Episode 79 – Party Rings and Mystery Vans by Mir Fleur

1973
Stockport, North of England

After the exotic childless couple moved out, the house next door was occupied by Mari and her four boys (there may have been a husband, I don’t remember). A girl called Jenny lived in the house beyond that. She was in the year below me at school.

Party Rings

We didn’t socialise at all in the playground – didn’t even acknowledge each other’s existence – but we tolerated each other for the sake of convenience when we were back home.  I didn’t dislike her, nor her me as far as I could tell, we just didn’t have much in common other than location.  But sometimes you just wanted someone to hang around with.

She was a small girl with strawberry blonde hair verging on ginger. She invited me to her seventh birthday party. This seemed a surprising development because I hadn’t been invited to any others.  I was expecting the council estate version of jelly and ice-cream, which would probably have been some crisps and Bubblegum-ade (E-number blue), and maybe some iced gems or party rings.

This party turned out to be something rather different.  Instead of fizzy pop and fancy biscuits, we were jollied into the back of a battered white transit van for a magical mystery tour.  Other than Jenny, I didn’t know the other people in the van. There were about ten of us. Most of them seemed to be her older cousins and most of them were boys, but there was a toddler of indeterminate gender on account of not actually being dressed in anything but a nappy.

Iced Gems

Jenny’s dad drove the van.

The purpose of the trip – literally, I now believe – was not to actually arrive anywhere, but instead to bounce us and fling us about around, and scare us all witless as some sort of bizarre forerunner to an Alton Towers ride.

There were no seat belts or seats in the back. It was an empty metal shell, somewhat painted; scratched, dented and worn as you’d expect from a labourer’s van with several years service. Some brown chair-seat cushions had been thrown in, so we argued over these to start with. After a while, it no longer mattered, as the cushions were no comfort or protection.

There was no partition between the back of the van and the two seats at the front, so we could take turns to poke our heads up near the driver and get a visual on the next imminent danger.

Jenny’s dad drove like a maniac.  There was much screaming (part delight, part genuine terror) in the back, and much sliding across the metal ridges of the van floor. There was also much colliding with the elbows and knees of others as you temporarily levitated or hurled sideways as the van hit potholes and ridges and bends as fast as it’s engine would take it.

Stockport is in the North of England, and you don’t have to travel far to get to steep hills and tight bends. We could have travelled out of the town, and into the Pennines, and dipped and dived between the hills, alongside the dark dry stone walls.  Instead, Jenny’s dad decided to head into the towns, preferring, I guess, the risk of colliding with a bollard or another car to the risk of plunging into a ditch and being trampled by sheep (not that sheep do that kind of thing).

To be fair, this was exciting. Bruising, but also exciting. I was lucky enough to have grandparents that had a car, but some of my fellow passengers might never have been in one.  When I went out with my grandparents the ride was sedate and civilised.  This break-neck speed and disregard for road safety was an eye-opener.

When it was my turn to go up front (when I say ‘turn’, I mean my opportunity to push someone else aside) we were racing down a steep hill towards a set of traffic lights. Jenny’s dad was determined to get through the lights before they changed. They went red before we reached the bottom.  Jenny’s dad wasn’t deterred. He’d already committed. He just kept his foot to the floor and went for it.

Not sure which vehicles narrowly missed us, because I closed my eyes and held on tight to the back of the passenger seat, but there was a lot of screeching and beeping. Jenny’s dad swore profusely – not at the close shave or the fact that he’d come close to killing 10 of his kith and kin – but because the other buggers had “a bloody cheek!”