By Craig Potter
The student mingles.
At the culmination of each uncomfortable silence, he steps away before greedily edging forwards to drink from another centre of worldly energy.
‘Which hall are you in?’ ‘What are you studying?’ ‘Where did you come from?’
Closed conversation propels him onward. He expects more. All expect more.
They came here so that their wishes could play out beyond what they could imagine alone—not for reality to be lower than expectations, erecting new walls of cumbersome role playing.
As personality turns inward, attention collectively looks to shared meaning; the fridge is opened, and yes everyone, they have set! Who wants one?
‘Isn’t it good?’ ‘How did you learn to make it?’ ‘Someone put some music on!’
As before, as it will be again, alcohol is the soul of the party; never creating, merely levelling the walls of outward selfhood, allowing the fabric of the inner life to expend itself on what it cannot satisfy within.
As the vodka jelly solidifies the group in the first stages of revelry, the student, still holding to his own idiosyncratic dream image, is compelled to leave.
In three graceful, sweeping steps out the door, he leaves the gaze of the host with a casual but self-determined movement that attempts to paint neutrality to the other guests; an indefinite exit, not outright abandonment, perhaps only a toilet visit or a rendezvous with a new initiate.
As soon as he leaves, he is forgotten.
He never will know where a string of jelly vodkas, a heavy R&B beat and a small room with many smiles and little substance might have taken him. Neither will they experience what he has yet to see. In a world composed of divergent meaning, it really differs little.
Such is the connection shared by all the young. No matter how much they justify their nascent exuberance as seizing the moment, carpe diem-ing closer to essence, their one chance that all others have let slip through their grasp, under the auspices of freedom they are fated to pursue their own singular strand of imperfection.
Veering off course is the unavoidable consequence of the very self-determination which threads through his body and mind.
The door is closed and he will never taste vodka jelly. He is inescapably himself.
He passes through another door and down a staircase, not resisting a stuttering slide down the bright, yet frictional, banister.
Warm evening air greats him. His trainers thud against smooth concrete, following a way decorated by scratchy foliage, beneath the star-glittered dome of the great world corridor.
Avoiding cognitive saturation, the sublime universal spectrum is navigated by a new common object, and allowed to lead the way.
On this pathway, stepped in formation many times but never walked twice with the same exhilarating nervousness, small groupings and shadowy individuals are sighted, some sharing the destination, others puzzlingly detouring.
Taking a stop at the cash machine, gurgling out the infinite credit of an ‘everything is justified’ account, he focuses on the short queue leading into the low conservatory entrance of the bar.
He hesitates momentarily before electing conformity to this new collective; just long enough to take an over the shoulder glimpse at the shadowy threat of loneliness, close behind all those who have left the security of home for the conditional love of university.
His shirt proves adequate to get past the hunkering bouncers, more imposing for their age than brawn; the only out of place objects in a vibrant world of youth reborn.
Their power is not in the barring of entry—one could always climb in through the toilet window—but the possible ruination of the whole illusion, should such outsiders do more than grunt and direct.
But he is beyond them now, and through the crimson, metal plated swing door; immediately the beat rattles, and vision consumed by the gaudy mass in which his own hue is mixed.
Empty seats at 8pm are anticipation, at 10pm, a barren, timeless desert.
Finding all comfy chairs to be full upon entry invites a comforting sense of good timing in one’s social self positioning, yet contrarily a distance, as groups are already coalescing, names memorised.
Here she shares news of a well known friend. There he brings over three pints of everyone’s favourite.
In a club, one cannot simply sit with others without invitation—or else, great offerings of exuberance must be made before one can take a spot. Arriving early enough to occupy a place, or sidling up, is only ever pretending to be entitled to group membership, and it will be made known when you are heartily ignored.
The nearest guy’s hair is purple, his trousers too wide. Nothing about him belongs, but he is here anyway.
With a casual movement of the hand and a quiver in his fleshy jaw, he empties out a white pill and wrenches it back down his throat. Then, with the first sign of guilt, he turns immediately ninety degrees to a new companion, laughing at their joke with a forced familiarity.
A pre-balding guy in Hawaiian shirt, defying the dress code so obviously and with such little conviction as to have not realised there was a code, nods at the joke, carefully raising a glass of an inconspicuous drink he is far less interested in than the assemblage of misfits around which he gravitates.
One, wearing a woolly hat and luminescent green shirt, unimpressed by the flying spittle of a strained scientific conversation, swerves wildly towards a passer-by, recognised—perhaps—from his Mandarin induction class.
Tottering on heels which compensate for her regularity height, she over-exaggerates the barge of a gaudy, badly dressed drunk in indignation. It is enough to set a brief reaction amongst the other towering females; swiftly recapitulated—in case anyone is hopefully looking—into a synchronicity of exaggerated swaying dancing to hide their shame.
Like flamingos they flitter as one, stretching with deliberation against the limits of their safety net that risks leaving them only with the secure, uninteresting and uneventful company of each another.
All are feeding off this energy: the squash of people, the music pounding through senses, catching moments of recovery in laughing, sweating disarray, the bottle close to hand.
They are forced deeper into the moment, catching up to the newest step. The first awkward over-enthusiasm to perform and respond to the room—smelted into waves of lifeful exuberance as the mind loses focus on the particularity of objects and finds now only friends—seeking to pull the warmth of the world inwards.
Battling away the clawing arm of a dancing maniac, the student moves his head to the rhythm but doesn’t yet touch essence. Instead, he goes over to the bar, ordering a bottle of camouflage, which the muscle bound guys nearby are drinking.
It’s hard to tell if the sternly efficient bar tender who finally takes his pleading £20 note is a student or not. If they are, then why are they working when this is the student party? He will not ask. Individual destinies will remain apart, united by freedom; she has drinks to pour, he has a party to embrace, people amongst people, craving love.
In a room fragmented with ego, it is hard to spot those who are failing to feel the beat of cultural consensus. They are swiftly estranged precisely for it, repudiating the levity of others, feeling rejected by a room of mannequins, habit, or base ignorance.
Unable to reconcile themselves with the collective, mentally squirming in the spotlight of apathy, the only odd ones out in the room, under the scrutiny of nobody, they disguise their dissonance with permissive attempts to blend in, stand defensively with disobedient hands, stay on the move, or are forced by the press of revellers to drift slowly along the bar to join the empty bottles at the end.
Hopelessness, alcohol or sheer need merges some of the stragglers with the performers, but the majority either left early or will stay right to the dud end of the last track, before swiftly leaving in silence, thanking the doorman—the only person they spoke to all night—and fleeing into the comforting loneliness of night.
But they can still hold up the mask of pride, say they tried it, it was not their thing, they met dull people; the unfortunate ones meanwhile are those noticed at random by the drunk extrovert—shallowly sympathetic pseudo befriender—in whose power it is to dash the beautiful fleeting hope placed with them.
Compared to merely being left alone, it is the observers who inflict the callous pain of the outsider, labelling the loner with hollow questions and lukewarm interest that kills the possibility of bonding while demanding attention all the same.
Yet sometimes, the sheer perseverance of the curious or friendly interlocutor brings euphoria; the night saved by a human being of seemingly angelic quality.
The student catches the eye of a girl from his halls. She smiles slightly. He pauses, trying to hide his delight and measure her intention.
Within two separate minds, in an instant of recognition and appeal, all variable outcomes are rapidly processed, and without either being the definitive instigator they mutually step closer.
‘Hi,’ she says in her soft and delightfully odd staccato, smiling through ample lips, her tongue flickering gently.
‘Having a good night?’
Plaited, dark brown hair, hazel skin, and a revealing dress spoil tact, and distract with slack frankness.
‘I haven’t recognised anyone yet. It’s nice to see someone familiar here,’ he yells over the noise.
No degree of preparation could save the student from this kind of hackneyed, fickle sentence that will condemn many similar interactions. But, at the high end odds, she smiles, says ‘come and join us,’ links his arm, and pulls him into her group.
He throws all caution to the wind and is flooded with joy.
The floor becomes increasingly sticky with spilled drinks as human links begin to stretch and merge with one another.
Friends turn to face an unknown, breakaways switch loyalties, and energy replaces talk.
The music, non-too subtly, rises in volume, forcing raw throated dialogue into gruff simplification; bonding the youthful partiers under a temporary dance floor identity.
‘Great tune’ ‘You’re gorgeous’ ‘Check this out’ ‘Want another.’
Shame becomes invisible in a room of bodies. The rhythms harmonise, they press together; embraced like brothers, restraining like sisters. Intimates, strangers a few tracks ago.
The performers dance, the joyless smile through drunken mono-phrases, the high heeled groupings totter, cast and retract their nets, and only individuals transcend the tune—that homogenous noise that forces unity and envelops identity—in either sheer confidence or the creeping self interested will of tiredness which gradually breaks the room down into a chaos of misdirection.
Unattractive oddities tow away the objects of group desire.
The apparently beautiful—results of hours of preparation—break into sobs or fall semi conscious into the arms of the unoriginal.
By blind chance, people who wear woolly hats indoors make friends with everyone, and those in cool and careless shirts befriend nobody.
The room thins without command amidst signs of the approaching finale; they kick away paper cups, get served quickly with fuzzy small change, and the music fades into insignificance.
Someone decides it’s time to go, so do they all, the loners taking their cue from the dereliction beneath the revealing introspection of the flooding lights.
Goodbyes are traded, eyes share invitations, some plea, hands linger.
‘More,’ someone shouts, out of time, out of luck, receiving no reply.
Here, making our own way home, we must leave the entropic spectacle of student unity, wobbling back along the same path, silhouettes in a purple dawn.
My story represents the social figuration of a student club, phrased in the individual acts of identity management, which simultaneously form the social space and the experiential self of the characters within. While not directly based on their work, it has parallels with the sociology of Norbert Elias and the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel.
‘The Nightclub’ represents an observational method, encompassing instability, transience and self-determination, operating within the mind of the character—the sociological imagination effectively played out in self-consciousness; the medium allowing the capture of the synchronicity of being and reflection—and a phenomenological reality with which the protagonist seeks to harmonise.
The individual is not forced to fit a pre-existing category. As a somewhat ironic reflection on the gaze of the sociologist, the social figuration partly depends on the student’s own, rather naive, generalisations, which provide a working delineation of otherness (for instance, in the reductionism of ‘the muscle bound guys’, or failing to represent the inner life of the ‘towering females’). It offers a fluid, process-driven viewpoint, where psychological traits and tentative propositions of self —hope, anxiety and vanity—take precedence over abstractions made out of time; social types, patterns of behaviour, or rules of conduct. In this sense, it is a picture of the reflexive individual.
The character of the student, as participant and camera eye, eventually merged with the fragmentary space, breaks down any straightforward notion of self and other, and indeed any fixed definition of agency. It echoes a post-structural concept of identity, the self as network, even struggle, rather than simply ‘actor’, expressed through a description of a tumultuous life process, within what Zygmunt Bauman referred to as ‘cloakroom communities’. Notably, the student is both unable to pre-empt the figuration of which he will become part (and ultimately reinforce in his own search for meaning), and at the same time he is acutely aware of his freedom; as an individual set of needs and attributes that searches for mutuality and facilitates togetherness.
The major conflict of the story is around acceptance, in a space with a high potential for exclusion or humiliation, which to a non-participant would otherwise appear homogenous, even static—students partying and having a good time—which is in actuality more dynamic and undefined. Certainly there is a psychological edge in the protagonist mirroring those around him, engaged in the process of personal development, learning to navigate the unfamiliar, and enacting forms of selfhood.
Yet the story also possesses a distinct sociological quality, a micro-conflict between conformity to the rhythm and an anomic freedom of direction, with characters expressing many degrees between; from imitating others to being almost oblivious of expectations. This is all synthesised through the short story form, imagining the moment in which an individual is in the act of being made, the ever present desire for belonging and human connection, and the solidarity found in this disparate yet shared passage, against the backdrop of the ‘sublime universal spectrum.’
Craig Potter is a sociology graduate from Nottingham, UK, with an interest in exploring the potential of the short story form as a different way of doing sociology.