An uncomfortably familiar feeling

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The Independent Culture
BY THE time you read this, the first day of 1995 will be upon us, and whatever disastrous entertainments we have had to endure in the name of "bringing in the New Year" will be blessedly over. Although I wanted to spend New Year's Eve lounging in bed, wearing the new, grey silk robe that I got for Christmas and eating bon-bons, I won't have done. Everyone knows New Year's Eves are horrible - but like German marzipan, or trips to the circus, or ploughman's lunches, we feel New Year's Eves ought to be wonderful, so we keep letting hope triumph over experience and giving them another vain try.

This New Year's will have been spent with my friend Claudia. If the evening has gone to plan, we will have started off with a visit to my sister-in-law, Sonya, who had to work New Year's, tending bar at a weird Iranian restaurant on the Upper East Side. Then we will have dropped in briefly at a party on the West Side. And then, if drink or exhaustion hasn't defeated us, we'll have gone on to spend midnight at a party in Brooklyn. This schedule was devised on the basis of my time-honoured New Year's principle: don't even think about having a good time - just try to keep busy.

Claudia hates New Year's even more than me. "Here's the thing about New Year's Eve," she said to me, when we first started discussing our plans. "You go to these parties, you get drunk, you talk, you dance. Then midnight comes. It's this incredibly significant moment: another whole year of your allotted time on this planet has passed. But everyone's jumping around, kissing each other and freaking out. It's like they're all screaming `Hurray! Hurray! We're never going to die.' I look at these people and I always think, `You're wrong, you know. You're wrong. You are going to die.' "

"Jesus, Claudia," I said, when she'd finished. "I'm not asking you to link arms with anyone, or drink mulled wine, or sing `Auld Lang Syne'. But you are going to lighten up a little, aren't you?"

"I'll try to," she sighed.

As a child, New Year's isn't so bad. The idea of getting older isn't so fraught with anxiety. Nor is there any of that wretched imperative to have fun. Time was when it was more thrilling than I could bear just to be allowed to stay up until midnight watching that little Scots troll - the one who's dead now - capering about on television with his kilt and his bonny bloody fiddle.

But then the teenage years came - and with them the duty to seek out shrill festivity.

Oh, those gruesome nights of ersatz good humour - hopscotching along puke-strewn, freezing streets, trying to locate some overcrowded party to which you had not been invited. (If you did find it and succeeded in gaining entrance you would get as drunk asyou could, as fast as you could, on something really horrible like Special Brew or Southern Comfort. By midnight you would be staggering about, moaning pitifully to your friends, "Ooh, I've got the black whirlies." Shortly afterwards, some vo mit-speckled youth would stagger up and dutifully attempt to get his not-so-wicked way with you. And always, always, the next morning, you'd wake up and say, "God, we had a real laugh last night, didn't we?")

Throughout adolescence, I figured that if I could only hold out for adulthood, New Year's would become something properly fabulous. I imagined that when I got older, I would attend serene, suave functions in white-carpeted apartments, where all the men would look like George Sanders and Cary Grant and all the women would look like Myrna Loy and Rita Hayworth. There would be Dinah Washington on the gramophone and lots of canapes on big silver platters. Everyone would drink from wispy little flutes of champagne and talk the way the characters did in All About Eve and The Philadelphia Story. At midnight, there would be streamers and romantic dancing and a few couples would steal out to the balcony, to stare at the moon and kiss. Ha-dee-ha-ha.

Much later, when I was far enough into my twenties to have had all my illusions on this score decisively shattered, I confessed my dream of an elegant, formal New Year's Eve to a boyfriend of mine. That New Year's, he responded by taking me to Windows onthe World, this cheesey bar at the top of the World Trade Center, and presenting me with a single red rose made out of nylon and an outsize satin teddy. "Oh, David, that's... that's great," I said, holding up the teddy (it looked like something you'd buy for a very glamorous rhino). Then I gazed out at Manhattan - the great big city, a wonderful toy just made for a goll and boy - and I thought to myself, "Next year, don't be dumb - go to bed and drink several draughts of Night Nurse." Except, the next year I didn't do that; I went out and had some other, equally disappointing and gruesome time. And the year after that, too. And the year after that.

Last year, I went to a supper party in the early evening and was supposed to go on to a party in west London with a group of girlfriends. On the previous occasion that I had attended a party at this address, several of my fellow guests had put about the vile and utterly unfounded story that I had had it off with someone in the bathroom. Despite my vigorous denials, the rumour had gone around for weeks afterwards. I got to thinking about this during the early evening supper, and became so depressed that I decided not to go on to the next party after all. I went home and midnight found me prone on my sofa, with Dinah Washington singing "This Bitter Earth" on the record-player. At around three in the morning, I awoke from an uncomfortable doze - my party clothes hopelessly rumpled, my face corrugated by the seams of my sofa cushions. I had, it seemed, been roused by my own sleep-talking - the grim repetition of a single, solemn chastisement, "I must turn over a new leaf. I must turn over a new leaf. I must turn over a new leaf..." ! !