The regular visits to the Second Tier East Midlands City always required a drink on the way there. They might have had a concert hall with exceptionally sympathetic acoustics and curry houses to rival New Delhi’s but it was that extra half hour away from London, in comparison to other ‘one night stand venues’, that classed it as a ‘short straw trip’.
The sound of the approaching drinks trolley was the sound of one’s lifeline for the evening. In the shape of mini bottles of treacly warm white wine and half tubes of Pringles.
These trips weren’t without their amusements though. From watching the soloist in the Saint-Saens Organ Concerto decide that he could make his entrance for just his ‘bit’, thus not have to wait in position for 50 minutes prior to his 10, and striding across the top of the choir stalls in his be-socked feet, not realising that the over-zealous housekeeping department had Pledged the pine-like floors to a rink-like degree, meaning that he was sent gliding past his instrument in a manner that should have concluded with a salchow. No-one knew why he wasn’t wearing shoes. Lesson learnt. Through to the time when the Managing Director of the Hall had stopped for a chat in the hospitality suite and promptly set the bin/ashtray combo on fire thanks to the toxic accumulation of built-up chipwrappings, black paper napkins and the remnants of his last cigarette that had only just been used to light his next.
But on this occasion I was hosting the Mayor of the Second Tier East Midlands City in something that was inaccurately being described as a Gala Performance.
The hospitality suite had been hosed down for the occasion and an array of round tables had been put out, accompanied by some vile, purple plastic chairs and a strong aroma of Febreze. The view from the floor to ceiling patio-like windows was of the car park and the menu was prawn cocktail followed by boiled chicken. We were definitely celebrating.
The Leader of the Orchestra had been convinced to join the preshow dinner on the pretext that such diplomatic endeavours were going to be critical to his leadership development. And dinner never went a miss. I had briefed him (by fax) a few days prior and taken him through the guest list of local Estate Agents and wife-swapping carpet salesmen. He wasn’t required to make a speech (something that he said he was relieved about but was clearly crushed by) but was acting, de facto, as my ‘plus one’ and thus sitting next to the Mayor’s ‘plus one’.
In honesty, I hadn’t done a great deal of preparation or research for the occasion. There was no significant money to be made ‘gala-wise’ and the Over-eager Opposite Number (i.e. the local Development Department of One) had done all of the logistical work. So it was when the Lady Mayor (a Mayor who was a Lady, rather than the wife of a male mayor) was introduced to me, accompanied by another, slightly younger woman, that a degree of confusion started to overcome me. The Lady Mayor was, to put it mildly, multi-pierced. Both ears at least ten times each. Nose. Eyebrows. And lip. The mayoral chain was, on this occasion, a minor adornment in the ensemble.
The younger accompanist was utterly mute. A couple of steps behind, a demure blue trouser suit, bobbed brown hair and NHS-like glasses. The Mayor, however, was the opposite of mute. Not that you could understand a word that she was saying, such was the broadness of her accent and the impediment that was caused by her facial ornamentations. She, unlike us, was determined to make a speech at dinner. As far as I could understand, she was delighted with the contribution that we were making to her city’s cultural output. But that was, frankly, probably just a lucky guess on my part.
One of the wife-swapping carpet salesmen filled me in during the walk from the ‘banqueting hall’ to the concert hall. The demure accompanist was the daughter. The mayor was an ardent supporter of the biking community in the area. No shit.
I spent the duration of the first half in the hospitality suite demanding more booze from the teenage waiters who were frantically trying to clear the space given the short length of the first half’s concerto and the fact that we were having ‘desert canapes’ in the interval. Mini Mars Bars no doubt.
I was nothing short of smashed when the interval arrived and narrowly avoided an Only Fools and Horses-style catastrophe as I was trying to arrange myself casually (trying and failing to cover up my consumption of Romanian Plonk) by leaning on the end of the bar and, of course, almost missing.
The Lady Mayor clanked her way through a brief review of the first half of the concert and proceeded to circulate around the room, taking in titbits from the local Leader of the Hunt and his Nail Bar Wife.
My pride in my achievements this evening led me to decide to have the rest of the night off and I headed, foggily, to the train station. The train was, of course, cancelled and I found myself standing there with, in fact, the soloist from the first half – him not knowing me and me pretending to not know him. I tried to summons a reasonable amount of motivation to work out how to get 100 miles from A to B before midnight and decided to head back to the concert hall.
On arrival, the second half of the concert was concluding and the Lady Mayor was departing, East Rider-style, into the night. I manage to slur my predicament to the Truck Driver and he gesticulated for me to get into the passenger’s seat. As we drove past the train station at an excruciatingly slow speed, given the vehicle’s velocity limiter that was going to result in my not getting to bed until 2am, we saw the first half soloist standing by some over-flowing bins.
“He looks familiar”, said the Truck Driver.
“No idea”, I said, “Keep going. It’s a bit rough round here”.