By Neil, 15 August 2017 #
“You soon learn the signs,” I tell her, drawing back a dangling triangle of tablecloth so we can peer out. “Dad’s easy — his face goes kinda blotchy and he starts giving me headlocks and these really gross manly hugs the whole time. With Mum it’s harder: she still tries to hide it when I’m around but she always overcompensates and talks in these weird full sentences, like she’s conversing with the Queen or something.”
Lucy Parker pouts glumly. “At least she tries to hide it; every time we go to a restaurant mine’s chatted to the people on all of the tables round us before she’s finished the first bottle. You sort of just really want to die.”
A pair of walnut-coloured legs trip on the little lip coming through the patio doors and bang into the table. I quickly drop the cloth as our world shudders around us and lock eyes with Lucy. We’ve not normally hung out much when things like this happen, the two, three times a year when my Dad announces that “the boys” are getting together, usually I just stick close to Ollie, but she’s only, what, 18 months younger than me? Taller than me suddenly, it seems.
She spins a flimsy empty bowl between her fingers and looks sulky. “I really want some more profiteroles, but I don’t want to go out there.” Nor do I but I can feel a warmth radiating off her, even though we’re not touching, and I make a decision. “I’ll go,” I say and take the bowl out of her hands, “I need the loo anyway.”
That’s actually true and I dart to the left first, scoping out the hall before I start to slip through. I’ve only taken a few steps, though, when a figure barrels out of the front room, from which some guitary 90s anthem is being howled along to, straight into my path.
“Oi oi Jakey!” Dave Adams, an almost spherical sales manager I had to sit next to on a flight to Malaga one year, greets me. I instinctively flatten myself against the wall as he squeezes past, bulging beneath a blue polo shirt, and stay frozen there for a few seconds more, but the coast remains clear.
It’s quieter upstairs and the bathroom door’s unlocked, but I’ve been stung before so push it open coyly and sure enough my uncle Pete’s in there: he’s stood up, bending forwards over the cistern and at first I think it’s a repeat of Christmas Eve, when he threw up so noisily you could hear it from every room in the house, but as I silently withdraw I notice the lid is down.
The other toilet’s through the kitchen, which I was hoping to avoid. In the safety of my room I assess the situation out of the window. One end of the fairy lights has come loose and hangs limply down from the gazebo beneath which the bulk of the merry-makers throng raucously around the food.
I can do this. Down the stairs and back along the hallway, hovering on the threshold where it opens out into the kitchen-party. At a particularly extravagant outbreak of laughter I start to edge in but Mum’s friend Judy swings round to pluck another can from the counter and catches sight of me.
“There you are!” she crows. “Come and tell us all how things are going, we haven’t seen you all afternoon! Isn’t it lovely to have everyone together? Come on, come and be sociable! Your brother’s come all the way back from University for this.” I catch sight of Ollie out in the garden, he’s smiling and chatting right in amongst them, but when the animated woman he’s talking to, who’s someone’s second wife and does something big in the City, refills her glass and waves the bottle in his direction, he smoothly declines and touches his drink to his lips.
I tell Judy I need the loo but still get an extravagant kiss on the way past. The toilet allows me to regroup again and she’s been sucked back into the kitchen banter by the time I come out, so I dash behind her and out the back door.
The profiteroles are piled up at the centre of an uneven conga-line of tables, which we dragged out into the garden this morning, so there’s nothing for it but to plunge in. I’ve managed to start spooning them into the bowl before Big Ben registers my presence, lumbers around and gives me a grin as he yanks back the ring-pull of a can, sending a short spurt of foam arcing through the air to dampen the paper tablecloth.
“I’d let you have some but your Mum’d kill me,” he says, winking leerily from beneath a sun-burnt forehead and thinning sandy hair. “Still, I’m sure you’re on these already when you’re off with your mates, ey?” I can only just bring myself to attempt a smile at the conspiratorial chumminess and slide out of the crowd, back in through the patio doors.
“You made it.” Lucy’s hazel eyes widen in surprise when I slump down beside her and hand over my prize. “It was horrible,” I inform her gravely. She picks up a profiterole between two fingers and inspects it thoughtfully. “When do you think that they’ll stop all this?” she asks before gulping it down. I meet her gaze again and reply: “Not until they die.” Lucy Parker rests her head on my shoulder and reaches for the bowl.
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