In a warehouse in Ladywood, Birmingham, with a papier-mache spine down my back and breath like a dustpan, I walked up to a man and said, without any preamble: “You are the most handsome man at this party.”
It was December 2004, the theme of the party was dinosaurs and, being a fan of puns, I had decided to go as a thesaurus. In my little room in Lupton Flats – the cheapest halls of residence at Leeds University at the time – I’d sat on the floor, beside my single bed, and patiently glued down layers of paper into a string of points. Reluctant to sacrifice my actual thesaurus, I had rooted around my reading list for another book, eventually choosing The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Listening to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and drinking PG Tips, it had taken me at least two hours to make the dinosaur spine, which would attach around my neck like a backwards pendant. Slipping it on and looking in the mirror, I wondered if anyone would even notice me.
A few months earlier, I had broken up with my first boyfriend. The man to whom I had lost my virginity, learned about love with, and whose jumper I had wrapped around a pillow and slept beside for three months when he went away on a gap year. That man was also living in Lupton Flats. But he was now seeing a girl from my course. It was a special flavour of agony to walk out of my block, to the shop, into a lecture or through the student union and be confronted with the woman who was now sleeping with my boyfriend. I cried endlessly and sourly, and my self-esteem was something woodlice crawled over in the dark.
The day of the dinosaur party, I togged up in a long-sleeved black vest, a black top, a pair of black tights, black leggings over those, thick black socks and high-heeled black boots. With the spine tied around my neck and tapping against my back, I looked more like a goth than a funny nod to a Jurassic-sounding book title. And so, like any good comedian flogging a patchy joke, I quickly whipped up a cardboard sign to hang around my neck: I Am A Thesaurus. That should do it.
We drove from Leeds to Birmingham in my friend Catherine’s little car: me, my best friend Alice and Catherine at the wheel. On the way home from another party the year before, hungover and addled, we had got so hopelessly lost around the ring roads of Birmingham that we’d ended up driving all the way to Manchester, just to get our bearings and escape the Escher drawing that is the West Midlands road network.
Pulling up outside the warehouse, the grit of mud and broken glass and litter beneath our wheels, I could hear the faint thunk of music rumbling through concrete. My heart began to flutter. Here, in an old industrial estate in a strange city, I was cut loose from my past, my ex, my heartbreak, my course, my attempts to make a good fresher impression. Here I was just an idiot in a papier-mache costume ready to dance like everybody was looking.
We rang a buzzer and, eventually, the grey metal door was opened by a man with the word “Oomph” painted across his forehead and a buzz cut. Screaming with joy and excitement and the lash, we tumbled in, up the stairs and into a huge, cavernous space full of art students, locals, bands and folks from back home. There was a boxing ring, made out of lino, egg boxes and bungee ropes. There was a huge cardboard-box rollercoaster, disco lights and giant prehistoric creatures made of bubble wrap and poster paint. There were faux-fur sabre-tooth tigers with picnic-bench legs, volcanoes made from chicken wire and, above it all, the smell of perfume and cigarettes and sticky booze and industrial, Victorian damp.
After an initial recce, Alice and I went to do our shift at the bar – selling cheese toasties for 50p from an old Breville machine and just a single choice of booze. Power Ball, for the uninitiated, is a sophisticated cocktail made from White Lightning and cherryade and it tastes precisely the same going down as it does being vomited back up. We sold it for 20p a glass. A man with a Power Pack – a premixed 2-litre bottle in a rucksack with a length of hose attached – was walking around the party offering gulps for 5p or a cuddle.About four hours in, I spotted Jamie. I remember his name because, at that stage, I was on a run of sleeping with men called James. There had been two already – a James and a Jimmy paving the way for this stranger. He was beautiful. His hair was a halo of dark brown curls, his eyes twinkled, his leather jacket creaked and, if you ignored the baked-bean-can velociraptor hanging above his shoulder, he looked like a lost member of the Strokes. I walked up to him and, with nothing to lose (since my dignity had been thrown down the stairwell of Lupton Flats), told him that he was the most gorgeous man in the room.
“And you’re the most beautiful girl,” he replied.
Shock, pleasure and hunger for the weight of a man against my skin shot through me. Could this person really find me beautiful? Was he kidding? And yet the steady, ravenous look in his eyes was not funny. I kissed him. Barely two sentences had passed between us and suddenly his taste was in my mouth, my hair in his hands, our knees pushing between each other’s thighs.
“Does anyone have a condom?” I hissed, into the pack of women I’d known since puberty. Handbags were ransacked; the score of one of us a source of joy for us all. Someone produced the perforated square of glad tidings, comfort and joy. I grabbed Jamie and headed to the staircase.
As the air hit my face, I realised quite how cold it was under that inky, sparkling, sodium-coloured sky. And how few trees there were. No grass to lie on. No river to slink beside. And yet I wanted this. I wanted it with my mind as well as my body. I wanted it because I had been so convinced that nobody wanted me. I wanted it because he was beautiful and he thought I was beautiful and he smelled hot. So, with mouths steaming like dragons and chests thumping against each other in the cold, we stumbled into a dark corner of a car park, beside another warehouse and became entwined. If there were rats and broken glass and abandoned polystyrene cups, I don’t remember them. If he whispered things in my ear and I moaned things to the sky, I don’t remember them either. I don’t even remember if we lay down on a folded coat or stood up against a fence. All I remember is that brilliant winter night. The cold, the heat, the thrill, the delight.
And a man who probably doesn’t remember my name.