Monday 30 December 2019

The Big Let Down (or, why I hate New Year’s)

*Disclaimer – all the stories that follow are based on my flawed and subjective memory. So please bear that in my mind if you were present for any of those moments and they don’t ring 100% accurate to your recollection. I can’t help that, none of us can.

** Another disclaimer – all of these stories, in some manner or another, involve drinking. But given that the context of them is New Year’s, this shouldn’t be a concern.

The Beginning

               When it comes to New Year’s Eve, I just can’t be arsed. Not this New Year’s specifically, I mean all of them. No matter where I am, what I’m doing or who I’m with. I realise that this sounds rather bleak, but bear with me. It’s the expectation that gets me down. There’s all this build up to… nothing. I mean, nothing. Best case scenario is that you’ve had enough fun that you’ve got messed up in some manner, and let’s face it, there are consequences to doing that that nobody enjoys.

                The first time I really became aware of my hate-hate relationship with the last day of the year and the first day of the next was the Millennium. I was 15 at the turn of the century, and I remember being sat around the living room, all dressed up with a white feather boa, waiting for midnight to hit, along with the much-anticipated apocalypse. The Millennium Bug was all anyone could talk about. Because when they were designing computers only a few decades before, working out how they might calculate dates past the current century was deemed to be ‘some future fucker’s problem’ and everyone panicked as the landmark date approached. The threat seemed to be that all computers would believe it to be 1900 instead of 2000, and there would be dramatic consequences; planes could fall from the sky, caught in a paradox because suddenly, according to their on-board computers, it was 1900 and they technically hadn’t been invented yet. Of course, the fear of this bug, and the threat of its consequences, meant that everybody worked very hard to ensure that it was fixed. This didn’t stop Tomorrow’s World taking over the television as they had Peter Snow stand in front of a lit up-map of the world, ready to report the disasters as they occurred. Of course, nothing actually happened, and he just stood in front of this map, occasionally gesturing when somebody threw him the odd bone along the lines of ‘a toaster in Devon stopped working, although this was later found to be a blown fuse.’ I think the worst that happened was a shipment of corned beef was mis-labelled and they had to dispose of it. I don’t even know whether that’s true.

                I have odds and ends of New Year’s memories before this, but this one was the first one to really stand out, and with it the lingering sense of boredom at nothing happening despite a hyperbolic build up. When thinking about my ambivalence toward this ancient ritual, a few particular memories come to mind, that I will share with you now to further contextualise my negative nelly outlook on the topic.

The Surgery

              When I was a kid growing up in the Shire (Staffordshire, I mean. And yes, unless you’re from there, you’ve probably never heard of it) the only pub/ club that fit the purposes of my odd yet hilarious (or so we reckoned) little clique was a place called The Surgery. The Surgery got its name from its association to the man known as Britain’s first serial killer – William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner. He was a doctor back in mid-1800’s who got into money trouble and proceeded to set about killing various friends and family members in an attempt to claim their gambling wins and life insurance. He was thought to have killed upwards of 13 people and was hanged at Stafford prison. 

            This building was, allegedly, the location of his medical practice. It was an odd place, with a twisty staircase, yellow walls, and a painting of Dr Palmer himself on the walls of the first-floor hallway. It was purported to be quite haunted, and there were rumoured to be hidden tunnels to Stafford Castle beneath the building. Because, apparently, the legend of a serial killer was not enough mystique in and of itself. We’d been going there for longer than we’d been old enough to drink. But the whole idea of underage drinking and prevention thereof was somewhat less enforced back in those days. The most effective way I’d found to get past Bouncers during this period was to wrap myself around a young man who was at least old enough to have an ID, fake or otherwise, if not yet old enough to grow a beard.

                The place certainly felt haunted at points, but I was never sure whether this was due to anything paranormal or the large amounts of absinthe we tended to consume. I had many a good night in there, on one occasion leaving with my corset on backward, which is usually an indication of a fun time, if not an altogether a classy look.

                The New Year’s I remember spending in here was the end of 2003, nearly a full year on from the devastating breakup from my first love (in retrospect, he was an asshat, but 17 going on 18 year olds aren’t really renowned for their great skills of perception or decision making). But he was at least interesting, and we had some interesting times together. It was a chance for our gang to catch up, being that we were home for the holidays from our respective Unis. Despite many nights in The Surgery being awesome, this one was cursed by the inevitable let down that is New Year’s.

                We danced the night away, to Green Day and Korn and whoever else they played in that murky little home for alternative teens. Dancing always took place in the smoky upstairs room. It was mostly impossible to see in there, but I always had a feeling that this was for the best. As midnight crept up on us, we did the countdown and celebrated accordingly, only to be told moments later that the clock they were looking at was fast, and they we were pretty sure it was still only ten to midnight. So we did the countdown again. This was in the days before everyone was tied to their phones (although, yes, we did have them, but we had to set the time by hand, rather than being able to rely on our Apple Overlords) We celebrated New Years at least twice, possibly three times.

                As the night got later our feet started to ache under the strain of too-high heels, so we kicked them off and continued to dance away… until my best friend’s dad arrived to take us home (or me to their home, because they were based in town rather than out in The Village like me) We then did that vague performance of pretending that we weren’t at all drunk, which probably resulted in us seeming more drunk than we actually were. Our smiles a bit too forced, our voices a bit too loud, our breath stinking of aniseed.

                When we arrived, my bessie’s mum made foot baths for each of us, because our feet were more than a bit ruined. I remember sitting there, soaking away, occasionally pulling out a small sliver of broken glass from the soles of my feet, sipping tea, thinking, yeah, this is New Year’s – everything just a little bit worse somehow than a normal night out. Who celebrates New Year’s more than once in the same half hour period?

Southern Lands

                I once had a boyfriend from the South. I don’t mean the Londoner, I mean before that, and I mean really South; those distant fairy lands from which vowel sounds I cannot produce hail. His family were quite wealthy (his father being a self-made businessman) and at the end of our first year together, we decided that I would join them for New Year’s. Their house was epic, unlike anything I’d really seen before, rooms for days, even a bar, and everything just dripped of affluence, but in that casual, unappreciated way. This was a stark departure from my experience of home and family, and it all served to create for me an unsettling mixture of excitement, intimidation, and a feeling of just not-quite-being good enough. Although, in retrospect, it wasn’t the place or the money that made me feel less than, it was the relationship and the way his family responded to me. His father was a smart man but a bully, too. He bullied his son, mostly, but his two daughters were the apple of his eye and could do no wrong, as a result, they, or the eldest one, at least, followed suit in the family bullying tradition. His mother, on the other hand, was an incredibly kind woman, and the sweetness I saw in my boyfriend definitely came from her, but the power of his father’s rebukes and opinions were always a sticking point.

                His father bullied me, with comments about my weight (I was going through a tubby phase, my weight destined to swing up and down presumably for the rest of my life depending on external factors, general consumption and age) and my commonness, and these would rankle under his son’s skin and he’d lash out at me with his own regurgitated comments and criticisms. This made me feel bad about myself and was certainly responsible for a crack that would become one of the reasons we fell apart. But his dad also triggered another response in me, a kind of rebellious, ‘c’mon son, you think you’re better than me, then bring it’. This came out in weird ways, like getting excessively competitive at chess, or, on one occasion, when this man condescendingly insisted that my belief that I could tell single malt whisky from blended was nonsense, I demanded to take a blind taste test to prove otherwise (which I absolutely won every time. And had the delightful side effect of allowing me to work my way through a number of whiskies I certainly couldn’t afford to try otherwise). I have lots of stories from the times I spent down Saarf with them, during the 18 or so months we were together, but for the sake of not being too much of a dick talking about people who are still, I’m sure, around, albeit anonymous in this retelling, I’ll restrain myself from elaborating further.

                Anyway, the memory of that New Year’s epitomises everything that felt off about the whole situation. I felt out of place. We sat in the giant living room, me and him on one leather sofa, his parents somewhere off in the far distance on another leather sofa, sipping fizzy wine (not actually champagne, if I recall correctly. Maybe the alcohol served was calculated in line with the calibre of guest, and I’m pretty sure that the sensitive middle child and his dumpy, common girlfriend didn’t qualify as top fizz material) while watching Jools Holland play in the New Year. His dad also periodically blasted out Tina Turner on his new Bose speakers (‘do you hear the sound quality? Do you hear it?! Hang on, I’ll play that bass-y intro to that one song again for the thirtieth time’… okay, I may have paraphrased slightly). Even then, part of me knew this was all terribly unsustainable, despite that relationship limping along for another eleven months after that moment. I silently raised a glass to another awkward, unfulfilling start to a new year.

Home sweet not so much

               Okay, so, the New Year’s after that separation was another weird one. We’d remained living together but I’d finally made the call to move out and back into student halls the following January. I should’ve made this call a lot sooner, but I’d somehow convinced myself that still living in my ex’s house was better than living with strangers. I think on some level I was seeking to avoid what I felt was my failure, as opposed to the natural consequence of a relationship between two people who just fundamentally misunderstood each other on every level. I think the final straw was waking up in the middle of the night to the fire alarm blaring and coming downstairs to find my ex drunkenly cooking, sorry, burning bacon in chilli oil, which created a caustic smoke, and the reveal that he’d consumed most of my bottle of Glenmorangie Portwood finish during his bender. An inexcusable act that angers me to this day, the dude was happy enough drinking VK Oranges so there was no way that wasn’t an intentional act of spite. 

                I went home for Christmas and tried to pretend that I wasn’t as utterly lost as I was. We went to three New Year’s parties that year. The first one was hosted by my dad’s cousins, which was nice but mildly awkward because we saw so little of that side of the family that my second cousins appeared to me like strangers despite the vague sense of familiarity. On the way to that first one, we called in at our next-door neighbours, who were having their own party. They had a karaoke machine which I steadfastly ignored at this stage, with a scoffing sigh of ‘I don’t DO karaoke’ (read: I’m terrified of singing in public), but these words would come back to haunt me soon enough.

                We saw in the actual New Year’s at one of childhood friend’s houses. Her parents were separating at the time, in a very respectful and sensitive manner from what I recall, and they decided to host one last hootenanny to say goodbye to the gorgeous old farm house they had shared. I was in awe of that house, it was so beautiful, and to this day part of me wants to end up in living in a home as charming as that. My friend’s older brother and his band played in the New Year with Fell in Love with a Girl by The White Stripes, and I smiled awkwardly as my brain recalled that time when I was 11ish, maybe 12, when the poor lad had accidentally walked in on me changing and I was mortified at the thought of flashing a boy at a point when I was having all sorts of anxiety over my changing body. He laughed it off as though it was the most innocent thing in the world. Which it absolutely was, the dude was only treated to an eyeful of puppy-fat belly and most definitely nothing that could be considered boobs. I was a kid to him, and standing there at that party, at 20, I realised that on some level I was still that embarrassed 11 year old, despite having boobs.

                On our way home from that party, we called back into the next-door neighbour’s shindig, where many more hours of drinking and too many microphones had led to that party becoming far more lit than when we’d left. My resounding memory of it was hanging out in the kitchen, singing The Police greatest hits into the mic and slapping anyone who tried to take it away (‘woooo-oooo, I’m AN alIEN, I’m a… FUCK off! I’m a Legal alIEN, I’m an Englishman in New YOOOORK…) And then I came across a bottle with Greek letters and a picture of the Mediterranean Sea on it.

                Needless to say, my dad had to carry me home. At least it was only the distance of a grassy bank and the top of the drive. I remember waking my sister up by holding the side of her bunkbed (we didn’t share a room, she had one of those bunk-beds-but-not with a space underneath for ‘activities’) and swinging back and forth off it, declaring that I had important secrets to tell her. Again, I’ll just point out here that I was 20. Inevitably, at some point I raised both my arms in the air at the same time but neglected to stop swinging back and forth and smashed into the far wall before I could reveal my, no doubt, world-changing secrets.

                The following day was a mirage of pain. I didn’t get out of bed for the entire time, except to pee or throw up. My mum later told me she found a trail of Quality Streets that led from the front door, up the stairs, and stopped abruptly at my bedroom door. All orangey ones, which assured me that I have a keen sense of awareness even when blackout drunk. Ouzo is a hell of a drink. I later learned that, because of the high alcohol content, it lines your stomach walls and takes time to leave your system. Which explained why even drinking water that day occasionally gave me the whirling pits (as my mother called them) all over again.

                That night, I ate mum’s special New Year’s roast dinner in bed, propped up, watching Rolf Harris paint an awkward grinning picture of the Queen. Rolf would enjoy a few years of continued status as a beloved TV veteran until he fell from grace when it was revealed that he was a prolific paedophile, along with a large proportion of BCC light entertainers from our childhood. This isn’t relevant to that day, just a bizarre addendum that only serves to enhance the gloom and absurdness of that particular memory in retrospect.

The many, many good ones in spite of

                There were many years during my 20’s where I experienced what I suspect may turn out to be the closest I’ll ever have to a fun New Year’s. These were the ones spent with my friends and then-partner in Huddersfield. But even though these gatherings would follow the same format of our usual ones: chaotic, drunkardly and noisy, they were always somehow slightly less fun than all the other birthdays, Halloweens, BBQs and just generally ‘let’s get messy cos we can’ parties. Parties that were given excuses to exist from the flimsiest of observations ‘it’s a hat wearing party! Because, y’know, about two thirds of us… are wearing hats?’ I don’t know why this was, all of the right elements were there, but again, I think it always boils down to expectation and adrenaline. We set ourselves up for a climax that never manages to pay off, because everything is the same as it always was, even if the same is pretty darn nice.

                Maybe it’s because my recollection is that if there were any minor conflicts or dramas to play out, they would somehow always erupt on this special date. Potentially it’s the proximity of this day to Christmas that drives part of the fall out; days spent on the up-down of family interaction can take its toll on even the most stoic of us. Or maybe it’s because it goes on for ages, you’re too excited not to start drinking way too early, but you need to keep your enthusiasm up until the magic moment of midnight – at which point you inevitably double-down on the excess. Then you belt out the only two lines of Auld Lang Syne anyone knows, and you ask your host if you could maybe put on Jools Holland because you grew up watching it and you secretly love it, but they point out that it’s a party and that’s an insanely bad thing to do - to drop the energy in the room like that, and you reluctantly agree and pretend you weren’t even that bothered in the first place. Or maybe that’s just me.

                There were also years when my gorgeous Polish friend had some of her family and friends present, and they would shout at us to drink more and more and more shots (I asked my friend what they were saying in Polish once and she said it was basically ‘you drink with us, or fuck you!’ Whether or not this was true, I didn’t dare argue) until I’d find myself mumbling quietly to a potted plant that I believed to be my sister that not being brought up in a post-Soviet allied country means I haven’t developed a constitutional tolerance to vodka. Or words to that effect.

                My mate, S, and I play this game where you have to be the first one to say: ‘pinch punch first of the month’. I’ll explain the rules, okay, the first one to say it - wins. Did you follow that? We didn’t always do this, S used to do this with our other good friend, also an S, who died from cancer in 2008. She was only 32. The remaining S and I kept doing this because it was a way to stay connected to her and to each other. We do it to this day, although new rules have been added to compensate for the fact that I currently live anywhere between 11 to 13 hours in the future, depending on the time of year. At New Year’s, I would pretty much always forget. Despite it being the biggest first days of any month. S remembered, usually, just at the moment when everyone was hugging and kissing each other, I’d give him a massive hug and he’d whisper: ‘Pinch punch first of the month – you Bitch!’ and I’d push him away with ‘oh, you fucking arsehole…!’ But sometimes it would be well into the following day, longer than 12 hours later, if we were still at the after party or a re-gathering to watch films and eat KFC, before he’d jab me in the arm and mutter ‘oh, shit, yeah, pinch punch… you Bitch.’

                These New Years were the best so far, but no matter what, they were always tainted by my ongoing general dissatisfaction with the whole experience.

The Dry Party

               When my ex and I landed in New Zealand after nine crazy months of living and working in Vietnam, it was like hitting the floor after a free fall parachute dive. I’ve never done this, but it felt like how I would imagine that to feel, metaphorically speaking. We’d been moving at such a pace, to suddenly enter a land where there was no haste at all, for anything, was joyful yet disorienting and jarring. I remember the first night, lying there in my partner’s arms, wide awake, staring at the blinds and marvelling at the silence ringing in my ears. How was it possible for any place to be so silent?

                We arrived in Christchurch where we had rented a villa, and stayed there for a full month over Christmas and New Year. And that New Year’s was another one for the abstract books. Knowing nobody, we figured we’d check out whatever local activities were going on, and so, after a trip to one of the only two real pubs in the area, we went to the party in the park. But this was... a dry party. No alcohol allowed. Obviously, both being habitual risk takers in our own ways, we immediately took the precaution of secreting a small bottle of whisky about my person.

                We got lost on the way to the park, and it turned out we went in the back way and had to trawl through a large wooded area in total darkness to find our way to the event. Even though it was pitch black, neither of us were remotely concerned. A fortnight into living here and we could already tell that it was not only safer than where we’d just been, it was safer than anywhere either of us had ever lived. Torches in hand, we were completely unperturbed by our visionless amble.

                We’d left it as late as possible to arrive, knowing that we would be away from booze for an as-yet undetermined period, which neither of us was looking forward to – who wants to be surrounded by strangers without a drink in hand to abate your social anxiety? We’d eaten a massive curry (which for me included a chocolate naan) barely an hour and half before, and yet, this waiting with nothing to drink quickly led to us looking for something to spend money on and distract ourselves with. The coffee stalls, all three of them, were sold out. Without the presence of a bar, people were resorting to smashing any chemical that could alter their states in any small way. I bought a massive crepe covered with Nutella, and my ex forced down a footlong bratwurst. The after effects of these misguided actions were unpleasant, but we just needed to feel some rush of something, even if that rush was our insulin levels being fucked with and some intestinal rumblings.

                The New Year was hailed by a speech from the local wizard (yes, they have a wizard, for reals, Google it) and a nice firework display. I swigged obviously from my tiny whisky bottle and even my partner joined in, despite hating whisky. The band started up playing a selection of the worst songs from the last 40 Years, so awful it almost felt like a conscious act of passive aggression. We decided to retire homeward, or at least to what was acting as home for us at that time, because there we could listen to good music and drink to boot. As we left the park, we passed the security dudes who’d been searching bags on the way in (they searched mine, and me, but found nowt, because that wasn’t my first rodeo) but they’d apparently done as poor a job across the board, as one dude, holding up his wildly staggering lady-friend, shouted ‘so much for a dry party guys, she’s smashed!’ to which she blew them a kiss and nearly went headfirst into a hedge.

                On the walk home, we witnessed one of the most amazingly pointless yet dramatic things I’ve ever witnessed. A man ran across two roads, keeping low to the floor, only to then drop and roll on a grass verge and reach underneath a sign that was advertising something or other, probably the park party, and he proceeded to pull away handfuls of gaffer-tape as he lay on the ground. He pulled out a six pack of beer, rose to his feet, and casually walked away in the opposite direction.

                Now… I get that, with it being a dry party, people may want to hide beers in a safe location nearby. But why he sprinted in that manner, behaving like he was in an SAS training programme, I’m really not sure. I suppose it may have been fear that someone else would find it, but that doesn’t explain the furtiveness, only the speed. Was he being chased by some off-screen villain? Personally, I like to believe that it was fear that some authority would tell him off for trying to cheat the system, which, given that Kiwis are generally the most law-fearing society I’ve encountered, despite the police here also been the most easy-going I’ve ever dealt with, seems to fit. There is something wholly endearing about this interpretation, because it means the anxiety over being caught doing something that is, at worst, mildly frowned upon, overruled any common sense. It was beer he owned, left at his own risk, that he returned to collect. None of which, as far as I can work out, breaks any laws of any kind.

The End

                What am I trying to say with this dart about memory lane? I guess this is me exorcising the ghost of expectation and crying out once and for all - I really don’t dig New Years. Of course, I have many other stories to tell, but maybe it’s always the most stark memories that build your picture; your feelings about an occasion. And the times that tend to stand out, for me, always seem to be the transient places, the in-between spaces, when things are less settled and you’re in some kind of flux. Or maybe the trick is realising that we are always, in some manner or another, in a flux or transient space, because our lives are constantly evolving, changing, and growing. Letting go of old things, and embracing new; slowly, painfully, quickly, joyfully, in any and all ways and speeds that are possible.

                Maybe the point of New Year’s is to take a snapshot of now, the good, the bad, and the overall let down, and to accept everything for what it is at that exact moment in time. No more, and no less. And it’s okay to feel tired, and it’s okay to feel fed up, and it’s okay to feel whatever you want to because this is just another moment that will some day become a story. Sometimes the story is happy and sometimes it’s sad, and it’s usually invariably funny throughout. Because all of this means that you’re still here, and you’re still moving forward, and in another year you’ll be someone else all over again, while still being exactly the same person you always were.

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