Jane closed her eyes and tried to hear her Grandfather’s voice again. If there was any place where she should hear it, it would be here. But no such luck. Hmmm. Maybe it was the noise of the disco that drowned out any real chance of deep contemplation or connection to the spirit world. Maybe it was just the fact that the last time she had sat there and heard her Grandfather’s voice had been the day of his funeral, so of course her mind had been focused on him. But still, it troubled her that she could not remember the sound of his voice.
Jane leant back into the polished wooden seating and hit her head against something sharp. She grimaced and turned around to identify the offending object. It was a large wooden shield, with pointy bits on it, and lots of little metal shields stuck to it, a sporting trophy. She scanned the details for more information, a darts trophy, with her Grandfather’s name on it. Another surprise! She had known that her Grandfather, Jim, had been on the football team once upon a time, but not the darts team. Jane replaced the trophy and looked around the room plastering on her best awkward smile at the various vaguely familiar, half remembered faces filling the bar and dance floor. She could hear her Grandmother complaining, quite loudly, that she was very hungry, and why was the buffet not open yet? Fair point, as it was now nearly ten at night, and Jane imagined that the majority of these party goers would normally eat at around five in the afternoon being, as they were, of the pensioner persuasion.
Jane’s Father, Dan, and Uncle (also a Jim and the Birthday boy himself) returned from the bar with drinks in hand and arranged the numerous glasses on the tiny, wobbly, table where Jane sat waiting with her sister, Daisy, and her Mother, Sally. Jane’s drink, a Malibu and coke, was presented in a little sherry glass. She had decided to kick it old school tonight, given the occasion, and
always reminded her of being young. Well, younger, anyway. Malibu
Jane was finding the evening both sweet and agitating in equal measures. The sweetness came from her Grandmother, May. Jane found May to be a wise and witty woman, far from the image of her that some family members liked to portray. Many perceived May to be whittery, a worrier, a nag, yet this just did not fit with Jane’s view of her Grandmother. Especially now that Jane was at a point in her life where family ties held little weight with her, she either liked the person or not, and acted accordingly. Jane found her Grandmother to be a bit incorrigible, something of a flirt, quite a character really. In fact, she was much like the sort of old woman that Jane hoped to become one day.
At this point May turned to her Granddaughter and suggested another toilet trip. Jane had accompanied May to the Ladies shortly after they first arrived, and now it would seem that her Gran had locked onto this as a joint bonding exercise. Unfortunately, this was mildly embarrassing for two reasons. One being that especially in heels, Jane towered over her shrinking Grandmother. Jane was not a tall woman, but with six additional inches on her, and the fact that May’s arthritis had caused her back bone to bend and consequently her height to drop well under five foot, made Jane felt by comparison like a giant monster, thundering beside the delicate frame of her Grandmother, who pitter-pattered lightly across the pub come dance floor. The second reason why this was embarrassing was simply because May needed to go the loo fairly often these days, which ensured constant repetition of this little and large sketch.
They headed off again and Jane felt the colour rise in her cheeks, not least because this sort of breaking ground led to inevitable ambushes by various distant relations and friends of friends. This was the source of the agitation. These people would fire at Jane questions that always made her feel like a complete failure. The ones that forced her into conversations where she was expected to justify her choices and her position in the world. The gist of them usually being something like
‘So, when are you going to get married then?’
‘When we’ve got some money!’
‘When are you going to learn to drive then?’
‘Please refer to my previous answer.’
Bigger, faker smile!
Smile breaching acceptable limits of facial muscles.
‘Are you still in that admin job?’
‘Oh-ho, I most certainly am.’
‘Oh dear. I’m sure you’ll work out what you want to do soon. Plenty of time, eh?’
Manically wide eyes begin to water and smile causing face to twitch.
‘How old are you now anyway? Seems like only yesterday that you were a little cherub in your mother’s arms’
Oddly her mother had never referred to her as a ‘cherub.’ A Grub. That was her nickname, The Grub. It was in her first Birthday card.
‘I’m twenty five now, Aunty whateverthefuck’
‘Ooo, not broody yet, are we? You can’t leave it too late you know? Well, mind you, these days you can get that Wi-Fi stuff can’t you? They just inject you with a baby and there you go! Even if you’re really far too old to be doing it.’
At this point in the proceedings Jane would find herself ready to smash her face through the wall. Why was it that all of these people, who had never lived outside the same 10 mile radius in the whole of their lives, felt that they knew what she should be doing with her life and what her priorities should be? Jane had already done more in her life than most of them, i.e. lived outside of the same council borough as her parents, and her parent’s parents, and so on. She had a degree! But then, didn’t everyone these days? Both her little sister and her cousin had degrees now and better degrees at that. She had a fiancé! That she could not afford to marry. But still, he was studying again, and she was supporting him, a better chance for their future together. Unfortunately the generations that never went to University viewed this as a simple tax evasion manoeuvre, as opposed to an opportunity to improve your chances in life. But all of this did not matter anyway. It should not matter. It did not matter to Jane when she was not in this place, with these people. But the constant questioning made her feel uneasy and inadequate. It left her focusing on her insecurities, and the harsh measure by which she already judged herself.
Upon their return from the toilet, May was delighted to hear that the buffet was finally open. However, it was open up in the Events room, and the Working Men’s Club did not have lift facilities. Jane agreed to get a plate for May as well and ascended the staircase to the ‘Buffet Room’. Jane’s olfactory senses were hit by that smell, the buffet smell. It reminded her of school discos and wedding anniversaries, the smell of warm sausage rolls and curled sandwiches. But the smell hit her far before she reached the buffet room. The whole of the upstairs smelt of it. That’s when Jane realised; it was not this buffet that she could smell, but all the buffets, the decades of buffets. It was in the walls, in the floors. It haunted the place the same way that the cigarette smell lingered throughout the downstairs part of the Club, despite the smoking ban being in place for four years now. It was not a smell that implied that anyone was still smoking there now (although Jane presumed that the odd crafty one may still be sneaked) It was just that the smell was part of the building. Its history could not be deleted, every minute had been marked. Every cigarette and every unit of alcohol served was in the very pores of the Club, until the end of its days. Even then Jane imagined that the smell might linger long after the building was gone, such was its intense realness.
The buffet, when she reached it, did actually seem to have pretentions to existing in the new millennium. There were spring rolls, and dim sum, and satay sticks, or at least, an approximation of them. The couple that had provided the catering were both well into their nineties, yet they had really tried to move their selection bang up to date. In place of bread rolls there were wraps, in place of cheese and pineapple on sticks there were pepper stuffed olives. Jane piled both plates high with all the things that she liked to eat, completely forgetting, until she was again sat in the bar with May, that someone of her Grandmother’s generation would not necessarily have plumped for the Thai Chilli bites. She would probably have preferred more recognisable items such as the Pork Pie or the Beef Sandwich. Whoops.
“Oh, it’s hot! Isn’t that hot, Mavis? Oh it is hot!”
Jane cringed at her error as May ploughed into the contents of her paper plate.
“It’s a risk, I just don’t know if I should” Or at least this is what Jane thought she heard her Grandmother say, in actuality it sounded more like
“isaah issk, ah ust ooo oo i ah ud”
Jane intervened and persuaded May that the sticky pork was not so good that it was worth a new pair of dentures.
The evening rattled on, and Jane managed to remain relatively gracious and sober throughout. The disco thudded away with the likes of Take That, Abba and Kool and the Gang, endlessly repeating as the mirror ball whirled and the neon tube lights blinked. Jane resolutely remained firmly in her seat as much as was possible. The Phoenix Nights style party did not summon the music to move within her, especially when there was not a sniff of irony in the air. As her Uncle became drunker, the dancing with the ‘offices gals’ grew to be increasingly eye raising viewing. Apparently the combination of retirement, Birthday and copious amounts of Theakston’s Old Peculiar meant that all usual codes of conduct could be thrown out of the window. Daisy lent over at one point and helpfully pointed out that such displays they could well be recounting to a therapist one day in the future. Jane commented back that if they were American they surely would be, but as Brits they would remain stoically tight lipped on the matter and file it in the ‘never to be mentioned again in polite company’ part of the brain.
Later still, Sally went to fetch the giant Birthday cake that was plastered with, what was, quite frankly one of the worst photos of anyone that Jane had ever seen. Her Uncle glowered out of it, looking downright angry, resentful of the world. Jane had asked Sally whether a better photo could not have been found. At this Sally was taken aback and retorted that no better, recent photo of her Uncle existed. Jane could not quite work out why a new photo could not have been taken for the occasion, one that might have had him, heaven forbid, smiling. Whilst this may have ruined the surprise somewhat it would have been worth it not to have every party goer confronted with the sneering image of the Birthday boy watching them as they took their carefully designated morsel of cake. By the end of the night only the eyes would remain, resulting in the cake eventually becoming the most sinister piece of food that Jane had ever encountered.
Finally the evening came to a close, the DJ threw on the old slow favourites, and couples and friends swayed in the now dimly lit room. Jane watched as her Uncle walked, somewhat unsteadily, over to their table and patted his niece, Jane’s Mother, on the back appreciatively.
‘Aye, it was a good do Sal. Thanks again for organising it.’
Sally smiled back broadly, her face still a ruddy red from the couples of glasses of red consumed earlier in the evening. Sally was not much of a drinker these days.
‘You’re most welcome Jim. I’m just glad that you had a good night.’
Jim put his right hand to his chin and pulled on his lip slightly, suddenly he seemed distant, distracted. Jane caught the hazy look of a man who had drunk too many shandies in his eyes. Or maybe it was something else. Something closer to...
‘I tell you what though, Sal. More and more, I miss our kid.’
Sally looked monetarily lost. Jane could see her trying to work who Jim could mean by this. Jim had no children. Jane watched the cogs whir in Sally’s head as it finally clicked into place. Our kid. He meant his big sister, Vic.
However, just to be sure, Sally responded with
‘Aye. I find meself more and more these days, going on to the crem. Just to sit with her, y’know? I talk to her sometimes, but she can’t hear me from up there, I’m sure.’
Jim produced a half chuckle, half burp at this, but his face remained stony, sad.
Sally rolled her eyes in Jane’s direction. Jane could tell that Sally was concerned that the evening would take a morbid turn, and her features set as she clearly prepared to launch into a hasty ‘pull yourself together by your boots straps me laddo’ speech. Jane widened her eyes at her Mother, An expression that said, let him, he’s not going to be swayed from his trail of though now. After a moment’s pause, Sally seemed to nod in acquiescence to this silent request and responded with
‘I know. It never gets any easier does it?’
Jim lifted his head slightly. He seemed comforted to hear this, rather than the old cliché.
‘That’s true. They always say that it gets easier with time, but that’s a pile of shite when you get down to it, isn’t it?’
Jane stifled a laugh. Never a truer word spoken dear old Uncle Jim. Sally blushed slightly at her Uncle’s honesty.
Dan emerged from wherever he had been downing Guinesses with his cousins in law with a lopsided grin on his face and announced that it was home time. Jane rose and went to collect her, rousing Daisy on the way. Daisy, who had been leant back half dozing on the arm of her chair, woke with a start. Her coat was already on and her bag in her hand, she had just been waiting on the rest of the tribe.
May was also waiting, coat on and eyelids heavy.
‘Are we off then?’ May enquired.
The old fella currently sat next to her Grandmother smiled up at Jane. This same chap, only a few small hours ago, sang a strange folk song in honour of the Birthday Boy, changing the lyrics to suit the man and the occasion. The older generation had laughed most heartily at this. All the innuendo and the asides tickled their collective funny bones. Jane, however, could not remember a word of it. She had not even managed to follow it whilst it was being sung. The references were so distant and obscure as to be meaningless to her. But she had laughed and clapped. What else could she do?
‘Yes, it looks like it Nana.’
‘Oi! Don’t call me Nana, it makes me sound old!’
At this, May and the old folk singer giggled indulgently, in their own little world. Jane blushed.
‘Sorry, um, Gran?’
They laughed even harder at this and May’s laughter turned into the deep rattling cough of a life- long smoker, as Jane and the old man helped her to her feet.
The morning after...
The following morning, Jane, Daisy and Sally returned to the Club, where the cleaner let them in. They were there to finish of the tidying, and collect the catering platters, in order to return them to their rightful homes. Along with, of course, the evil eyed Birthday cake.
As they washed up, Daisy and Jane moved like automatons, focusing on small movements, so as not to aggravate their hung-over heads. Sally, possibly for her own amusement, chose to ignore the delicate conditions of her daughters, and clomped about cheerfully. After a bit, Sally recalled the meanderings of her Uncle the night before, and vocalised her concern
‘I just worry that he’s getting a bit maudlin in his old age.’
‘He was just drunk.’ Jane pointed out. ‘It’s hardly unheard of for someone to become a bit thoughtful after a few.’
‘I guess. I don’t know, I just think that it’s a bit morbid to be going to the crem so much.’
Jane sighed and left them to it. She walked out of the kitchen and back towards the buffet room with the intention of collecting more plates. On the way, she paused in the snooker room. The room was large, and all the window blinds were halfway closed, forcing the sun to shine through in slits and reflect off the dust floating in the air.
Jane looked around her, at the ancient yet well preserved snooker cues carefully stored on tarnished brass hooks across the walls. Her eyes passed over the black and white photos, which also covered the walls of the room. The images were faded, the subjects as pale as ghosts. This place felt haunted to Jane, and that’s when it hit her.
All those people last night, the Club members, spoke of her Grandfather so fondly. They could remember his smile, his laughter, the sound of his voice, the jokes he used to tell. He was part of their youth, their experience, the moments that had made up their lives. He belonged to them, she realised, more than to her. When she thought of her friends, her peers, that had passed away, some of them before her Grandfather, she could still remember their voices. She could remember their mannerisms, their turns of phrase, their smiles, their world views. They were part of her world, her experience, her path through life.
As for Uncle Jim and him missing his sister more and more with each passing year that made more sense to Jane than anything. The more time that she spent without her friends, the ones who had gone forever, the more she missed them and the heavier the ache in her heart. She could not imagine feeling less sad the older she got, because it would just mean more time without them in her world. More stories and experiences that she did not get the opportunity to share with them. Each loss was a hole that can never be filled in or healed over.
Maybe, Jane thought as she leant against the snooker table and stared at the sea of green in front of her, that was why all of those people there last night would never understand her perspective, or the way she chose to live her life. In the same way that she could not understand their choices, their songs. This was her story and that was theirs. It was a feeling that would return to Jane at a friend’s wedding, months later, when the first song came on. All the parents, the older generation, looked perplexed, having never heard the song before, not understanding the relevance of it. But Jane and her friends ran onto the dance floor at the end, and danced and beamed, because they understood, it mattered to them.
We are each of us, thought Jane, the product of our environment and a child of our time. It was okay that the generations misunderstood each other, as their points of reference were so different that true understanding was not possible. Last night, despite initially being an awkward and frustrating experience for Jane, had helped her to realise that she did not have to justify her life or the way in which she lived it, she just had to live it. Right, wrong or indifferent, her choices were her choices and they were right for her. Jane smiled to herself. That is about as much as anyone could hope for really, just the knowledge that your own life is right for you. That and to win the lottery, obviously.