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How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Neil Gaiman

  Copyright © 2006 Neil Gaiman

  The right of Neil Gaiman to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  Originally published in 2006 in Fragile Things

  Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.

  First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2013

  All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

  eISBN 978 1 4722 0881 1


  An Hachette UK Company

  338 Euston Road

  London NW1 3BH

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  About the Author

  Praise for Neil Gaiman

  Also by Neil Gaiman

  About the Book

  How to Talk to Girls at Parties

  Coming soon from Headline

  Excerpt from The Ocean at the End of the Lane

  About the Author

  Neil Gaiman has spent his adult life making things up and writing them down. He lives more in America than he does anywhere else. He has written books and films and children’s books and television. He has a blog over at He’s won more than his fair share of literary awards, was voted twenty-first equal on a recent poll of Great British Authors, and has no idea where he put his keys.

  Praise for Neil Gaiman:

  ‘A very fine and imaginative writer’

  The Sunday Times

  ‘Exhilarating and terrifying’


  ‘Urbane and sophisticated’

  Time Out

  ‘A jaw-droppingly good, scary epic positively drenched in metaphors and symbols … As Gaiman is to literature, so Antoni Gaudi was to architecture’


  ‘Neil Gaiman is a very good writer indeed’

  Daily Telegraph

  ‘Exuberantly inventive … a postmodernist punk Faerie Queen’

  Kirkus Reviews

  ‘Excellent … [Gaiman creates] an alternate city beneath London that is engaging, detailed and fun to explore’

  Washington Post

  ‘Gaiman is, simply put, a treasure-house of story, and we are lucky to have him’

  Stephen King

  ‘Neil Gaiman, a writer of rare perception and endless imagination, has long been an English treasure; and is now an American treasure as well’

  William Gibson

  ‘There’s no one quite like Neil Gaiman. American Gods is Gaiman at the top of his game, original, engrossing, and endlessly inventive, a picaresque journey across America where the travellers are even stranger than the roadside attractions’

  George R R Martin

  ‘Here we have poignancy, terror, nobility, magic, sacrifice, wisdom, mystery, heartbreak, and a hard-earned sense of resolution … a real emotional richness and grandeur that emerge from masterful storytelling’

  Peter Straub

  ‘American Gods manages to reinvent, and to reassert, the enduring importance of fantastic literature itself in this late age of the world. Dark fun, and nourishing to the soul’

  Michael Chabon

  ‘Immensely entertaining … combines the anarchy of Douglas Adams with a Wodehousian generosity of spirit’

  Susanna Clarke

  Also by Neil Gaiman:

  American Gods



  Smoke and Mirrors

  Anansi Boys

  Fragile Things

  About the Book

  ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ is a short story by Neil Gaiman, and was previously published in FRAGILE THINGS. This ebook-only edition also contains an exclusive preview of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, a new novel about memory and magic and survival, about the power of stories and the darkness inside each of us – available in June 2013.

  How to Talk to Girls at Parties

  ‘Come on,’ said Vic. ‘It’ll be great.’

  ‘No, it won’t,’ I said, although I’d lost this fight hours ago, and I knew it.

  ‘It’ll be brilliant,’ said Vic, for the hundredth time. ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ He grinned with white teeth.

  We both attended an all-boys’ school in south London. While it would be a lie to say that we had no experience with girls – Vic seemed to have had many girlfriends, while I had kissed three of my sister’s friends – it would, I think, be perfectly true to say that we both chiefly spoke to, interacted with and only truly understood other boys. Well, I did, anyway. It’s hard to speak for someone else, and I’ve not seen Vic for thirty years. I’m not sure that I would know what to say to him now if I did.

  We were walking the back-streets that used to twine in a grimy maze behind East Croydon station – a friend had told Vic about a party, and Vic was determined to go whether I liked it or not, and I didn’t. But my parents were away that week at a conference, and I was Vic’s guest at his house, so I was trailing along beside him.

  ‘It’ll be the same as it always is,’ I said. ‘After an hour you’ll be off somewhere snogging the prettiest girl at the party, and I’ll be in the kitchen listening to somebody’s mum going on about politics or poetry or something.’

  ‘You just have to talk to them,’ he said. ‘I think it’s probably that road at the end here.’ He gestured cheerfully, swinging the bag with the bottle in it.

  ‘Don’t you know?’

  ‘Alison gave me directions and I wrote them on a bit of paper, but I left it on the hall table. ’Sokay. I can find it.’

  ‘How?’ Hope welled slowly up inside me.

  ‘We walk down the road,’ he said, as if speaking to an idiot child. ‘And we look for the party. Easy.’

  I looked, but saw no party: just narrow houses with rusting cars or bikes in their concreted front gardens; and the dusty glass fronts of newsagents, which smelled of alien spices and sold everything from birthday cards and second-hand comics to the kind of magazines that were so pornographic they were sold already sealed in plastic bags. I had been there when Vic had slipped one of those magazines beneath his sweater, but the owner caught him on the pavement outside and made him give it back.

  We reached the end of the road and turned into a narrow street of terraced houses. Everything looked very still and empty in the summer’s evening. ‘It’s all right for you,’ I said. ‘They fancy you. You don’t actually have to talk to them.’ It was true: one urchin grin from Vic and he could have his pick of the room.

  ‘Nah. ’S not like that. You’ve just got to talk.’

  The times I had kissed my sister’s friends I had not spoken to them. They had been around while my sister was off doing something elsewhere, and they had drifted into my orbit, and so I had kissed them. I do not remember any talking. I did not know what to say to girls, and I told him so.

  ‘They’re just girls,’ said Vic. ‘They don’t come from another planet.’

  As we followed the curve of the road around, my hopes that the party would prove unfindable began to fade: a low pulsing noise, music muffled by walls and doors, could be heard from a house up ahead. It was eight in the evening, not that early if you aren’t yet sixteen, an
d we weren’t. Not quite.

  I had parents who liked to know where I was, but I don’t think Vic’s parents cared that much. He was the youngest of five boys. That in itself seemed magical to me: I merely had two sisters, both younger than I was, and I felt both unique and lonely. I had wanted a brother as far back as I could remember. When I turned thirteen, I stopped wishing on falling stars or first stars, but back when I did, a brother was what I had wished for.

  We went up the garden path, crazy paving leading us past a hedge and a solitary rose bush to a pebble-dashed façade. We rang the doorbell, and the door was opened by a girl. I could not have told you how old she was, which was one of the things about girls I had begun to hate: when you start out as kids you’re just boys and girls, going through time at the same speed, and you’re all five, or seven, or eleven together. And then one day there’s a lurch and the girls just sort of sprint off into the future ahead of you, and they know all about everything, and they have periods and breasts and makeup and God-only-knew-what-else – for I certainly didn’t. The diagrams in biology textbooks were no substitute for being, in a very real sense, young adults. And the girls of our age were.

  Vic and I weren’t young adults, and I was beginning to suspect that even when I started needing to shave every day, instead of once every couple of weeks, I would still be way behind.

  The girl said, ‘Hello?’

  Vic said, ‘We’re friends of Alison’s.’ We had met Alison, all freckles and orange hair and a wicked smile, in Hamburg, on a German exchange. The exchange organisers had sent some girls with us, from a local girls’ school, to balance the sexes. The girls, our age, more or less, were raucous and funny, and had more or less adult boyfriends with cars and jobs and motorbikes and – in the case of one girl with crooked teeth and a raccoon coat, who spoke to me about it sadly at the end of a party in Hamburg, in, of course, the kitchen – a wife and kids.

  ‘She isn’t here,’ said the girl at the door. ‘No Alison.’

  ‘Not to worry,’ said Vic, with an easy grin. ‘I’m Vic. This is Enn.’ A beat, and then the girl smiled back at him. Vic had a bottle of white wine in a plastic bag, removed from his parents’ kitchen cabinet. ‘Where should I put this, then?’

  She stood out of the way, letting us enter. ‘There’s a kitchen in the back,’ she said. ‘Put it on the table there, with the other bottles.’ She had golden, wavy hair, and she was very beautiful. The hall was dim in the twilight, but I could see that she was beautiful.

  ‘What’s your name, then?’ said Vic.

  She told him it was Stella, and he grinned his crooked white grin and told her that that had to be the prettiest name he had ever heard. Smooth bastard. And what was worse was that he said it like he meant it.

  Vic headed back to drop off the wine in the kitchen, and I looked into the front room, where the music was coming from. There were people dancing in there. Stella walked in, and she started to dance, swaying to the music all alone, and I watched her.

  This was during the early days of punk. On our own record-players we would play the Adverts and the Jam, the Stranglers and the Clash and the Sex Pistols. At other people’s parties you’d hear ELO or 10cc or even Roxy Music. Maybe some Bowie, if you were lucky. During the German exchange, the only LP that we had all been able to agree on was Neil Young’s Harvest, and his song ‘Heart of Gold’ had threaded through the trip like a refrain: like him, we’d crossed the ocean for a heart of gold …

  The music playing in that front room wasn’t anything I recognised. It sounded a bit like a German electronic pop group called Kraftwerk, and a bit like an LP I’d been given for my last birthday, of strange sounds made by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The music had a beat, though, and the half-dozen girls in that room were moving gently to it, although I only had eyes for Stella. She shone.

  Vic pushed past me, into the room. He was holding a can of lager. ‘There’s booze back in the kitchen,’ he told me. He wandered over to Stella and he began to talk to her. I couldn’t hear what they were saying over the music, but I knew that there was no room for me in that conversation.

  I didn’t like beer, not back then. I went off to see if there was something I wanted to drink. On the kitchen table stood a large bottle of Coca-Cola, and I poured myself a plastic tumblerful, and I didn’t dare say anything to the pair of girls who were talking in the underlit kitchen. They were animated, and utterly lovely. Each of them had very black skin and glossy hair and movie-star clothes, and their accents were foreign, and each of them was out of my league.

  I wandered, Coke in hand.

  The house was deeper than it looked, larger and more complex than the two-up two-down model I had imagined. The rooms were underlit – I doubt there was a bulb of more than forty watts in the building – and each room I went into was inhabited: in my memory, inhabited only by girls. I did not go upstairs.

  A girl was the only occupant of the conservatory. Her hair was so fair it was white, and long, and straight, and she sat at the glass-topped table, her hands clasped together, staring at the garden outside, and the gathering dusk. She seemed wistful.

  ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ I asked, gesturing with my cup. She shook her head, and then followed it up with a shrug, to indicate that it was all the same to her. I sat down.

  Vic walked past the conservatory door. He was talking to Stella, but he looked in at me, sitting at the table, wrapped in shyness and awkwardness, and he opened and closed his hand in a parody of a speaking mouth. Talk. Right.

  ‘Are you from round here?’ I asked the girl.

  She shook her head. She wore a low-cut silvery top, and I tried not to stare at the swell of her breasts.

  I said, ‘What’s your name? I’m Enn.’

  ‘Wain’s Wain,’ she said, or something that sounded like it. ‘I’m a second.’

  ‘That’s uh. That’s a different name.’

  She fixed me with huge liquid eyes. ‘It indicates that my progenitor was also Wain, and that I am obliged to report back to her. I may not breed.’

  ‘Ah. Well. Bit early for that anyway, isn’t it?’

  She unclasped her hands, raised them above the table, spread her fingers. ‘You see?’ The little finger on her left hand was crooked, and it bifurcated at the top, splitting into two smaller fingertips. A minor deformity. ‘When I was finished a decision was needed. Would I be retained, or eliminated? I was fortunate that the decision was with me. Now, I travel, while my more perfect sisters remain at home in stasis. They were firsts. I am a second.

  ‘Soon I must return to Wain, and tell her all I have seen. All my impressions of this place of yours.’

  ‘I don’t actually live in Croydon,’ I said. ‘I don’t come from here.’ I wondered if she was American. I had no idea what she was talking about.

  ‘As you say,’ she agreed, ‘neither of us comes from here.’ She folded her six-fingered left hand beneath her right, as if tucking it out of sight. ‘I had expected it to be bigger, and cleaner, and more colourful. But still, it is a jewel.’

  She yawned, covered her mouth with her right hand, only for a moment, before it was back on the table again. ‘I grow weary of the journeying, and I wish sometimes that it would end. On a street in Rio, at Carnival, I saw them on a bridge, golden and tall and insect-eyed and winged, and elated I almost ran to greet them, before I saw that they were only people in costumes. I said to Hola Colt, “Why do they try so hard to look like us?” and Hola Colt replied, “Because they hate themselves, all shades of pink and brown, and so small.” It is what I experience, even me, and I am not grown. It is like a world of children, or of elves.’ Then she smiled, and said, ‘It was a good thing they could not any of them see Hola Colt.’

  ‘Um,’ I said, ‘do you want to dance?’

  She shook her head immediately. ‘It is not permitted,’ she said. ‘I can do nothing that might cause damage to property. I am Wain’s.’

  ‘Would you like something to drink, then?’

  ‘Water,’ she said.

  I went back to the kitchen and poured myself another Coke, and filled a cup with water from the tap. From the kitchen back to the hall, and from there into the conservatory, but now it was quite empty.

  I wondered if the girl had gone to the toilet, and if she might change her mind about dancing later. I walked back to the front room and stared in. The place was filling up. There were more girls dancing, and several lads I didn’t know, who looked a few years older than me and Vic. The lads and the girls all kept their distance, but Vic was holding Stella’s hand as they danced, and when the song ended he put an arm around her, casually, almost proprietorially, to make sure that nobody else cut in.

  I wondered if the girl I had been talking to in the conservatory was now upstairs, as she did not appear to be on the ground floor.

  I walked into the living room, which was across the hall from the room where the people were dancing, and I sat down on the sofa. There was a girl sitting there already. She had dark hair, cut short and spiky, and a nervous manner.

  Talk, I thought. ‘Um, this mug of water’s going spare,’ I told her, ‘if you want it?’

  She nodded, and reached out her hand and took the mug, extremely carefully, as if she were unused to taking things, as if she could trust neither her vision nor her hands.

  ‘I love being a tourist,’ she said, and smiled hesitantly. She had a gap between her two front teeth, and she sipped the tap water as if she were an adult sipping a fine wine. ‘The last tour, we went to sun, and we swam in sunfire pools with the whales. We heard their histories and we shivered in the chill of the outer places, then we swam deepward where the heat churned and comforted us.

  ‘I wanted to go back. This time, I wanted it. There was so much I had not seen. Instead we came to world. Do you like it?’

  ‘Like what?’

  She gestured vaguely to the room – the sofa, the armchairs, the curtains, the unused gas fire.

  ‘It’s all right, I suppose.’

  ‘I told them I did not wish to visit world,’ she said. ‘My parent-teacher was unimpressed. “You will have much to learn,” it told me. I said, “I could learn more in sun, again. Or in the deeps. Jessa spun webs between galaxies. I want to do that.”