The Bonfire Night Party
It was the last time I saw either of them in person.
When I arrived at the entrance to the cul-de-sac, it was about eight o’clock and already dark outside. The corner house was right next to a cut, flanked on both sides by privet hedges of uneven height, which led via a footpath to another part of the sprawling estate. This working-class area of the town was very much like the one in which I’d grown up. Jutting from one of the grass verges was an exposed tree stump, surrounded by a patch of sawdust. The workmen who cut it down must have used a chainsaw to rip through the mature trunk. On the other side of the road, perhaps intended as a replacement, they’d planted a spindly silver birch. To me, it felt like removing a perfectly healthy leg and offering the amputee a crutch.
Leading up to the front porch was a concrete ramp, which was installed to accommodate his wheelchair. Following some recent structural alterations to the bathroom and kitchen, the contractor had also replaced the existing front door with an electronically operated one. Since there was no bell and the intercom didn’t work, you still had to knock. It was one of those quite unremarkable former council flats dating back to the early 1950s. Like many similar properties in the venal 1980s, the Tory government offered it to the tenant at a significantly reduced price under the right to buy scheme. I remember him telling me that when his mother died, he’d taken over the mortgage. By that time, it must have been only a negligible amount.
I found a spare seat in the cluttered living room. In a space that was only twelve foot by twelve foot, they’d crammed together two bulky black leather sofas in an L-shaped configuration, and an armchair made from the same material was parked in a corner next to the television. That was where he usually sat when I came to visit, though sometimes he would remain in his wheelchair. Although the gas fire was off, the central heating must have been switched on earlier in the evening because the room was stuffy and the window had misted up. Directly in front of me on the dining table was an unappetising cold spread of corned beef slices, pickled onions, savoury cheese sandwiches cut into quarters, a quiche in a foil tray and some pork pies. I didn’t partake of the food as I’d already eaten.
Meanwhile, the two of them spent most of the time huddled in the kitchen in a deliberate attempt to ostracise me. But when treachery is afoot, it always makes sense to plot in secret, to speak sotto voce, to keep matters close to one’s chest. Hugger-mugger is what Shakespeare called it. She would enter occasionally to top up my glass and say a few banal words to the other guests, who were drawn mainly from her circle of friends, before returning to her realm. It seemed an odd place for him to be hanging out, since there was even less room to manoeuvre his wheelchair in the poky galley kitchen. I recalled the time when he first met her and how he had mocked both her physical appearance and her fixation with all things Gothic. The phrase he employed in those early days couldn’t have been more dismissive. She was, as he said, obsessed with all that fucking Goth shit.
Barely two years later, her tacky trinkets overwhelmed almost every available horizontal surface. The walls were adorned with various amateurish paintings – her daughter was responsible for these works of art – and an infantile collection of dolls sprawled all over the furniture. On top of one of those self-assembly DVD cabinets stood a tiresome tinkling musical box in the shape of a coffin, which played Chopin’s Marche Funébre when someone raised the lid, and she’d suspended a jiggling plastic skeleton from the ceiling. Both bedrooms and also the bathroom with its walk-in shower had acquired some item or other that reflected her lifestyle. The chopping board featured a pentagram design, and she had even replaced the handles of the kitchen drawers with miniature glass skulls.
The strained atmosphere reminded me of their wedding earlier in the same year. Even worse had been the invitation to the pub after the civil ceremony. Despite dreading the thought of attending that dismal event, I was in good spirits because I’d just received some paperback copies of my first-ever published book.
Let me see, he said, holding it at arm’s length and scrutinising the cover as if he were consulting a menu in a restaurant.
Later, unable to endure the tuneless karaoke singers and his vulgar antics, I sat in the other bar with one of our mutual friends who’d already requested a signed copy of my book. Given that this cultured man was born in Algeria and spoke perfect French, we had a long and enjoyable conversation about Albert Camus and his unfinished work, The First Man, which I’d only just read in an English translation. The handwritten manuscript was found in the wreckage of the Facel Vega sports coupe in which both author and publisher died. The vehicle had veered off the trunk road for no obvious reason and crashed into a plane tree.
The next day, the phone rang. He began in his usual irritating fashion with trifling pleasantries. Then he moved on to the real reason for the call. His wife had been upset, he said. According to him, she felt I’d been disrespectful. Yes, that was the word he mentioned – disrespectful. She was devastated that I’d undermined their special occasion by bringing along my books with the intention of selling them to the guests. In effect, I was being portrayed as some sort of petty criminal. That alone should have alerted me to the machinations that were taking place behind the scenes. Sometimes such things only make sense in retrospect.
At the bonfire night party, I ended up chatting with another of his friends who I used to see quite regularly when I went shopping in town. He’s a chef at the local hospital, so he likes to use the best ingredients when he’s cooking for himself at home. He’s one of those people who still buys his meat from a reputable butcher, not from a supermarket. In short, he appreciates good quality food.
Two hours was about my limit – just long enough to show my face. I therefore planned to leave on the stroke of ten o’clock. It’s not as if I wanted to be there. When friendship is reduced to a meaningless act that no longer possesses any spark of fellow feeling, you know there’s no point in trying to hang on to it.
Thankfully, there were no fireworks that evening: the intermittent rain showers and squally gusts of wind soon put paid to that idea and also provided me with an ideal opportunity to depart. As I walked back home through a veil of persistent drizzle, the thought of standing outside in the dark holding a lit sparkler and waving it about in a joyless fashion was simply abhorrent.
The next day, he contacted me. It’s always the next day these things tend to happen, and it was, after all, the same sequence of events as before, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Two people, he said, had reliably informed him I’d made fun of the spread. Since the catering had been his wife’s specific area of responsibility, my comments had naturally wounded her, even brought her to tears. Once again, he was using his wife as a blunt weapon with which to assault me.
I assured him that these anonymous people of whom he spoke – for they were never actually named – must have misheard or misinterpreted my words. Despite those four ample glasses of cheap red wine, I knew what had been said, and, importantly, what hadn’t. There’s nothing wrong with my memory.
Such manipulative behaviour is well-known these days. Simply make your victim believe things which are patently false and then convince him, little by little, to question his grasp on reality. It’s a familiar and effective technique. But I’m too long in the tooth to fall for that sort of thing.
Pascal said that all human evil comes from a single cause: man’s inability to sit still in a room.
How right he was.