As it turned out, Alfie did not like opera. In particular he detested Tartuffe, and while he tried to make sense of what the plot was and figure out who the many characters were, he thought his ears would start bleeding. Just to make sure he leaned over Mabel and signed for Clyde to see if they were. Clyde very seriously leaned closer, narrowed his eyes and shook his head, and Mabel smacked them both with the binoculars as she hushed them.
On stage a servant woman was trying to tell Orgon – one of the few names Alfie had learned – about his wife’s many problems, as he kept ignoring them and inquiring about the health of Tartuffe. Tartuffe, Tartuffe, Tartuffe. That was the main problem Alfie had with the opera, it was all so unbelievable. Why on earth would he care so much about the bastard Tartuffe?
Instead he focused on the audience on the balconies on the other side of the auditorium. The railings were red, decorated with gold patterns the same colours as the pillars, and they were all stuffed full with people. Most of them Alfie knew or had met, and he found it interesting to watch them when they did not know that he was doing it. There was more entertainment in seeing who was there with whom and who enjoyed the opera and who was falling asleep than there was in watching Orgon praise Tartuffe as if that scoundrel had done nothing wrong in his entire life.
But just as that too started to become boring and Alfie hid a yawn behind his hand, his eyes found a strange face in the audience. On the front row of the second balcony – one step below his – sat a dark-haired man who was at most a few years past 20. Alfie had some trouble determining which party he belonged to, but then he leaned in towards Charles Carmichael, who was sitting to his right, and appeared to say something. In reply he got something short that looked harsh.
The stranger pulled back his head and Alfie would guess that he was sighing. Then suddenly, as though he had sensed someone’s eyes on him, he looked right at him. Alfie quickly looked to the stage and hoped he had not noticed, but when he sneaked a peek at the stranger he saw that he was still staring at him. So he gave it up and just observed him unashamedly.
The stranger nodded and Alfie nodded back. He redirected his attention to the stage, but Alfie did not feel finished.
“Constance”, he whispered with the only American accent in the room.
“Shut up”, she said with her eyes at the stage, “or I swear I will bloody whip you.”
She was a curvy 30-year-old with hair of an undeterminable hair colour that she always wore in a simple knot. Her features were nice, but too often stern, angry or frowning. Her mouth was wide and rarely smiling.
The men were a few years younger, and of them Clyde was the handsome one. He had smooth, harmonic features that included almond brown eyes, a mouth that always appeared to be smiling and showing white, straight teeth, and combed back dark-blond hair.
Alfie on the other hand had bad skin, freckles around his nose, humorously large ears and curly brown hair that reached almost down to his shoulders.
“Maybe he’d enjoy that”, Clyde suggested. “You know, Alfie, you’ve always struck me as someone who’d have some peculiar tastes.”
“Of course”, Alfie said. “You’re not doing anything after this, are you?”
The curtains fell. The auditorium was filled by the rustling of skirts and clicking of walking sticks.
Constance stood up with a sigh. “You’re both horrible.”
“They serve alcohol here, don’t they?” Clyde asked.
On the opposite balcony Charles Carmichael and his companion were already gone.
Constance looped her arm with Alfie’s and with Clyde in tow they started following the crowd out. They were moving too slowly, and Alfie thought he would go mad by the suspense. He needed to talk to this stranger, and he needed to do it now.
“Do you know what’s truly horrible?” Clyde said with a drawling voice. “That we have paid actual money to witness this disaster. It’s theft, I’m telling you, not comedy!”
“Are you serious?” Constance sneered. “It’s hilarious.”
“You haven’t laughed once”, Alfie said. She stepped on his foot.
“I didn’t understand a word”, Clyde continued.
They reached the staircase and started descending it, with people both blocking their way and pushing on from behind them.
“So learn French, ami”, Constance said.
“Some of us have more important things to do, ami.”
They were just leaving the stairs and entering the bar, and before she could begin ranting Clyde had located a waiter with a tray of champagne glasses.
“You are a true lifesaver!” he exclaimed, grabbing glasses.
Constance rolled her eyes and let go of Alfie’s arm. They were both handed champagne glasses, and Clyde was forgiven. Alfie sipped on his absent-mindedly as he searched in the crowd for his stranger. He stood up on his tiptoes for a better view, and there he was. He and Charles Carmichael were talking in a corner, the latter trying to wave for a waiter.
“Alfie”, Clyde said, “do you honestly not think that if I peeked under this skirt, I wouldn’t get a surprise?”
“Alfie has a bigger chance of peeking under this skirt”, Constance declared ceremoniously.
“Thank you, Constance, but I’m not interested.”
“I didn’t say it could happen, just that the chance is bigger.”
“Who is that, with Charles Carmichael?” Alfie had not taken his eyes from him once.
“Who?” Clyde asked in a bored tone.
“Would I ask if I knew?”
Clyde looked up from his champagne disinterestedly. “Oh, him.”
“You haven’t heard?” Constance said, as if everyone else had.
“Heard what?” Alfie furrowed his brows at her.
“His name is-“ Clyde waved his arm a bit, “something with an F. Apparently he lives with the Carmichaels.”
“He’s a foreigner, isn’t he?” she added.
“Hmm”, he said. “I think he’s some sort of protégé of his.”
Constance snorted. “A political protégé, or another kind?”
Clyde gasped in feigned offence. “Witch! Are you obsessed with sodomy?”
“Come on, with a wife like that-“
“She is exquisite!”
“I’m going to get myself introduced”, Alfie said.
“To Mrs Carmichael?” Clyde furrowed his brows. “That’s a bit ambitious, Alfie.”
“She only speaks French”, Constance said.
Apart they were both quiet people – Constance always, Clyde when he was sober – but when they were together, a third party could rarely get a word in.
“I love you both”, Alfie said, “but right now you need to shut up, please.”
He turned around. The man they were just discussing had crossed the room and acquired two champagne glasses, and was now moving back through the crowd.
“Mr Carmichael!” Alfie raised an arm.
Carmichael looked up and saw him. He smiled, changed directions and came towards them with a glass in each hand.
“Good evening!” he said when he was within earshot.
It was clear by the confused look on his face that he was trying to figure out who he was talking to.
“Alfred Scott.” Alfie waved him off when he showed that his hands were both busy. “We’ve met a couple times.”
“Yes, yes, I remember.” He smiled as if he did not.
“This is Constance Stevens”, Alfie pointed to her and she nodded with a thin fake smile, “and Clyde Potter”, who waved at him and tried to conceal a smirk.
“Pleasure to meet you”, Carmichael said.
“We were just discussing your companion for the night”, Clyde said, promptly ignoring Alfie’s glares. ”May we ask who he is?”
“Ah.” Carmichael looked back at him with a proud smile. He was standing where he had been left, looking at the ceiling with his hands clasped behind his back. “That is James Federline, whom I have taken on.”
“Like a ward?” Constance crossed her arms and looked serious. “He’s too old for that, isn’t he?”
Carmichael laughed a little. Alfie could not tell if it was embarrassedly or angrily.
“Indeed he is, Ms Stevens”, he said. “He’s more of a- Friend in need, one might say.” He nodded importantly. “See, he’s new to the country and has many things to learn.”
“Is this one French too?” Clyde smiled innocently.
Carmichael’s eyes widened and his smile turned sour. For a second Alfie feared that he would squeeze his champagne glasses too hard and break them.
“Mr Potter”, he was making an effort to sound effortless, “I don’t know what that refers to, but to answer your question, no, he is not French.”
Clyde opened his mouth again and only god knows what he would say next, but Alfie was quicker this time, with a rushed “Would you mind introducing me?”
Charmichael’s smile was more genuine again. “Not at all.”
He turned around and Alfie followed without bringing the others. They had had their chance and they had thrown it away. This moment was his.
He crossed the room with Carmichael, who looked back over his shoulder nonchalantly and said, “I always say he needs more friends closer to his age.”
Alfie nodded in response, not entirely certain that he saw it, not entirely certain that he cared.
The addressed man tore his eyes from the ceiling and looked at them both expectantly.
“This is Alfred Scott”, Charles said as he handed him one of the glasses, “Mr Scott, James Federline.”
“A pleasure to meet you.” Alfie reached out his hand.
Federline had accepted his glass with the right hand and now had to switch. He did it with an apologizing and slightly embarrassed smile, then shook Alfie’s hand so firmly it almost hurt.
“Mr Scott”, Charles said, looking back at Clyde and Constance, “did you know that James is from India?”
“I did not.”
Federline smiled. “Born and raised.”
Carmichael patted him on the shoulder and smiled at Alfie. “I might just go speak to your company”, he said. “So I’ll leave you to it.”
The others watched him leave in silence. As soon as he had disappeared far enough there was a change in Federline, his shoulders dropped, his back became less straight and he leaned his head back and took a big gulp of his drink.
“India”, Alfie said awkwardly.
Federline smiled and nodded. “America”, he replied.
“How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
Federline raised his glass and chuckled.
“I understand you’re living with the Carmichaels”, Alfie said.
“Yes, have been for a month now.”
“I hate to be rude”, Alfie leaned in closer and lowered his voice, “but is it really as bad as people say between them?”
“The next time they’re in the same room together I’ll let you know, Mr Scott”, Federline scoffed.
“Do say Alfie. Everyone does.”
There was a momentary glimmer in the other man’s eyes.
“If you promise to call me Jimmy.”
“Jimmy”, Alfie said, taking a big sip of champagne. “I didn’t dare hope you’d be both funny and handsome. It isn’t fair, no one should be both.”
Jimmy sipped innocently on his own drink. “I wasn’t aware I was both.”
“Well, it is my professional opinion as an artist that you have a face that deserves to be painted.”
“Yes, that was the part I knew”, Jimmy said.
Alfie laughed again.
“An artist.” Jimmy nodded to himself as he drank. “I’ve never actually been painted. I think I would enjoy that.”
Alfie shook his head before he managed to swallow the champagne in his mouth. “No one likes to be painted. They might, however, like the end result.”
“Would you paint me some time?” Jimmy made a joking pose with his hand under his chin and his head turned to the side.
Alfie shrugged in an attempt to seem as if he was not screaming in joy on the inside.
“If you want.”
Some people, he had found, had been created only to be painted by him, had been born just to one day end up on one of his canvases. And the longer he looked at him, the more convinced he became that Jimmy was one of those people.
“I think I do”, he said thoughtfully. “I’d like to be immortalised like that.” He lowered his voice. “No one would ever forget that I was here.”
“No one would ever forget that you were here”, Alfie agreed.
Jimmy nodded and grinned contently. He emptied his glass, and Alfie was slightly surprised to find that there was nothing left in his own either.
“This stuff is too weak.” He reached into his pocket and produced a small, silver-coloured flask. “Do you want some?” he asked, offering it to Jimmy.
“Thank you.” He accepted the flask and drank ambitiously from it before he handed it back. “Do you always keep that with you?”
Alfie drank before he answered. “Of course. Wouldn’t leave the house without it.”
From somewhere behind him a voice announced that the second act was about to start. People started moving again and out of nowhere Carmichael appeared, claiming back his place next to Jimmy.
“How exciting to see what happens next.” He nodded at Alfie to acknowledge his presence. “Mr Scott.”
Alfie, who could think of a hundred things more exciting, smiled and let them pass before he attempted to find Clyde and Constance while sliding the flask back into his pocket. They were waiting by the staircase where they had entered.
“How was he?” Constance took his arm.
Alfie handed his glass to a nearby waiter and smiled. “Absolutely wonderful. Charming, funny and clever.”
“Just your type”, Clyde commented, bouncing up the stairs ahead of them.
“Clyde”, Constance said. “Please behave, you’re acting like a child.”
He grabbed the handrail on the wall, spun around and flung out his other arm, in the process almost knocking over a pair of elderly women.
“Oh, Tartuffe!” he yelled dramatically. “You pious divinity, give me the strength to behave!”
It appeared he had drunk more than one glass of champagne, and misunderstood the plot of the opera completely.
Alfie lowered his chin to his chest towards his chest to hide that he was grinning like mad. They continued moving up, Clyde continued running and Constance continued screaming and reprimanding him. When they sat down in their seats she had called him every bad word in the English twice, and Alfie discreetly passed over his flask to him behind her back.
The lights were dimmed, the curtains rolled up, and Orgon and his daughter took the stage. Alfie made eye contact with Jimmy in his seat. He held up his hand like a gun, fired it and threw his head back. Alfie chose suicide by hanging instead.
When the second act ended, he practically ran. He pushed his way through the crowd and left Clyde and Constance to their destiny as he apologized and squeezed between people.
Jimmy was right there below the staircase, looking as if he had been waiting. Carmichael was nowhere to be seen.
“Are you enjoying the opera?” Alfie asked.
Jimmy wrinkled his nose and shook his head.
“Would you like to go to a party instead?” Alfie suggested.
“Yes”, Jimmy said. “God, yes.”
Alfie led the way back to the foyer where they collected their coats and top hats in silence and he drank some from the flask he had in that pocket. He had left the other one with Clyde, he realised too late. It was almost full, and he could only imagine what kind of evening Constance would have.
The street outside was dark and deserted. A cold wind came at them and they both wrapped their coats tighter around themselves. Then down the road a coach pulled by two horses was coming, and Alfie waved for it.
“Can I ask where we’re going?” Jimmy said.
The coach stopped and Alfie opened the door.
“Only the most wonderful place in the world.” He let Jimmy go in first before he followed and sat down next to him. “Nimis House”, he told the coachman.
He turned his head and furrowed a brow. “Nimis House?”
Alfie only nodded. Jimmy frowned and leaned in towards him.
“He knows it?” he whispered.
Alfie looked at him in surprise. “You don’t?”
Nimis House was an impressive building, to say the least. It was a white four-fronted stucco façade three stories high that they stopped in front of, and Jimmy did not say a word as he stepped out and Alfie paid the coachman. When he got out Jimmy was staring at the house in awe, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. From inside music and cheering could be heard all the way out to them on the street.
Letting him enjoy the view, Alfie took out the flask and emptied it into his mouth. The coach continued down the road with the horses’ hooves clicking against the cobblestone road.
“This is where we’re going?” Jimmy said with suspicion, as if it was too good to be true.
“The very place.” Alfie put his empty flask back in the coat pocket and started walking towards the door with quick.
Jimmy followed hesitantly. “Who lives here?” he asked.
“Why”, Alfie took off his hat and grabbed the door handle, “I do.”
And with those words he flung open the big double doors to reveal the entrance hall. The ceiling was high, the floor was tiled with brown and crème triangles, and two brown wooden staircases on either side of the room led up to a balcony where a big painting of some battle scene took up most of the wall. Under that and between the staircases was a second pair of even bigger, even grander double doors.
“You can hang your things here”, Alfie said, nodding to a brown, modest coat hanger that looked very small and misplaced in all the grandness of the rest of the room.
As he followed his lead, Jimmy seemed to be mute and unable to stop staring at everything. In the middle of the room a small fountain, from the ceiling all the chandeliers, on the walls big portraits of regal-looking people, on the staircase a man and a woman who appeared to be half-dressed and were so engulfed in each other that they were unaware of the presence of others, which surely would have made them stop rolling on top of and pressing against each other like that.
In here the noise was even louder. There was music, cheering, laughing, yelling, glass breaking, and it all seemed to be coming from behind those doors on the opposite end of the room.
“Come.” Alfie grabbed Jimmy’s arm and excitedly pulled him with him towards them. “I need to show you something even better.”
Poor Jimmy was probably wondering what on earth that could be, as they passed the fountain and he slowed down to confirm that there were indeed goldfish in it.
Alfie let go of him, turned around and pressed his back against the doors with a smile.
“Do you know why it’s called Nimis House?” he asked mischievously.
Jimmy shook his head.
“In Great Expectations there is a place called Satis House”, Alfie explained. “Satis is Latin for ‘enough’, and Nimis-“ He smirked. “Nimis means ‘too much’”. He took a step back, pushed himself harder against the doors, and flung them open.
True to its name, ‘too much’ was practically the only way the Nimis House ballroom could be explained. Its walls were intricately ornamented with gold, all along the outer wall ran three stories of windows to the garden – quite a pretty sight on its own in daylight –, on the others mirrors, and the ceiling was covered by a detailed painting. In a corner a complete orchestra was playing a fast and upbeat song.
And perhaps this would not have been enough to make Jimmy suck in a breath, if it had not been filled with people. But now there were people in hundreds, and in Nimis House you did not dress as for a regular ball. You wore bigger dresses, more colourful suits, more jewellery, more hair, more feathers, more make-up, more of everything.
Alfie threw out his arms and smiled proudly. “Welcome to the house of too much, where enough is too little and the party never ends.”
His name was called out from a hundred different places all at once and he turned around to bow for them. When that was over with he put his arm around Jimmy’s neck and said, “What do you think?”
“I think the name really fits”, Jimmy said.
Alfie laughed and started walking. “I need to introduce you to someone.”
He led Jimmy through the room, occasionally throwing out a comment or two to someone, like the girl with the full set of peacock feathers around her head and the man with a golden masquerade mask. Then he stopped, grinning.
“Sweetling!” he called.
Sweetling was a woman with her back against them, who turned immediately at the word. She was around Alfie’s age and rosy-pale in colour, saliently thin and frail-looking, with prominent cheekbones and holes where her small green eyes almost drowned under long eyelashes. The dress she wore was a matching colour, big-skirted and without shoulders.
“Darling!” she called back as a smile grew on her face.
Abandoning whatever conversation she had been engaged in she rushed towards them and flung her arms around Alfie’s neck as she planted a kiss on his lips.
“I thought you’d be gone all night!” she said.
Alfie embraced her. “The opera was horrible, I couldn’t stay.”
For another second they pressed against each other while Jimmy stood awkwardly forgotten by the side. But then Alfie remembered him and let go of her, taking a step back.
“Dear, this is Jimmy Federline”, he said. “I met him at the opera and he was just as bored as me. And Jimmy-“ He smiled at him. “May I introduce my better half, the unsurpassable Lady Mabel Day.”
Jimmy nodded and she punched Alfie jokingly on the shoulder.
“Oh, you set the bar so low!” She rolled her eyes at Jimmy. “Nice to meet you, Jimmy Federline.”
“How do you do.” He seemed completely disinterested in her, instead he stepped back and looked up at the ceiling with an “I have to say, Alfie, it’s one hell of a house you have.”
Mabel narrowed her eyes at Alfie. “Did you say that?”
“No, of course I didn’t.” He pulled her in by the waist and looked at Jimmy. “Jimmy, remember, I only said I live here.” He smiled down at the hesitantly eyebrow raising Mabel. “It’s actually Mabel who owns Nimis House.”
Jimmy looked at her and his eyes widened. “Really? You?”
She nodded with a proud smile.
“But how can you afford this?” Jimmy asked with a confused smirk.
Mabel’s smile faded. “Because I’m a woman?”
Jimmy did not in any way deny or confirm that it was exactly what he had meant. Alfie bit his lip and opened his mouth, but never got to say anything.
“My father was the earl of Wiltshire”, Mabel sneered. “I invested my inheritance after him very wisely and have created myself a fortune, does that seem so terribly improbable?”
“Not at all”, Jimmy said nonchalantly, not acknowledging how offended she was. “I just need to piece some things together – Alfie, are you a tenant then?”
She scoffed affectionately at Alfie and forgot her rage for a few seconds. “If this one would pay!”
Jimmy furrowed his brows. “But your surnames”, he said. “You’re not married.”
“No, we’re not”, Alfie laughed.
“But living, here, together.”
Mabel patted Alfie on the chest possessively. “Exactly”, she spat. “Do you see a problem with that?”
Jimmy smiled awkwardly. “It’s not very ladylike.”
“Ladylike!” Mabel exclaimed.
“Calm down, sweetest.” Alfie bowed his head down and put his forehead against her hair. “Poor Jimmy probably just thinks we’re ordinary.”
Mabel huffed. “I take that as an even bigger insult!”
Alfie smiled and kissed her on the forehead before he straightened himself up again.
“Play nice, both of you”, he said. “I need to go up and change.”
Mabel rolled her eyes, but he still left them there and walked back through the room without looking back. She would warm up to him, he was certain. As soon as Jimmy figured out how to speak to her, just as he had done with him. They would be fine.
Alfie went up the staircase – empty now – and took the hallway to the right. His door was the second one and his room the most inconspicuous in Nimis House. It was big with lightly furnished, with green walls, a double bed with matching covers and a small white-edged fireplace. But if this room was empty his dressing room was its opposite. Half of it was taken up by the wardrobe and its matching dressing table, not to mention the privacy screen, the little stool and all the clothes that hung or lay over everything else.
Alfie found and chose the yellow suit for this night, the one with the squiggly golden patterns on the waistcoat. He changed hurriedly, straightened everything out in front of the mirror and made a few strokes with the brush in his hair.
He had no time to sit down by the dressing table, but still managed to root out some rogue and red lip-dye that he applied carefully. Then back down the stairs and into the ballroom with his heart in his throat.
He found Mabel first. She stood between two groups of wildly discussing people with Pip. An avid fan of Dickens, she had thought that the perfect name for a huge, grey German Boarhound living like a much smaller dog, indoors as a pet and lap dog. Now she was leaned down over him and stroking his ears, and he had closed his eyes and tilted his head upwards.
“Hello there”, Alfie said.
“Darling, you look lovely.” She stood up with a tired smile and kissed him absent-mindedly on the cheek.
“Where’s Jimmy?” Alfie gave Pip a pat on the side.
“Oh, him.” Mabel rolled her eyes. “He’s absolutely dreadful, darling. I could barely talk to the man.”
Alfie furrowed his brows. “He wasn’t like that with me. Maybe he’s nervous around women.” He winked. “Maybe he’s nervous around pretty women.”
She sighed. “God, he was just quiet and didn’t want to listen to anything I said, and then Pip showed up and started growling at him so he left somewhere.”
Alfie looked down at the dog. He looked perfectly content now, puffing at his owner’s hand so she would start patting him again.
“Why would he do that?” he said. “Pip never growls at anyone.”
Mabel shrugged. “He knew I didn’t like him.”
“I think you’re being hasty, dearest.”
She let out a loud breath and put her arms around him, burying her head against his shoulder.
“Come on”, Alfie said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“Can’t I just hug you without any reason?” she whined.
“Sweetheart.” He hugged her back. “Of course you can.”
A few seconds later she pulled away and started straightening her dress.
“Anyway”, she said. “I was talking some to Colonel Rogers-“
“Colonel Rogers?” Alfie made an approving look. “Well, he likes you. Think something’s coming out of it?”
“Maybe.” Mabel bowed as he clapped his hands, and then her face turned serious again. “Do you want me to find you someone?”
Alfie, who was just attracting the attention of a footman with a tray of champagne glasses, made an over-the-top frown. “I’m offended you think I would need your help.”
“Darling, you know I don’t like you spending the night alone.”
“I know.” Alfie grabbed two champagne glasses and looked back at her. “But I won’t be. I’m going to play host for the newcomer.”
He swooped around and danced away.
“And you’ll see”, he called back over his shoulder, “we’ll be best friends before the night is over!”
He bumped into some people, got occasionally lost in the loud crowds and more than once thought it would be impossible to find Jimmy in all this mess, but it was not. Because he was right there by the mirror, stroking back some loose strands of hair.
“There you are!” Alfie said. Jimmy turned. “Champagne.” He reached out a glass towards him.
Jimmy looked at him in quiet shock and accepted the glass with hesitation in his eyes.
“You look-“ he started when he eventually spoke.
“Like a woman?” Alfie took a sip of champagne with feigned nonchalance, knowing this was the moment it would all begin, or end.
Jimmy smiled warmly. “I was looking for a word more like fantastic.” He drank some. “But I suppose sometimes it’s pretty much the same, isn’t it?”
Alfie beamed. Jimmy had passed the test.
“Thank you”, he said.
“Where did you get that suit?” Jimmy asked, as if there was nothing special about it, as if it only was a particularly good-looking suit.
“Special order”, Alfie said. “It’s actually dress fabric, which isn’t fair. I don’t think women should have sole right to colour. It’s my firm belief that black, brown and grey makes you sick.”
Jimmy nodded importantly. “A very good argument.”
Alfie positioned himself next to him and looked lovingly out over the people in the ballroom. They were dancing, they were laughing, they were drinking, they were playing games and performing acts, someone in a corner looked like an acrobat. A Saturday night in Nimis House.
“That’s what I love about this place”, he said. “Here you can look, act and be however and whoever you want.”
Jimmy looked at him. “Sounds like the perfect place for me.”
“You should come often.”
“Don’t I need to be invited?”
Alfie laughed and looked back at him. “Only the first time. After that you just stop by.”
Jimmy’s eyes widened. “You do this every night?”
“We’re not always this many”, Alfie said, “but, the door is always open.”
“Do you always hire an orchestra?” Jimmy nodded towards it.
After only seconds of looking Alfie managed to spot Mabel, who was always everywhere at these things, across the room. He cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled her name, which instantly caught her attention.
“Did you hire the orchestra?” he shouted.
She shook her head. Alfie turned to Jimmy and shrugged. In Nimis House, things often were just how they were, and you learned not to question it. Jimmy had just reached that conclusion, he just smiled and drank from his glass.
“We should use them while they’re here then. Do you want to learn a dance?” Alfie said.
“It’s not a partner dance, Jimmy.” He took a few steps back and started moving his feet. “This is flat-footing”, he explained, gaining speed, “and what’s great about it is that you don’t use your arms, so you don’t have to stop to drink.” He demonstrated this.
“All right”, Jimmy said.
He wanted to do it properly, he wanted clear instructions, he wanted to be told when to lift his leg, when to twirl around and at what pace he was supposed to do it. Alfie had none of that, just the rhythm and the movements, when and where he felt like having them.
“There are no rules!” he yelled over the music that kept getting louder. “Not in flat-footing, and not in Nimis House!”
And Jimmy, in time, seemed to accept this. He stopped imitating Alfie a step behind and improvised the steps himself as he went, and he started smiling and laughing and making up steps of his own.
As a ring of empty glasses grew around them the night turned blurry. Alfie only knew that they were dancing, laughing, joking, and always smiling. He knew that his feet would hurt and his legs would ache, but at the time there was nothing else than dancing and music, Jimmy and happiness. The joy of a new acquaintance that he would get to know, at some point, when the sun was out and they were sober.
Jimmy got slower, Jimmy got sloppier, Jimmy started stumbling. Alfie caught him just as he fell and laughed.
“Thought I’d be the lightweight, didn’t you?” he said as he helped Jimmy straighten up and find his balance.
He did not find it, he had lost it entirely. He fell back against the wall and caught his breath with a huge smile. Alfie realised that he was pretty exhausted himself, and that he was breathing heavily.
As they both stood panting, someone crashed right into him and grabbed him by the shoulders as if to take him down with them. Alfie almost fell and only saved himself by catching Clyde and keeping him upright.
“Jimmy, this is Clyde Potter”, he said, suppressing a laugh.
“Alfie!” he shouted.
Jimmy shook his head and laughed. Alfie directed his attention to the drunkard leaned against him, who at the moment appeared unable to stand on his own.
“Where’s Constance?” he asked.
“Oh, she!” Clyde spat at the floor. “That whore!”
Alfie smiled compassionately. “That’s what you call every woman who doesn’t want to sleep with you.”
Clyde swayed back and forth and waved his arm as he probably believed nonchalantly, but was actually very frantic.
“We both know they all do!” he yelled.
Alfie sighed. “So you left her at the opera then?”
Clyde’s head collapsed against his shoulder and he stumbled under the weight. It was answer enough.
“I need to get him to a bedroom”, Alfie said with an apologizing look to Jimmy.
Jimmy nodded and stroked some of his wild escaped hair back. His face was gaining a green undertone that made Alfie give him the direction to the nearest washroom, before he began the endeavour of dragging the half-unconscious Clyde with him up the stairs.
After he had practically tossed him onto a bed in a guestroom and received the wise advise that “Alfie, I’m telling you, she’s a witch who’s only good for one thing!” – to which he only replied “And you’re a ratbag who’s good for nothing” – he walked back down to the ballroom more tired than he thought he had ever been. It took him ten minutes to figure out that Jimmy Federline was gone, as definitely as if he had disappeared into thin air.