It’s already raining as we bounce down the Wroxton Road. Fine, misty stuff that makes crystal beads in the children’s hair. The tarmac gleams blackly-slick, and the chestnut on the corner of Little Lane totters beneath its weight of sodden leaves. It’s nearly eight o’clock, but feels later, darkness sneaking in on the rolling waves of a rain-grey sky.
We’re singing 1Direction ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful’ – the same line over and again -Oh, oh-oh, because none of us know the proper words. There’s me and four children, singing, screeching and twirling through Horley, party nerves sending us hyper. I’m the only one with gin in one pocket, and tonic in the other. I have a blue plastic beaker forced into the back pocket of my skinny jeans. I am wearing six earrings in my ears for the first time in fifteen years, and I feel as if I’m reclaiming a tiny something that used to be mine. The party is in a field, you see; a sweet, perfect festival. There’re bands. And tents. And volley-ball and a massive water-slide. Tonight, there’ll be Dave, and his glorious The Love Shack Disco.
There’re even porta-loos and a beach-hut bar, complete with beach. Years ago, before marriage and children and growing up, I used to do festivals, the wilder, more random, the better. I’m no stranger to dancing in fields, beneath open skies. But not tonight, I think, climbing the hill. I’ll have a few drinks, have a chatter, then round up the children and leave. This is the second night of the Secret Horley Fest, and everyone will be exhausted anyway. And I’m so very responsible, and terribly grown up. I will soon be driving an estate car. With dog-bars.
We reach the field, and the four children are off, screaming like banshees into the gloom. From the gate I can see crowds of people around the beach-bar, lit by the bright lights of the disco. The bones of last night’s bonfire lie grey-white in the middle of the field, and the tents of guests are pitched above, pegged and billowing; electric blue, dark-green, navy and alien-snot green. The campers are on the only flat bit, the rest of the field field mostly slopes back down to Horley, as if to tip us gently home.
I’m too scared to brave the bar, so I plod up the hill, hoping I find chums in tents. I do – Shorty and Sporty, glugging beer outside their blue tent. I flourish my gin, and then there’re more chums coming up the hill – Lulu and Giddyup, and they scoff at my tiny measures and declare themselves mistresses of the gin bottle.
‘Can’t Stevie come,’ they say. ‘And pick up the kids?’
It all suddenly seems like such a fabulous idea.
I’m teetering now, on the edge, but my mother-programming is too hard to over-ride with children present. Miraculously though, Stevie rings, and offers to drive up, as the rain is sheeting now, and surely we must all be frozen?
‘Totally,’ I say, enunciating very carefully. ‘But would you mind awfully if you took the children and I stayed?’
‘Oh God,’ he says, but I hear the grin in his voice.
It’s too dark to see splattered hair and running mascara, and I’m on a gin rush now. Lulu and I pluck the children from the mosh pit and jolly them towards the gate. I can’t figure out if I’m upright or not, and we all hang onto each other in the darkness. Stevie arrives and the children are soundly kissed and strapped in the car and Stevie ducks forward as I go to shut the car door.
‘Have a good time,’ he says, making sure he catches my eye. I read the subtext. Call me, if you need me. Lulu and I stand there, rain dripping from our eyelashes, waving them off.
‘Oh Lordy,’ I say, when the red tail-lights are gone. ‘I’m going to drink more gin. And then-‘ I turn to Lu. ‘I might dance.’
Lulu rolls her eyes and we weave back to the Beach Bar. A big white gazebo has been put up, and everyone’s crammed beneath it, to keep out of the rain. We reach the others, and my beaker’s been topped up. I stand and sip, trying to spy who’s here. There’s a wide range of ages, from children to grand-parents, and lots of beautiful teenagers with long rippling hair, all laughing in parrot-shrieks.
I finish my beaker, and decide, owl-like, that Legs of Horley and Handsome Neighbour (our host and hostess) must need help on the barbecue. I reel over, arms flung wide. ‘I’ve come to help,’ I cry. ‘Although I’m a bit pissed-‘
‘Don’t worry,’ they say, welcoming me in. Then they move me briskly over as I make a grab for the burger tongs. I fall hands-down into some frozen bread rolls; rock-hard and weirdly domed, like pixie-skulls.
‘Frozen ones toast better,’ I’m told, as I pick one up in confusion. I nod, and even when I stop, my head’s still going. Someone comes over to photograph Legs, and she tries to hide behind the ketchup bottle without appearing rude.
‘Stand and smile!’ I shout, grabbing her in a head-lock.
They put me in charge of taking donations, but I’m useless. The Mistress of The Horse and Tommy Gun arrive, and they bring me more gin.
‘Revenge,’ murmurs Tommy Gun, handing me a plastic glass and kissing my cheek. I’m gazing in envy at his wife. The Mistress is wearing a beautiful tweed-and feather Titfers hat, and looks effortlessly stylish.
Our host is wearing a vast sombrero and does not. He abandons the barbecue to go down the slope to dance, the disco lights turning him pink then yellow, like an Irene Tyack man. We see his teeth flashing as a gaggle of ladies rush from the gazebo to join him for a bop.
Dave is playing Cold Play now, and Stereophonics, and oh, I so want to dance. My body keeps arching from my hips, and my legs twitch. I accidentally bin the Legs of Horley’s half-eaten burger, and I’m summarily sacked. I collapse with appalled laughter. It had contained the last of the cheese.
‘Go have another drink,’ she says, bundling me away from the barbecue.
Back under the gazebo, there’s the lairy roar of conversation as guests make themselves heard over the music. Big Steve pulls me in out of the rain, and I’m introduced to a pretty girl who works in fashion. We gesture at our jeans and wellies and anoraks, and bond over the shiteness of rain on straightened hair.
But then it’s Florence And The Machine, and I’m being pulled, towed out of the gazebo, into the sherbert lights and the noise and the madness and my hands are up, my body alive, alive, my anorak chucked in a pile around which we leap; fling our hands, our feet, our bones, our reserves. The rain is cool on my upturned face, my mouth open, shouting, shouting the words: You’ve got the love, got the love-‘
We dance in our wellies, in our vests and jeans. Lulu and Giddyup and me. Rain washes away the sweat and we don’t stop; we don’t stop even once. Stitch burns like fire in my side, my spine is disconnected from my thighs, my wellies chafe my shins raw. We don’t stop.
Then it’s the set Dave always plays, when it’s us, when it’s Horley. Born Slippy: Drive boy dog boy / Dirty numb angel boy / In the doorway boy / She was a lipstick boy / She was a beautiful boy / And tears boy / And all in your innerspace boy…
The strobe is on, and I can practically feel a plastic whistle between my teeth; I’m sixteen, twenty-eight, thirty-four, eighty-five – ageless, careless. The music in me, around me, holding me, controlling and consuming, like the best kind of loving, the best kind of ecstasy.
We’re on our knees when he stops, lets us go. Spent, drugged with bliss. He plays us Green Day: Time of Your Life’, the way he always does, and we collapse together, as we always do, as many as we can, our hands high, bodies swaying together.
It’s something unpredictable/ But in the end it’s right/ I hope you had the time of your life.