A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

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It is 6pm on a warm, late Summer’s evening and I am in a people carrier with four of my friends heading into East London. Food and alcohol circulate the back of the car and there is a lot of giggling brought on by a mixture of excitement and nerves. It feels like we’re on a first school trip, of doing something risky as no one quite knows what we’ve signed up for.

Finding a parking space is a challenge. It means we have to make the rest of the way on foot. While this isn’t quite on the level of Cersei’s walk of shame in Game of Thrones, it is awkward because it is broad daylight and we are all in our nightwear.

We exit the car and a woman wearing a burka with a small child on her hip, watches us from a first floor window. The child appears transfixed as we glide past in a swirl of black and cream silk negligees with bold floral prints and a fair bit of lace. I smile at her to demonstrate we are not from another planet.

As we navigate our way through the heart of London’s multicultural East End, Asian and Bangladeshi men in full length robes stop to give us curious glances. I feel horribly exposed. One of us, wearing a babydoll and holding a teddy bear, is pretending to be pregnant. Another is in full dominatrix get-up and brandishing a whip (no, honestly, don’t ask).

Our destination is an elegant Queen Anne house, its windows screened with crimson blinds. Standing in the open doorway, is a slight man greeting the queuing guests. First impressions of our host could not be less reassuring. He is whippet-thin and despite the humid air, dressed in a heavy black Chinese gown that stops shy of his bony ankles. An enormous, donut-shaped hat dwarfs his pale, impish features.

He chats to each waiting guest as he would an old friend, his voice high and aristocratic. The teddy bear and the whip draw his attention and a light hearted debate about whether the bear infringes the rules ensues. Then he bends his head for the whispered password that buys entry into the house and in we go.

The house, like its owner, is the stuff of fantasy. Imagine stepping on to a Tim Burton set or inside a Victorian Gothic painting and you get the idea. A large figure of Christ wearing red slippers and a top hat, hangs from the ceiling just inside the dark, narrow hallway, a large pompom dangling incongruously from one hand.

We are asked to take off our shoes and offered a choice of slippers by the nightwear police; a trio of pretty young women who hover a little awkwardly. This turns out to be a non negotiable house rule and unfortunate for my dominatrix-clad friend as removing her long boots rather spoils the effect of her outfit.

Those who have rushed straight from work, head to the top floor bedroom to change into the compulsory nighttime attire. We follow, more out of nosiness than necessity, but also to get the measure of our fellow guests. An evening of fairytales for grown-ups sends the imagination into overdrive, so its a relief to discover that everyone else is as normal as us.

We crowd into an over-heated basement kitchen where vodka cocktails in china cups do the rounds. Despite his eccentric Oriental attire, our host has a bit of the Fred Astaire about him. With his bony, nervous energy and clipped decibels, it is easy to imagine him dancing around in top hat and tails. He is a practised flirt; we’ve barely got past hello before he suggests taking me out for supper.

Once the vodka has taken hold, we float back upstairs where our storyteller awaits. The room, which takes up the entire ground floor, is dimly-lit and resembles a Chinese opium den, its muted corners both exotic and with a touch of the macabre. I am one of the lucky ones to find a seat on a black fluffy sofa, but most end up having to sit on the floor.

It is incredibly warm and the close proximity to so many other bodies makes it more so. In the reflection of a large gilt mirror, my newly washed hair has the wilted look of a plant that longs for water. My eye travels along the surfaces, registering three wooden hands cut off mid-arm and standing erect like the arms of eager children in a classroom. In a corner, a white dog strikes a haughty pose in a jaunty tiara, its elegant neck encrusted with jewels. Elsewhere, a red bodice poses as a lamp shade. It’s all a bit bonkers but the perfect setting for make-believe.

Our story teller recounts Little Red Riding Hood. This she does not once but seven times, each version originating from a different country and with increasing menace. I am a child again on my mother’s knee, captivated by both the comic and gory details, conjuring  memories of my fear of being devoured by an animal’s jaws.

During the break, we cluster in a little courtyard garden where people smoke and chat and cool off. Not for the first time, I thank God for my light attire. More vodka cocktails and a further explore of the house which is littered with hats from various decades; it turns out our host is obsessed with them – then we’re back to the storytelling.

My  spot on the sofa has been taken, so I join a friend at the other end of the room. The bench is hard and unyielding and like many things in the house, there for affect rather than comfort, but it is better than being sandwiched on the floor. I lean against a window that I long to open. It is so incredibly hot. I’d be cooler in Malaysia. How can our host bear to wear those long, heavy robes? Then I forget the heat for a bit, as a man with black hair and a guitar replaces our storyteller. He has a good voice, deep and gravelly, his bedroom lyrics making me blush.

Our host, who made himself scarce for the stories, reappears for the raffle which is to be the evening’s finale. As I watch him nominate one of my friends to the slightly humiliating task of kneeling before him and taking tickets from what he refers to as his muff bag, I decide in that moment he is more Fagin than Astaire. Maybe it’s the nervous energy, the slightly self-congratulatory manner he has about him, but there is a false note to his clipped upperclass tones that makes me wary. Scratch the surface, I think, and I’m not sure I’d like what I’d find.

There are no rules to the raffle. Our host makes it up as he goes along. Two friends are grievously over-looked for the best outfit prize as they are streets ahead of everyone else in style. Most entertaining guest – a rather mousy woman hiding behind the door and who I haven’t heard a squeak from all evening – gets a bottle of house vodka. Then comes the final prize for most flirtatious guest. Heavy with irony, no doubt, and to the delight of my friends, I am its recipient and presented with an enormous, pink as you please, papier-maché stag.

The storm that has threatened all evening, finally breaks and we drive home accompanied by spectacular lightening and rain. The stag takes up the whole of the boot, its crimson nose squashed against the back window screen as though longing to be returned from whence it came. It has been a memorable evening, one to dazzle and impress. And yet…

Later, along with the grandiose hats, the pompoms and feathers, glittering baths with lions mouths for taps, I will dream of a tiny severed plaster hand on a dressing table, the electrified hair of a black Medusa bust surrounded by bottles of spirits, of a lone wolf in a top hat prowling the streets for flesh. But right now, my friends still giggling around me, I lean back in my car seat and take deep, grateful breaths of the night’s fresh air.

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All of a Flutter

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I am tackling bills at my kitchen table, a regrettable and tedious task which I have been putting off, so when a friend suggests popping over, I quickly agree. Having spent the best part of two hours trying to sort out what I had assumed was a simple matter with British Telecom, I am quickly losing the will to live.

My friend fills the house with his indefatigable energy. Tea in hand, we chat about our respective children, how work is going. He recounts a recent Bear Grylls-like adventure – a common occurrence in his life. Often reckless, they involve throwing himself out of helicopters to ski lethal black runs, or flying to the continent in a microlight. I say microlight but that conjures up an image of an actual aircraft. Having once foolishly agreed to go up in one with him, a more accurate description would be of a lawn mower with wings. This is a man with more lives than Henry the Eight had wives. I don’t count myself so fortunate.

We’ve been talking for about an hour, when a distant tapping sound presents itself. I’d heard it earlier while deep in bills but paid it no head. This time I tune into the sound, trying to work out where it’s coming from.

I peer up at the glass atrium. Perhaps it has started raining? It’s been threatening to all morning. But no, the glass is dry. I soon convince myself that the sound is coming from inside. At this point, my friend joins in the investigation, placing his ear near to the fridge but almost on cue the sound stops. We stand still for a moment listening to silence then get bored of the task and resume chatting. I make more tea, unearth a half eaten cake which has somehow escaped the predatory eyes of teenagers, and have just divided up the remains, when the tapping returns.

‘Listen. Can you hear that?’ I ask, squinting up at the lights: an electrical issue perhaps.

‘It’s definitely coming from this end of the room.

Tantalisingly, the sound comes and goes. We stop talking so we are ready for it and sure enough it starts again. It’s like the noise an I-Pad keyboard makes, a mid tone, rat a tat tat sort of a sound. We are mystified.

Finally, after much investigating, we narrow our search to the cupboard next to the Aga.

‘D’you think something’s in there?’ I ask, tentatively. My friend bends down to open the cupboard door, then almost immediately shuts it again.

‘What?’ I ask, alarmed by the speed in which he does this. He looks suddenly pale. ‘What’s in there?’

‘A bird,’ he says faintly.

I wait for him to add details but from the look on his appalled face, he doesn’t need to.

‘How the hell did it get inside there?’

I am both bemused and unsettled. There is a vent that leads from the Aga to the outside wall via the cupboard but even an insect would struggle to find its way inside it.

And then there is this discovery – life is full of surprises – that my Bear Grylls, outdoor adventuring friend, is about as keen on birds as Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s infamous thriller. He admits as much and though he tries to disguise it, now wears the look of a condemned man.

A plan is formulated. First, we open all the windows as wide as they will go, then prop open both doors. I don’t mind birds – except for the crows that occasionally set up shop outside my bedroom window and drive me to distraction with their incessant cawing – but my friend’s alarm is contagious. As I run upstairs in search of a sheet, my imagination goes into over-drive. I picture one of those Game of Thrones ravens released from its confinement. In my fantasy, it takes on the size of an eagle, flying around my kitchen in a state of panic, blindly banging into walls, pecking at my head with its massive beak and spraying excrement onto all the work surfaces. Make a massive mental note to remove everything in sight before we liberate the beast.

I return to the kitchen brandishing the longest sheet I can find and a towel to mop up with but which I am tempted to tie around my head as protection (memories of a holiday in France when a bat got caught up in my sister’s hair, looms large). As instructed, I hold the sheet wide like a screen. The hope is that this will encourage the bird towards the window.

For a moment we wait in great suspense. Then my friend says,

‘Ready?’ Taking one for the team, his hand hovers nervously over the cupboard handle.

‘Ready,’ I say in a voice that lacks conviction, watching with one eye shut.

He makes two attempts to pull free the door before, suddenly, it is open. Immediately, something darts out through the open window. When it is clear that nothing else is going to follow, we move to the window and look outside. Three feet away, a robin is perched on a low hanging branch, a tiny red blush against a green backdrop. It looks frail but untroubled by its recent confinement. Like a chorister settling into a church pew, it opens its mouth and sings as if announcing its arrival to the world. You have got to be kidding, I think. I turn to my friend who gives me a very sheepish look.

Neither of us say a word.