As his son heads off to the Debs one Irish dad remembers his own: 'I never saw my date again but I married the girl in the picture'
"I spent most of the night stealing wishful looks at the dance floor to where the girl I really loved, and had loved all through school, danced with all the wrong guys."
I keep forgetting that this is, in fact, the second debs that our second-eldest has been to with the same girl, and so I’m getting into trouble with withering looks that graduate to nasal sighs as I make the pair pose next to our old piano while I fiddle with the camera.
How many total debs nights in our house is that? Four? More?
“I can’t be expected to keep up,” I joke, “when you boys all look the same.”
How many still to go? Four kids, average of two debs each. My head reels. I shake the camera and the screen pops on, flash whirring to life.
There’s a sort of beautiful symmetry to them standing by the piano, since the dusty, toothless old thing is mostly used as a giant shelf for a small forest of framed photos now, each jostling for position to embarrass their older alter egos.
There’s one just visible over the second-eldest’s shoulder, I notice through the lens, a photo in which he’s standing with his arm around his baby brother, two of them in feathered Indian headbands, shirtless and covered in coloured pen scribbles. Spontaneously, I step forward and snatch up the photo and hide it behind my back.
“You realise there’s a grand tradition in this house,” I tell the pair, “of humiliating debs-goers with old family pictures.” I show his girlfriend the photo and she stifles a laugh with her hand. Her date reaches for the picture and I just save it from being crumpled.
“We’re going now,” he grumbles instead, ushering his girlfriend ahead of him to the door.
“I’ll follow on shortly,” I call after them. My wife’s out, but we’re all to meet up at another house for wine and more photos before our son, his date and 12 friends are all picked up by something called a ‘stretch Hummer’.
“Take your time,” he mutters over his shoulder before the door slams.
I put the photo on the mantelpiece, then suddenly remember something and go off to rummage among albums until I find the photo I’m looking for, one of me and my wife at our debs, almost 30 years ago.
“Wow,” I say out loud, sitting down and shaking my head at the picture.
It’s from a lifetime ago, back when there were no such things as Hummers, stretch or otherwise, or indeed pre-pick-up parties of snap-happy parents.
My American dad should have been hip to the whole ‘school prom’ thing, but he’d assimilated Irish culture to the point that his obligations ended at a loan of the top half of his old monkey suit and a tenner for bus fare and pints. Dinner was a chicken curry. We danced to Simple Minds all night.
I didn’t go to the school debs with my then wife-to-be. We each had different partners that night, none of them romantic. There may have been an awkward, obligatory drunken kiss with the girl I brought, but otherwise she barely got a look in. I spent most of the night stealing wishful looks at the dance floor to where the girl I really loved, and had loved all through school, danced with all the wrong guys.
Sometime during the night I got up the nerve to ask her to pose for a photo. I might have asked my debs date to take it, but for all intents and purposes it’s a ‘selfie’. ‘Look who I’m with’, is what I’m smiling. And though I wasn’t with her, at least I’d always have this picture.
Thirty years on, it’s the only photo of me at my debs. Quite understandably, I never saw my date from that night again, but I married the girl in the picture and when we had children, and then a house of our own, we inherited her dusty old family piano and slowly populated it with photographs.
I look to where our son stood with his girlfriend just a few minutes ago, then I walk over and tuck the photo from all those years ago into one of the frames, which feels like I’m neatly completing something.
My buzzing phone dancing across the mantelpiece startles me back to the present. It’s my wife. “I’m just at the roundabout,” she says. “Shall I pick up wine for the debs party?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Did you get any good photos of the two of them before they went on?” she says.
“Yeah,” I tell her. “Yes, I think I did.”
“See you in a minute,” she says and the phone goes silent.
Picking up the camera, I click through the images on the screen to the ones of our son, arm around his glamorous date. It’s not like any of the many other photos of him we have, photos that have gone from grubby little Indian to grumpy teen, hand outstretched to hide his face from the lens.
In this one he wears a distinctly cheeky grin and there’s a glint in his eye as he looks the lens dead centre. It’s a look that could have the power to reach beyond years, a grin that almost seems to say:
‘Look who I’m with’.