THE PARTY GIRL STORY
The editor had asked me to prepare a series of articles on the lives of retired engineers. That is how I came to be talking to the old man in his own home. I had rung, and he had invited me to his home. When he ushered me in, I found a small complex of rooms - a study, a laboratory and a workshop. These had been set up in what seemed to be a studio flat built on the side of the larger house.
He showed me around and we discussed his work. We sat down and I set my tape recorder going, he talked about his approach to engineering, engineering creativity, and creativity in general. He expressed the view that the role of engineer required a certain type of creativity that inevitably overflowed into other aspects of an engineer's life. He cited examples of engineers who had made their mark in the arts. He spoke of amateur theatrical engineers, sculptor engineers, musician engineers and painter engineers. When pressed, he was able to show me examples of his own creativity outside the field of his work. He pulled out sketches and cartoons he had drawn. He then pulled a box file from a high shelf, and started to pick out poems and short stories he had written.
He explained that he had never had any of this stuff published. The poems, he said, had been used to embellish many an after dinner speech. The short stories were too long for that. Although never published, some of the stories had been a great success. This was off the track of the story that I was supposed to be researching, but I was intrigued, so I asked him to explain. He told me that the typical life of one of these stories went like this. They would start off as stories to tell. Not written down. He would tell a story to a gathering of friends, the friends would have interesting responses, and these would become part of the story. Such a story might cut a path through many a dinner party, and then run on stony ground when it could stand no more embellishments, and could not survive without supporting explanation. At this stage it was clear that such a story did not have a life ahead as a published work, but was to be judged a success none-the-less because of the contribution it had made to many convivial conversations.
It wasn't too hard to encourage the old man to find an example. He pulled a manuscript out of the box, and sat down to read. The conversation had drifted somewhat from the interview about a career in engineering, and he seemed to have forgotten that the tape recorder was still on the table. This was just as well, because I later asked him if I could take a copy of this story, and he had said "No". It is only from the tape recording that I can now transcribe "The Party Girl".
As he read, the old man used four different voices. One for the narrator, and one for each of the characters. This is the story as he read it.
Don, Roy, and Richard had come out to sit in the garden after a leisurely lunch. Don and Roy's wives were off somewhere. Perhaps Don said they were looking at the roses. Roy spoke of his recent trip to London and the experience of New Year's eve with business contacts he hardly knew. Don explained that he and Sue had been arranging their new artesian water system, designed to circumvent the new government tax on rainwater. They had been so exhausted after a few days of installing poly pipes, that they had stayed home on new year's eve and had an early night.
They both turned to the third man. "I think young Richard here has been up to something" Don said. He directed a wink at Roy, then went on "As the only single man here, tell us the story about new year's eve out on the tiles, Richard." "There is a story to tell, as it turns out." Richard began. Don and Roy exchanged a smile.
Richard saw the smiles, and thought that if he was going to tell his story he had better get his audience under control. "No not that kind of story!" he said. "I was invited to a party. The host was a young engineer. A workmate of an ex-workmate of mine. The crowd turned out to be all young people... except me."
"Richard gatecrashes the kinder break-up" said Roy as he held his hand up and moved it across the big headlines on an imaginary newspaper.
"No no not that young! In their thirties. You'll have to shut up and listen if you're going to enjoy this story."
Don and Roy smiled at each other again, but Richard wasn't watching. He went on. "It was at the new year's eve party. I was talking to Gina whilst a man of few words massaged her back. There were a few others in the conversation, but I can't remember who. Some drifted away. Lynne came up, looking a little flustered and said 'I've just been offered a bonk!'. 'Well, you're doing better than I am so far' I said. I don't remember how the conversation moved on from there, but it did. After a while I decided to leave. It had been a hard day, and I was tired. Anyway, I like driving home early from a new year's eve party. You have the roads almost to yourself.
I saw Lynne just a few days later at a wedding. 'Did you take up that offer?' I asked, not expecting an honest answer. Lynne didn't realize immediately what I meant by 'that offer', but when I reminded her of our earlier conversation, she said that it was more of a harassment than an offer. She had been approached again later when everyone was kissing just on midnight. The approach was sudden and, she said, she had had a tongue thrust into her mouth. It was not a flattering offer in the end, but an unwelcome advance. She would like to put the whole matter behind her she said, but that the offending party, whom she didn't identify, was with us at the wedding and this made her nervous. Our conversation was broken up then as the service was about to start.
When the meal was finished and the guests were mingling, Lynne and I found ourselves together again. Again she spoke of the man who made the unwelcome advances, and the need she felt to avoid him now. I could see that she was upset, so I apologized for misinterpreting her originally. I explained that she seemed to be making light of the matter at the party and that I had thought that she was bragging. I could see now, I explained, that she really was upset. It must be horrible to have a tongue thrust into your mouth when you are not expecting it and not wanting it. (I must admit that that has never happened to me!)
We talked about it a little more. It wasn't clear just what I should say in these circumstances. I thought I could see how upset she was. I told her that she was entitled to be upset and indignant and angry. Although the action was, on the face of it...."
".. on the face.....", Don repeated with mock seriousness. Roy interrupted the interruption with "More in her face than on her face!"
Richard soldiered on, trying to ignore these interruptions. "... Although the action was, on the face of it inexcusable, I asked her to imagine the fellow's position. It was most unlikely, I suggested, that his intention was to offend. After all, she had quickly moved away, and this was probably not the outcome he was hoping for. No, I suggested, the whole thing had been an error of judgement. The man had got carried away in the moment. Perhaps he had misread some cues. Perhaps he had allowed himself to think that this was a wonderful mutual coming together. In the spur of the moment he had no doubt forgotten caution and had not properly considered the possibility that his advance would be unwelcome. Perhaps he was feeling pretty embarrased about his error now. I even suggested that he might be more upset about the whole thing now than Lynne was.
She calmed down. The man, whoever he was, lurking around somewhere in amongst the wedding reception crowd, seemed to be less of a threat to her now. I don't think that I had said anything clever, but I just carried the burden of doing the talking whilst she had a chance to take a more relaxed position about it."
Richard paused, and for a moment it seemed that his story had come to an end. Don broke the silence. "I'll bet you took the chance to tell her one of your stories" he suggested.
"No. Someone came and asked her to dance. and she danced off. I didn't talk to her again that evening."
Roy seemed dissapointed. "An anticlimax, even for one of your stories", he quipped.
"This is not the end, yet." protested Richard
"The thing is", (Don seemed to think that comment was called for, and spoke over the top of Richard's protests) "young Richard has handled this situation very badly. First of all he missed his first cue. I reckon that when Lynne came up to him with that 'I've just been offered a bonk' story, that was an obvious 'come on'. He should have played his cards better at that early stage."
"Yes, but didn't he misinterpret her? She said later that it had been an unwelcome advance." Roy joined in the analysis.
"More likely, she was shocked by the initial offer, but hadn't had a chance to formulate a position before she found herself blurting it out to friend Richard. Then she quickly realized that she had let the matter escape into the public domain, and she had better present it with a little more care to show herself in just the right light. I still say that Richard was lucky to be the person she blurted it all out to, and he missed his cue."
"Richard the blurtee" Roy interrupted just to enjoy the sound of this.
"Then", Don went on, "to add insult to injury, Richard stuffed it up at the wedding reception as well. The young lady had explained the situation as she wanted Richard to see it. She was a maiden in distress seeking solace in his company, and all he could do was defend her adversary! Sounds to me you have missed two opportunities so far, Richard, and didn't you say this isn't the end of the story?"
"Yes, I did. Can I go on with it now?" The other men nodded, so Richard went on.
A few minutes later I was suddenly aware that a young man had come and sat beside me. I had met Max at a couple of parties, but didn't know him well. I might have been watching Lynne gyrating around the dance floor. So was he. "Ah that Lynne!" he said. "I really want to get to know her. I really want to make love to her! I really want to fuck her! But", he confessed, "I can't get to first base."
"Perhaps you are coming on too strong" I suggested. "I don't think so.", he said. "I have hardly talked to her and when circumstances bring us together, I just don't seem to be able to get things started." Max by his manner and by the nature of his confession had given me the opening to give him some advice. (Was it Don, or Roy, who quipped "Blind leading the blind"? Whichever it was, Richard ignored it and went on.) I told him that with a sensitive girl like that, a fellow needs to take it easy. "Perhaps you are coming on too strong, "I said.
"But I have hardly even spoken to her!" he pleaded.
Well, I couldn't betray the secret that Lynne had shared with me, so I told him that perhaps sometimes a person gives away what is on his mind without realizing it. "Your desires came out very forcefully when you told me of them, "I said. "Maybe they show a little when you don't mean them to."
Max said that he hadn't thought of that, and that he would tread more softly so as to not frighten her away.
Don smiled. "Well that's a nice twist at the end!"
"It is gratifying to see that you are not criticizing me for missing the chance to sweep Max off his feet, but this is not yet the end" Richard explained. He went on...
"Two months later, I went out to a folk club recital. When the guitar playing was over, they turned the lights up a little, and I found I was sitting near Lynne. We fell into conversation. She remembered our talk at the wedding. She told me how much she appreciated the way I had helped her come to terms with the upset. I had listened to her, she said. Then again, I had shown her a man's point of view, which she hadn't thought of. This had eased her anguish. Then she named the man who had caused the offence in the first place. It wasn't Max! ... And that's a true story!"
"In your dreams!" said Roy
"A nice dream, though", said Don
The old man put the manuscript down. He took a few moments to gather his thoughts and then explained how that story had reached the end of the road. It seems that the original story, that is the story that the Richard character told, was partly true. As that story was told at social gatherings, many interesting responses were invoked. The story as read to me had been the admixture of the original story and the responses of the friends who had listened to it.
When it was written out, the old man had sent it to a few friends in the hope that they would enjoy it and for comment.
"It was funny", he said "how a story that had been so acceptable for oral story telling seemed to fall flat as a written piece. One reader advised me to change the way Lynne had blurted out the announcement about her offer, on the grounds that it wasn't credible, yet that part actually happened.
Another reader said that the story was a "whodunnit" but fails as it doesn't reveal who actually "dunnit". The story is not meant to be a whodunnit. The point of the story is not who the offending man was, but that Richard makes a wrong assumption and gives advice based on that error. The trouble was, if readers are interpreting it as a whodunnit, I couldn't figure out how to modify the story to help them interpret it properly. I gave up! The old man looked a little sad.
Just then, there was a knock at the door, then it was opened by a woman carrying a tray. She was tall and elegant. She had grey hair, but was a good bit - perhaps twenty years - younger than the old man. She was interesting enough to capture my attention and make me forget the clever question I had formulated.
She put the tray down. "I have brought you some coffee and biscuits".
"Thankyou". As he spoke, the old man's eyes sparkled. He told her who I was, and then, turning to me, he said "This is Lynne."
Lynne poured the coffee from the plunger and left us to it.
My mind was so occupied trying to decide whether I should put any significance on the coincidence of the name of the woman in the story and the name of the woman who had just been in the room, that I found it hard to focus on the rest of the interview. I did manage to get back to engineering, however, and by the time we had finished our coffee, we had just about finished our business.
I gathered up my tape recorder and note pad, and the old man walked down the drive with me to my car. I was standing at the car door, promising to send him a copy of the edition with the article in it, when a big, expensive four wheel drive drove up and a distinguished looking middle aged man stepped out. The old man introduced us.
"This is Max, my landlord", he said. "Max is Lynne's husband. This is their house that my little studio flat is attached to."