What do you say to the host of a Divorce Party?
I knew the host well. We'd been acquainted since childhood, and we'd met up on an infrequent basis over the course of the few months preceding her divorce and now here I was at this, the event at which it was commemorated. If "commemorated" is the right word. So when I arrived at the party venue - her house - I didn't feel uncomfortable, but all the same I wasn't sure quite how to greet her.
"HAPPY DIVORCE!" is what I was NOT going to say. I knew that her feelings were a mixture of sadness and relief (and probably many other things she chose not to show). The party was an attempt, I thought, to acknowledge and to begin the process of rebuilding, of moving on. As such, although this was a house party with a dj situated in the front room and liberal lashings of booze pretty much everywhere, it was a strictly a black tie affair. This was made clear on the invite, which also instructed everyone to "bring a gift to help me survive being single again!"
So rather than come out with some awkward-sounding platitude, I gave her a kiss on the cheek and passed my presents on to her: a Barry White cd, and a book about drugs. The ideal present for the newly-single woman, I thought. She liked the presents anyway, and introduced me to a few people as she led me into the living room.
I nodded, said hello, made some small talk, making sure I was heading on my way to where the drinks were. A friend of mine was in attendance too, we had brought some whisky with us
and so before long, and before dark, I was in that place where I felt very gregarious, not quite drunk, but forever teetering on the brink. In recent months, I'd often been in this particularly precarious place. Sometimes it caused much trepidation: on this occasion, watching people dressed up to the nines dancing to everything from ABBA to The John Spencer Blues Explosion in a cramped, intimate front room, it felt delightfully surreal.
For a while me and my mate were in a constant state of flux - talking sagely in the kitchen, dancing with potted plants in the front room (much to the amusement of other guests), languidly sipping whisky in the lounge.
The party host had been looking for me, and at some point she found me. Where I was exactly, I can't remember. Partying, probably. She wanted to introduce me to someone she knew, a noted academic in some field of research. Fair enough I thought, a little woozily, and followed as she led me out into the back garden where people were drinking and talking in a much more relaxed setting. The late summer sun cast a beautiful early evening light onto the proceedings. The hint of the impending change in season added a slight touch of melancholy which helps to fix the scene in my memory, despite being mildly addled by the volume of alcohol I had already consumed.
I was now shaking hands with a tall, imposing but genial gentleman called Reg (name changed from Juan for the sake of confidentiality). Reg immediately struck me as daunting but likeable in equal measure. He exuded an admirable mixture of respectability and intellectual rigour, intricately combined with a mildly dissolute air. All the same I felt self conscious, since our introduction had interrupted a conversation mid-flow. So what were Reg and I going to talk about?
He beamed down at me and I glanced up at him, silhouetted as he was against the sun. We exchanged a few non-committal comments and observations, during which time I manoeuvred myself round so that I could talk to him without being against the glare of the sun. Small talk. Fine, but my attention was threatening to wander and to take me with it, back to potted plants and all the women who were dancing in the front room.
As if he knew this, Reg looked me in the eye, and asked me the strangest question I'd been asked in a very long time.
"So, trousers, tell me something...."
"What's that, Reg?"
"What's your favourite piss?"
Suddenly I was completely lost for any points of context or reference. Terminator-style, my brain scanned for a list of possible responses. None presented themselves. I looked around - the group of people for whom my presence had been an interruption were now engrossed in their own conversation.
Favourite piss? What did he mean? Favourite alcoholic drink? Or did I prefer it dark yellow as opposed to clear? I hadn't a clue.
"Favourite piss?" I asked, playing for time.
"Yes, everyone's got one."
"Er, have they?"
"Yes, haven't you?"
"Well, I'm not sure what you mean when you say 'favourite piss.' "
He then regaled me with an absorbing anecdote from his days as a student in the late seventies. He lived in a shared house with a couple of fellow students. Over the weeks and months, a routine developed for going out on a Friday night. Once home from the last lecture on a Friday, he and his housemates would watch a bit of TV, have some food and a beer or two. At a certain time - pretty much a set time, in fact - they would then walk 20 minutes down the road to another mate's house where they would listen to music and have a couple more beers. This larger group would then move on to the next stage of the proceedings.
I'd already forgotten what had prompted this tale - he wove all sorts of detail into it which painted a vivid picture of late seventies urban life, including the fact that some of his social group were to emerge out of the punk scene to become well known in their own right.
So it went on - they would now arrange to meet another couple of friends in a bar 20 minutes walk closer to the main destination of the evening. He described all this in such a way as to drum in the sense of routine. It was the same each Friday, pretty much to an exacting timetable of events, but it was still exciting: it was vibrant, it was the big city, they had hardly any money (which was presumably why they didn't catch the bus) but each week they followed the same route, at more or less the same time, and went out and had a damn good night.
I was now quite oblivious to my surroundings and even to the pressing need to refill my glass. Reg was quite the raconteur.
He was, after yet more almost baroque descriptions of the scene, talking me through the final part of these Friday evenings. The same sense of routine drummed in - once they had left the club (or wherever they would go), they would walk a certain route back - past x and y's house first, then down this road, bidding various members of the group goodbye as they went. Then they would take a detour off the roads and down by the river where they could take a short cut which would get them home in relatively quick time. Each Friday night. Same routine, same time, same people.
Down by the river was a bridge. Here was a crucial detail. This was the point on the journey at which they would all stop to relieve themselves. Week in, week out, this same bridge by the river, and then home.
Now he described one particular Friday night, as they were heading back home. There'd been a break-in at a house on or near their route. The road was blocked off, police cars were stationed nearby, lights flashing. Uniformed officers were moving all passers-by swiftly away from the scene.
The implications now dawned on me. It's amazing how you quickly get used to an idea which mere minutes ago seemed bizarre and mystifying.
The road block meant that there was no way they could take their short cut. They couldn't even take the quickest alternative route via the streets: they had a long walk ahead of them which took them well out of the way, and meant they weren't in sight of home for the best part of two hours. I was picturing the big city streets at night, the police lights reflecting across the river.
As is obvious, there was nowhere they could go and relieve themselves. Well, as Reg explained, technically they could have done, but having a slash anywhere except for against that bridge by the river just didn't seem right. His hammering home of this unchanging routine had made the point - the break was so unexpected and dramatic, but things were so fixed in their heads, that an alternative was not even considered. All they could do was to head home, painfully aware of bladders which were in desperate need of being emptied.
He spared me the gory details of when he finally got home, except for the sense of sheer, glorious relief after increasingly palpable tension and discomfort, and a final mad dash upstairs to the loo. Oh, and except for the fact that it felt like it took several minutes to empty his bladder.
This, then, for all the reasons described, had remained in his memory ever since: it was his Favourite Piss.
I thanked him for this engrossing, excellent story which I have surely done no justice to in my retelling of it. By comparison it stands as a garden shed might do against the Taj Mahal.
"So," he asked with barely a pause, "do you have a favourite piss?"
"Er..." I racked my brains. I must have. I MUST HAVE! Should I have stepped outside myself at this point, I would have seen the following: myself in conversation with a noted academic at a black-tie divorce party in which the notion of a favourite piss now made sense, to the extent that I was now desperately searching for my own example with which to impress upon him.
"Er.... I must have." I racked my brains, searching my visual memory with an intensity which made it feel like my life was flashing before my eyes. I wasn't ready to die, and this was making me feel giddy. Any suitable recollections were eluding me.
"I must have, Reg. I just can't think at the moment. But thanks for telling me yours, I really appreciate it. Are you sticking around for a while? Good, if I do think of one I'll come and let you know."
He nodded sagely, we shook hands firmly, and I disappeared back into the rarefied delights that beckoned from within the house. Oh, and I poured myself a bloody large measure of whisky as well. The first sip made me shudder.
My head was spinning, and not even from the drink. I propped up my flagging constitution with a few morsels from what was left of the buffet. I wandered around, glass in hand, reeling a little from the onslaught of strange information I had just taken in.
I had a chat with the boyfriend of the hostess, and was frustrated to find out he was a nice guy. It would have been so much easier if that hadn't been the case.
I found my mate in the front room, unwilling to move away from the dancefloor: the centre of attention, he was practically welded to it. I joined him and the various other bods for an unspecified amount of time. My mate was forever making suggestions to increase the fun, and this was what saw two of the women dancing in our shoes while we tottered around trying to stay upright in theirs. Dancing in women's heels, dancing with potted plants. In a suit. At a divorce party.
And then it hit me. That's it! A memory had surfaced, and I had to seize the moment before more booze and strange dancing laid waste to it all. Signalling that I'd be back, I staggered outside in footwear which was definitely not designed for me. I swear it wasn't even designed for human beings, so uncomfortable was it walking in these heels.
Reg was still there on the lawn, holding court. I had none of the self-consciousness that had characterised our opening gambits: I was now on a mission to deliver the good news, tottering with evangelical zeal in my sharp suit and even sharper ladies' heels.
I interrupted his flow of conversation to the assembled ranks who were listening to him with a polite dignity. I didn't care much for their looks of vague annoyance and disgust. He turned round to face me.
"I've got one!"
He looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
"I've got one....a favourite piss!"
His expression immediately changed into one of eager anticipation and he turned his back on those around him just as rudely as my own interruption.
"Tell me about this favourite piss of yours then, trousers," he said almost in the manner of a Bond villain. He might as well have been stroking a white fluffy cat.
Barcelona, 1991. It was the first part of a college trip which would take in several days in that city, and then onto Madrid for a further few days. It being an art college trip, we would spend our days wandering the various galleries and sights: the Museo Picasso, the Fundacio Miro, the Tapies Foundation, La Sagrada Familia, and so on and so forth.
I described how we would eat a huge breakfast to soak up the previous night's alcohol, and have a couple of coffees for good measure. The coffee in Barcelona was lovely: heady, rich, but not vulgar.
Then we would stroll down the amazing streets of Barcelona, maybe take the underground, depending on our initial destination. It was February, which in this part of the world was mild and bright, comfortably warm, a little like a late English Spring. Once we hit a gallery, we would spend maybe a couple of hours looking round: once fatigue began to set in we would spend a half hour in the gallery cafe nursing a beer and a coffee, along with copious amounts of Ducados cigarettes. Then back to continue looking around the gallery.
As the day wore on, perhaps moving to view something in a different part of town, the pattern would reverse itself as sensory overload from so much exposure to intense visual information began to take its toll: by late afternoon we would be spending two hours nursing a couple of coffees and several beers, and half an hour wandering round looking at art.
Come the evening we would explore the city, get ourselves some food and wine, then locate a suitable bar or club to while away the night time hours.
This, I explained to Reg, was the typical routine during our stay in Barcelona. I had his undivided attention, and the other assembled individuals had long since dispersed. He may have asked pertinent questions about aspects of this gallery or that feature, I don't fully remember, but he was listening intently.
I talked about how a number of us would stay up for a while and have further beers in the hotel, maybe take a couple of bottles of San Miguel up onto the hotel roof and look across the illuminated city skyline; sipping beer and having hushed conversation before finally heading to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning: by 8am we would be up again and having coffee over breakfast. Aged 21 and on holiday, the sleep deprivation didn't really count for much.
On our last day in Barcelona, I realised how sorry I would be to leave - even though we were continuing on to Madrid and more amazing art. Early evening, we all gathered in the hotel lobby with our bags packed, awaiting the moment when we would head off to the train station.
We were waiting for a little while, perhaps for stragglers to turn up, perhaps because there was no particular rush. All the same, I felt a strange sense of agitation, and I couldn't really sit still and while away the time chatting like everyone else seemed to be doing. Suddenly I realised what was bothering me: after several days of drinking coffee after coffee, beer after beer and little else (apart from red and white wine, and the odd glass of whisky), I was thirsty to the point of derangement.
I marched across the hotel lobby and out to the nearest shop where I promptly bought myself a 2 litre bottle of water. I was so thirsty I drank it in no time at all, and bought another bottle to take with me. Suddenly I could relax, my kidneys stopped complaining, I felt ok again. Relief! Also, we were now ready to head down to the train station.
The train was due to depart at 8.30, it was an overnight service to Madrid. We arrived at the station shortly after 8. Everyone sat around in the main foyer with their bags, idly chatting. I soon became distracted, realising I needed the toilet. Still, not too long before our train arrives, I thought, so I held on. As the time neared 8.30, I saw on the overhead display that it was now running a few minutes late. No matter, I've had to wait for longer than this often enough. I tried to focus on the conversation that my mates were engaged in, but this was becoming less easy the more aware I was of the pressure building up in my bladder.
Overhead, the display now informed us that our train was running half an hour late.
Dammit, I had plenty of time then, I may as well find the station toilet now. The act of getting up and starting to walk made me break out in a cold sweat as I realised just how desperately I needed to go. I found the nearest information desk and asked in Spanish where the toilets were. The man at the desk looked at me and pointed in Spanish to a door behind me and to the left. I made my way over there by a strange combination of sprinting and hobbling.
Much to my dismay, I was met by one of those yellow signs which indicated that the toilets were closed for cleaning. I didn't care, and made to open the door anyway. I really should have cared because an extremely frightening cleaning lady booted me out with torrent of verbal abuse and a deft shove before I'd gotten fully through the door.
I hobbled back to my bags and sat down very slowly and carefully.
"You alright trousers?"
9pm was approaching. Unlike the train which was now reported as due in at 9.25pm.
I undid my belt. I slowly adjusted my position to try and find one which was relatively comfortable and where no pressure was being exerted. It was impossible. I was by now having to control my breathing, and there was a thin, cold film of sweat covering my skin.
Time was slowing down. Seconds seemed more like minutes. It was agonising. 2 litres of water - I had downed it in practically one gulp, a couple of hours ago. I was now trying to face up to the very real fear that, for the first time since childhood, I might lose control of myself and feel that horrible warm sensation slowly spreading out. I was sweating even more now and my heart was pumping.
The one piece of good news was that there were no further reported delays. I sat and sweated.
At 20 past 9, a train pulled up on platform 8. That was our platform. I didn't get my hopes up though, I was sure this would be a different train. All the same, I looked up at the display. It was for Madrid! Some of our party were already walking down the sloping walkway to the platform. As I noticed this, I was barely conscious of the fact that I had picked my bags up and was now running down there, entirely focused on the open door to the nearest carriage.
Other people were like skittles in my path. The only major obstacle was that my trousers threatened to fall down as I ran, since I'd had to undo the button as well as the belt.
I got good practice saying "sorry" in Spanish as I knocked past people on the platform. With an almighty leap I was onto the carriage and, thank the almighty, there was a toilet right in front of me. My hands shook as I fumbled with the toilet door.
Like Reg, I shan't go into any further gory details - except to say that I felt like I must have been standing there for an age. The relief was incredible - not just in a purely physical sense, but also in terms of what might have come to pass (quite literally) if I'd had to wait for much longer. Now my pulse rate went down, my heart wasn't thumping so wildly, my thoughts were clearer, and I could even do my belt up again!
Minutes later, once the train was going, I was in the bar carriage nursing the first of many more coffees and beers.
But that, I told Reg, was most definitely my Favourite Piss.
He thanked me most sincerely, we parted, and the remainder of the party soon descended into an alcoholic fog.
Some time later, I had taken a welcome, extended break from drinking copious and silly quantities of alcohol. From drinking any alcohol at all in fact. One cold, clear December night I was going to a party.
Stone cold sober at this particular gathering, I realised I wasn't really paying attention to much of the conversation. I'd immediately been put off when I overheard a dialogue in which someone was recommending a particular pension plan. I wasn't exactly used to this kind of scenario. I recalled that odd train of events several months ago at the divorce party. Should I give it a go and ask someone, I wondered, just to see what response I get?
I did. The person I was talking to seemed a decent, respectable sort of chap, he was working in a reputable profession. We'd had a fairly humdrum conversation about favourite music. I came out with the question.
There was that same look of puzzlement in his eyes, only to be replaced by understanding as I recounted once more my memories of Barcelona in 1991. This person, like me at the divorce party, couldn't think of an example to respond with. He was thinking about it very intently though, with furrowed brow.
The party continued and I put it to the back of my mind, thinking little of it. Midway through the evening, this chap came back up to me and said, "I know there's something, I just can't quite think of it though! I'll catch up with you later." He wandered off again, looking deep in thought.
Later on, I was waiting for a taxi which would take me and a couple of friends home. We were standing near the door. Suddenly, and seemingly with a mild sense of urgency, the same chap came over.
"Trousers! I've got it!"
He looked very earnest.
"Go on then, but you'll have to be quick, my taxi's going to arrive any minute."
He fixed me with an intense look, and started talking.
"I used to go out clubbing every weekend. Used to have a couple of drinks before I went out, then I'd meet up with my girlfriend and a couple of mates and their girlfriends. We'd get some pills and we'd take them just before we headed into town. I used to have a really good time, we'd all spend the whole evening dancing, and the pills were great. The only problem was that after a while, because of their effects, I'd have to go into the toilet and vomit. I'd feel alright after, but every time we went out and did this I couldn't help throwing up at a certain point."
The taxi driver sounded his horn. My friends were saying their goodbyes to people. I told them I'd be there in a minute, and got him to carry on as quick as he could. A more accurate transcription of the tone of his speech would be if I put an exclamation mark at the end of each sentence.
"Well that was fine, I knew I was only throwing up because of the after effects."
He was now looking slightly troubled, and as though he was somehow seeking approval or sympathy from me. He continued.
"After a couple of years we stopped doing the whole clubbing thing, we'd moved out of the area when I changed jobs, so on a Friday night me and the girlfriend and maybe a couple of the lads would just meet up for dinner and then go out for a drink. But there was a problem.....something didn't feel right. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but it just didn't feel like a proper night out"
My friends were now beckoning me to hurry up, and one was holding his hand up to the taxi driver. However they too were now listening intently.
"I wasn't throwing up! That was what was missing. I'd been so used to throwing up every time we went out, that it felt weird going out and keeping everything down."
He looked almost ashamed now. "So whenever we went out, I had to go into the toilet and MAKE myself throw up, just because that made it properly feel like a decent night out. It's weird isn't it! I know it's not a favourite piss, but it DOES count doesn't it?"
"Yes, of course it does," I said reassuringly, "of course it does. Thank you." That was it, the look in his eyes - the need for reassurance. He was a little bit drunk, but it felt as though I'd unwittingly stirred something up from a dark recess of his mind that had always been unsettling to him. It felt as though he wanted me to tell him that everything was going to be alright.
"It's alright," I said, "thank you for telling me that. Right, I've really got to go or they'll leave without me."
His expression lightened, we quickly shook hands and I turned and got in the taxi. My friends were asking me what on earth that was all about. By now, however, I realised I didn't have the enthusiasm to recount the whole weird thing any more.