ART BY PYOTR JANECEK, MADMAN
Caroline was kneeling by the toilet bowl and as her eyes began to re-focus, her body shuddered with another retch. The vomit was red from the punch and her mouth burned with alcohol. After she'd been sick three times, she felt better and almost completely sober. She stood up and looked in the mirror - her hair was flat and stuck down to her face at the sides and her eye make-up was smudged. She badly wanted to curl up in a ball and sleep against the radiator, but people were banging on the door so she had no choice but to wash her mouth out with water and struggle to re-apply some make-up.
She glanced at her watch as she walked through the hall, squeezing past a couple kissing. It was 2:30 am. There seemed to be less people in the living room as she entered, and she could see Angie, David and Leonard through the doorway. They stood near the dreadful punch bowl. She reluctantly went to them and they all smiled sympathetically at her. "Feeling better?" asked Angie. Caroline nodded but felt another surge of queasiness when she caught sight of the vile liquid.
"We were just talking about your recent trip to Paris," Angie continued.
This made Caroline perk up -- she had loved Paris when she and David had visited for a long weekend a few months ago. Leonard, who was slumped against the work-top mumbled something about the French and started to tell David about how he had seen Arsene Wenger in a restaurant last week.
"It was beautiful," said Caroline and she began to tell Angie about the trip -- it was the first conversation she enjoyed all night. Neither she nor David had visited Paris before, and they had relished doing the tourist trail of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame. On their last afternoon there they had taken a walk around Montmartre and stumbled across the curio shop, which sold all sorts of old artefacts, most too battered and insignificant to be called antiques. A tiny, withered old man had eyed them suspiciously from behind the junk-laden counter but they had nonetheless spent a good part of an hour rooting through the old books and ornaments, looking for last minute presents and souvenirs. Caroline had seen the handbag hanging on a peg with scarves and hats. She had been drawn instantly to the pink, worn material and the ornate clasp. It was only €7 -- a bargain. She was embarrassed to approach the stern looking shop-keeper, being unable to speak much French and not knowing the procedure for purchasing such things -- should she barter, she had wondered? In the end she had pushed the bag over the counter and fumbled around in her purse whilst the man wrapped the bag in tissue paper. She had handed him a ten euro note, to which he had silently nodded and returned three euros.
Angie cooed and said she had been admiring the bag all night, it was so unusual. At this point, David and Leonard stopped talking about Arsene Wenger, and stared at the bag too.
"Is it normal leather? It feels quite strange." Angie had now taken the bag from Caroline and was stroking the pink material.
"Well I think so," said Caroline. She said she thought the bag looked as if it had been made in the 1940s or 50s.
"Hmm, well yes, it does feel like leather of some sort," mused Angie. Leonard spluttered. "I thought you could only get leather from cows," he slurred. David said he thought he had heard of pig's leather. They mused over the concept of pig's leather when suddenly Leonard cried out: "Maybe it's human!" and chuckled.
"Leonard!" exclaimed Angie, taking her eyes off the bag and looking at him in horror, "don't be so disgusting!"
"No, but," continued Leonard, who now stood up straight and assumed a look of intense concentration. "Didn't you hear about those books they recently found in France? The ones that were bound in human skin? I saw a picture in the National Geographic and I have to say, the visual texture did bear a resemblance to Caroline's handbag."
Caroline thought she saw David bite his lip to suppress a smile, and she could feel herself turning bright red, her face prickling with heat. As Angie passed the bag back to Caroline, she noticed that she wiped her hand discreetly down her dress.
"That's ridiculous," said Angie, rather too cheerfully for Caroline's liking. There was an uneasy silence while Caroline fiddled with the bag, muffled by embarrassment. Leonard shrugged, poured himself another drink and stumbled off into the living room shooting a sarcastic smile at Angie and leaving her raising her eyebrows in his wake.
Caroline felt small and awkward. She swallowed but her mouth was tight and dry. She turned to David and suggested that maybe they should go home soon. The desire to leave the party was overwhelming, to hear the apartment door shut behind them and for them to be alone in the cold corridor outside. David flashed her a look of annoyance. In her head she could her him saying \'Why do you always want to leave just as the party gets going'. But he called for a taxi and told her it would be ten minutes.
They went to wait in the lounge and Caroline found herself sitting in the same seat as she had earlier when the room had started to spin. It didn't happen again, but when she looked up David had disappeared. Maybe he'd gone to get the coats. She let her head fall back and closed her eyes, trying to shut out the continuing chaos of the party. When she opened them again after what must have been at least five minutes, David had still not returned. She decided to go and look for him.
The door to the bedroom was shut, so she knocked. The door opened after a few seconds and there were Angie and David. David had their coats over his arm. He smiled broadly at her.
"Just trying to find the coats. There's a mountain of them in here!" he remarked.
Caroline could see behind him that there were only four or five jackets strewn across the rumpled king-size bed. She noticed Angie's hair looked a little messy and she wasn't wearing lipstick anymore.
She felt numb, as if a knife in her heart would cause no pain, as they stepped into the cold corridor. The rumble of the party continued behind the closed door. David walked ahead of her, down the stairs to where the taxi was waiting outside. He told the driver their address as they climbed in and then he turned to Caroline.
"Good party, eh?"
"Yes, it was OK," said Caroline.
She felt worn-out and sober, and a shrill ringing filled her ears. They sat in silence as the taxi pulled out of the car park and drove through the deserted streets, finally hitting the cross-over.
All of a sudden, Caroline tipped the contents of her handbag onto the seat and learned forward.
"Stop! Please driver, stop," she ordered.
"Caroline, what on earth are you doing? We're on a bloody expressway!"
She ignored David and implored the driver to pull over onto the hard shoulder. He did so, probably fearing she was going to be sick, quickly slowing down the taxi, making Caroline fall back into her seat. When the taxi had come to a complete standstill she pushed the window down and threw the handbag out into the darkness. Against the gentle buzz of the nocturnal city she heard it thud onto the dew-wet grass of the reservation.
"Right," she said calmly, as she slammed the window up, "we can go now."
The taxi driver stared at her for a few seconds then turned around, shook his head and re-started the engine. Soon they were off the cross-over and passing through the streets near their home. David had said nothing since she had made the taxi stop, and was turned away from Caroline as if looking out at the garish neon lights of the takeaway shops on the high street. Caroline could see his face reflected back in the window and he was grinning, stupidly, as if he had heard some exceptionally good news.
HJ Hampson, despite the flesh-orientated emphasis of this story, is a peace-loving vegetarian who lives in London, England. She has previously had a short story published in the The View From Here and is currently working on the finishing touches to a first novel. She previously reviewed gigs and sometimes theatre in Sheffield. She has a slight obsession with Jazz Age fiction and if she could go back in time she would be one of Evelyn Waugh's Bright Young Things. But seeing as no one has invented a time machine yet, she spends her time when not writing working in digital marketing.