Bedtime Stories for Grown Ups

There’s something potent about breaking accepted sartorial conventions by appearing in your nightwear, in public. Who hasn’t either thrilled or squirmed at the thought of a sleepover, a slumber party, a pyjama pub crawl? Favourite Christmas nightdresses giving way to trendier frocks, fit to be paraded in front of one’s peers whilst pouring over one battered copy of Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes; undercut by the compulsory heavy PJ wearing during swimming survival lessons; only to be eclipsed by the raunchy debauchery of dressing-gown clad freshers laying waste to Wetherspoons. To say nothing of shoppers in Cardiff pushing the supermarket boundaries, or Guy Ritchie on his Mayfair doorstep, for that matter. The exquisite mixture of vulnerability and comfort, allure and embarrassment, innocence and experience inherent in making the private self public; the nightie or PJs more revealing, in a sense, than the garments that take us to nightclub, gym or beach.

It was in just such a frilly frisson of satin and chiffon that two of my best friends and I trotted off to Bedtime Stories at 40 Winks, a sumptuous boutique hotel (allegedly the world’s smallest) situated on the still rough and ready Mile End Road. The house dates back to a more genteel time, being a Queen Anne townhouse of 1717, to be exact. Each of its four storeys have been lovingly and expertly dolled up with the most opulent interior embellishments that the mind of designer and resident host David Carter could dream up. Avid Notes readers will recall this from my audio preview back in December. The toast of Vogue and Time Out since 2009, the Bedtime Stories events enforce a strict nocturnal dress code.  Indeed, there was something of the night in the formal, inquisitorial crossing of the threshold at which guests were required to offer an answer to a riddle (‘What has eyes but cannot see?’ Mole/ bat/ potato/ needle/ storm/ blindfold house guest…?) before gaining admittance and being assigned to either Heaven or Hell, according to the aspect of our countenance. Charming! These domains turned out to be the polarized literary salons to which we would either ascend or descend for our evening’s entertainment, only to have the hierarchical spheres turned upside down as the evening wore on.

We were ushered to girls’ and boys’ dressing rooms, past a statue of Christ’s Passion sporting a top hat and a sculpted head of Medusa, up winding stairs to the respective boudoirs that had already taken on the theatrical ambience of backstage preparation, with lovely creatures beautifying themselves in every corner. Such effort for one’s night-time ablutions! I myself had thrown on a slinky M&S number and concealed it under a pink mac, to spare the blushes of my fellow passengers on the 106.  It was tempting to linger in the luxurious wings, but wary of missing our share of the gin we hurried downstairs once we were all, er, ready for bed. We stood in the grand basement kitchen, sipping Hendricks cocktails from Hendricks teacups (I can swallow any amount of branding when it slips down this easily). Feeling slightly sheepish in our duvet-dress, everyone took the opportunity to eye up just how sexy/structured/cosy/authentic everyone else had pitched it. I was dismayed that the rumoured Godiva chocs were nowhere to be seen but pleased to find smoked salmon bagels cut into dainty portions and proper jelly babies for afters. However, the accurately promoted ‘yummy nibbles’ didn’t meet the glamorous expectations one of my companions, who consoled herself with another teacup refill. Suitably refreshed, we were called to order by Mr.Carter playing the dour schoolmaster in his kilt and blazer, complete with cane (or was it a wand?). After a gracious if absent-minded preamble, it was time for the heavenly and the hellish to retreat to their allotted chambers.

Sally Pomme Clayton beckoned us into the cloud-coloured music room with whimsical percussion and a twinkle in her eye. Under a golden-hued night sky to rival the Hogwarts ceiling, we settled in an upholstered window seat for the first instalment of Stories for the Beautiful and the Damned. With a nod to F.Scott Fitzgerald’s saga of riches and ruin, we were reminded to be careful what we wish for by the cautionary tale of the Wish Tree. With the room of PJ-posers in the palm of her hand, Sally then steered us through the perilous fortunes of The Bear- a penniless soldier who makes a Faustian pact with the devil in a green jacket. In exchange for the garment, the pockets of which produce endless gold coins, the soldier vows to go unwashed for seven, long years. Ms.Clayton was as rosy and cosy as sherry trifle, but she conjured skin-crawling disgust and duplicity with the ease of the demonic magician of her story. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of the pleasure of being told a story is the soporific power the voice exerts, but just as you felt yourself lulled into a mist of fairy dust, you’d be snapped out of it by a blood curdling scream, a violent double take or a spine-tinglingly pregnant pause. Even the prospect of more gin couldn’t quite slake my appetite for the next instalment.

With well-judged casting, Nell Phoenix who occupied the elegant ‘opium den’ drawing room was the Black Swan to Sally’s white. Raven-haired and rich-voiced, she lavished us with altogether darker, sultrier tales once ensconced in her velvet-cushioned hell. ‘I need to see the whites of your eyes,’ she told us before launching into re-spun folklore of a hubristic fisherman who fell in love with a sea nymph, only to be cursed by a jealous sorceress and doomed to swim the ocean, tethered to lost souls, for all time. Not being much of a classicist I was easily swept up in the lyrical, tragic moments that tripped off Nell’s tongue like water off the proverbial merman’s back, but my more knowledgeable contemporary caught every mythic reference and was transfixed all the same.

Before being cast out into the wilds of Whitechapel, wide-eyed and impressionable, we were treated to the talents of Tricity Vogue, a cabaret singer in our midst who gamely stood in for the indisposed Robbie Boyd. It was the first and perhaps only time I’ll ever hear Edith Piaf strung on a ukulele by a turbaned, oriental-robed chanteuse (especially one that I’d just ‘robbed’ of the Most Glamorous Nightie Award- Benefit Cosmetics here I come!), but the impromptu, eccentric flourish of the set was entirely in keeping with the whole mad affair. So with that, we tottered into the night with enough stories to sustain us through the summer ahead, be it beautiful or be it damned.

Bedtime Stories returns in September.

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