The Last Cocktail Hour

The Cocktail Hour was a series of improvised fiction that I published on Twitter from late 2011 until it eventually petered out earlier this year. Each episode was tweeted on a Friday, beginning at about 4 in the afternoon and eventually ending as late as midnight, by which time the effects of the author’s own cocktail intake were often disgracefully apparent.

Its popularity was something I found genuinely surprising, and the responses it generated were among the most rewarding and touching that I have ever received. It became a kind of spontaneous and shared experience, and though I often had to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure stories were finished (I once tweeted an ending from a lay-by during a thunderstorm), it was never anything other than a joy to work on.

Like all such things, it reached a natural end. Though I resisted posting episodes here for a long time because I wanted to preserve the spontaneity of the form, it feels wrong that it should vanish entirely. Here, then, is a small but perhaps fitting coda.

The video is a retrospective of the “first series”. The post below is the last ever episode.

Goodbye, CH. I miss you.

Until six.

September has, rather tiresomely, seen fit to arrive. On the lawns, the shadows of the cedars are about the dull business of lengthening.

The light, though still rather glad and fetching in its way, has taken to dashing off skittishly at barely seven o’clock.

Things have, in short, taken a frankly autumnal turn. A chap confined to his study might be inclined to take rather a gloomy view of matters.

Still, even as one passes the cheerless milestone of the equinox and trudges reluctantly towards midwinter, certain consolations remain.

For instance, there is the whisper and scrape of stockinged feet in the passageway outside. A light, feline tread. A familiar one.

There is the perfunctory knock. The half beat of hesitation. Then, everywhere in the dull air, the delicate pervasion of jasmine.

There are the hands, as sure and stealthy as frost, suddenly occluding my eyes. There is the voice–that voice–silvered, solicitous.

“Guess who,” she says. She breathes.

The Cocktail Hour.

And not a moment too soon. What a dismal and dispiriting age, in fact, it seems to have been. Naturally, however, one has a certain reserve.

“Honestly,” I say. “I do, contrary to certain speculation, have an occupation. I do not for naught shutter myself against the bright day.”

“Piffle,” says the Cocktail Hour. “You don’t shutter yourself at all. You were staring out the window when I came in. And scratching.”

“Yes, well,” I reply. “I was speaking figuratively. Besides, the labours of the mind go unglimpsed by the untutored world.”

“Do they indeed?” says the Cocktail Hour. “They sound a bit like certain undergarments. But never mind all that. We have an aunt problem.”

“Do we? Well, inform the gardener. Surely he has preparations he can scatter about the place?”

“An aunt problem, dear. All this sepulchral dust seems to be clogging up your ears.”

“Ah,” I say. “A matter of an entirely different complexion. And there are, to my knowledge, no efficacious preparations to be had.”

“No,” agrees the Cocktail Hour. “It eludes science. And Aunt Persephone could stir a pound of ant powder into her tea and run for a train.”

“Aunt Persephone?” I say. “Is it as bad as that?”

“I fear so,” says the Cocktail Hour. “To say nothing of Aunt Jemima.”

“I see,” I say. “Of course, Aunts Persphone and Jemima are rarely observed in isolation. They’re practically a syndrome.”

“Well, quite. And to further compound matters, they have in their midst a young charge.”

“Do they? How very Brontëesque of them. Are they heaving the poor thing into a convent? Farming her out to a stern cove in a cloak?”

“I rather doubt,” says the Cocktail Hour, “that Millicent would countenance either fate.”

“You think not? Our Millicent doesn’t occupy the meek and biddable regions of the young charge spectrum, then?”

“Quite the contrary. Something of a handful, I’m afraid. And then there is the small matter of her attachment.”

“Attachment? What is Millicent attached to? The diplomatic corps? A neighbouring dwelling? A twin?”

“A lepidopterist. She has conceived rather a passion for him. You know how young girls can be.”

“A lepidopterist? How very tragic. But, of course, one is more compassionate these days. They aren’t packed off to colonies any more.”

“A lepidopterist, you dreadful oaf. A collector of butterflies. You know, with the nets and notebooks and the blinking.”

“Good lord,” I say. “The situation is indeed grim. One perceives the foundation for the auntly concern.”

“Yes, quite so,” says the Cocktail Hour. “Aunt Persephone can be, shall we say, excessive, but in this we are as one.”

“So,” I say. “We are mustering a war party, eh? Marshalling our forces, and what-have-you?”

“So it would appear,” says the Cocktail Hour. “You will flock to the banner?”

“I’ve thought of little but flocking all day. Shall we fall in before dinner? Stiffen our resolve at the drinks tray?”

“It seems the only course open to us. Six o’clock?”

“Six it is.”

* * *

Apprising myself of the aunts and their disposition of forces, I avail of a gin ration far in excess of standard provisions.

Thus emboldened, I take my place opposite the phalanx of variously discommoded female relatives. Aunt Persephone glares.

“Oh,” says Aunt Persephone. “It’s you. Well, I suppose it can’t be helped.”

“I fear not, madam. The condition is irreversible.”

“Wilbur,” Aunt Jemima interjects mildly, “was devoted to those submarines of his. You do remember Wilbur?”

“Do be silent, Jemmy,” Aunt Persephone says with gathering sternness. “One helpless adjunct is enough for anyone.”

“Speaking of which,” says the Cocktail Hour. “You haven’t been introduced to Millicent.”

She directs my attention to a young lady of disputatious aspect consigned to a province of sofa annexed by that of Aunt Persephone.

“Well, then?” I address myself to Millicent. “How are tricks, old thing? Done all your prep and what-not?”

Millicent eyes me with a carefully concerted scepticism. “I prefer Milly,” she says.

“You prefer no such thing,” says Aunt Persephone, whose sternness has assumed an unignorable stature. “The very idea.”

Millicent, I notice, is bedecked in the yearning but thwarted manner of a girl who has not yet come out, yet fiercely intends to.

Her complexion has the distinctively scoured pinkness of expeditiously applied and hastily removed strata of make-up.

“Millicent distinguished herself at a gymkhana last month,” says the Cocktail Hour with diplomatic aplomb. “Isn’t that right.”

“Ponies,” says Millicent with clear malice aforethought, “are ridiculous.”

“I remember,” Aunt Jemima muses mildly, “when my Arthur was matriculating. He came out in hives. A most trying time.”

“For heaven’s sake, Jemmy,” says Aunt Persephone. “Do occupy yourself. What have you done with your libretto?”

“So, I gather there’s a young chap in the offing,” I venture. “What’s all that about, then? Things gone a bit star-crossed, eh?”

Aunt Persephone assumes a minatory aspect. “This is not a subject,” she announces icily, “that need detain us.”

“Madam,” I say, summoning the balm of reason, “if you will permit me. This is, if you will, my bailiwick. I have trodden this very ground.”

“What can you be wittering about, man?”

“My youth, my lady, was a comparatively recent catastrophe. I may have guidance to offer.”

“I rather doubt it,” says the Cocktail Hour, who nonetheless reclines with a certain expectant indulgence.

My views having been sought, I turn again to the ward of court with the ungovernable longings and the war-torn complexion.

“This young charger of yours. He has a name, I take it?”

Millicent bestirs herself with a flurry of organza. “Gogo Arbuthnot,” she says.

“Ah, Shakespeare,” I say. “How heartening to hear the music of the Bard on the lips of the young.”

“That’s his name. Gogo Arbuthnot.”

“Indeed?” I say, deftly concealing any leakage of hilarity. “Gogo Arbuthnot?”

“His given name is Hugo,” Millicent glumly assured me.

“Well, of course it is,” I reply. “And yet he felt that he had been wrongly hugoed? His true nature lay undiscovered?”

A tremor of amusement disturbs Millicent’s features, and is swiftly suppressed. She resumes her disdainful surveillance.

“So, this Gogo of yours. What does he do when he’s not writing home from the upper fourth? What’s his ruling passion?”

“Millicent’s expression is evasive. “Well, there’s rugger, naturally. And that sort of thing.”

“What sort? Elaborate, do.”

The Cocktail Hour, calmly encased in iridescent satin and impartiality, endures a minor disturbance of entertainment.

“Well,” says Millicent, picking at an errant tendril of crepe, “there’s the lepidoptery thing, but you wouldn’t–”

“Oh, a butterfly man!”

“Well, I don’t know that I’d–”

“Yes, butterflies. Gosh, that takes me back. Aldous L’Estrange, there was another noted netter.”

“Aldous Le?”

“L’Estrange. Ancient line. Had a good day at Agincourt. It was all going swimmingly until the thing with Clarinda.”

“Clarinda?”

“Trent-ffrench. Cherished and only issue of the undersecretary at the Foreign Office of the same name.”

Millicent withholds any intelligence she may possess under this heading. She worries an area of shot silk. “So, what happened?”

“With Aldous and Clarinda? Well, dreaminess ensued. At least at first.”

“At first?”

“Well, yes. Before the disappearance.”

“The disappearance. The union of Aldous and Clarinda, you see, was forged upon a shared love of exotic climes. Or so it went.”

“So it went?” A good deal of fidgeting is now occurring amidst Millicent’s assorted fabrics.

“So it is told.” I take a portentous sip.

“Aldous, you see, had evinced a affinity for the far-flung. Wanted to see the world. Gave it to be understood that diplomacy beckoned.”

“And Clarinda’s papa–” Millicent supplied.

“Was admirably placed to further these aims. All seemed to be well in Christendom.”

“I do hope,” Aunt Persephone interrupted, “that this rather wearying obstacle to dinner has a purpose other than your own diversion.”

“Leander, you know,” Aunt Jemima resumed mildly, “had a cactus he wished to show at the Great Exhibition. But Perversity intervened.”

“And so, there everyone was,” I continue. “There being, for our purposes, Buenos Aires. Aldous and Clarinda being enviably ensconced.”

“Well, well,” says the Cocktail Hour, arranging herself in softly lucent vertex of splendour, “what could possibly go wrong?”

“What, indeed? Well, there Aldous and Clarinda were, agreeably quartered, it would seem, in the Argentine. She having secured a box.”

“A box?” Millicent retreats visibly.

“At the Teatro Colón. One had to satisfy certain proprieties, you see.”

“Aldous,” the Cocktail Hour speculates, “began, one assumes, to ingratiate himself among the great and the good of the city.”

“So one might expect,” I say. “The better to launch himself as an interlocutor of repute, serving only the whims of Empire.”

“The whims of Empire?” the Cocktail Hour inquires, attending to her gin.

“Entirely unserved. Fell on deaf etcetera. Transmission ends.”

Millicent is much agitated. “What do you mean? What became of Aldous?”

I sustain myself at the drinks tray before proceeding further.

“The record falls silent,” I say. “Aldous surrendered himself to the forest.”

“He went,” Aunt Persephone added, “butterfly mad.”

“Of course,” Aunt Jemima volunteers mildly, “I knew it as Babylon, as a girl.”

“I implore you, Jemmy,” says Aunt Persephone, “to desist.”

“He was heard of sporadically,” I say. “Our man in Lima might include an aside. There were usually shootings. The family was much tried.”

“And Clarinda?” Millicent wonders.

“Ah, now,” I say, falling back upon decorum.

“It is late, child,” says Aunt Persephone.

“Nonsense,” I insist. “The young lady merely inquires into matters of public record. Such as Clarinda’s Great Disgrace.”

Millicent falls back in alarm. “Disgrace?”

“Depending on one’s source. Gulping dejectedly through a fifth of Debrett’s, sort of thing.”

Millicent assimilates the general trend of current affairs. Millicent elects, after a brief ceremony of troubled flouncing, to retire.

Aunt Persephone regards me with an unaccustomed benevolence. The Cocktail Hour enjoys a throb of amusement.

“Gosh,” she says. “Who’d have thought it? An invented apostasy in the Argentine. A glimmer of rehabilitation.”

I reward myself modestly at the drinks tray, thinking of little but the common good.

“And the lot of butterflies,” Aunt Persephone adduces, “cannot but be ameliorated. Which is all to the good, of course.”

“Sinbad!” Aunt Jemima declares mildly. “That was the name of our runner. Goodness, I’ve been racking my brains.”

“Hush, Jemmy,” says Aunt Persephone, without conviction. A certain ease has settled. The Cocktail Hour regards me with careful proximity.

In the room, there are the sweetnesses of détente, and of diffuse and departed youth. No one stirs against these. Not yet, anyway.

In the ulterior world, the pulses of longing and age are accommodated. The intricate glories of butterflies are furled and shadowed.

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