SWB ruminates on Formal Fever

Last night was another belter of an evening down at The Black Box for Tenx9. A huge thanks to Paul Doran and the lovely Cara. Pádraig was away at a poetry seminar but was well represented by a puppet instead. It’s quare craic, down at the Tenx9, and no better way to spend a Wednesday, in my opinion. The stories last night were magnificent. The theme was ‘ Once, when I was young…’ so I thought I’d write about my school formal. You can read the whole sorry tale below…

(a young SWB, aged seventeen and a half)

Once, when I was young, I had a dream, a dream that I would go to my Upper Sixth formal, svelte and glamourous, with a boyfriend in tow. For 7 years, the ‘formal’ had been at the back of my mind. The formal was when you shrugged off that bright blue uniform and emerged, radiant, to show your peers & teachers that you were more than just a nerdy teen. I was most disappointed that one of my teachers couldn’t go, as she had booked a Daniel O’Donnell concert on the same night. Most unfair, I thought, as everyone made an effort for this, even those who hung round church all weekend in their Lee jeans from the factory shop in Newtownards and Fruit of the Loom sweatshirts. Girls who NEVER dressed up, were rendered unrecognisable, with glossy locks and shimmery lipstick. And of course, they all had boyfriends. I rarely had a boyfriend. And then, miracle of miracles I managed to find myself a sort-ofboyfriend. He’d recently been dumped and needed a diversion, and I was anxious to fill that role because 1) he was a bit of a dish, and 2), it was Christmas and the formal was in February and I just had to hold on to him until then.


Formal fever took hold. We took the train to Belfast, going to Delaney’sfor lasagne and chips and sneaky bottles of Mateus Rose. Trips to Belfast were a new thing, and not something I did on a whim, lest I be blown up or shot. It was 1997, so that was still a real possibility. The mere mention of going to Belfast, & my grandmother would say in a sombre tone, ‘Watch out for the bombs’. In fairness, she had lived through the Blitz, hiding under the kitchen table while the roof crumbled above her. She probably had PTSD. However, I was willing to risk losing a limb if it meant getting a nice dress.


In those days, few people spent hundreds on formal attire. We ogled dresses from Kookai and Monsoon,thoughEtamsand Top Shopwere more our price range. I bought a red satin dress in Principlesfor £35 with a cowl neckline and spaghetti straps. Inevitably, another girl worse the same dress on the night, (cheeky bitch) but we resolutely avoided each other.


In the preceding weeks I was in shocking humour as I tried to diet, ditching my after-school snack of 4 slices of white toast, with real butter and homemade raspberry jam. Sometimes I had a slice of Cadbury’s Chocolate roll to finish, or a slab of my grandmother’s cake. Oddly the weight dropped off and I didn’t have to resort to laxatives. A friend gave me make up tips and I booked an up-do with Michael Conroy on High Street. Then, disaster struck. One of our friends was let down by her date. Never the most pro-active it had to be said, she left it up to us to find her another, with 2 days to go. At the time, the principal’s son was doing a bit of Janitor work in the school. He was a smiley sort of a fellow so I asked if he’d like to be her date for the evening. He said he would. Phew, we all sighed.


Then, mydate announced that he might not make it after all. Our formal was on a Wednesday and he worked in Dublin. Previously, it had felt like the height of sophistication, having a graphic designer ‘sort of’ boyfriend who worked in Dublin but that feeling soon dissipated when this news broke. Much to my embarrassment now, I recall asking if there were any flights between Dublin and Belfast. That, I thought, would be quite James Bond-ish, with him ‘jetting in’ for the occasion.  There weren’t, but he made it with just enough time to look smug and self-satisfied in a photo, with the air of someone who was doing me a terrific favour, which, I suppose, in a way he was.


The actual event at The Culloden, was probably the biggest disappointment of my life to date. We were served platefuls of dried up turkey, most of which was scraped directly into the bin. The band was mediocre and there was, to me anyway, a sense of acute let down. The real anti-climax, however, was the afterformal. The organising committee, had, in an act of madness or desperation, booked the Sea Catfor this. It was sold to us as an excellent option, as the bar was open all night. There was the promise of ‘live music’. God help anyone taking the journey for real that night, with about a hundred kids in formal attire lurching about from excess drink or the rhythm of the waves. The ‘live music’ was one disconsolate chap on a keyboard. His eyes bore an expression of utter defeat, as indeed they would, if your career trajectory had led you to here, playing ‘Sweet Caroline’ to a bunch of pissed sixth-formers. The janitor ditched my friend for another girl at the Sea Cat terminal before we even set sail, which meant that she spent the whole crossing to Scotland and back, crying inconsolably.


‘Sort of’ boyfriend and I broke up shortly afterwards. ‘Don’t worry,’ said my mum. ‘There will be other formals.’ ‘I never want to hear of another bastard formal again,’ I replied.  But six years later, there I was, this time as a teacher in Bloomfield Collegiate. Back to North Down we went, this time to the Clandeboye Lodge. I had an actual boyfriend this time, called Donal, but he was a doctor, up doing ‘doctory’ things that night in Coleraine. I missed him: I wished he could have seen me, in my finery. This formal was even more tedious than the first formal. It wasn’t so much no craic, as minus craic; a craic vacuum. I took to the drink, and suddenly, the band seemed to improve. I bopped about a bit and metamorphized into Miss McClements, the ‘young cool teacher’, giving it stacks on the dance floor. Of courseI took the shot a student offered. Ruby red in colour, it tasted innocuous enough, until the tabasco hit the back of my throat. Little f**ker. I retched & ran to the bathroom. If toilets could talk, that one would have rung the Samaritans. Up came the shot, the wine and the dinner. My eyes were streaming, my throat was burning and a small crowd had gathered outside the cubicle. ‘Are you ok Miss?’ they asked, genuinely concerned. ‘Oh, I’m absolutely fine,’ I chirped, adopting the cadences of the locale, as though that was going to detract from the state I was in.


My dad had kindly agreed to pick me and two others up when festivities were over. I rang home. ‘Can you come early,’ I bleated, ‘I am most unwell.’ I hid in the toilets before attempting to emerge discreetly. I didn’t manage that. My friends were in fine fettle by now and non-plussed at being told they had to leave. It was 10 o’clock. ‘My dad will be here soon,’ I said. And there he was, in his anorak, marching purposefully across the dancefloor. Raging he was too. ‘Into the car,’ he said. I was a dishevelled mess with mascara down my face. ‘What am I going to tell Donal?’ I wept. Donal was a committed Pioneer. He didn’t get pissed at formals, or anywhere else. ‘You say nothing!’ snapped my dad. ‘You’re not a Catholic, you don’t have to confess everything!’


I will urge my children when their time comes, to avoid the whole formal pantomime. Nine years ago, I did however, squeeze into my Principlesgown and attend another formal in the Stormont, this time with the husband. It too, was shite. ‘I’m sorry for dragging you to this,’ I whispered as we left early to go to the Errigle. ‘Totally worth it to see you in that frock,’ he replied. I wish I could have shared that moment with seventeen year old me. She’d have loved it.

(2009 with LSB, when I should have been old enough to know better.)





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