‘If we do nothing else, I want to ride that wheel,’ I sigh.
It’s the biggest, craziest birthday surprise I’ve ever had. My heart feels feather-light, as if it’s tied to a helium balloon.
This place is off-the-scale weird. I don’t know how Sarah does it; most people buy someone a cake or take them out drinking for their birthday. Not Sarah. She’s managed to find this extravaganza, and somehow she’s roped Billy and me into being their T-Bird escorts for the day. There aren’t many women I’d do this for; I grumbled and almost backed out because, to be honest, it sounded like a bit of a nightmare, but actually it’s kind of cool now we’re here. Secret Cinema, she said it’s called. I expected an open-air cinema with a burger truck or two, and there is a huge screen set up for later, but jeez, this place is something else. I feel as if I’m actually in the movie rather than at it, and I reckon we’ve bagged ourselves the two best-looking Pink Ladies at the whole gig.
Sarah … Christ. She never does anything by halves. She’s walking a little way ahead of me; her legs seem to be twice as long as normal in those spray-on black leggings. I’ve always got off on the feeling that I’m running to keep up with her, it keeps me on my toes, but lately she’s sprinting so fast that sometimes I feel like I lose sight of her altogether. It’s disconcerting, a low-level niggle that I stamp down every time I catch up again.
Laurie looks cool too; it’s like a magazine article about how the same outfit can look completely different on two different girls. Sarah’s high heels and ponytail say most popular girl in class, whereas Laurie’s Converse and bouncy curls are more low-key cute. If we were high-school kids, Sarah would scare the pants off me and Laurie would be my best mate’s sister. I don’t even know where I’m going with that thought. They’re just different, that’s all.
‘What do you think? A snog on the cards for me and the birthday girl?’ Billy says, strolling beside me. ‘Reckon I’ll try my luck at the top of that thing.’ He nods towards the Ferris wheel.
I flick my eyes towards Laurie briefly and feel a bloom of protectiveness. Billy’s one of those guys who will do anything to add a few more notches. I don’t really know why I asked him – other than he was the only one of my friends egotistical enough to spend a day playing dress-up.
‘No heavy petting, Bill. You heard the rules.’
‘This is high school, where rules are made to be broken, my friend.’ Billy winks at me as Sarah turns to us and points across the field, interrupting before I can say anything else.
‘Come on, you two. I want to go on the bumper cars.’
I’m starting to wish I’d asked anyone other than Billy to come today. So far he’s rung the strong-man bell three times when no one else on this whole common could manage it even once, and now he’s got his arm round Laurie as he expertly manoeuvres their bumper car around like an F1 driver.
I mimic him, slinging my arm round Sarah as I glance back over my shoulder and reverse right into them, sending them spinning away in a fizz of electric sparks. Sarah screams, laughing beside me as Billy comes straight back at us, jolting our car violently into the wall of tyres, subtly giving me the finger over Laurie’s shoulder as he drives away. What would John Travolta do right now, I wonder? And who is Sandra Dee in this scenario? Sarah’s too sassy by far; Frenchy all the way. Not that I’m saying Laurie is Sandy to my Danny, because that would be fucked up. Maybe Billy is more Danny anyway, with his Popeye muscles and leader-of-the-pack mentality. I watch him help Laurie clamber out of their car as the engines cut out, the way he hangs on to her hand and spins her against him, a blur of dark curls in pink satin. I hope she isn’t fooled by him.
I mean, it’s her business, but he can be a bit of a bloke – everything’s a lark and a laugh. Maybe that’s what she likes. Fuck, what if he decides to come back to Camden with us? Ha! Her mobile’s just started to ring in the pocket of her pink jacket. Phonus Interruptus, mate.
This is shaping up to be one of my favourite days ever.
I’m squiffy on Pink Lady cocktails, I’ve laughed until my sides ache, Billy is more fun than I’d anticipated and everyone is in a silly, carnival mood. Even the weather has played ball, bathing us in the best kind of lazy English summer warmth, the sort that always brings freckles out across the bridge of my nose.
If I’d thought the event looked good in daylight, it looks even more razzle-dazzle now that the evening is beginning to draw in. On the T-Birds stand a show plays out; a bendy troupe of male dancers in black leather are bouncing all over the impressive line of imported muscle cars, singing into chrome microphone stands as they dance across the bonnets. Everywhere people dance and loll under the rainbow haze cast by the glittering pastel lights from the fairground rides, and there’s a growing sense of anticipation for the movie itself to begin around ten.
Sarah discovered just now that she has a natural talent for rock-and-roll dancing (well of course), and after Jack laughingly backed out, claiming two left feet, Billy has been cajoled into taking part in the master-class competition as her partner.
As Jack and I stand on the fringes of the crowd watching them, I see that glitter-grit crackle through Sarah; it’s there in the extra sassy flick of her ponytail and the high jut of her chin. Thank God Billy seems to have hidden snake hips. I don’t know if it’s all the cocktails I’ve sunk, but he’s starting to look a lot more attractive than he did at the beginning of the day. When we were queuing for the bumper cars he showed me photos of his little brother, Robin, a very unexpected surprise to his forty-something mum. Not that Billy minded going from an only child to a big brother so late in the day; he proudly flashed me a shot of Robin blowing out the birthday candles on the cake Billy had made him with his own bare hands. It was no masterpiece, but any girl wondering if Billy might make a good father himself one day would only need to hear him talk about Robin to know there is marshmallow beneath those muscles. I watch him up there with Sarah, pure concentration on both of their faces. They’ve got their A-game on for sure; I feel almost sorry for the other contestants.
‘Sarah loves this kind of stuff,’ I say, sucking lemonade through a red-and-white-striped straw because I’m taking a cocktail break.
‘I just hope they win,’ Jack laughs. I know what he means. A happy Sarah means a happy all of us.
My phone vibrates; that’s the second time Mum’s tried me today. I already told her that I was out all day, but I think she finds it difficult now me and Daryl have both left home. I consider calling her back, but I don’t want to interrupt this moment.
I look out towards the Ferris wheel. It looks even bigger illuminated. ‘I hope there’s still time to ride the wheel before the movie starts,’ I say.
Jack frowns, checking the time. ‘We’re cutting it fine.’
I nod. ‘Especially if they get through to the dance-off.’
‘Which they will.’
He’s right. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Sarah’s dancing shoes will see this thing through to the end.
He pauses for a beat, looks away and then back at me.
‘I could take you on it now, if you like.’ He half laughs, embarrassed. ‘Call it a birthday present, seeing as I forgot to get you one.’
It’s curiously old-fashioned of him to offer to take me on it, as if I need to be escorted, but the question works perfectly in this curiously old-fashioned setting. I stand on my tiptoes to catch Sarah’s eye to let her know we’ll be back in ten but she’s fully engaged in listening to the master-class host. I look behind me again at the beautiful Ferris wheel.
‘I’d like that very much, Jack. Thank you.’
A guy in white chinos with a Rydell High college sweater knotted casually round his shoulders lowers the chrome bar across our knees, raising his eyebrows at us as he gives it a rattle to make sure we’re secured.
‘You might want to put your arm round your girl, fella. It can get a little scary up there at the top.’
I’m sure he must say variations of the same to every couple he loads on to the ride, but all the same we both wade in to correct him.