The Gate Crasher: With Friends Like These...

The Gatecrasher: May 2011

On The Town | Peter Falstaff | May 2011

When people accuse me of being a frivolous tart, I have no credible riposte. Yet, if they happen to mention, as they so often acerbically do, my ‘gang’, my ‘crowd’, my ‘cronies’, I like to give a flickering smile and say, ‘It’s more of a crew, actually.’

I find it satisfying to know that the arrival of "my crew" in our favorite Vienna galleries attracts not just attention, but often alarm. Slowly they gravitate my way, one-by-one, until I am outlaw-in-chief of these merry men: Brash, handsome and contemptuous, we are the secret envy of strangers who, shut out or ridiculed, describe us as a clique. I find that rather thrilling, just as being disparaged as ‘the crazy crew’ awakens a perverse sense of pride. I have always preferred the company of eccentrics, and this posse comprising, as it does, scions of the most venerable Austrian families and a sampling of the alumni of the best Oxbridge colleges, might have been assembled for the sole purpose of making me shine in public. Undeserved, surely, but sweet nonetheless.

The crew has shrunk over the years, as both leading men and bit-players have taken their bows and retired, summoned away by love or duty.  Michael, having tired of this once great capital’s weary provincialism, was seduced by London’s bright lights and credit default swaps; while John – such a vivid raconteur and bon vivant – disappeared into married life and domesticity. Joachim who for so long had amused us with his astrology and appalled us with his anti-Semitism, too much perhaps even for the city of Lueger and Schönerer, upped sticks to a beach in Puglia, absorbing himself with a bunch of cyber fanatics and conspiracy theorists. Poor, crazy Fabian, meanwhile, having succumbed to his schizophrenia and Vienna’s narcolepsy, is now spending his days in a white suit, staring at the other patients among the gracious gardens of the sanatorium at Steinhof.

Yet, I believe the crew’s effulgent nucleus still persists and, besides, new members have been admitted to make up the losses. James, the most recent, pausing on his Grand Tour down the Danube, has framed our outings in a new debauchery, inspiring us to stunning recklessness; reveling in still being able to keep ahead of a time that is threatening us all with middle age and, as his keeper’s largess finally expires,  James with being returned to England.

Today, we are going to a smart advertising agency party at a shop on the Seilergasse, Edition K, specialising in high-end ladies clothing – with the former Miss Austria, Christine Reiler, I am told by the e-vite. A friend, innocent of my entourage, has put me on the list.

When I arrive, I see the crew gathered in the basement of the almost empty shop. They are drinking. Bernhard has made space for himself on the low central display bench and is sitting, legs crossed, surrounded by crumpled smart tops and jumpers, a bottle of Prosecco at his feet, while James is sniggering into his glass and Martin is examining a rack of dresses with acute interest: affectionately running his hand over colored lace, silk and sequins. The others, meanwhile, casually elegant in blazers and un-tucked shirts, champagne flutes drooping louchely at their sides, are standing, unoccupied and bored.

As I descend the stairs into the subterranean boutique, the group catch sight of me. Shattering the calm of the room, they burst into a spontaneous, guffawing laughter. "Daaavid" shrieks Bernhard, standing and holding his flute aloft. Why the amusement? I soon find out. Evelyn is there, dressed in tights and cycling shorts: a conclusive knockout. Once we had known each other and, prior to our energetic affair, the image of her flirtatiously spilling out of her clothes had given me wet dreams for a good few weeks before having chanced to meet her again. She is one version of my ideal woman, ageing and spandex wrapped.

This is embarrassing, though, because I am with Alice, my new girl and representative of my other eternal feminine: 20, very pretty, sweet and startlingly good legs. My crew continue their ebullient spirits: "You remember taking Evelyn out don’t you..." chortled Martin, a master, as his English improves, of innuendo but not diplomacy, cueing more guffaws from the group. This boorishness is too much for the superannuated bombshell. 20 years before, with a slenderer figure and troupe of handsome suitors at her side she would have laughed off such impertinence, if insolence ever appeared in her world of supplication and seduction.

But now, her self-confidence is expended, worn out from having delivered too many cruel rebuffs and knock backs, a thick skin undeveloped for having had it so easy. Confronted by my raucous crew and opposite my stunning date, whose immutable prettiness, static and radiant is heartlessly fixed before Evelyn as an unmerciful reminder of the beauty of things past, the maturing diva can face no more. With a half-imploring and half-angry look at me, she silently strides off, self-conscious and dispirited, let down by youth’s glorious conceit, a victim of nature’s harsh biological imperatives.

While the ensemble surround my date, eying the girl with the hungry eyes of the congenitally unattached, I cast my gaze along the room for Miss Austria. Unconsciously expecting an underdressed bimbo, I am startled to see what must be Christine Reiler conversing with two deeply orange gentlemen in the corner. She is surrounded by haute couture, which on this occasion is cast in a supporting role to Christine’s exquisite demeanor; her beauty, ethereal yet understated and wholesome, shimmers silently, potent but unobtrusive, as members of the public and serving staff rush by, their ill-conceived haste failing to protrude into her nebulous other-worldly space.

Her two companions shuttle the conversation between them, hoping to either amuse or engage, smiling excessively, bearing super white juggernauts of teeth resembling children’s book alligators waiting to pounce. Not that these try-hards have a chance; they can expect a solitary walk home, crushed and dejected when Christine finally makes her excuses, the sweet memory of unapproachable beauty’s vicinity gradually receding.

The scene on the other side of the room, where my crew is assembled is less attractive however. Three of my friends are drunkenly leaning in towards Alice and Viktor is rolling what looks like a spliff next to Bernhard on the clothes bench, as Martin struggles to remove an expensive looking red fur jacket from a manikin. All in all, we are attracting plenty of attention from the newcomers filing down the stairs, although those glances the well dressed (my God, they are tan!) guests cast in our direction aren’t looks of envy.

The other guests are keeping their distance. We have inhabited a corner of the room, isolated from the others as though by a firebreak, segregated from the mass of sun-touched and vibrant invitees. It suddenly dawns on me how shoddy we all look, neither beautiful nor social: Martin and James with their paunches and out-modish clothes, Bernhard sprawled on what was once a fashion display, Viktor increasingly red eyed and tittering unsuitably and the others competing childishly for the attentions of my girl.

Things are looking pretty bad, and I reflect that it can’t be long before we attract the attention of the organizers – which would be catastrophic as this is a mailing list worth staying on.

So rounding up my wild dogs, I maneuver them toward the door. Luckily, there are free drinks at a friend’s place nearby and this champagne is almost finished anyway, so they don’t need much convincing. As we make our escape I ponder in a moment of heresy that maybe we could use some new blood: dashing, handsome and urbane would of course be ideal, but a suntan would be a start.

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