Any Other Name
By Jude O'Flynn
NOTE: Final chapter of story shared on ABC Tales a few months ago and previously-titled 'Crazy Diamond' and 'Mad Alex and The Moral Panics'
I literally have a golden ticket and keep feeling inside my jacket pocket to check it’s still there.
‘Why do you keep doing that? You look like Lord Nelson!’
Rita playfully elbows me in the side. I glance at other members of the queue: everyone’s beaming. We are all about to enter a magnificent party, the theme of which is ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. It’s certainly a better title than ‘Around a Dolled-Up Campus in Ten Hours’. If we last the distance we’re obliged to re-congregate here for a ‘Survivors Photo’, which seems to me to belittle genuinely heroic and historical acts of preservation against overwhelming odds. Living to tell the tale of a ‘mammoth sesh’ isn’t an example of dedication that I’d be proud to share at a graduate job interview.
We’re inside the grounds and don’t they look lovely tonight? The path from the entrance to the Great Hall is lit by a row of gas lights. There’s a big top in the middle of the green, and there’s a helter-skelter, a dodgems ride, a bucking bronco ride, numerous food stands, trolleys filled with ice and beer bottles, a magician getting in everyone’s way, and – I cannot believe I’m seeing this – an actual hot air balloon. The current setting makes a Gatsby party look like quiet hour in a nunnery.
‘What shall we do first?’ Rita asks.
‘Have a drink.’
‘Boring! Let’s go to France…’ She grabs my arm and a minute later we’re in the buttery. A tinny recording of ‘Le Marseillaise’ is playing while sad waiters on minimum wage hold plastic silver trays of puff pastry. One of the waiters is getting a rollicking by the stairs that lead to the Bible Study room.
‘…I said fifty canapés not canopies!’
Blimey, there’s no need to get tents…
‘What’s tickled you?’ Rita says.
‘Nothing. Can I get my lady a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape?’
We sit with our glasses at a table and imagine we’re watching life go by on a Parisien street. Beret-wearing staff weave through waves of soon-to-be wasted youths. Ten hours of pre-paid indulgence. This may be heaven…or this may be Charlotte crossing the border…’
‘I need to go to la toilette…’
‘You’ve not even finished your first drink!’
I join the flow of traffic heading to the Far East.
Dammit! How did she recognise me from behind? I’m wearing the same outfit as all the other male attendees.
I take a deep breath and turn around. ‘Hi Charlotte. Hi…’
‘This is Eddie.’
‘Hi Eddie.’ A formal handshake. He is, of course, ridiculously handsome.
‘Eddie’s studying History of Art at Trinity.’
‘It’s a really great set-up, isn’t it?’ Charlotte says, looking at the buttery ceiling with dreamy eyes.
Eddie doesn’t seem too enamoured. I suppose I should make conversation. ‘What about the Trinity Ball? Isn’t that supposed to be the best ball in Cambridge?’ Allegedly it’s de rigeur for the leaders of tomorrow to get tanked on the banks of the Cam while singing ‘God Save The Queen’ in just their skin.
‘Yeah, we thought about it,’ Charlotte replies. ‘I’m not sure I’m that bothered about big balls.’
‘Me neither,’ I say with utmost sincerity.
‘I’m so sorry…’
‘It wasn’t your fault! He’s fine. I’ve just been to see him. What happened to…?’
‘He got sent down.’
‘Who got sent down?’ Eddie asks.
‘Oh, just a guy who was in the play Nick and I were in.’
‘What did he do?’
‘Pushed things a bit too far. Went completely off his head,’ and I do the tiddly person mime to clarify that drink was the cause of Beatnik’s downfall. I don’t think tonight is the time for details. Eddie seems satisfied with my explanation and Charlotte is clearly relieved.
‘Right, well we better keep exploring. Have a great night Nick.’
‘Thanks. Have a good one both.’
I return to the table. Both glasses are empty.
‘Sorry, I got bored waiting for you,’ Rita confesses.
‘No problem. I’m not really a wine drinker anyway.’
‘What about vodka?’
‘Yeah, now and then.’
‘Fancy going to Russia?’
We get as far as the bar, our journey halted by the realisation that a bear is banging on a window. A panda is standing next to him.
‘Just ignore them. Come on…’ Rita tries to pull me away but the bear is pointing at me. Now he’s ripping his head off. It’s Tim. He’s mouthing the words ‘let me in’ like a demented goldfish. ‘Come on!’ Rita shouts from halfway done the corridor.
‘Just bear with me.’
I open the top portion of the window and stand on the ledge.
‘Hi Tim. Is that Pavlov?’
‘It is mate. Can you let us in?’
‘Er…Have you got a ticket?’
‘No mate. We’re the entertainment.’
‘Oh, OK.’ I stick my arm out the window and point north-east. ‘If you go round the side of the building there’s a fire exit. I’ll let you in there.’
Rita has her hands on her hips in full teacher mode.
‘What’s going on?’
‘I’ll be right back.’
I dash into the bar, a.k.a. Germany, and make my way to the port of Kiel. I open the door to allow Tim and Pavlov in. ‘Fast-track!’
Pavlov has removed his head and I can’t tell whether he’s salivating at the sight of Bavarian barmaids or all the free beer. He’s definitely not pleased about Jack striding towards us, nor am I.
‘Why are yous opening the door? There’s no fire!’ The rolled r on ‘fire’ sounds like a stuttering rifle and it’s plausible that Jack has said item on his person.
‘Sorry Jack, I was…’
‘Breaking the rools!’ and he grabs me by the bow tie. I close my eyes in anticipation of impact and when I open them again I see him wriggling his fist out of a bear’s grasp.
‘We’re your colleagues,’ Tim says. ‘Nick was doing us a favour.’
‘Is that right?’ Frank replies in an almost-whisper, examining the life return to his hand.
‘Yeah, that’s right. Don’t suppose you could do us one too?’
‘A beer. One for me and one for the panda.’
‘Aye. Bottle of pils?’
‘Pills? Nah, I gave up that shit years ago.’
‘Pilsner. Do yous want Pilsner?’
‘Nah, that’s Czech mate. Get us some Deutsche.’
I leave them to negotiate a brand of subtle inebriation and re-join my patient partner.
‘What were you doing in there?’
‘Just helping out a couple of friends.’
‘Come on, I fancy a White Russian.’
‘Really? Oh, yeah, of course…’
As we walk past the Students Union office (Poland) we can hear impeccably elegant piano from the common room. What a contrast to the raucous beer hall I’ve just been in! It’s standing room only. It’s the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. Couples lean their heads together and sigh. A group of lads who are probably the college rugby team are mesmerised and mute. One rogue is cupping a brandy glass as if he was proudly displaying his bollocks. The room erupts into applause, and as it peters out I reflect that I would also prefer a steady brandy to the unpredictable measures of a cocktail.
‘Wasn’t she amazing?’ Rita swoons.
‘She certainly was.’
The captivated crowd remembers its duty to be debauched. After much bowing and catching of imaginary flowers the pianist collects her books and goes to leave. Of course…
She stops and tries to identify this fanboy.
‘Remember when I heard you playing Show Pan?’
‘Oh…Yes. Yes I do.’
‘What you played just now was even more beautiful. I know I shouldn’t say it…’ – don’t say it! DON’T say it! – ‘…but it reminded me of Celine Dion!’
Now she’s sighing. ‘It was the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.’
‘It was brilliant.’
‘I’m still really sorry about that story.’
‘The birds at Gonville.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘I have a better one for you. A real story.’
‘The chair of the SU has been sent down.’
‘Yes, I know about that.’
‘It was my friend he assaulted.’
‘Yeah, they had an argument about the play, which I was in as well.’
‘I’ve thought of a title for an article.’
‘What is it?’
‘’Bottom’s Down!’ Because he was Bottom in the play.’
‘Or how about ‘SU president SUspended’, where the ‘S’ and the ‘U’ in ‘SU’ are capitalised?’
‘I’d better go…’
‘OK, forget about puns. How about ‘Crime and Punishment’?’
‘Thank you for the suggestions. See you later.’
She departs and Rita looks at me like Columbo. ‘What was all that about then? Another ‘friend’ you were trying to help?’
‘No, just another shameless attempt to get on the journalism ladder.’
‘I didn’t know you want to be a journalist.’
‘Just keeping my options open. Not sure I want to be a teacher.’
‘You’re not the only one. Drink?’