Christmas and new year are no more than a bag of empty bottles waiting to go to the bottle bank, but the party season boogies on. High heels, red wine, strangers discussing sex.

"I love my wife very much," says blond, paunchy, man-boy Oliver. "God knows, we've been through a lot, and then we've got a kid - "

"And another on the way," I remind him.

"And another on the way," he preens, visibly touched that I remember. "But don't you see? An affair wouldn't be regal, emotional infidelity. And it can be a spark - for some people it's a way of staying together."

I laugh. "Excuses don't come much older than that."

"I don't believe in divorce," he stiffens, "not with kids on the scene."

"I expect you admire the French." I can't resist dropping buns into his cage. "The mistress, the mousy, devoted wife, the lifelong marriage, the bliss of emotional decorum?"

But Oliver trundles over my sarcasm, nonchalant, blind, dividing a tortilla with his strong, white teeth. "The French have got an awful lot of things right."

"So you stay together, for the kids?"


"Yet they live in a broken home."

"No. We send them away to school." He laughs, enjoying his wit.

"And everything is built on lies."

"God, how old are you? You sound like an idealistic teenager." He pats his breast pocket, feeling for cigarettes. "It's only sex, after all."

Only sex. I finger the weight of my ear-rings, sip my wine - metallic, tongue-staining, silty. The fairy on the now dessicated Christmas tree behind us has her mouth wide open, showing a row of tiny, sharp white teeth. I take a step backwards, away from Oliver. Pine needles prick the backs of my legs.

"So how many affairs have you had since you've been married?" I ask him suddenly.

He wrinkles his face at me. "Meaning - ?"

"Have you slept with other women?"

"Ha! I don't know you well enough to answer that!" A prim smile.

"And as for 'only sex'," I continue. "What's 'only' about it? Sex is a lot, a big deal."

He gives a "knew it" laugh, shrugs, lights a cigarette. "If you're determined to make heavy weather of it, sure it is."

"So you're talking about casual, take-it-or-leave-it sex?"

He nods, smoke escaping from each nostril.

"But it sounds so dull," I counter. "Why bother to do it in the first place?"

For a second he's stumped. Then: "Look, life is short and all that. Maybe love means you accommodate each other ..." He shrugs.

"You mean both people do it?"

"Uh huh. You trust each other, you're quits."

"So your wife has affairs?"

He hesitates. "I really don't think Katy ever would, but yes - if she did - "

"Ah!" I pounce, "But that's just it. Katy never would and you're banking on it. It's never truly equal, is it? One person is always more unfaithful than the other - or wants to be, or enjoys it more, or whatever. Don't tell me there isn't a loser. And damage."

"Look here," he leans towards me, touches my shoulder, "I'm not saying I've actually had affairs. Just that it's not this big deal. I suppose I'm highly sexed." He gives me a dark look. "I like a lot of it, and you're a long time dead, that's all."

"I never said" - my cheeks burn because he's made me say it - "I didn't like a lot of it."

He looks at me, "Then ... ?"

"Like a lot of what?" Charlie, our host, sidles up, slides a hot hand into the small of my back. I've known Charlie since I was five and we crunched polio sugar lumps at the toddler clinic together.

"Sex," smirks Oliver, "we were talking about sex."

"Good, good," says Charlie, who always says everything twice now that he works with money and has lost his wayward curls and wears a suit and tie to his own party.

"She says she likes a lot of it," says Oliver.

"We were talking about people who screw around, actually," I counter.

"Well, well," Charlie perks up, "steamy stuff, steamy stuff."

I look for Jonathan. Around me a forest of elbows, cuffs, smoke and laughter. Someone lets ash fall on the cream carpet. I yawn.

"Keeping you up, are we?" says Oliver.

"Where's Jonathan?" I mutter. "We ought to be going soon."

"Stay, stay. Let me get you both another drink," says Charlie.

"I'm well over the limit,"says Oliver lamely.

"You know," says Charlie, "I was breathalysed the other day on Upper Street. But I hyperventilated and got away with it."

"Hey!" exclaims Oliver, "I did exactly the same. They couldn't do me. The trick is to breathe out of your mouth, not your lungs. And I'd had four or five pints."

"If it's so easy," I ask coldly, "why doesn't everyone do it?"

"Well, people are dumb assholes, aren't they?" says Charlie.

"Watch it," Oliver winks at me, "she probably disapproves."

"Goodbye," I say, and head for the hall.

In the loo are linen guest towels that crumple to nothing and leave your hands damp. Three new soaps, shaped like conch shells. Over the basin, with its gold taps, is a framed photo of Charlie from 15 years ago. Long, wild hair, sulky, troubled features, faded pink T-shirt, old jeans.

"You should have found me earlier," says Jonathan. "Awful people. Why did we come?" I tell him about Oliver; he laughs. Our feet pound the pavement. We don't look back.