New Year''s Eve 2019
The Night Jam was rammed. Pounding music pulsed through the club and the walls felt sticky with sweat, alcohol, and likely worse. Minnie held tightly to Greg''s hand as they jostled through the crowd near the door.
"We''re never going to get to the bar," Greg shouted back to her.
"What?" Minnie yelled back, her ears adjusting to the heavy bass.
"We won''t be able to get a drink before midnight. I don''t even know where Lucy''s party is," said Greg.
He pointed upward, indicating they should try to push their way upstairs to the terrace on the mezzanine above. Minnie looked at her watch-it was ten to midnight. So far, this whole evening was only validating her hatred of New Year''s Eve. Why hadn''t she stayed at home and gone to bed early? Then she remembered that her heating had been cut off-she''d come out to keep warm. And Greg had been determined to go to his work friend''s party; she would have felt like a bad girlfriend if she''d made him go alone.
Minnie let herself be dragged through the throng of pulsating bodies. Finally, they emerged from the crush, stepping out into the cool night air where the thumping bass from the club settled to a more manageable decibel.
"Watch it!" Greg said, pushing a drunk guy out of his way. Greg glared at the man, trying to make him notice he''d spilled his beer on someone, but the man was too far gone to care.
"I did warn you about spending New Year with me," said Minnie.
"Will you stop with this jinxed stuff?" said Greg, shaking his head.
"Honestly, it''s a thing; bad things happen to me at New Year''s. I wouldn''t be surprised if this whole building went up in flames before the night''s out. Or perhaps a very small asteroid lands right where I''m standing."
"I don''t think we''re having a terrible night because you''re jinxed; I think we''re having a terrible night because you dragged us to dinner at weird Alan''s house on the other side of the galaxy. Now we''re arriving at a party two seconds to midnight when everyone''s high on moon juice and . . . come in, Star Command?" Greg lifted a finger to his ear, pausing to listen to an imaginary transmission. "Mission control says we''re not even at the right party."
"Permission to abort the mission?" Minnie asked hopefully.
"Denied," said Greg.
Minnie and Greg had been dating for five months. They''d met at a march outside City Hall, protesting the lack of affordable housing in London. Greg was the journalist covering the story and Minnie was there supporting Mrs. Melvin, a lady she had been delivering food to since the early days of her business. Minnie and her friend Leila had made a sign for the march that read housing is a human right, but they''d used too much paint on the first H so it looked a bit like an M. On the march, Minnie, Leila, and Mrs. Melvin found themselves walking next to a group of people dressed as large cats wearing monocles and top hats. One wore a T-shirt that read say no to the fat cats! Greg ran over to take a photo of Minnie''s sign with the fat cats in the foreground. He shook his head, laughing as he snapped away.
"Why are you laughing?" Minnie shouted crossly.
"Maybe the cats are so fat because of all the mousing?" Greg said, pointing to her sign. Leila looked and laughed. Minnie rolled her eyes.
"It doesn''t say mousing," she said, hand firmly on her hip.
"It does look like it says mousing, Minnie," said Leila.
"Minnie Mouse, this photo will make a great front page," said Greg with a sly smile.
"You''d better not," said Minnie, trying not to laugh. She liked men who could make her laugh. She was instantly drawn to Greg''s sarcastic manner and his angular features. He had a neatly trimmed brown beard and distinctive, dark-rimmed glasses. Once they started dating, Minnie discovered that it wasn''t just for work that Greg liked to make up headlines-he enjoyed captioning everything she did. When Minnie tripped on a step he would say, "Stunner trips on stairs: Stairs seek legal advice; chances are they''re going down!" Or when she took the last banana in his fruit bowl, he''d pipe up in an American drawl, "Fruit bowl homicide still unsolved: Did victim go bananas? Cross the lime? Or was it simply a case of sour grapes?" Puns were his thing. But Greg wasn''t making any jokes this evening.
"Look, you stay here," he said with a sigh, looking around the balcony, "I''ll go back through and try to find this private room."
"OK, well, if an asteroid lands in your absence, I can only say good-bye, I told you so, and happy New Year," Minnie replied, trying to sound upbeat.
As Greg walked away, Minnie turned to look out at the London skyline and shivered. The city exuded a sense of serenity in sharp contrast to the atmosphere of the club. The buildings were bathed in silver moonlight and the night sky was still and cloudless. Minnie wished she could transport herself to the top of another empty skyscraper just to lie down on the flat roof and gaze up at the stars, unfettered by other people.
"Ten, nine, eight . . ." People were starting the countdown. "Seven, six, five . . ." Minnie looked at all the couples pulling together in anticipation of the midnight kiss. She was glad Greg wasn''t there to kiss her. She never understood why the end of the year had to be marked with the ridiculous convention of everyone locking lips in unison. People behaving like lemmings, following the herd. "Four, three, two, one, HAPPY NEW YEAR!"
An explosion of fireworks erupted in the sky, illuminating the city beneath in a shower of multicolored lights. Huge bursts of energy ignited in the darkness, miniature universes flaring into existence only to fade to extinction moments later. Minnie wondered at all that effort for such a fleeting display of brilliance. The city buildings below looked still and stately, unmoved by the frenzy of activity above them. On the balcony of the club, the fireworks cast ugly shadows onto the spaced-out faces of intoxicated people as they swayed and swerved through the crowd. Light shone into grimy corners, full of cigarette butts and discarded plastic glasses. A group of girls tottering about in high heels pushed into her and Minnie had to grab the railing to stay upright.
"Happy birthday to me," Minnie said quietly to herself. Then she felt a warm, wet sensation as one of the girls vomited down her back.
By the time Greg returned, the terrace had thinned out and Minnie was sitting on the floor by the railings waiting for him.
"What are you wearing? Where''s your top?" asked Greg. Minnie had folded her sodden shirt into her bag and was now only wearing a gray tank top with frayed spaghetti straps.
"Someone was sick on my shirt," she said, hugging her arms around herself.
"Oh dear. Well, it''s a bit X-rated like that." Greg cupped a hand in front of his mouth to make a pretend microphone. "Weather report in-there''s a storm in a D-cup presenting itself."
"Well, it''s this or vomit-couture," Minnie said, pulling up her top self-consciously. She''d never dream of wearing an outfit this revealing in public. She felt very exposed. "Did you find the party or not?"
Greg nodded. He led her back through the club, up another staircase, and then through a double door covered in red velvet, pillared by two bald security guards.
"I was here just a minute ago-we''re here for the birthday party," Greg explained. The security guard waved them through, glancing at Minnie''s chest as she walked past. Minnie folded her arms in front of her.
The party on the other side of the red velvet door was everything that the room they had come from was not: The music was at a normal volume, the crowd looked beautifully dressed and sophisticated, waiters were topping up champagne and nobody was being sick over anyone. The exterior curved wall of the room was floor-to-ceiling glass, giving an incredible 180-degree view of the city of London beyond. Minnie immediately felt intimidated. This was a rich person''s party, a black tie one at that-she couldn''t look more out of place. Minnie had cooked for enough rich people to know how they reacted to people like her; they would patronize her or, worse, look right through her. If she had been wearing the right armor she could have done a good impression of someone who didn''t care, but her skimpy vest top was not it.
"Greg! You didn''t tell me it was black tie," she hissed.
"Black tie is a bourgeois construct, Minnie. I wouldn''t wear it to my own funeral." Greg scanned the room and then waved to a tall blond girl in a tight red dress. "Lucy!" The girl turned, gave a smile of recognition, then started making her way through the crowd toward them. "Better late than never, hey," Greg said, reaching out to touch her arm. "This is Minnie. Someone was sick on her shirt on the way in."
"Hi," said Lucy. Her pillowy lips closed over perfect straight teeth into a sympathetic smile. "Sorry about the sick. It''s ridiculous they make you wade through all the plebes to get up to the VIP suite."
Minnie shook her head, shrugging it off.
"Quite a party," she said, looking around at all the free-flowing booze. How much would a party like this cost?
"It''s my boyfriend''s birthday on the first. We thought we''d use it as an excuse to throw an excessive New Year''s Eve bash," Lucy said with a flick of her hand. Then she turned to Minnie with a beaming smile. "Hey, didn''t Greg say you were a first of January baby too, Minnie?"
"Oh, happy birthday," Greg said hurriedly. Lucy turned to look at him wide-eyed.
"Greg, you didn''t even wish her a happy birthday yet? Dump him, Minnie!" Lucy laughed and nudged Greg in the ribs. Greg blushed and looked at his feet.
"I''m not big on birthdays." Minnie smiled weakly.
They stood in silence for a moment.
"So, um, Lucy is the food columnist at the paper," Greg said. "I''m queuing up for a jammy gig like that. I saw you were at La Petite Assiette Rouge last week. So bloody jealous, Luce."
"It has its downsides, darling. I''m getting fatter and fatter the amount of Michelin-star dinners I''m being forced to eat. I feel like a foie gras goose being stuffed to bursting," said Lucy.
Minnie glanced down at Lucy''s svelte, gym-toned figure in the skintight look-how-thin-I-am dress.
"Oh, diddums, such a hardship," said Greg, nudging his elbow into hers. "Smart, beautiful girl force-fed fine food: Human rights campaigners on standby!"
Lucy threw her head back and gave a half-snorting, half-silent laugh, then she clutched Greg''s arm, as though she might fall over.
"You must have an absolute hoot with this one, Minnie."
Minnie nodded, though she wondered if Greg''s hilarious newspaper headlines might be starting to get annoying.
"Mins is in the food world too," said Greg, standing a little taller. "Runs her own catering business in the charity sector."
"That sounds interesting," said Lucy, looking over Minnie''s shoulder and waving to someone behind her.
"I don''t think making pies for the elderly counts as being in the ''food world,'' but thanks for bigging me up, hun," Minnie said, rubbing Greg''s back.
"Do you cater events? Maybe I''ve come across you?" asked Lucy, turning her attention back to Minnie.
"No, we just do savory pies for the elderly. The company''s called No Hard Fillings, it''s a bit like Meals on Wheels."
Lucy blinked her eyes a few times.
"No hard feelings?" she said.
"No," said Minnie. "No Hard Fillings, as in pie fillings. It''s, um, supposed to be funny."
"Oh, I see. Ha-ha," Lucy said, wrinkling her nose and giving another silent laugh. "Well, that must be very . . . fulfilling."
Greg let out a snorting cackle. "Good one, Luce." He tapped his elbow to Lucy''s. "See, the thing is, Minnie''s company would be a lot more successful if she didn''t keep giving stuff away for free and employing a load of time bandits with zero work ethic."
"I don''t, and that''s not true," Minnie said, bowing her head.
"Well, it sounds jolly rewarding," said Lucy. "I find old people so sweet, don''t you?"
"Some of them are sweet, some of them are total knobs, same as the rest of us," said Minnie. Greg coughed loudly and Minnie gave him a firm pat on the back.
"But you''re planning to branch out, aren''t you, Min?" Greg said, recovering his composure. "That''s her current customer base, but she could easily expand-do weddings, corporates, high-caliber events, all sorts. Maybe Lucy could hook you up with some contacts?"
"Sure, sure, happy to help," Lucy said, waving at someone across the room and starting to move away. "Listen, I must go mingle. Make yourselves at home; drink our champagne-we ordered way too much. And don''t worry about arriving late, the party''s hardly started."
Lucy cocked her head and flashed them both a well-rehearsed hostess smile, then with a swish of long silky hair she turned to go. Minnie watched Greg''s eyes follow her across the room.
Seeing them standing empty-handed, a waiter came over to offer them champagne. They both took one and went to clink glasses but missed, Greg''s champagne flute bumping into Minnie''s wrist. He quickly retracted his hand and took a large swig of drink.
"Happy New Year," said Minnie.
"Happy New Year," said Greg, then after a pause, "and happy, er, birthday, for real. I, um, I have a present for you back at my flat. Sorry, I didn''t have a chance to wrap it."
"Don''t worry. I said not to get me anything."
Greg shuffled his weight between each foot, his eyes flitting around the room.
"She''s a useful person to know, Lucy Donohue. I told you it would be worth coming tonight. She knows everyone who''s anyone in your sector. You should never underestimate how far good contacts will get you in life, Minnie."
"I doubt she knows everyone who''s anyone in the pie sector," Minnie said, then, affecting a posh voice, "unless it''s pastry chefs making choux pie-ettes out of foie gras at La Petite Rue de la Frenchy French." She stuck out her tongue and then laughed.
"I don''t know why you always do that," Greg said. "I''m trying to help you."
"You''re right, I''m sorry," said Minnie, feeling chastised. She didn''t need Greg to point it out. She could always hear herself sounding bitchy when she felt insecure, and ultimately it only made her feel worse. She bit her lip and fiddled with the pendant on her necklace. Greg pouted, a muscle twitching in his jaw.