It’s the fourth month of quarantine, the final month before freedom, and I’m understandably bored. I’ve cooked every recipe known to man, watched every film on Netflix, and tried and failed to learn every language… or at least it feels that way. Just as I finish doing the washing up (for the umpteenth time) my phone buzzes, and a WhatsApp message flashes on the screen. I dry my hands and scroll through it.
“Dear Billie” the message reads
“You are invited to Ed’s Outlandishly Secret Quarantine BBQ Extravaganza. Saturday night at 8pm.
Extremely private country estate location, drinks, friends and good times.
RSVP for details.”
Well that’s absolutely ridiculous – I think, deciding not to respond.
Ed is a local big shot and eccentric – owns a few bars, has had a few husbands, is the proud resident of “the biggest penthouse in Soho”, and is well known for his camp, extravagant parties. My mind flashes back to a somewhat hazy new years eve, 2016 I think it was, in an aircraft hangar in Oxford. Very over the top and sexy of course – Cirque Du Soleil, live peacocks, pink champagne. Oh and the goody bags for all the guests to takeaway, stuffed full of Jo Malone candles, Liberty print scarves, and salted caramel truffles. Ed is the last of the great eccentrics, and that was a party! I sigh to myself and open the fridge. Ah, a chicken salad for dinner. Again. The days roll on, each as uneventful as the last: wake up, work out in the garden, breakfast, washing up, television, out for a run, lunch, television, book or magazine, dinner, washing up, chocolate, sleep, repeat. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s not particularly pleasant either. By Saturday morning I catch myself talking to my salad, and start questioning my sanity. I thumb through my WhatsApp conversations and pause at “Ed”, where his previous message remains, unanswered. I take a deep breath and reply –
“Hi Eddy, was wondering if there was any room for latecomers tonight?” and press send.
Two minutes later I have a response
“Darling of course! Shall send a car at 7pm. Ciaociao for now!”
At approximately 5pm I head upstairs and survey my wardrobe. I fling the doors open to reveal a neglected treasure trove of designer shoes, denim, slinky cocktail dresses and skinny fit jeans. God, I’ve been in leggings and t shirts for so long, I’ve almost forgotten how to dress! Hmm… what to pick, what to pick? It’ll be a warm night so I need something chic, summery, and fashionable. I decide on an unworn pair of creamy white pure silk dungarees (I bought these back when I thought we were getting out in spring), with a sparkly silver pair of strappy Jimmy Choo sandals with a six inch heel. I accessorise in silver and white: white feather earrings, a little Van Cleef necklace, silver bracelets stacked on my arm and shining brilliantly against my skin, a little pearl anklet, and slide some dainty silver rings over my French manicure. The dungarees hang low at the size, allowing a little peek of the side of my bust. I don’t want to ruin that effect or the drape, so decide on no bra or underwear, and spend the best part of an hour fashioning my hair into the biggest and most buoyant of curls. It’s a good skin day so I won’t wear makeup, just a slick of red lipstick and nothing else. I spritz myself with a Dior fragrance, open a drawer and choose a simple Bottega clutch bag. I check myself out in the mirror. Okay, this look is perfect, 70’s diva meets Rihanna meets Billie Style.
At 7:02, I hear a the loud beep of a car horn and run outside.
The street outside is quiet and empty, save for a double decker London bus, parked conspicuously outside, with it’s destination set to NOT IN SERVICE. I pause, looking for my ride. The bus beeps again and cautiously I approach.
“Billie?” the driver calls from the window, in an audible whisper
“This is your ride!”
I grin to myself, and step on board, this is all very “Ed”.
Other than the tinted windows, from the outside, our ride is completely indistinguishable from a normal London bus. But stepping on, I enter another world. Downstairs, the guests congregate around a cocktail bar at the back. My eyes are assaulted by an overwhelming assortment of mirror balls, taxidermy, Andy Warhol prints, velvet cushions, gold leaf, and clusters of pink roses hanging from the ceiling. I look around to see if there’s anyone I know. There isn’t, so I squeeze through the crowd, and make my way upstairs. The stairs are carpeted in a garish Zebra print, the hand rail replaced by a solid marble banister, carved to look like one, long, almightly snake. I reach the top, which is a more subdued and sexy place – tiny, dim, 1920’s lamps sit atop beautiful rosewood tables. Old atlases, binoculars, and antler horns are placed at strategic intervals, the ceiling is patchwork of leather and suede stars, the lighting is exceptionally dark, but punctuated by stacks of candles burning in every corner – dripping wax onto the Persian rugs that deck the floors.
Health and Safety would have a field day.
It’s art deco, meets the study of a famed explorer, meets Soho House. I walk through smiling and nodding at strangers, anxiously and gracefully accepting their compliments, until I finally see a face I recognise.
“Anna!” I call. But she can’t hear me.
I make my way to the back bar, and catch her eye.
“Billie babe! Oh my god you look amazing!” I grin, we air kiss, and are soon deep in conversation.
After what feels like an age, the bus begins to slow down. I hear the people downstairs cheering and stamping their feet. Anna and I carefully pick our way back downstairs in our sparkly heels, and step off the bus.
At what looks like the entrance of a grand a derelict house, are at least thirty golf buggies, decorated to look like dragons, the drivers clad in aviator jackets, leather trapper hats, shearling gloves, and flying goggles. The whole thing is decadent, gauche, and absurd. Anna and I jump into the back of one of the dragon-buggies. For her it’s an uncomfortable fit- she is extremely tall – a former model-come-high-jumper-extraordinaire. The buggies take a winding route and begin to slow at a second set of gates. Just as we are slowing, an powerful beam of light swings from above through the ground, illuminating our party, through the dark night. Seconds later, the chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga of what is unmistakably a helicopter. I look upwards to the source of the light and the noise.
It’s every man (or woman) for themselves. We scatter in our hundreds, glitzy shoes, champagne glasses, and fur scarves being thrown off in wild abandon, saxophones and trumpets scattered across the grass by what I assume to be the fleeing band, everyone trying to make their way over the half-acre of grass, to another gate, that separates the estate from the forest. There is no way the helicopter can see through the dense cover of the forest. You just have to make it there. Running, my heels sinking into the grass, I look around for Anna. She is at least 200 meters ahead already. A man in a paisley suit, runs into me in the darkness, and I fall, silk dungarees, skidding through the mud. “Sorry!” he calls over his shoulder, not stopping to help. Finally, I meet the gate, I am one of the last to do so (blame Jimmy Choo). As I begin climbing, I hear the relentless bark of police dogs, and the flashing of powerful torches. Panic stricken, I desperately try and make it over. With one hand on my clutch bag and the other holding me up, to my horror I feel one shoe beginning to slip off. I do the calculation in my head:
If I let the bag and the heel fall I have a 90% chance of getting over the gate. If I let my heel fall, but save my bag I probably have a 70% chance of getting over. If I let the bag fall, but try to save my heel, a prized limited edition of 1, gifted to me by a dearest friend, I have probably a 50% chance of getting over. Foolishly but perhaps predictably, I make a split second and somewhat stupid decision to save my heel. I let my bag drop to the ground, and attempt, one handed, to secure my heel back on to my foot. Just as I’m nearly there, the first of the police dogs, a German Shepherd, reaches me and begins trying to jump up at me. I let out a terrified scream as he bounds upwards, the muddy trouser leg of my silk dungarees firmly gripped in his mouth, the dog pulling on it incessantly and viciously.
Soon after, the clasps over my shoulder give way, and my dungarees are ripped off me, downwards, by the police dog, bunching at my ankles. I shake off both heels to escape the dungarees, and, fully nude, make a final attempt to climb over the top of the gate. I look over my shoulder, just as a policeman flashes his light in my direction. It startles me, I lose my footing and fall to the floor below, onto the heap of my clothes, bag, and shoes, and am suddenly surrounded with barking police dogs.
The officer widens the beam of his flashlight, and I stand, self-consciously, stark naked and barefoot, with my back pressed against the gate.
He silences the dogs and I see him reaching for his handcuffs as he slowly approached me.
“Well well well…” He says, surveying my body with the flashlight, “What do we have here? Put your hands on your head and turn around.”
To be continued…