Many, many years ago I decided to give up smoking. My smoking levels were high and definitely getting higher. If I could have only stayed at ‘a pack a day’ I’m sure I would never have noticed that I had a problem. However by the time I was on at least two packs a day I was beginning to understand that the addiction had a vice-like grip on me. I felt I had tried everything - except just giving up - and so finally decided on hypnotherapy. I can still see Mark’s quite large house with the upstairs room where he hypnotised me, but I have no real memory of the time scale it took for Mark’s ministrations to work. Despite being frequently hounded by almost uncontrollable cravings for a cigarette I had now gone several months without the dreaded weed being sucked through my slowly wrinkling lips.
During the time I had been attending his clinic, we seemed to have become friends and I had failed to notice we were slowly plunging into the worst time of the year for me - Christmas and New Year. The hypnotist, clearly a bon vivant, possessed the party personality in bucket loads. He had lots of friends, a stream of humorous anecdotes which always included an abundance of social events. He even knew the next door neighbours - on both sides - extremely well. There was always lots of laughing and waving when they saw each other. These were clearly party socialites and I should have recognised all the signs - but perhaps Mark had hypnotised me not to notice!
‘We’re having a New Year’s Eve Party, love for you to join us’, he said.
I am not a party-animal - never have been. Every ‘organised’ party that I have ever attended has left an indelible memory of my ineptness of working the room. I just freeze and a strong sense of dread descends and usually stays with me as I stiffly try to mingle. Conversely, put me in a get-together with a limited number whom I may never have met - and strangely my entertainment mode button decides to work. The biggest danger is that you just can’t shut me up. If participants decide they want to join in the ‘one woman show’ that I think I’m running, they are quite likely to end up looking like pet goldfish as their mouths open again and again but will never be allowed to say anything. I think the real fear is that someone might be so much funnier or possessed of far more charisma than I could ever hope for - and that little ray of limelight I will have worked so hard to nurture is irretrievably stolen from me.
But being unable to think of an acceptable excuse I went to Mark’s bloody party. The front door had a stunning rose gold ‘Christmas swag’ hanging as the central ornamentation and, once inside, I noticed that this decoration was repeated in unforgettable statement pieces throughout the whole elegantly decorated home. I looked anxiously around for a bell or a door knocker and failing to see one I squeezed my tightened knuckles through the expensive decoration, ignoring how exquisite it was or how much I was damaging it, and with my heart pounding in perfect time, I began knocking on the door. Through the heavily wooded front-door I could hear the noisy babble. I could almost feel the heat coming from the numerous bodies of the pleasure-seekers as they stood around in various huddles and groups. As I waited outside for the door to open the tranquility was frequently shattered by the sudden bursts of loud good-natured laughter. I suddenly noticed a very large bell to the left of the door. Anxiously my eyes darted towards the Christmas swag. It was no longer standing proud in the centre as it had been when I arrived - instead the damaged Christmas swag tipsily hung to the left of centre - not where it had started out - god let me run, let me hide, let it be the wrong house! But no! Mark’s wife answered the door and did that ghastly thing that all party hosts do - they actually look thrilled that you have arrived. ‘Mrs. Mark’ hugged me tightly whilst I, too overcome with images of the damaged Christmas swag, stood like a sack of potatoes until she let me go. She smiled reassuringly and handed me over to Mark who as Perfect Host grabbed my hand and led me into what was clearly the large family living-room containing a crowd of partiers, who were drinking, chatting, and laughing. Tables and sideboards were filled to excess with bottles and glasses of every description and as I glanced through into the kitchen I could see an enticing open buffet. Dotted round the room were little dishes containing various nibbles which so far appeared untouched. Everyone looked so comfortable to be at the party. I was seriously beginning to feel the rise of a mild panic attack and this was accompanied by a general damp feeling in a body area that I would have honestly preferred did not feel damp.
Mark, our perfect host, said ‘Let’s see, who don’t you know?’ ‘I don’t know one single person here’, I answered with a complete lack of enthusiasm. I knew from past experience, this was where Mark would take me to the only people in the room who were isolated and ignored by all others at the party. Once he had deposited me, my party associates and I would nervously cling to the wall of the darkest corner of the room and glower at all other invitees who, unlike us, had managed to completely enter into the party mode. We would look in wonderment at the other party attendees and merrymakers who were generously passing to each other a different topic, an anecdote, a joke, all without missing a beat. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Gauche and myself, within five minutes of each other’s company, would have exhausted all possible polite sentences and dried up - totally. There we would stand looking helplessly around for anyone kind enough to take pity and rescue us from each other.
‘Let me introduce you to Sarah’. He continued into the middle of the room. I noticed people occasionally turning and looking our way as I was frog-marched into the party. I began to feel I was at an identity parade and someone would shortly shout out something about the damaged Christmas swag. Mark stopped where a good-sized, happy-sounding throng were in mid-conversation. Sarah, clearly the lynch-pin of this happy group, was a few years older than myself. She was attractive, quite tall, slim and clearly a jolly-type. In short - the essential ingredient at any party. Unfortunately, she was also undeniably in demand. Just as we approached, Sarah turned her head and immediately started a highly animated conversation to her left. Mark the Perfect Host clearly needed to urgently off-load her onto me so that he could go and do things that Hosts do. He started tapping her on the arm and tried saying ‘Sarah’ but frequently only managed ‘Sa….’ ‘Sa….’ as the conversation she was engaged in became more and more animated. Mark, trying to appear as if nothing had gone wrong with the introduction, increased the pressure of his constant tapping on her arm with single-minded determination. ‘Sarah’, ‘Sa…’ This must have been his regular way of attracting Sarah’s attention because at no stage did she shake off his hand or divert her attention away from the amusing story being told. Taking pity on our Host who I observed seemed to be jumping from foot to foot, I decided to put him out of his discomfort.
‘She’s a very popular girl. Mark you’re busy, thanks so much but really I can take over from here. No problem at all’.
Could he actually hear my heart pounding? My face feigned innocence and I smiled sweetly as I gently shooed him away. I needed to urgently re-arrange my face so that the pain of smiling could subside. I stood in the middle of a room clearly with no-one to talk to. I must have looked as if I was in the queue for the loo, and desperately attempted to look nonchalant and unfazed, and not as if I was trying to break unsuccessfully into Sarah’s group.
Eventually Sarah turned round and saw me. She was clearly momentarily caught off-guard and looked as if I were an uninvited bug who had awkwardly landed nearby. It seemed obvious comparing myself - a nervous gawkish looking woman - to the ebullient crowd to her left, that I was the last person Sarah had thought of having to mix with. To prevent any delay where past experiences had taught me could end in awkward silence, I boldly put out my hand to shake hers (no I don’t know if this is what others do at parties, but I was doing it), and smiling (falsely), I said with confidence ‘Sarah’ (meaning, I know your name is Sarah because Mark has tried several times to get you to turn round and say hello). But would you believe it? The stupid woman said ‘Oh isn’t that funny. My name is Sarah too’. (My name isn’t Sarah.) I spent an interminable length of time whilst the woman discussed whether I spelt my name S A R A H or without the H or any other combination. Obviously if I were a party-goer I’d simply have said during the introductions, ‘No, no - your name is Sarah. My name is Stevie’ and we’d have laughed and hooted and hollered over the mistake. However, completely out of my depth at a party and finding myself easily flustered and uncomfortable, I failed to point out the error. Instead I continued to stand next to blabby Sarah, completely tongue-tied and peculiarly masquerading as someone called ‘Sarah’. Inside I was slowly dying and Sarah kept saying ‘Sarah’ far more times than was necessary. My head kept whirling round waiting for the Host to prance over and say ‘So you’ve met Stevie?’
Suddenly the nightmare grew legs and I found half the party attendees were trying to say hello to Sarah. No - not the real Sarah - the imposter Sarah, the Sarah who wasn’t Sarah. I suddenly found that the ‘Not-Sarah’ fan-club were chatty, amusing, easy mixers. These were the people I had always admired from afar. The whole group seemed to have things to say, places they had visited, opinions worth sharing, humorous personalities; in short, fascinating people. I quickly found there was no need to try and control the group - no, I just had to let these fabulous people make me feel relaxed and appreciate how to enjoy an evening at a party. Every time I opened my mouth they invariably roared with laughter, some were even patting me on the back and shoulders and encouraging me to say more. Other interesting-looking guests began surreptitiously breaking away from their groups and began to swell our huddle. ‘Sarah tell them that one again about the …..’ I had started to feel that I was the real Sarah. The rest of the evening was a social blur whilst I attempted to carry off the charade of being Sarah, desperately trying to ensure that Host Mark didn’t come anywhere near me and my ‘circle of friends’ and thus expose my deception.
So, at last, there I was at a party chatting, laughing with people and genuinely being the centrepiece with my new social acquaintances - albeit not as me - but as someone called Sarah. To finish off this wonderful evening I just needed to thank Sarah for introducing me to these amazing people - but she had long gone. Ah! there she was, looking over at us from her dark corner where she had been trying to chat to Mr and Mrs Gauche and - yes - glowering at our group!
Paul, one of group, speaking suitably quietly said: ‘Look at poor old Sarah over there - doesn’t look too happy does she?’
‘Why is she over there? I said.
‘That’ll be bloody Mark. He always invites a real dummy or two. You know - the sort who can’t mix and aren’t too much fun. Sarah is always chosen to make sure these people have a really great time. As we say ‘Mark the Perfect Host’.
I leant in conspiratorially towards Paul, and though I already knew the answer would be no, I asked: ‘Have you got a cigarette?’