The Social Networker

Last week it was yet another work social do which we were all expected to attend. This time it was the Christmas party. To give them credit, they hired out a nice bar/restaurant/club in the East End of London, with good Christmas food to start followed by an amazing DJ set later on. When we first got to the place they made us all wait in a little bar area round the back while the staff got the dining room ready. It was somewhat awkward for the first half hour or so, with seventy of us packed into this tight little enclave, trying to make conversation with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with. I kept trying to remind myself of the mantra that I adopted at the last work party: it doesn’t matter what they think of me. When we were ushered into the dimly lit dining hall for supper we were all relieved, it wasn’t just me.

As usual the organisers had chosen seats for us. I ended up on a table with some people I knew, some I didn’t. Unfortunately one of my neighbours was absent, having been caught in the snow somewhere, so to one side of me I had an empty space all through dinner, while to the other side one of the new girls from sales got chatted up by Justin for several hours. Justin is one of my favourite people in the company, someone you can always rely on for good company when all else fails. Unfortunately for me he seemed quite taken with his female neighbour that night, so I was left to feel like a bit of a gooseberry. Still, the food was good when it finally came, and across the table my good friend Hadiya made efforts to include me in her conversation, even though there were tall candles and vases full of flowers in between us.

After dinner we were herded back into the small corner bar so that they could clear the tables away and set the dancefloor up. That old sense of not fitting in started to creep up on me, as it always does whenever I’m in a large group of people. You’d think those feelings would have worn themselves out by now, but no, they’re still going strong. I attempted some conversation with David, the young guy who has been assisting me with cashback this week while Jan is on holiday in Poland. David is possibly as shy as me; he’s also the youngest person in the company by far, at just eighteen. He’s only with us during his holidays from University, which is a shame as he’s a really nice guy, as well as insanely clever. What I took a year to learn about cashback he seemed to know within weeks.

At 10.30 he left, clearly tired and a bit bored. An anxious few minutes passed as I sought someone else to save me from total isolation. I stumbled upon Fabiana, my other favourite person in the company, someone who is always good to bitch and moan with. She’s been involved with the company for years and she knows exactly what is good and what is bad about it. We shared our distaste for the darker side of these social occasions, where at least one person always seems to get wasted, make a prat of themselves and end up getting sacked. We wondered who it would happen to that night: earlier in the day some of our naughtier colleagues had actually been taking bets. Funny for us, not so funny for the person who would undoubtedly end up feeling like the worst idiot in the world come the next day.

Eventually the dancefloor was reopened with tables and chairs all cleared away. From then until 2am on the dot there was good music to dance to. There was a healthy amount of variety in the set, which ranged from funk to house to cheesy pop to drum and bass. Random, some would call it; I like random. As usual I took the opportunity to strut my stuff. All I need is good music and I’m off – I can’t help it. At first I made sure that my friends were dancing with me; it would be some time before I was ready to take the spotlight on my own. By 1am people were starting to drift off, yawning. At this point only the most dedicated dancers were still moving properly, like one should to such good songs. Me and Kat ripped the floor up, showing some of the others how it’s meant to be done. I was quite proud of myself.

All night I had been trying not to stare at Chris, the new member of the ever-expanding sales team who I have a very strong feeling is gay. For days I had been secretly hoping that the Christmas party would finally be my chance to swoop in on him. He would almost certainly be drinking, which would mean that he’d be loosened up and a bit less shy and standoffish. I had no plans to approach him, I merely hoped that with some booze in him he’d manage to stop and talk to me for once. Well, he definitely got drunk, and as he did so all traces of homosexuality appeared to leave him. From almost the start he was downing lager and hollering like a football hooligan with the boys. By 1 in the morning he’d tired himself out and could be found swaying in the middle of the dancefloor, eyes stuck to one of the prettiest girls in the company. It was heartbreaking to watch. Oh well, there goes another hopeless dream. As I watch these chances slip away from me, increasingly I find the only thing that can cheer me up is dancing. Boy, did I dance after that.

At 2am, after all six minutes of Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’ had been played they switched the lights on and we had to go home. I followed Hadiya, Laurelle and Rolando, one of my favourite straight guys in the world, an utter sweetheart who comes over all cuddly when drunk. We were getting the same bus from Liverpool Street; many times I have stood in that bus station in the middle of the night, pissed off my rocker. This was probably the first time I had ever stood there waiting for a night bus sober. Everyone else with me was drunk, especially Rolando, who couldn’t stop giggling at nothing in particular. When I’m in a good mood and I’m around drunk people, a strange thing happens: their drunkenness seems to rub off on me, so that I become sympathetically drunk, if you like. It’s a good kind of drunk, I guess, as you don’t have to worry about the hangover in the morning. It’s not the out of control, shamefaced kind of drunk that I used to specialise in – it’s just an innocent, high on life kind of thing, really. Sitting with friends on the top deck of the bus, watching the Christmas lights in central London go rushing by, I felt content.

*****

Tonight I had an unexpected invitation to Phil’s birthday in Soho, and I wasn’t planning to go until an hour beforehand when I realised that, like most other things, I had no reason not to go. I’ve known Phil for years, I hardly ever see him these days, and so thought it would be nice to pop over and give him a birthday hug. I pulled my best shirt on, sprayed myself with Linx and played with my hair a bit – sometimes it’s good to make an effort. I felt a small twinge of fear in my gut: they would be meeting in Ku Bar, a place I hadn’t been to for years. In the heart of Soho, Ku is the epitome of the London gay scene: large, noisy, overcrowded and hot. The fake-tanned staff are usually half naked, and the crowd are mostly young and thin. My innate fear of the place isn’t helped by the memories of falling asleep there drunk, and on another occasion being asked to leave whilst paralytic. The chance of such things happening again is of course incredibly slim. My concerns these days revolve more around my lack of stamina, and the soporific effect that going out ‘on the scene’ seems to have on me. In 2010 I must have only visited a handful of gay bars on a handful of occasions. Years ago I’d have a spot in these places most nights of the week. These days, once a month is really more than enough.

I can’t say I have anything against such places. Ku Bar is by no means horrible, if you like squeezing through the crowds that never seem to thin out to find a table or the toilet or somewhere to hang your coat. When I got there at 8 I found Phil straight away. Cleverly he had booked an area upstairs, and so I was whisked up to find a seat reserved for me. As I sat down I immediately noticed an interesting situation. On one side of the large round table a small group of older, serious looking gay men were sat with their pints and their legs crossed; on the other side were the younger ones – I couldn’t help thinking of them as ‘the kids’, which of course they’re not in reality, but compared to the group on my right, they may as well as have been. I never knew that Phil had two entirely different sets of friends. One group, mostly in their forties, like to drink beer and talk quietly about their favourite countryside pubs; another group, all in their twenties, wear make up and g-strings, giggle incessantly and talk almost exclusively about Lady Gaga. They were separated completely by the table, and while I was there they didn’t mix. It was so fascinating I could write a book about it.

Phil, bless him, did his best to mix with both groups. Sat in the very middle I tried my hardest not to form a third group all on my own, yet it was difficult not to. Hardly surprising that I was the only one present not drinking. Of course I knew it would be that way – I’d be silly to go to such a place and expect to find other tee-totallers to bitch and moan with. I made some efforts to talk to my neighbours; as more and more of Phil’s stick thin younger friends poured in I whispered in the ear of one of the older crowd: ‘where does he find these people?’ At which my neighbour laughed heartily. It must have come as a surprise to all of us, to suddenly see the trendy circles that Phil now moves in. A few years ago it would have just been us quiet ones around the table. In the last couple of years he’s found more and more of these…I hate to keep calling them ‘thin’, but I can’t think of anything more suitable to describe them as. All these thin, giggling queens: the exact sort of crowd that you would find in Ku Bar every single night.

I wanted to talk to them, I really did, but I have spent so many years watching people like that in gay bars, wanting to be a part of their group, I could hardly bear to look at them for more than a few minutes. I’m sure they’re all very nice people but in places like that they always seem to acquire this hard-nosed edge: behind the shiny, smiley veneer there is always something darker, you can imagine the claws coming out after just one wrong word or action. By 10pm there were so many of them standing around Phil, filling the air with expensive perfumes, it’s no wonder us five ‘older’ queens on the other side of the table were practically stunned into silence.

At this point I knew it was the right time to say goodbye, so I could come home and write about it all. When I left Phil was on the precipice of overt drunkenness, a sight I’ve seen many times before and which makes me feel a bit odd, considering the many more times he had to see me wasted. I can’t complain about a bad night – at least Phil made some effort to include me in conversations early on. He seemed really happy to have me there, which is nice. God, I’ve treated him like shit in the past. When we were going out I was a terrible boyfriend. It’s a wonder he still likes me.

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