A story of love, longing, and chips, in an imagined Birmingham, circa 1983.
A blind date. I’d allowed myself to be talked into a blind date, like I was somehow in need of one. The only saving grace was that I was also being gifted entry to the club because I’d refused to set foot out of the door otherwise. Shari, for whatever reason, had decided that she needed strength in numbers on her first date with Joel, so had twisted my arm into coming along; Joel was apparently going to bring one of his best mates so that I wouldn’t be gooseberrying all night. In my mind, the worst that can happen is that I dance a bit, make some new acquaintances on the dancefloor and get a taxi home – and, if nothing more, it gets me out of the house.
Faces Nightclub had been in its current location for about ten years now. It had previously been in a big hall next to a reservoir, but the neighbours had complained around the time that Disco became the Next Big Thing as they didn’t like “the sort of people that it encouraged to our area”. So, when the next licence renewal came up, the Council gave them a choice – new home or no licence. From there, they moved into a dive club underneath a tower of offices in the City Centre – a more convenient location and no ability for neighbours to complain about noise (because it’s underground) or the clientele (because they don’t live here). A genius move. Door security was therefore reduced to cover the increased cost; Winnie, the remaining ‘security operative’, had been the doorman when I first discovered the place and, apparently, had been with Faces as long as it had been a nightclub – though he didn’t look old enough to have been – and was a gentle reminder that some things in life remain constant.
“Leesh! ‘ow you doin’?”
“Yeah, I’m alright, thanks; you seen Shari yet? She’s paying for me in.”
“Nah, sistah, but go down and I’ll tell her yuh at the bar. Don’t be standin’ up ‘ere in the cold.”
We don’t know each other that well, I reflect, but Winnie makes it a point of his job to remember the regulars – and is one of the reasons Faces had kept him on for so long. His clipped consonants and smiling eyes made everybody feel comfort – and his muscles made them feel safe. There wasn’t a crook in town who would dare try to take the door money off Winnie, let alone worry any of the clientele of whichever venue he was working.
I head down the staircase, bypassing the payment booth with a nod from Winnie, and I’m immediately flanked by the wall of faces watching me descend; one of the club’s more esoteric features, the stairs featured white ceramic tiles moulded in the shape of a mannequin’s face emerging from the otherwise square platform, dozens of them. On the way down, they felt like encouragement; on the way back up, tanked and with the evening’s revelries over, they felt like judgement.
Reaching the bottom of the staircase, and as always, I’m presented with two options: go left, to the main dancefloor, the most modern music and the largest of the two bars; go right, to the quaintly named “Retro Room”, with its smaller bar and focus on the music of Motown. Usually, I’d go left, as I would be with people and, therefore, would already be in the mood to party – however, as I was still waiting for Shari to arrive, I lean right and enjoy the slightly quieter bar, soundtracked presently by the pearl notes of Diana Ross and the Supremes ordering me to stop in the name of love.
Fewer than a dozen people were in the Retro Room, making it even quieter than usual. This room had seen brighter days, prior to Faces taking over the space; now, the old burgundy carpet was sticky from a decade of spilt beer and a dearth of cleaning, the black paint, that had been applied to cover up the old ‘70s lime green, was flaking from the walls, and the nicotine-stained fabrics that covered the seats in the room were all threadbare and beginning to tear. Because this room was meant to be a breakout from the noise of the main dancefloor, somewhere to escape for a minute, rather than a valuable addition to the club’s floorspace, it was neglected. As such, it was always quite quiet, a place where people went for minutes not hours. That would also mean it would take minutes, not hours, for Shari to find me when she arrives.
Meandering over to the bar, I size up my options: of all the house spirits, wholesale purchases of unknown brands, nothing really jumped out at me – and I can feel the hangover they would cause travelling back through time to hit me before I even drink them. I opt instead for a Babycham. The bartender, dressed in black denim and a black shirt, as if to attempt to become one with the wall, silently opens the requested bottle and decants it into a glass whilst Marvin Gaye instructs me to get it on. Passing the glass to me, he takes the proffered pound with his other hand and turns without a sound. I watch him briefly as he dials the price into the till and deposits the money into its maw before surveying the otherwise empty counter and disappearing into the back through a curtain of corks beside him. Now alone, I sip the overly-fizzy, overly-sweet perry and wait.
Now on my third Babycham, I wonder if Shari is ever coming at all. The barman is beginning to look at me like I’m one of those loners who come out in order to be alone. I hope that the hour and a half I spent with a diffuser and mousse contradicts this impression. I know that this is a blind date, but I did put an effort in – just in case he’s not really my type and I can instead spend a little time getting to know someone else on the dancefloor later.
Joel had been especially clear about this: don’t look too polished. Apparently, Shari’s mate was a nice girl but one who didn’t like affectation. She just wanted a normal person who didn’t take things too seriously. So, I’d immediately had a complete life crisis and had to try on everything I owned to see what looked like I cared but didn’t look like I cared too much. Christ, this is why I’m single – how do people manage this dating thing? Especially as I’ve never met her before… Joel was clear about that, too: blind dates make things more interesting, apparently. Though it wasn’t how he’d met Shari, and was convinced that it would be the right way for me, nineteen and having had one fleeting relationship in junior school with a girl in the year above who wore denim dungarees and called herself “Rolo” (even though her name was Alexandria), to meet the Girl Of My Dreams. Yeah, he’d even emphasised the capitals. I don’t know why I was taking this advice from the Lothario of Ladywood, for whom this was only his first proper date with Shari anyway; probably because I see him as at least capable of holding down a relationship for longer than three days and as having been able to find at least one girl willing to actually date him.
I settle on a dark blue polo shirt – you can’t go wrong with a polo, surely? – and my favourite straight-cut jeans. They’re pretty normal, but they’re comfortable, and I need to be comfortable tonight. Paired with some Going Out Shoes (yes, I’m as bad as Joel), this should be unpolished enough to look like it’s just what I’d normally wear but dressed up enough to look like I’m at least trying. I run my hands through my hair and call it quits on that one – I’m never going to improve the mop any more than it currently is, so I can at least call that truly natural.
Why am I so nervous for a blind date?
I can hear the front door being knocked; Mom opens it and calls up the stairs: “Paul! Joel is here!” I hear muffled chat then the footsteps of a man on a mission climbing the ascent to my room. The door swings open with the force of a thousand intentions; there, holding onto the handle with a grin the size of the Suez Canal is Joel, wearing a vintage purple satin shirt untucked over black trousers. He looks at me – takes one look – and says:
“Mate, can we have a word about your hair?”
We leave the house with a cry of “Don’t wait up!” to Mom. It’s only a ten minute walk to Faces from my house, which is why Joel always comes to mine first. He lives a little further away, almost in Edgbaston, but along the same route into town – it’s why we ended up at the same high school and subsequently became best mates.
“So,” he ventures, “you ready to meet the girl of your dreams, mate?”
“I still can’t believe that I agreed to this. You only need me there so that she isn’t bored while you’re off necking Shari!”
He looks at me with faux horror. “I can’t believe you’d think that of me! You know how invested I am in making sure you’re set up for life with a woman you can marry. Like, it’s a bigger ambition for me than finding my own girl!”
“You have a girl, mate!”
“Well, we’ll see about her – tonight might change everything.”
“Oh, I see! You need me there as a get-out clause just in case she’s more of a nutcase that she’s led you to believe so far?”
“Oh ye of little faith; I’ll have you know that I intend to have at least two more dates – and apparently her mate is a catch. She’s from around here too, name’s Alisha. She’s half-caste, Mom came over on the Windrush and met her Dad here in Birmingham. They split up a few months or so ago and Alisha moved back in with her Mom. He apparently wasn’t good to them, but they’re a nice family.”
“Sounds like she’s pretty grounded then.”
“Yeah, Shari says that she’s got her shit together – even with some of the neighbours being pretty anti-… well, anything that isn’t what they think is normal.”
I mull on this for a minute. “Fuck racists, mate.”
He laughs and nods. The eighties was a time of rebirth; of people actively challenging binaries, through music and performance, and of enjoying humanity and culture. It was also a time of selfishness and greed, punctuated by the 3-series driving Yuppies that were increasingly buying up the land around where we live to build shitty boxes in which they won’t live but gives them somewhere to put the ever-changing mistresses and to “invest in the next big property boom” – pricing out those of us who’ve always lived here by buying up all the available reasonably priced property at inflated rates. Worse, the problem wasn’t just the divide between the rich and poor, like it’s always been; now, it’s also old and young – they have ideas which we just don’t share, ideas like it being bad to have a partner that isn’t completely one ‘race’ or another. Rich old people are the absolute worst of the lot.
We continue in this vein alongside the wide dual carriageway that leads to the entrance to Faces. It runs alongside some of the Victorian parts of the city, contrasting with the tower blocks and council terraces in which we live, providing a little insight into what is the real feeling of disparity between the old and the young: grandeur vs. cost, space vs. density, accessibility vs. commonality. What’s for us is consistently in the cheap, the grey and the new; what’s for them is in the marble, the terracotta and the ancient. We can only walk alongside and wish that we had such things.
Breaking the momentary silence created by my chewing of this truth, Joel says “She said to meet her outside Faces. I can’t see her, so she can’t be here yet.”
On our final approach to the club, I can see that the usual doorman is on duty; with Joel’s announcement, we cut a left into the chippy next door. I could do with lining my stomach – nervousness had meant that I’d avoided food earlier in favour of spending my time trying to perfect my outfit. “Shall we have something quick to eat, mate?”
“Paul. Eating’s cheating.”
“Yeah, but… surely some chicken pakora isn’t gonna be that bad?”
“If you want to burp garlic and half-digested chicken spices right into her face, then you go for it, kidda!”
I reflect on this, seeing immediately the after-effects of such a disaster.
“You’re probably right, mate. I’ll just have a cone of chips then.”
“You’re a nightmare, Pablo.”
“What the FUCK do you know about my past?”
“All I’m saying is that you are pretty left wing but you have a very comfortable, middle-class life, by all accounts.”
“How dare you! Have you ever, once, had to worry about being somewhere because of your gender or race? Have you ever, once, had to deal with the looks people give you for being with someone who isn’t the same colour as you?”
“Have you had the pain of childbirth?”
“Clearly not, I’m a man. Neither have you, though, unless there’s a kid out there you haven’t mentioned in all our time here?”
“What fucking right do you have to any knowledge of my life? How the fuck do you think you have ANY right to tell me how I should think, feel or act, ESPECIALLY when it comes to anything to do with race or womanhood? Just because you’re a Tory-voting prick…”
This is the point the lecturer decided it was appropriate to step in.
University is a wheeze. I’d got in on a scholarship because my grades were pretty good and I was “a very visible and exotic addition to the University cohort” (which were the exact words the interviewing panel had used when they gave me the feedback). They needed a brown girl to make up the numbers – but not too brown so as to scare off the touchy white people who were most afraid of change. Doesn’t matter, meant that I got a place at an ancient red-brick that would otherwise be broadly inaccessible – but that also meant that I have to deal with these types periodically, the uninformed village-dwellers for whom the idea of blackness – however diluted – is something which only appears on the television and appears to be taking over their lives.
“I think now may be a sensible time to take a step back from the emotion in this argument and consider both sides.”
I pivoted on the head of a pin to look him square in his moist blue eyes.
“For that matter, what would YOU know about it, given your white maleness? You think it’s possible, after years of experiencing racist nonsense like this, to be emotionless?”
“Well, frankly, I don’t think that’s the point…”
I cut into his sentence like a shovel into the soil with which I was about to be buried.
“It’s exactly the point – you’re just as bad as him! So I shouldn’t, after dragging myself up from the pits of the social care system by trying my fucking hardest, express any opinion about how I got here? That, because I’m now educated and therefore above what you consider to be the proletariat, that I should suddenly start thinking like a rich, old, white man for whom these problems are nothing more than sitcom?”
The last sentence was the kicker.
“Alisha, I think that’s where you should leave.”
Three weeks later, I was invited to an “open conversation” with the Dean of the school regarding my “academic conduct”. Loosely translated: ‘Control yourself – or the next time, you’re out.’ After a heated discussion, and under duress, I’d agreed to that one on the chin, on the basis that this was “still a very secure opportunity” for me. Yes, I rolled my eyes when he said it. However, I resolved – and maintain – that I wouldn’t ever take that nonsense again.
Thus, here I am, two years later. I’m a few weeks away from submitting my dissertation, on the sociological impact of Commonwealth immigration into the greater Birmingham area. My heart and soul, my ancestry, poured into a study into ghettoes and corridors and communities. Less than half a semester from being an actual expert in the movement of people. Why, then, do I feel like there’s a hollowing inside that I can’t fill? The experience of the last few years have been formative and wonderful, supported by Shari (who, taking an apprenticeship rather than an academic route, has been a rock ; she may be a little pink, but she’s a true friend), but… the society in which I find myself isn’t ready for people of colour to be educated and articulate. The hollow I feel is the realisation that, regardless of my demonstrable intelligence, I’ll forever be defined by my skin and hair.
So, the real question, therefore, is what do I do next. What do I do with a degree in Politics and Sociology in a society which doesn’t want people who look like me to be in politics?
By degree, I should be looking at the sorts of careers that use my skills – city planning within the Council, anything which uses historical data and analysis such as civil engineering… But, the nagging feeling that I’m going to be hindered plays strong and leaves me with the bitter feeling that I will always be left last, cast aside for someone with blonder hair or lighter skin; the ghosts of the present haunting my future. I have begun to apply, instead, for easier to access careers – administrative roles for companies which may or may not be here in a few years time, the sort that need someone efficient and don’t care particularly about the colour of one’s skin, usually because they were run by others who were equally excluded from society and, instead, had chosen to try to go it alone; grad schemes in huge corporations which, though won’t use my skills to their fullest, will still ensure I’m paid and into which I can blend background.
I want, however, in the face of society’s desires, to go into politics. I want to change the world for the better, for those of us who feel as dispossessed as I do. But I don’t see a route in.
So, when Shari asked me if I wanted to go out, I thought ‘fuck it’. Why not. I don’t have the future I should and I don’t have clue what else to do tonight, so why shouldn’t I go and get pissed?
“Where are we going, babe?”
“Faces, Leesh – usual – so that I can get to know Joel. Oh, just so you know…”
I raised an eyebrow. “What, Shari?”
“I’ve invited Joel’s bestie too…”
See, I had grand plans and Pablo’s need for chips isn’t necessarily standing in the way of those. I complain, but I’m not really that bothered. The chippy is also within eye-line of the bus stop – which doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to assume that’s how Shari’s getting here now, being as if she walked it, she’d be at least another half an hour.
We stand in the queue with every other dickhead who wants to eat before drinking. They’ll all be revisiting the flavour later, so I don’t know why they’re that bothered about stuffing down fried potato. Whatever. Pab probably needs to eat to calm his nerves – he’s been proper twitchy about meeting this girl since I mentioned her. I gave him the low-down that Shari gave me about her; a couple of days later, Shari came round when Pab was at mine in the afternoon and gave him a fuller description of her ethereal amazingness; he’s been on edge ever since. Probably our fault, I should have made it sound more casual and Shari probably should have just settled with ‘yeah, she’s nice, you’ll like her’. She sounds nice enough, don’t get me wrong, and Shari has good taste in mates, but for fuck’s sake, he needs to get a grip. He’s panicking to fuck over a girl he’s never met, just because of how Shari has built up this image of her; the girl sounds amazing, in fairness to Pab, all brains and beauty, but there’s no need to get overexcited about it all. He’ll end up killing the mood before it’s been born. I’ll get him a beer once we’re downstairs, just to take the edge off, before he meets her, save him from having an abortion.
On the topic of girls. Hilariously, I’ve been seeing Shari now for a few weeks, but we’ve not been on a night out together yet. We met at school originally, but nothing happened – we were both too young, too interested in other people. We met again a few weeks ago at a match – turns out that our little brothers play together on the same football team down the road. Lucky it was my turn to take him, ‘cause I was giving Mom and Dad a few hours to themselves. All wine and radio for them, for sure. Shari and I hit it off big time, more than I expected us to – she’s into the same sort of music I am, though she’s got a twist for pop music which I’m not sure I’m on board with, and she’s a stunner. We’ve met a few times since, just for walks out and about, looking after the boys at the football or whatever; but it was her suggestion to come to the club together for once. She’s often there with her friends, and I’m there with mine, and we spend some time together while there, but she had the great idea to combine those groups so that we can spend the night together rather than just one off chats while we’re with our mates. So, I told her about Pab – and she mentioned her mate Leesh – and the rest was just planning.
Pab was over the moon when I mentioned that he wouldn’t be playing third wheel – he hates it when he’s with mates who fuck off with girls at the first chance, particularly as he tends to stay more sober than most of us. Dunno what it is about him – maybe one of his parents has a drink problem or something, but he’s never mentioned it – we just accept that a night with Pab usually means that at least one of us is responsible for getting the rest on buses and into taxis. He’s a good lad.
We’re at the front of the serpentine and almost infinite chip queue when he quips:
“So, tell me again what she’s like, Jay.”
Fuck sake. This will be the third time he’s had the low-down on Leesh. “Girl of your dreams, mate. No question. Pretty, fucking clever, and she’s got a head full of ambitions.”
He looks down, briefly, then back up into my eyes. “I’m fucked then, mate.”
I laugh. This is the first time he’s actually reacted to a description of her in any way other than with dreams. “Nah, mate, you ain’t fucked. You’ll just need to try harder to come across as a rounded human being who does more than just eat fucking chips and doss around with genuinely fucking amazing people like me.”
He side-eyes me and we both chuckle.
Outside, Pab begins to devour the paper-wrapped bag of potato. It’s like he hasn’t eaten for a week. “Slow the fuck down, mate, you’re gonna end up burping salt and vinegar all over her.”
“I’d not thought of that, shit.” He looks, despondently, at his greasy paw.
“Just… stop swallowing so fast, mate, you’ll eat twice as much air as chip!”
Why the fuck did I feel like his dad? He’s my best mate, but I’ve always been pretty protective of him. He’s not filled with confidence, certainly not as much as he is filled with carbs. I dunno why, but I’ve felt it since school – he’s always seemed to need like a big brother figure, someone to point him in the right direction, to make sure he’s alright. At some point, subconsciously, I decided that was gonna be me.
“Cheers, Jay. Couldn’t do this without you.”
“I know, dickhead.”
We watch buses and taxis stop and start, rotating around the ring road as if they were planets orbiting the solar system in slow motion, as we wait and Pab consumes the seemingly endless amount of chips inside the clearly deceptively small wrapping. However, the silence and moment is broken when the bus she must be on (given the time and the route) approaches the stop; as predicted, I can see her through the windscreen. She gets off, looking phenomenal – but waving like a fucking maniac.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
My hair’s a mess, my clothes aren’t right at all and I’m running an hour late.
Leesh is gonna kill me.
Jay will wait, we’ve been chatting about tonight for AGES, but I promised Leesh I’d be there to make sure her blind date was at least introduced before we go into the club.
So, now I’m panicking. I need to get out of here rapido before they all lose it with me. Outfit is the best it’s gonna be, hair is now it’s closest to Olivia Newton John it’s ever gonna be. Let’s go.
I’m halfway up the road and I’m immediately grateful for that last extra layer of hairspray; The air was humid – the start of summer, warm and moist – and I am the enemy of frizz. Also, this kind of air leads to people sweating – especially on the bus, the bus I need to get anywhere on time now that I’ve left it so late to leave the house. Thinking about it, I hear the tell-tale grunt of a steel oblong asthmatically dragging itself up the hill behind me. Fuck, I left the house later than I should have. I pick up the pace, just getting to the stop in time to jump on behind the last person in the queue. As always, the bus is more expensive than it has any right to be considering how fucking awful it is – it smells of wet dog, it looks like it was painted with canal dredged mud and it is always – always – early. That sounds great unless you rely on the timetable. Like tonight.
I find the least sticky seat and plonk my arse down for the journey. It’s only a few stops at this time of night, but saves about 20 minutes of wandering up the dual carriageway and over the Big Roundabout at the top of the road. This bus stops almost right outside the club, so that saves a whole heap of time too. The only regret I have is that I chose not to bring my Walkman, as I don’t want to lose it. So, instead, I have to listen to the chatter of the people also sharing my chariot. The blond-haired former starlet on the seat over the aisle from mine is avoiding the sustained gaze of the man in the dirty brown coat sitting on the rear facing seat at the front of the bus, his grey moustache quivering every time she accidentally catches his eye; he is flanked by a loquacious pair of kids, not old enough to be going out, chattering about school friends romantic dalliances, as if these were the defining connections they were going to sustain for the rest of their lives. It’s cute – utter bollocks, but cute. In the row in front of mine is a bloke talking to himself – the denim jacket he wears looks like it has seen better days; it is patched with a number of little fabric tags – the CND logo was the most obvious, the edges of the peace symbol prominent on his left shoulder, a look contrasting with the shaved head he sports. I can’t hear what he’s mumbling, but he seems troubled; the sooner I’m off this bus the better. Two more stops to go.
As the bus sails into the view of the club, I get up quickly and trot to the front of the aisle; the rest of the pantheon behind me get up too, some faster than others, with the usual after-effect when the bus stops suddenly; I can hear the shriek of the girl behind me as the brown-coated man “accidentally” bumps into her, taking an opportunity provided by physics to fulfil a fantasy – I’m pleased to also hear the thunderclap of skin on skin as she slaps him across the face for his fucking deviance – thank fuck for feminism. The doors to the bus concertina and I jump off.
Across the way, I can see Jay and Paul sitting outside the chippy, Paul a hand deep inside a small portion. I wave so they can see us and jog over to them, my hair bouncing with each bound – I’ve been looking forward to this night for ages, especially as it’ll be Joel and my first proper date. I can see that he’s already got a slight sheen on his forehead from warmth in this weather, which doesn’t surprise me.
“Alright, Shari!” shouts Joel; Paul is still swallowing down a handful of chips so instead gives a salty wave in my direction.
“Have you been waiting long? Sorry, the bus…”
“Don’t worry, babe,” interrupts Joel, “as you can see, we found something to occupy ourselves!”
“Ha, nice. How are the chips, Paul?”
“They’re alright, Shari, but not as nice as the orange ones from the chippy by yours!”
“Ain’t that the truth – come on, mate, get them gone so we can go down. I bet Leesh has been here for ages already.” Poor Leesh – she must have been bored shitless down there.
Paul eyes up the last few morsels in the newspaper and decides not to bother. He gets up, wraps the scraps up in themselves, then drops the package nonchalantly into the litter bin on the kerb. He turns back to us and says, “Come on then, let’s go and meet your mate.”
I smile – he’s gonna love her, I know it. We walk towards the entrance to the club, met by the usual doorman, Winston. He’s a gentle giant – but the boys still become almost imperceptibly on edge as they approach, as if he’s going to take them down for not having ID. As it was, all was as normal as always – he waves them in and they begin to walk downstairs. He taps me on the shoulder as I pass.
“Girl, be careful down dere tonight. Make sure those boys look after yuh.”
“They will, Winston.”
“Yuh girl Leesh is down dere already.”
I nod, thankful that someone is paying attention to the safety of everyone in the club. I tread carefully as I go down the staircase, the boys just in front of me, observed by all the eyes in the wall. Knowing Leesh, she won’t have gone to wait in the main room as that means being surrounded by people in groups while she’s standing there alone.
“I’m gonna go and see if Leesh is in the retro room – you boys coming?”
“We’ll go to the main room first and see if anyone else is out. You go fetch her and meet us at the bar?”
“Alright – see you in a minute.”
I bear right and head into the retro room while the boys turn left into the maelstrom of partygoers. There, sitting at the bar like a sausage, is Leesh.
“Leesh!” I call over the music; she turns her head towards me and smiles.
Playfully, she shouts, “Alright, Shari; come on, I’m on the ‘cham already! What time do you call this?”
“Alright, chick, gimme a second!” I wave at the barman who nonchalantly tilts his head at me. “Three Babychams please, mate!”
“Three?” Leesh looks at me.
“Babe, I’ve got catching up to do!”
Shari is piling them back. She’s finished the initial few she bought and replenished them, offering me one in the process. I’m not one to turn down a freebie, so I warmly accepted it; I sip delicately on the glass while she necks another directly from the bottle, upending the little deer so that it looks like it’s leaping gently but inexorably down towards the floor, falling with its little blue ribbon trailing behind it. She’s going to be shitfaced before long…
She grabs my arm after chugging the last of the bottle, discarding it into a nearby bin with the aim of a professional netball player, and drags me towards the Party Room. Within there, a throng of sweating bodies, pulsating with the rhythm pile-driving the room from the columns of speakers in each corner. I spy Joel at the bar, raised above the dancefloor so as to be more easily visible; Shari spots them moments after me and, with a shriek, drags me through the crowd towards them. Buffeted by the drunk and the disorderly, I am strangely attracted to this lifestyle – the hedonism, the escapism, set free by booze and bass, leaves me feeling more alive than I have for a very long time. I catch the eyes of people as I pass them; a ginger girl, perfect perm piled atop her powdered face, cavorting carefree next to a tall lad, athletic, wearing jeans which are slightly too tight and, therefore, show very obviously that he is turned on by dancing behind her; two girls side by side, friends I surmise, one with a ‘fro which has been trimmed to a perfect sphere, the other with long straight hair, but both dancing synchronised in almost matching dresses, cut above the knee and across the shoulder, cinched in with ornate belts; the group of lads dancing together, pushing and shoving, with bottles of beer in hand, pointing out the girls in the room that they think are attractive – I wonder how long they’ve been here, or how many times, doing the same thing without ever building the courage to talk to one of the girls they’re pointing at.
Shari is relentless – she drags me up the three steps to the bar level, almost without recognition that I might need to actually process where my feet are going, and continues like a bullet towards the bar. Joel is standing next to a boy whose face I cannot see – he’s facing the barman, clearly ordering drinks. As we approach Joel, he completes his order; he then turns as Joel nudges him and he looks at me, catching me dead in the eye.
He’s slight, but has broad shoulders – the sort of build that would make a good rugby player, from my minimal experience watching matches at school. His hair, nutmeg brown, haloes his pink but gentle face, inset with hazel eyes that are sparkling as he looks at me.
I survey the room. It’s bustling, busier than it’s been for a few weekends now – it must be pay-day for a lot of them. There is a feeling of openness in the room, lubricated by branded beers and cheapo spirits; it’s great, it makes me feel like I have it all and could have more.
Turning, I look at the barman with the eyes of a lad who needs a drink asap. He takes pity on me, given the busyness of the bar, and cuts over to me.
“Two bottles of lager please, mate!” I shout over the volume of the music.
He nods, seeing the pointlessness of saying anything over the symphony of synth and syncopation; instead, he just turns and aims for the fridge. With a swift movement, he’s retrieved two green bottles with faded labels and has deftly removed their metal stoppers. I hand him a couple of quid – he doesn’t move to offer me change, taking the excess as a thank you for the speed of service. Fair enough, I think, given the circumstances.
With a smile, I turn back to look at Joel and the dancefloor. I see Shari, moving like a dreadnought through the crowd at us, but it’s only as she moves up the steps towards the bar that I see the girl she’s bringing with her.
I remember, a long time ago, reading a book I’d borrowed from the local library about ancient history; it seems a little cliched, but she is what I imagine Helen of Troy to have looked like. Not the Western movie version, the nonsense that she might have been blond and blue – no, much darker, brown on brown, but with a smoothness of skin that looks almost artificial and eyes that ring like bells during a bright Easter service; her lips curl at the edges into a natural smile, no hint of it being put on for the crowd. She embodies perfection, for me.
Maybe Joel has finally come through. If we hit it off, I’ll be a fucking lucky man.
Hours pass. We chat and dance, we drink and dance, we collapse into seats in the Retro Room and chat, we repeat the cycle. I don’t, at any point, feel like there’s anything not to talk about. We resonate with one another in a way I wasn’t expecting – she is super intelligent, which I’m drawn to, and clearly independent, something else I like. I take her again to the dancefloor, and the DJ plays something a little slower; I draw her in closer and we dance, delicately pressed against one another, in rhythm with the tune. She looks me square in the eye; I take the opportunity and lean in for a kiss. She returns it, wholeheartedly.
It’s always a bit shit finishing these shifts at this time. We’re the latest open, so there’s nowhere else to go afterwards, meaning that watching this lot pile out and go home is pretty much the indication that the night is over, save for cleaning up. I’ll be home in a couple of hours to sleep until midday. It’s a great job, but you do sometimes find yourself wishing that you were the punter not the provider. At least it keeps me in beer money while I’m studying – for the nights I can go out, obviously.
I drag slowly on the cigarette I’m holding almost coquettishly; I’m practicing my nonchalance for drama class tomorrow. We’re covering the cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, which rely on female characters being overly stereotypically feminine – the damsel in distress and the figure of male desire, ultimately submissive even when headstrong, all angles and eyes – and I want to show the lecturer how the genre can be subverted by flipping the genders in the role. This is the age of the New Romantic, isn’t it? So, surely Brief Encounter or Gone With The Wind are well overdue a reimagining? I imagine myself as Will Scarlett O’Hara, in a kilt rather than a dress, being cast backwards over the arm of Clark Gable, his strong arms holding me safe as he leans in to lock lips with me, my heart beating, palpitating, in time with his regular, rhythmic breathing, which, as he exhales, caresses my face in a cloud of mint and desire…
I discreetly reorganise myself and shake off that train of thought. Instead, I look at the crowds climbing up the stairs to the double doors at the summit – so many of them forget that they had to go down to get in and, therefore, will need to climb back up again, pissed and lazy, to the top, like half-skilled, drunken mountaineers, scaling an Everest of exits. I rarely give a shit about this particular problem – it’s their issue not mine – and today is no exception from the status quo, their grunts of displeasure, the baritone of ‘come on, love, I’ll help you’ being followed by either the inevitable stumble under double weight or a soprano ‘fuck off, I’m alright’. I turn back and look out at the street, where so many of them are waiting at the bus stop for the once-an-hour night bus that they’ve just missed; some are waving at taxis which, knowing what awaits if they pick them up, choose carefully which ones to pull over for; some are simply sitting or standing around on the pavement, deciding whether to opt for either of these solutions or to simply walk home instead.
In the midst of all this, I spot two of them. I saw them earlier – it looked like the first time that they’d met. Usually, I’d expect that to have worn off with the booze and the dancing – you’d be surprised the number of times I’ve seen people just dance until they’re dancing alone, then dancing with others, then one of them is crying in a corner and the other is being swallowed in the bogs – but not this time. They’re still chatting as if they’ve been doing it all night.
“You know either of those two?” I point, discreetly, with the ash-end of the fag.
“That one on de right – dat’s Leesh. Alisha, bruddah, a nice gyal from down Ladywood. Her muddah knows mah own.”
“Who’s that she’s with?”
Winnie shrugs, nonchalantly, his broad shoulders; he smiles, gently, as a light drizzle falls from the clouds to his shaved head, making it glisten like yellow diamonds in the glow of the sodium streetlamps. The gentle giant – terrifying if you don’t know him, but utterly adorable if you do. His wife, who he dotes on, is a very lucky woman.
“Hm.” I nod, and look back at them. They look good together. It’s a shame that, even in the age of the New Romantic, the look he gives her couldn’t be given to me by a bloke. I mean, imagine the looks on the faces of the people who voted for Maggie if I were to walk down New Street at midday on a Saturday afternoon holding hands, let alone anything else, with the just-about-twenty-one-year-old lad I’ve been letting discover me? He’d need to divorce his wife before that could happen, anyway, and he won’t do that because of the kid. Too many people forced to hide who they are because we don’t have “an inalienable right” to be ourselves under this fucking Government.
They look so happy.
Why can’t I find that happiness?
I watch as they kiss. It’s tender as fuck, his massive paws holding the side of her delicate cheeks with nothing more than the tips of his fingers, while she inclines her head and allows him to brush her lips with his. They are beautiful together. My envy knows no bounds at how easy it is for them to do this.
Tomorrow night, I’m going to go to the Raven and find a lad who’ll look at me like that for the night. I only need one night, just to take the edge off.
I watch them walk away, arm in arm. In my soul, I wish them the best.
I take one last, long, drag on the cheap fag before it reaches the yellowed filter and drop it on the pavement. I tread on it, heavily, and crush the end in a pivot with my tired old shoe.
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