Attending your parent's tacky Christmas party as a teenager is considered to be ultimate social suicide. Doing so at the grand age of twenty-six is a whole lot worse. I found this out the hard way. It should have been absolutely fine – I would have arrived with Reese, spent a couple of hours or so making awkward conversation with my parent's friends and then left without too much of a hassle. Sounds simple, right? Only then Reese blew me off half an hour before we were due to leave, for no other reason than his mates were holding an all-night football tournament on the Xbox. What a brilliant boyfriend.
Instead of our original plans, I find myself wearing a pair of flashing reindeer antlers and playing the waitress by carrying around a platter of hors d'oeuvres. Now, that normally wouldn't be too bad, but they're salmon ones. Say hello to fish-smelling girl. I have officially hit rock-bottom of the festivities.
Anyhow, standing in the sitting-room corner with the half-empty plate of cream cheesed fish in one hand and my third glass of wine in the other, things are beginning to look a lot brighter. Although that may be due to some form of migraine induced by the madly flashing Christmas tree lights at the other end of the room. Either way, I think I'm now in a fairly decent place.
I did, however, reckon I was being fairly inconspicuous up until this point – standing wedged between an armchair and a wall. I had rather hoped to blend into the wallpaper and potted plant perched on the nearby window ledge. Very sadly, my reasoning proves to be wrong as my mother, fairly tipsy from what I guessed to be sherry, waltzes over to me, speaking in a loud, airy voice, "Jaye, sweetheart, you should really do some socialising, not just stand there like a lemon."
Before I can protest that I am more of a fruit holder rather than lemon itself, she pulls me over to a couple that I guess to be in their sixties, who are standing somewhat stiffly near the fireplace. "Now, you remember Julie and Graham, right?"
'Uh, no mother dearest,' I think; I don't know who ninety per cent of the people in the house are. But, of course, I force a smile onto my face and nod. "Of course I do! It's been so long since I last saw you."
The woman, Julie, I very cleverly deduce, slowly and uncertainly smiles, "We met at Samantha's dinner a couple of weeks ago."
Shit, yeah, I should have remembered that. The most I can do to recover the situation is to push the platter forwards and say "Canapé? Mum made them herself. They really are very nice."
They both take one as my mother sniggers next to me. I should really confiscate the sherry from her, but that may mean her hiding the Pinot – something I really can't deal with. Oh lord, I'm turning into an alcoholic. Anyhow, as Graham compliments mother on the fish bites that I'm beginning to loathe, Julie smiles properly at me. I am seemingly forgiven. "Have you met our son, Clyde?"
It's only now that I notice the very tall and slender man, a fair few years older than me, standing awkwardly behind them, painfully looking like he needed to skip the Pinot and move straight onto the vodka. I had previously thought that my attire, festooned upon me by my mother, was the absolute low, but he proves me wrong by going one step further, dressed in a snug knitted jumper with a reindeer on the front. I swear that it is a scene taken straight out of Bridget Jones, only I wouldn't be complaining if Colin Firth was standing in my living room… And I'm nothing like as classy as Renee Zellweger.
Anyway, I receive a stiff nod off the very-sadly-not-Mr-Darcy and a low mutter of "Nice to meet you."
Somehow, I manage to keep the smile on my face and nod back. "You too."
A few moments of silence pass before mother decides to break it, albeit not in the way I want her to. "Julie, have you met the Reeves? I'm sure you'd get along like a house on fire. You too, Graham. Tony has so much in common with you. Jaye, dear, why don't you stay here and talk to Clyde?" And with that, she leads them both other to another couple on the other side of the room, leaving me alone with the man I'm stupidly beginning to resent for not being a fictional character.
As the silence continues, I come to realise with a dropping feeling that this is what my mother likes to think of as her 'match-making'. Now, in certain circumstances it would have been okay, but not in the current one of leaving me to make stilted conversation with a man who has obvious social difficulties, all whilst I am actually in an almost two year long relationship with a guy who values a computer game higher up his list of favourite things than me. It is only now that I realise how messed-up my life is.
Anyhow, I attempt to smile properly, looking up at him. "Can I get you anything to drink?"
He blinks from behind his glasses before casting his eyes down to look at his feet. "Um, I don't drink alcohol."
"Right." I will never understand anyone with that view. I couldn't live without Mr Jack and Mr Daniels.
Looking back up, he sees the need to clarify it. "It increases the risk of liver cancer."
"Yes, but apparently so does breathing nowadays."
"No, only if you inhale toxic carcinogens."
It seems, for a moment, that I am currently the only person in the entire world who understands what a joke is. There is a very long, and very awkward pause before I quietly say "I think we have some lemonade in the kitchen."
"That would be lovely, thank you."
Anyhow, as I turn around to go and pour one for him, he pauses for a moment before following. Sometimes, very often actually, I wonder what on earth goes on inside my mother's head for her to think that this cosy, little 'arrangement', as she would probably call it, is a good idea.
I manage to find a dusty bottle of lemonade at the very back of the larder - it's probably been sitting there for the past three years, back when mum had decided that she was going to stop drinking alcohol for her better health. She lasted approximately twenty-eight hours before cracking open a merlot. Even so, I grab a tea-towel and wipe the cobwebs off the bottle so Clyde won't notice that the thing is practically a fossil, before exiting the pantry and walking back into the kitchen.
He stands nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other as I pour some of the extremely flat drink into a glass, asking "Ice?"
"No, thank you."
Damn. I was hoping that it might cover up the likely disgusting taste of the drink. Even so, he manages very well to keep an impassive face when taking a polite sip of it once I've given it to him and received a thanks in return.
Another, more prolonged, silence this time falls, during which the kitchen clock ticks with a horribly loud echo, emphasising every single stiff moment. Damn Reese and his stupid FIFA game - why couldn't he be here? He's good at pointless small-talk; he and Clyde could be having a good chat about the football league table, or cars, or something else that was just as stupidly male. But oh no, he's being an adolescent boy with a toy, whilst I am agonisingly stuck with nothing to say to a probable mute.
Very thankfully, just as the silence is nearing the 'I'd rather jump off a cliff than endure this any longer' stage, mother enters, with a smile belong to one obviously drunk, and a teeter in her step. "Getting along okay, dears?" She says brightly, and I'm suddenly catapulted back to when I was sixteen and she forced me into volunteering in a fund-raiser drive booth for the local hospice with the vet's son. We spent a horrible three hours together, him telling me a very long and tedious story about his father's horse that had died, before very calmly stating that I had nice arm hair. I have never, or ever will, ran so fast away from something before.
Or so I thought until this current moment.
Clyde gives her a very forced smile and a nod before speaking "Your daughter's been charming me relentlessly, Mrs Nolan." I raise an eyebrow over my Mother's head as she beams up at him. He gives me an amused smirk in return. 'Mr Darcy has emotions!' a little and very surprised voice screams inside my head.
"Oh really now," she trills, turning to look at me with much skepticism in her eyes. I give her an innocent smile in return. "That's very unlike her; you must have made quite an impression."
"Undoubtedly," he flashes her a charming smile, -why isn't he so smooth with me?- showing off a row of straight, white teeth. Reese is like a child when it comes to brushing his teeth - he only does it when I can be bothered to nag him for at least an hour. I can't help but remark to myself how nice it is to see a man with clean teeth. Even if he is socially inept.
Placing a hand on his arm, mother flutters her eyelashes at him, like the bad flirt she is, and says "Would you be a darling and take the platter of stuffed peppers through to the sitting room? I'm sure people are still hungry."
He graciously takes the tray from her, not even bothering to comment about the six other semi-full trays already through there as I would have done, and ambles out of the room, stooping slightly as to not hit his head on the doorframe. Mother turns on me as she begins to pack the dishwasher with the dirty plates and other utensils stacked up in the full sink, glaring until I begin to help her. "You really should have made an effort to be nice to him," she scolds before pulling a face at the congealed cream cheese on the rim of a champagne glass. "I think you may have scared him - he looked terrified when I came in. Whatever did you say to him?"
"Nothing," I mutter as I scrape a half-eaten portobello mushroom into the bin. Nothing being the operative word - our conversation hadn't exceeded the pleasantries of serving a drink.
She looks up at me, sighing "For once in your life, darling, I wish you'd try and attract a nice man. He's a very good catch, you'd realise that if you just talked to him. Intelligent, wealthy and single - very lonely from what Julie tells me. If you gave him a chance, I'm sure that you'd-"
"Mum," I interrupt her calmly. It isn't the first time that she's tried to set me up with one of her friend's sons and it probably won't be the last. "I'm with Reese. I have been for almost two years now, you have to accept that."
"Well," she hesitantly begins and I know what's coming. "I always hoped that Reese was just... a phase. He's a nice boy, sweetheart, but that really is all that he is - a boy. He's not the man that's going to look after you for the rest of your life." My fingers tighten their grip on the bowl that I'm holding and my knuckles turn an ominous white colour. We've had this conversation countless times before, but she has never been quite so outright before. She continues, frowning, either oblivious to my annoyance or just choosing to ignore it, "Don't look at me like that - I'm just worried about you. You're working yourself to the bone to provide for the both of you whilst he just lounges around. Has he gotten a job, yet?"
"No," I murmur, knowing deep down how truthful her words are, but still wanting to be able to refuse to believe it. "You know how difficult it is to find a job nowadays, Mum, there's at least ten applicants for every position. He's trying, he really is." I feel guilty about that lie, thinking of the untouched pile of newspapers on the kitchen table back in our flat, which I leave out for him each morning to read through the job section. His confidence is just broken, after forty-two rejected applications in the past six months, that's all.
She nods resignedly, although I'm sure that she knows that I fully understand her. "Okay, as long as you're happy... But go and talk to Clyde, okay? It's good to have connections in all areas - you never know when people will come in handy."
I leave the room without any more of a protest. I don't want to hear any more hurtful home truths, and instead walk through to the living room to find Darcy-Wannabe and endure a torture-filled evening at my own expense. I find him standing in the bay window, looking out into the dark back garden, the surprisingly half-empty glass of lemonade in his hand. As I come to stand beside him, I realise quite how tall he is - I barely stand as high as his nose, and I'm in heels. Then again, I'm hardly an amazonian with legs up to the ceiling. Far from it, actually. However, I remind myself that he does comically duck under doorways, and crane my head back to look up at him.
He turns his head and impassively returns my gaze, cocking an eyebrow in a casual manner as I had done to him earlier, before speaking a single word that thunderously deep, smooth voice which I hadn't really noticed before. "Yes?"
I attempt to smile sweetly at him, it takes a lot of effort, as I speak, vaguely aware that I sound like a eight year old forced into making an apology by their teacher after a ruckus in the playground, "I'm sorry if we got off on the wrong foot earlier, it's just been a long day. I would really like it if we could get to speak properly."
Clyde's stare remains cool as he silently observes me for what seems an age. Eventually, he turns to look once more outside, the liquid sound of his tenor voice quiet among the hubbub of the rest of the thriving room, "Did your mother force you to come out and speak to me?"
I don't see the point in denying it; he already has me figured out top to bottom, front to back. "Yes," I reply, trying to spot what interests him so out in the darkness.
"I see," he murmurs, raising a hand to push the bridge of his glasses back up his nose with his forefinger. After what seems to be a moment's thought, what seems to be a rare smile breaks out across his mouth. "Mine tried to do the same thing when I came back in here. Seemingly, it's essential to my wellbeing and life for me to know you."
"I think they've had words," I can't help but grin back. His gaunt face looks different when he smiles properly - less mournful, and far younger. I wonder how old he really is.
With a glance around the rest of the room, he gives me a rueful look, "Of that I have no doubt. They as well as the rest of the WI."
Oh, so true, Mr Darcy, I laugh before coming to an abrupt halt as I notice my mother struggle to drag what looks like an oversized speaker through the doorway. My mind whirring, I glance back to where he's wearing an amused expression, "Would you like to go outside?"
His expression turns to surprise, and then concern, "For a smoke?"
"No," I shake my head; I loathe cigarettes, "What made you think that?"
"Well," he looks thoughtful as he takes another sip of his mostly-likely foul drink, a small 'v' furrowing between his eyebrows, "When one asks another outside, it's usually either for a smoke or a snog. I was rather hoping it wasn't the second one."
I try not to be offended by his comment - that it wasn't made to be personal. "Neither, Clyde, I just thought that you seemed like the type of person who wouldn't want to be subjected to my mother's karaoke wrath."
A pinkish hue seeps its way into his face. At least he has the decency to be slightly embarrassed. "Oh, in that case, yes please," he mutters, at last abandoning his drink on the window ledge as he follows me out of the room and to the back door of the house, reaching it just as the horrible warbling sound of my mother singing 'My Heart Will Go On' emits from the front room. I have fantastic timing.