Meet: Gino’s, 8 pm.
Proceed to: Assorted venues of disgraceful memory – Limerick, Fat Fred’s, etc etc.
Bring: A suitable poem or song.
Partying till dawn anticipated. Acting your age strictly prohibited!
Roberta dyes her hair back to chestnut-brown for the first time in years. Until now, she hasn’t minded the grey. She tries to remember the last time she stayed up past midnight.
Hannah dodges incipient paranoia while dressing – not too matronly, not too slutty, not too young. On the other hand, the birthday girl should be allowed some bling. She arranges the gold Aztec pendant over her sixty-year-old cleavage.
Tash wonders whether to mention her divorce. Some of the girls might gloat, and she doesn’t know if she’s ready for that.
Janice fills her grandad’s silver hip flask with brandy, just in case. She suspects three kids and a job in HR won’t look like success, compared with what the others have achieved.
Lindy, the organiser as always, worries fleetingly that the reunion may fall flat. Perhaps it’s been too long. She necks a gin and tonic before leaving the house.
The pizzas at Gino’s are, surprisingly, as good as they remember. Each new carafe of house red increases the volume of their laughter. When the waiters bring out a cake shaped like a violin they all sing, more or less in tune. So far, so decorous.
In The Limerick, Lindy calls on them to recite their poems. Hers begins, When I am an old woman I shall wear purple …* It’s joyful and true, and everyone cheers.
Tash has written a poem about dancing on tables ‘with creaking knees and sagging pelvic floors’. Janice reads the friendship-poem ‘A Time to Talk’by Robert Frost.
“Mine has to be Yeats,” Roberta says. “’Sailing to Byzantium’” Janice makes a face.
“Is that the one about having sex with a swan?” Tash asks.
“Unfortunately not,” Janice says. “Must you, Roberta?”
Roberta begins, This is no country for old men. Silence descends, as though scary Miss Watkins had marched into class, some morning in 1972. At the lines An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick … a hen party lurches into the pub. They’re all in pink fake-feather boas and wearing empty-eyed masks of a young man, presumably the bridegroom. The Limerick is not their first stop. They scream with laughter, though not at the birthday group, whom they barely notice.
Hannah’s health is drunk for the fourth time. She proposes Absent friends, which makes them all tear up and drink even deeper. She scans their faces, one by one, and says, “My heart is full”.
It’s Retro Disco Night at Fat Fred’s, with two-for-one cocktails until ten o’clock. Janice wets her pants doing the Macarena. Hannah dances with two sailors who may or may not be in fancy dress. Tash, who claims to stick religiously to four units of alcohol per week, has a Banana Dacquiri, and is mesmerised by other names on the cocktail menu. She says as this is a special occasion, she’ll try those that sound most intriguing. Long Slow Screw Up Against the Wall is nearly her undoing.
“I hope none of your patients see you like this,” Janice says, and Tash slurs, “Fuck’em all!”
Hannah’s nineteen-year-old granddaughter shows up at the Ocean Bar around one a.m. They suspect she’s been sent to check up on Grandma. Hannah sees her from across the room, and tells everyone to act sober. The girl doesn’t look convinced, but leaves anyway.
“She looks like you,” says Roberta. “Beautiful.”
“You told your family where we’re going?” Lindy says.
They end up on the Common, like all the times before. It’s a warm night, and Janice reminds them it’s midsummer. The benches have been newly painted, the rhododendron bushes have grown huge, but no-one appears to be rutting in the shadows at this once-notorious spot. They debate whether libidos were more potent in their day.
The plan was to sleep at Lindy’s son’s flat, which he’s vacated for the night, leaving sofas, airbeds and sleeping bags ready for what he calls the Swinging Grannies. “There’s more drink,” Lindy says. “And Twister!”
They whoop halfheartedly, recalling the white plastic sheet with its primary-coloured circles spread on the living room floor. Limbs getting entangled, embarrassingly or thrillingly, amid hysterical laughter; the impossible contortions, helpless collapses. Several people wonder if their bodies are up to it.
“Let’s climb Horny Hill first,” suggests Roberta. “For old time’s sake.”
It’s dark, but the way to the open space on top is stitched into their brains, durable as the nametapes in their gym knickers. Memories crowd in. Most have to do with sex – anxious, competitive, joyless sex in all its manifestations. They lie on the grass woozily swopping stories, some never shared before. The brandy flask is passed around. Tash reveals that she lost her virginity right here, Roberta that she tried and failed to do the same.
“I’m falling asleep,” Hannah says.
“We can’t sleep here.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
It’s less of a collective decision, more a collective abdication of will. Janice begins to snore.
“So, birthday girl,” Lindy says to Hannah, “I think we’re going to have the mother of all hangovers tomorrow”.
“It is tomorrow.”
They open bleared eyes, look to the east, and it’s true.
*Acknowledgement: Jenny Joseph, Warning
Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in an elderly VW camper van, partly in a cottage in Brittany, France. Her stories have been published by Lunch Ticket, Dime Show Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Coachella Review, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Her work can be read at https://patiencemackarness.wordpress.com/