300 clowns, 13 eight-year olds
2 June 2003
Ce-leb-rate good times, c'-mon! The big thing in Damien's class is to have a football party at the YMCA. A local leisure centre with a mission, the YMCA puts on training, five-a-side mini-matches, chicken nuggets, chips, coke and vanilla ice cream. Everything else - cake, balloons, party bags - has to be provided by the birthday boy's parents. Saturday morning found my mother and me in the dining room of her house, she pushing Subbuteo goals down into icing, I sorting bouncing ball, balloon, party blower and themes plastic bags x 13.
Small, bashful faces started arriving about fifteen minutes after we did. Shedding presents and coats they transformed forthwith into rampaging minimonsters. The three girls - Molly, Katie and Hannah - sat chatting at one of the tables as if nursing caffe lattes in a Hertfordshire cafe-bar. These are Damien's bitches: Katie was his first girlfriend; Molly is the current one; Hannah is the one he's in love with. Distressingly for Damien, Hannah is the only one of the three who doesn't love him. Katie is plain; Molly is a bit of an old slapper; Hannah is a stunning brunette. When you're eight, it seems, you can be in this situation and still talk to each other.
As expected, the lads all turn up in England or ManU strips - except for Tim, that is. Nick and Tim are identical twins. You can tell them apart by their glasses: Nick's are black, Tim's gold - or is it the other way round? Nick arrives in 2002 England training kit, Tim in the orange of Blackpool FC, favourite team of notorious estate agent and sex pest Owen Oyston (not libellous given that he was sent down for it). Nick is fairly good at sport, Tim not so. At Damien's 6th birthday at the Wacky Warehouse, Tim threw a bowling ball out of the window (he missed the alley). Malcoordination and the suffering of supporting a duff football team appear to go hand in hand. It seems a high price to pay.
While the kids went off to play football I stayed in the bar drinking lager subsidized by Christians. When they returned to the foyer there had been a bit of a to-do with Oliver. Oliver used to be Damien's best friend. Alex K is Damien's new best friend. When Alex K tackled Oliver, Oliver went and sat at the side of the hall saying that he had hurt his leg. Sulking, more like.
I like Oliver: he's smart and funny and has the tendency for being a little bit dangerous. In the past he used to hit Damien when he didn't give him enough attention. One of my fondest memories is of Damien and Oliver in the back of Mum's car, singing along to Busted's "Year 3000" and shouting that their "willies were up". He seemed to cheer up in time for his chicken nuggets. In fact, he cheered up enough to be able to do chimpanzee impressions behind my back. I floored him by kneeing him in the nuts.
It is often said of children's parties that there is always one who has to go and ruin things for everybody else. At Damien's there were two. Damien tells me that Bradley has already had four full detentions: he looks like a thug. Alistair looks like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth - gappy and freckly. Suddenly I found myself cornered by two boys brandishing teaspoons loaded with ice-cream. I didn't know what to do: I certainly didn't feel that I had the green light to manhandle and disarm them. I told them very firmly to leave off. Bradley did; Alistair didn't. While Bradley was happily distracted running round and round the table, Alistair flicked his spoon: vanilla ice- cream flew past my left ear, hitting home on the dance studio mirrors on the far wall. Bradley I could have excused: as my mother keeps pointing out, he comes from a disadvantaged background. Alistair, on the other hand, is posh - and pure malice.
Damien's friends really are small grown-ups. That's not a trite and sanctimonious prescription on how we should treat them with the same respect we would accord an adult, etc. Rather, what struck me was the extent to which their personalities are already fixed. They all have their distinct roles in their community, and predictions at this stage about their future will probably hold. Damien says he will be a footballer: I say he will be an accountant; Oliver will either be an actor or a mental patient; Bradley will be in prison; Hannah will be a model; Tim will be a frustrated Blackpool supporter; Molly will be a slapper; Katie will be a doormat; Alistair will be a cunt.