Tonight he was going to face the world and actually leave the house. He was going to throw caution to the wind and take his rightful place in the sparkling, fashionable, heart-thumping life that he used to have. There would be no more watching through the windows, no more pressing his face against the glass and no more skulking away back to a life of suspicion and self-doubt. He walked along a tiled passageway and entered a dull hallway with low timber beams and a churchy smell of old wood and dust, through which rose the muted concord of party voices.
John checked his reflection in the hallway mirror, undid another shirt button and ruffled his hair so that his fringe stuck slightly upwards. He smiled at himself and assumed the expression he would use when confronted with a guest of the opposite sex. He winked, blew himself a kiss and took a large swig from his hip flask.
Then, as he swallowed the gag reflex, he shook his head and walked back the way he'd just come.
Perhaps it was a bad party, five or six people sat round the coffee table in silence, eating bread sticks out of cereal bowls and drinking beer from tumblers? Or maybe not. Probably not. The only thing he was sure of was that given the rather dramatic events of the last three months his confidence was still at an all time low and the thought of socialising again was terrifying.
Back home John spent the next hour finishing the remnants of a bottle of wine. He smoked, cleaned his shoes again and hummed along to a song he'd heard that same morning on the radio. For the moment it was all enough. Three fingers of whisky, four in the next glass, and then the rest straight from the bottle. Plenty.
He lay on his bed and regarded for a moment the circular damp that spread across the ceiling and the fading yellow paint that had started to fleck from around the lamp fitting. His head was spinning so he got up and went to the bathroom where he hung his head over the sink. He spat twice, decided he wasn't actually going to vomit and stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. He saw there a man who in less than six months would be twenty nine, a man who had never been in a relationship for more than six weeks and who's eyes were red from booze. After he'd splashed cold water on to his face he refocused on the room through the door behind him, which was well beyond the help of a simple coat of paint. He sat on the toilet and considered things, the last great argument with his father, the unfinished law degree and then the inevitable breakdown. Which is when he had his idea.
Dressed in the black suit he'd last worn at his father's funeral, with a white bow tie that he'd bought for his graduation day, he left the house and made his way back to the party. Fortified by wine, a pint of whisky and three Aspirin he knocked on the door. Somewhere in the back of his mind a little flag of self-doubt, edged with terror, began to flutter. The low hubbub dropped a key and then stopped, there was the faintest sound of something melodic and then a little ripple of laughter. John stood up straight and clasped his hands behind his back. The door opened and a girl stood with her arms outstretched like an Oscar winner.
"Ah, excellent," said the girl, "We've been wondering where you'd got to."
Before he even had the chance to reply she took his hand and pulled him into the busy room.
"If you could sort out the snacks and offer them around, then top up all the drinks before we cut the cake," she said.
"Happy to," John answered.
"There'll be more guests arriving soon so you can take their coats and hang them in the cloakroom I'd really appreciate it."
Before he could answer she'd disappeared in to the crowd. John watched her as she flitted around the room with a nervous little tinkling laugh.
Somebody knocked on the bathroom door and coughed, John flushed the toilet and opened the door to see a girl leaning against the wall. Her hair had fallen over one eye and her lipstick was smudged from the corner of her mouth almost to her cheek. She brushed quickly past him and shut the door with a slam. He straightened his bow tie and walked through an archway that he hoped would lead him to the kitchen. All around the room plates were piled high with tiny sausages and small square chunks of cheese. Skewers of roast beef and vegetables had been laid out in neat rows on large oval plates and a dozen bottles of wine stood next to a tray of empty glasses. He took one of the plates and went back into the party room.
The music had changed, something thumpy was playing and the volume had been turned up. John put the plate on his shoulder and held it underneath with his palm spread and his elbow bent, as a good waiter should. A group of four girls danced in a tight group, their arms flailing wildly around like palm leaves in a storm. Half of the food on the plate had been taken by now and John thought it best to head back to the kitchen to offer some wine to the guests. He tapped his foot to the beat of the music, one of the skewers slid off the plate and was quickly crushed by the spinning feet. He bent down to scrape it up but the plate slid off his hand and landed face down on the floor. Dizzy now from the effort (and the booze) he stumbled forwards and bumped into one of the girls.
There was little chance of retrieving the situation, and to John at that particular moment, no need. He kicked the plate to the edge of the room, undid his white bow-tie so it hung around his neck and threw off his jacket. There was nothing subtle about his dancing, he span around, ducked down, touched the floor and clapped his hands. He hurled his bow-tie on the floor, right into the middle of the group of girls. Now they had formed a circle around him, clapping, laughing and pointing in awe and admiration. He grabbed hold of the top of his shirt and ripped it downwards popping all the buttons. There was no need for a shirt by now anyway, he was a machine made purposely to dance.
The music pounded out of the expensive, invisible speakers, the beat and the volume becoming more addictive. It was too late to stop. He shook his bottom to the rhythm, spun around on one foot and wobbled his head until he felt dizzy. The entire crowd had formed a large circle around him now and he closed his eyes and laughed along with the sheer joy and recklessness of his freedom. The delicious music cursed and throbbed through every cell in his body. He imagined himself at the bow of a ship, leaning into the raging storm, gliding the currents of air above snowy peaks, and on horseback, charging along an empty beach as the waves washed over him. And he remembered the girl in the song that lived and danced in her bedroom. Now he understood her madness. Now he knew what it meant to 'dance like no one's watching'.
And then all of a sudden the song was over and the circle of people faded back into the room. He was spent.
He went to the toilet and wiped the syrupy sweat from his chest. He put his shirt back on and tucked it into his pants without doing up the remaining two buttons. His hair was matted to his forehead and his head was still spinning as he looked at himself in the mirror. In some indefinable way he felt different. He sat down on the floor and rested his back against the tiled wall.
There was a knock on the door. Time to leave.