The music was pounding, and Jason already had a headache. He kept the smile on his face, knowing that he couldn’t be seen to be grumpy, not today of all days. Everyone else in the room was grinning, a whole host of rictus skulls in various states of inebriation. The group bobbed along to the music, shaking the floor ever so slightly out of time with the bass from the speakers, as though the dancers were fighting the band.
And there, no longer in the centre of the crowd but still orbited like the sun, was his sister Carol. The ridiculously long white dress puffed out from her waist, making her look like a 90’s children’s cake topper, but even Jason had to admit it suited her. Or maybe it was just the smile. Everyone looked good with a smile.
Dancing right alongside her was her new husband, and Jason’s new brother-in-law. That was going to take some getting used to, and it was the final trigger settling into Jason’s mind. His baby sister wasn’t a baby any more. She wasn’t a little girl to be cared for and protected; she was fully grown, and somehow seemed to have her life far more together than he did.
And now she was enjoying a carefree day of drinking and dancing, while Jason was stood on the sidelines, still feeling the weight of his work piling up on him. ‘Work smarter, not harder’ was the cheesy phrase being bandied about these days, but Jason saw it as a perfect reflection on him and his sister. She worked smart, while he worked hard. The stray grey hairs, empty love life and rising debt spoke wonders about how well that was going for him.
How does she make it work? he asked yet again, as he watched his sister laugh at some distant relation’s attempt at dancing. How hasn’t she been destroyed by the weight of coping with everything?
It wasn’t as though her boyfriend, fiancé, husband, came from money either. Through the occasional bit of gossip from their mother, Jason knew that Carol and her partner had struggled a lot. But you’d never tell to look at her. She looked as free as a bird.
Please don’t let that song come on, Jason thought as he looked round the room. The older relatives had all sat down and were nattering away in the corner, clearing up any of the food that was left from the meal earlier. The dance floor was packed with the more energetic – or drunk – guests, including the whole gang of Carol’s university friends, most of whom were complete strangers to Jason. A few he knew by reputation, but he couldn’t put names to faces. Certainly not when they were all dolled up to the max.
As out of place as he felt, Jason didn’t want to leave the party. The only option then would be to go to his hotel room upstairs, where he’d still be able to hear the music. That would only make his loneliness worse.
Which meant his only choice was to head outside, and join the kids.
It was cool out there at least, and when the rush of early evening air washed over him he realised how stuffy the main hall had gotten. The children were running up and down the field, careless of the age gaps between them all, or the fact that they’d probably never see each other again after today. Right now they were the ‘bestest friends’ in the whole world, and that was all that mattered.
Jason wasn’t sure whether to smile or throw up.
A few of the cousins-in-law sat out here, keeping half an eye on the kids while they caught up themselves. Awkward as he felt crashing their gathering, there weren’t any other tables out here, and it would be more awkward to go and sit alone on the grass.
“Hi,” he said with a half wave as he approached. I should’ve grabbed another drink first.
“Hi! How’s it going?” Katie – I think that’s Katie? – asked. She was… someone’s wife, either Mark’s or George’s, and two – maybe three? – of the kids running about were hers.
“It’s good. Thought I’d step out for some fresh air. Boy, it’s hot in there.”
“Are our parents still making complete fools of themselves?”
“Of course.” That was a family tradition at weddings at this stage. Given most of the cousins had already gotten married, the ‘grown-ups’ had had enough time to perfect it.
“Then we’ll stay out here,” Suzie – or is it Susan? – laughed.
“Looks like you’ve been promoted to bar-tender,” Jason said, picking up the nearest plastic cup to him. The whole surface was littered with them, and there seemed to be some organisation to them. “Do you know which is which?”
“Sort of?” probably-Katie replied. “We mostly tried to organise them by family. Figured it’s less of an issue if siblings are drinking each other’s drinks.”
“Fair.” Jason peered into the cup he’d picked up and tried to swirl it. It looked more like syrup than liquid, and sludged slightly as he tilted the cup. Through the tinted plastic it was hard to make out the colour of the drink, and curiosity got the better of him, and he sniffed it.
The sickly sweet smell smacked him in the face far harder than he’d expected, and quick on its heels was nostalgia.
With one in-breath he was back at another dance, so many evenings ago.
It was a school disco, a yearly end of term celebration, where the cherryade ran lukewarm and the sweets were endless. The sports hall had been covered in disco-lights and tacky decorations, but to the children it had been the greatest thing ever. The floor was sticky and the air was muggy, but no one cared.
That year, the end of year five, was the best ever. They were about to become the big kids in the school, but didn’t have to say goodbye to their friends just yet. Another year of mucking about and causing mischief before they had to be serious and wear actual shirts and maybe even, god forbid, ties. It was a night of sheer abandon for the kids, even though they had no idea what it was to be ‘un-abandoned’ yet.
Jason, Andrew, Olivia and Tom were inseparable that evening. They danced until they got stitches, and then ran to the tuck-shop and stuffed their faces until they couldn’t breathe, then repeated that again and again, until at last, late into the night, maybe even as late as ten o’clock, the disco was over and their parents came to collect them.
At the time none of them had said what a magical evening it had been. At the time it hadn’t been all that special. It was just another school disco; there’d be one the year after, and as far as they were concerned there’d always be one, each year into the distance. But the next year things had changed. Tom had moved school already, as his mum moved for work, and Olivia had started hanging out with other girls instead of the boys. Jason and Andrew felt awkward dancing with just the two of them, though neither of them said it out loud. They were too cool for dancing now, they said, and instead they lurked in the corner and tried to see if any of the teachers had brought any booze along.
But the summer of year five, off in the past, off in a time he barely remembered, had been a magical evening.
What went wrong? Jason thought as he looked at the kids running around. Will this night be that magical for them? Can any night be as simple again?
The others around the table had started talking again, picking up where they’d left off, leaving Jason to stare mournfully into the cup of cherryade. What he wouldn’t give to let go of everything, to be as carefree and reckless, and happy, as he had been that night with Andrew, Olivia and Tom. An innocent happiness, not clouded over by work or responsibilities or adulthood. Hell, on that night I didn’t even have to keep an eye on Carol. She was home with mum, and not my problem.
When there was a brief lull in the conversation Jason excused himself. “I’m heading to the bar, does anyone want anything?” Though there were a few empty pint glasses, everyone politely decline.
“Better stay mostly sober for this lot,” Suzie/Susan said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder at the screaming rabble that were storming past again. Jason laughed as he headed off again, trying to force the yearning for simpler times and truer friends out of his mind.
It wasn’t stuck in his head though.
It was stuck in his heart.
Walking back into the dance hall was worse than leaving, as the heat mugged him and tried to make him surrender there and then. He ducked around the crowd and made a beeline to the bar, smiling and waving at the people who noticed him. Today wasn’t about him though.
A couple of Carol’s friends were at the bar, and while Jason waited to be served he watched the dance floor again. All the cheesy old classics were coming on, interspersed with more modern stuff, all of them absolute bangers though. No one in the room was still. Even those waiting at the bar were tapping out the rhythm with their feet or bobbing along.
The ache grew stronger in Jason. He wanted to go back to having to care for Carol, when the pair of them were thick as thieves and inseparable. Nowadays they texted a few times a month, at best. Both of them were too busy with their lives, and when they did talk it was slightly awkward. Neither of them really knew each other any more.
“What’ll it be, sir?”
“Double whisky. Neat.”
As he took the drink Jason gave the barkeeper only the briefest of nods. There was a slight tremor in his hands as he downed the drink, willing the Dutch courage to kick in.
The past wasn’t coming back, and nothing could change that.
But that didn’t mean he had to give up on the present.
An old favourite came on, a song that he and Carol had belted out in the car more times than he could count during long trips as children. Another happy memory to overwhelm him, but he let it come.
Embracing the happiness from his thoughts, and the hypnotic pulse of the music, and the warm rush of alcohol in his system, Jason headed over to his sister. She smiled when she saw him, though there was a hint of sadness, a trace of her own nostalgia at all that they had been.
What have I got to lose?
With embarrassment already on his cheeks, Jason started dancing.
It was terrible, barely co-ordinated, but after a few moments that didn’t matter. He moved with the music, and the next time he caught Carol’s eye the sadness had gone. There was his baby sister again, eyes full of nothing but joy. It was the least he could do for her wedding day, and his own brief way to reclaim the freedom of the year five disco, if only for a short while.
The pair of them danced into the night, each basking in the echoes of their childhood.