At the beginning of a match of snooker with a mate, he told me there would be a party going on downstairs. It was someone’s 30th and all the stops had been pulled out. I counted at least seven balloons and three “Happy Birthday” banners were hanging limply on the wall, which I guessed were pulled out every time someone celebrated their day of birth. I could see a cobweb on one.
The venue was a small-town British Legion which has probably seen better days, including the time it was bombed during the War. Every time I enter there is an old couple sitting by the bar, both stooped and ageing. They sit there all night. When the man speaks he has to press his hand against the trunk of his neck or no sound will come out. The woman looks like a homeless Princess Anne. They sit by the fruit machine and comment unhelpfully while you play on it. I swear when people’s backs are turned they raid it.
You would only find such a place in a parochial town, the kind of area where you suspect the twenty-first century is viewed with rampant scepticism. One big tell-tale factor is that the meat raffle is still a big deal. I used to think meat raffles were the stuff of legend, the kind of working class activity probably outlawed by New Labour. It really shouldn’t exist in leafy Sussex, but I have witnessed the draw with my own eyes and can confirm that winning a pack of Cumberland sausages in a bar still holds immense value for those who take part.
Adverts for upcoming gigs didn’t exactly lift the prevailing mood of an aversion to modernity. “The Firetones this Saturday! Regulars at the Legion, they will be playing all your favourite rock ‘n’ roll classics from the ‘50s and ‘60s”. I asked one old lag at the bar if the band were any good. He said “yes, if you like that modern crap”.
My friend had been formally invited because he once went out with the girl who was celebrating her big day. “Fucks like a bag of spiders” he told me knowingly, before spilling the beans on the rest of the motley brigade who had turned up in full fancy dress.
“See her, thin girl with the dreadlocks” he said, pointing to the bar.
“Yeah” I replied, “that’s a rubbish outfit”.
“That’s her real hair”.
“Well, she’s mad. Her brother is serving time for GBH and her whole family are nuts. She likes to sing ‘We Are The Champions’ after a few drinks. You can’t take the microphone off her during karaoke.
“See that bloke over there? Bald head, glasses, facing the other way? Had an affair with his cousin”.
“Right” I said, all my suspicions proving well-founded.
“And her, the old girl on the dancefloor, face like a smacked arse”.
I looked but there were OAPs all over the dancefloor and most of them could pass for members of the undead.
“No sorry, where?”
“There” he said, doing that unhelpful thing that people do when you can’t see where someone’s pointing, ie shoving their finger in your eyeline. This time I saw. She had painted her face white, with black around her eyes so she looked like a cross between a mime artist and a panda. Judging by the wide berth all the blokes were giving her, she probably has the reproductive patterns of a panda too.
“She’s properly mad. Friend of the family. The lift does not go all the way to the top”.
The birthday girl, a pretty blonde with an alcopop in hand, came over to say hello.
“Alright darlin’” my mate said, kissing both cheeks.
“Glad you could make it” she said, smiling.
“We had some good times didn’t we, babe”.
“Yeah” she said, turning to meet my eyes, “but he took advantage of me”.
“No I did not” he said in mock surprise.
“In a good way” she said, with a wink.
“I tell you now” he continued, “I always had respect for you, ‘cos you could suck-start a leaf blower”. She giggled with a mixture of embarrassment and pride.
“Anyway, who are you?” she asked, looking me up and down, unexpectedly adding “You’re quite fit”. She was wearing a rather revealing top and as I began framing a response, I became conscious that my head was moving up and down as if I was watching a vertical tennis rally.
“You’re not bad yourself” I muttered, fighting to keep my gaze steady. Inside I was skipping. “Quite fit” she said! Usually I’m compared to an overlarge freight-damaged potato, so “quite fit” is definitely a step in the right direction, even if the modifier was a bit disheartening – there’s a world of difference between “you’re beautiful” and “you’re quite beautiful”. On a man’s wedding day, were he to say the first, he would be performing his duty as a husband. Were he to say the second, he would be signing divorce papers days after the ceremony.
The birthday girl moved on to the next well-wishers and my mate continued his hilarious narrative of the movers and shakers in the small room.
“That bird by the billiards table wearing the Nun outfit. Total slapper. She’s been under more sheets than the Ku Klux Klan. And him, wearing the cardigan and sitting on the stool. Looks like Jonathan Edwards after six cans of Special Brew. He’s my accountant. Lovely bloke. Total drunk. The local taxi company sends a car here every night at 11 because he’s in no fit state to get home. He lives sixteen doors away”.
“I’ll try one more” he added, finally reaching the bar and topping up his double vodka and coke, “then I’m getting my costume on”. The DJ was pulling out all the classics and things started getting slightly out of control.
The woman with dreadlocks had opened hostilities with thin air, shouting at no-one in particular, only drowned out by the ear-shattering volume of the disco. Kids had started whizzing around all over the place, untamed and feral, colliding with legs and tables. The slapper in the Nun’s outfit was striking up conversation with every man in the room and it seemed only a matter of time before I would be next. The birthday girl was being handed shots of sambuca, which she necked faster than they could be poured. My mate had gone next door and re-entered the room as Sylvester the cartoon cat to guffaws and cheers from the gathering. The drunkard accountant had just dropped his drink with a deafening smash, prompting mingled swear words and apologies. The mad woman wearing face paint was whispering in the DJ’s ear and seconds later I understood why.
As if to complete the surrealness of the scene, ‘The Time Warp’ (t-t-t-time warp) bellowed from the speakers and she rushed to the centre of the dancefloor, joining a select bunch of misfits to perform the routine. As the chorus reached its denouement, she seemed to be readying herself for a big moment. Right on cue (“Let’s do the time warp again”) and centre stage, she ripped open her dress, a la Bucks Fizz, to reveal just a bra and knickers.
I was laughing so much I was in agony. I actually fell to the floor in hysterics.
“God bless her” my mate said at the urinals ten minutes later. “That’s her party piece”.