January is my least favourite month-cold, dark and seemingly interminable. Many like to begin the month with a party. Here’s a story I wrote years ago about a New Year’s party that did not go according to plan…
The Rescue Party
Brian Meadon peers out into the darkness and is forced to admit a grudging fascination for the way the snowflakes are looming out of the sky and settling in an ominous and ever growing heap on his car’s windscreen. His initial feelings of hot anger and frustration with the car’s failings have ebbed away to be replaced with somewhat colder resignation. There is still just enough light outside to make out the writing on a road sign beyond his lay-by. ‘Stoodley Interchange’, it asserts, taunting Brian with confident superiority, even though accumulations of snow are creeping up its legs.
Settling back into his driving seat once more, Brian decides to give his phone another go. He is pleased with the way he’d remembered to charge up the battery, a task he’d frequently been accused of neglecting by his ex-wife. This small celebration of competence affords him a slight, smug smile until yet again ‘no signal’ appears on the screen in an impudent gesture almost as if it were conspiring with the road sign to humiliate him. At least the phone’s tiny screen casts a little light.
Brian shivers. He attempts to recall the advice being provided by experts on this morning’s Beeb’s news programme but it had been burbling away as a background to packing. If he’d not been carried away with optimistic anticipation of the evening revelries he might have paid more close attention to the weather warnings and in particular to dire predictions concerning road travel. What was one meant to do? Firstly, you should not travel at all unless your journey is absolutely vital. ‘Well’, thinks Brian, ‘It is vital to my wellbeing to have a bit of fun, so I’ve covered that one’. Secondly, you should ensure that loved ones know your whereabouts and your travel plans. Brian feels uneasy about this one, since although he has made Jackie, his ex aware that he has been invited to a ‘country house New Year festivity’ somewhere in Berkshire he had not been motivated so much by a need for self preservation, more a desire to demonstrate what a popular, well-connected and upwardly mobile fellow he has become since they split up. ‘Neither is she a loved one!’ he speaks aloud into the silent phone. He has not brought a shovel or a torch, but these would be of no assistance as the car is going nowhere, snow or not. A flask of coffee, however and a warm blanket, he has to admit, would have been very welcome by now.
An exploratory foray into his overnight bag yields little of any use to Brian except for a towel, which he drapes around his shoulders like a cape. He has also brought some pajamas which, whilst the additional layer would be beneficial, he feels reluctant to don in case of rescue. After deliberating he decides to bear them in mind as emergency clothing supplies. His feet are by far the most pressing problem, having become totally numb inside his shoes so that he compelled to scrunch his toes up periodically in attempt to regain some feeling. Should he, perhaps break into the bottle of wine he brought along as a contribution to the New Year do? He thinks not, for now; best to keep something in reserve in case, Heaven forbid, the situation worsens.
Another glance at the phone reveals the time to be 8.57pm, and forty five minutes since the last vehicle passed by. Brian realizes with a grimace that his careful calculation of timing in order to arrive not too early and not too late will now be academic. His arrival will now be, at best, late. What will the reception be like if, and when, he arrives? Misgivings flutter through his digestive system like tipsy hens and peck away at his confidence. Rob and Shelley are people he met almost a year ago and spent one week with, when comradeship was enhanced by the thrills and spills of the ski slopes. But they were charming, friendly and fun, seemed to really like having him around, have kept up with emails. The invitation had been issued with genuine warmth and re-issued as a result of his last email enquiry as to whether the party was going ahead.
Brian decides that he can utilize more of his clothing resources if he curls up on the rear seat. The time has come to employ the services of his pajamas-which he acknowledges he only brought as an afterthought, thus freeing up his towel as a foot-wrapping. The achievement of all this takes some time and energy, resulting in the opening of the wine, thankfully of the screw topped variety. He lifts his head up enough to swallow a mouthful and then shudders as a yawn escapes him. He wonders what is happening at the party now and imagines he is there, glass in hand, chatting up a woman, asking her to dance, getting close, feeling the rhythm, moving his feet, becoming warm, hot, sweating, thumping.
Thumping! Brian starts awake, wild eyed, dropping the wine bottle into his overnight bag, an intense, dazzling light in his face and an urgent thumping on the window. ‘Just a minute!’ he tries to shout, managing a feeble croak. He fumbles with frozen fingers to open the rear door which eventually opens with a gasping crack, having been yanked from the outside. A large, unearthly figure swathed in black is bending in to scrutinize him, playing a flashlight over the interior of the car. For a fleeting, delirious moment Brian believes he has expired; that this horrific apparition has materialized in the afterlife to exact retribution for his earthly sins.
“Good evening sir. Are you alright?”
Speechless, Brian feels an ignominious, hot welling of tears behind his eyes as he struggles to get a grip on his emotions at being found. Minutes later he is sitting in the police land rover clutching a hot cup of tea while the officer calls the AA number he has given him.
“Rescue vehicle is on its way sir,” the policeman tells him. The dashboard clock is showing 10.48pm. Flooded with a surge of optimism, Brian grasps that he has not missed the entire party, because it is a New Year’s celebration, and the nature of New Year’s parties is to extend up to, and indeed well beyond midnight. He pictures himself arriving at Rob and Shelley’s, hearing raucous laughter and the thudding beat of loud music, windows all lit and pulsating figures gyrating within. He will apologize for his lateness, explain his predicament, present the remnants of the wine, be hailed as a hero, exclaimed over, pressed with drinks and nibbles, surrounded by sympathetic, admiring women.
Whilst it takes longer than Brian has anticipated for the AA man to attach the defective car to the breakdown truck he calculates that he will still get to the party in plenty of time.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go home sir? You won’t be the only person not attending, I’m sure, then there’s the car. You’ll have that to deal with. How will you get it back?”
“No! These friends of mine, they’re almost family! They’ll be disappointed if I don’t turn up, and Rob’ll help with the car tomorrow. He knows loads about electrics.”
“How about calling them, though, sir? Just to be sure?”
“I doubt if they’d hear it!” Brian chuckles. “No, let’s just carry on and get there. It’ll be fine.”
They lapse into a silence burdened with the AA man’s skepticism.
It is 11.52pm when they pull in to the entrance to the lane leading to ‘The Orchard’.
“I’m going to have to leave the car here, sir. I don’t want to be going up there and not be able to maneuver or turn the rig round.”
“No problem! We can sort it out tomorrow. As I said, Rob will know what to do.”
Once the offending car has been detached from the truck the AA man is as eager for departure as Brian is for merriment. Brian pumps his hand, more in a desire for him to disappear than in gratitude, staying only briefly to wave as the truck rumbles away. Having stuffed his pajamas back into the overnight bag he sets off round the bend towards ‘The Orchard’.
It has stopped snowing. Against the inky sky there is the silhouette of a house, but as yet no sound or hint of light. He walks on to find a gate, more easily visible now that his eyes are accustomed to darkness, unlatches it and continues up a path to the front door. He stops to listen, straining to hear a hint of music or a voice, gazing at the windows for some chink of light, any sign of activity or, as a frisson of anxiety begins to insinuate itself, an indication of occupation. There is a small click. Brian is instantly illuminated by the security light, setting off a tirade of furious yapping from the bowels of the house. ‘Strange’, he muses ‘that they never mentioned owning a dog’. He procrastinates on the doorstep in a doldrum of indecision. It is clear even to him that there is no party taking place. The unnerving idea that this may be the wrong house fills him with dread, since he has waved off the kindly AA man to whom he’d exaggerated the description of his acquaintances as ‘almost family’. It is now twelve twenty one am and he is freezing.
Faced with the choice of once more donning his pajamas and towel and sleeping on the back seat of his car or rousing the inhabitants of this house, whoever they may be, Brian opts for throwing himself on the mercy of the householders even if they are strangers. At the sound of the doorbell the yapping acquires new vigor and he feels both anxious and relieved as an interior light is switched on and he hears a muffled voice. There is a momentary hiatus while locks and chain are undone then the door is opened a little to reveal part of a pajama-clad body topped by a pale, wary face. The face speaks.
Brian feels weak with gratitude to some unformulated source that it is Rob who has answered the door, albeit not the party-animal Rob he’d envisioned, the ‘life-and-soul’ Rob of the pistes. Nevertheless this suspicious, guarded individual is recognizable as Rob.
“Hello Rob. Happy New Year!”
He proffers the half bottle of wine, affecting a merry grin in the hope that his teeth are not chattering too much. The distrustful figure in the doorway peers further out at him, blinking until recognition dawns.
“Oh it’s um..”
“Brian. From skiing! You know. Last February”
“Brian. Yes. Brian. From skiing.”
There is an interval during which Brian lowers the wine bottle to his side and Rob continues to stand in the small gap he has allowed between the door and the frame and contemplate the visitor. Somewhere in the background the yapping continues apace.
“What did you want Brian?”
Brian swallows. His lips have become dry and numb, his voice a timorous squeak.
“The party. The New Year’s do.”
“Party?” Rob’s eyes widen as he stares at him. The moment is interrupted by a woman’s voice.
“What’s going on? Who is it Rob?” and Shelley appears, swathed in a white toweling bathrobe and a bewildered expression. Rob half turns to speak over his shoulder.
“It’s Brian. From skiing. He’s come for a party, apparently.”
It is Shelley’s turn to squint at him, looking closely from behind Rob’s shoulder. Brian dangles the wine bottle, nervous snicker hovering on his lips. Shelley appears to rally, declaring,
“Well we can’t all stand here letting cold into the house. You’d better come in, er, Brian.”
He steps over the threshold, still clutching the wine bottle and continuing to sport what he hopes is his most affable and charming smile despite the ambiguous welcome.
“I seem to have got you up, don’t I? Was the party cancelled at the last minute? Only I’ve got a slight problem with my car. The recovery vehicle has had to leave it at the end of your driveway. I can probably get it moved tomorrow. Do you think there’ll be any taxis tonight?”
Their confused frowns lead him to pause as he glances from one to the other.
Fifteen minutes later he is plumping up a cushion on the sofa in their lounge and unzipping the side of a threadbare sleeping bag that is most likely a relic of Rob’s past travels. At last the dog has lapsed into merciful silence. He takes a sip of the tea he’s been given and moves stealthily to the living room door, the better to hear what is being shouted in the kitchen.
“What the Hell were you playing at, inviting that bloke here?” Rob’s anger has broken out now that he is no longer in the room with Brian.
“We were all pissed, Rob, if you recall and we came up with the idea of getting together at New Year. He wasn’t asked specifically. He was just there. He was always hanging around. Don’t you remember? We couldn’t shake him off; odious little man! We must have overlooked him when we decided to cancel.”
Brian listens in for a few more minutes until the recriminations and accusations begin to be repeated, then he pads quietly back to the sofa to insinuate himself into the moth-eaten sleeping bag. He lifts the remnants of the wine to his lips, whispering ‘Happy New Year’ before knocking it back in two mouthfuls. In the morning he will have to phone up and get his car taken home and with luck, scrounge a lift for himself. Once he is home he will ring Jackie. If she is feeling magnanimous he might get invited round there, especially if he says he’d like to see the kids on New Year’s Day. She might ask about the party. He will tell her all the details. How the champagne flowed like water, the house was a mansion lavishly decked out, the women gorgeous. He will name drop a few minor celebrities and hints about not sleeping alone. Yes. She will be impressed. The bickering voices seem further away now. Brian sighs. The bottle slips from his hand on to the carpet where it leaves a blood red dribble. A gentle snore escapes him. ‘Happy New Year’. Well it didn’t turn out so bad.