Embracing the evening
The door opened inward into a corridor, faintly light by a low light. Picture hung on the walls that Chris could barely see. They seemed to be of people in naval uniforms. No, they seemed to be of anthropomorphic cats in naval uniforms. Or maybe not, it was quite dark and he was not paying close attention.
The corridor had a couple of doors off to one side, but straight ahead was one big door. That, presumably, was where he was to go. He walked up to it.
"Yes. Go on in."
He opened the door and walked into a darkened room. Or a room that was momentarily dark, until bright lights suddenly came on revealing a surprisingly large room full of people, all kinds of people. They were wearing party hats and holding drinks in their hands. And they were smiling at Chris. There was a banner saying "WELCOM JULIAN". And streamers.
Costas came in after Chris and addressed the crowd in a language other than English. Greek, Chris thought initially, but he started to wonder. The only word Chris recognised was "Julian". Except that it finished what Costas had to say and sounded more like "Julian!". The crowd cheered.
"We thought we would throw a little party for you, to show our appreciation," said Costas.
"Thanks," said Chris.
"It's not everyone that would do what you have done, it means a lot to us."
As if to support Costas, an old man in bright blue suit said something loud, emphatic and incomprehensible. The crowd laughed and broke into a round of applause in that awkward way of people at a party who have to suddenly find a way to clap while holding drinks and canapés.
Costas smiled at Chris and then said, "You'll need to say something."
"Will they understand me? Does anyone here speak English?"
"No, but you need to say something. It is expected."
The crowd did look expectant. Chris ran his eye quickly over them, trying to get a measure of the people present. They seemed a mixed bunch, both socially and in terms of their ages. A couple of disreputably looking young lads in shell suits were standing right behind some very proper older gentlemen in full dress military uniforms. Society matrons stood next to younger women who would not be out of place in a nightclub. One man was dressed in a cowboy outfit. Another was made up as clown. Two people were wearing panda costumes. There was even a pair of corgis looking down at him excitedly from on top of a bookcase - God only knew how they had got up there. These were just some of the people and animals present.
"OK, I'll say something. Ladies, gentlemen, this is quite a surprise and not at all what I was expecting when Costas ushered me in here. I thank you all for going to all this trouble and I would just like to say that it is very much appreciated. Now let's get back to the party - I tell you one thing, I could really do with a drink!"
He stopped, but the crowd did not react. Then Costas said something quickly and everyone laughed and gave Chris another round of applause. The corgis barked their approval. From nowhere loud music suddenly started playing and the strong light gave away to something more atmospheric, punctuated by occasional strobes. People went back to their conversations, sensing that the formal part of the surprise party was over.
"Here, drink this," said Costas, handing Chris a glass of white wine. He took a sip. It was good.
"Who are these people?"
"Just some people who are very impressed with what you have managed to accomplish. Not everyone can stick things out like you can. That means a lot. We respect that."
A young lad in a shell suit came lolloping over towards Chris and Costas. He pointed at Chris, did a little dance, then said something. Chris could barely hear what he was saying over the din of the music, but he heard enough to know that it was not English. Still, the fellow's demeanour seemed to indicate that he held broadly positive opinions of Chris.
"Thanks," said Chris. "I think."
The young lad did a bit more of his little dance and then indicated that Chris should join in with him. Chris felt that he did not really have much of an option, so he knocked back his wine, handed the empty glass to Costas and did his best to ape the young lad's moves. The dance had a hip hop quality that did not come readily to Chris, but he gave it his best shot. The young lad was either amused or impressed. Whatever it was, he called over his mates, and soon they and Chris were doing their strange dance in the middle of the room. A circle formed around them, a circle of people with smiling happy faces. And the people in the panda suits, whose faces were locked into permanent smiles. But Chris was not as adept at dancing as the shell suits, so he had to call a halt.
"Enough guys, enough," he said, panting. "I need a drink."
Everyone cheered. A woman in a dress that looked several sizes too small for her handed Chris another glass, smiling lasciviously as she did so. The young lad who had started the dancing patted Chris on the back and wandered off with his fellows.
"Hungry?" said Costas. "Come on, let's eat."
He led Chris over to a table laden with food - canapés of various types, but also more substantial fare - joints of meat, bowls of tri-coloured pasta, salads and so on. Tortilla chips and dips were also present. And cakes, lots of cakes. But, Chris noted, not much in the way of Greek food - the salad did not look like the horiatiki he had been eating, nor were the various bowls of food akin to the cooked dishes he had eaten. There was no briam or dolmades to be had here and the cakes did not look even remotely baklava-like. Still, it all looked rather tasty apart from the joints of meat. He put down his glass and piled a load of savouries and salad onto a plate.
"This is all a bit odd," he said to Costas.
"Like, I said, it was not what I was expecting when I came in here."
"What were you expecting?"
"I don't know. Maybe some Mr Big who would demand the memory stick. Or maybe something more ominous."
"Well, I'm glad it was a surprise. It is always very annoying when people get wind a surprise party has been planned for them."
"Where are you from, Costas? Your accent doesn't sound very Greek."
Costas smiled. "Sorry. I'll try harder. Now, here's someone I want you to meet."
He brought Chris over to a man in Morris dancer costume. For a brief moment Chris thought this was one of those Morris dancers who perform with blackened faces for reasons lost in the mists of time, but that moment passed and Chris saw that the Morris dancer was a dark skinned man of African features. He said something incomprehensible to Chris in a tone that indicated his words to be of great importance. Chris smiled back.
"What's he saying?" he said to Costas, continuing to smile politely at the Morris dancer.
"It doesn't matter. Just keep smiling and nodding when he speaks. I'll be back."
Costas went over to talk to the clown, leaving Chris with the Morris dancer, who resumed his flow of words. Chris found himself thinking that he had been stuck with he party bore. Either way, the Morris dancer seemed to be expounding his philosophy of life to Chris, compelete with a variety of gestures and emphatic but incomprehensible comments that Chris felt obliged to agree with. He was wondering how long this would go on for when he registered that his skin was starting to tingle. Had something been added to his drink? That would be a bit problematic, but it was too late now.
The woman in the small dress came over with a bottle of wine, refilling Chris's glass, bending over as she did so to show off a terrifying amount of cleavage. She caught Chris's eye and winked. Chris looked at the glass in his hand and wondered whether he should drink any more. If it was adulterated, he could find himself in a lot of trouble if he increased the dose. Even if it was just wine, did he really want to get rat arsed drunk with all these weirdoes? But nervousness turned him against the idea of guarding his sobriety. And he had seen the woman top up the glasses of other patrons from the same bottle, so it was not like he was being singled out for special treatment. Unless the first glass was the one with the drugs, in which case this was just another friendly glass of wine. He could not really be bothered with trying to think everything through.
"Down the hatch!" he said, taking a big swig of wine. It tasted like wine, like the Greek white wine he had been drinking in Athens - so at least this was local. Well that was something.
The Morris dancer resumed his incomprehensible speech, but was silenced by the sound of the two corgis barking from atop their bookcase, the sound of their little yaps clearly audible even over the dance music filling the room. The Morris dancer looked up at them, nodded at Chris and went off to talk to one of the military men, whose stiff and formal pose could not hide a facial expression that screamed "Oh no, not this cunt" to Chris.
Two other military men approached Chris. They did not say anything, but just stood there looking at him.
"Do you speak English?"
"Français? Deutsch? Español?
Nothing. They just stared.
"Fuck this shit," said Chris. He looked over at Costas, who was joking with two of the clubby women, and decided to go and talk to the only person present who could speak English. But as he started to walk over, the room responded by changing shape. It had been roughly a square when Chris first entered it, but now it was turning into a very long rectangle, with Chris at one end by the canapés and Costas at the other. And the two ends were getting further and further apart. Chris tried to walk quickly over to Costas, but step after step took him no nearer. He broke into a run, but he might as well have been running on the spot for all the difference it made.
The corgis barked again. The room returned to normal. Chris was beside Costas and the clubby women. The women smiled at Chris. Their pupils looked dilated.
"Having fun?" said Costas.
"Yeah, I think… I feel a bit odd actually. Was there something in my drink?"
"Does it matter?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Where's the bathroom, Costas? I need to, you know."
"Yeah sure, that might help." He said something to one of the women, who took Chris out of the room and into corridor, which now seemed very short. She pointed at one of the other doors. He tried it. It was locked.
The woman smiled and started to move to the sound of the music coming from inside. She was wearing a green top with a floral pattern. It was incredible, the flowers were crawling across her outfit, living vegetation behaving more like a mass of insect life than a pictorial representation of plant life.
The woman - or the girl, Chris started thinking of her as a girl - saw Chris looking at her top and smiled. She gave him a hug. She blew on his face and started running her hands through his hair. One of the shell-suited lads appeared and started rubbing his back, hands working out the tension. It was all good.
The bathroom door opened. A woman came out, wearing the red jacketed uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including the hat. She was followed by a person in a panda suit. The panda-suited figure waved at Chris and then mimed pelvic thrusts as though to indicate what had just been going on in the bathroom. No lack of interest in procreation there, thought Chris. But then he was struck by something, a distant memory it felt like.
"Haven't I seen you before somewhere?" he said to the Panda.
The Panda stopped its pelvic thrusting and looked at Chris with its blank mask of a face. It held out its two front paws - hands - with the palms up, to indicate either that it did not understand the question or did not know the answer. Then with a wave it ran off after the Mounty into the main party room.
"Excuse me for a minute," said Chris to the people around him. He walked into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door behind him. It was the oddest bathroom he had ever been in - the floor was at a 45º angle. This made no sense, surely all the water would just drain out of the bath?
Chris climbed up to the sink, turned on the taps and splashed cold water on his face. The room straightened itself up a bit. He was not sure how long this moment would last, so he took the opportunity to relieve himself into the toilet bowl. A moment of slight lucidity returned and Chris wondered if he should try to leave the party and make his way back to his hotel. But he was in such a bad way that he feared what would happen once he got onto the street.
Wait! An idea suddenly came to him. He could ring Lotte. She would know what to do. He took his phone out but working it was impossible. Nothing he did with it could make anything happen. This was a bit annoying now.
He heard a barking noise from outside the bathroom. He went to the door and opened it and one of the corgis ran in and nipped at his ankles. The dog gave another bark and nudged his feet with its nose. It wanted him to rejoin the party. Chris could not really do anything else. He left the bathroom and went back to the room with the music. The corgi followed close behind.
The music was louder now. It seemed like a living thing, assaulting Chris, yet it was not unpleasant. And he felt that as well as hearing the music he could feel and see it. The other guests were dancing, but their gyrations reminded Chris more of trees swaying in the gusts of a storm more than people enjoying music.
Costas appeared almost as soon as Chris entered the room. He had two glasses of wine in his hand. He held one out to Chris.
"Julian. Here, have another drink."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea." While saying this Chris watched the corgi walk up the wall to join its fellow on top of the book case.
"It is a good idea. It's just what you need."
"It's just what I need." There really was no point in arguing. He took the glass and sipped some of the wine. It was good. It was just what he needed.
"There's something in the wine, isn't there?"
"What makes you think that?" said Costas. His skin was pulsating now, waves of movement coursing across his face. Chris found himself wondering what his naked body would look like.
"Everything is so strange."
"Everything is always strange, once you know how to look at it."
"I'm not sure it's always strange like this."
"It is for some people."
"There is something in the wine, isn't there?"
"Yes, there is something in the wine. There had to be."
"I'm not sure I like it." He had spotted that his own skin was pulsating now. At least on his hands. He suspected his face was, though Costas was too polite to mention it.
"Don't worry, we have our reasons. Just be careful of one thing - do you still have the memory stick?"
The memory stick! Chris had not thought of it an age. Did he still have it? He reached into
his back pocket and found that, yes, it was still there.
"I still have it. Do you want it?"
"No, not yet. I think now you should have some more food."
He was right, this was the most sensible of ideas. He made his way round the edge of the room to the table with the canapés, as the centre of the room where the others were dancing had transformed into a vortex into which he feared disappearance. The edges of the room, in contrast, had a reassuring stability. Or did until he reached the table with the canapés. The little food items were all running around the table and it was quite an effort to catch and eat them. It was only after he had scoffed quite a few that he remembered he was a vegetarian and started wondering whether eating mobile canapés was a betrayal of his principles.
Costas joined him again, once more accompanied by the woman in the very small dress. The dress was even smaller now and looked like it was barely containing her voluminous chest. Indeed, it looked like her breasts might pop out at any moment. She smiled at Chris.
"She is very grateful for everything you have done for us," said Costas, shouting above the noise of the music, which was very loud in this part of the room.
"Ah thanks," said Chris. He was not entirely clear on what exactly he was meant to have done for these people. Carrying the memory stick? That surely was not such a big deal? But he was happy to take any thanks going for it. Lord knows he never got enough of that in his everyday life.
"Perhaps you would like to go with her to a private room where she can show you some further gratitude?"
Chris had to turn this over in his head while Costas and the woman stared at him. Finally the penny dropped. He looked at the woman again. He realised now that it was not that the dress was getting smaller - she was getting bigger. Her expansion was checked only by the dress. If she were to pop out of it then nothing would stop her from filling up the room. Chris did not want this to happen.
"Ah no, I'm grand here… tell her thanks for the offer and everything, but I really must decline."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh yes, I'm sure."
"I don't really think so," he said, smiling politely at the woman, whose ever expanding face smiled back at him with a terrifying eagerness. "But you can say it to her if you like."
He hoped this polite turn of phrase would not constitute a binding contract. He notices the two corgis looking severely at him and wondered if he had made some terrible faux pas. Costas shouted into the ear of the woman. She leaned over towards Chris and pulled him down so she could kiss him on the cheek. He felt like he was being kissed by a horse. And then she was moving away into the crowd.
Chris did not want to chase the canapés any longer so he moved into where the people were dancing. The music swirled around him, a kaleidoscope of reds and yellows. The people danced with him, a manic dance of the damned. Dancing felt like a normal physical activity after everything that had been happening to him. Maybe he was getting his head together, shaking off the baleful influence of whatever was in the wine.
He thought this for a little while, but then the music changed into something more percussive. He felt now like it was literally punching him up and down the length and breadth of his body. It did not particularly hurt him as his body seemed now to be made of some kind of putty-like substance. In fact, it was not unpleasant. But it was changing his physical nature. He was no longer made of a solid putty-like substance, as he was changing into something more akin to jelly. He could feel the music breaking him down and dissolving him. Worse, he looked around the room and realised that the same thing was happening to the other party-goers. All, apart from Costas and the corgis, were melting into piles of jelly, shrinking down into the floor and merging into each other. Yet none of them seemed to be too concerned by it, continuing their desperate dancing as they lost all bodily cohesion and physical integrity.
He looked over at Costas for guidance. "What's happening?" he said, shouting as loud as he could to be heard over the infernal din. But Costas said nothing back, just looking back at him with an uncomprehending smile. Chris thought of asking the corgis for assistance, but it was too late. Everything went black around him as he became no more than a pool of goo on the floor, a pool of goo indistinguishable from and merged into the other pools that had once been the other party goers.
The story continues