Every few months there’s a news story about a teenage party that gets out of hand. Parents go away, child invites friends on Facebook, party goes viral, house gets trashed. I cringe at the headlines, thankful that I turned 16 at a time when social networking was conducted via MSN Messenger and Nokia 3210s.
It was a joint party, mine and Kirsty’s. She had been the first friend I made at my new school after my parents emigrated from Hackney to a quiet market town in Essex, a more unusual move in 1994 than it is today. Our friendship was based on two extraordinary coincidences: not only did we have the same waxed jacket from Marks and Spencer, although hers was green and mine was navy, we also shared a birthday. As did her dad. Kirsty spent her ninth birthday with a babysitter so her parents could go to a Chris de Burgh concert.
Kirsty and I had in common a love of books and a strong anti-authoritarian streak. I credited myself with helping her reject God: her parents were serious Baptists. We were very close for about a year, then Kirsty started spending more time with the group who acted out Famous Five at breaktime, and I started hanging around with Alice, who once regaled Year Four with details of her dad’s vasectomy.
Alice came from a rich family and lived in a village. All the rich people lived in villages. She had a pony, six bedrooms, three acres and a Renault Espace. I was deeply impressed by the trappings of wealth. In Hackney, my friends had lived in towerblocks and worn hand-me-down shoes. My richest Essex friend, Millie, had six bedrooms, two acres and a Toyota Previa. Charlotte had five bedrooms, one acre and a company BMW with blinds on the windows. Kirsty had three bedrooms and lived on a modern estate near the leisure centre.
By year six, Kirsty and I hated each other. I called her ‘four eyes’; she called me ‘pizza-face’ because of my freckles. We moved onto the same secondary school, where we avoided each other until Year 10 when we got put in the top sets together. By that time I had been friendless for approximately two years, Alice having abandoned me for the much cooler Becky who, like all the popular girls, shaved her forearms. One lunchtime I was trailing behind them, their arms linked together, when Alice turned round and hissed, ‘Leech.’
So I was grateful for my renewed friendship with Kirsty, who was as funny and clever as she’d been seven years before, but without the pudding bowl haircut. We added a couple more girls to our little gang and soon I no longer dreaded school.
The week we decided to have a party was, I realise now, the week of 9/11, or September-the-eleventh as we called it in those days. The events had minimal impact on day-to-day life in north-west Essex.
We planned to invite 40 people. That was the number that had come to my first party, held the year before, for our German exchange students. It had been relatively successful, apart from my exchange partner Luba (a sociopathic 17-year-old who wasn’t in fact German, but Russian) having a septic belly button piercing, and Lars, the German boy I fancied, getting off with slutty Lauren from my Child Development class.
Despite only achieving an E grade in GCSE Child Development (‘What happened?’, asked the history don at my university interview, ‘Did you drop the baby?’), I learnt a great deal in those lessons. This was because I sat on a table with Lauren and her friends, who spent the whole hour talking filth. While I took notes on how to wean a baby, my classmates debated the merits of bloodsports (having sex on one’s period) and why some men’s cum tastes different from others. These were the kind of girls who went ‘dahn the common’ on a Friday night, and went out with older boys with pimped-out cars pumping out D12’s ‘Purple Hills’ at the traffic lights on the high street.
A few days before our 16th birthday party, one of those boys crashed his car and died. His girlfriend, who was in my year, came to the party and was crying in the corner when my dad went up to her and asked what was wrong. ‘Jamie’s gone!’ she said, or something like that, and my dad put his hand on her shoulder and said ‘Don’t worry, there are plenty more fish in the sea,’ which made her cry even harder.
That anecdote, and most of the others from that night, was relayed to me after our party, because by 10 o’clock I was in bed in my Moroccan-themed bedroom, vomiting into a wastepaper basket. My untrained liver couldn’t handle three Bacardi Breezers, a vodka lemonade and half a bottle of wine in such quick succession.
I missed the moment when the girl fell down the stairs and broke her ankle; when someone got angry and started smashing all the terracotta flowerpots; when my friend Ellie got fingered by James R on the playroom sofa in full view of everyone; when someone ripped the hair off my little sister’s rocking horse; when Ricky B in my year got a blowjob from a Year Eight girl in the herbaceous border; when a group of boys set fire to the bins – the incident that caused my dad to send everyone home.
I remember my outfit: a tiny pink knitted vest that exposed my midriff, Levis customised with sequins, lavender sequinned stilettos from Dune. Plenty of kohl with Lancôme Juicy Tube on my lips. I remember stumbling into the kitchen to apologise to my parents, because the 40 people had turned into 90 and there were more on the way, and finding them stony-faced watching Have I Got News for You on high volume.
I remember upping my pull count, begun earlier that year on the return leg of my German exchange, to five. Number four was a very blond and very shy boy, Ian, who I didn’t fancy in the slightest, but who I would end up going to our prom with because neither of us could find anyone else. The fifth – in between vomits – was Bradley, also blond, with goofy teeth. I didn’t fancy him either, but I liked him. We always used to get sat together because our names were next to each other in the register. Bradley wanted to be an actor. In Year Seven he told me he’d shown his dad our class photo and asked him who the fittest girl was. ‘He said you, which I wasn’t expecting, but I suppose you are quite pretty.’ Thanks, I said. ‘Except when you concentrate,’ he added, ‘then you look like a fish.’ From that day on, whenever I caught myself concentrating on something in public, I would snap out of it and rearrange my facial features.
While I privately thought myself rather good looking, I had accepted as early as one becomes aware of that stuff that I was not the kind of girl boys fancied. I was too pale, too mousy, too freakishly flat-chested. In an English lesson when we were 12, the boys had decided to hold a Fit Oscars, giving their female classmates awards for various assets: best tits, best legs, best bum and so on. I got best personality.
Somehow, this didn’t dent my confidence as much as it should have. I spent my teenage years harbouring a secret, in retrospect deluded, ambition to be a model. I pored over Vogue and spent hours trawling model agency websites and taking photographs of myself. I prayed I would grow to 5’7″, the minimum height for models, and used to measure myself every few days, charting my progress – from 5’3” to 5’5 ½” – in pencil on my bedroom wall. My dream was to be spotted, and with this in mind (though I didn’t admit it to her) I convinced Kirsty not long after our party to accompany me to Clothes Show Live at the NEC, which I’d heard was rife with model agents. For some reason none of them noticed me, even though I was wearing my highest heels, tons of kohl and dark red lipstick. Because Kirsty was, unknown to her, associated with my private humiliation, I started to resent her slightly. This was exacerbated by the fact she was three inches taller than me.
I was about to move to a smart sixth form college out of town and knew our friendship wouldn’t be the same. My last happy memory of us is sharing vodka from an Evian bottle in our final maths lesson as people signed our leavers’ shirts. We stayed in touch on and off till we were in our second year of university, but by then we were both in different places: Kirsty had become a born-again, rabidly evangelical Christian, while I was making up for my relatively sedate teenage years by drinking lots of vodka Red Bull and pretending to enjoy going out three nights in a row. She didn’t reply to my last Facebook message in 2006.
I found that leaver’s shirt at the back of my cupboard while I was clearing out some stuff a few weeks ago. As well as some bland messages of encouragement, a few in-jokes from better friends, there are several references to the party (‘Will never forget your amaaazing party, what a night! Em xoxo’; ‘Good luck Anna, hope you have another party soon! Kyle x’). It was, I’m told, a pretty spectacular night, my house and garden the backdrop for the formative sexual experiences of many of my schoolfriends.
We haven’t really talked about it since, but I can’t remember my parents being particularly angry about it at the time. Not as angry as they should’ve been, seeing as we had to get the carpet replaced. ‘There’s a rumour going round,’ someone told me in a science lesson shortly afterwards, ‘that your parents let you have that party because they wanted you to be popular.’ That’s rubbish, I said, but it did make me wonder.
When I go back home, because it will be home until I have my own family, I notice the scratches in the floorboards and the bald rocking horse and feel the same guilt and embarrassment that I felt when I was putting bottles into binbags the day after the party. I still can’t look at the playhouse at the back of the garden without remembering Sarah from Food Tech telling me she gave two boys handjobs there, among the discarded teddy bears.
I am no longer in touch with any of the 120 or so people who came that night, although I’m Facebook friends with quite a few of them. I recognise the names, but not the people. They have houses, cars, children. A lot of them still live in or around the town. Bradley I last saw in a university vacation when I got my hair cut. It was four years since I’d last seen him and he’d changed a lot, but I knew it was him as soon as he greeted me in the salon. For some reason, I chose to say nothing. Did I hope he wouldn’t recognise me? After all, I was a completely different person. More confident, better looking, certainly cooler. We had an awkward chat about cut and colour and when he returned with the dye he said, ‘It is Anna Baddeley, isn’t it?’ And I felt stupid for not saying anything.