Jean Paul Sartre wrote that “hell is other people”. Very often I tend to agree with him.
This morning I do not. And it's all because of this hangover.
Luckily my hangover is of the utterly pleasant kind: instead of nausea and headache I’m feeling an unusual equanimity about life, and all I'm suffering is a severe case of goodwill towards my fellow human beings.
There’s a fortune to be made if someone can just figure out how to manufacture and bottle this sweet feeling of harmony and connectedness.
The party was in celebration of a friend’s 75th birthday. Seventy or so people gathered at her home which perches above a stretch of stony coastline a few kilometres outside Nelson city. The house was once, years ago, an old bach with rotting foundations. But my friend, with the application of much love and hard work has transformed it into an airy, warm, welcoming home, full of light and an eclectic collection of art. Last night it was also full of her friends: old friends and new, friends from next door, and friends from the other side of the world. Her brother was there in person. Her parents, long dead, watched the party from their photographs on the wall.
Not all of the guests were as old as the birthday woman. One of the youngest, a boy with white-blonde hair, was hardly taller than the serving tables. After gazing hungrily for some time at the baguettes, sourdoughs and flat-breads arrayed on one table, he looked up at me and asked hopefully, “Are you the boss of the breads?”
Two handsome sixteen-year-old boys, with the fresh faces that only youth confers, wore narrow-cut hip-length shirts over tight-legged trousers. Except for the dropped crotch and the zips at the ankles, the pants were what we older folk used to call “stovepipes” and Sam Hunt called “Foxton straights”. The boys also wore the kind of pointy-toed shoes we used to called winkle pickers. After these cool dudes had been tutored in the correct opening and pouring of champagne, they filled glasses and served tiny, boat-shaped cups of strawberries and blueberries with a charming gravitas. Even better, they rinsed and washed the dishes afterwards without demur.
After a glass of champagne, we guests gathered on the patio under the glossy leaves and golden berries of a tall Karaka tree and listened as La Vida string quartet played some music that fizzed with fun and chutzpah or was plaintive and melancholy and full of yearning. As the quartet plied their bows, a monarch butterfly newly hatched from its green and gold-stitched chrysalis, fluttered up into the sky. And then - could nature have been more complicit? - an invisible tui trilled out a melodious coda just as the sound of the strings faded on the air.
The party may have been so lovely because the food was so good; because the bath was full of ice and bottles of champagne and wine; because the day was sunny; because the sky and the sea were blue: because all of us were linked by affection for our mutual friend and a shared history with her. But I suspect it was the music that made the party so lovely. The music seemed to create a kind of aural anteroom in which we could gather and tune into our common humanity before the noisier conviviality began.
Give or take a few 100 days, our small throng must have clocked up 3000 years of lived life and the music brought to mind the joy, and the suffering, which we'd jointly accumulated in all those years. The music made me think of all the friends, lovers, children, wives and husbands gained or lost. I thought about the people we used to be: rock’n’rollers, hippies, the veterans of sit-ins and love-ins, the survivors of marriages and dangerous liaisons. I thought of golden opportunities missed, foolhardy leaps and wise choices, of paths taken and not taken.
I thought about the speed with which physical beauty fades and the imperishability of temperament and personality. I thought about our shared fragility and how much we are hostages to fortune. I thought about the sustaining power of enduring friendships and our grief at their loss.
For some reason, all this slightly maudlin introspection left me feeling in the perfect mood for the party. And I think it is why the party turned out to be, in the words of Cole Porter, "delightful … delicious and delovely”.
My drive home along Atawhai Drive in the slow-gathering darkness was also delicious: the trees just silhouettes, the sky a deep, moody blue, the clouds almost black except beyond the hills where they were all peach and gold, underlit by the sinking sun. The sea was a gleaming silver and the golden lights of the marina lay reflected in its molten surface.
When I reached home, still in the delovely grip of the party, the dog leapt from the couch to give me his usual shimmy of welcome. Will someone please bottle this stuff?