Olivia is 88 this week, so it’s down to the pub and then a restaurant to celebrate. The pub is the Daniel Gooch in Royal Oak, a place I’ve walked past a thousand times but never been in. I always notice it, though, because it reminds me of stories I used to hear in Chicago about Dan Vapid’s legendary brother, “The Gooch.”
Everyone else is already there when I arrive, or so I think; just as I sit down, in shuffles Lindsay, a 60-something Rasta man who is Diane’s new love interest. Diane is about 60 herself, a recently retired civil servant who’s always had an eye for darker men of indeterminate means. Lindsay is not that dark himself, more caramel-coloured, actually, but he speaks the patois with a Ladbroke Grove mumble that renders him almost incomprehensible to everyone but Diane. Whether this is because he’s perennially stoned or simply lacks the energy to open his mouth completely is open to question, but he’s sweet and gentle and smiles – at least with the half of his mouth that moves – a lot. His mobile plays a Bob Marley tune when it rings, which is often, and eventually it summons him off to some sort of important business in Portobello Road’s dodgiest tavern, which leaves seven of us to carry on for the rest of the evening.
There’s John, half Irish and half Nigerian, and Bill, his boyfriend of many years. John and Bill are both 40-something social workers, with about six jobs on the side plus interests in property and God knows what else. On Gay Pride Day John likes to dress up in the costume of an Ibo warrior to pay tribute to “my tribe,” though his mother’s side of the tribe comes from a tiny crossroads in the west of Ireland where, when John goes to visit, he’s not just the only gay in the village, he’s the only bloke with skin darker than slightly cooked toast. Although I’ve known him for years, this is the first time I notice how incredibly posh his accent is. Somehow I’d always assumed that as the mixed-race child of a single mother he’d had some sort of sordid background, but as it turns out, he grew up in Chiswick, not exactly one of London’s underprivileged boroughs. Bill, with the mashed-potato complexion of an English son of the soil, had always struck me as more middle class, but now I realise I didn’t have any reason for believing that apart from the fact that he’s white.
While Bill’s true origins may have been working class, Olivia’s certainly are. Or underclass, if such a thing existed in the earlier part of the 20th century. Her father, who she never properly met until she was 21, was a chauffeur, most notably to Lloyd George, Prime Minister during the First World War. Her unmarried mother – something positively shocking in 1917 – worked occasionally as a shop assistant or serving girl, but not consistently enough to look after a child, so Olivia was raised in a country village by her grandparents. They pulled her out of school when she was 15 – being a girl, she was already thought a bit over-educated by that point – and sent her down to London to seek her fortune as a house servant.
Her starting salary was 15 shillings a week – 75p ($1.30) in today’s money. She had two children, one with her husband, one with somebody else’s, joined the Communist Party, was expelled from the Communist Party, became an anarchist, and conducted some spectacular love affairs, one of which got her partner, a high-ranking American officer, court-martialled during the Second World War. Eventually she wound up in Notting Hill, then a black and hippie ghetto, where she had one last love affair with a psychotic hippie alcoholic before swearing off men at the age of 50 and surrounding herself with a posse of über-dramatic young drag queens, most of whom she’s now outlived.
One of the few who survived is with us tonight: Rachel, born Richard, came to London in the 60s and was turning tricks in drag for a while before deciding that business would be better as an R.G. (real girl). Apart from Olivia, only a handful of people are old enough to remember Rachel before her sex change; I’m not one of them. Three and a half years ago, Rachel was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. She was in bad shape for about a year, and still gets tired now and then, but shows every sign of outliving her mother, who died at 96, still smoking 20 a day on her deathbed.
Missing from the group tonight is Brenda, one of Olivia’s closest friends, and the one she fights with the most furiously. They met in the late 60s, when Brenda, then 39, was having an affair with Olivia’s 19-year-old son, Julian. Once every week or so, Brenda comes over to play scrabble with Olivia, and they sit up till the wee hours, drinking wine, smoking pot, and waking the neighbours with shrieking 3 am arguments over whether such-and-such is a legitimate word. Sadly, Brenda recently had a bad fall – she won’t admit it, but everyone assumes she was drunk and/or stoned at the time - and for one of the few times in her life, she’s been confined to her bedsit with its “Eat The Rich” posters that have probably been hanging there since 1968. We halfway expect her to defy doctor’s orders and come staggering into the restaurant in time to knock over the birthday cake, but tonight there’s no cake and no Brenda, just a tiny crème brulée with a single candle for Olivia. We sing Happy Birthday; Olivia, with several G&Ts and a few glasses of wine in her, tries to blow out the candle but blows on her cigarette instead. Just as she finally extinguishes the flame, Diane, herself several sheets to the wind, comes staggering back from the loo and demands that we re-light the candle and go through the ritual again.
We sing Happy Birthday once more. Every table but ours in this dimly lit, red velvet-swathed restaurant is occupied by courting couples, and you can practically hear them sigh and ask themselves, “Are those idiots going to carry on like that all night?” I want to tell them, “Just be thankful this isn’t ten years ago. The plates would have been flying and the tables turning over long before the dessert course.”
Not tonight, though. People start making their excuses and leaving at 11 o’clock, and by midnight, even Olivia and Diane are ready to call it quits. “We’re not as young as we used to be,” someone remarks for the umpteenth time; a few more sad shakes of the head ensue as the night winds to a close. There have been years you would have needed the riot squad to dislodge this crowd at such an unnaturally early hour, but this won’t be one of them. “It’s all right,” says Olivia, “I’m saving my strength for my 90th. Then we’ll have a proper party.”