Hayes, West Wickham, Eden Park, Elmers End, Clock House, New Beckenham: we get on at our stations, march up and down the carriages until we find the rest of our contingent. Off at New Cross. Turn right. The Venue. £4 entry. £3 with flyer. We have flyers.
Into the bar downstairs, the pub, an Irish pub no less, although I have no idea of the integrity of its Celtic claims. All seats are taken, so we sit on the dance floor, cross-legged like the school kids we are. Sometimes, there’s a cheesy disco down here, just your normal Friday-night thing but filled with oddly dressed teenagers for the first hour, before the club upstairs opens. You’re always a bit on edge here: you know you’re just one song away from a rabble-rousing Come On Eileen or Baggy Trousers.
This time though, it’s Christmas, and the pub has a band playing. They’re signed to Nude, same label as Suede – it says so on the flyer. They’re quite good, but it’s too early in the evening to get carried away. After they finish, we head upstairs. I buy another bottle of Newcastle Brown and lecture my friends on the dangers of smoking. There’s quite a few of us from school here tonight, it’s like an unofficial alt-rock society Christmas do. Except we’re not so formal – we’re just the soap-dodgers, the grungers, the indie-kids who exist on the margins of the rugby-and-rave social scene that governs the school. We’re the ones who can’t even sit on the common-room sofas at break time.
Upstairs, there’s a main hall with a raised DJ booth at the side and a stage at the end. NO DRINKS ON THE DANCEFLOOR says a sign. There’s also a mezzanine balcony thing that runs around the top and tonight, for once, it’s open. We hang over the balcony balustrades, watching as some pomp-rock indie band try to make out they’re good. The singer keeps playing his harmonica. Harmonicas, like singing bass players and saxophones, are not cool. After two, maybe three songs, we’ve stopped watching. The band play to the dance floor, unaware of our balcony-based petulance as we sit just above them, talking and drinking and ignoring them.
As the rest head off for drinks or dancing, me and Clare are left alone. We shyly avoid eye contact and make fun of the people we know downstairs, and those left at home with their Sega Megadrives or out with Christian youth groups. We match up unlikely couples, Richard and Rebecca, Matthew and Stephanie, Craig and Sara. I peel the labels off of beer bottles, while she chain-smokes Marlboro Lights and tries to convince me that Pearl Jam are good, and when I laugh she punches me in the arm. The band finish. I decide that they sound like The Levellers, without a violin, but with a harmonica.
The main band come on, and me and Clare run downstairs, past Sara, doing it on the stairwell with the assistant manager of Homebase. Like, actually doing it. She smiles at us from against the wall, all blissful and embarrassed, as the guy just carries on, unaware or untroubled by our discovery. We get nowhere near the front of the stage. It’s all smoke machines and huge speakers and the place is packed and sweaty. I hide and skulk with my friends in the dark corners and recesses. More beer. We’re not really here for the bands, we’re here for the disco, for the acceptance, and we’ve not quite got that tonight. It’s too busy, too blokey, much more than usual.
The band finish and the room drains. The disco starts up. I dance. I’m Tim Booth, I’m Keith Flint, I’m Bez and I’m Tim Burgess and I spill my drink on the dance floor again and again and then another band plays, after the headliners, which we all think is weird. I decide that they sound like The Levellers. We head back up to the balcony, the girls with tinsel in their hair, our girls, Clare; they kiss boys, older boys, boys we don’t know. We watch scornfully, teasingly, jealously. We drink until our money runs out, until it’s time to go. Danny downs a pint of Guinness in one, flips open his gullet and pours. We’re sixteen: this is one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen.
Rhian’s boyfriend, he’s got a car, but there’s not enough room for us all. We can’t afford a minicab, can’t all fit in a minicab anyway, so we sit on a wall behind the bus stop. We sing I’m the only living boy in New Cross and uh-oh, we’re in trouble through a clumsy, giddy fug of cigarette smoke and drunken confidence, end-of-term exuberance, and Christmas cheer. It’s freezing. The N75 comes and dumps us in Penge and we don’t remember the journey back and I think that I might be in love with Clare and I nearly tell her, but then bottle it completely and just say goodnight.