I was as surprised as anyone else would have been to receive the invitation to Amy’s St. Stephen’s Day party. We had known each other in school, sure, but had never been close. I was convinced she held a pitying disdain for me in fact, she being loud and opinionated and ‘arty’, me being lazy and laid-back with a tendency to sink into the shadows.
There was that one time in music class when I scored higher than she did on a theory test and she demanded the teacher re-check the results, and another when I, in an uncharacteristic act of boldness, corrected her misuse of the word ‘less’ when she paused in the middle of her oration just long enough to consider me with a look of pure, unadulterated derision. Seriously though, she’d meant ‘fewer’ and her nasally voice carried for so far and for so long that I reached my limit – she had been loudly and confidently getting words wrong since I initially met her in first year. Apart from that though, we didn’t have much contact, had different friends, different priorities.
While I had continued on my meander through life, drifting from university to work to unemployment to work again, never really having any particular ambition, fairly content with my quiet, uneventful lot Amy had skipped college, got a job with AA Roadwatch and moved through the ranks to become a national radio station’s drive-time DJ. I’d hear her programme from time to time on my commute home and with a shudder would switch over immediately. It was that grating timbre to her voice. And she was still confusing the use of words with alarming regularity.
Maeve, a good friend of mine, now ran in the same circles as Amy, being a PR liaison with a successful talent agency, and was also invited to the gathering. She was genuinely as amazed as I was that Amy even remembered me, but poked and prodded me until I agreed to go, assuring me she’d be present too in case of any awkwardness. We got together on Christmas Eve at her parent’s house so I could pick out and borrow one of her dresses over a glass of wine – the party was black tie, naturally, and I hadn’t worn a gown since my Debs. We each pondered over my shock invite and what there was to it, Maeve gleefully speculating a Carrie moment then, knowing Amy, tipsily started to believe her own crazy theory and allowed me only her oldest and worst gown, just in case.
Christmas Day came and went, gifts were exchanged, a phone call to the boyfriend in Wexford was made, the Dr Who special was watched, and pleasant dreams were had. St. Stephen’s Day arrived with a frost, and after a lie in and a long, chilly stroll with my parents and the dogs I began to ready myself for the night’s coming events. Never one to rush I started early and took my time, and still it was suddenly 7:00pm and nearly time to pick up Maeve. It was just when the taxi was pulling up when my phone rang just long enough to go to voicemail. It was an old trick I knew well, and my suspicions were confirmed when I listened to the message to hear Maeve express her true apologies but had to cry off the night because of a damage-control emergency involving a D-list celebrity.
It was too late to back out now, so with a weighted sigh and a summoning of strength I soldiered on to the house of Amy. It was only a short drive, but I wished it was longer, to gather my nerves for what was bound to become a situation out of my comfort zone. Maeve had insinuated that there were to be other radio and TV personalities there, along with some popular familiar faces from around town. I hoped there would be someone I at least had hellos on the street in common with, but had a sinking feeling that anyone I was acquainted with there would have their own, closer friends to talk to.
The windows of the house glistened with candles as the cab made its way up the drive, and the still, cold night allowed for lamps to be lit and set up outside the front door. A majestic wreath dominated the entrance and I barely had time to ring the bell when the door was flung open by a fireball of energy. Amy. All 5’10’’, blonde, blue eyed, pearly white toothed, designer dress of her. “Hello, you! Long time no see, come in, come in, you’re the first to arrive!” she exclaimed while simultaneously shoving a glass of champagne in my hand and ushering me past the yapping fuzz-ball circling my feet.
“That’s just Galliano, don’t mind him, he just needs to get used to you. He’ll calm down after a while” she reassured me. It didn’t seem like he would, snarling as he now was, looking all the more sinister dressed up in his reindeer ears and little tartan waistcoat. “He probably smells the dogs off me, is getting a bit territorial,” I ventured cautiously, while she beamed and looked about her like a confused bird. “Carols! That’s what’s missing! Carols!” she cried after what definitely constituted an uncomfortable silence, and bounced off to fiddle with her elaborate music system.
She was right, the place didn’t seem quite so empty once the music was on, and a steady, if one-sided conversation started up between us. I admired the enormous tree, decorated beautifully in antique baubles and fairy lights. She explained that her parents had gone on a cruise for the holidays, a modest little gift from her, so she thought a little get-together of her old and new friends would be a lovely idea for a Stephen’s Night with a difference. She had received Maeve’s apologies, and those of ‘one or two others that had previous engagements’. A couple more had fallen through as well so it was going to be significantly more intimate than she had imagined. Her monologue was interrupted when she had just filled up my third glass of bubbly, by an enormous crash of thunder.
Neither of us had even noticed when the rain had started, or how heavy it had gotten, or indeed how long it had been going on for. A quick glance at my watch amazed me to find I had been there an hour already. An hour without anyone else arriving. This was weird. I didn’t think Maeve’s insane prediction would come true – there seemed to be enough nibbles and booze for at least ten other people – but maybe it was just an elaborate ruse. I calmed myself by suggesting my outlandish thoughts were being fueled by the many bubbles rushing rapidly to my head, while all the same taking precautions by rearranging myself a little bit further away from her on the sofa.
“Gosh! That was loud! What on earth? And it was so dry all day!” I nodded my head in agreement. The flow of the conversation had been interrupted and now moments crawled past. Flailing for something to fill the quiet I complemented her on her necklace. Set upon the royal blue of her immaculately tailored full-length dress, it was clearly meant to be a talking point, and talking point it was. For ten minutes she explained its origin, its cost, its history. It had been a gift from herself to herself when she got her first pay-cheque after taking over the radio show. When she said it had been ‘excepted’ for an exhibition of early 19th century jewellery in the Chester Beatty I flinched, but held my tongue.
In the time that went by I began to realise that there was something slightly sad about her never-ending train of thought. I wasn’t much of a talker anyway so didn’t feel like I was missing out on contributing any anecdotes, and naturally having a motor-mouth was ideal for her profession, but there seemed to be something more to her endless chattering than solely a talent for talking animatedly about nothing. Another quick peek at the time told me that two hours had now gone by, and bolstered by the half-bottle of tipple I had now consumed hazarded a quick inquiry into the whereabouts of the other guests. “Well” she said, offended “I should think that they would be here already but what with this storm they’ve been held up. It’s early yet. They’ve ‘doubtfully’ been trying to phone but the lines are down.” In the age of smart phones the lack of communication seemed somewhat implausible, but again I refrained from offering my opinion.
The Christmas songs playing came to an end and there was yet another pause, bar for some growling from Galliano, during which I took the opportunity to ask why I had been invited along. “We haven’t seen each other for nearly 12 years, Amy, and we never really knew each other all that well. I’m just curious, that’s all” At this point I was fairly sure the invitation wasn’t a practical joke, but while I went on, the steely look in her eyes I remembered from music class returned and so hastily added “I hope it doesn’t need to be said that I am very grateful to be asked along, it’s a… wonderful party”.
Up she rose from her seat and strode regally to the Christmas tree, where she took one of the ornaments in hand as if inspecting it. I didn’t know what was going on, or what to expect next. Slowly, imposingly, she turned around and haughtily explained “I asked you here because I felt sorry for you. You’re Maeve’s friend and I thought I should invite you out of courtesy to her. I never for a minute thought that I’d be stuck here alone with you, but there you go, that’s how it turned out. With any luck the other guests will arrive soon.”
I stood up to reply, but before I could stutter out a response to her cruel words a crack of lightning simultaneously lit up the room as if in daylight and plunged it into darkness. “Damn trip switch! Bloody hell. Galliano shut up!” Amy rushed by me almost knocking me sideways in the process and her dog nearly did the same when he scampered, barking, after her. After a few minutes of banging and clashing from what I supposed to be the utility room the lights flickered back on and Amy returned. “Where were we?” she asked coolly, reaching her right hand up to her neck. As realistation struck her it dawned on me too. Her necklace was gone.
“You.” She glared and growled nearly as threateningly as Galliano, and dramatically pointed her finger in my direction. “What have you done with my jewels? There’s no one else here, there are no other explanations. You took them when the lights went out, as if I wouldn’t notice. You are as stupid as you look after all, aren’t you?” Well of course I didn’t snatch the necklace, but I honestly didn’t see any other explanation either, other than Amy herself removing the chain and hiding it so as to incriminate me. This whole evening was fast becoming a surreal nightmare and spiraling out of all control. I decided not to rise to her bait and calmly sat back down. “No Amy, I did not remove your necklace. When the lights went out I didn’t know what was happening, if you’d asked me my own name in the chaos I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, never mind masterminding a jewel theft in the space of two seconds. It’s here somewhere, I will help you look for it and then I am calling a taxi and going home.”
“Fine. I will keep up the pretense for ten minutes and after that I will be calling the guards. I would also appreciate it if you would pass me your bag for examination.” With the aim of getting this disaster of an evening over and done with I handed my bag over to her, knowing that nothing would be found, not least because it was a clutch that strained to close with just a mobile, change purse and some lipstick in it. An oversized rock would certainly be uncovered in no time, if it was there. Dissatisfied, she rifled through my coat pockets as well, as I circled the room in the hope of glimpsing it lying forlornly on the floor. Galliano trotted back into the room as I was about to give up and I decided to approach the beast to see if he had picked it up. Carefully I edged closer, and as I gingerly stretched out my fingers to examine his collar he started up his yelping once again, causing a sulking Amy to stir in annoyance.
“Jesus, leave him alone, all you’re doing is exasperating the situation”. “Exacerbating” I muttered through clenched teeth. “What? What’s that you just mumbled?” “Exacerbating. It means making something worse. Exasperating is to exhaust someone’s patience. Which is what you said. And is in turn what you are doing to me. I am not a thief, I did not take your necklace. Your dog has been giving me the stink eye all night long, you have hardly let me get a word in edgeways. I’m not boring and I’m not stupid. I like my life although maybe you think it’s mundane. I have a family, friends, a job. I think you’re a pathetic, insecure vain loudmouth who would do well to take a good look in the mirror, not in abject admiration but in an unabashed and honest exercise in self awareness.”
The colour drained from her face and she stumbled back as if physically affected by my tirade and immediately I regretted it, true as it was. It wasn’t my style to dish out home truths, and I felt uncomfortable having hurt her feelings, even after all she had bestowed on me. As I moved forward a step in her direction to begin an apology I noticed a bright sparkle out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head slightly towards the direction of the tree another glitter appeared and all at once I had figured out the mystery of the necklace. I took the few steps over to the spruce and plucked the jewels of one of the branches, where it must have come loose and caught itself in the commotion of the power cut.
Amy held her head in her hands as I approached the chair she was seated in to return the goods, and so I nearly missed her muffled “I’m sorry.” “It’s alright. I’m sorry too, I was out of order. The storm seems to have died down, I’m going to take off. Let’s just forget about the whole thing and go back to vaguely being aware of each other’s existence.” “No!” Amy rose from her seat as if she had been ejected from it. “You’re completely right, I’ve been awful this evening, am awful in general. But you see my life is nothing like you’d expect it to be. None, none of my Dublin friends wanted to come to the party tonight, a pretty large proportion of them didn’t even reply to my invitation. Most people I invited from here declined as well, and all of the eight people who did accept appear to have gotten lost along the way. My parents took off for their cruise on Christmas Eve so I spent Christmas Day all alone. You’re the only one who turned up tonight, and look how I treated you?”
She sobbed, then continued “I lied earlier when I said I invited you out of pity. I was embarrassed when you drew attention to how badly the evening was going, which wasn’t your intention, I know. I asked you because I remembered you from school being clever and nice. I’ve been trying to be a better, more rounded, less self-obsessed person and figured if I came home for Christmas and asked people who I thought I could potentially be friends with to a lavish party it would be a step in the right direction. I’m so, so sorry for accusing you of stealing, I knew I was being irrational but my pride and ego once again got in the way. ”
Down she went again, exhausted by her outburst and outpouring of feelings, and any ill-will I had towards her evaporated. “Look,” I said, “You’ve been trying your best, just maybe a bit too hard. Go easier on yourself, don’t put so much pressure on being liked. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes and I accept your apology. Now let’s partake in some more of this fantastic champagne and these canopies, stick on some tunes and have a good long chat.”
With that, the doorbell rang and out ran Galliano to harass the newcomers. “We’ve been trying to call,” I heard once the front door had been opened by Amy, “The network coverage is all over the place today! The storm took down a tree a few miles down the road and no one’s been getting through. But we’re here now!” I was relieved to see a gang of eight familiar and not so familiar faces walk into the room and begin to help themselves to the party food and wine. Amy was in her element, but her jabbering had lessened and given away to listening for once. It ended up being a lovely evening, especially when the dog had had enough and wandered off to sleep. Although Amy and I assured each other at the end of the night that we’d keep in touch we never did, other than a Christmas card each year. But from then on whenever I heard her show I never switched stations. And choose to ignore her vocabulary abuse. A leopard can learn new tricks after all, but can never change its spots.
– Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on December 19th 2013.