Thursday 23 January 2003

Lie back in a cradle of love

Like the Queen, I celebrated my birthday twice. On the chronologically accurate date I had to go out for dinner with ten of my work colleagues. Ten days later I threw a big party for everyone I knew (and their friends too).

I'd forgotten how nervewracking hosting a party is. The first hurdle to cross (not counting arranging venues and timings) is writing the invite. The task of crafting an amusing, informative and succinct e-mail and ensuring the To: list won't cause offence now induces shallow, panicked breathing and trembling fingers far more than my infrequent public presentation gigs. The memory of previous mistakes such as concentrating so much on a good gag that I've got the directions wrong or omitted the date increases the pressure that is relieved only by that final click of the Send... button.

Within fifteen minutes of sending the invite, I'd had six replies all telling me they couldn't come, geographic excuses ranging from Birmingham to Edinburgh to Paris to San Francisco to Thailand to Sydney. A flurry of rejection that was swiftly followed by weeks of disquieting silence from the majority, all preferring to leave themselves in Schrodinger's cat-like limbo and making me the anxious experimental physicist.

The appointed hour rolled round to find me sitting at a large wooden table, in a large wooden pub, in central London. It was all but empty.

Opposite sat my sister, next to me sat Ruffles, across from me sat Pieman. The barmen talked and laughed behind the bar while I nervously fiddled with the remote controlled cars my sister had given me and tried to get conversation moving. An hour later, and the group had tripled in size, conversation was even more obviously stilted as representatives of differing social groups rapidly ran past the opening gambit of "how do you know Simon?" and got stuck in a mire of sober small talk. I was still nervous at the venue's emptiness as the minutes dripped from the clock.

Then it kicked off.

People streamed through the door and poured into the bars smiling and laughing, suddenly there was a queue for drinks, walking across the room required circuitous routes around happy throngs and Ruffles' smooth grooves on the sound system seemed quiet under the roar of talk. I moved into social butterfly mode, a huge grin immovable from my face as I circulated and mingled, grabbing time with the next person I saw. Every time I turned round I bumped into someone else I wanted to speak to all night long, but could only manage five minutes until a tug on my shirt announced the arrival of yet more guests. I couldn't stay still, wouldn't be pinned down, didn't drink but was constantly drunk with pleasure.

By the end of the evening I was exhausted and hoarse, talked and hugged out, but brimming with love. And fulfilment too, my life is not being wasted; I may not have a clue about where I'm headed but I have a fabulous set of friends and I love them all.

This may be a soppy "It's a Wonderful Life" type sentiment, but it's true.

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