We have reached the stage in life where we don’t particularly socialise any more, but on the rare occasions that we do, the events mark unmissable major life milestones, involve extensive travel to far-flung corners of the country, plunge us headlong into marathon bouts of wanton bacchanalia we no longer have the stamina to withstand, and leave us dredged up on the shore of some unfamiliar town’s Sunday morning, gasping for air and good for nothing save a series of reviving cappuccinos and an untidy slumber in the company of the teatime express train home.
This weekend’s two-dayer, down in London for the 50th birthday extravaganza of old college friend Cormack, promises all of the above questionable delights and more. This is enough to bring on for me the usual pre-major-lifestone-marking-social-event anxiety, which just in time for the journey South is joined by a surprise last-minute extra-incapacitating ingredient. I really don’t know what it is, either a whirlwind 24-hour virus native to the Virgin Pendolino air-conditioning system, or (more likely) a delayed allergic reaction to the hairs of the large ginger cat belonging to our next-door-neighbours, a beguiling bagpuss-like individual of pensionable age who spent the best part of last week on his own short-haul minibreak, curled up on our living room rug watching the One Show and making me break out in uproarious sneezing fits. Whatever, the combination of the two maladies leaves me a sickening, snivelling wreck, and as the big red 205 bus from Euston whisks us tree-level and Eastwards across a dizzying spidersweb of bustling innercity village High Streets, it’s all I can do in my sedated condition (I’ve bowed to the inevitable and swallowed an anti-histimine, and not just any anti-histimine, but one of the strong ‘not-to-be-taken-with-alcohol-and-no-operating-of-heavy-machinery, mark our words’ ones, the ones that knock you out good and proper) , to groan monosyllabically in response to our still-city-innocent Frankie’s excited exclamations at the many and varied sights and sounds of downtown Hackney (‘look Daddy behind those flats- a CrossRail train!’).
All in all it’s looking odds-on against me arriving at the party venue capable of any social interaction whatsoever. And indeed on the short-cut through rambling Tower Hamlets cemetery, I momentarily consider prostrating myself right there amid the overgrown grass and gradually fading Dickensian gravestones, and taking my chances with the muggers and ghouls of modern-day London E5. Fortunately for all concerned, Charlotte and Frankie succeed in dragging me through the undergrowth, and we arrive for 3PM prompt at our host’s home address- one of a truncated one-sided treelined avenue of grand tumbledown Victorian terrace-dwellings hemmed in on all four sides by the concrete towerblocks and conspicuous urban decay of a particularly unsalubrious quarter of the capital’s East End.
At this point, I am visited by a miracle, in the form of the restorative powers of two quickly-proffered glasses of good quality Cava. Fortified by this elixir (and then as the afternoon and evening wear on, the three large bottles of strong European lager I have hauled from the Sainsbury’s outside of Euston station, along with maybe four handy-sized glasses of whatever red wine finds itself within reach of my increasingly relaxed and dextrous left elbow, all of this cushioned by vast helpings of homemade paella, tortilla patatas, and Turkish Delight) I find myself not only fully conscious but also in renewed possession of enough joie-de-vivre to get myself through the occasion.
And it is quite an occasion, bringing together in one narrow East London terrace the unlikely melting-pot of humanity who make up Cormack’s extended bi-cultural family and his eclectic professional and personal acqaintanceship. So: one minute we are exchanging small-talk on the price of house renovation in rural Cambridgeshire with a red-faced couple in matching pastel-shaded golf cardigans (‘it’s absolutely fine, until the builders start having their own ideas, haw haw!’); the next we are attempting to bluff our way through an exchange with a couple of passing academics centring on a critique of Freudian analysis and its rightful place within the practice of psycho-analytical post-traumatic counselling; the very next minute we are being encouraged in no uncertain terms by a svelte young moustachioed Anglo-Turkish engineering student to immerse ourselves headlong into the aural pleasures of something called Turkish Psych Rock: ‘Get it on YouTube, man, you won’t regret it!’. Quite unphased by any of this, and without the need of either stimulants or sedatives to get him to the other side, Frankie alternates his afternoon between the grown-ups in the kitchen and the pre-teens in the front living room, where an entirely separate gathering is sustained by unlimited quantities of pizzas and Simpsons box-sets.
Rather oddly, there is no music at the party, at least until the very end, when one of the Kurdish contingent succeeds in wiring up an I-pod into the kitchen speakers and embarks on a belly-dance whose, ah, expressiveness hastens a domino-effect of quizzical intra-marital glances from those of the Yacht Club set still present, quickly followed by stage-whispers alluding to the time of the last weekend departures from Liverpool Lime Street towards Southend-on-Sea. Around about this point we realise we are the only guests left standing (everyone else in the kitchen is now belly-dancing, with wildly varying levels of decorum and cultural competency), so we make our excuses and leave aboard a Hackney minicab headed for the sanctuary of the Docklands Holiday Inn Express.
The next day the three of us traverse across the inner-Eastern reaches of the capital on foot, taking in the delights of Wapping (anciently timbered pubs frequented by Charles Dickens, well not nowadays, he’s dead, but there are plaques); bijou coffee-joints operating out of the disused cellars of vast printing warehouses; shirtsleeved bankers pottering through the traffic-free riverside streets on Brompton bikes; sweat-browed yuppies being put through their paces in communal park-life exercise-class settings by large black men), and end up (via thirty minutes of stressful, sweaty, close-hands combat with the London Underground) at London St Pancras, where Frankie, as is his just reward for putting up with his hungover parents for an entire Sunday, gets to spend fifteen minutes racing around the concourses in ultimately successful pursuit of the sight of a departing Eurostar train and (a rather more niche fascination this one, but then after Turkish Pshych Rock who are we to talk), a South Eastern electric express train departing for Margate in a new livery that has been for several weeks the sole talk of a minor but very important sub-section of You Tube.
Some time later, we arrive back at Stockport station. Frankie skips off the train, me and Charlotte following on behind in slightly more world-weary manner. An unforgettable weekend altogether; I think though, a delay of a month or two before the next social event of any kind will be most welcome, at least for two of us. These days, as our own age-related life milestones loom ever-larger, we need to pace ourselves, just a little bit.