Saturday 20 September 2008

Four and twenty virgins

No idea; 5.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,234; Shropshire.

I’ll put my cards on the table right away and admit that this entry has absolutely sod all to do with virgins. It’s just that, when I was a schoolboy (which I keep being told I still am, in spirit) “Four and twenty virgins came down from Inverness” was locked in deadly combat with “The good ship Venus” for the coveted title of my favourite rugby song. And the songs were the only things I ever even vaguely liked about rugby. So if you had told me at the beginning of this year that I would end up spending a Saturday evening at a rugby club ball, I would have laughed in your face.

But that was before I met the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette.

All my certainties seem to be crumbling. My world was turned upside down earlier this month, when the new celebrity- and trivia-dominated Daily Telegraph reported the surprise victory of a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest, thereby depriving me of one of my favourite phrases beginning “As likely as …”

Still, I consoled myself my remembering that there remained at least one absolutely secure fixed point, namely: what do swimming and dancing have in common? I can’t do either of them.

The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette was well aware of this when she proposed that we might spend this evening at a ball. Obviously I’d rather have spent it in front of the telly or reading a good book, but in these early days of a relationship I reckoned that it paid to be a bit accommodating. So the die was cast.

The day did not start entirely as planned as the LTCB failed to calculate that it might be a pretty good idea not to let out the cat she wanted to take to the vet’s for a check-up. Said cat did not fancy this one little bit, and so at 9.30 this morning the LTCB was to be seen up a ladder attempting to retrieve the cat from the kitchen roof. I thought to myself that the resulting scratches across her magnificent bosom were probably not going to be exactly what she wanted when she put on her ball gown this evening, though at least they would furnish a talking point.

Luckily things picked up after that. For a start, the vet gave the poorly cat a glowing report. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the English summer finally started and we were able to enjoy a lovely walk with the dog in what can only be described as warm sunshine. To cap it all, I was given permission to try out the LTCB’s local while she was preparing lunch – something I would obviously have done long ago, while she was slaving away at the office, but for the fact that it does not actually open at weekday lunchtimes. She did not seem to have a very high opinion of it herself, but then she admits that she is not really a very pubby person. One of the things we definitely don’t have in common, then.

The pub seemed a remarkably quiet and civilized place, equipped with a rack of newspapers for the customers to read, but no actual customers other than myself. I ordered a delicious pint of Hydes’ real ale and a packet of very fine pork scratchings, and took a seat at a table in the corner of the bar and got stuck into my paper. After a while another grey-haired bloke wandered in and gave me what I thought was rather an odd look, but he remained at the bar and did not speak to me. In fact I was quite well into my second pint when human contact arrived in the shape of an elderly lady with one of those cast iron, dyed blonde perms. She was holding in one hand a pint of (a) lager, (b) cider or (c) her own urine, and in the other a lead, the far end of which was attached to a small brown dog: one of those rotund terrier bitches which seem to be all teeth and nipples. “I hope you don’t mind if I sit here,” she said as she invaded my personal space with same sort of subtlety that Hitler applied to Poland, “only this has always been her place.” Whereupon she produced a small blue towel and spread it on the upholstered bench right next to me, and the dog jumped up and growled at me through its bared teeth. I shifted along a bit and drank my remaining beer as fast as possible, which was doubtless the result intended.

Almost 40 years now I’ve been going into pubs, waiting to hear the legendary gypsy’s warning against sitting in some ancient regular’s place. And when it finally comes, the ancient regular turns out to be a dog.

The LTCB is not the most houseproud woman I have ever met, but she does like a smart staircase. Given that hers is little more than a slightly glorified wooden ladder – and I don’t really understand how it ever got past the building regulations people – polishing the treads would not be my number one priority, but she had applied significant quantities of elbow grease and polish to the task last weekend. With the inevitable result that, when I made the critical mistake of nipping up to the loo in my stockinged feet this afternoon, on the way down they flew out in front of me and I ended up in a heap on the floor, shocked, bruised and grazed. The LTCB, who was out at the time, returned and fought a losing battle to try and sound reasonably sympathetic, when she clearly believes that anyone falling over is quite the funniest thing in the world.

I, in turn, tried to suppress the thought that it was a pity I had not injured myself just a little bit more seriously so that I could have excused myself from the ball.

We rendezvoused with a number of the LTCB’s friends in the early evening, so that we could all travel to the ball together. One tall blonde turned up in an eye-catching short white dress. When someone complimented her on it she delivered a throwaway line about it being “just some old thing – what’s important is that it’s washable”. Asked to explain the significance of this remark, she said “Well we are going to a rugby club, after all.” This did nothing to fill me with enthusiasm or confidence, not that I had felt any to start with.

At 6.45 precisely a mini-bus rolled up outside the door. It was driven by a very fat man who was evidently in advanced training for a heart attack. The most striking feature of his vehicle was that it absolutely reeked of tobacco smoke, despite the notices all over it warning its passengers of dire legal consequences if they had the temerity to light up. He drove us to Shropshire. Allowing him to do so was a mistake.

We began the evening drinking glasses of what might have been champagne in the absolutely deafening hubbub of the rugby club bar. Luckily the noise prevented the LTCB from catching all my repetitions of a favourite phrase of my mother’s, “Eeh, the things you see when you haven’t got your gun!” As mother would also have said, there were some Real Sights. A large woman arrived with livid bruises all down her arm and I immediately took her for a domestic violence victim endeavouring to shame her husband, though the LTCB yelled that she might have got them playing rugby herself. Apparently they do a lot of that sort of thing in Shropshire. Indeed, I was told that the tall blonde in the short white dress had been a notable player in her day, which distracted me for some time as I mused upon communal showers.

Dinner was late. This might have had something to do with the fact that it was taking place in an absolutely freezing marquee erected next to the rugby club, and that many ladies clearly felt it would only be possible to face it after a numbing intake of alcohol. I sat between the LTCB and a blonde with an appealing pout and the sort of colourful coat that Joseph might well have favoured if he had been related to Pandit Nehru. Amazingly, I managed to evade the trap she laid for me by describing herself as “a waitress” when she was clearly considerably (or at any rate more expensively) better educated than I am. She told me two stories which I deemed worthy of recording in my notebook. The only one which made any sort of sense afterwards related to a previous event she had attended wearing one of those flowing Empire line dresses that always feature so strongly in Jane Austen adaptations on the telly. Someone tactlessly asked her whether it was a maternity frock and, on being told, coldly, that it was a period dress, replied, “Oh, well if you’re having a period then I suppose you can’t be pregnant.”

It was the most amusing thing I heard all evening.

The food was surprisingly good; the wine was unsurprisingly bad. “Dog rough”, the girl in the white dress called it.

There was an auction conducted by a fast-talking cattle auctioneer, in which I was comprehensively outbid for the two lots in which I was vaguely interested: the services of a chef for an evening, and a tour of a noted real ale brewery. Typically, the things in which I had no interest at all seemed absolute bargains. For example, an equine massage was knocked down for just £50, though as the LTCB pointed out its shoes would knock hell out of you. Maybe that was how the woman in the sleeveless dress got her bruises. One lot was being bought a drink every day until Christmas by a Brian Blessed lookalike who had apparently once been a noted rugby player; it did occur to me to trump it with an offer to pay NOT to have to drink with him, but luckily I remembered in the nick of time that I could secure that for nothing. I asked one of our party who the bloke was and he replied “some old relic”. Further asked to define “old” he said, “Ooh, I reckon about 55, don’t you?” Which made me feel terrific.

As is traditional on occasions like these, the auctioneer was assisted by a number of completely useless “spotters”, one of whom was a blonde woman in a Little Black Dress who had the largest bosom I have seen since I attended the Berwick-upon-Tweed Conservatives Ball last October. A crack team of scaffolders followed her around at all times, alert for the slightest sign of slippage or subsidence. She was accompanied by another blonde wearing an Even Littler Black Dress, which exerted a strange fascination as most of the men in the room followed her with their eyes, waiting to see whether some sudden move would tip her over the brink of indecent exposure.

A remarkably loud band had been playing throughout dinner, fronted by a nondescript female pub singer. By the time the dancing started, at around 11, the LTCB was luckily so completely frozen that she was positively keen to accompany me to the bar in the hope of warming up. She was even prepared to ring up all the local taxi companies to see whether any of them could take us back to Chester before our scheduled return trip at 1a.m., though predictably enough there was nothing doing. So we sat there happily enough (or miserably enough, in my case) people watching. My personal favourites were an evidently gay couple of players greeting each other at the bar; the scrums and showers must have held attractions far beyond the ordinary for them.

Then the LTCB decided that her feet had warmed up enough for her to have a little dance, so I told her to go back to the tent while I had a little snooze. Which I would have done, quite contentedly, if some vast old bore of a local farmer had not plonked himself down next to me and announced that they did not allow people to be on their own at events like this. Why not, for f***’s sake?

He asked me whether I had been a keen rugby player myself and I said not, so he went on “Ah, so you just love watching it, then?” What is the right thing to do in these circumstances? Assent and then be stumped by the inevitable follow-up question about one’s all-time favourite moments? Or do what I did and say that I had hated the violent, stupid game ever since I was forced to participate in it at school? Fortunately I think that years of shooting game of all sizes had impaired his hearing, as he did not react by plunging a huge fist into my face, as I had feared he might.

My desire to get away from him was so strong that I even went back into the marquee, where I found the LTCB and a few others from our party huddled near a heater. Later she had a go on the dance floor, and a hulking great rugby playing type promptly stepped backwards and landed on her foot. You could tell that she was not impressed. At one point there were trumpeters from the band prancing about on the tables next to lit candles, surely in defiance of about a dozen Elfin Safety regulations. Please God let the marquee burn down, I thought. We could all have had quite a jolly time warming our hands around the blaze. Unfortunately it did not happen.

The best thing about the evening was the fact that the chain-smoking heart attack candidate turned up with his mini-bus ten minutes before the booked time of 1 a.m., exactly as he had promised. The survivors of the Titanic cannot have greeted the arrival of the Carpathia with any greater enthusiasm than I felt as he rumbled into view. I thought the worst was over then, but we took the dog for a short walk when we finally got home and he did what dogs usually do. I took my poop scoop out of my rucksack, and endeavoured to deal with the result, but could not find it anywhere. After a bit I worked out that this was because it was all over the bottom of one of my shoes.

Surely there could not have been a more perfect ending to a perfect day?

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