“You know, I’m sure it’s bad luck to be grumpy at a party.”
Lisa looked up from her drink to the person who’d just spoken to her, but there was something about his smile that stopped her from just biting his head off. “Sorry. Not really in the party mood.”
“Then why are you here?”
Unlike most men he hadn’t taken the opportunity to sit down and slide close to her yet, and his respectful distance only endeared him more to her. “It’s New Year’s Eve. You’ve got to be at a party, haven’t you.”
“You think? I mean, it happens every year.”
“I know but… well, not being out on New Year’s Eve… that’s a sign you’re getting old isn’t it?”
That made him laugh, a soft genuine laugh, and Lisa blushed. It was a joke that all of her mates said, but none of them had ever actually found it funny. There was something about this man that intrigued her. Maybe it was his honest face, or his confident slouching pose, or the fact that he hadn't glanced at her chest once while talking to her. Whatever it was, she was beginning to think that this evening wasn’t going to be such a disaster after all.
“I’m Lisa,” she said, touching her chest as if she needed to indicate which ‘her’ she was talking about.
“Danny,” he replied, and actually put his hand out for her to shake. She blushed again as she took it and was suddenly glad that for the pub’s mood lighting. “May I?” He gestured at the seat next to her, lining the edge of the pub as the rest of the room had been cleared for dancing and general hi-jinx.
“Oh, of course.” Impeccable manners, or gay? She desperately hoped it was the first one, and she always felt bad when she assumed nice guys were gay. It was hard to fight the combined experiences of her and all her friends though.
“That always bugs me about New Year. Everyone saying it only happens once a year. I mean, so does every other day. Why not celebrate, I dunno, April 6th? Or August 21st? Why does everyone act as if it’s only January 1st that’s special?”
“Start of a new year I guess,” Lisa replied slowly. “Huh. I guess I hadn’t really thought of it like that.”
“Exactly! People put so much pressure on this one day being good, celebrating this one day as if nothing else matters, but there are so many other days we could celebrate as well. I mean, would you feel more like partying if there wasn’t such an expectation that you had fun tonight?”
“Maybe? I-” Now it was Lisa’s turn to laugh. “I dunno mate. I wasn’t expecting big philosophical questions when I came out this evening.”
“Oh, sorry. Don’t want to disturb your sulk.” Danny still had that smile on his lips, and he half-turned to leave. It might’ve just been part of the tease, but Lisa’s hand shot out and grabbed his arm. Just in case.
“No, it’s fine. Far more interesting than just getting drunk. I guess…” What did she guess? Trying to drag her brain out of its stupor- dull job, dull home life, duller family Christmas- she tried to find something that would impress this stranger. That seemed important for some reason, far more important than pleasing Auntie Joan with her terrible cooking had ever felt to her. “Well, we can’t really celebrate every day can we? So picking special dates, like the turn of the year, means that everyone’s celebrating at the same time. So we can do big parties like this.” At that she gestured around the room, although it was a poor showing. To everyone who was already drunk it was probably the best night ever. For her, still nursing her first pint, all she noticed were the half-deflated balloons, the sticking floor and the screeching of teenagers.
“Ah, now that’s the point,” Danny said with a sudden conspiratorial hush, before leaning over and fixing her gaze. “Why can’t we celebrate every day?”
“What?” A sudden wave of doubts flooded Lisa; was he just a stoned hippy, rather than… whatever she’d been hoping he was. A treacherous, yet surprising canny, part of brain supplied that answer soon enough. Salvation. A balm to the tedium of your life. The ‘one’, as Mum keeps saying.
“Not like this, of course.” Danny also gestured about the room, though with a less cynical expression than Lisa’s had been. “But why can’t we be grateful for every day. Why not treat ourselves every day, instead of just on our birthdays? Why must the week just be a slog to get to the weekend, when we feel we can actually live?”
It was a tempting view-point. Lisa couldn’t count the number of times she’d eyed up her favourite treats- baklava- in the shops but had then told herself that she couldn’t justify buying any. Does everything in life need to be justified? “It’s a nice idea… but how do you put it into practise? I mean, if you buy yourself cake every day you’ll just get fat.” As her mother kept pointing out that she was getting. The ‘thirty spread’ her mum called it, when your metabolism slowed and the terrible eating habits finally caught up. It didn’t matter how many times Lisa reminded her mum that she wasn’t quite thirty yet.
“But,” Danny said with a flash of smile and a wave of his hands, “you wouldn’t want cake every day. Anything you have every day becomes boring. So all you’re doing is having something for a bit, to make yourself feel good, and then going back to not having it, but without the yearning for it. Do you see?”
“I guess… It stills seems fairly idyllic to me. I mean, I have a job.” It was sounding more and more like Danny didn’t, and was just living off some fat inheritance or hedge fund. Only people like that could afford to think so naively. “And it’s a dull job. Certainly not something I want to celebrate.”
“Oh, tell me about it. My boss is so petty. I think she hates me because I smile all the time. But I don’t let that get to me. She doesn’t define me, and I won’t let her ruin my life. I won’t stay in the job forever after all, and she won’t either. Things will get better.”
That was a sudden change of pace, but Danny’s smile hadn’t faltered. Lisa just looked at him, trying to work out what he was on. “So, you’re happy every day, even though you hate your job?”
“Yes. Happiness is just a habit. As soon as you start being happy, it becomes easier to feel.”
“Pretty sure there are plenty of people who’ll disagree with you on that on.” Me, for a start.
“Oh, no. I’m not saying you can just think your way to happy, not if you’re like actually depressed or something. But for all the people who say they’re stressed, or tired all the time? How much of that is just unhappiness instead? If they focused on what was important, and let go of anything they didn’t need, like petty drama or unhelpful hangers-on, then I’m sure a lot more people would be far happier.”
Lisa took a long sip of her drink as thought that over. It was true really. There was nothing about her life that was bad, it was just dull. If she thought about it differently, would that be enough to get her to change what she did? If she just took pleasure from the little things she did, like cooking or walking, would that be enough to put a spark back in her life?
“Alright,” she said when she’d downed the drink. “Buy me another pint and you can tell me more.” It was a bold move, far bolder than her usual self was. But it was New Year’s Eve, and a night for doing crazy things. Besides, she had no idea where this man had come from, and she was damned if she was letting him out of her sight that quickly.
Lisa and Danny talked for hours, oblivious to the world around them unless a terrible song came on and they both cringed. When ‘Millennium’ played they both loudly complained that someone was a little late or far too early, before giggling to each other. The conversation started at happiness and spun its course across the whole of reality, taking in love lives, family, work, hobbies, and opinions of late night buses.
“See,” Danny said, “I know they’re useful, but they end up full of drunk people. At that point it’s more a vomitorium than a bus really isn’t it?”
At last midnight came. The room erupted into cries of ‘Happy New Year’ and there was a mad rush of people snogging and hugging. For a fleeting second Lisa thought about kissing Danny, but neither of them had drunk enough for that, so she left it, and regretted it the instant the moment had passed.
“Happy New Year,” she said instead, with a genuine smile on her face for the first time in months.
“Happy New Year,” he replied, and nothing else in the world mattered but that smile.
The pub kicked everyone out fairly quickly after that, and Lisa and Danny stood awkwardly on the pavement.
“How are you getting home?” he asked, ever the gentleman. And straight, or at least bi, as she’d found out from their discussion.
“Taxi. I’m quite a way from here. What about you?”
He gave a little chuckle and looked at her sheepishly. “Bus.”
“Vomitorium, you mean?” she said with a grin.
“I hope not, but it’s not looking good,” he said as he surveyed the crowds around them. “Here, text me when you get home. Just to make sure you get back okay.” And he pulled out his phone and held it out for her to put her number in.
For the first time in her life Lisa entered her number without hesitation, without even considering using a fake one, even going so far as to call her phone straight away to get his number back. “Done. And… well, do you want to get a drink again, sometime? Celebrate another day?” No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make it sound carefree, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“I’d like that. I’m free most evenings next week, if you want?”
“That sounds good. I’ll text you.” And then, because she feared if she stayed she wouldn’t go back to her own house that night, she turned and walked away, waving at him over her shoulder. When she reached the taxi rank he’d started walking off, to the bus that was just pulling in, but he still turned to wave her off, one last time.
After she’d given her address to the cabbie Lisa slumped into the seat. A sparkling, happy new world was opening up before her. “Happy New Year,” she muttered to herself as the lights flashed past the window.
New Year’s Eve, and Lisa didn’t want to get out of bed. For the whole of December it had felt as though this day was looming over her, and everyone kept telling her that it wouldn’t be that bad when she got there. But it was, and now all she wanted to do was sleep- and maybe drink- until it went away again.
That night a year ago she had texted Danny when she got home, and then fallen into a soppy, love-drunk (and actually tipsy) sleep. But when she’d woken the next day there was no return text from Danny. Try as she might she couldn’t get it from her mind, but she resisted the urge to text him again until the next week, to organise that drink that they’d mentioned.
Still no response.
Each week, without fail, she’d text him and get only silence back. All the good intentions she’d had on that evening fell to the wayside, and she was even more grumpy and sullen than before. It hit its peak at Valentine’s Day, when she finally got completely wasted and blurted everything out to Gemma.
“Men,” Gemma had said sadly. “Don’t waste your time on him. Move on with your life.”
“But he was perfect,” Lisa had groaned into her wine glass.
“If he was perfect he’d have replied.”
And so the rest of the year Lisa had done her best to forget Danny. But it was hard, despite the fact that she’d only known him a few hours. It had been the most open conversation she’d had for years- no expectations, no history, nothing. Each of them could say whatever they wanted without repercussions. Or so Lisa had thought. Now though she was feeling the weight of loss every day, and the worst part was that she had no idea why he’d ghosted her.
Her phone rang and Lisa groaned, but after the fifth ring she answered it. “What?”
“Come on hun,” came Gemma’s voice. “You can’t keep this up. Get ready, I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
“New Year’s Eve party.”
“No way,” and Lisa hung up and tossed the phone away.
An hour later Gemma was hammering on her door, and the only way to shut her up was to let her in. From there fighting her off was a loosing battle, and soon enough Lisa was dressed and being dragged out. She only started paying attention when she saw which pub Gemma had brought her to.
“Come on. If he’s here you have it out with him. If he’s not you let go and move on. I can’t have you sulking like this for another damn year.” And with that Gemma disappeared inside.
There was a temptation to just leave, to hail the nearest cab and go back home. But then she’d never know if he’d been there, the same pub they'd met in a year ago, and what might’ve happened. This year of not knowing was bad enough; she couldn’t face a lifetime of it.
Lisa had expected to see Danny the minute she walked in, but of course that didn’t happen. It was still fairly early in the evening, so the crowds were minimal for now, and she could make out Gemma at the bar getting the first round in. For something to do Lisa started walking around, peering into every nook and corner, wanting to see Danny’s smile there, fearing to see it.
Her traipsing brought her round to the side of the bar, where there was a large notice board with black edging. For New Year decorations it looked very sombre, and for a moment she thought it was left over from Halloween.
“What’s this then?” Gemma asked as she came up and shoved a pint into Lisa’s hand.
“A memorial,” Lisa read. “There was a bus accident, last year. Two buses went into each other, just outside the pub. A whole bunch of people died.” The board had newspaper clippings from the event, as well as a few personal notes from people who’d known the victims. Quite a lot had been regulars, it seemed, leaving after a party-
“Ooo, ouch,” Gemma hissed. “Come on. Let’s go have fun, hey? Think you deserve a bit of that.”
Gemma tried to take her arm, but Lisa couldn’t move. “It’s him.”
“Danny.” And Lisa reached up and stroked his picture on the wall. She’d recognise that smile anywhere. The smile she didn’t kiss.
“Oh…” Gemma swore, but for Lisa a weight was lifted.
The bus he’d gotten on, just after waving goodbye, was in the crash. Half a dozen people had died, including him. It wasn’t that he ghosted her, or had forgotten about her, or didn’t care. He just wasn’t there any more.
“Lisa.” Gemma’s hand was warm on her shoulder. “Are you alright?”
A million opportunities had been stolen, and now Lisa would never know if Danny had been the ‘one’ for her.
But at least she knew what to do now.
She had to live by his philosophy, and make the world a happier place. Whether it wanted it or not.
With tears down her face, but the first and last smile of the year on her lips, Lisa looked at Gemma. “Yes. I’ll be fine. I’ll be happy.”