Excerpt from the novel Ordinary People
To celebrate Obama’s election, the Wiley brothers threw a party at their house in Crystal Palace. They lived near the park, where the transmitting tower loomed up towards the heavens like a lesser Eiffel, stern and metallic by day, red and lit up by night, overlooking the surrounding London boroughs and the home counties beyond, and harbouring in the green land at its feet the remains of the former glass kingdom – the lake, the maze, the broken Greek statues, the eroded stone lions, and the dinosaurs made of old science.
The Wileys were originally from north of the river and had moved to the south for its creative energy and the charisma of its poverty (they were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually). Bruce, the older, was a well-known photographer, his studio a labyrinth of lights and darkness at the rear of the house. Gabriele was an economist. They were opposites in all things – Bruce was large, Gabriele was thin, Bruce drank, Gabriele did not, Bruce did not own a suit, Gabriele was a suit – but they threw a party with shared commitment and singular intent. First they decided on their guest list, which featured all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew, such as lawyers, journalists, actors and politicians. Depending on the size of the event, less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality, which the brothers went through in their conservatory where they had most of their evening discussions. On this occasion they invited more people than usual, as they wanted it to be bombastic. When the list was finalised Gabriele sent round a text.
Next they arranged for the three essential ingredients, drinks, food and music. The party was scheduled for the Saturday immediately following the election so they didn’t have much time. They bought bottles of champagne and macadamias and chicken wings and pimento olives, all the while going over the highlights of their sleepless Tuesday night when they had watched the blue states eating up the red states and Jesse Jackson’s tears in Grant Park and the four Obamas strolling out victorious on to the bullet-proofed stage – then the weather the next day, so bright and blue for November, and people, strangers, open and smiling and saying good morning to one another, in London! They imagined, as they planned their playlist to pass on to the DJ, Jill Scott, Al Green, Jay Z, wafting out of the windows of the White House. For the purposes of insulation and protection, they covered the metallic book- shelves in the living room with sheets of chipboard and laid disused mats over the walnut floors. They left the Chris Ofili on the centre wall, a sofa below and some scattered cushions, but most of the furniture was removed. Gabriele placed a note on the bathroom mirror asking people to respect that this was someone’s house and not a nightclub.
Then the people came. They came from all over, from the towns across the river and the blocks off the A205, from the outer suburbs and the neighbouring streets. They came wearing faux fur coats with skinny jeans, shiny glinting Oxford Circus sandals and flashy shirts. They too had stayed up on Tuesday night watching blue eat red, and the Obama daughters walking on to the stage in their small, well-tailored dresses and their excited shoes had reminded many of them of the four little girls bombed forty-five years before in the church in Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan. That, perhaps, was what made Jesse Jackson cry, that they walked in their flames, and it was impossible to look at this new advancement of history without also seeing the older, more terrible one, and thus the celebration was at the same time a mighty lament. There were parties all over the city that night, in Dalston, Kilburn, Brixton and Bow. Traffic sped back and forth over the Thames so that from far above the river was blackness crossed by dashing streams of light. Afros were glossed and goatees were snipped. Diminishing clouds of body spray and hairspray hung deserted near bedroom ceilings as they came, as they parked their cars in the shadows of the tower, slammed their Oyster cards through the Crystal Palace ticket barriers and meandered to the house, bearing bottles of Malbec, Merlot, whiskey and rum, which Gabriele, in the spotlit hive of the kitchen, accepted with both his slender hands. It was Bruce’s job to keep the door, which he did until giving himself to the joys of drink. They kept on coming, men in good moods and just-so trainers, women with varying degrees of fake hair, their curls, their tresses, their long straight manes trailing down their backs as they walked into the music, like so many Beyoncés.
Among them were a couple, Melissa and Michael, who arrived in a red Toyota saloon. They were acquaintances of the brothers, from the media crowd, Michael had known Bruce at SOAS. He was tall and broad, with a thin, stubbled jaw and pretty eyes, the hair shaved close to the skull so as to almost disappear was naturally thick and glossy given to a distant trace of India in his ancestry. He wore loose black jeans with a sleek grey shirt, a pair of smart trainers whose white soles came and went as he walked with a hint of a skip, and a leather jacket the colour of chestnuts. Melissa was wearing a mauve silk dress with flashing boho hem, lime-green lattice wedge sandals, a black corduroy coat with a flyaway collar, and her afro was arranged in a sequence of diagonal cornrows at the front with the rest left free though tamed with a palmful of S-Curl gel. Framed within this her expression was childlike, a high forehead and slyly vulnerable eyes. Together they displayed an ordinary, transient beauty – they were a pair to turn a head, though in close proximity their faces revealed shadows, dulled, imperfect teeth and the first lines. They were on the far side of youth, at a moment in their lives when the gradual descent into age was beginning to appear, the quickening of time, the mounting of the years. They were insisting on their youth. They were carrying it with both hands.
Into the Wiley throng they stepped, where their coats were taken by Gabriele’s fiancée Helen, who was pregnant, and transferred via two teenage nephews wearing trousers with creases down the front to an upstairs bedroom. The Obamas had reinforced the value of the high five so the atmosphere was slappy. There was shoulder-knocking and cheek-cheek kissing, multiple recountings of the Tuesday night and the days since, how the world was different now but just the same. Meanwhile the music thumped loudly from the dance floor, Love Like This by Faith Evans, Breathe and Stop by Q-Tip. The success of a party can often be measured according to the impact of Jump, by Kris Kross, on whether there is jumping during the chorus and for how long. Here it went all the way through, the DJ encouraged people to jump when the song said jump, or to flash a lighter when another song said do that, every once in a while exclaiming ‘Obama!’, sometimes in rhythm with the beat. This turned into a call-and-response pattern so that the name, whenever it was heard, was repeated by the crowd, and if the DJ was so taken he might then say it again, or instead simply ‘Barack!’, bringing on another collective response from the floor. Beneath it all there was a faint air of anticlimax, a contrast between the glory of the moment and the problems of reality, for there were boys outside who might have been Obamas somewhere else but here were shooting each other, and girls who might also have been Michelles.
The heat soared as the night wore on. Bodies leaned against each other helplessly hot, and all that seemed to exist was this moving darkness, this music. A song started with a laugh from Mariah Carey and some discussion with Jay Z about where to begin, another conversation followed between Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson in which she apologised for being late. Then came Michael Jackson, his shrieking riffs in Thriller, his honeyed tones in P.Y.T., at which point the dancing synchronised into a two-step that changed direction three times before returning with a lift of the left foot to the first position. This was the climax of the night. Eventually the music would shift gear, the pace would slow, the crowd would begin to thin, making room for a more spacious dancing, for inner rhythms at the wall. Now the nephews went up and down the stairs carrying coats in the other direction. In a long nocturnal exodus the people went back out into the city, their voices hoarse from shouting, their skin damp from sweating, their ears muffled with bass. Slowly the house would empty again, and Bruce would keep on drinking until at some point near dawn he would suddenly feel that he needed immediately to lie down, so he would fall asleep on the kitchen floor or on the sofa beneath the Ofili, and Gabriele, if he came downstairs in the early morning to get a glass of water for Helen, would put a pillow under his head and a blanket over him and give him a little kick, and he would look forward to discussing the highlights of their party, and who would definitely be staying on the list of invitees.
What is a good rave if not an opportunity for love in the early hours? Overdue love. Kissing, touching that has been all but abandoned amid the duties of parenting, the frequent waking of a baby boy and unreasonable requests at dawn for Cheerios from a little girl. What other more pressing obligation is there, when the house is at last empty, for a whole entire night, cour- tesy of kindly grandparents all the way on the other side of the river, than to fiercely and deliriously copulate, to remind each other that you are more than just partners in the very tedious sense of that word, but lovers, sweethearts, even still, possibly? The urgency of this requirement weighed significantly in the atmosphere of the red Toyota saloon as it journeyed away from the tower, away from the Obama jubilation, down Westwood Hill towards Bell Green. Melissa was driving. Michael was in the passenger seat slightly drunk, his knees touching the bottom of the dashboard and his right hand placed hopefully on Melissa’s thigh. She allowed him to keep it there, even though he hadn’t danced with her at the party and habitually failed to clear the draining rack before washing up, leaving the dry things to get wet again; it drove her crazy. Along the sides of the car’s interior were the telltale remains of a horrible upholstery of dull green and purple leaves that they had compromised on when they had bought it, for it was cheap. Only the seats themselves had been saved from their ugliness, with a grey Type R makeover set, now faded and worn by the regular pressure of Melissa and Michael’s travelling side-by-side backs.
In this car, in the spring of that year, the sweet deliverance of April spilling down through the open sunroof, they had crossed the River Thames from north to south via Vauxhall Bridge, headed for their first house. Melissa was six months pregnant, and then also was driving, for she loved to drive, the thrill of the open road, the speed of the air, and anyway there was nowhere else to put the enormous peace lily that had grown with a beanstalk craze in the living room of the flat they were leaving but on Michael’s lap, unhindered as it was by a bump. He held it steady to stop it from toppling, its big green leaves and tall white teardrop flowers touching the ceiling, the windows, his face. Every available chasm was taken up with their belongings, the boxes of books, the cassette tapes and vinyl, the clothes, the Cuban moka pot and the Czech marionette, an indigo painting of dancers at twilight, another of birds in Tanzania, the ebony mask from Lekki Market in Lagos, the Russian dolls, the Dutch pot, the papasan, the framed photographs of Cassandra Wilson, Erykah Badu, Fela Kuti and other heroes, the zigzag table lamp, the kitchenware, and also their daughter Ria, who was sleeping as diamonds skipped over the river, oblivious to this momentary watery transience in their lives. Over the river they flew, listening to a long song by Isaac Hayes. The water swayed and tossed beneath their loaded red wings, turned and tumbled in the troubles of its tide, shook its silver shoulders and trembled through the quiet arches of the bridges.