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.