The attendant opens the door with a grand gesture and fusses over my coat and bag. More than my gilt-edged invitation, this absurd attention confirms my new-found prominence, and makes me distinctly uneasy.
It’s a break for me, an opportunity to put behind me those wasted years and chances spurned, but my tentative tread as I stroll along the oak-panelled corridor festooned with self-satisfied portraits betrays my sense of not belonging. I affect an air of disinterested nonchalance, trying to take in the grandeur and undeniable beauty without looking like I have wandered in from the streets, a refugee of the London Big Bus Company tour.
The crystal chandeliers lie heavy from the ceiling, their brilliance eclipsed only by the glittering egos of the great and good. And the not so good, as long as they have money to ease their guilty conscience. I glance around, wary of eye contact. With the right person, it’s fine but an itinerant gaze is a sign of desperation. A stirring in one corner: within this room any spontaneity stands out. Adriana throws back her thick wavy hair then bends forward slightly from the waist, the laughter flowing through her body and rippling out to the group of six or seven guests around her. The women look away, the men shuffle a fraction closer and laugh a little too long. She catches my eye and shrugs imperceptibly. ‘What can I do?’
I begin a smile in return but our line of sight is swiftly interrupted by a tuxedo, anxious to secure her undivided attention.
There is an art to these gatherings. My usual chosen option is to skulk around the edges, pretending that I am content in my solitude and that drinking a glass of fizzy water in 185 sips is really how I want to spend my time. However, today I’m at the top table and must drink my fill. An assertive stride towards my target, followed by a firm handshake. I’ve practised my lines. ‘We met briefly at last year’s conference” I lie but they won’t remember me, whether it is true or not. A few short moments to make an impression – in a good way, so my approach is unencumbered by champagne glass or canape. Well chosen words and a card pressed from a clammy palm.
They know after a minute or so. I’m desperately polite and flattering, adding a succinct and devastatingly accurate critique of the new Bill. But they strip all the baggage away – is this guy useful to me or not? After a minute comes the tell-tale glance over my shoulder, seeking someone more worthwhile to converse with. It’s over and I depart.
The hall is full now. As I gather myself for the next foray, an actress few people have heard of is welcomed on stage. I pause, then slip away. Adriana glares at me wide-eyed from across the room, angry and enticing. Now I shrug and continue on my way without a backward glance. The cloakroom attendant purses her lips in surprise as I disturb her flirting with the burly doorman. She hands me my coat and the carefully rehearsed plan is enacted with precision. Two minutes to the exit (unseemly to rush), seven minutes walk to Liverpool Street for the 19.22 and I’ll be in my seat at five to, just before Fulham kick off. It’s a shame that I’ve missed the pre-kick-off chat and atmosphere, but we all have to make sacrifices.