Friday, 24 May 2013

The Last Party by Claire Hennessy





There was a part of me that didn’t want to believe that the world was about to end. I guess there’s always that childish part of you, the part that believes in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, that’s there to keep you safe. If you could really process the horror of it all, you’d go mad, the way so many people had already. The day after the announcement, they started carting them off, mid-hysterical scream. You could always tell, from the glassy eyes and resigned sighs, who’d gone through it. The pharmaceutical companies had made a fortune from the new treatments, not that it really mattered now.
My mother, before she jumped, said those companies were probably going to go on forever. The world could end and in some hell-dimension those pharmaceutical types would still be counting their cash.
***
My mother was one of the first to jump. Two days later, the cops set up designated times and places for jumpers. You couldn’t just land on the street and crush someone. She’d just about missed a seven-year-old girl, whose father turned up at our house late one night, banging on our door and yelling obscenities. Like we could do anything about it.
We weren’t allowed to see her, Alexia and me. They said it would upset us too much. I could imagine it clearly though. I imagined she looked pretty much like the rest of them, cartoonishly splayed out on concrete, too many things wrong. They couldn’t protect us from all of it.
She hadn’t even left a note. I wished she’d told us, before she did it.
***
Advocacy groups for Choice sprung up. They pushed fliers in through letter-boxes, sent emails and text messages, delivered talks at our school. Everyone should have the Choice to jump, they said, or “to take another course of action”, but they also had to be responsible about it, not take anyone else with them in the process. One of their slogans went, “We make the most of the choices we have.” The text was printed over a picture of a sunrise. It was supposed to be inspiring.
Alexia left a flier in my room, on my bed, and I knew without having to be told that she’d put her name down for the next jumping slot.
I stopped going to school, after that. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. I wandered through the streets, sometimes, or watched TV. I wasn’t sure what else I was supposed to do.
***
The parties were the government’s idea. A bunch of rich people had donated their houses, their resources, to the cause. Not all of them – I guess they had their childish part on full volume too, wanting to squeeze their eyes shut and pretend it was all going to be okay – but enough to make it happen.
A lady with black hair and kind eyes came to pick me up that night. There were seven of us, squashed into her car. We were the ones who had no one else left and they wanted to be sure we got to the parties. I’d seen the newsflashes looking for volunteers like her.
We were deposited outside this huge house, the kind of house you can’t imagine anyone actually living in, more like a movie set. Even though people were crowding in, all dressed in the best clothes they had, the high ceilings made it feel spacious, airy. There was artwork on the walls, big sweeping landscapes, although by the time I arrived someone had taken some of the paintings down, stomped through them.
The cops were there to keep an eye on things, but I could see that they didn’t really care. There was this one guy I noticed, in a blue uniform that was crumpled and stained, who stared right through a fight breaking out between two middle-aged men, like they were invisible.
I felt awkward and young in the green dress the kind-eyed lady had given me. It had been her daughter’s, I think. I guessed she’d been a jumper. The dress had frills at the hem, and the straps kept sliding down my shoulders.
“You’re beautiful,” someone said to me. A man. Maybe ten years older than me, maybe twenty. I wasn’t sure. “Don’t you know how beautiful you are?” He moved the straps down, then cupped my breasts.
No one had ever done that before. I had never made that sound, the little noise of surprise and delight, before. It felt like it was coming from someone else. He moved his head down, to kiss me there, to fasten a mouth over a nipple like a suckling child, and over his shoulder I could see other people, other items of clothing being pushed aside, other hands moving over flesh.
When he lifted his head again, I could see he was crying.
***
In the corner of a room that had once been a grand dining hall, where a chandelier with only half its lights dangled from the ceiling, there were two women together who pulled me to them. All the while I watched the clock. 3am local time, the scientists had said.
There was so much laughter, and groans and grunts and gasps of all kinds, everywhere. I felt like the only person alive not quite able to give in, self-conscious and clumsy.
After they were finished with me, I followed the blaring music upstairs, made my way through the forest of hands. There was a man my grandfather’s age waiting in an alcove. He lurched towards me, looking for the same thing we all were that night, and as he touched me he told me all his secrets.
His father had abused him. “But I forgive him for that,” he said, as his hands moved over my arms, my legs.
And his mother had let it happen. “I forgive her, too.” His hands were going where, up until an hour ago, no other human had ever ventured.
His sister had jumped. “And I have to forgive her for that.”
And then, as he pushed his way inside me, he told me other things. About the girlfriend he’d pressured into an abortion, about the boy he’d bullied at school, hurt the way his father had hurt him. About the wife he’d screamed at daily until she took some pills, in the days before pills were designed for that purpose. It all came in sobbing gulps, even as the body did its work, and I could tell he wanted forgiveness, for me to do what he had done for his family.
“I forgive you,” I said, with stickiness on my thighs.
That was maybe when it started to feel real, understanding that all of us here were equally capable of granting another forgiveness. That was when I started to get scared.
***
I set out on a hunt after that, and found Alexia’s boyfriend. “I’ve always loved you,” I said. He was in the middle of a conversation with someone else, his hand up her skirt, her eyes widened slightly, but none of that mattered then.
I’d never said anything because he was my sister’s boyfriend and he was two years older than me. Only now seventeen and fifteen didn’t seem nearly so far apart.
The girl, whoever she was, melted back into the crowd, and it was just the two of us. Fifteen minutes, I’d guess we had, before that impulse to move on, do more, do something else, kicked in. Fifteen passionate minutes.
People had begun looking at their watches.
***
My old science teacher, Mr Brooks, came and sobbed on my shoulder before taking a pill. That sort of thing began happening, as the night drew on. Out in the garden, there were bodies that had been flung out of the highest windows. I recognized one as the man who’d been handing out Choice fliers outside my school.
Someone turned the music up even louder, so you could barely hear yourself think, and there was dancing. There was nothing but music and movement.
At 3am, we were still dancing.
At 3.05am, we were still dancing.
Alexia’s boyfriend found me again in the crowd, and by some unspoken understanding we did not mention the time. The scientists had always said it was as accurate an estimate as they could provide. It was not a guarantee. His hands were around my waist, and we spun around dizzily. We screamed our way through one of the songs, our voices cracking. I knew all the lyrics, then.
We did not mention the time, but in our movements there was a hope, a wish, that maybe they had misunderstood. If they had got the time wrong then perhaps there were other mistakes they had made. The trajectory of the supermeteor, the effect it would have on our tiny planet. We were young. We weren’t ready to die, or impatient enough to want it simply over with. We wanted to believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the invincibility of youth.
At 3.30am, we were still dancing.
***
It wasn’t until later that things got ugly. People had been ready, you see, ready to go out dancing and revelling. All around the world these parties were going on, the last parties of the world, and people were ready to say goodbye.
People were drunk or high, and getting tired, and terrified and ecstatic all at the same time. As the sun rose, the fights broke out.
People blamed each other for the scientists’ mistake. They blamed themselves for not stopping the jumpers, or the pill-takers. And those who had shared their secrets and crimes with us became targets. We could no longer forgive the rapists and murderers, the fraudsters and adulterers. More people took pills. More jumped.
I would like to say that I did not kill anyone. But when the young man swinging a broken table leg moved in my direction, I pointed to the man that I had forgiven, and then fled.
***
I heard later that most of the scientists had taken their pills. I suppose they had little choice. Some of the others were executed, and for a while it was all you heard in the news. There were trials, of course. It needed to seem civilized.
The pharmaceutical companies lasted, just as my mother had predicted. Those of us left needed pills to recover from the trauma. Twice daily, with meals. The parties became legendary, though we rarely spoke about our own roles in them. It was easier to speak of the dead. They were more numerous, more dramatic. It was easier to tell other people’s secrets.
Most of the houses had been burned to the ground. The stench hovered there for a while, and you learned to walk certain ways to work, to therapy, to community service, to avoid it getting caught in your nostrils. Once there, it stayed for days.
I never saw Alexia’s boyfriend again. Two years later I met a man named Ryan; we married the year after that. We married young, back then.
We don’t talk about the parties. The one thing he has said of the party he attended, halfway around the world, is that they danced too.
People don’t anymore, although I hope by the time my daughter grows up that will have changed. The more time passes, the more it seems like some crazy dream. I don’t think they will understand, this new generation, when they learn about it in school. When you know the outcome it is difficult to truly imagine that it seemed like such a thin sliver of possibility. They’ll grow up imagining us as medieval peasants, maybe, ignorant and easily-led. They can afford to put away the primitive things, in this new world of ours.  I think perhaps even if they do dance, it will be missing something. I can't say quite what. We have drugs for that night, but no words. No words at all.

About the author: Claire Hennessy writes, works, and lives in Dublin. Her short fiction has appeared in wordlegs and Necessary Fiction, and she is also the author of several YA novels. She can be found online at clairehennessy.com or on twitter @clairehennessy.

Image: (c) Robson#