Spring Cleaning My Life
Cleaning. You could say it was cleaning that saved me during my spell of depression. My ‘blue period,’ as I came to delicately term it.
Cleaning became my way of attaining control. I equated it to anorexics’ relationships with food. To sweepingly oversimplify, they attempt to assert control over what they perceive as chaotic lives by counting calories and severely curtailing their food intake. My way of doing so was to zealously dust and mop. Just as an anorexic might stand before a mirror and visualise a fat person, I would survey our immaculate flat and see acres of dust.
Mel cleaned for a living at that time, but at home I was the one wielding the Mr Sheen can. I was happy (relatively so, at least) when I was cleaning; I had a purpose, a mission. My time was not wasting away. I was achieving. The simple concept that one minute dust was there and then the next, because of me and my mighty duster (typically a pair of Mel’s old underpants), it wasn’t, boosted my meagre self-esteem; gave me a slender sense of power. Tiny goals can feel like monstrous achievements when you have depression.
I had a specified ‘cleaning day,’ Wednesday, partly because in my precarious profession I craved a semblance of routine, of regularity. On cleaning day I was galvanised. I became OCD. Still am, to a certain extent. Petty inconsistencies leap out at me. Drawers that are not fully closed, flecks of fluff on the carpet, CDs adrift from their cases. I itch until I can rectify them. I can’t unsee them. I know they are there. To this day, Wednesday remains my cleaning day, as if in homage to that period.
The days when I wasn’t cleaning, I wasn’t galvanised. Simple as. I worked the shifts at Rackhams I’d had the foresight to retain. I visited my family. I ate little and unenthusiastically, I lost weight, wore children’s clothes and saved the VAT (though inexplicably bemoaned my inability to ensnare a boyfriend with these unsexy outfits). I goggled numbly at soap operas and game shows even though I knew I should be fulfilling my time with more useful pursuits. I could feel my very brain cells rotting, yet my arse was suckered to the comfortable settee and I was powerless to break the cycle of monotony. I washed my hair, I ironed, I slept, I did the shopping. I drove Tesco to his little casting calls.
I did occasional acting myself (it hadn’t entirely dried up). There was my stint in Crossroads (I felt I invested my line, ‘Which way to the gym?’ with all the beauty it merited), a Little Chef advert, a sketch with Bobby Davro, a health and safety corporate video in which I had to pretend to topple off a ladder in impractically high heels. No starring roles in sitcoms set on canal barges, though.
So I was far from idle. Yet through it all I felt a sense of nothingness; a sense I was viewing the world through a window. A sense of ennui. I liked that French word. It sounded rather elegant and Jane Austen heroine-ish. Everything was an anticlimax. I longed to feel anger, emotion, something. Anything would have been preferable to this detached listlessness.
My self-expression and assurance dissolved. I seldom went out; socialising became an ordeal because I would fret about every phase of the evening, from leaving the flat on time to whether I had a ladder in my tights. When I wasn’t acting – and thus wasn’t tethered to a script and had to articulate my own thoughts – I could barely construct a sentence. I was an undoubted disappointment to companions who expected an actress to be ‘on,’ to be droll, gregarious company.
The rare spells between 1984 and 1989 (I could actually count them) when I did break down and howl came as such tremendous relief. The emotion felt healthy and natural; it demonstrated I was alive.
One of those moments came when I learned about Nelson’s illness.
The evening of the BAPA reunion, I had sagged into bed after watching Catchphrase, though not without experiencing a rare blast of energy and scrawling a note for Mel directing him to my unfinished dinner in the oven. Despite being entirely averse to the idea of attending the reunion myself, as I flipped the TV off I’d started to half-heartedly wonder how Mel’s night was going. Poor Mel. He didn’t deserve my dramas. I loved him, and tomorrow we were going to deck the Christmas tree together. I girlishly appended a string of kisses to my scribbly note, and headed to bed.
I awoke relatively energised by the childlike promise of putting up our wiry tree and decorating it with the paltry baubles and bald tinsel we possessed. Mel had an eye for that kind of thing – he was used to decorating himself like a Christmas tree on a regular basis, after all.
The flat was filled with an uncharacteristic fug, and I couldn’t hear Going Live on the television, which was a discouraging sign (we both had devoted crushes on Phillip Schofield). I found Mel slouched at the kitchen table, looking about fifty and drawing on a Marlboro. He had given up smoking six years earlier. When he lapsed, I knew things were not good.
Then he delivered Nelson’s news, and something within me snapped. I felt as though I could physically see it; in my mind it was embodied as an inflexible object like a ruler, bent to shattering point.
I am ashamed to say I experienced a nanosecond of foot-stamping disappointment that we had been going to put the tree up, and now those plans were all spoilt. Then I immediately mentally bashed myself for being so childishly selfish.
An illogical urge to escape overwhelmed me. To escape my own embarrassment as much as anything. I was clad in my pyjamas and slippers, with no money or keys about my person, yet all I knew was that I wanted to – had to – be out of this stifling flat which reeked of raw pork and stale smoke, where my best friend was telling me another of my best friends was dying of AIDS, and I was acting like a twat, putting my own trivial needs first.
I have a grainy memory of the next few moments. Pelting down the sparse stairway, hauling open the door, taking a voracious gulp of the sharp December air as though it were my first breath, whooshing along the entry, past the parched hanging basket, out of the gate, behind the butcher’s van and into the road, to a cacophony of car horns and expletives as a car whose arrival had been obscured by the van shrieked to an emergency stop to avoid me. And then a pair of arms around me, tugging me away as though out of a canal in which I had almost drowned, and Mel sobbing ‘You stupid cow,’ over and over at me.
Mel was supremely in control that day: apologising to the poor driver who’d nearly had to scrape my Kermit-pyjama’d form off his front bumper, pushing me up the stairs, making me tea, calling Dr Dolphin, who came out despite it being a Saturday (those were the days) and him surely having a plethora of elderly hypothermia victims to attend to. I cried for those frozen pensioners who I pictured dying due to lack of medical attention because Dr Dolphin was ministering to stupid Majella Bracebridge who ran in front of a Maxi. I was patently sick too, though, according to his diagnosis, as he prescribed me antidepressants.
Mel and I talked and talked that day. I well and truly unburdened. The effect was exhausting. I barely halted for breath in my chaotic monologue, about Nelson, Gareth, my career, Linda, even Andrea Clamp’s clandestine bullying of me at school. Cups of tea materialised in front of me, without any apparent interruption in the flood of conversation. For once I had justification to cry, and the tears jetted forth without restraint.
I don’t think we ever put that bloody tree up.
Depression can be a very self-absorbing condition, and I had been sorely lacking in perspective for far too long. The simple revelation that I was not the only person in the world with problems set me off in a cycle of pitiful guilt and melancholy, until I made the decision that such self-reproach was counter-productive.
That day was the last time I let anybody be in control of me. My last day of being this passive clod I’d been for far too long.
The prospect of entering a co-dependent relationship with antidepressant pills was unnerving. I was fairly ignorant about their effects – they were just not talked about then, and of course the internet was a yet-to-be-invented research tool – but knew they were not sweets to be consumed nonchalantly. I envisaged these ‘happy pills’ achieving the absolute opposite effect to the depression itself, thus transforming me into a giddy, manic monster, grinning and cackling uncontrollably like some horror movie dummy that comes to life and murders the ventriloquist.
It was days until I gathered the courage to hand my prescription in at Boots; further days before I swallowed my first tablet. They intimidated me, but in fat had a calming, kind of softening impact. They engendered a long-absent sense that I could cope; that my life was not hurtling out of control.
Over Christmas, Mel and I met up with Nelson. He wouldn’t let us go to his house – he told Mel on the phone that he disliked the implication this held of ‘being visited, like a patient,’ but insisted on meeting at the Greyhound in Wolverhampton.
Even despite Mel’s warning, I was shocked by his dramatic weight loss. We were not to talk about ‘it,’ the pink elephant in the room. Nelson’s friendly eyes were poignantly hollow now, though shone with the same light of old. We talked about Kylie, Neighbours (I shared his obsession, since my settee/daytime TV addiction had me in its grip), the collapse of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, Tiananmen Square, Judy Finnigan’s new hairdo.
There was a gang of football fans in the pub, bundled up in cagoules and Wolves scarves and vast cagoules. I had no interest in football, but there was something oddly comforting about the way these lads were enjoying their weekend routine; about the way normal life was going on, even while others were experiencing personal turmoil.
When the royalties for the Arrowsmith & Broom advert repeats came through, I donated them to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Mel actually said I’d have been better served saving them towards the rent, as in 1990 he declared his intention to move out, thus ending our eight-year non-sexual cohabital relationship. We’d lived together longer than many married couples.
He inherited a small legacy from Alice Cooper, not the mascara-clad rock star (who had ironically made a recent comeback), of course, but his mother’s recently deceased spinster neighbour, and decided to, as he put it, venture a stiletto on to the property ladder. He purchased a small terrace in Selly Oak, thus leaving Tesco and me the sole occupants of the flat where no amount of pot pourri could mask the whiff of raw offal. My modest wages and savings met the rent, and I at least got the odd discount cut of meat, and free liver for the cat.
I helped Mel move. Unpacking box after box of frock after frock, then scoffing fish and chips on upturned tea chests, carried larky echoes of that carefree day when we moved into our first student flat.
That first night was odd. When I hugged Mel goodbye, I made a He-Man effort not to cry. We maintained constant contact by telephone, an almost running commentary, as though connected by walkie talkies. I’m sure he thought if he broke the link I’d relapse and drift into loneliness. Poor Mel. I put him through hell.
Those first few days of living totally solo for the first time, I was as restless as a flea. I couldn’t sleep, so I cleaned, then went to bed in the early hours, convinced I would slumber until teatime, but of course hungry Tesco had other ideas and nudged me awake with his damp little nose. I couldn’t return to sleep once I’d opened his tin of Buster (which we still got for free). So I cleaned again, inside the cupboards this time.
I was, to employ a modern phrase, now ‘thinking outside the box,’ and cleaning on days other than Wednesdays. I could never sit still. I was too restless to be passive.
I’d unwittingly become a hoarder – another common symptom of depression – and this was a process that had to be reversed. The last thing I needed was to become one of those people who lives with eighteen cats and hasn’t got into bed for three years because her route to it is blockaded by old Argos catalogues.
I purged the cupboards, filling four binbags with moth-eaten clothes, ancient bank statements, concert ticket stubs, bus ticket stubs, single earrings I’d clung on to in the vain hope their lost twins might magically resurface, globs of Blu-Tack with shards of Smash Hits posters stuck to them, a sock, Biros whose nibs oozed congealed ink, a broken fondue set, carrier bags.
A Polaroid of Gareth. Ah! My heart flipped despite myself. He was a ludicrously good-looking man, after all. It was one of the first I’d taken of him, outside the old Bull Ring in Birmingham, denim blue sky behind him lending a romantic quality to the urban scene. ‘I’m in a band,’ he’d told me that day. I dangled it over the bin, but consigned the tattered snap to a photo album, feeling mature for not ripping it but acknowledging him as part of my history.
A brochure for Birmingham Living History Museum. I’d visited there once on an O-Level History trip. I hung on to that one.
An A4 notepad containing, oh my word, the first scene and fanciful cast list of Crisp Notes: The Musical (Based upon the Novel of the Same Name), which Mel, Linda, Nelson and I bashed together over several ciders years ago in our old flat. It was to tell the story of the staff from the Super Crunch Crisp Factory winning an unspecified fortune on a TV quiz show and making far-reaching changes to their lives. Hey, we loved crisps and we loved game shows – what better way to fuse our interests!
Cecil (Factory Owner)…………………………………………………………….Mel Corns
Cecily (His Twin Sister)………………………………………………………Heidi Sausage
Verna (Their Mother)………………………………………………………..Noele Gordon
Blanche (Factory Forewoman)……………………………………………..Linda Dyson
Tarquin (Chief Crisp Packer)…………………………………………………Nelson Love
George (His Boyfriend)……………………………………George Michael/Boy George
Zara (Chief Potato Peeler)……………………………………………Majella Bracebridge
Maxwell (Her Lover)…………………………………………………….Gareth Rushcliff
Game Show Host………………………………………………………………Ted Rogers
The Bank Manager……………………………………………………………Lenny Henry
The Office Cat………………………………………………………………………Tesco
Chorus………………………………………………………….The Brian Rogers Dancers
I wondered if any of us possessed the clout nowadays to assemble a cast like that.
We’d planned to pen both the libretto and the novel ‘upon which it was based,’ and envisaged scores of our fellow students would be queuing up for roles in this epic show.
I remembered specifically wanting my character to be called Zara.
‘It’s a beautiful name,’ I’d said. I still think it is.
I sat cross-legged on the carpet leafing through our green-inked screenplay, until my limbs went to sleep. It was fascinating stuff. A preposterous tale, yet this raw script demonstrated a youthful chutzpah that was startling yet also heartening to my jaded psyche.
Killer by Adamski topped the charts that spring and was constantly on the radio. It became the soundtrack to my extended spring clean.
Mel moving out was the catalyst I needed to pull my proverbial socks up. I finally took driving lessons, passed my test and bought a Renault 5 with 100,000 miles on the clock and a leaking sunroof. I loved that car as one might love an ugly but affectionate puppy.
I developed a thirst for new hobbies to fill my solitary evenings. Enjoying them for their own sake was not enough, though; I had to push myself to ridiculous levels to excel at them.
I took up running, but without a competition to train for, a means to an end, I had no incentive. So I enrolled for the Birmingham Fun Run and completed it in a respectable time. Once the competition was over, my incentive was removed and my enthusiasm spent, and I never pulled on another pair of running shorts.
Then, having burned many a saucepan to annihilation in ill-fated kitchen exploits over the years, I took up with cooking, with surprisingly edible results. I bought Julian Crowfoot’s book and attempted every recipe in it (the Wispa rum cake remained a dinner party staple for years).
I was frequently guilty of starting things but never finishing them. For a phase, I decided I could be the next Jackie Collins. I had a crack at Crisp Notes: The Novel (I lacked both the inclination and the musicality to remodel it into a musical). I was serious and all – I even went to WH Smith (and incidentally, it can’t be just me who thought as a kid it was pronounced ‘Wuh Smith’?) and purchased a notebook with a fabric cover bearing a picture of a peacock, experiencing a childlike glee at the pretty stationery.
I fell into a frustrating yet elating routine of living and breathing a story, consulting my trusty pocket thesaurus, and falling asleep dreaming of troublesome sentences and paragraphs. Ideas, scenarios, sentences, singular lines of dialogue would form in my head, like flashes of genius, though sadly without the strong storyline to prop them up. The idea of taking my pen for a walk across the paper was intimidating. I felt too shy. The whole concept died a death.
At times I was paralysed with indecision; with a sense of having so much to do that the panic about filling it all in froze me. I could stand there shaking, not moving this way or that. All these ideas buzzed around like wasps with no escape route. So I obsessively made lists. Lists of lists. I would add items to lists just so I could cross them off. Even today, I do this. I detest being bored, or even sitting still. I cook constantly. I can’t be idle. I’m afraid of those still moments which afford me too much time to think. I apply constant pressure to myself to Do Something Useful.
Back then, I berated myself for not achieving; I was under constant self-imposed pressure, aware that the only person capable of changing my life was me, yet lacked the stamina and confidence to see projects through. I expended more energy telling myself what I ‘should’ be doing than actually doing. I would tell myself I was a worthless person; a waste of space.
I exhaled a mighty breath and sagged back against the patchwork cushion after relating all of this to Roger, my counsellor.
I automatically reached for a tissue from the ever-present box on his pine table. Crying was second nature to me now, though it was at least starting to take the form of an outpouring of relief rather than a torrent of woe. Today was the most cathartically talkative I’d been with Roger, following weeks of rather hesitant sessions.
Dr Dolphin, who continued to monitor my progress and administer antidepressants, had made the referral, and now I underwent therapy for an hour each Wednesday, in this tastefully furnished room in a converted terrace in Moseley.
I’d arrived for my first appointment expecting to be confronted with a clichéd mad professor type: a wild-eyed buffoon in a white coat, sporting a flaming red beard and Ronnie Barker glasses, who would order me to lie on the couch and administer electric shock treatment while asking me about my mother. In fact Roger was genial and welcoming; in fact, the first word he would greet me with at every meeting was a simple, ‘Welcome.’ He possessed a squashy, careworn dad sort of face, and a fine line in pastel jumpers. There was a Garfield poster on the wall next to his practising certificate.
During that first meeting he probed me with gentle questions about my background, family, friends, personal relationships, work, etc – setting the scene and finding out what sort of a person I was. It was very difficult at first. I was not used to talking about myself in such great detail, and felt self-conscious and defensive about giving voice to certain things which I had never told a soul before. I knew I had to be completely honest, however difficult I found it, or else there was little point undergoing this treatment at all. He needed to be in possession of the full facts.
He told me I could make as many or as few appointments as I liked, but advised me to visit him at least eight times to make the whole thing worthwhile. The format of these future sessions, he said, would involve him listening to me moan but also giving me ‘homework,’ strategies I could work on to help me relax and build up my confidence.
He never patronised or tried to blind me with science. At times I found the sessions very draining, but that was only to be expected. The very fact I was taking positive steps to improve my life gave me confidence. I was surprising myself with the things I ended up talking about, but I guessed these topics must have been relevant for them to crop up in conversation at all.
The thorny ‘Gareth’ topic had been touched upon. If Roger was surprised that a one-time famous pop star had broken my heart just as he was becoming famous, he betrayed no hint of it.
He now nodded pensively, perusing his notes – or at least pretending to while he formulated his next question.
‘Now you’ve mentioned a female flatmate a couple of times – Linda, was it? I gather there is or was some conflict between the two of you.’ He shot me a kind, encouraging smile. ‘Do you feel ready to tell me about that yet?’
Some conflict, ah yes. I’d been dreading our discourse heading in this direction. A failed affair of the heart was one thing, but – and I don’t know why this was – the betrayal of a friendship, by a member of the so-called sisterhood, seemed somehow more shameful. But the time had come to be candid.
My mind played a crazy word association game. I was currently on my period. I associated periods with Monthlicare, the product I’d advertised with that ridiculous ice skating routine, the gig I’d got because I failed to land the Lock & Quay role, with which Linda became synonymous. Therefore, according to that meandering logic, this seemed an appropriate juncture to give Linda a good old thrashing – of the verbal kind at least.
An excruciating cramp tore through my tummy, as if goading me; bringing the pain into sharp focus.
As I talked I kept my eyes pinned on the aquarium in the corner of the room. No doubt the gaudy fish were intended to have a hypnotic effect.
‘I had an audition arranged for Lock & Quay, the sitcom on Channel 4. It was for the part of Fran. I was convinced this had my name on it, you know, that it was going to make me. A troupe of actors living on a canal barge. I thought it was right up my street – or cut in this case.’ That line came so instinctively to me. ‘I crammed like mad. I had never rehearsed so hard in my life. I was in Devon with my friend Mel – I told you about him – and all the while I was down there I was in preparation for this show I thought was going to make me a household name.
‘Well, unbeknown to me, the date of this audition changed. I had this useless agent at the time – Roger, I’m talking chocolate teapot useless – and he, Barry his name was, phoned the flat where I was living at the time to let me know. He shouldn’t have rung me there at all. I’d told him I was in Devon for two months, and given him a number where he could reach me there. Linda was in at the time and she took the call. Barry asked her to pass the message on. Linda neglected to let me know the audition date had changed – she claims she forgot – and she went and bloody auditioned and got the part herself!’
Roger did a polite little double take. ‘She’s that Linda? Linda Dyson?’
I wondered if Roger might be beginning to think I was a fantasist and that these friendships and relationships with celebrities existed in my delirious imagination. His easy recognition of her name hurt me, though, and illustrated my point about having hoped the show would bring me household-name fame.
‘Yes, and Linda claims she had always intended to audition for it anyway, so we’d have been rivals whatever, but I don’t believe her. I sacked Barry after that, and decided I’d go with Linda’s agent, Kevin Light, seeing as how he was clearly getting her the best gigs. When his first words to me when I marched into his office were, “So you want to emulate Linda’s success then, eh?” I was disgusted!’
My watery gaze drifted from the fish tank to the parade of family photos on the bookcase next to it: two buck-toothed teenage girls in school blazers, and a smaller snap depicting a cocker spaniel. I addressed my next comment as if to them.
‘You know, I’ve never even told my parents all this. They just think I didn’t get the job. I never admitted to them that muggins here travelled all the way back from North Devon, only to find the audition had taken place a week earlier.’
I slumped back on the cushion again. I felt as though I’d been hollowed out, like a boiled egg. Yet also present was a sense that I was being divested of something that had been festering for far too long. I knew my recovery was beginning.
One summer morning I emerged, drained, from such a session, yearning for some light relief. I walked to my car past a signpost for the Birmingham Living History Museum, and remembered the brochure I’d exhumed from my brimming cupboard.
With no work to engage me for the rest of the day, and no desire to return to the flat, which in that heat would resemble a corned beef tin in a sauna, I suddenly craved the innocent escapism of a good old-fashioned school trip style day out.
The museum comprised a faithfully rebuilt Victorian city street scene, featuring factories, shops, a school, pub, cinema and back-to-back houses. I spent a very pleasant day, wandering along cobbles, eating ice cream and learning about Birmingham’s social history. It was years since I’d tasted such simple pleasures (or such glorious ice cream).
I was growing more confident and content in my solitude. Being alone no longer equalled loneliness or self-consciousness that imaginary passers-by might take sufficient interest in me to judge me as a sad individual living an empty life.
Outside the reconstructed pub (the Boot Inn) hung a poster, whose mock Victorian typeface and artfully torn appearance caused me to initially overlook it. However, the heading ‘CHARACTER ACTORS WANTED,’ and inclusion of a phone number, denoted this was not a Victorian relic but a contemporary sits vac. The museum were recruiting re-enactors, ‘with drama experience,’ to don period costumes, perform interactive little scenes and bring history to life for the good folk of Birmingham.
My sweet little day out at the museum had certainly awakened something in me. A dormant thirst for knowledge, an interest in nostalgia, which I wanted to impart to others.
Nothing ventured, as they say. I auditioned. And got the job.
Little did I predict the extent to which it would transform my life.
One Saturday, I came home from my stint being a Victorian loom worker for the day, my hair still in its frumpy bun, flat and clammy from the hairnet in which I’d encased it. I fed Tesco, and switched on the TV. The BBC News were still leading with yesterday’s sentencing of the children’s TV presenter Rod Rudge for assaulting fourteen women. Was there no innocence in the world anymore?
I was, quite honestly, sick of the story by now. The trial had been debated to death during lunch break, the only time of day when we were allowed to abandon the illusion that we were nineteenth century characters, and could discuss pop culture.
It was an astonishing fall from grace. I wondered how Rudge’s crimes had first come to light. According to one of my colleagues, Jackie, who played the cane-wielding schoolmarm (she relished the ‘discipline’ aspect of her role so much, I suspected her of being a part-time dominatrix), the perky puppeteer was a regular sleaze. ‘Been bonking his way round Central telly for years.’
Bonking! Now there’s a word I haven’t heard in several years. Such an 80s word; so jolly and terribly saucy.
I flicked over to ITV, who were showing Stars in Their Eyes, grabbed a cider from the fridge and sank on to the sofa, tucking my legs underneath my bum.
Almost immediately, the phone rang with an ominous peal. I didn’t have to get up to answer. Not possessing such a luxury as a ‘telephone table,’ the dog and bone lived on the floor on my side of the sofa. Even as I reached down, I knew instinctively it was Mel, with the call I had been hoping never to receive.
‘Nelson’s dead,’ he sobbed.