“R-r-r-r-ight,” the sweaty lady imitates a budget 80s quizmaster, deliberately or otherwise, “that’s time, on to your next table!” With a ring of her bell, an array of women rise and tiptoe around the circle.
I try my best to be a swan; I suck in my stomach and, putting one foot directly in front of the other, I sashay across the sticky floor. In front of me is a large woman in a zebra print mini-skirt made for someone half her height and weight. Her ankle fat bulges between the straps of her gladiator-style, neon-yellow heels as she totters to the next table. The imprint of her bottom left behind on the squishy, faux-leather chair engulfs me, throwing off any attempt to appear dignified. The Oompa Loompa now sat at my previous table taps her foot-long, pink fingernails on her empty glass and a waitress I haven’t seen before scuttles over to replace it. She peeks over at my raised, empty glass and hurries back to the bar.
A man with a dozen strands of hair stretched and gelled across his shiny bald head looks me up and down and grins.
“Hi there, I’m Mark.” I take his outstretched hand and immediately regret my decision. I peel my fingers away from his.
“Clara. Nice to meet you.”
“Where are you from?”
“Birmingham, originally, but I live in Arnold now, you?”
“Nottingham born and bred.”
Mr Comb-Over scratches his head and dislodges a clump of carefully glued hair.
“So, what does a pretty lady like you do for fun?”
“Well, mostly I sing.”
“I wish! In the shower mainly, sometimes in the choir.”
“What do you do for a job?”
“I’m a Year 3 teacher.”
“I bet all the kids have a crush on you.”
“Do you have a day off tomorrow then?”
“A day off?”
Mr Comb-over raises his arm to signal for a waitress revealing a very large sweat patch.
“What do you do?” I ask.
“Nothing interesting I assure you!”
Mr Comb-Over’s shirt has a big yellow stain spread underneath his breast, which he tries to hide by stretching an arm across his middle.
“Would you like another, Clara?” A waitress hovers above me balancing a tray full of cocktails.
“That’d be great, thanks, Tiff.” I release my grip on the sweating glass and swap it for another brimming with a dark orange liquid. I take it and throw it at Mr Comb-Over, the liquid spreading across his shirt and dripping on to the floor, masking his yellow breast-stain.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” he asks.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Mr Comb-Over stares as I lift my still-full glass to my lips. The yellow stain remains, alone, stretched across his torso. He nods a thousand times as I outline my perfectly crafted five-year plan complete with a darling little family made up of my supermodel husband and our four beautiful children living in a cottage in the country. He scratches his nose, whilst stifling a cough, sneeze or yawn.
“But a beautiful woman like you, why are you here?”
Another thousand head nods and the bell trills again.
I strut like Tyra Banks to the next table and take a seat on the hard, wooden stool, knowing the imprint of my bum on that faux-leather chair would soon be engulfing the Oompa Loompa.
The man in front of me is balancing a drink on his protruding stomach. The buttons of his shirt are putting up one hell of a fight to keep from ripping open and revealing his large, hairy belly. I fight to keep the liquid bubbling up in my throat from spilling out into my lap.
“Four Disaronno on the rocks, waitress,” the man orders with a wave of his hand.
“I’ll just have another Sex on the Beach, please.”
“Disaronno really is in another class to that sugary crap.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I’d rather not.”
“You look like you need it.”
“My ex liked it. I’m sure you will. too.” He gestures again to the waitress.
Yet again, I loosen my tight grip to swap glasses with the waitress and notice the fingernail grooves indented into my palm. I take a deep breath and stretch my hand towards him.
Mr Disaronno scoops up my hand, yanks it towards his face and leaves his slobber behind on my skin. My body tenses as I resist the urge to gag and wipe his drool across his smug face.
The Disaronno coats my mouth in a thick layer of marzipan, weighing down my tongue and oozing down my throat.
“So, tell me, Clara”, he over pronounces the first syllable, “what do you look for in a man?”
My words fight a losing battle against the wallpaper paste that’s filled my mouth.
“I wike a mun –”
Mr Disaronno looks at me like I’ve got dog poo on my face.
“A mun who’s kwind, fwunny – oh fwuck it, I want a mun who won’t fucking up and leave me.”
Mr Disaronno’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes. I stare at him, gulp the rest of the marzipan paste down my throat and offer a similar smile.
“I don’t think this is – um – shall we – ” he stammers.
We sit in silence with our Disaronno’s until the sweaty lady rings her bell.
On the catwalk that is the seat exchange I attempt another Tyra Banks sashay, knowing that with each strut I’m getting closer to the start of my modelling career. I only need to dye a few strands of hair back to brown and I’ll look 25 again, easy.
Something sharp hits against the skin left exposed by my stilettos. On the floor lie large chunks of broken glass. Tiny fragments stretch out further in front of me. I look at my empty hand and process the clamour of smashed glass that had filled the room just a second ago.
“Oops!” I let out a giggle. A waitress rushes in with a dustpan and brush.
“Oh, don’t worry Madam, happens all the time!”
I move forward and perch on a leather stool opposite a man who looks like everyone and no one at once. His black quiff falls into his eyes, drawing attention to his bright blue irises. His dark blue shirt bulges around his biceps, and enough buttons are left undone to give just a hint of his hairy chest. His large hands caress the lip of his glass, as his eyes dance across my face. I lean forward and my outstretched hand is met by Prince Charming’s warm, strong grasp.
“Hello, I’m David.”
“Hi Clara, it’s nice to meet you.” His smile reaches his eyes, and I can feel my insides melting.
“You are gorgeous!” I spurt out.
“Sorry, was that too forward?” There is a moment of silence before we burst into a fit of laughter. After a minute, he speaks again.
“So, Clara, what do you do for a living?”
“I am a very, very responsible teacher of children.”
“How lovely for them.”
“It is lovely, most of the time, but they have been getting on my nerves recently!”
“You see, Mark –”
“Yes, that’s what I said. You see – sorry could you stop swaying, please?”
“I’m not swaying.”
“Just could you sit still, I –”
“I’m really not moving.”
“Anyway, these kids, sometimes they are just so annoying! Do you know how many snotty noses I have to wipe on a daily basis? Clue: too many! I always tell them “I’ve got a headache can you please be quiet?” and they go on yap-yap-yapping.”
“I didn’t used to be like that, you know.”
“I’m serious, I used to be so much fun! I used to be so much fucking fun!”
His piercing blue eyes drill into mine.
“2 years ago you wouldn’t have caught me dead at a thing like this. I mean, not that there aren’t some absolute hunks here,” I take his hand and pull him close. “But, I mean, look around,” I whisper, “only losers come to these things. Look at that fucking Oompa Loompa back there! Mr Disaronno wouldn’t even talk to me yet he’s all over her! I’m a fucking catch, he doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
The Oompa Loompa and her leach glare at me and I match their stare. “Even they know I’m too good for this place!” I let go of Prince Charming’s hand and throw back my drink but there’s nothing left.
“Waitress, over here! Another please!” I shake my upside-down drink at her.
The new waitress scuttles over.
“Why do you scuttle everywhere, honey? Have some confidence! Another Sex on the Beach and something for my friend Mark, please!”
“Yes, David, that’s what I said.”
“Sorry, Madam. I’ve been told not to serve you anymore.”
“Tiffany told me not to give you any more drinks.”
“Tiff!” I call out.
Tiffany’s head pops up from behind the bar. The new waitress takes a step back.
“Oh, don’t worry, honey! I’ve known Tiffany for ages. It’s just a misunderstanding.”
“Yes, Clara?” Tiffany walks over to our table.
“Sorry, Tiff, I don’t know this new waitress and she seems to think I’ve been cut off! I just want another Sex on the Beach, please.”
“When will this fucking bell ring?” Prince Charming murmurs.
“One second, this will all be sorted in just a second!”
“I’m sorry, Clara, but you’ve had enough, I really can’t serve you anymore. It’s time to go home, I’ll call you a taxi.”
“But Tiff, there are still more men left!”
“I know Clara, maybe next time you’ll get to the end.”
“Why do you always fucking do this to me? I thought you were my friend?”
Tiff takes my elbow and steers me off the stool.
“It’s okay, we were going anyway, weren’t we, Mark?”
He doesn’t even look at me.
“Come on, I need you to come home with me.”
“Just go to bed, Clara. You’ve got some children to teach in the morning.” He stares off at the sweaty lady with the bell. The Oompa Loompa and Zebra lady are staring at me like I’m an animal in a zoo.
“Sorry everyone, I’m just not feeling well!”
Tiffany jumps to help me, but my legs are already wrapped around the stool. First, I feel the slam of wood against my head. Then I feel the sticky floor against my face and arms. I try to pull my head up, but it’s too heavy, and the floor’s too sticky, and I’d rather just melt into the ground.