I am about to leave a party when I’m introduced to someone who’s only just got there, by someone who then walks off.
“So many people!” says the guy.
“Yes!” I say, and I eye the door. But I can’t leave now. I have to put in the requisite time with this stranger, make him feel comfortable, ease him into the party, then somehow make my excuses and leave.
Some people do this easily. They just say, “I’m going to pop to the loo,” or, “I’m going to grab a drink,” and then they just wander off. I have never been one of those people. For me, it is just too risky. What if I say, “I’m just going to pop to the loo,” and the other guy says, “OK, I’ll come with you”? I would then have to go to the loo, and somehow perform under intense pressure and the watchful eye of an interested stranger.
And if I say, “I’m just going to grab a drink,” there’s no way I couldn’t follow it up with, “Would you like anything?” And before you know it, I’m this guy’s personal butler and I’m living in a shed at the bottom of his garden.
So my strategy is to try to make polite conversation that implies, ‘there is nowhere I would rather be than here with you, a complete stranger, at a party that, but for your unexpected intervention, I would have left by now.’
“Loads of people,” I say, looking at the people and surreptitiously stealing a glance at his glass. It’s full. I wish it was empty. Then I could say, “Oh, you haven’t got a drink!”, and he’d feel pressured into going to the bar, wading into the crowd and when he turned round all he’d see were my legs disappearing through a window.
“So many,” he says, still looking at the crowd, and I feel we’ve exhausted this now. So, for it not to get weird, I have to come up with some new direction for the conversation. Ideally, something that will lead to a short, punchy chat, which will leave us satisfied but not wanting more. Though why is this my responsibility? He’s the latecomer. He should have brought something with him. Everyone should attend a party with a small pack of notes they made on their way there.
“I think I saw a bat the other day,” I say, which is a surprise even to me, but it’s true, I did see a bat, and this has piqued his interest. So I tell him about the bat, and he seems into it. He starts to tell me about a friend of his who actually studied bats, and I kick myself. Why did I have to be so engaging? Now we’re going to be stuck here talking about bats for ages.
I realise I’m going to have to go for the old palm-off. I don’t want to do the palm-off but it is a necessary evil and can be a very elegant solution. I just need a palmee.
I lean in to listen more intently, and angle my ear towards him, but this is not because I can’t hear him: it is so I can subtly scan the crowd in case there’s someone I know. Then I can beckon them in, and say, “We were just talking about bats!” and the second they come up with something interesting to say about bats I can skedaddle.
The man keeps talking about bats, and again I realise it was a rookie error introducing a topic as universal as bats. Everyone’s got stuff to say about bats. But who is this guy anyway? He said his name at the start but I immediately forgot it. What’s his story? Who’s he here to see? I don’t care, and if I ask him, he’ll only tell me.
And then I see a guy just a few feet away. I don’t know him. But he’s on his own. So I do something very clever. I stand back a step.
I angle myself very slightly differently. I am widening this social circle. Giving him a conversational come-on. He has no chance. This is like a magical siren’s call, and he a simple lone sailor navigating the choppy waters of this party, desperate for a social rock to cling to. That rock shall, very briefly, be me.
But he’s not coming. He’s just tapping his beer bottle, pretending he’s looking for someone.
And then we lock eyes. I give him a friendly nod. He nods back in kind. Yet he does not move.
“Come on!” I think. “Come and talk about bats!”
And then the guy I’m talking to stops banging on about bats and there is a vital moment. This slight pause is all I have. It’s crunch time. Either I come up with something new to say about bats or I grab this stranger and get him involved.
“Hello mate,” I say, and the guy smiles and steps into our huddle. I’ve GOT him!
“I’m Danny,” I say, and it feels perfectly fine and perfectly normal. I saw a guy on his own!
I invited him in! “And this is… I’m so sorry, I forgot your name!”
“Paul,” says Batman. “How’s it going?” And now all I have to do is let these two clowns bond and boom – I’m out!
“I’m just going to pop to the loo,” says Paul.
WHAT? Wait! I’ll come with you!
Paul walks off. A free man. I turn back to the beer-bottle guy.
“So many people!” he says, and I deflate.
“Loads of people,” I say.
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