We’re all going to the pub, our pub, to celebrate a fiftieth birthday. It’s the first fiftieth I’ve ever been to where the birthday boy is an adored chum, rather than some wild-haired uncle in mustard corduroys. It’s also the first night of the Red Lion Beer Festival, which is always raucous, and always involves a lethal light cider called Black Rat.
We can hear the noise from the top of our road, and Horley’s high street is nose-to-tail with cars. Stevie and I are with the Sausages, and McNellie and I pause outside to admire Tash’s tulips, whilst the boys forge us a path in. The pub is heaving, with no free tables; the bar is two-deep in jolly flushed-looking rugby types buying enormous rounds.
I see Doctor Nicely-Tightly, who kisses me and renders me tongue-tied before I’ve had my first drink. He’s disappeared before I can think of anything sensible to say.
I’ve forgotten my lenses, and have no idea who anyone is unless they’re very close. McNells and I are given drinks and we’re caught in the general stream of people heading towards the back door. We strike an eddy by the defunct cigarette machine, and somehow end up in the low-lit corridor outside the ladies’ loos.
‘I must just kiss the Birthday Boy,’ I say. ‘Send me his way.’
At the last minute, I trip over my own feet, and fall head-long into the Birthday Boy’s arms, my lips brushing just below his ear. ‘I’m so sorry-‘
‘I enjoyed it-‘
‘Happy Birthday, lovely man.’ He is by far the most attractive fifty-year-old I’ve known. His wife, my mate Curdie, is laughing at something Stevie’s just said to her.
Yet more people are still squeezing in, and a bevvy of gorgeous blondes with perfect skin descend on Birthday Boy. I wriggle away, back to the lavatory corridor and my gin. McNellie and Mother Hen are deep in pregnancy stories.
‘Oh God,’ I say.
The Cheese Lady from Carpenter’s is suddenly next to us, with a yellow Lab. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘Only a puppy.’ Then she looks up, recognising us each in turn. ‘Oh! It’s all of you!’
‘Hi,’ we chorus, and grin.
She gives us the puppy to hold whilst she goes to the loo. ‘Is it always this mad in here?’
Another local doctor (there are so many) squeezes between us. ‘Not always,’ he says. He has the naughtiest, darkest, come-to-bed eyes. ‘Sometimes it’s much worse.’ We laugh easily, and the Cheese Lady rolls her eyes.
‘We should nick the back table,’ I say, pointing. From where we’re standing, it looks empty, but as we push our way through we realise there’s two men sharing it. I recognise one of them as the man married to the beautiful French girl from Bramshill. The other is a stranger; a tall man with the lazy feral look of a big cat that’s just had its tea. I half expect to see an impala hoof beside his beer.
When we see them, we say sorry and go to back away, but they wave to us to sit down. The man married to the French girl is very charming, and reminds us of the Crystal Maze.
The night rolls on; the music louder, the gossip more outrageous. More and more locals flood in; Black Rat renders the mouths of young men rubbery and their words oddly chewed.
‘Ow’rya Pants?’ I’m asked, and it takes me a moment to realise he means the dog. Lord Yarp is down the front of the pub, being very well behaved, with Doctor Nicely-Tightly, who is not. The middle of the pub is thick with the people in their early-twenties with early-fifties hair styles.
Do they use much hair oil, we wonder. And do their mothers use antimacassars?
More gins arrive, with some revolting crisps. The French girl’s husband has gone, and the darling Sausages. A loud crowd have taken their seats, packing us all thigh-to-thigh along the benches. I fall into a fascinating conversation about Heller’s Catch 22, which I know I’ve read but can’t remember. I’m quickly convinced to read it again, nose-to-nose with the Massey Man. ‘Everything Heller says comes true.’
Massey Man farms, as well as selling tractors, and we’re soon arguing about the Spring Field (which is his), and why he turned it all brown. ‘Clover,’ I say. ‘Plant clover.’ He tries to distract me with talk of cowslips.
‘I must go home,’ says Mrs Damage, visiting our table. ‘Need a cup of tea.’
‘Have another drink!’ we cry, so she does. We all talk about The Three Peaks Challenge, and how brilliant it would be. Birthday Boy is squished in next to me. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I could do that.’ We howl and throw insults about his knees.
Soon, there’s talk of Jagar Bombs and Sambuccas, which I loathe. ‘Yes, yes,’ cries Massey Man. ‘And you set in on fire and drink it and then you stick it to your naked chest!’
I mutter about Big Steve babysitting alone, and that I really must go. It takes forever to say goodbye, and a tremendously strong will.
I look for Stevie, to extract babysitting money from his wallet. He’s up near the bar with Curdie and the Legs of Horley, his Man Friends gathered around him. He’s in typical Stevie pub-pose, beer glass hugged to his chest, rocking on his heels. He’s very flushed, and doesn’t want to notice me in case I tell him to go home.
‘Come home with me!’ roars a neighbour, squeezing me in a hug. ‘Steve – give me ten minutes head start-‘
I wriggle free amongst the laughter and there’s a wicked whisper in my ear, ‘Take that vision to bed with you, Carles. Savour it, go on-‘
I catch his eyes, shuffling visions, aping horror.
‘Bye darling,’ I say to Stevie. ‘Enough of the Rat.’
I so, so want to stay. My husband grins as I back out, waving, calling good night, dashing back to kiss another cheek I’d missed.
I’m finally out, the heels of my boots loud on the road as I cross. I reach the pavement and then turn back, looking through the yellow-lit windows. Landlord Dave has Jager Bombs lining up on the bar; Mrs Damage still hasn’t gone home for her cup of tea.
I turn to walk home, savouring the cold air, babysitting money in my fist.