We love Anna Wood here at The Social Gathering. When we were collating pieces for the collection we put out before Christmas last year (copies available here) we were convinced we needed to finish the thing on a positive note. I mean, remember how bad 2020 was? We were all begging for a shot of sunlight come December. Anyway, Anna Wood was the only person we approached because her joy of life is utterly infectious. She wrote about hope and the dancefloor, about the ‘sticky utopia’ that awaited us all at some unspecified point in the future. Now, that point looms on the horizon, and Anna’s first collection of short stories has just been published. It’s ace, just like she is. And hope is just round the corner. Here’s to more wild nights. Yes yes, more more.
Behind the decks, but not DJing, stood a blonde woman who was familiar to me. I had seen her before, maybe lots of times, at other parties. She stood surveying the room like she was a bouncer for the DJ, leaning back with her chin out, not dancing but moving ever so slightly to the music.
I’d put my coat on at least twenty minutes ago but then I’d been pulled back by an amazing Fern Kinney song and I was still there, partly because James had given me another cup of MDMA punch and partly because the music was solid joy. And partly because of the blonde, who didn’t seem to have noticed me yet.
It was a small-ish house party. The floor was wooden, wet with drink, records splayed in collapsed piles around the sides of where we were dancing. Oliver was on his hands and knees, pushing the records back out of the way, trying to keep them safe, like a man with a broom trying to brush back flood waters. I was saying to James, “If I had a cock I’d fuck you with it,” earnest and ravenous at the thought. He laughed and hugged me, snuggled my neck. James’s friend Grace hugged him. It was her birthday party but she was subdued, floating about and cuddling her guests. We all sat down on the sofa. James took a biro out of his back pocket, and started to draw a pretend tattoo on my forearm. It felt tickly and good.
“What’s her name?” I asked him, nodding to the blonde. She was about eight feet away, but the music was loud enough that she wouldn’t hear.
“Gloria,” he said, and spelled it out like Patti Smith: “G-L-O-R-I-I-I-I-I-I-I… G-L-O-R-I-A.”
Gloria looked over. Right then Paulie stopped the music dead for a second, and then he played Gene Vincent. Be-Bop-A-Lula. Gloria moved in front of the decks. She was small and she had on a pair of jeans, bare feet with pearly toenails, a pale blue vest, no bra. Skinny and small, but not like a little girl. Like a boilwashed woman. Hard all over, like a rich boilwashed woman who does a lot of yoga. She danced to Gene Vincent. Outside the sun was thinking about coming up. I watched Gloria. She danced with her eyes open but not looking anywhere. She would bend around, lean back, swing forward, slow slow slow, her arms up but all loose, her wrists floppy. She danced like she was dodging bullets in The Matrix. Sometimes she would lift a leg, bend it at the knee maybe, put her bare foot back down on the sticky floor.
I looked down and James had written YES YES MORE MORE on my arm, in big wobbly letters. The song finished and Gloria sat down right next to me on the sofa and kissed me. It was a fairly unobtrusive hello kiss which turned into something with tongues and a hand on my leg. I don’t know if we talked first or not. I remember her checking at some point that I wasn’t with James. “You’re not going home with him are you?” is what she said. “Oh, no!” I said, as if I wouldn’t dream of going home with a beautiful, interesting, funny, kind man. James was busy now anyway, he was standing in the corner playing air piano. I leaned forward and kissed Gloria again, as if to seal my point.
There was a taxi coming just as we got outside so I flagged it down and opened the door for Gloria, waved her in like I had an imaginary hat in my hand with feathers in it. “Why, thank you, how kind,” she said, and climbed in. You can be quite elegant climbing into a black cab, it turns out, when you are small and bouncy on your feet.
She gave the driver her address and I held the cup of punch I’d brought from the party at arm’s length because it was slopping about a bit as we turned corners. Gloria had slipped her shoes off again and was doing tiny Mexican waves with her toes, then she swung to face me and slid a foot up the front of my leg, like a flirty dinner date. About five seconds later the taxi stopped because we were outside her house. We could have walked there in two minutes.
And inside, there we were inside her flat. Wild Nights! I thought. Wild Nights! I couldn’t remember the rest of the poem, though. Emily Dickinson. There’s a line about waves, maybe, there is desire and there’s a port, somewhere to stay for the night.
Gloria took me straight to bed. She was softer than she looked. Her body was a warm, exciting echo of mine. She tasted good. She smelled good. She felt good. It was new to me.
“Wake up,” she whispered in the morning. Or the afternoon by then. “I made you tea. I put sugar in it. Two sugars. And do you want some toast?” She was stroking my hair. She had just her blue vest on and she got up, walked across the bedroom and through the hall to the main room, with the sofa and the kitchen and the stereo and the bookshelves and the telly. Her bottom was whiter than the rest of her, where a bikini had been. When I walked through she was standing by the toaster. I liked looking at her while she made my breakfast.
“Marmalade,” I said, because I could see the marmalade. And then I saw the butter and said, “Mmm, butter.” I had a hangover.
She glanced round at me and then got back to my breakfast. Her tits were smaller than mine and her belly was bigger. She was lovely. She was singing along to I’ve Had The Time Of My Life – Gloria in fact owned the Dirty Dancing soundtrack on vinyl and there it was, spinning around on top of a low bookshelf.
The second song on that album is The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, and Gloria sang along to that too, hips banging to one side at the “cha” of the “dum du-dum cha” drum beat. Twenty minutes later we’d eaten toast and drunk tea and we were dancing to Yes, which is the last song on side one, sung by Merry Clayton.
“This is the woman who did the backing vocals on Gimme Shelter,” I told Gloria, who didn’t care or didn’t hear me. She had turned up the volume and was scissoring her arms up in the air and doing the twist. She was the opposite of the blonde woman swaying behind the decks last night. We danced together and sometimes we bounced on the sofa, close to falling over. She still had no knickers on, and no bra so her little tits were bouncing under her blue vest. The song was brilliant, I wondered how I’d never noticed it before.
It was sunny and still only the middle of the afternoon. Gloria lent me a summer dress which was too tight on me and we went to Regent’s Park, ten minutes’ walk from her at. We didn’t see anyone I knew, but two friends of hers were walking up the main path towards us with their dog. “Ooh,” she said. “It’s Brett and Heather.” They smiled and stopped and talked and Gloria introduced me. I didn’t say a word, I just smiled at them like some mute mysterious girl, leaning towards Gloria so I could smell her all the time. Gloria’s fingers were going up and down my backbone as if she was playing slow scales on a sideways piano.
Brett and Heather had just been out on the boating lake and we decided we’d do that too. Gloria got us ice-creams and I got the tickets. We climbed in and I lay back while she rowed us into the middle.
“You comfy?” she asked, looking at me with her DJ bouncer expression again. I was holding onto the side of the boat with one hand and trying to eat my 99 without dripping ice-cream everywhere. I was holding her ice-cream too, in the same hand, and the boat was swaying a bit too much. Gloria paddled us away from the other people on the lake, into a shady, darker part of the water.
“You’re strong for a little thing.” I sounded like a dirty old man.
“How do you know Grace?” she asked. It took me a few seconds to remember that it was Grace’s party we were at last night.
“She works with my good friend Stella. Do you know Stella?”
“I think she works with Dougie, my ex-boyfriend.”
“Oh, at the new Kingsland Road place?” I didn’t care about any of this.
“Yeah, exactly. I met her at their Christmas party last year.”
She was watching me as she talked. There is no way to know what someone is thinking when they look at you.
We were by the wooded island in the middle of the lake, near the moorhens and their nests. Gloria pulled the oars into the boat. A distant panic unsettled me, that trawling hangover anxiety. I kept quiet and watched while she ate her ice-cream and told me about her job. She was a lawyer, working with musicians. Or maybe an accountant. While she talked she put her legs out, one foot on each side of me.
We floated away from the moorhens and I rowed us back over there, into the shade and the quiet.
“You’re lovely,” she said.
I leaned to one side, looked up through the hole in a polo-mint cloud, felt suspicions of unconsidered possibilities.
I didn’t want to go home that night so I didn’t go home. I stayed at Gloria’s flat. I used her toothbrush again and wore her silky nightie. The next day was Monday so we’d have to get up for work, both of us. We sat on the sofa, got a curry delivered and watched most of Antiques Roadshow.
That night when she was giving me head I realised it was the best head I’d ever had in my life and I laughed a bit, thinking, Oh what a cliche that women really do know how to do it better, how funny if that’s true. And most men would have stopped, if I was laughing while they were giving me head, but Gloria didn’t stop, she grabbed the tops of my legs, there was maybe a giggle, she knew what was happening, and there was nothing wrong, it was all right.
In the morning I got up first and had a wash, my biro tattoo almost gone, then made Gloria a cup of tea while she had her shower. She listened to the news on the radio. She dried her hair. I watched her get dressed – a white blouse, see-through with a slip underneath, and a black pencil skirt. “Keys, money, phone,” she said, and gave a quick bright smile. “Ready.” Outside, on the pavement, she kissed me and slinked off to the tube in her heels with her hair piled up, like someone playing at being a sexy secretary. I headed towards the bus stop in my Saturday night clothes, knickers not even inside out. No one can tell, I thought, and they wouldn’t care anyway.
Over the road there was a school, with a group of girls around eight years old playing in the yard outside. I hadn’t seen children playing in a playground since I was at school myself and the scene looked to me like something from the 1980s. I slowed down and walked diagonally across the street so I could watch them a while without stopping to stare. There were six girls. Two of them turned a skipping rope while another jumped the rope. Two other girls faced one another, alongside the rope, and played a clap-hands game. The girls were all singing and these two clapped along in time to the song while the jumping girl jumped in time. Another girl stood waiting, watching the others, and she was singing too, with her hands on her hips.
They weren’t singing a traditional skipping song, whatever that would be, they were singing that Adele song: “There’s a fire, starting in my heart.” Their quiet, straightforward voices plucked each syllable, turning fire into ‘fii-yer’ to fit the extra beat. At the end of one line, or on some signal that I didn’t catch, one of the clapping girls moved into the rope, began to skip, and the skipping girl moved around to where the waiting girl had been, and the waiting girl began to clap with the remaining clapping girl.
They didn’t miss a beat or a word. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening in the few seconds that I saw them, but they all knew how the game worked and they were absorbed in it. Other children were playing and yelling and running, or chatting in small groups and waiting for classes to start, but these six girls didn’t see them. Perhaps I could have stopped to watch and they wouldn’t have noticed me either. Together they had a mechanical elegance. At some point one of them was bound to get it wrong. “Rolling in the deep,” they sang, clapped, skipped. “Rolling in the deep.” I kept walking.
Image: Georgia O’Keeffe – Sunrise