Last New Year’s Eve I celebrated the occasion with a group of friends in central London. We all agreed to meet up at Bar Italia for a civilised coffee and a flaming Sambuca before progressing round the bars and clubs of the West End. The rain that was forecast never arrived and it was mild evening for late December. Late night revellers arrived by underground hoping to see out the old year in style. Shoals of bright young creatures swam down busy the streets of Soho on a rolling tide of alcohol and gay abandon. It had been a tough year and we we’d all dressed up in our finest attire: dry-cleaned jackets accompanied silver lamé dresses, shiny patent leather Oxfords rubbed alongside killer heals, feather boas jostled with faux furs, sparkling sequinned party frocks colliding with tailored shirts and glinting cuff-links, and sheer diaphanous scarves entwined around silk bow-ties.
Protective masks, in evidence earlier that night, were absent by eleven o’clock; most of our faces were exposed to the mercy of strangers and friends alike. As the last hour unravelled our nostrils and mouths inhaled the city’s raw street atmosphere; a heady cocktail of sweet e-juice vapours and acrid barbecue-charred chicken smoke mixed with clouds of exhaust from chugging taxis that meandered amongst us, like blue whales straining krill through their baleen plates.
I was by myself last December after the collapse of my marriage eight months before. Rob and Carrie had invited me along weeks ago and when I didn’t respond they promised to drag me out tonight come-what-may. My friends were all coupled-up for the evening, except for Penny with the green eyes, of course. She was Carrie’s old college pal and only in London for the weekend before returning to Devon. We’d both arrived at different times and Rob had made a point of letting me know all about her. He’d pointed Penny out amongst our number and nudged me as if to say, ‘So what do you think?’ I remember smiling, rolling my eyes and didn’t express an opinion either way; after all she was wearing a PPE mask over her face.
I moved the conversation in a different direction and considered Rob’s enthusiastic response. He was happy to hold court and during the course of the exchange, I glanced back to catch sight of Penny again. She was chatting with Carrie amongst an animated crowd of her friends. Somebody had said something funny and the whole group collapsed in hysterics. Penny raised her hand to her face as she laughed behind her paper veil. It was then that she raised her head and peaked in my direction for the first time. Her irises were pure turquoise and jewel-like with a clarity that I struggled to compare in that instance, but reminded me of the shallow waters lapping on the deserted shores of the Outer Hebrides; childhood holidays on unspoiled beaches.
A brief moment passed between us that could have been a minute or even an hour. I recall that Rob’s voice trailed off into a distant echo and I was uncertain about my footing. Despite a long evening in Rob’s hearty company, I wasn’t worse for wear at this point. It was a though I’d been drawn into a whirling vortex and then a juggernaut had hurtled through the room and I’d staggered in its wake.
“One more for the road, old chap,” Rob said, wrapping his beefy arm around my shoulder to steady me and clinking my empty glass.
“What? Oh, yeah,” I said, recovering my senses. “It’s my shout, Rob.”
“That’s more like it,” he said to a resounding cheer from our drinking buddies.
“Same all round, lads?”
“Yeah!” they said, raising their glasses. No doubts on that score.
“Keep up, matey,” said Rob, “or they’ll think you’ve joined the ladies team.”
Penny was Carrie’s bridesmaid at their wedding and they’d been best friends for ten years. She’d had a rough time with her husband before their divorce and fled the city to be near her family in the South-West. He’d been a commodity trader who’d developed a gambling habit; he was broke, threatened by loan sharks and fearful for his life when he cleared out their joint account. She left him before he could do any more damage and never looked back.
Back in her home town, Penny got work as a keyworker at a rehab centre and raised enough money to pay a house deposit and get back on the property ladder. It took about four years, but at last she got her life back in balance; then the pandemic arrived. It was a distant rumour at first, an Asian problem and very far away, however soon enough it swept west and ripped through Devon like a hurricane from hell. The virus affected all of Penny’s family members and she’d been fortunate not to contract it. Her father spent three months on a ventilator and her mother recovered but has all the symptoms of long Covid; her smell and taste haven’t returned. Rob told me that Penny still has nightmares about the virus. He reckoned she’d be the last to abandon her face protection this evening.
It’s always a dilemma on New Year’s Eve; do you stay where you are when you have a seat and good company? Or do you seek alternative arrangements and risk not being admitted due to the crowd regulations? In balance, we were fine here. It was well ventilated and we weren’t too cramped for space. The other advantage was that our host and his bar staff were welcoming and no doubt would carry on keeping us all in good spirits after the midnight hour.
Rob helped me deliver the twelve assorted drinks from the bar back to our crowd. He reckoned we should sit it out here and watch the celebrations on the TV above the bar. I knew it was a sensible suggestion but it seemed a shame to have waded our way to central London to soak up the atmosphere and the not witness the firework display on the embankment.
I put forward the available options to our assembled group as we handed out the round of drinks. Everybody liked the idea of moving on, but they were uncertain about the practicalities; how long would it take to get to the river? Could we get a good vantage point at this stage of the night? Would we get split up and have problems returning home?
Rob listened to my case for venturing forth, however he outlined the advantages of remaining here and enjoying the benefits of our current situation. A serious discussion ensued and the eventual outcome was unanimous; the five couples all agreed to stay here. It was easy. We all had seats, we could order local taxis to take us home and our host had promised to provide platters of delicious snacks and seasonal fare for his customers, on the house. The time was now fifteen minutes to midnight and only very soon we’d leave the year behind. Rob called for more drinks and our host set about refilling the glasses and circulating toothsome morsels to satisfy our rumbling stomachs.
Penny had remained silent behind her PPE mask and leaned toward me.
“I’ve got to get some air,” she said, “It’s been a long day.”
“Have you pre-booked a taxi or are you taking a chance?”
“I fancy taking the scenic route to the taxi rank at the river.”
“We could see the fireworks while you wait for a cab, perhaps?”
“I’d appreciate the company and I’d love to see the show for real.”
Neither Rob nor Carrie seemed surprised when I wished everyone goodnight and disappeared into the crowded streets with Penny. We had less than a quarter of an hour to shuffle past the thronging masses and squeeze our way down to the embankment. We caught the tail end of the music playing on the south bank and the encountered the full ten-second countdown in Parliament Square. At the climax, the bell at the Houses of Parliament struck twelve o’clock and a thunderous series of chimes peeled out across the city.
“Happy New Year,” said Penny, “And thank you for escorting me.”
“Happy New Year,” I said. “It’s always worth while making the effort.”
The crowd cheered and everyone crossed their arms, linked hands and joined with their immediate neighbours in singing the words to, ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Well, I’m not certain if everyone knows the words to the song, but anyway it was an excuse to partake in mass bonhomie and cast asunder the previous year and all its awful memories.
Penny was fortunate to grab a taxi soon after the countdown. My night ended at the point she removed her mask and kissed my cheek. The driver set off into the stream of North bound traffic and she departed with a little wave of her pale hand.
This year Rob and Carrie invited me to join them again on New Year’s eve in Soho. I’m looking forward to the night and hoping the restrictions on gathering won’t be too severe. Nobody knows what lies in store for next year, and who knows what lies in wait for all of us?