Rebecca Marshall's second-floor flat was something to be proud of. With four rooms, not including her bedroom, it was tailor-made for parties of the most casual, formal or perverse sorts. The dining room could seat no less than eight guests at one time, whilst the kitchen was more than spacious enough for the hangers-on, and was complete with a proper wine shelf. The living room had three couches and a fair-size television, as well as a bookshelf packed to the brim with DVDs for that hour when the party has wound down to the status of quiet night in. It was rented by Rebecca's parents from a clearly insane landlord, who held the strange belief that students were ripped off enough in their young lives without having to pay more than £40 rent. The location practically looked out onto a particularly pleasant corner of Sefton Park, which put her within two minutes walking distance of the university bus.
At 6:30 on the dot, she received her first guest, Kieran Alnwick, a second year physics student, who helped her prepare the snacks. This done, they ventured out to buy booze for the house. The invitations had specified BYOB, but it was best to have something for her favoured guests to fall back on, should the worst happen.
The corner shop sold them two big bottles of Russian vodka and a small crate of German beer, and they lugged them merrily back to the flat whilst Alnwick filled her in on the latest gossip from his, formerly her, halls. At 7:10 they snuggled into a leather sofa each. Kieran opened a beer from his own stash and began drinking it slowly.
"So, who's coming?" Kieran said.
"Oh, all sorts of people. The usual crowd and one or two I just thought would get along well."
One by one the guests began to arrive. There was Simon Trent, from Kieran's course, who brought his own vodka with a cheap mixer. Patrick Davis, a theology student, with his girlfriend Anna Davies (no relation, obviously). Jennifer "Jenna Mac" McNealy, with Catherine Dooley and Paula Rhodes. Bill Kaufman, graduated drama alumni, was there, and brought news that Carmen Barcia and Edith Platt would be on their way later but that Victoria Mount sent her apologies. Rebecca feigned disappointment and sat Bill down on a wooden chair opposite Patrick, who had begun explaining his own twist on the ontological argument to Catherine and Kieran, an open-minded atheist and an agnostic, respectively.
I won't bore you with the ins and the outs of the preliminary conversations. As is usual at these student soirées, and I imagine any soirée, the men, nodding and smiling with eminently polite vacancy, had already sized up which girls they liked and were mentally occupied narrowing this list down to the specimens they thought they had a chance with. Simon Trent elected to make a go of it with Jenna Mac, but as the night progressed, slipped her image quietly and resignedly into the wank bank for later. Bill Kaufman, braver than most, began to direct conversation away from Patrick and towards Catherine.
Rebecca flitted from room to room, happy with how things were progressing. She herself was dressed smartly and sexily, but with enough of a neckline so as not to intimidate. She loved playing the hostess, and this much was obvious to all her guests, who were still arriving. The smokers had began to migrate out onto the veranda (yes, the flat had that, as well) and sample the crisp air of dusk, before fertilising it with thin ghosts of tobacco and marijuana.
Outside in the street, Thomas Westley, having not made it to Rebecca's sober before, identified where the party was taking place by music. He was not in the mood for partying, but Rebecca had made him swear he'd come, and that, if nothing else, was enough to inflate his ego. He had dressed simply; beneath his dark coat and autumn coloured scarf was a simple jeans and T-shirt lip-service. A condom lay in his inside coat pocket, an irritating reminder of a barren period, offset by his mobile in the pocket opposite, a way out if things became as tiresome as he anticipated.
He should have come earlier, he lamented as he reached her door. Groups and couples would be established by now, seats taken for the night. He promised himself he wouldn't end up in the kitchen talking to some bored computer programmer.
"Hiya, 'Becca," he said as she opened the door. They kissed each other on the cheek. "Victoria's just texted me, she can't make it."
"This is Tom," Rebecca introduced him to the living room contingent, now consisting of Bill, Edith, Catherine and Paula. Thomas had met Edith before, but the others were new to him. Before he could catch any of them in conversation, Rebecca led him by the arm around some other guests he hadn't met, presenting him like a chef might present a well-glazed shoulder of pork in a roasting dish.
"He was doing an anthropology course," she said, "but dropped out." There was no malice in this, and he had ceased to be embarrassed by the likes of Rebecca long ago anyway. But that such an obviously bright young man had chosen to leave the shores of promise for the shoals of the damned was a source of endless fascination to the majority of her middle-class guests, who began to probe him with all kinds of questions about the evident evil he must have been confronted with to cause him to leave his calling.
The party magnetised into two main groups. One centred on Bill's rugged metrosexuality, his almost Byronic charm appeasing the majority of the ladies. The other was a more intellectual picking of the brains, as Thomas' interests in the subjects of religion and science allowed him to mediate the joust that had begun between Simon and Patrick.
"I don't disagree that science is the stricter discipline," Patrick said, "But it can't tell us everything. That's where spirituality comes in."
"With all due respect," Trent rolled out his favourite phrase, "What you call 'spirituality' is only what science hasn't discovered yet."
"I think it's a largely false dichotomy," Thomas said. "Science and religion have the same origins – in tribal times we received those upgrades at roughly the same moment. Just because they've now been split into two opposing camps by certain American fundamentalists shouldn't mean we buy into this either/or. 'Our goal is religion, science is our method.'"
"Well, that's the thing. What you would call 'fundamentalists;' aren't they just following your religion but closer to the letter?" Simon was deliberately bringing in a new slant. "As much as I wish they were more like you... moderates like yourself, Patrick, are, intellectually, compromisers. No offence meant."
"I don't think that's true at all," Thomas said, happy to follow a scientist down a rabbit hole. "Fundamentalism is a very deliberate misreading of the text."
"And it only goes back as far as early 20th century oil barons. Who really wants to get their theology from them?" Patrick laughed.
"When we went to that Richard Dawkins lecture," Kieran interjected, "There were crowds of protestors handing out leaflets about how evolution was a hoax!"
"Because the Bible said the world was created in six days," Simon concurred. "Luckily it's just the biologists who have to deal with these clowns at the moment, but..."
"That's hardly mainstream thought," Patrick said. "The Catholic Church, the biggest denomination, accepts evolution. The Anglican Church is pretty liberal on it, too."
"And I think it'll be a while before the rednecks start attacking string theory," Thomas joked.
"Pierre!" Rebecca, who had been hanging around the edges of the conversation with Anna, called. "Pierre, come over here, this is right up your street!"
The debaters turned to see a tall, beautiful man with dark curly hair and sideburns break away, grinning, from a crowd of stragglers and recent arrivals. He made it across the room in two strides, and smiled expectantly at the participants.
"This is Pierre," Rebecca stated the apparent. "He's a philosophy postgrad, aren't you, Pierre? The boys here were just debating, what was it, the existence of God?" She introduced the others to Pierre, degrees and all, before slipping off in the direction of the living room. There was a brief silence before Kieran, not wanting Rebecca to come across as the conversational bulldozer she was, tested the waters.
"We were just saying how fundamentalism is an obstacle to science."
"I quite agree," Pierre said, in his French accent. The others leaned a bit closer, except for Patrick, who was a bit cautious, as many theologians are about philosophers. It had been some time since the two disciplines had been one and the same, and these days they approached each other with trepidation, like cousins who had grown up together meeting years later at a family gathering and wondering if the other remembered that time they ran around naked in the garden squirting each other with the hose pipe.
"But I hope you don't think that fundamentalism is the dominant mindset among the religious," Pierre continued.
"We'd come to much the same conclusion," Thomas said.
"Well, I don't know," Simon said, suddenly growing bold again. "Do you or do you not think the universe was created by God?" He put the question directly to Patrick, who for the first time looked uncomfortable. He glanced around in vain for Anna.
"I do, yes."
"Even though the universe bears no sign that it was created. I mean, where's the design in quantum mechanics?"
"I don't know," Patrick conceded. "That's why it's called faith."
"Do you accept the fact that you're only a Christian because of geography? If you'd have been born in India, you'd be a Hindu. In Afghanistan, you'd have been a Muslim. What makes your religion any more true than theirs?"
"Well, I am studying the subject," Patrick said. "It's not just chance."
"With all due respect, that's hardly answering the question. If I told you that I had an invisible friend called Billy who had created the universe and was all powerful, I'd end up in a loony bin. But you get to study it for a degree because you call him Jehovah or Allah or whatever. It's completely mad."
"Billy's busy in the next room, to be fair," Thomas said.
"I think what Simon is saying is," Kieran said, "There's no proof for God."
"Exactly," Simon said, satisfied. "You'd think an all-powerful being would leave us some clues as to his existence. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."
Patrick started to look like a criminal in the dock, not knowing which charge to answer first. Thomas was suddenly glad he wasn't a Christian himself as Patrick looked to him, almost appealingly. Simon, arms folded, tasted another victory with his well-rehearsed non-sequiturs.
"Define 'God,'" Pierre interrupted.
"Define 'God,'" Pierre repeated himself politely. "I want to know what you're all talking about here, or if you're even talking about the same thing. You go first," he said to Simon.
"Okay then," Simon said, clearing his throat. "The invisible man who lives in the sky, who created the heavens and the earth, who knows all and sees all, and who has a special list of ten things he doesn't want you to do. And who is all good, but still allows bloody awful things to happen. Oh, and who sent his son down to earth to be crucified and brought back as a zombie."
"How about you?" Pierre asked of Kieran.
"I'd go with that, too," Kieran shrugged.
"And yourself?" Pierre turned to Patrick.
"It's a bit tricky for me," Patrick said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I prefer negative theology."
"Fair enough," Pierre smiled, perhaps pleasantly surprised anyone in such a rough conversation even knew what negative theology was. "And you?"
He turned slowly to Thomas, who saw Pierre full on for the first time. His eyes were a brilliant green hue, and for a second Thomas thought they must be enhanced by contact lenses. His mouth was thin and petite, the top lip curling into a knowing grin at the side, turning the dimple in his left cheek into a deep line.
"A transpersonal memetic entity," Thomas said, finally enjoying himself. "Exhibiting semi-autonomous traits, and replicating itself across codified systems of behaviour."
Pierre's smile grew bigger. He looked around the group as if a point had been proven.
"There," he said. "I think we have gotten to, how do you say, the bottom line? Simon and Kieran, I am positive that Patrick and Thomas now agree that your god does not exist. Congratulations!"
The party began to wind down. Bill and Catherine slipped into Rebecca's bedroom, and, with their focal points re-oriented, a process of osmosis and then meiosis began to occur between the two groups, especially as the bathroom came into more frequent use. A KT Tunstall album, playing in the living room, filtered through the whole flat.
Rebecca had, at some point, handed Thomas a vodka, and he stood in the hallway with a thin glass of the stuff in hand, chatting with Edith about music. Simon came over and offered them a spliff, which only Thomas declined. That left him without companionship, and so he began to wander the flat, eventually coming across Pierre again, who was talking politics with some people who had arrived after Rebecca had given up on introductions.
"I was backing Hillary initially," one man said. Thomas fancied his name was Paul, but couldn't place it for sure. "Until Bill got involved. Something about that fella... I don't know. Makes me skin crawl."
"It's a moot point," said another. "I'm guessing none of us here want McCain to win. Not even you, David."
'David' was a light-haired man in a sky blue sweatshirt and carrying a pint around chest height. At first he seemed surprised to be addressed, but the thin ripple of laughter that went round the crowd made him grin.
"A conservative here is very different from a conservative over there!" he began. It was a statement he was having to make more and more often. "Have you seen this Palin woman? Where the hell did she come from?"
"Alaska, apparently," Paula said. "I didn't even know people lived in Alaska!"
"In any case, she doesn't know a damn thing," David went on. "They interviewed her the other day. I can't remember what she said, but you'll be shocked when you do see it."
"It's weird," Paula said. "I thought right-wingers hated women. Now they could have one as vice president – and even president, considering how old McCain is."
There was a nod of approval and agreement all around the group. David, the most right-wing person at the party, looked sheepishly into his pint, probably wondering whether to again reiterate the difference in political orientation across the pond.
"The far-right may indeed hate women," Pierre said. "But they're always looking for a dominatrix. Your Mrs Thatcher had great big teeth, too." He gestured with his index and middle fingers by the side of his mouth, making everyone laugh.
"Is there that much of a difference between the two parties?" Thomas mused. He had that leap of nerves one gets after announcing oneself in unknown company, but felt he had the measure of their stances from that brief snapshot of their conversation. He finished his vodka and immediately regretted it, as he liked to drink as he talked, and couldn't find anywhere to put his glass without walking to the other side of the room. "Republican and Democrat, I mean. They both look pretty right-wing to me."
"Well," shrugged the man Thomas took to be Paul. "I don't think anyone could vote Republican after the last eight years." There was another nod of agreement. "Maybe Obama is just an empty suit, but he's got to be better than that."
"I remember people saying the same about Kerry," Thomas said. "Don't get me wrong, I hope Obama wins. But I wouldn't take it for granted that firstly he will win, or secondly he'll do things much differently."
"Bush and Kerry were archetypal authoritarian figures," Pierre began, with a wave of his hand. "Myoclonic twitches of a nation ready to awaken from its imperial nightmare. So is McCain, so is Palin. But Obama is something else all together. Politically he might not have departed the American mainstream, but he represents something. He represents an abstract. Namely, the final stage in the emancipation of blacks. And that is dangerous. Decent left-leaning people like yourselves are all aware of the huge financial disparities between blacks and whites everywhere. But it's not a major feature of orthodox political doctrine. Instead of being the culmination of a Dream, Obama could, through no fault of his own, be simply the end of it. And what if should he fail? It will be a long time before I think we are talking about hope and change again."
A solemn murmur defined the social circle for a few seconds. Nobody wanted Pierre to be so depressing, and few even agreed with him. But nobody was going to argue with him.
"They'll only vote for Obama because he's black anyway," David said. A girl punched him in the arm and led him off somewhere else. The group dissipated, some to the kitchen for more booze, some out on the veranda for another smoke. A few began to say their goodbyes to Kieran, who had accidentally assumed the role of host. With a stupid look on his face, he thanked them for coming.
"Authoritarian myoclonic twitches, then," Thomas said with a smile. He had stood by whilst the crowd had deserted the topic, feeling slightly guilty he may have had some hand in it.
"So says mister autonomous memetic transpersonal what's called," Pierre rebutted, cheerfully. Obviously he spoke English extremely well, but he spoke it carefully, taking his time over each syllable or occasionally each phoneme. Even so, his French accent was fascinating, and it was not unusual for him to have people hanging off his every word. It was the Godspeed You! Black Emperor of voices. "Where did you get that from?"
"I was studying anthropology. I think it was in a textbook somewhere."
"What made you quit?"
"I didn't want to be defined by my course."
"You are either I think an idiot or a liar," Pierre said. "I am sure I will find out in due time."
They spoke for a while about general things, before Pierre began to elaborate a little about what he was doing at the university. He was actually in a rare situation, as he was teaching French as a foreign language whilst pursuing a Masters in a completely different subject altogether. Thomas had that thick burn of guilt and perhaps even jealousy that intelligent drop outs cannot avoid, but didn't hold it against Pierre, who in turn seemed interested in Thomas for more than his educational failures.
"Listen," Pierre said at last. "I have to go soon. But a few of us, you might think this is silly, but there is a group of us who take it in turns to have, you know, dinner parties. You know, like the television programme? Come And Dine With Me?"
"I know the one."
"We don't play for money or anything like that," Pierre chuckled. "Simply the pleasure of each other's company and culinary efforts. Or not, as the case may be. In any case, if you are interested, you should come to my next one."
Thomas accepted the invitation, and suddenly began wondering what the hell he would cook when it came round to his turn. That he rarely turned these things down was fast becoming one of the defining facets of his life.
Pierre and his friends left soon after, and Thomas embedded himself in one of the sofas for a while, talking to a stoned Edith. The flat began to empty out, the odd half-empty can or imprint in a bowl of peanuts the only signs that it had been packed to the brim not three hours since. An old black and white horror film crackled in the background.
Edith was muttering things about Bill and Catherine, and how Carmen had left in a tantrum. It was her giggle that made her appealing, and at least Thomas wasn't on his own. After a while Rebecca, also stoned, reappeared and leant over the sofa. She pushed another vodka into Thomas' hand and mentioned something about the bedroom being free.
When Rebecca had gone, Thomas leant across Edith and poured the contents of the glass into a plant pot. Edith giggled again and shuffled a little closer to Thomas so that their knees and their foreheads were touching. In another second Thomas could taste the marijuana in her hot mouth. His hand was on her thigh and she squeezed it tight. For a little while he felt that he was loved, and kissed his way through a simulation of that warm satisfaction that only those who are loved and who can love back truly experience. His hand in hers, they led each other into the bedroom and spent the early hours of the morning grasping at thin, sacred shreds of intimacy.