Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Masquerade Ball

IT is one of the greatest mysteries of life. How do you tie a bow tie?

On Saturday, Rachel and I attended a masquerade ball. I spent the entire day, in between paid work, preparing myself: I imagined myself, arms linked with my fiancée, amongst important people in their most magnificent finery; jaw-dropping ball gowns, dapper gentlemen and the mysterious air of hidden identity.

All day I became paranoid about my appearance. I’m well aware that I am a bit of a scruff at times. All afternoon I would disappear into the bathroom to shave off facial hair that had so far evaded my attention that day; and all afternoon I studied guides on how to tie a bow tie.

At first I found a step-by-step diagram, designed such that it could be printed, stuck on a mirror and followed precisely. But as helpful as it was, the final stages of perfecting the deed were difficult to fathom, and even harder to imagine. This called for desperate measures. I turned to YouTube.

The first video I found was utterly charming. Everybody was friendly, their ambition to teach the viewer the key to this mystery clearly defined. And it was lovely... up until the difficult bit, when the camera panned out, such that you could no longer see what the instructor was doing. I screamed in anguish, then found another video, memorized it and hoped for the best.

Rachel’s dad presented me with a range of bow tie options, including a blue velvet clip-on with accompanying cummerbund, but realistically I had the choice of a big black one or a small black one. In the interests of modesty I chose the small one, but this proved to be my undoing: it was so small and fiddly that I had no margin for error, nor any margin to see or feel what I was doing. For half an hour I battled on, fiddling and straightening and then, suddenly, realising success, I was a real man.

Then I looked properly in the mirror. My hair, uncut since before the summer, was a mess. It was long, windswept and unaccustomed to combing. Desperate measures were called for. With nobody looking, I took a pair of scissors to my hair and tried to sort it out myself. I’ve spent years watching hairdressers; I knew the score. You filter the hair between two fingers, leaving the hair that is to be discarded sticking out, and then slice along the finger line. Easy. A chunk off here, some tidying there. The results came instantly. And, if I was honest with myself, I was rather pleased with what I had achieved: a presentable head of luxurious hair.

Then Rachel came in.

“What have you done?” she cried out.

No amount of protesting on my part could convince her of my achievement. She insisted on taking the scissors herself and further cutting my hair. And, I’ll admit, the results were promising. She, too, was rather proud of herself.

Then the penny dropped. Having tidied only the front and not dared to touch the back, I had given myself a mullet.

Then I looked at my shirt: it was covered in cut hair.

I had no mask.

Then we looked at the invitation, on which no dress code was specified. Were all of my efforts in vain?

We arrived at the ball, held in support of a UCCF mission to Bulgaria. It was a curious event. Held in a church hall, there was a disco, playing a mixture of chart music and party favourites from throughout the decades, and a Wii competition. There was a tombola. Everything was fifty pence.

The majority of the visitors were students. All the girls (and there were mostly girls) had made an effort, all very stylish, but most of the boys were just wearing shirts: few had tuxedos, only one other had a bow tie. Everybody knew each other, and it was almost like a get-together of friends with party games thrown in. We stood to one side, slightly bemused and unsure of how to talk to anybody but each other or Rosie or Helen, who we had come with. It was a strange night, not at all what we were prepared for, but for a good cause and everybody had fun.

The following morning, having tossed and turned through the nocturnal restlessness that comes with drinking red wine, my hair had been rather unkindly flattened. I looked in the mirror. The mullet was back.