On New Year's Eve half a decade ago, sometime around 8pm, I was hovering outside the trusty Sainsbo's Local in the chilly drizzle. I'd rushed over from the station after my train got in to make an important purchase. That night the turbulent mess of a year that was 2018 was to officially end, and my casual dating situation with This Alright Guy was about to reach the next level. It was an exciting time - but unfortunately meant that I had to spend the start of the night shivering under the orange glow of the supermarket sign outside the Great Hall (I have to say, shockingly small, for a great hall), frantically picking at the filmy plastic wrapping on my brand-new box of Durex Thin Feel, my back turned from the lairy characters at the bus stop, who were all drinking from cans and shouting at passers-by. I'd worn the nicest dress I owned at the time - a long-sleeved navy blue lace number from Topshop, that I'd had since I was a teenager. It was straining slightly over my stomach, and the sparkly tights underneath were sagging in the crotch region already. I gave up on the plastic picking eventually and shoved the box into my handbag, making a mental note to transfer it to my overnight tote when Alright Guy took me to his place to drop things off and freshen up.
We check into the hotel at 5:30pm, the little old one with the retro glass conservatory out front. I've never stayed here before, but I used to park along the residential road adjacent to it when I worked in the shopping centre, so I feel a subtle familiarity when we're getting out of the car and walking through the car park puddles to the main entrance. The cheery lady at reception tells us we've been upgraded to a bigger room on the second floor, and after we lug our bags up the stairs I'm delighted to see it's got a separate little living room and boasts a view over the front of the hotel and across to the tall old townhouses and pretty streets beyond.
'I feel fancy,' I say, throwing my bag and fluffy coat onto the bed before getting to work unloading my toiletries and makeup in the bathroom. Partner gets in there ahead of me and calls out to inform me that we have his & hers sinks! How delightful.
Then I realise something, amid all the excitement, and sigh. 'Honey... by any chance did you bring condoms?'
I was intimidated by how attractive Alright Guy's friends were. All the women were petite, and oh so slim; they all had the same long, dark brown hair that fell casually yet elegantly over their shoulders and blended perfectly into their skintight black roll-neck jumpers or crushed velvet crop tops. Each of the men, meanwhile, were the epitome of alternative. Think flannel shirts paired with old jeans, Levi's labels worn and tattered - or faded t-shirts emblazoned with bands they're sure I haven't heard of, tucked into chinos. CHINOS. I knew there were a few couples dotted around, but it was honestly hard to tell who was whose. Everyone was lazily leaning on each other, sprawled on the floor reaching for each other's wine glasses on the coffee table, or tucked up together on the sofas, whispering. The vibe was... hipster commune. If you know, you know. I definitely knew - these people have grown up in a world of privilege, and are pretending to push back, F*** you mum and dad, but really they're still sitting pretty and can call in a favour whenever they want.
These too-cool characters kindly acknowledged me when I came in, and asked a couple of questions, while AG looked on, beaming, clutching a cup of gin much like the one he fetched me from the kitchen, downstairs. The kitchen is downstairs! The bedrooms open up onto the living room! What quirky casual chaos is this? So edgy. I drank my gin, arranged myself awkwardly on the sofa beside the boujie rebels, and kept quiet until we finally left for the Forum.
We tell the kind young person serving us (they're all young in this hotel, and we assume very recent hires, as nobody seems to know what's where) to please put the bill on our room, and head back upstairs to put on the finishing touches (in my case, anyway) before meeting our mates at the pub. I nip to the loo in the restaurant, peering into the function room on my way, as eighties classics blast and party guests roar with drunken delight - I briefly worry they're peaking too early, but maybe that's what they'd planned? Could be a nice end to the year, snuggling into bed at 9pm and efficiently sleeping the hangovers off. I step into the poky bathroom and am immediately met with the sweet serving person, in a bright red bra, stretching their black work shirt under the hand dryer. 'Sorry,' they say. 'I was taking a tray of eight pints upstairs to the party - some kid knocked me over.'
'Bloody kids,' I reply, rolling my eyes. We laugh. 'Sorry you have to deal with things like that. I remember working in hospitality -' I stop myself from saying when I was your age '- all sorts of shit happens.'
Later - too much later - we power walk to the pub in our party gear. I'm pretty chuffed with my entirely secondhand outfit, it's bordering on chic but not too flashy (clingy, long and low-cut lilac dress with a good level of shimmer, offset by a black denim jacket with moons and stars detail, navy blue suede shoes I've had for years and always work - unless it's raining) with a little hint of quirk (enormous, iridescent earrings shaped like fat crescent moons, a coffee cup-shaped pendant on a chain, carved from black obsidian... am I a witch now?). Our friends are sitting right by the door on a reserved table - according to the little whiteboard, we have until 9pm to get a round in and then scurry. My dear friend and I realise our dresses are almost the same, but hers is black and more soft, less shiny - and obscured by a very cosy-looking jumper. Before long we've got the drinks in and are laughing about the last time we got tipsy together, ranting about our jobs, and sharing our wholesome hopes for 2024.
It was hot and sweaty in the club... wait, it's not really a club now, is it? It's a music venue - and would you believe, fun fact, formerly a grand public toilet! Well, that night it had its club disguise on. Only the finest hip-hop and funk playing, disco balls galore, everyone packed in and revelling - I was actually starting to enjoy myself. I could look past the pretty petites swaying casually, sipping their vodka, lemon and limes through striped plastic straws and no doubt judging me for being much more into this than they were, while most of the alt-guys were bobbing their heads and voicing their approvals of this revolutionary track - did I know when it came out? they did, of course. I say most of the guys, because the one who was, that night, arguably my guy was throwing some serious shapes all over the dancefloor; bouncing around without a care. It was a complete surprise, joyous to watch, and reassured me that he wasn't quite like his peers - he could have fun. He didn't take himself painfully seriously. Thank goodness for that. Suddenly I was excited to kiss him at midnight, totter home together and leave his pals behind, and stay over in that little attic room. Unapologetic shape-throwing was, it seemed, the key to my heart.
I remember, as it's happening, how much I enjoy the small shared moment after the countdown; when we all stop yelling and quietly turn to whoever we're with, high on the sparkles and sound of fireworks, to bring our smiles together.
In this moment I'm kissing my partner of almost two years and all is well, but then suddenly I'm overcome with emotion and start sobbing into his jacket. It's all got a bit much. The number 2024 is rolling around in my mind; ebbing, flowing and growing until it takes up so much space in there I can't contain it. Where did it come from? Are these happy feelings? I think so. I'm happy that I've made it this far. I need to cry about that, though.
When I recover, we share more kisses with our friends, then all of us collectively realise we're freezing cold and the beer jackets we'd formed are getting soggy in the drizzle. We make our way back through the oh-so-charming old Pantiles and towards the train station, where our pals peel off and are soon lost in the steady stream of white Priuses filling up the taxi rank. Partner and I climb up to Mount Ephraim - how is it pronounced? ee-fraym? ephrom? - via the trusty kebabby packed with drunk youths filming each other on their phones - I put my hand over a camera that angles itself at me, because I still look great despite the tears and the booze but I'm definitely not starring in your social media roasts. We finish our chips as we walk, and carry on past the hotel to get to the Waitrose service station - only in T Wells. While he buys the essential shiny blue box, I find a rogue vegan BLT alone in the fridge and happily take it to the till. I eat it while he goes to the loo, and people watch at the entrance, feeling quite warm and fuzzy. I smile at the security guy who's eyeing me up as I scoff, I intervene when some teenagers come in and whine about needing to pee - 'there's a bathroom here' - and think how different things are, compared to five years ago. I might be in the same town, but I'm not the same person. How funny.