I laugh and shake my head, intrigued. ‘Go on then, I promise.’
She hands it over with a little clap, then flaps her hands for me to hurry up and look inside. Holding it out at arm’s length, I give it a shake and then slide the central zipper down a few inches to sneak a glimpse.
‘It’s pink …’ I say, and she nods, fast.
I whoosh the zip all the way down and shrug the plastic cover off, revealing an instantly recognizable candyfloss-pink satin bomber jacket and black satin leggings.
‘You want me to dress up as a Pink Lady for my birthday?’
She grins and whips her own outfit out. ‘Not just you.’
‘We’re both pink ladies.’ I speak slowly, because I’m somewhat confused. ‘I mean, I kind of love it already as a birthday theme, but what are we going to do once we’re dressed? Because we’re going to stick out like sore thumbs down The Castle.’
‘We’re not going to the pub.’ Sarah’s eyes gleam with anticipation.
‘Can I ask where we are going?’
She laughs. ‘You can ask, but I won’t tell you the truth.’
‘How did I know you were going to say that?’
She unzips her jacket and slides her arms into it. ‘You have seen the movie, right?’
‘Once or twice.’ I roll my eyes, because everyone on the planet has seen Grease at least a dozen times, usually because it’s on TV on New Year’s Day and you can’t physically bring yourself to move and find the remote.
I hold up my satin leggings doubtfully. The waistband is about six inches across. ‘I hope they stretch,’ I say.
‘They do. I tried them on at about six o’clock this morning.’
Her words make me realize how hard she’s trying to give me a fun birthday; and the part of my mind that’s constantly feeling guilty at the moment gives me a hefty dig. Whatever it is she has planned for us today, I need to give her my one hundred per cent best.
‘Pink Ladies it is then,’ I say with a laugh.
She looks at her watch. ‘We need to leave at eleven. Go and jump in the shower, I’ve already been in. I’ll do your flicky eyeliner for you when you’re out.’
It’s midday and we’re on a train out of Waterloo, and it’s fair to say we’re getting our fair share of odd looks. I’m not surprised. We’re the only Pink Ladies on board today, and we definitely have the most fabulous hair and make-up. Sarah’s gone with a high, flippy ponytail that seems to swish around independently of her head, and between us we’ve wrangled mine into bubble curls Olivia Newton-John herself would be envious of. Sarah’s thought of everything: gum for us to chew, jaunty black neck scarves, white-rimmed plastic shades perched in our hair and gin-in-a-tin for the train to get us in the mood for wherever it is we’re going.
‘Should we assume fake names?’
Sarah considers my question seriously. ‘What would yours be?’
‘Hmm. Tricky. I think it needs to sound kitsch and American and fifties, so how about … Lula-May?’
She looks at me thoughtfully. ‘I like what you did there. So if you’re Lula-May, that must make me Sara-Belle.’
‘It sure is nice to meet you.’
‘Nice to make your acquaintance too, Lula-May.’
We incline our heads to each other graciously, then clink tins and neck our gin to cement our new friendship.
‘Will you tell me where we’re going yet?’
‘Just trust me, little lady. You’re gonna love it.’ She attempts a really terrible Deep South drawl.
‘You sound more like John Wayne than Sara-Belle,’ I laugh. ‘I think I might fancy you.’
Sarah stashes our empty tins in the back pockets of the seats in front of us. ‘It’s my sexual energy. I can’t hold it in.’ She glances up as the electronic voice-over tells us that we’re approaching Barnes. ‘Come on. This is our stop.’
The first thing I notice when we get outside the station is that we’re not the only people who look like extras in a Grease remake. Swing dresses and Teddy boy suits are interspersed amongst the regular sunny Saturday lunchtime shoppers, and the occasional flash of pink satin tells me there’s going to be quite a gang of Pink Ladies.
Jack’s voice rings out and my heart jumps. I’ve been doing my best to avoid spending any time with him and Sarah lately, and luckily they’ve both been so busy with work I think they’ve been quite happy to not have a third wheel on their nights together. And I really feel like I’m starting to think about him less. Perhaps my mind-control efforts are working.
Then I notice who’s with Jack – Billy, one of his friends who I’ve met a few times at various parties. Please God don’t let this be a set-up. The boys walk up to us and break into slightly bashful grins as we exclaim over their T-Bird black drainpipes and skinny-fit black T-shirts. They’ve rolled their sleeves up into shoulder caps to accentuate their biceps and, looking at their quiffs, I shouldn’t think there’s much hair gel left in the tub.
Wherever we’re going, it appears we’re going as a foursome. It’s not that I mind; I just wasn’t expecting them, and Sarah and I have had the best morning in ages.
‘Well, if it isn’t our dates for the prom.’ Sarah laughs and plants a kiss on Jack’s lips, leaving traces of red lipstick on his mouth. He’s wearing mirrored aviators that obscure his eyes; he looks more James Dean than John Travolta.
‘Billy, you look … cool,’ I say, and he flexes his muscles obligingly. He’s got one of those bodies that looks like he sculpts it carefully in the gym for two hours every day. The kind where you can’t help but admire, at the same time as feeling complete disdain.
‘Popeye’s got nothing on me.’ He takes the lollipop stick he’s chewing for effect out of his mouth and dips to plant a quick kiss on my cheek. ‘Happy birthday.’
I notice Sarah looking at us and roll my eyes at her. Trust her to set me up with someone who’s so obviously not my type. He probably loves his women all blonde and toned and docile. I wonder what Jack had to promise him to come along?
‘Shall we, ladies?’ Jack crooks his elbow for Sarah to take, and after a moment’s awkward hesitation, Billy does the same to me.
‘We shall,’ Sarah grins, slipping her arm through Jack’s. ‘Laurie still doesn’t know what we’re doing, so don’t say anything.’
I laugh, self-conscious as I take Billy’s proffered arm. ‘I think I’m getting the picture.’
‘Oh, you’re really not.’ Her eyes sparkle as she looks over her shoulder at me as we move with the throng of people. ‘But you will.’
I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing.
‘What is this place?’ I say, fascinated. We’re in a zig-zag queue of people in various Grease costumes, everyone buzzing and overexcited. A prim American school radio voice crackles through speakers telling us not to run in the halls, and that heavy petting in the queue will get us detention, and as we reach the entrance we pass beneath a huge, arched college sign welcoming us to Rydell High, poppy-red, lit up with old-fashioned light bulbs.
‘Do you like it?’
Sarah has my arm now rather than Jack’s, and she half smiles and half grimaces, holding her breath as she waits for my verdict on my big birthday surprise.
‘Like it?’ I grin, giddy at the scale of the event unfolding before me. ‘I don’t have a clue what’s going on, but I bloody love it!’
Barnes Common, usually home to dog walkers and Sunday cricket matches, has been transformed into a magical wonderland of American fifties kitsch as far as the eye can see. Roller-disco queens serve Coke floats to tables in the open-air marquee and gleaming silver Airstream diners line the edges of the field. All around, people lounge on picnic blankets, girls in frilly dresses and sunglasses basking on their backs in the sunshine, propped up on their elbows blowing bubblegum balloons. Music is everywhere; a live brass band belts out fifties rock and roll for the energetic couples on the wooden dance floor in the marquee, and elsewhere familiar songs from the Grease soundtrack ooze from tall speakers set all round the perimeters. I even glimpse a pop-up Beauty School where you can get your nails painted or your eyeliner freshly flicked by girls in fitted pink overalls and matching wigs. People shout and jostle on cherry-red bumper cars, and a huge, glittering Ferris wheel presides over the whole affair, its gleaming ice-cream pink and white seats swinging lightly in the warm breeze.