Before I got a chance to lift the last corner of the ham sandwich along with the two crisps that clung to it, it was suddenly drowned in beer as some idiot bumped into the table. Not even a sorry. The bump took the top off three pints and drowned the plate. Normally, I never went near pub sandwiches and the one time I was absolutely starving it gets covered in a tsunami of beer. I glanced around the other tables, all the plates were empty or just crusts. Damn.
Back in the 80s, I’d lain in bed with Deborah on a Saturday afternoon and she’d put out her cigarette on a plate on the locker right on the crust of a ham sandwich. That mixture of cigarette and ham burning. ‘Life in a Northern town’ on the radio and the curtains still closed.
She was three tables away having hugged me earlier as her husband Joe passed by patting me on the shoulder.
“God,” she’d said “I never thought anyone of us would see a 20th wedding anniversary.”
She would see it, I thought. She’d married into everything she wanted. I looked at the tables and the faces and the bodies. Some fat, some thin, some were old before their time and some were missing. Deborah walked to her table with two drinks. Her body hadn’t changed, but, her face had, still on the right side of prettiness mind. She still had that gift of being able to talk to numerous people at the same time. All different conversations. I used to pray that she wouldn’t leave me alone to talk to all those strangers. Many times I wanted to run out of the room and on a few occasions I locked myself in the toilet. I wasn’t made for conversation.
But when we were alone it was different. She seemed vulnerable and almost childlike. She clung to me on those Saturday afternoons in bed with the radio in the background. That was the time I loved.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” shouted Dominic, Dominic who couldn’t sing but could shriek the words of any song. “A lot of you will have vague memories of a mild September Day 20 years ago, our youth spread out for all the world to see.” Dominic himself had spread out over the years for the all world to see. He must have been 17 stone now but the shriek was still the same. “Tom and Phyllis were the first of us to turn that corner into marriage, taking us all by surprise. Tom and Phyllis set a precedent for us,” he trilled, “I want to propose the first toast of the evening.” Everyone stood up. “To absent friends.”
Absent friends. There were a few. Dominic’s own brother Johnny. Illness, accidents and top of the list, drink. Two slices of cake arrived on a paper plate. I got part of the “H” from “20th” I noticed.
“Our second toast of the evening,” Dominic continued, “To the loveliest chief bridesmaid and friend that anyone could ever have, Rosie Jennings.”
Rosie was indeed the best friend you could ever have, she was loyal, sympathetic, and funny. She was always a large woman who wore loads of makeup and hadn’t changed a bit except for some grey hair. She was destined to have half a dozen kids and be abandoned. She was also destined to get on with her life in spite of everything. One New Year’s Eve in the 80s, Jimmy Thomson slow danced with her to ‘Electric Dreams’ by The Human League. At the end of the dance her makeup had left a huge imprint on his shirt. His shirt became known as the ‘Shroud of Cabra.’ Jimmy Thomson was sitting close by to me with his second wife and his sixth pint, a grin on him like a Japanese sniper. Dominic was still in full flow.
“…So here we are gathered in middle age, verging on the wisdom of Viagra years, our wives tell us to put on our glasses to see if their bums look too big in a new dress while our poor minds sadly remember the hair that used to sprout above.” Where did he get this stuff?
Everyone was moving closer. Cathy had rung me to say she was delayed. I dutifully kept her a seat. She’d said on the phone.
“There was a guy across the road with the hiccups watching the world go by and I am the world going by.”
I’d met Cathy fifteen years ago, five years after I’d slept with Deborah. Just before Tom and Phyllis got married. It was difficult to be at their wedding, watching Deborah from a distance, hiding my feelings. It had taken a long time to get over her. A year later she’d married Joe, who’d swooped in his three piece suit and a place in his fathers’ business. That was a wedding I definitely hadn’t wanted to be at, but Cathy came along with me and she made me laugh.
“And so,” concluded Dominic, “Here’s to not only Tom and Phyllis’s 20th anniversary but to our own. Here’s to our next 20 years together.”
Cue the D.J. and Tom and Phyllis were clapped onto the floor to Alison Moyet playing ‘Only You’. This was followed by Madness doing ‘Baggy Trousers’ and Rosie grabbed Dominic out onto the floor. Cathy arrived with freezing hands and a backlog of greetings for everybody.
Joe was talking about work, his favourite topic. Deborah seemed miles away. What year was she thinking about I wondered. She caught me staring at her and smiled. Joe waffled to the hostages at the table. Deborah was still where she always wanted to be. Memories of that small house in Cabra were hidden deep, she didn’t come back too often. God I thought, why couldn’t Joe own a chain of supermarkets or clothing stores instead of a haulage firm for God’s sake.
Tom and Phyllis were still shuffling around the dance floor. I noticed a sort of awkwardness between them when they danced to ‘Only You’. Cameras and mobiles flashed, shouts came from the crowd, yet the happy couple seemed as stiff as a poker. When the song finished and the floor began to fill up they danced apart and when the songs stopped they wandered aimlessly into the crowd.
Cathy and I had never married and in many ways it was the right thing. Now, no amount of “you haven’t changed a bit”, or “you still look gorgeous” was going to fool anybody. But sometimes those loose parts of your life came back together for one night and made you take stock and those songs made you think back, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ to ‘London Calling’. Little blurred pictures. It was brought home to me perfectly. I accidently overheard Mary Brennan asking her husband had he any ‘denture glue,’ she’d forgotten hers and she didn’t want her teeth flying out in the middle of a dance. The two of them laughed like kids.
Deborah and Joe left first. They didn’t look back. It saddened me for some reason. They were the only ones who didn’t live in Cabra anymore. The bar was closing. Wives hugged and husbands promised to meet. Phyllis thanked everybody at the door while Tom stood with the buttons of his shirt open to his stomach and beads of sweat on his forehead. I could hear Cathy from the bottom of the stairs, I leaned back against the wall and waited. People slowly filed out waving to me, some shaking my hand. Cathy finally came out full of life. I noticed Tom and Phyllis walking down towards the traffic lights, Phyllis rooting around in her bag for her cigarettes and Tom with his hand in his pockets, unsteady on his feet. I watched them turning the corner. My life drifting away into the night.