There’s the sliver of a new moon hanging in the sky as I wait for the bus to take me to the shop wake. Sorry, closing down party. It’s bitterly cold and there’s that dirty red smudge on the edge of the horizon you get when the sun’s just gone down in a heavily polluted city. In my mind I’m playing a film of a fantasy party. I know I am too old to have this kind of thing running in my head but what can I do? There it is. There’s music I like, people I like. It’s all warm and friendly and I am pleasantly pissed and people are dancing. Actually it’s a scene from Strictly Ballroom. The truth is parties have never really been my kind of thing. In thirty minutes, I think, I am going to be looking down at a cheese ball and a twiglet.
In thirty minutes I am in fact looking down at other delicacies. I wonder what will happen to my digestive system if I eat one mini sausage roll, one samosa, one pringle, one mini blueberry muffin and a chocolate chip cookie and then swill it all down with a plastic cup of warm, sweet, white wine. Conversation isn’t exactly bounding along. Oh well, here goes. A man I don’t know hands me a samosa. They are warm, he says. I know they can’t be unless someone has sat on them or tucked them under their armpit. I bite into it and it’s cold, cold, cold. Colder than my warm sweet white wine. I eat it and then surreptitiously wipe my hand on my trousers. In silence he hands me a napkin. I struggle to make conversation with him. I ask. He replies. I ask. He… Oh for God’s sake. He is not a man who will ever ask me a single question. Ever. If I go on strike we’ll just be standing here in silence. I feel resentful. I hear my partner’s voice (in my head), ‘Move.’ Ah yes, of course, I can move. But there’s not much space. I have to stop myself turning my back on everyone and seeking solace by looking at the bookshelves. I think we would all be a lot happier if we could do that. Instead we are forced to look at each other which is traumatic. Gathered together we’re quite an odd lot. And I include myself in that description.
Finally someone from head office gives a rather emotional speech. The shop has raised a startling amount of money since it first opened. I feel proud to have been a part of it. I actually have warm and sad feelings. There is sporadic applause for different reasons. Then the speeches are over and I do move. Another man asks me what’s in the samosas. ‘No idea,’ I say. ‘You don’t know?’ he says, as if this is the most extraordinary thing he’s ever heard. I want to be rude. ‘You eat it and tell me,’ I say, a shade aggressively.
Shortly afterwards I kiss the people I know goodbye and leave.
On the bus on the way home I am beginning to experience what happens when you eat a mini sausage roll, one samosa, one pringle, one mini blueberry muffin and a chocolate chip cookie and swill it down with a plastic cup of warm sweet white wine. For a moment I become paranoid that everyone on the top of the bus is a young man in a hoodie with evil intentions. I imagine them all turning towards me with blood dripping from their vampiric fangs and bursting into a rather cramped version of Thriller. Then it dawns on me I’ve got indigestion and they’re just trying to keep their heads warm. Good idea, I think, and decide to join them by pulling up the hood of my parka. I pick up a paper and leaf through it. A headline catches my attention:
BOOK COLLECTOR KILLED BY FIRE AT HOME
A neighbour said: ‘He was the nicest, most friendly guy you would ever meet… It really was a gift to get to meet a man who was so knowledgeable, intelligent and friendly.’
A London Fire Brigade source confirmed the flat was filled with ‘huge amounts of books and paper.’
I spend the rest of the journey contemplating the contents of the home I am returning to.