and when he came back I could go pee without leaving Quentin to watch the film on his own. People popped heads round the door, not to intrude too much, a convention resulting from all the doors being indistinguishable fire. Oscar popped his round to say, “Ssh!” Later he came in to say he was going for another drink to give us the opportunity to ask for replenishment. He refilled my glass with probably all the remaining pina colada. Joe sat down beside me and asked, “What’s the story so far?” eliciting amusement as did my obliging résumé I can’t replicate but was along the lines: the heroine was going to marry the hero but the villain sent henchmen, Laurel and Hardy lookalikes, to abduct the hero and hand him over to gypsies so the villain might marry the heroine who had to because she couldn’t make the necessary 6% since her sheep were in the forest of no return. The gypsies, however, were to provide the wedding entertainment and, “You can work out the rest; it’s going to end happily ever after.”

Mark declared he was going home to his wife and children but, having left, returned, unable to find his way out. The picture was getting weirder and more interesting and I wanted to stay till the end. I looked at the phone for the time, 11:15. If I stayed to the end, I’d have to stay over. If I left I’d make the last train. I asked Joe, who weakly wanted me to stay, to lead me through the labyrinth. We hugged goodbye. I went in the wrong direction at first but was home by just after twelve.

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About johnbrucecairns

I'm a retired history teacher who's written for most of his life with a book readied for publication.
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