For five days running now I have seen the sunrise. Not in the good-Christian-kid-up-early-to-praise-the-miracles-of-God kind of way, but in the massive-unrepentant-alcoholic-with-nighttime-activities kind of way. Approaching it from the wrong side, like entering a opera house by crawling up through the broken sewerage system rather than by way of the grand staircase out the front. Each morning, five out of five, I have been awake to see the sky lighten piece by piece, and then the horizon crack open with morning fire. Each morning I have passed out at some point before ten a.m. and slept a scant few hours, twitching and just-barely damp as my body tries to sweat out the poison.
Clemenceau and I have seemingly mastered the art of outlasting the party. Just as it was in Year 12 and the first year of uni, when Ryan Neagle and I would uniformly be the last two standing, at half-past seven or some ungodly hour, zombie-pale and swaying slightly but steady, drinking some concoction of bourbon and soft drink (in his case because he liked it; in mine because there was nothing else left) and watching the sun come up over a devastated post-apocalyptic suburban backyard, while a dozen of our contemporaries slept face-down on the hard slate floors of somebody’s parents’ Eltham residence, or chewing the tacky carpet of someone’s first scungy inner-northern sharehouse. Seemingly that was our role – last men out, then first up at around ten a.m. and encouraging the others to start drinking again. Later, the first year in the Davies St Massif, we had a rule that if anybody sleeping at any time of day or night was woken up by being prodded with a drink, he or she had to consume that drink immediately. It was a good incentive not to pass out first, and also a good way to begin shaking off a hangover the next day. When you realised someone was thunking you in the forehead with a cold Coopers Pale at around 11 a.m., it was really more godsend than hardship to down that sucker and prepare for the day at hand.
As you get deeper into a run of consecutive nights like this (and God knows I’ve had a few), the mounting sleep deprivation forms a solid partnership with the shredded myelin coatings around your nerves, and the nights become increasingly dislocated. After our La Plata misadventures, I spend an entire night and the next day with Alex, not drinking as much but just talking right through. Then tonight when Clemenceau emails me that night at quarter to one, just as I’m about to go to bed, inviting me to a party at Carmen’s house on the other side of town, it doesn’t seem remotely strange to accept. On the contrary, walking down the middle of a Palermo street, high on my headphones and that weird buzz that comes with lack of sleep, I couldn’t feel more alive and ready to take on a strange social environment.
At Clemenceau’s house we realise we have nothing to drink. “We’ll just have to go and get some beers from the bar at the corner,” he says resignedly. The bar is always open but costs about ten times as much as anywhere else. We get ready to leave. Six minutes later the doorbell rings. “I have your ten litres of beer,” says a delivery guy. We look at each other. We ask a couple of questions. He triple-checks. It’s definitely for this address, he says. We take the beers and sit through several long moments of bemused silence. Sometimes the universe does seem to look out for you.
It’s two-forty-five by the time we leave, and half past three by the time we get to the party. It still seems to be swinging. This is a painting party, I’m told – all the walls are covered in sheets of white paper, and the people are buzzing to and fro with paper plates full of colour, slathering at will. It’s also a very French party – the air is full of that strange contradictory language that sounds like a sexy drunk slurring into a beer with a cognac depth-charge at the bottom. They can all speak Spanish, but don’t, so my hard-won ascension to a level of ambient understanding is immediately cancelled out. They are dancing to the same terrible music as any other party I’ve ever been to. In fact the French are better able to ironically enjoy cheesy 80s pop because they don’t truly understand how bad the lyrics are. In one corner playing percussion instruments are four identical and very familiar guys, the kind of guys who you would expect to find playing percussion instruments in the corner. They each have the same little ponytail-knot pulled up at the nape of the neck, the regulation scruffy facial hair, the same wooden beads around their wrists. You could find any one of them, or a carbon-copy, pouncing on a djembe at a Northcote house party, slapping away at the cowhide in between telling us how they discovered afro-salsa rhythms at a capoeira school in Brazil and spent some time in an ashram in Dharamsala. I realise that the French are not cooler than us. The youth of any relatively Westernised country are almost exactly the same, just gingerbread-men cut-out copies of each other with slight variations in icing.
There is a full bucket of sangria that is by now being largely neglected. I take this as a personal challenge. The bucket does not back down and neither do I. The hostess makes a better fist of being French than most of her guests. She glides barefoot through the party, speaks only in perfect Spanish and wears an extravagant Carmen-style red dress that made me give her the pseudonym. She paints with extravagant gestures, she laughs readily, she spins and twirls on the dancefloor with the hem of her skirt flying. She is the kind of woman who makes out with George Clooney, after all.
Some hours pass. The crowd thins out. Eventually Carmen sits down on the couch. “Look,” she says, and shows me the soles of her feet, now a thick and solid black with all the grime from the thoroughly partied floor. By this stage the sangria bucket and I both look decidedly worse for wear. So I say nothing, lay down some painting paper, kneel in front of her, and start washing her feet with wine. She merely nods as though she was expecting this all along. I work thoroughly, not speaking, making sure each patch of skin is cleared. Somehow it seems important to get this done right. A few people give us odd looks. “It’s ok,” I tell them, “I’m Jesus. I’m just conflating two of the parables.”
Clemenceau, a heavy smoker in the French style, has not had a cigarette in three weeks. He’s quit, he says. This is quite an achievement. Now he appears with one in his mouth, unlit. “Fuck it, I’m going to smoke this,” he says. I grab it out of his mouth and accidentally poke him in the eye at the same time. When he objects I tell him that even Jesus was pragmatist enough to have hurt him if it was in his best interests. “Give me the cigarette,” he says.
“No,” I say. “If you’re going to smoke it then I’ll smoke it instead.”
“You hate cigarettes.”
“Yes, but I’m taking upon myself the sins of the world.”
By the time I wipe the last of the wine away, the foot massage action of the washing process has sent Carmen to sleep. In the middle of the dirt and debris, new paintings covering the walls, she is a flash of crimson flared across the couch, snoring lightly. The last of the party has already drifted away to homes and beds. We cover her with blankets, and wrap a coat around her newly-cleaned feet. “The feet, the feet are very important,” Clemenceau tells me in slurred French tones. We let ourselves out, clicking the door quietly behind us.
It’s only in the courtyard of Clemenceau’s house that I realise I never actually smoked the cigarette. But with that special kind of drunken determination I feel like I have to see this through. “I’m going to smoke this now,” I tell him. “I’m going to bed,” he spits. He does. I light it off the stove and retreat back under the courtyard tree. Perhaps only non-smokers can truly enjoy a cigarette, because I get that rush to the head just as I did out in the boundary trees by the foreshore at school when I was fifteen. Everything seems to come down to a new state of calm. My mouth tastes like I’ve been eating the remains out of a crematorium, soapy ash, but the two sensations kind of balance each other out, disgust vying with the deep-breath feel of the nicotine. The air is thick with pale blue light, and that old idea that the earth was underwater doesn’t seem so far away. Leaning on the wall, looking up, the dark lines of branches score the softening sky into curves and quadrants, and through it all comes a long slow ticking sound, like the world is winding down to nothing, or gearing up for something else.