It’s Saturday night, and the village Burns night, and I’m in the Red Lion, where I’ve popped in for one, but appear to have stayed. I’m with lovely new friends and my neighbour, R, and we’re at the table by the fire, glugging white wine and saying we really must go up the hill.
‘I’ve had no lunch,’ I say, draining my second glass. The new friends laugh when I say I can’t hold my drink. ‘Really,’ I say. ‘I’m a liability. And we really are going to be dreadfully late.’
J drains his pint and we’re off, roaring up the hill in the type of car that comes with a free Labrador. We park outside St Ethelreda’s, and for a moment J looks appalled. ‘Christ,’ he says. ‘Don’t tell me we’re eating in the church?’
We laugh, pulling him onwards, and I fall over the gate to the Old School. Oh, I think vaguely. Oh dear. Light from the long windows spills across the play ground, and we can hear the swell of polite conversation.
My party come to a stop at the door. C looks worried. ‘They won’t have sat down, will they?’
‘It’s barely eight-‘ It’s nearer half-past.
I take a deep breath and bowl in first, coming to a horrified stop in the entrance to the school proper. The tables have been arranged in a big horse-shoe, facing the door. Heads swivel towards us, and a fleeting hush pins us to the spot. Oh no. They’re all halfway through mains, in fact, most plates are empty, haggis devoured.
I can feel R, C and J hesitate behind me, and for a millisecond we all nearly step back, run away.
‘Where’ve you been!’ On the nearest table are two cricketing amigos, and I grin.
‘Sorry!’ I say, ‘got caught up…’
‘You’ll have to sit separately,’ says a voice behind me. ‘We’ve started.’
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Awfully sorry’. I whip off my coat and leap for a spare seat. Oh horrors. Between a pretty blonde who’s not drinking, and a terribly nice man who plays the church organ. I can’t disguise the fact that my cheeks are flushed, my eyes gleaming and I’m quite clearly deliciously, gloriously, pie-eyed.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ says the blonde, shaking my hand. One of the chaps opposite gives me a wink, and I realise the top button of my frock has come undone, offering inappropriate plunging views.
I hastily refasten and look around desperately for food. Something stodgy and easy to eat, immediately. I recognise the emergence of Bad Wifey; the version of me that laughs at all of her own jokes, and could flirt with a brick.
An old pub friend pushes forward a dram of whisky in a shot glass. ‘Good girl,’ she says, as I throw it back. I turn to the terribly nice man on my right, and say, ‘Marvellous evening, great to join you. So, do tell me: how’s your organ?’
‘The one in the church is great; the one waiting in here could use a bit of work.’
I scream with laughter, and call him very naughty. He looks mystified.
One of the young village girls gives me a plate, and I go up to the counter to collect my haggis. Thankfully, it’s all gone, so I’m given a Matterhorn of potato. I insist on kissing all of the serving wenches, as they’re all my old bus-stop buddies. One of them tells me to eat my mash, quick. ‘No, Carles, really. Eat something.’
Through puds I talk to the pretty blonde, and pretend to be au fait with discussing extensive acreage. I find myself saying, ‘Yarse. Of course, it would be super for a pony.’ My damn button keeps popping, and now more chaps are winking. A distinguished-looking man in a kilt keeps leaping to his feet, and demanding toasts, rolling his ‘r’s like a pirate. I’m alternating whisky with pints of water.
‘To absent friends,’ he cries, and we all jump up and thrust our arms in the air. R, C and J are sitting just off the top table, and collecting empty wine bottles in front of them.
‘Music!’ cries Kilty. I go behind the counter at the back of the room, filling my pint of water from the tap.
‘What’s happening?’ One of my favourite Horley husbands is next to me, and I shamelessly wriggle beneath his arm. ‘What are they all doing?’
‘Singing,’ he tells me. ‘David’s playing the organ.’
I feel myself blanche. ‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘In real life? An actual piano-organ type job?’
His reply is lost in a rousing shout of Loving A Lassie. The organ had been waiting, apparently, around the corner. A bus stop amigo rolls up to help with the washing up, and the three of us sway mightily to My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. I throw back another dram as the only thing to do. One of the yummiest of the Horley mummies bends down and scribbles out the ‘i’ on a box labelled ‘paints’. We all laugh immoderately, and the crowd bellows Donald, Where’s Your Troo-sers?
Quite suddenly, it seems, the singing is over and people are standing up. Dancing! I think, but no, coats are being pulled on, chairs stacked.
‘I must help,’ I say, flapping ineffectually with a tea-towel. It’s taken from my hands. ‘What can I do?’
One of the MHT Trustees pats my arm. ‘Help get people out to the pub,’ she says. ‘Would be best.’
So I go and collect the gang. J insists I help him finish the last of the white wine. I boggle at the task: I’ve really, really drunk enough.
I feel horribly guilty not joining in the clearing-up, but recognise my important room-emptying job. ‘To the pub!’ I cry.
We pull on our coats, spill from the school. I fall over the gate for a second time.
‘Mind the fox poo,’ says R.
We clatter down the hill, the night air sharp, pinching our faces. Above our heads the sky is clear; the stars caught in the nets of the mighty beech tree. Wasn’t it lovely, we agree, and how awful to be so late. And the singing! Fancy having the singing.
‘Shame there was no dancing,’ we say. ‘Proper dancing.’
We stumble onto Little Lane, sliding on the gravel. It’s freezing; our breath billows around our heads.
‘Onwards,’ I cry, ridiculous. ‘And downwards, down to the pub-‘