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a little night murder

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CHRISTMAS PARTY belongs up on the list of well-known oxymorons. The holiday has become less wretched in recent years, but that’s purely for the time it affords him away from work to be with Victoria in their home watching idiotic movies to celebrate the ancient feast days for alcoholics of old. 

However, that’s only December 24-26. Being Public Figures and people who would like to continue working at their chosen professions, the rest of December retains the satiric decadence of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Everyone they know fills December with parties they don’t want to host and invite into their homes people they don’t want there. Why? Because that’s What’s Done and god help them, the (Coren) Mitchells and Webbs are hosting a party this year. 

Typically, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t dream of hosting a Christmas party, let alone a joint Christmas party, but someone actually said TO DAVID, TO HIS FACE, IN PUBLIC, WITHIN EARSHOT OF HIS WIFE AND HIS BEST FRIENDS: “And when will you have people over, David? Surely we can give you enough notice to spruce the place up a little, let Victoria put away the whips and chains and thumbscrews for a night? Or not, really- I don’t mind.”

And when David finished yelling into the now-empty skull of Jack Whitehall, TOTAL FUCKHEAD, he took another breath and said: 

“YES, WE WILL BE HOSTING A PARTY THIS YEAR. AT ROBERT’S HOUSE, AS THIS YEAR I WON’T HAVE TIME TO CONVERT OUR SEX TORTURE DUNGEON INTO A DICKENSIAN WONDERLAND FOR YOUR SHITTY PLEASURE, JACK. HERE’S TO 2015, YOU WALKING, BLISTERING RECTUM.”

The party would start in a few hours and one of Robert’s daughters had already asked several questions trying to discover what exactly was a rectum and why it was the best insult Uncle David could devise in the heat of the moment.

He and Robert were the ones actually supervising party setup while Victoria and Abigail lounged upstairs in the master bedroom, washing their hands of the whole fucking thing.

David carried his goddaughter up so she stood on a kitchen stool next to where Robert was eating a deviled egg and muttering, “But why did I ask for these when I hate them, I hate them so much.”

“Sweetheart, it’s because a rectum is a useful part of the human body,” David said. “It’s the last part of the very long and intricate digestive system that processes everything we eat and drink into energy and waste. ‘Walking, blistering rectum’ is actually very clever on your godfather’s part. For one thing, a walking rectum has walked away from the body and thus can’t actually do its job, rendering it completely ineffective. A blistering rectum has done that and, right before abdicating its position in the digestive system, caused the body a significant amount of pain before it trotted off to do anything but what it evolved to do.”

“And this boy is all those things,” Robert clarified for his daughter. “Do you want the rest of this egg?”

She thought about it and took the deviled egg. 

“That could have gone much worse,” David said as he helped the girl off the tall stool. 

“I suppose only time will tell,” Robert said. “And her first memoir.” 

*

David much preferred the expectations others had of British people to the reality of being British. For one thing, he would much rather hole up in a Jeeves and Wooster mansion with a pack of Irish wolfhounds and a personal Scotch distillery with only Victoria and all the money in the entire world for company, and if he had to wear tails then so be it. Rather all that than host a party and enjoy himself.

Ostensibly these were personal parties, but the more personal and intimate a party, the further the “INDUSTRY” rippled with alliances drawn and redrawn. That was why he and Victoria went to every single fucking party they were invited to and why they and Robert and his wife now invited every single fucking person they knew to Robert’s house. They sent away the girls to an aunt for the evening; the less they saw of the house’s transformation into a gin-soaked inferno of cynicism and false cheer, the safer their childhood would remain for another year or two. 

The main room and kitchen were filled already with guests as the front door opened. There he was, the man who had prompted this mess in the first place, and David couldn’t even glare because he was with Stephen Fry.

“Are you seeing this,” David whispered to Victoria in the most Downton tone of outrage he could manage. The guests parted in front of them as he and Victoria slowly made their way to where Stephen and Jack were shrugging off their coats and laughing at some private joke. Surely it was something not at all funny now made funny because Stephen Fry was laughing at it. “How dare he,” David added.

“Who? Which of them are you planning to eviscerate for laughing in your presence?”

“Everyone in the whole entire world,” David promised.

Jack beamed at David, both his coat and Stephen’s over one arm. “Just a minute, Mitch, I’ll be back, save some charm for me, will you.” He rushed out and returned in a second from the hall closet holding a hanger, lest the conversation exclude him for another moment. “Real nice place you and your young man have here,” Jack added, winking like a bearded eel that flirted with the idea of squeezing David to death before moving on to other prey. 

“Oh, Jack,” Stephen said, all fond sighs and warm smiles for the little shit. Said Little Shit locked eyes and his sociopathic smile with David as he held up the coat hanger and carefully, meticulously, hung his coat first AND THEN added Stephen’s on to THE SAME HANGER. We’re leaving together, Jack’s hand said as it settled the shoulders of Stephen’s coat onto the hanger. Do you see how my coat is inside his coat, his twisty little eyebrows suggested. Just think about that. Think about it forever. Let every erection for the rest of your life taste a little bit like my hand tucking my coat into Stephen Fry’s coat with firm and dextrous attention to detail. 

“So glad you could come,” Victoria said as Stephen bent down to kiss her cheek. “Both of you, really. David’s currently experiencing a stroke from all the cinnamon in the air, but I know he’s thrilled to host this party and thrilled that you could make it.”

“And who needs a drink?” David asked as Jack shook his hand, gripped it hard, the better to physically shake him out of his rage-stroke. “I imagine this will all seem much more enjoyable when you’ve had some gin.”

“Ah, none for me,” Stephen said. “Just a soda- I’ll find my way to the drinks, eventually.”

“Stephen, please,” Jack said as he began to lead the way into the first group of people waiting to greet them. Greet Stephen, rather, along with this hanger-on nightmare dick leech infiltrating his best friend’s home. However, Stephen the National Treasure had twice as many Twitter followers as the two of them combined (along with prestige and adoration and power), so what Stephen wanted, Stephen would be handed on the closest thing to a silver platter the caterers had brought into Robert’s house. Royalty had actually descended into the house and David needed another goddamned drink.

*

The true misery of these holiday parties came from the conversation. David and Robert may consider many of the people pressed against the walls of Robert’s sitting room to be friends as well as colleagues, but when they were all here? Together? At the end of the calendar year when the light of the new year shone on these last weeks and really gave them all a chance to reflect on their miserable industry and their devotion to it? Jesus Christ would be better off crawling back into his mother and they would be better off becoming accountants or geriatric nurses or Hunger Games-style resistance fighters to overthrow the current British regime, if any of those offered a decent pension. 

The holidays were an opportunity for all gathered to audit each other’s past year successes and failures. Plans were made for the next calendar year: gaps discovered in filming schedules, upcoming projects with available roles, pitches to the executives, books in progress, tours and columns and charity campaigns and new rivalries and departed allies. The past year had been a Good Year for David, with his columns and his book and his near-constant presence on every media outlet in the country. He and Victoria had survived two years of marriage, and he and Robert still hadn’t engaged in a duel to the death for who would survive their Harry Potter and Voldemort neither can live while the other survives prophecy (there’s always next year). Success, David thought, like the complete shitheel he was, meant he would be pressed on all sides at this party by everyone who wanted to know how he had done it and how they could have a part in it. 

Once Stephen arrived, it took David two whole conversations with two disparate sets of friend-colleague-guests to realize that Stephen was trailing him. Once the second group of guests had dissipated for more drinks and food, Stephen inserted himself between David and Jack, then thought better of the situation.

“Jack, dear,” Stephen said, not actually looking at Jack Whitehall, the harder for David to hide his euphoria at the brush-off happening in front of his very eyes. “Could you give us a moment?”

“Think nothing of it,” Jack muttered. David smiled and nodded his thanks at Jack, who shuffled off thinking VERY MUCH of it. David dissolved into sunshine. 

“We could step out into the hall,” David suggested.

“Oh, no, then people would absolutely eavesdrop,” Stephen said. Their hair had the same tendency to fall in a straight lock directly into their eyes. David thought he would settle even for a Keira Knightley curtain draped across half his face, a dramatic eye peeking through, but that was never going to happen, not for Stephen and definitely not for his own face like warm tofu. 

“Have you heard from the powers that be about this series of QI?” Stephen asked.

“Not yet, but I never do until shooting is closer. That machine is so well-oiled by now that America might declare war on it any moment,” David said.

“Well, it might come sooner rather than later,” Stephen replied. “I think I’ve convinced them to take a chance and let me have this series off.”

It took a long moment, but eventually David did remember how to inhale and blink again. 

“Are they- I can’t believe I’m asking, but are they forcing you out?” David asked. 

“Do you know, at this point I wonder what it would take to force me out. Frankly, I don’t want to know. Long answer short: no. It’s entirely my choice, and it’s one that they might want to look into sooner rather than later.” Stephen glanced down at his glass of club soda and said, “Lord but I wish there was vodka in this. Club soda to me, for some reason, tastes exactly like parental disappointment.”

“Really? I agree, but vodka tends to enhance that taste for me.” David raised his drink and drank to them both.

“I’ve pitched them this idea, and I think they would swallow it even easier if they knew you, Mr Steadily Rising Star, supported it,” Stephen said. “And the idea is that we’d ask three or four pairs to co-host a few episodes each- a Stephen and Alan, you understand.”

“Best team wins the game. Literally.”

“At some point. This would be just an audition series, you understand, and if it’s a complete failure then we’ll release it as some special edition blu-ray nonsense and tape a real series that won’t tank the ratings.”

David nodded. “Well then.”

Neither of them said anything for a moment, but Stephen was of the sort that could never stay quiet for long.

“Comments, questions, clarification?” 

“It’s one of my failings or quirks,” David began, “That when someone asks for my input, my immediate thoughts shift into planning mode, so. Yes. I’m thinking of who on earth I could possibly recruit into sitting next to me, on one side or the other, so we could berate each other about our respective ignorance for several episodes a series.”

“Hmm,” Stephen said. “Yes, I see, but I did rather imagine you in my role as the quiz master.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” David said. “As did I. But I’m not- Stephen, I’m not like you.”

“You don’t say.”

“You’re- well, you’re nice and dear to people, like the fun gay uncle everyone wants to be their friend. That’s lovely, and all that intelligence wrapped up in your kindness and articulate nature, even more wonderful.” David was out of booze, so he slid a few ice cubes into his mouth and let the shrieking chill elucidate his thoughts. “As for me? Well. I’m a complete fucking terror. Loud and disagreeable, and as much as I would like to be quizmaster general, I can’t help but think that no one would tune in to my angry egg face yelling every week about the golden ratio and why everything they think is true is wrong. And more than that.” David had to take a breath, impossible as it was to do so because everyone they knew was in this very same room, breathing up all the good oxygen and leaving him to suck up gin burps and cheese farts. “Who on earth could I find to be my Alan? Who in this terrible world could I ever convince that their place is in a chair, next to me, accepting all the nasty trash coming out of my mouth? And they have to joke about it? Who is my sidekick? I mean. I MEAN. I have a wife and a- a Robert, who’s more my partner than anything else- who is my Alan?”

“If you think of it as an Alan, you won’t find one,” Stephen said after a moment. “He wasn’t an Alan when we approached him and, if you’ll recall, he hasn’t stayed an Alan in all the years we’ve been doing the show. So do think of that. Think of it as someone who wants to listen to you spout factoids and interesting information every week and all they want is to sit next to you and riff off your idiot jokes for about fifteen taping sessions a year.”

“I’ll think about it,” David said. 

It wasn’t a lie: David would think about it. In all likelihood, he would think about it too much. Everything Stephen just described? He wouldn’t wish that punishment on his worst enemy because that would involve spending an enormous amount of time with his worst enemy, whoever deserved that dubious honor. He wouldn’t wish it on his closest friends and family, either, because they were already living that hell-on-earth by calling themselves one of his confidantes. So who was left?

No, really. Who the fuck was left?

“And you should know,” Stephen said. “We’re also auditioning Richard Ayoade and, of course, Jack.”

“Jack who’s here with you?” David asked. “How lovely. What a good short list.”

It was hardly surprising that young handsome Jack Whitehall had charmed his way into hosting a show like QI at least three times next series, but it still made David want to vomit magma, enough magma to eventually form an island onto which he could banish Jack Whitehall.

Somewhere, David heard Victoria’s voice, the smooth cadence she adopted when she was explaining something very simple to someone very stupid. Oh. Oh that would be- it would be actually perfect.

“You should get Victoria,” David said. He looked up at Stephen and said, “Not on a team with me. Absolutely not with me, but: she’s already a quiz master. Have you seen her show? She’s supremely intelligent and dry, the perfect straight man to anyone she chooses. Anyone who thinks themselves even remotely amusing would have the opportunity of a lifetime to play Alan to her for 30 more series.”

“But not you,” Stephen clarified. 

“NOT ME,” David repeated. “I don’t want to encourage you and the never-ending ratings game, but it would end in a murder-suicide where she would walk away unscathed. That being said.” David had run out of ice cubes to chew and he was very close to shoving the tumbler into his mouth and chewing on the glass. “Do ask her. I think she would welcome the challenge of beating me for a job.”

“Think of someone for yourself as well,” Stephen said. “I’ll be in touch in the new year, David.”

David walked around Stephen, empty glass held aloft so he could announce to the party that THE GLASS WAS FUCKING EMPTY AND THE HOST WHO WAS FEEDING THEM ALL NEEDED A REFILL I-FUCKING-MMEDIATELY.

Once he reached the makeshift bar with a real waiter doling out drinks, the woman waiting for her drink turned around and oh it was Victoria what had he done.

“I may have gotten you an audition for another panel show,” David said.

“There’s a panel show I haven’t been on?” she asked.

“No, you’ve been on it,” he said. “I mean an audition to host. You’ll need a partner to be your co-host. Your co-minion. Your Alan. It’s for QI.”

“Oh, that’s easy. Miranda Hart, obviously. Dream co-host. Barring that, I’d hold auditions in the garage for young comedians who want the chance to clown around on a Very Respectable quiz show like QI.” 

Well, how wonderful for her, she who had been on the show a grand total of THREE times and he had been on there SEVEN TIMES AS OFTEN, and she already had a co-host and strategy chosen. David couldn’t name five people in this room who he wouldn’t murder with a song in his heart. 

“Robert would hate it,” she said. Somehow she could see a physical manifestation of his lizard brain, whose first impulse was to run to Robert and let him make everything better. Let him smile and be kind to everyone, going forth among the people to make friends and influence, and then David would swoop in and pretend he had been there the whole time, that he had been adored from the beginning as well. Robert loathed panel shows on a good day, let alone a Very Respectable panel show that would require him to listen to David talk for too long on garbage no one cared about.

“Is it strange,” he said, “That I don’t even want it?”

That threw her for a visible loop, and she said so: “That surprises me. It surprises me a lot. I thought QI was the Camelot to which all of you aspired.”

“Well, only because of Stephen,” David said. “The rest of us would only ruin it.”

“And would you really leave Lee to fend for himself on Would I Lie to You?”

“He didn’t even come to our party,” David realized. “See if I don’t invite him to every single episode I host just so I can intellectually beat him to a pulp. Then he’ll go home and feel very bad about how stupid he is.”

“It’s like you haven’t met Lee, but it’s fine, dear, just believe what you must, I won’t stand in your way.”

*

A definite advantage to hosting a party somewhere he knew as well as his own house: he could run away whenever he pleased. Some of Victoria’s poker friends whisked her away to talk shop, Robert was arguing about the political system in the Star Wars universe and how it would be updated for Episode VII, and David took that as his cue to escape upstairs into the back of the house where no one would speak to him. 

Ha, just kidding! There was Jack Whitehall coming out of a bathroom. 

“Oh good grief, who did you leave in there?” David asked before he could stop himself.

“What? No one! I can take a piss by myself, Mitchell.”

David’s lips formed a sad, thin Maggie Smith line and Jack went right around and mimicked him. “What are you doing up here anyway? There’s a bathroom downstairs for the guests.”

“Robert said I could,” Jack said, his whine becoming more infantile with every moment. Well, to each their own! It wasn’t as though David had a solid grasp on concepts like dignity or self-esteem. 

David grunted and stepped around Jack to continue on his way to his preferred hiding place in the master bedroom, but Jack stopped him.

“Did Stephen talk to you?” Jack asked. “About QI? I figured that’s why he- why you two were talking.

“He did,” David said. 

Jack nodded and said, “I don’t have a co-host in mind yet. Do you?”

David mustered strength into his tea-brittle bones, pulled himself up, and raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh? Not Russell Brand or the reanimated corpse of Sid Vicious or-”

“I think we, you and I, would be very good together,” Jack interrupted. “You’re in denial because you hate me and frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about you except that you’re the last of the great hemorrhoids to descend from Footlights.”

“Well-”

“But you’re not like them,” Jack said. “Not really. Stephen isn’t either, but he’s more like them than not.”

“What you mean like them,” David asked. This veered dangerously close to sympathizing, even empathizing, with Jack Whitehall. Perhaps it was part of a long game to con David into giving up this last iota of sympathy he contained in his body. That was extremely likely, but there was something in Jack’s glazed eyes that momentarily offered gravitas to what he said: that David, for all everyone thought of him as a starched shirt with an upperclass twit mouth, wasn’t as loathsome as he thought himself. 

“THIS IS EXACTLY HOW CARRIE ENDED UP DRENCHED IN PIG'S BLOOD, JACK,” David yelled. 

“SEE!!! THIS IS THE KIND OF BANTER THAT WOULD MAKE US TELEVISION KINGS,” Jack yelled back. “AND MAYBE WE COULD KISS AT THE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL.”

“ONLY IF I CAN COAT MY LIPS WITH POISON AND USE MY FORKED TONGUE TO CHOKE YOU TO DEATH.”

David finally did make it to the master bedroom and slammed the door shut. Once he was alone, he let out the loudest “FUCK” he could manage because they were entertainment alchemy that could turn a gasping corpse like QI into the fucking Vitruvian Man.

*

“It’s me, let me into my own bedroom,” Robert said through the door. “I won’t dignify with a response the texts you’re sending me from my bedroom.”

David let him in then returned to the cocoon he had made of the quilt. 

“You know that would be considered rude in some places,” Robert said as he climbed into bed and threw a leg and arm across the cocoon’d lump in the middle. “Jack actually found me when he came down after the most epic shit in history. He said that I should check on you in case you tried to escape headfirst out a window.”

“Well, yes, he would, because he’s discovered what I’ve been in denial over for since the first time we were on a quiz show together,” David said. “That if we pooled together his chill-”

“Wow,” Robert said. “That’s the first time chill has ever come out of your mouth, isn’t it?”

“This is what I mean,” David said. “Everyone who loves me can only show it by loathing me, and Jack Whitehall loathes me most of all. But if we somehow put together his fuckhattery and my…” 

David opened the quilt cocoon enough to peek one eye out at Robert above him. Robert tightened his leg around David a little more and met his look. “Don’t ask me. I certainly can’t think of just one word for all this.” Robert sighed a little and said, “Look. I know what you’re saying, and you can take comfort that Victoria and Abigail and I, and the girls, and our families, we really do like you for the screaming mess you are. Victoria’s even legally bound to it.”

“This is England,” David said. “Remember how keen we are on unbinding what is bound?”

“Shut up,” Robert said. “My point is that I think you should consider teaming up with that little shit. It would make for great television.”

“Yes, but-”

“Think of it this way,” Robert said. “You are a tiny volcano always looking for places to shoot your stupid little mouth off. And Stephen Fry has just dropped this boy into your lap, and all he wants is to sit at the head of a table and smugly let you abuse him for more money than either of you have ever seen from one fucking gig. Are you really so stupid as to say no to that?”

“Don’t I have principles?” David asked, muffled in a quilt. “Don’t I- also we will literally kill each other.”

“And then Victoria will inherit all your cash and she and I can milk your legacy for all it’s worth,” Robert said. “But I don’t think you’d let this tit win. I think even though you have twenty years on him-”

“Oh god, am I that much closer to the grave than him?” David asked.

“I think you’re about even since you’re too boring for drugs.”

“Are you two having sex in there?” Victoria called through the door. “Abigail and I are bored and want to start booting people out, but if you’re getting each other off then we’ll just have everyone come up here.”

Robert’s warmth left for a moment and David heard the door open, which was his cue to unravel himself from the quilt so his wife didn’t lose the last vestiges of respect she probably didn’t have for him. 

“I did interrupt something,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“He and Jack Whitehall are going into QI together,” Robert said.

“Oh,” she said. “Well done. You two are the most liberal options for that conservative white men’s sphincter, but I’m still forcing myself into that audition season. I found this lovely comedienne downstairs who I hadn’t met before but she really let Lee have it over something he said about her hair.”

“And Lee’s here,” David said.

“Yes, come downstairs and the two of you can team up to ruin someone who actually deserves it,” Victoria said. “Not Jack. Pick on someone new. He’s not nearly as revolting as you led me to believe. I’m very disappointed. You can find someone much better to feud.”

“I’d really prefer to stay in this blanket,” David said.

“You’ve already warmed up our bed enough for one night,” Robert said. “Don’t make me pick you up and carry you downstairs in my arms like I’ve just deflowered you.”

“Why not?” Victoria asked Robert. “You don’t have to get me a Christmas present if you give me that. Please.”

“Tough shit. We already bought you something beautiful and you’re going to love it,” Robert said. 

“All right, all right, I’m out of bed, are you happy,” David said. “If only to stop the two of you flirting right in front of me.”

“David, this is how people who enjoy each other’s company speak to each other,” Victoria said. 

“I don’t believe you,” he replied.

“Suit yourself,” she said. “I need more wine, and you need to handle Lee, and Robert needs to start kicking people out.”

“Honestly, doesn’t anyone down there have any manners?” Robert said. “How long do they expect us to pretend to be cheerful? We’re fucking comedians.”

*

Their first audition episode was a success. A huge ridiculous success. Running 15 minutes over the already-long time it takes to film a QI episode kind of success. Both of them burning through facts and being completely dicks to each other- that kind of success.

“You never told me,” David said as they walked off stage. “What you get out of it?”

And Jack got a look on his face that, David would swear, was incredibly Alan-like, of all things. He and Alan had that touch that allowed them to be both too sincere and too- ugh, chill- to bother them overmuch as to how they were perceived. 

“You respect me enough to hate me,” Jack said. “I think that’s the start of something good.”

“No I don’t, I just hate you,” David said. “Can’t it be as simple as that?” He added, for good measure, “I hope Victoria destroys you.”

“Ooh, you promise?”

“I’ll see you Thursday,” David said. “Be prepared for me to murder you.”

“NO REALLY, DO YOU PROMISE? I want a blood feud between our families! We could make it a Game of Thrones tie-in!”

David made sure to buy wine on the way home, to celebrate with Victoria a good first day and how he loathed every moment of it.