I lead a quiet life these days. It’s just me, my husband, and the dog in a cosy Cotswold cottage. Our social life is so minimal that there are cobwebs on the doorbell. I am so desperate for the company of my grown-up children, that when our youngest comes back from college, I relish the chance to do her laundry and scour cookbooks for vegan dishes with which to tempt her newly principled palate.
But let's wind back a decade or so. I was 40 (ish). We had a big, worn-out house in a small worn-out London suburb. I was worn-out myself, most of the time, having four kids and a stressed-out husband, running on a hamster wheel to keep us all fed while attempting to be a writer. It seems to have gone in a flash — one minute I was singing "The Wheels on the Bus," the next I was listening for their keys in the lock late at night. At the time, though, it dragged like a life sentence with no hope of parole. Date night? For me and my husband it came around about twice a year, when we could afford a babysitter, and we spent it bickering over a cheap Indian meal, or watching a play from so far up in the nosebleeds that it might as well have been a flea circus.
Then something changed. A new couple moved in nearby — Deborah and Tim. They were a bit younger than us and quite a bit groovier. Tim was an A&R man for a record label; Deb was a director for a TV soap. They had three kids and their younger two were, by happy coincidence, the same ages as our younger two and in the same classes at school. We were shy at first — being British and all — would they, er, maybe like to come 'round for something to eat on Friday night? No point shelling out for a babysitter, just bring the kids along for a sleepover. They were in.
I don’t know why I bothered plumping up the cushions or vacuuming the Rice Krispies out of the cracks in the floorboards, because the house got trashed that night. Not by the kids — they flaked out pretty early on. It was the grown-ups. We ate moussaka, drank three bottles of wine, and got on like a house of fire. The guys bonded over their vinyl collections (something of a rarity at the time; most people having replaced them with shiny, new compact discs). My husband put on Oasis, then The Stone Roses, then Pulp. After that, it was all a bit of a Blur (you get it).
While the guys talked limited edition 12-inch singles, Deb and I threw caution to the wind, dancing like nobody was watching (which they weren’t), with the lights off and the music turned up so loud that our sensible neighbours, Keith and Gayle, knocked on the wall at 2 a.m. At that point, we conceded defeat, put on some Leonard Cohen, and Tim rolled a double-skinner with his homegrown hash. We hung out until the light started leaking through the Venetian blinds and the sound of birdsong reminded us that the kids would be up within an hour or two, and someone (please God not me) would have to drop the older two to soccer practice and piano lessons, respectively.
The kids were in their pajamas in front of the TV in a room that looked like a bordello — empty wine glasses, brimming ashtrays, the heady smell of ganja in the air.
My husband, saint that he is, signed up for the job, so when I woke up, with the worst hangover I can ever remember, to find him snoring beside me 10 minutes after departure time, the kids lolling in their pyjamas in front of the TV in a room that looked like a bordello — empty wine glasses, brimming ashtrays, the heady smell of ganja in the air and a record still revolving on the turntable — I was appalled.
So appalled that when Deb and Tim invited us to their place to do it all again the next night, I didn’t hesitate. Seeing that we’d only be a couple doors down, I offered the 14-year-old a fiver to babysit his younger siblings, and we were off. This time we got takeout and a box of wine and took a nostalgia trip back to the '80s. While our kids ran amok at home, we danced like dervishes to The Teardrop Explodes, The Pixies, Depeche Mode. I knew we had consumed too many stimulants when my husband got on the dance floor and started pogo-ing to "Too Drunk to Fuck" by The Dead Kennedys.
They were the best of times, they were the worst of times. There was judgment and there was shame. Keith and Gayle stopped knocking on the wall, but they stopped giving us the spare produce from their CSA, too. Relations with our other neighbours became distinctly chilly. The worthy parents on the playground — the ones who always remembered when it was "come as your favourite book character day," and baked the cakes for the school fairs — exchanged disapproving looks when Deb and I walked into the school looking like zombies. I could imagine what they were saying but I didn’t care.
But then I did care. I cared when I caught our eldest puffing on a makeshift joint that he’d constructed from the carelessly discarded butts scavenged from the ashtray that I’d been too wasted to empty the night before. That was a wake-up call.
We tried passing it off as "Dad’s herbal tobacco" but our son knew better. It’s hard to play the heavy-handed parent to a wayward teen when you’re doing the same things you'd otherwise lecture them about. So we knocked off the weed for a while, but tried to stay loyal to the "every night is party night" philosophy. Then, Tim signed up for a dry-January-like charity driven month without drinking. We called a halt to the partying, to make it easier for him, and somehow after that, it never really got back on track. We remained friends, had the odd dinner party, but somehow, without ever acknowledging it, we all knew that time of exhilarating, no-holds barred hedonism had run its course. I guess we got old.
Looking back, it’s not a period of my life I’m particularly proud of, and it’s probably just as well it was shortlived. But other than making fools of ourselves, I don’t think we did any lasting damage. And when winter comes to the Cotswolds, and my husband builds a fire, turns on The Antiques Roadshow, and settles down with the crossword, I’m almost tempted to get out The Dead Kennedys and give it one last spin.
Felicity Everett is the author of more than 20 fiction and non-fiction books for children. Her debut adult novel, The People at Number 9, goes on sale August 8. It's another story about when being friends with neighbours goes slightly awry.
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