© Scott Adam Gordon
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“I’m not saying don’t be yourself.”
“Good, because that physical transformation spell is one-use only and I’m saving it for next week at your parents’,” Jen says.
“I’m just saying, if you *are* going to be yourself... expect some confrontation.”
“So, expect that thing I love and seek out? Okay, cool.”
I look across at her and she takes her eyes off the road for a moment to look back, similarly serious.
“I just don’t want there to be any trouble, that’s all. Celia’s not like us.”
“Not like us? Or not like me?”
“Hey, believe me, I’m going to be on my best behaviour too.”
“Right,” says Jen. “It is quite natural for you though, isn’t it?”
We pull up to Gregg and Celia’s place minutes later and approach the door.
“You look like you’re about to enter the headteacher’s office,” Jen says, pressing the doorbell before I can reach it. “If Celia isn’t the worst person I’ve ever met, you’re in even more trouble.”
“What was I in any trouble for?”
“For waiting until we were ten minutes away to tell me she was a wack jo… hey!”
Jen shifts gear at the last moment as the door swings open. Celia is standing in a black, sequined dress, twirling a cigarette holder; Gregg is a step behind her in a white suit.
“Hello lady and gentleman,” Celia says, in a Chelsea accent that is somehow both forced and completely her own. I give her an undernourished hug as Gregg greets Jen.
“Thanks for having us,” I say.
Celia looks straight into my eyes. “You are going to have the best time tonight.”
“I know, I’m excited,” I say, adding, “Celia, Jen. Jen, Celia.”
Celia jumps across to Jen and sweeps her arms around her, rattling off how she’s excited to finally meet her and how impressed she is by her gown.
I hug Gregg and hold him.
“That’s nice, isn’t it?” he says, rubbing my back.
I snicker. “So good.”
I catch the surprise on Jen’s face as she remains in Celia’s warm, seemingly sincere, embrace.
No turning back now.
We get inside and Gregg takes our coats up to the bedroom as Celia walks us to the kitchen. It’s a beautiful, six bedroom place, punctuated by understated ornaments and perfectly placed paintings -- I swear they all adhere to the Fibonacci series. Soft, gold lights twinkle and it rests at that unique homely temperature achievable only through the baking of many pies and pastries.
There are twenty or so people in the kitchen and we wave as Celia introduces them. I recognize a couple of the names from nights out with Gregg but I can’t quite work out who’s who while they’re in costume.
“We come bearing gifts,” I say, handing Celia a present and a bottle of wine.
“Oh, how delightful.” She places them on the counter without looking at either; I throw Jen a glance but she’s too busy admiring the home.
“This house is Uh-mazing,” she says, prompting Celia to tell us about her plans to redecorate. She does so while making us some of her “village-famous” cocktails and Jen listens intently.
“And in the end, I couldn’t decide which one I wanted, so I just thought, to hell with it, why not have all three?” she finishes, holding out our champagne flutes.
“Well sure. That’s what I did when I went to Kavos,” Jen says, with a wink.
My stomach drops. We’re two minutes in and it’s happening. It’s already bloody happening.
“What?” says Celia, drawing Jen’s glass back to herself. “What do you mean?”
I open my mouth, try to find the words to prevent the oncoming explanation; delay the inevitable moment where Celia learns that Jennifer Davenport probably *isn’t* the type of girl to “do well” on the dressage team and definitely *is* the type of girl to do a shit in a Pringles tube at Reading festival.
Nothing arrives. I’m moments from sacrificing both my cocktail and tuxedo to distract Celia when she lets out a sharp laugh, followed by a longer one that sounds like it’s climbing a staircase. Jen nods, widening her eyes as Celia guffaws. The doorbell rings before I’ve fully recovered from the episode.
“Woo, ahem, hmm, well,” says Celia straightening herself. “Duty calls.” She walks out of the kitchen, making sure to give Jen a quick squeeze as she passes.
Jen waits until she’s gone before turning to me with a great grin on her face. “Everything alright?”
“Did you listen to anything I said in the car?”
“What, when you said ‘sometimes I’m embarrassed to be your boyfriend,’ yeah I caught it, thanks.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Mmm,” murmurs Jen, sipping her drink. She leans back on the counter and scans the room. “Man, some of these bitches went all out on the costumes.”
I take a breath and swallow her previous comment. “I told you they would. Aren’t you glad I made you buy the cloche hat?”
“I’ll be glad when you drink a gin shot with me,” she says, grabbing a bottle from the counter.
“Who ‘shots’ gin?”
Gregg returns as Jen is pouring and embraces me again.
“I’m sooo happy you could make it man. You guys are the best.”
“Dude, come on, we wanted to.”
“Shut up. Nobody wants a 90-minute drive on a rainy Wednesday,” he says. “Work didn’t mind you taking the holiday tomorrow?”
“Hey, it’s fine, Celia told me it’s going to be an incredible night,” I reassure him, adding, “We’ve actually never done a murder mystery before.”
“No, us neither, but Celia got this DVD for her last birthday so she made me promise we would do a proper thing with it this year. We’d have been up sh—” Gregg stops himself, “I mean, up the old creek without a paddle, as they say, if you two couldn’t have made up the numbers.” He takes a quick glance over his shoulders.
“It’s a pleasure.”
“You know Celia would kill me if this doesn’t go smoothly,” he says, suddenly drifting into his own thoughts.
I nod as Jen gives a silent “cheers” to the girls on the other side of the room, and finishes her third shot.
Jen has held a lively “How many cheese cubes can you fit in your mouth at once” competition, sung the first verse and chorus of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” to a startled crowd of one, and been crude almost to a competitive level. But, against the odds, Gregg and Celia’s friends all appear to adore her. Crazier still, she’s even getting along well with Queen Cersei herself.
Maybe I have nothing to worry about after all. I might have just caught Celia at a bad time on those other occasions: the ones that left me literally jolting with fear.
Though it’s too early to let my guard down completely -- it may only take one wrong word about NHS privatisation for this to all go wonky -- I relax a little as we settle in to start the murder mystery. The host on the DVD announces that the game is now on, and that, for the rest of the evening, we must remain in character.
Jen is going to love this, obviously.
Murder Mysteries can not only be boring but also incredibly uncomfortable. After two hours of half-faking an accent, and half-pretending I’m not taking it seriously, I’ve had more than enough.
Jen is one of the last on my list of characters to question and, after a brief search, I find her sitting at the top of the staircase.
“Ahh, Mr Dullsworth,” she says.
“It’s Dutchworth, actually,” I correct her.
“Yes, quite. So, Ducksworth,” Jen pauses, looking me up and down. “*Tell me about yourself.*”
“Er, I’d prefer to get straight to the point, Madam.”
“Mmm. Good. Me too.” Jen reaches out to grab my crotch and I give her hand a short, light, slap.
“Jennifer, stop it,” I say, frowning.
“What? I’m in character.”
“Nowhere on the character sheet does it say ‘Miss Kiev is a hussy.’”
“It says she’s an amateur juggler -- now whaddya suppose that means?” Jen raises an eyebrow.
“It means she’s an amateur juggler,” I say, as flat as humanly possible.
Jen stands up slowly. “That’s right. And now ama-try juggling myself some ba—”
“Shush,” I cut her off, giggling and holding my finger to my lips. “Can you hear that?”
I mouth “someone’s crying” and she hears it.
A door at the end of the hallway is ajar. I point my head towards it and we creep our way there. I’m about to gently push it, when it springs open and quickly shut again; Celia now stands facing us, hand clutching the doorknob.
“Everything okay?” asks Jen, as the sobs continue behind the door.
“Yes, yes,” says Celia, twisting her face to appear sympathetic. “Harvey just isn’t feeling very well, that’s all, so I’m going to take over her role from now on.”
“What’s wrong with her?” I ask.
Celia leans into us. “She’s had a most tumultuous breakup with her boyfriend, Tim, but she made it out here tonight for me. It seems, regrettably, that her emotions have now gotten the best of her.”
“Oh, I see,” says Jen, apparently completely convinced by the explanation.
“She’ll be fine. She’s better up here out of the way rather than causing a fuss downstairs,” says Celia. “We wouldn’t want something so silly to ruin an otherwise perfect evening, would we?”
I’ve got just enough time to catch up with Jen again before we wrap up the game. I pull her into our bedroom for the night as she’s leaving the bathroom.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
“It’s going great. I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed this,” she says. “And you?”
“It’s been fun,” I lie, “and I just wanted to say, I think you’ve handled Celia really well and I’m proud of you.”
I hold her hands in mine and she pulls them away.
“Please don’t do that.”
“I don’t want your gratitude.”
“It was a compliment.”
“It’s not a compliment, and you’re an idiot,” Jen says, walking to the doorway, before pausing and turning back. “Honestly, I don’t know what you’re getting at with her -- she’s been nothing but nice to us all evening.”
“Yes, sure, I just mean—“
“I think it’s you who has the problem, not her.”
Jen’s chipped open the hole I’ve been waiting to gush through for hours. “Has she thanked you for the gifts we brought?”
“Yes, she said thanks when you handed them to her.”
“She didn’t. She said ‘delightful’ and then put them down without looking at them.”
“Are you serious? She didn’t say the magic word so now she’s basically Richard Hammond in your eyes?”
“Richard Hammond has been fine recently,” another lie, but I don’t want to stray from the real issue. “What about the girl crying in the bedroom?”
“Celia explained that.”
“And you believe her?”
“Did it not seem weird? Her guarding the doorway, moans coming from inside -- what do we know about what’s happened?”
“She was just taking care of her friend? What the hell do you think was happening in there?” she snaps.
“I think Harvey probably refused one of Celia’s vol-au-vents and now she’s decided Harvey is no longer allowed to be involved in this party.”
“You are crazy.”
“Yes. Listen to yourself… ya weirdo.” Jen tries to stay serious but we both start cracking up. I can’t remember the last time I was called a weirdo.
We congregate in the living room to finish up the game and Celia starts clinking a glass.
“All right, all right, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for.”
“Ahem, excuse me,” interrupts one of Celia’s friends, rushing to her side. “Can I just say, before we go on, that this has been the most fun I’ve had in years and I’m so pleased you invited me.”
The crowd cheers and whoops as Celia feigns modesty. Jen rolls her eyes at me, a signal that she hasn’t turned into a complete Celiaphant. I smile and grab her hand. I guess it hasn’t been such a bad night, really.
“You’ll have to bear with me, here, folks,” starts Gregg, picking up the TV controls. “I’m not actually sure what happens next.”
He plays the DVD and the host rounds up what has occurred so far, asking us to consider who the game’s murderers might be. The DVD then abruptly stops, and it’s unclear how we proceed.
“Go on, play the next bit,” says Celia.
“What, do you think so? I think we’re supposed to make our guesses now and *then* play the next bit,” says Gregg, studying the back of the DVD box.
“No, that can’t be right. He’s got to explain how we gather the guesses and in what order.”
“Erm, I think we just need to go around and ask people.”
Celia throws us an exasperated look as she shuffles towards him, snatching the remote from his hand.
“I’m quite sure we’ll find out how we’re meant to proceed if we just—”
Before Gregg can stop her, Celia presses play and the host says: “Alas, it was Mr Thimbleby and Miss Hildebrandt all along. How did they achieve such a feat? Well, allow me to explain.”
Celia scrambles to pause the DVD and then remains motionless facing the TV.
Jennifer turns to me with an open mouth that’s in a feud with a grin. I sidle my way towards the door to escape before it all kicks off and try to pull her with me, but she won’t budge. Too scared to move, perhaps, or just eager to watch the fallout. I leave her, making it only halfway across the living room before I hear Celia’s perky voice.
“Alright then,” she says, rotating, like a James Bond villain, to face us. “Are we ready to make our guesses?”
It’s battle stations. I survey the area, catching the eyes of some of the other couples -- the initiated -- and we make that wordless pact. If we are to survive this, it can only be together.
Celia marches through the room, a trembling pencil in hand, taking the group members’ guesses.
Now, some guests venture a pair of false answers, while others offer a variation of Mr Thimbleby orMiss Hildebrandt, with another accomplice. And they do well to alternate these answers so that there’s never too many ‘both wrong,’ ‘Thimbleby and wrong,’ or ‘Hildebrandt and wrong,’ answers given in close succession, thus fostering a veneer of realism.
As each passing person deliberately misfires, I feel a strange sense of comradery, of pride, even. I cared nought for this group before the fight began, but that’s the thing about wars -- you’re always guaranteed to make some pals.
I want to reach out and comfort Gregg as he sits looking into the fireplace, no doubt grappling with the idea of rolling himself into it. I want to pat him on the back and a clench my fist and say, “Hey, we’ve got this covered for you, man.” Celia nudges him for an answer: both false. Attaboy.
Jen is watching me from the other side of the room. She mouths, “Come on, really?”
*Yes, fucking really.*
Celia continues questioning people, and when it’s my turn, I propose Miss Hildebrandt and Percy Hop; he’d provided a weak alibi when I questioned him earlier, which now gave me an out if Celia were to demand I explain myself later. She moves on to the next couple, and I’m sure Beth’s boyfriend has forgotten who the real murderers are because he almost announces them both before a well-played cough prompts him into a last-second rethink.
And then Celia comes to Jen. And Jen’s wearing her familiar mask of mischief. And she inhales over a moment of quiet. I catch her eyes as I telepathically transmit the message: “Please, just do this for me… just say anyone, anyone -- say it was Helen Mirren in a hanging basket for all I care -- anyone but Mr Thimbleby and Miss Hildebrandt. Please.”
“I think it was Mr Thimbleby and Miss Hildebrandt,” says Jen.
Celia takes a beat, rolls her tongue across the inside of her mouth, and presses her pencil against the pad. “Mr Thimbleby...” she says, over-pronouncing it, scratching it slowly onto the paper.
“And Miss Hil-de-brandt,” replies Jen, with relish.
Celia swallows, then looks at me. “Understood,” she says, before moving onto the next person.
You’re a monster, Jennifer Davenport.
Celia and Jen were the only two people to correctly state the murderer’s names and Celia gave her a £200 bottle of champagne as a reward for coming joint-first -- a reward which Jen tried, in earnest, to refuse. I’ve never seen a prize given quite so bitterly as that, and yet there was no mention of it until the game was already over.
Celia retired to bed soon after the whole affair and left Gregg to send the others home, save for a few who were staying like Jen and I. We snuck up to bed as soon as we reasonably could.
“Well that was interesting,” says Jen, pulling the covers over us.
“You had to do it, didn’t you?” I say, the first real thing I’ve said to her since it happened. “You couldn’t have just played along like everyone else.”
“I *could have* played along like everyone else. I just didn’t want to.”
“Well, I hope it was worth it.”
“You don’t even like her.”
“Doesn’t mean I wanted her to have a miserable night."
“Look, I wasn’t going to be intimidated into lying for the sake of a stupid game. Why should I?”
“Sure, that’s why you did it.”
Jen snorts, turning over to face the wall. “You’re so desperate to be liked.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You know that whole thing was ridiculous. You’re not mad at me because I burst Celia’s balloon.”
“I am. I’m mad b—”
“I tell you what,” she cuts me off. “Just show your family our Instagram pictures next weekend. I can’t ruin your perfect image if I’m not there in person.”
“Jen, come on, that’s—” I shake my head. “Come on, that’s not right.”
“Goodnight then,” she says.
“What? I’m tired now.”
“Fine,” I roll away from her and fall asleep much later.
I get up to make coffee the next morning, leaving Jen as she snores, and I meet one of the guys from last night in the kitchen.
“Hey,” he says, grabbing some mugs out of the cupboard.
“How’s it going, man?”
“Feeling okay and you?”
“Bit rough,” he says, scratching the back of his head. “Not really used to bubbly. Want some coffee?”
“Yeah please, just came down to grab some.”
He starts pouring. “That all got a bit mad yesterday, didn’t it?”
I’m blind to what he’s referring to so I try to play it safe. “Yeah, tell me about it.”
“I can’t believe that girl just calling out the names in the end,” he says, widening his eyes.
Up to speed; does he know that “that girl” is my girlfriend, though?“Yeah, it was a shock to me too.”
“Boom. Right in Celia’s face. Just fearless, just—”
I jump in, eager for vindication. “Yeah, it was a bit uncalled for wasn’t it? At Celia’s party and all?”
He pauses and I see the excitement in his face dry up and become muted. He smiles still, but something’s changed.
“Yeah,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Yeah, I mean, maybe it was.” He picks up his coffee and walks to the door. “Gotta’ get back upstairs. Have a good one, man.”
“You too,” I say, still trying to catch up on what I seem to have missed.
It’s with me before I’ve left the kitchen.
“You’re a better person than me, Jennifer,” I say, putting her coffee on the nightstand.
“I know,” she whispers, pulling the sheets over her eyes.
“I’m really sorry about yesterday.”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“Everybody loved you. You were the coolest person there. You’re amazing, because, because you’re not trying to impress anyone, or trying to be someone else. You’re completely—”
“Ugh, quit it,” she says, tossing a pillow at me. “You’re forgiven. Now come cuddle me.”
“Yes. It’s fine. I know I can be a bit in-your-face but everybody’s got their quirks, right?”
“Yeah, I’m not perfect either.”
“You’re fine. Just don’t tell me to be in ‘Safe Mode’ before a party in future. It only makes me want to be naughty.”
“Hmm,” I say, kissing her neck. “Could have its uses, though.”
“Sorry Celia couldn’t make it down to say goodbye,” Gregg says, while Jen and I put on our shoes in the doorway. “She’s been sick all night. She’s not well at all. Completely lost her voice.”
“Oh, poor Celia. I hope she gets well soon,” says Jen, as we step outside.
“Yeah, she’ll be okay.”
She kisses Gregg on the cheek. “Thanks again so much for having us, it was such a fun night.”
“It was great,” I add.
Gregg smiles a smile that isn’t really there. “Have a safe journey back won’t you?”
“Not while I’m driving,” says Jen, galloping towards the car.
I flash Gregg a wry smile; there’s so much I want to say about the party. He nods and nearly smiles back before we hear Celia shout: “Gregg? Come the fuck upstairs already!”
It sounds like her voice has returned, anyway.
“I’m coming,” he yells.
There’s a pause and then I say: “I’ll, I’ll speak to you soon, all right buddy?”
“Yeah. I’ll be in touch.”
Jen swings the car up alongside me and I jump in.
“I take it we’re not coming back here in a hurry?” she asks as we pull away.
“No,” I say, turning my head to look out the rear window. “I don’t think they’ll be having guests again for a while, now.”
Gregg remains standing in the doorway, an upright corpse, as we turn off his street.