We were sweaty and smiling, either jumping up and down to Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping, or dancing choreographed steps to Backstreet’s Back. Memory fails me on the song, but not on the feeling of exhilaration and “grownupness” that the Yoxford village hall discos provided.
I spent my early teenage years in rural Suffolk, which nobody outside England, or perhaps even East Anglia, knows about. My hometown was Leiston, once an industrial hub, thanks to the Garret family during the 18th and 19th century, but better known, when I lived there, for its proximity to two nuclear power plants, a surely excessive number of pubs, its high rate of unemployment (although the power plants sorted that out), and drug and alcohol use. It’s a bit of a blot on the pretty coastal Suffolk landscape. There wasn’t much to do in Leiston as a teenager; Suffolk’s oldest cinema would acquire its films about six months after their release, and in winter it was far too cold to hang out in the “rec”, or recreation ground.
Bored and wanting to dance to our favourite pop tunes, we sought the bright lights of the neighbouring villages. Ten minutes down the road by car was Yoxford, a quaint, fairly affluent village with a population of fewer than one thousand, a convenience store, a restaurant, two pubs and some antique shops, for which the village is famous. And of course like all the Suffolk villages, a multi-functional village hall, where events ranging from church fund-raisers to the long anticipated discos took place. I’d like to say that the village hall discos were tightly controlled and supervised under- 18 events, as they were rife with hormone-charged adolescents hoping to kiss or grope or dance with their crush. However they were in fact the highlight of the social calendar for not just the teens of the Yoxford area. No, looking back, it really was attended by far too many men who were way over 18. I suppose the discos were intended for adults, not children, but unless prohibited, young teens will naturally gravitate to the only source of fun in the area. As an adult now, I can’t see the appeal.
Of course there was a bar, with not a very strict ID policy and always an adult to buy the minors a drink. But on this particular night in 1998, I didn’t need alcohol to give me a buzz, I had a far greater, headier experience that I also wouldn’t forget the following day. Whichever hit it was we were dancing to came to an end, and after an awkward few seconds of grinning and swaying to fill the gap between songs, the mood changed and romance was in the air.
A few questions that I need to know. How you could ever hurt me so
I was never sure about that spoken opening. The British/Canadian airy voice made me uncomfortable, I wasn’t sure whether it was her real accent or cultivated to be sweet and sexy; not too British, not too Canadian. Also, even at that age, I was aware of the inaccuracy of the first line. Surely it should be “I have a few questions” or “A few questions to which I need the answers”, but I understood the need to fit the rhythm and I let it be. I was always relieved when the actual singing started, not least because speaking along with Natalie Appleton would get quit embarrassing . Nevertheless, I truly loved that song; it sparked so much emotion within me. It made me want to be in love and feel the pain that Melanie, Shaznay, Nicole and Natalie so heart wrenchingly conveyed. In fact, I wanted to be those women, an amalgamation of all four of them with their beautiful eyes, perfect pouty lips, lovely harmonies and great style. That vest top and baggy combat trousers combo!
I would have been wearing my knock-off version of this look, my scrawny 13 year old body not doing it any justice at all, when I found myself on a rapidly emptying dance floor, self-conscious youngsters fleeing to avoid the disappointment of not partnering up. My friend Tara was instantly asked to dance: her vest top was significantly more filled out than mine. Her partner’s friend presumably figured it was better to dance with someone than be left standing awkwardly next to them, swaying alone, or dart from the dance floor in a manner that would signal failure to pull.
Of course this is said through hindsight. In that moment, as Shaznay broke out in beautiful song, stars were in my eyes. Ian appeared through the darkness, tall and skinny with greasy curtains hanging over his eyes, and put his hands on my waist. I didn’t know how to slow dance. I looked over to Tara and Billy but that didn’t help; clearly they didn’t know either, not that Billy cared seeing as he was eye level to Tara’s ample bust. Tentatively I put my hands around Ian’s neck, but I didn’t get too close to his body. I wasn’t sure where to look; surely we couldn’t spend the entire song just looking at each other and swaying from one foot to another. Were we supposed to talk? What about? I tried it out,
“You’re Ian, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, you’re Hannah’s sister, aren’t you?” (I got that a lot)
Silence…panic…averted eyes… what’s Tara doing? Pretty much the same as me. Billy’s still looking at her boobs. I didn’t have any for Ian to look at, and any way he was taller than me. I stared at his chest instead.
Never ever have I ever felt so low, when you gonna take me outta this black hole?
Things were getting critically uncomfortable, then Ian moved in, quite gallantly for a 15 year old country boy. Our bodies were very close now and he seemed to be moving his hands to different areas of my waist and back. I was almost exploding inside. It was so romantic! The multi-coloured flashing lights, the smoke machine, a boy I sort of knew because he´d probably asked my sister out, All Saints! I was dancing with a boy to the most profound and poetic song out there. Then my knees nearly gave way as Ian put his hand on my bum. This was a brand new experience, to which I had no idea how to respond. I couldn’t knock it away, I’d appear frigid (that word still haunted me from two years previous when I’d refused to kiss James Longstone when we were “going out”, whatever that meant). But I couldn’t just act as though having a boy’s hand on my bum was the most normal thing in the world. My palms were clammy, I hoped he couldn’t feel them on the back of his neck. As we turned in a clumsy, shuffly circle on the dance floor, I saw that Tara also had a hand on her bum. We caught each other’s eye and exchanged gasping gestures and knowing smiles.
I’m in love! I thought as I closed my eyes and tried to feel normal about the situation. I half wanted it to be over and half wanted it to last forever. It was confusing and overwhelming, much like everything at the age of 13. The final Oohs were sung, the music faded out and Ian went in for the kiss, but I smiled, mumbled something nonsensical and scuttled off to reunite with Tara and share squeals and slow dance stories.
I remained in a dizzy state of infatuation for a week or two before the euphoria of those few minutes wore off. During that time, “our song”, which was played on the radio a lot, would bring it all flooding back. His hand print on my bum cheek would flare up while my face burned red. My heart would beat hard and I’d smile at my transcendence from child to someone who’d had a passionate experience.
Listening to this song years later, I'm able to access so many stored away teenage emotions and experiences, which make me smile fondly at the happiness, heartbreak, melancholy and hazy memories that come flooding back. "Never Ever" accompanied me through many more crushes on many more boys, through fun times with friends, clothing and eyebrow disasters, encounters with alcohol and quiet times alone. When I listen to it now, I feel with a sharp pang of nostalgia a connection to that long lost past. And it also makes me laugh; the lyrics are terrible, the vest tops and combat trousers in the video not as cute as I remember, and the spoken introduction extremely long. More than ever I’m anxious for Shaznay to start singing.