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Mar 082012

Jane Woodham

We were a typical twosome: Tracey with her big red hair and matching mouth, and me, the sidekick, the quiet blonde one who encouraged from the sideline. We were mates because we liked the same band; it was all we had in common, but it was enough. We’d lived through the Three-Day Week and the Miners’ Strike, and grown used to power cuts and bomb scares, but a one-time grave-digger had just appeared on Top Of The Pops in leopard-skin trousers, and four Bovver Boys from Wolverhampton had posed in silver lamé and six-inch platform shoes. We were sixteen, and Glam Rock was our lives.

The Brennans lived on a Council Estate in Woolwich. I use capital letters for Council Estate because that’s how my mum pronounced it, like Nits, or Divorced. Mum had grown up on a Council Estate herself, but had married someone with A Proper Job and moved to a three-bed semi in the suburbs. My parents didn’t believe in Hire Purchase: you saved hard and bought seldom. The lino where the carpet failed to reach the walls was polished every Sunday, and we were the last in the street to get a colour television.

At Tracey’s they had orange nylon carpet that went not just to the walls, but up the bath as well, and at Sunday lunch you would find baked beans next to the cauliflower. I stayed at Tracey’s whenever I could. It was kind of cool.

We had a favourite pub, the King’s Arms, just opposite the barracks. This was before ID cards. As long as you behaved, and at least one person in your group was over eighteen, you would get served. There were no alcopops: it was snakebites, snowballs, or lager and lime.

One day at school, Tracey pulled me into the toilets for a ciggie. The band was recording a gig in Soho for their forthcoming film. It was invitation-only, but it was worth having a look, and I’d have to stay over. I spent that week hand-sewing sequins onto my red satin jacket. Tracey henna’d her hair. We told Tracey’s mum we were going to the pictures. She knew that meant we would be at the pub, but just said be back by 10.30, no later.

It was November. I shivered where my satin jacket touched bare flesh, which was everywhere: I was a well-covered teen. On the train, Tracey pulled out a packet of Player’s No. 6, a pot of Baby Blue eye-shadow, and a tube of silver glitter. We dabbed spit onto our cheeks and pressed on the glitter, then threw the remainder high and caught it in our hair. Giddy with nicotine, I watched Tracey stick her head out of the window. An express train screamed past and she screamed back.

We must have looked like twin celestial showers when we emerged from Charing Cross station. We darted between black cabs, raising two-fingered salutes at belligerent drivers and skipping through pungent pockets of roasting garlic from the restaurants lining St Martin’s Lane.

As soon as we turned into Greek Street we could hear the crowd. We pushed our way to the front, hockey-primed calf muscles flexing in anticipation. The first of the cars arrived: executive producers, some film director in a bearskin wrap and top hat, technicians and soundmen in tuxedos and trainers. A scream! It was the piano player with the mad glasses. Would you just look at those platforms!

And then the car we had all been waiting for, the Silver Cloud Rolls Royce. As four figures scurried from the car and ran towards the club, the police ranks collapsed under the force of pure oestrogen, and I was pushed helplessly forward. I fell and lay, winded, a weight on top of me, something prickly beneath. When I opened my eyes, I found I was looking straight at the white skin and huge panda eyes – huge scared panda eyes – of… him! I was pinned, wedged tight, until determined arms finally pulled me away. Back on the pavement, breathless and dizzy, I stood clutching a handful of feathers from his boa. I stuffed them inside my shirt. I had fallen on top of him. I had lain on top of him. Wait until I told Tracey.

I found her nearby, crying. Glitter, eye-liner and snot smeared her face.

“He looked straight at me,” she said, “straight at me!”

“I fell on top of him,” I said.

“No,” she said, “you don’t understand. He really looked at me. It was, you know, cosmic. There’s a special thing between us.”

I remembered his face inches from mine, his huge black-rimmed eyes. He had looked so scared. I shut up.

For the rest of the evening we chatted with the other faces, kids familiar from the fan club, or the BBC studios at White City. Tracey checked her watch.

“Shit, we’ll have to leg it.”

We ran as fast as our fat legs would take us. Did we set the beaded curtains singing as we breezed past the Adult Toy Emporium? Probably. Did two rent boys run with us for a while, fleeing from a gang of skinheads? Possibly. Did a tom pull her first trick of the night into an alley, just to avoid us? More than likely.

Back at the station, we collapsed into our seats. Then, as the train headed out into south-east London, I reached inside my shirt, and pulled out two near perfect, scarlet ostrich feathers.

“I fell on him,” I said.

I passed Tracey one of the feathers, the smaller of the two, and held mine to my face.

“It smells of him,” I said. “Smell it. It’s what he wears, Chanel No. 5.”

On the slow walk back from the station we rubbed the worst of the make-up from our faces, rehearsed our cover story, and silently turned over the evening’s events. Did people rush past us with hair that sparkled like ours? Did armoured vehicles spew dark figures that raced away into the night? Were there blue flashing lights, red flashing lights, the stench of smoke and the scrunch of broken glass? On the estate itself, did television sets flicker in every window? Almost certainly so.

The door to Tracey’s flat flew open. Mrs Brennan was a small red ball of rage.

“Where the feck have you been!?” she screamed, yanking us inside.

“I told you, Mum, we’ve been to the pict…”

There was a loud crack and Mrs Brennan’s handprint appeared on Tracey’s cheek.

“You can keep your feckin’ lies. I know you did not go to the feckin’ pictures, because when you say you are going to the feckin’ pictures it means you are going to the feckin’ pub. And I know you did not go anywhere near the feckin’ pub, because the feckin’ IRA have just blown the feckin’ pub to smithereens, and you’d be in a hundred pieces, just like all those poor feckin’ squaddies and God only knows who else!” At this point she burst into tears. “And me, an Irishwoman who has spent the last twenty years, twenty bloody years, living in this godforsaken city, has had to stand here and wonder how I am going to phone her mother” – she pointed to me – “her mother, and tell her that the IRA have just blown her feckin’ daughter to pieces!”

Tracey’s father came into the hall and placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder. Tracey’s brother appeared in the doorway, and her little sister peered at us through the balustrades.

I’d like to say that we sat down together then, that Mr Brennan poured his wife a Mackeson, and we talked about what it meant to be English or Irish, about what had gone before and what we hoped for our two countries in the future. Maybe in another family, in a leafy suburb, that might have happened, or maybe conversations like that only happen in films.

Later, leaning out of Tracey’s bedroom window, I found myself wishing that I was at home, in my own room.

“Maybe I should go first thing, before they’re up,” I whispered.

“Don’t be daft.”

“I could buy your Mum some chocolate.”

“That’d be nice.” Tracey passed me the cigarette. “She came home crying the other day, some woman spat at her in the shop. Cos of the Guildford thing.”

“No! Your Mum? It’s crazy!”

I flicked the cigarette and watched its red tip fall to the ground.

Lying on the spare mattress and feeling a long way from home, I listened to the thud, thud, thud of a circling helicopter, and tickled my face with an ostrich feather, seeking solace in the scent of Chanel No. 5.

[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 16.]

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