It was when I reached up to tie the balloons to our front door that the very weight of them made me sit down.
It was Saturday, and it was the baby’s first birthday. The night before we’d been invited to another party, of the kind I used to be used to, a kitchen crammed full of guys drinking and giggling and waves of people turning up after midnight, and something really funny happening to do with two colleagues going home together despite sort of hating each other, and mixing your drinks in a massive mug and someone at some point after three going: “Shall we just get in the car and DRIVE TO MANCHESTER?”
The police turned up at dawn, but I heard this secondhand – I wasn’t there. Instead I stayed home and made two cakes, blew up the paddling pool and was asleep by 11. There was a third party this weekend, too. After Saturday’s birthday festivities were over and night had fallen we were invited to be the youngest at a party of 65-year-olds. It promised to be similar to the first, but with guests who had come to terms with their baldness.
Three summer parties, each one humming with its own expectations, each one highlighting another of my inadequacies. First party: being boring. Second party: being incompetent. Third party: being a failure, what fun. In my 30s now, I’ve had ample time to navigate the obstacle course of the London house party. I’ve been to parties in squats, parties in student halls, parties where a man in an inflatable clown suit was performing a sex act on a stranger dressed as the Crow, and every time, regardless of alcohol, drugs, or noise levels, I’ve had a conversation about where a stranger went on holiday. It’s not just that I’m bad at chat, though, yes, that plays a part. It’s that parties bring out the worst in people. Come for the possibility of sex, the invites should read, stay for the certainty of being left standing with the one remaining man who thinks you care about his opinion on Rihanna.
Now, I love a party. I do. Despite the friends’ partners who like to tell you everything you’ve got wrong, alphabetically. Despite the way you feel the next morning, that deep breakfast shame. Despite the fraction of time between people being far too sober and disgustingly drunk shrinking every year, I love a party.
The problems come just before they start. “Come as you are” = the original lie. Unless you are Truman Capote or Dorothy Parker – Kanye at a push – never, ever come to a party as you are. Instead carefully calculate which particular you is required. As I get older, I have to recalibrate on the doorstep.
For the baby tea party I performed as a mother. Still a novelty, especially when guests trickled in from the house party the night before, hair wet from the shower, eyes like dark forests, and I maternalled them by accident. Slightly simpler was the Saturday-night transition from mother to daughter (we look fairly similar), but still, nobody should have to switch who they are that many times in a weekend. Even Superman needed a phone booth.
Parties expose their guests’ failings to a degree that even the toughest Google job interview could never hope to achieve. Sure I slipped at times, from daughter, to mother, to person who forgets the ends of celebrity anecdotes, and sure, my boyfriend, midway through commandeering the paddling pool as a party-sized ice bucket for all the beer, mouthed to me: “Is this OK?”, but I made it through the weekend. Yes, it was OK. Three parties: two attended, one hosted, all survived. And as if I’d done a real obstacle course, I ached at the end, but because they had made me stronger. The difference between this year and earlier summers is that where once a Sports Direct mug of tequila and orange would have deadened the party anxiety, this time it was the cake. The two cakes.