a thousand years, you said,
as our hearts melted,
I look at the hand you held
and the ache is hard to bear
He looks at Caroline and, for a while, it’s 1978.
Bonfire Night, about half seven. Fizzes, pops, bangs and shouts. Smoke and half-light, the threat of frost and the smell of chips. Police sirens and the dull whoosh of distant traffic. They’re over the Playing Fields, sitting under a tree: twenty Number Six, six cans of Budgen’s lager and a bottle of Woodpecker between them. A bunch of little kids are doing wheelies and annoying the office-workers scurrying home for a late tea and Coronation Street.
There’s some charity fireworks thing on tonight at the stadium. They have, as ever, nothing to do, and there’s something about the inevitable noise and creaky spectacle and crap food and naff communal gasping that promises to grab and tease – loudly and joyfully – the child in each of them, something that’s lured them here despite themselves. Caroline’s here (he knew she would be) and there are six or seven others, people he barely knows, people he has no interest in. She has her black hair long, untied; her blue eyes are huge, sparkling, wary. She has a red blouse on under a black leather jacket and she’s wearing straight black jeans – no scarf tonight but she looks more porcelain-beautiful than ever. As far as he can work out, she’s going out with a bloke he’d been at school with – Pete – who’s here but who seems to be all over one of the other girls. Caroline herself is quiet, serene and separate and Aaron realises he’s desperate to talk to her, ask her stuff, anything… but he can’t, because he…because he can’t.
And then, suddenly, she’s on her feet, saying ‘Do you fancy a walk?’ and Aaron does that look-behind-me-to-see-who-she’s-talking-to thing that only people in bad sitcoms actually do. By the time he’s completely sure she’d been talking to him, she’s halfway across the field.
‘Sure’, he mumbles, finally, getting up, brushing grass from his flares, then running to catch up with her.
‘They’re all so incredibly dull,’ Caroline says, without slowing down or looking at him.
‘Yeah. Right… Pete won’t mind – me being with you?’
She stops walking, turns, stares. ‘Being with me? You’re not shagging me, are you? We’re just walking.’
A minute the length of a lifetime passes and then she says,
‘Though if you want to . . .’
‘If I want to what?’
As they reach the football club car-park, he can see a crowd of people outside the night-club that squats under the main stand. ‘Look’, says Caroline, smiling and nodding towards a group of four or five women staggering, half-pissed and lairy, towards the club, ‘let’s go suss it out.’ There are some truly massive cars in the car park, and a load of massive, loud men milling about, with massive, loud women, all with massive, loud hair. They can hear the Stylistics squeaking from the club. Dodgy Geezers’ Party Nite.
A huge black limo, a Daimler or Bentley or something, draws up. They watch as a woman – about twelve-feet tall, forty-something, blonde hair, orange tan, jewels and necklaces and bangles and bracelets and watches and fur and earrings and high, high heels – eases out of the back; a little black guy with a flat cap has torn round from the driver’s side just in time to open the door and ensure she emerges with all the dignity someone looking like that can. They watch her stride imperiously inside, past the bouncers.
‘Fancy it?’ says Caroline.
‘We’ve got no chance,’ Aaron says, ‘neither of us are gangsters. Or gangster’s molls.’
She looks at him, starts to say something, changes her mind – ‘Come on, let’s give it a go’ – and, with a quick, cringing glance down at his just-too-short flares, grey t-shirt and ill-fitting brown plastic jacket, he follows her as she glides towards the entrance to the club. A bouncer, pony-tailed and scarred, does what any real man would do: spots the woman, gives her marks out of ten, imagines her in his bed, appraises the bloke, decides he’s no threat whatsoever, smiles at the woman, forgets the bloke ever existed.
‘You got tickets, darling?’
‘No,’ says Aaron. Caroline kicks him.
‘No.’ She doesn’t bother flirting, doesn’t smile, just looks the bouncer in the eye and continues:
‘You’ll find our names on the guest-list.’
‘There’s no guest-list.’
‘You lost it?’
Aaron sees the bouncer flinch and take a small, internal step back.
‘No, I mean there’s no guest-list, so you can’t be on it.’
‘How do you know?’
‘How do I know?’
‘Yeah. Maybe there’s a secret guest-list. Maybe we’re Secret Guests.’
She smiles the widest, sweetest smile in the world, takes Aaron by the arm and pulls him past the bouncer. He waits, shuddering, for an ‘Oi!’ that never comes. They’re in.
The place is heaving, loud. It feels big. Really big. Big lights are bouncing off all the big hair. The bass is big: Earth, Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, Hot Chocolate, Donna Summer, music he always claims he hates. Music that seems to make Caroline feel safe, at home, easy. Music she insists – oh, shit! – they dance to. And, for a while, for four or five songs, they dance and he feels so, so fucking hard and so, so fucking proud and they dance and dance and drink orange and yellow and green and pink and red cocktails (he’s no idea where she’s got them from) and then, abruptly, she decides they should go.
‘Come on, Pete’ll be wondering about us.’
Sweating, a little bewildered, he almost winks at the bouncer as they leave the club and step out into the mid-evening gloom, across the field and up to the entrance to the stadium. Neither of them says a word. They pay their money and walk in, head round the outside of the track. There’s Beach Boys songs and burger vans and sparklers and balloons and kids clutching enormous teddy bears. They spot the others over by the bonfire; Pete, bottle of Mackeson’s in his hand, has his arm round some girl Aaron has never seen before. As they approach them, Caroline turns to Aaron, her face glowing in the heat of the fire, and says, quietly, ‘Thanks,’ then touches his hand with hers. He stares after her as she walks over to Pete and watches her grab his elbow, tug him away from the girl, drag him off towards the caff. Aaron sees the girl flounce away and goes to get himself a hotdog, his heart still pounding, his mouth a little dry.