If you’re interested, I have added an extra 300 words to Scents of Time (http://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/short-stories/scents-of-time/), with the goal of publication in a magazine which sets a higher word count than the publication which declined my manuscript. I have attempted to create a fuller story by fleshing out Roberta’s life. Hope I’ve succeeded.
October 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm (Blogs)
…who read Chapter 5 of Majella Bracebridge (here: http://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-5-majella-bracebridge/) will realise I know nothing about auditioning cats for TV commercials. I suppose the process is not exactly common knowledge.
I was writing well “out of my comfort zone,” as they say on X Factor. I had enormous fun with making Tesco the abandoned moggie a star of the fictitious world of 1980s advertising. I was inspired by well-known cats such as Arthur, who famously dipped his white paw into a cat food tin, and Tom, who starred in the more recent Bacardi Breezer ads.
Anyone who does have experience in the world of cat auditions and filming can feel free to get in touch to aid my research if they wish…!!
Now you’re acquainted with some of the significant men in my life – Gareth, Mel, Nelson – it’s time I introduced you to one whose existence I’ve alluded to already, who was even more lovable and altogether furrier.
It was approaching Christmas, and Mel and I in the spirit of goodwill had finally decided to return our makeshift ‘sweet trolley’ to Tesco. It had been in our illicit custody for over a year since that night we entertained my family at the flat – during which time it had conveyed more gateaux to the dinner table, functioned as both a prop in The Sound of Music (don’t ask) and transport for a Rag Week parade, and was now cluttering up the backyard.
In the days before the majority of supermarket trolleys were coin-operated, it was fairly commonplace to see carless shoppers openly wheeling them home. At least our rickety cart was not destined to be tipped in the canal (‘the cut’) or jettisoned on to a scrap metal mountain. We’d even dusted it. Nonetheless, Mel and I waited until after dark to wheel it back (there was none of that twenty-four hour opening lark then either).
We slotted it into the snake of trolleys, and capered across the car park, giggling and bouncing into each other like dodgems as Mel practised his act.
‘Yow from Sutton Coldfield? It’s posh round there, ai’ it! A bath’s a “barth,” and it’s what you get out of to have a piss.’
‘That’s gross,’ I hooted, ‘even worse than your one about the – hey, what was that?’ I’d heard a piteous mewling in the nearby bushes.
‘The sound of someone in tears at my act?’
‘What is it?’
We did that annoying thing of talking over each other, drowning out the mystery noise, and then falling abruptly silent at the same time the yowling in the bushes stopped as well.
‘It’s probably a drunk. Come on, chick. We’re missing The Young Ones.’
Then we both heard it. The miaow and frantic rustle. Mel’s surprisingly practical side came to the fore, and he, seemingly from nowhere, produced a small torch which he shone into the foliage.
‘I worn’t in the Girl Guides for nothing,’ he explained in Heidi Sausage’s voice. ‘Oh, look!’
A tiny cat was scratching his way out of tied-up Tesco bag. He was black and white, his coat matted, his small legs trembling. His gigantic blue eyes blinked in the beam. I suppose you could say that was his first time in the spotlight.
I swear we exchanged a glance and there was instant kinship. I spotted something in those eyes that wasn’t so much fear as a feisty survival instinct. He’d clawed to ribbons the bag into which he’d been cruelly tied. Were he human he’d probably have winked at me, said something like ‘Stick with me, kid. Enjoy the ride.’
Mel melted instantly. ‘Who would do such a thing?’ he cooed as I carefully picked up the forlorn feline, referring to whoever had left him to suffocate. ‘Aw, look at his choochie little beard.’ He chucked the cat under the chin, on which a splodge of black surrounded by white fur gave him a cute goatee appearance.
‘Come on, we can’t leave him here.’
We carried the furry urchin home – he was surprisingly docile for a stray – pausing en route for cat litter and tins of Buster cat food from Brian’s corner shop, which did stay open late. It’s remarkable, looking back, how we unquestioningly picked him up, with no thought for fleas or mange. There may have been a nebulous plan at the back of my mind to hand him in to the Cats Protection League, but there was no discussion between Mel and me; simply tacit consensus that we would never have abandoned the little thing to his car park fate.
Now accuse me of discrimination if you like, but had this abandoned animal been of the canine species I’d have phoned the RSPCA pronto. I have always been a cat – never a dog – person. Dogs are far too licky and slobbery and needy for my liking, plus their fur always seems to smell of soggy anorak. Then there’s the ‘poo’ factor. Even now, if I bump into a dog-walking neighbour who has poop-scooped along their way, I’m so conscious of their pooch’s turd dangling between us in a plastic bag that it kills the chat somewhat.
Anyway, Nelson was out, working his shift at Larry’s. Linda, fluorescent bendy curlers in her hair, was lolling on the sofa with her legs up the wall, watching The Young Ones (a TV show in which she was later to feature).
‘What the fuck is that scratty little rat doing here?’
‘Come now, Lin, that’s no way to talk about our Majella!’
I thumped Mel for that comment. ‘Sssh,’ you’ll hurt his feelings,’ I cooed, already protective of my fluffy charge.
‘Well he can’t stay.’
‘It’s only one night.’ I sounded about as convincing as Trevor Lilley in his assertions that he was straight.
The little cat practically inhaled his duck and rabbit, and the saucer of milk we set before him. After his dinner, he plonked himself on the carpet in the centre of us, folding his little paws beneath him – which looked as though it ought to be uncomfortable, but obviously wasn’t as it was a posture he adopted often. He possessed the most expressive, almost human eyes, which flicked between us as we debated his accommodation, as though he knew we were discussing him.
From her initial scoffing ‘Soppy as sacks, the pair of you. You two are like world’s most dysfunctional parents of a furry mutant baby,’ Linda mellowed to ‘Well we’re not all here – we’ll have to consult Nelson and take a vote’ (as if Nelson was going to be a hard-hearted cat-hater), to ‘Aw, look at him – he understands what we’re saying!’
You can see he was the kind of cat who inspired lots of ‘Aw, look’ type comments. As if sensing her submission, he gratefully launched himself into Linda’s lap and purred like an express train, as though he knew he’d conquered the only obstacle to him gaining owners who would feed him duck and rabbit and not tie him up into plastic bags.
‘We’ll make do, I suppose,’ she said, with the air of a reluctant mother finding herself up the duff and adapting to an unfortunate situation. The words ‘scratty little rat’ were never to be heard again.
Once Linda was sold, he was ours.
We referred to him as Tesco Cat, instantly abbreviated to Tesco. That first night, we fashioned him a bed out of some threadbare towels, but the next day we went on a bargain mission for a basket, bulk-buy cat food, squeaky mouse toys and other feline paraphernalia. We took him to be neutered, and for his appropriate jabs. He became one of the gang; the fifth flatmate; our cuddly confidant when any of us experienced boyfriend woes.
Anyone questioning how a gang of students could take care of a vulnerable cat ought to have seen us.
During college holidays and periods of study leave, we shared his care, although the lion’s share – no pun intended – fell to me, which I was more than happy about. The one time Mel took him home, he clashed with Cherub, the Corns family’s elderly and very territorial tabby, and the fur flew.
Cats have always fascinated me. I could have comfortably sat and watched Tesco all day; the way he washed himself, flexed his little paws; his quizzical expression; the swish of his long black tail; the way he would leap on to the window sill when something outside, usually pigeons or double-decker buses, captivated him. He loved the West Midlands Travel buses, with their characteristic cream and navy blue livery, conveying commuters in and out of the city.
We were lucky that we had a relatively easy-going landlord; he wouldn’t have cared had a troop of baboons taken up residence with us, so long as the rent was paid punctually.
It was my own experience in commercials which directly led to Tesco’s fame.
He had been with us just over a year when I was filming the Arrowsmith & Broom ad. During coffee one day, I was chatting about my spirited pet with Keith, my halitosis-ridden co-star, and I flashed a recent Polaroid of him dunking his paw under the running kitchen tap.
This was his latest trick; when we washed up, Tesco would dab at the water, leap away but then return his paw to the sink, as though mistrustful of and yet beguiled by this flowing, sploshing element. The look of utter fascination on his face was priceless.
I don’t really know why the topic arose; perhaps I just thought talking continuously might prevent my sense of smell reeling from Keith’s gross breath.
Anyway, while Keith remained stoically unimpressed, the small crew were soon cooing over little Tesco the way everybody seemed to; he possessed an undeniable allure. I felt as proud as a mother showing her baby photos. His ears and the top of his head were black, giving the appearance of a mask, and his nose and chin were white save for that little beardy splodge.
Then the director, Sean, mentioned his friend Glenn who was currently casting for a cat food commercial. ‘Could your cat be the face and paws of new improved Buster cat food?’ He formed quotation marks with his fingers as he recited, deadpan, obviously quoting a press release. ‘If you want me to put in a good word, I’ll need the pic to give Glenny.’
As if my little street moggie would be able to compete with the sleek pedigree felines who dipped their paws into tins of cat food on cue! On a madcap whim, though, I handed over the photo. I could always take another one, I told myself. Buster was Tesco’s favourite brand. It seemed like an omen, however tenuous.
It was weeks later, by which time my ad was in the can and my conversation with Sean consigned to the vaults of my mind, that I received the unexpected phone call from Glenn, requesting Tesco’s and my attendance at the Boulton Hotel in Birmingham city centre for an audition.
‘He’s got the most quizzical little expression,’ Glenn gushed. ‘I’d love to see him in the flesh – or rather the fur. We need a puss with personality for this role.’ TV people talked like this.
I remember the morning of that audition so well. I had graduated by now, but was still flat-sharing with lovely Mel. He was watching Roland Rat over breakfast, and throwing wisecracks my way, among them predictable ones about using my pussy to get casting.
‘I’m sure all this cat food flooding the market so soon after Shergar’s disappearance is entirely coincidental!’
‘Don’t!’ Shergar was a famous racehorse who had been kidnapped a few months earlier from his stud farm in Ireland. He was never found. The story distressed me at the time.
‘You know, I’ve always wondered why they don’t make mouse-flavoured cat food, instead of all this beef and heart and whatnot. I mean, when was the last time you saw a cat chase after a cow?’
It was good to see Mel back to his droll self. He’d been in a gloom of late, having given up smoking and also been brutally ditched by Colin, the cloakroom boy at Larry’s, who had stolen Mel’s money and had it on his toes to London, never to return.
He’d insisted on accompanying me today; a little family outing. We were like amicably divorced parents reuniting for parents’ evening.
We ushered Tesco into his cage and lugged him into the city in the creaky Cortina. The receptionist at the Boulton looked about ninety-three, with wiry grey hair escaping from a tatty Alice band. She was on the phone, and I heard her mutter the words ‘bloody cats.’
‘Second door on the left,’ she waved at us before resuming her conversation. I imagined her popping a Valium the second our backs were turned.
Indeed for anyone not a fan of felines, their caterwaul or their characteristic musky smell, this room staged a scene from hell. The animals were fairly vocal that day, I recall. Some were well-behaved, obeying cues, while others were in exploratory or scrappy moods, flouncing and rambling around or hissing at rivals.
The remarkably unruffled Glenn possessed hair cut in a mullet that resembled a palm tree, with black roots springing through. A nipple piercing jutted through his tight T-shirt. He was all over Tesco from the outset. He was keen to see my pet play with the tap water, as depicted in my photograph; this little caper fortuitously featured in the ad storyboard.
There was a little sink, at which Tesco duly reacted to the water, as though it was the first time he’d seen it. He chased a strategically thrown ball of wool. He rolled over on cue and waggled his little paws in the air. He leapt on and off tables. The other fluffy contenders were similarly tested; they had varying attention spans, and those who turned up their noses and their little whiskers at the tasks were swiftly dismissed with a disdainful wave of the paw.
Much to my amazement, he was recalled for a second audition. In the end it was between Tesco and Sebastian, a ragdoll whose haughty expression was matched only by that of his owner. Much to both of their disgust, my little pal won the part.
He became the face of a million cat food tins, assuming the name of Buster for the purposes of the campaign. He assumed several mantles during a prolific career marketing everything from alcopops to gas central heating.
The plot of this particular opus saw him vault on and off windowsills, chase his tail and a ball of wool, and of course splash in the sink. After an energetic morning navigating this obstacle course around the mock-up house, he would be rewarded by a bowl of ‘nutritious’ Buster being placed before him by the hand of his otherwise unseen ‘owner.’
‘Buster – for cats with a zest for life,’ boomed the earnest voiceover, as the camera froze on his cute face.
My Tesco was courted by the press; the poor stray who survived suffocation by carrier bag to become the world of advertising’s most delightful star. His story was a sensation, exemplifying two British fascinations: pets, and triumph over adversity. As his loving owner, my ad even earned a repeat airing on the back of it.
He lived to be around seventeen – his age was always an estimated figure, but we estimated he was not quite a year old when we found him.
That day I emerged inconsolable from the vets, there was even a little obituary for him in the Evening Mail. Whether I shall be deemed worthy of the same when I go is debatable!
September 28, 2013 at 10:56 pm (Blogs)
I’ve uploaded the first four chapters of Majella Bracebridge, my latest ‘nov.’
My amended Chapter 1 is here:
followed inevitably by 2-4.
Correspondence from another era
OK, I played down my heartache.
Where the hell had my nonchalant ‘we’ve decided to cool things off for a while’ come from? ‘We’ had decided nothing. I’d caught Gareth and Romy entwined in the kind of contortions I’d until then only thought achievable by zoo animals.
I’d jetted tears on to Mel’s shoulder (he joined in – moved as ever by drama). I sobbed so hard I retched. Dear Mel actually tucked me into bed with a hot water bottle and my moth-eaten Sooty teddy bear.
Even now, I couldn’t tell you quite why I felt the need to save face with my family. Perhaps it was a sense of duty to portray myself as a worldly student daughter/sister, to justify their encouragement and pride. My mother was hooked on Brideshead Revisited; her notion of undergraduate life was all sophistication and champagne. I hated to disenchant her.
Or possibly I was merely trialling my acting skills. I hadn’t been thinking only of the family when I was practising my ‘wistful’ face that night I’d cooked. Who knew kippers could be so stirring?
I remained an emotional shambles for a week. The silliest triggers set me off. It was only when Mel saw me crying at 3-2-1, over a gutted-looking couple from Brighton winning a dustbin, the booby prize, that he decided even he could only take so much wailing and drama and declared that he was taking me out for ‘the piss-up of your life, girl.’
So my dear flatmates hauled me to Larry’s to commemorate the dregs of my twentieth birthday. I threw up in a drain, filled a few more canals with my tears, came home with the phone number of a bricklayer called Donna pressed into my pocket and food poisoning from one of Bert’s fetid hot dogs, and finally passed out in bed clutching Sooty to my wounded heart.
Not one of my better nights out, all things considered.
I was reflecting on all this one Wednesday morning a lifetime later, by which time I’d acquired so many things I didn’t have in 1981 – maturity, wisdom, stretch marks, a laptop.
I was in the jangled state of the overtired. Sleep having eluded me the previous night, I’d flicked through the graveyard slot TV, landing on Channel 5 at the start of Poker Face: The Lady Gaga Story, which seemed the perfect escapist rot to stultify me. I lolled cosily back on the sofa in my pyjamas.
‘Introducing Felicity Rushcliff as Lady Gaga,’ blared the lurid credits.
It was the kind of kitsch biopic that always earns one star in the Radio Times reviews, I think my first school Nativity was staged on a larger budget (I’d played a sheep – opposite Andrea Clamp’s Mary), and under normal circumstances I’d have been snoozing before the first ad break. Instead I found myself alertly scrutinising the wooden leading lady for resemblance to her dad (she had his eyes), while wondering why the hell it mattered after all these years.
Had I been watching this with Mel, a few vodkas under our belts, I’d have had a good fun bitch about ‘all my years at drama school’ being wasted when this lumpy kid could bag a starring part – even though I wasn’t naive and knew how nepotism worked.
When I finally slithered into bed beside a snoring Phil, long-dormant images spooled through my mind, further hindering sleep.
My twentieth birthday. The car, parked where it shouldn’t have been in a discreet street behind Rackhams. Not his new car, which sported a personalised number plate, but his mother’s white Polo, which he used when he wanted to go incognito. My naive glee that, after being away for weeks, he’d clearly remembered my birthday and come to whisk me away for a surprise treat.
How had he known I’d be working today, though, and what time I finished? He must have turned up at the flat in search of me, and been told by one of my obliging flatmates where I could be located. What quaint ways we had of communicating in the pre-mobile phone era. That flat didn’t even have a landline.
Me tottering along the cobbles clutching the lavish bouquet my colleagues in the toy department had clubbed together to buy me. Then tugging open the car door, squealing, ‘Well this is a – ’
The unsaid ‘surprise’ would have been a massive understatement. Instead of occupying the driver’s seat, with an expectant grin and an expensive gift, my Gareth was writhing in the back, squeezed to the point of asphyxiation between Romy’s sumo thighs. It was a greasy orgy of flesh and feral hair.
‘Hop in, love.’ Romy’s coarse tone sounded grotesque. ‘This’ll complete your education. I’ll show you somewhere to stick your flowers and all!’
Did people really talk like that outside of two-bit porn? Evidently! Mind you, she probably had experience in the genre.
‘Shut the door, you bitch!’ I heard as I scampered away in anguish, still gripping those flowers.
Over my eighth coffee the day after that flashback-filled night, I checked my messages. I’d been inundated since Come Dine with Me.
There had been the frothy text from a certain Melvyn Corns:
Saw you on CDWM – what a triumph, my girl!! You kept that one quiet. I still remember those charred Pot Noodles!! Once again it’s been far too long since we convened for a good old chinwag. Mom asks after you constantly too – AND I can’t wait for you to meet Donald. After all the loves of my life he could be the one!!! Once this tour ends next month, we really must synchronise diaries. Toodle-oo and much love, Melly xxxx
Even a Facebook friend request from the Virgin Mary/Cinderella herself, Andrea Clamp, landed in my inbox:
U OK hun? Saw you on telly the other day LOL. U still doin all the acting & that? I got 12 grandkids now…the youngest bein baby Rihanna (our Sinitta’s youngest) born 3 days ago!! Howz bout u? x
I was on my laptop in the snug, which by tacit consensus was designated ‘my study’ in the house. I’d had free rein on the decor, which was in what Phil called my ‘camp’ style, and it was crammed with comforting memorabilia and trinkets from my mercurial career.
One wall was dominated by a huge monochrome print of my dearly missed cat Tesco. Scott, a photographer friend of mine, had expertly captured the perky appeal of that gutsy urban moggie who had become such a star.
Adorning the opposite wall was Scott’s dramatic shot of dear Nelson Love in full Bob Fosse mode, pouting confidently, a translucent shirt exposing his beautifully toned torso.
Anyway, call me conceited (I’ve been called worse) but after ‘my’ episode of Come Dine with Me aired I watched it numerous times on YouTube, revelling in the – I might as well admit it – rewarding buzz of seeing myself on television again.
It set me off on a nostalgic tangent. I actually unearthed the old Arrowsmith & Broom commercial. Believe it or not, it took nerve after all those years. I hovered my cursor over the play button for several minutes as though it were a trigger.
It was absurdly emotional and mesmerising seeing that fuzzy clip of the young, fearless Majella Bracebridge in a plywood pub set, squealing to my pretend boyfriend (Keith, his name was – dreadful halitosis. I kept offering him Polos between takes, but he refused to take the mint hint) about the mellow virtues of Arrowsmith & Broom brown ale.
‘Brewed in Brum,’ I squawked. What was I on? I downed Keith’s pint, while he gaped on in overacted disgust, then wiped the back of my hand across my mouth in that controversially ‘unladylike’ manner (I mean, there were actually letters to the Evening Mail about it, all while the Miners’ Strike was raging and Ethiopia starved) and declared ‘It’s a bostin’ pint!’ Point, I pronounced it.
And there it was – the catchphrase repeated by a thousand copycats in playgrounds, offices, pubs especially of course. I heard Les Dennis even did an impression of me in a panto. A Brummie twang in a TV commercial was such a novelty back then.
Since the Come Dine with Me appearance, my ad was actually trending (get me – down wiv da kidz) on YouTube. I scrolled, fascinated, through the comments below the clip. Many of those that predated CDWM were of the ‘Where is she now?’ ilk. ‘I saw her at a funeral once,’ one had replied. The less imaginative observers merely repeated my catchphrase, exaggerating my accent with capital letters and too many vowels, as in ‘IT’S A BOSTIN POIIIIINNNT!!’
Someone who gloried in the username WayneVillaFan declared that he ‘still would.’ How honoured I was! Believe me, that was clean compared with some of the desires expressed. I am so glad there had been no internet to give instant access to such squalid outpourings when I was young enough to be creeped-out – or stupidly flattered – by them. Perverts had to write letters in those days. At least there was a bit of effort involved.
The set was authentic, I had to admit. A proper old-fashioned boozer, with a jukebox in the corner, and plastic ashtrays and beer mats and foam spewing out of leather-look seats. A period piece really. It conveyed an atmosphere you could almost smell through the screen. I imagined such an establishment having long since been converted to a Wacky Warehouse – which was absurd considering it wasn’t even real.
As usual, watching YouTube proved a nostalgic, addictive activity. Before I knew it, I’d been through all of Tesco’s adverts, with the usual tear in my eye. I adored that little fuzzball. Missing a beloved pet is nothing original. At least I’m lucky mine lives on through the medium of film, advertising everything from chocolate to electricity to, more predictably, cat food.
Over lunch, I checked my work e-mails. My cheese and onion bagel was poised halfway to my expectant mouth (such a good look!) when I saw his name. His name – the father of Felicity Rushcliff, the world’s most lacklustre actress – and not in the showbiz news or on an 80s forum, but in my inbox.
I blushed – after all this time, actually blushed – and automatically put down my bagel, as though he could somehow see me through the screen, with crumbs and globs of cheese dotting my ancient Garfield T-shirt.
It had been thirty years. Ludicrously, my fingers wobbled as the cursor hovered over his name – the twenty-first century equivalent of not opening a letter due to fearing its contents. I was disgusted with myself.
I’d put my little TV on, for Loose Women (I know, I know!). It was the ad break, and from a very long way off Cheryl Cole was swooshing her lovely hair around. ‘Becoz ya worth it, pet.’ Or something. All was normal with the world. The world outside my whirring head, anyway.
With a timid double-click, his message whooshed open.
From: Gaz Rushcliff
Sent: 16 July 2014 02:03
To: Michelle Crabb-Mooney
Subject: Well hello!!!
What a turn-up!
Providence must have drawn me to the tour bus telly the day you were on Come Dine With Me. I don’t normally watch rubbish like that, but Fate always finds a way, as they say.
What a fantastic name you have now! And you haven’t aged a day, my love. Bit of a ball ache turning 50, though, eh? Ouch! Trouble is in my head I’m still 20. I daresay you’re the same? Me and the boys will be needing Stannah stairlifts to make it to the stage soon, but we’re still here – several wives/boyfriends, children, lawsuits and operations later.
We’re coming to Weston Park on Saturday the 26th on this Now That’s What I Call a Pension thing. I’m sure you’ve seen it advertised. Glinda and Schadenfreude on the same bill for the first time ever!! Who’d have thought? I would love to catch up with you. A backstage pass could be yours if you so desire. Seeing you again brought back a raft of memories. I realised I hadn’t clapped eyes on you since Zena’s wake in 86. I can put you on the guest list if you fancy reminiscing about our hazy youth?
I’ve done things in life I’m not proud of. The difference is that now I choose not to carry my mistakes around with me – I place them under my feet and use them as stepping stones. I learned that in rehab.
I still think about our time together. If you think the grass is greener on the other side, stop looking and water your own. I have always been grateful for the fact you never sold out to any kiss ’n‘ tell rag, unlike some I could mention. You maintained your dignity.
Hope to hear from you soon.
All the best,
Wow. And, to quote Gareth himself, ‘Ouch.’ I wasn’t sure which bit to gape at first: the over-familiar use of his initial; the dismissive arrogance he still couldn’t quite disguise; his spooky echoes of my own thoughts on ‘providence’ drawing me to the TV the night his daughter was on; the clumsy pseudo philosophy.
What is it, incidentally, with people continually trotting out this Facebook ideology as though it’s gospel? They are usually the same types who think writing ‘FACT’ at the end of a sentence magically makes it true.
I had seen the Weston Park show advertised in the Express & Star. Judging by the publicity shot, I had to admit Gareth, Trevor, Joe and Mike had aged relatively well. Romy, their steadfast appendage, looked, at fifty, like a poster woman for a fetish chatline.
My mind was sent hurtling back to our last encounter which, as he rightly recalled, was at Zena’s wake. Our ill-advised hook-up. Our retro-shag, if you will.
In December 1986 the legendary Zena was found dead in her bathroom from an overdose; she had spent years hoovering the sale proceeds from her iconic nightclub up her nose.
Her electricity had been cut off, and her fetid flat was devoid of food, but she died – and was by all accounts buried – in a lime green puffball gown with matching feather boa, and every iota of jewellery she owned (and hadn’t pawned). Mourners spoke with awe of how she had glammed up for her final journey, overlooking the squalid manner of her passing.
Gareth hosted the wake at the club itself, which had retained Zena’s name despite being rebranded as a ‘discotheque’ by its new owners.
Of course I was mourning a Birmingham icon, celebrating the club in which I’d met Mel and spent many a joyous night. I’d be lying, though, to deny that Gareth was the main draw; that there was a morbid curiosity, as it were, about reuniting with my lost love. Judge me if you so wish for making a funeral the backdrop for such a reunion.
Boyfriends had flitted through since 1981, but I was presently unattached. I was aware Gareth was between wives, father to two little boys, Felicity’s half-brothers Caspian and Isambard, and newly discharged from his first stretch in rehab.
New Romanticism was strictly passé by this stage, and Glinda Spitfire were increasingly conspicuous by their absence from Top of the Pops. The zenith of their career had come a couple of years before, when they recorded the theme to the latest Bond film, Chopper to Mombassa. By contrast, their most recent album, Monochrome, had barely scraped the top twenty.
I had blossomed in confidence. That ‘little me dating a pop star’ humility of five years ago had disappeared. There was a sense that I could meet him now as an equal; that I was somebody now, even if it was ‘that girl from that advert.’ In truth, I’d had little work myself since my two scenes in Crossroads in the summer. I was grateful for sporadic shifts at Rackhams, and for the royalties from Tesco’s little appearances.
In fact the ceremony deeply moved me, and undoubtedly inspired my subsequent career change. It wasn’t Glinda Spitfire’s tired performance, or Romy’s ‘expressive dance’ which supposedly represented Zena’s exhilarating life (although to me it just looked like a load of swirling and sobbing), but the overall effect which was that of a show with little substance.
Enigmatic to the last, Zena’s eulogies yielded few more details about her than her life had done. If a family existed, they were not in attendance, having either disowned her as per the rumours or passed away themselves. There was a clutch of celebrities in attendance, including my mom’s favourite TV chef, Julian Crowfoot, whose infamous drink problem was just then becoming the stuff of tabloid column inches.
‘You look bloody good in black, girl,’ was the line that stirred me from my melancholy at the bar afterwards. And there was Gareth, large as life and twice as gorgeous. I maintained the cool facade I’d been rehearsing, though my heart gave a worrying lurch.
‘They say it’s a slimming colour,’ I responded, with a catty glance at Romy, who had squeezed her squat frame into a pair of salmon pink leggings and a tight turquoise top, and was slurring to Julian – who was openly transfixed by her cleavage – about how ‘Zee would have wanted me to come in bright colours.’ She resembled a melted Zoom ice lolly.
‘From the way she’s walking, she looks like she has just come!’ What was I doing? I was never normally acidic like this – even if the girl had happened to have shagged my boyfriend.
Gareth looked at me with a kind of baffled admiration. ‘Drink?’
I did look good in black, I must admit. I had lost weight of late, and the clinging dress was new, courtesy of my Rackhams staff discount. I persuaded myself that none of this was for Gareth’s benefit – oooh no! – but for my own self-esteem. I was a million miles and as many years away from the wailing girl who had bussed it to his mom’s house after that disastrous birthday, to fight for him, plead with Mrs Rushcliff to pass messages to wherever he was in the world – until she told me to get lost.
‘I even wrote you letters, like some crazed fan,’ I laughed with affected incredulity.
‘I never got them, babe,’ he said sincerely.
He looked older – well of course he was, but there were shadows under his lovely brown eyes, and a weariness about him, but also an intensity and a palpable pain. He looks, I must admit, better now than he did then. He was tall and by then had adopted a slight stoop, which gave him a bashful, little-boy-lost air that I tried not to find appealing.
The whole band had aged. Trevor Lilley looked dazed and scrawny. A few months ago, the Sun’s front page had screamed ‘MY GAY HELL, BY GLINDA SPITFIRE HEART THROB’ when he took the what was then, in those Clause 28 days, very brave step of bursting out of the closet. Trevor’s admission earned him admiration and derision in equal measure. He broke a million teenage girls’ hearts. In every other respect he followed what appeared to be the pop star syllabus: ‘DRUGS HELL’ ensued (every adversity was ‘HELL’ in tabloid-speak), and then the inevitable ‘REHAB.’
As Gareth spouted on about his first wife Lisa, and how his most recent girlfriend Stacie Slack (the name fitted, by all accounts), a Page 3 ‘moddul,’ as my dad called them, had callously dumped him, I listened and smiled sweetly like an interested friend.
I was not jealous, I told myself. These women were more than welcome to him. He could break whose heart he wished, but he would never break mine again. I felt all mature and virtuous, conveying friendly empathy, while at the same time hoping to dazzle him with my new self-assurance.
In fact I harboured designs on us being what they nowadays term ‘friends with benefits.’ If he dipped his wick elsewhere, it would make no odds to me since we would never be an official couple.
There was no apology or even acknowledgment of the fact I’d caught him being carnal in his car with Romy. I wasn’t seeking apologies. I had risen above all that.
Even back then he was parroting supposedly ‘profound’ maxims.
‘Our eyes are placed in front because it’s more important to look forward and not back,’ was one.
Well he gave the lie to that one, if what he meant was it was unwise to rekindle past affairs. We slunk upstairs and ‘did it’ – as I used to quaintly term it back then – in a deserted room above the club.
It didn’t last very long – we’d had plenty to drink, after all – but it had the urgency of a goodbye present. I knew this was going to be our last time together, and I screwed furiously and vengefully. He was clearly stunned by my licking, probing, clasping, scratching ferocity.
‘Shall I call you, or…?’
It was his turn to be abandoned mid-sentence. After doing up my clothes, without even looking at him, I stalked out of that seedy little room and didn’t stop until I got home. I would not take my place in line with all his other groupies and bimbos. I’d decided the best revenge would be a life lived well. I felt powerful and proud. It was much later that a strange sense of emptiness began to develop.
On Christmas Day, watching EastEnders with the family, I inexplicably burst into tears just as Dirty Den was dishing up the divorce papers to Ange. I found myself finally spilling the beans to Mom, about Gareth, about the past anguish that I’d never unburdened to her. I have no idea why it chose that moment to escape me, but it was a cathartic sob. I was utterly spent by the time I finished, and slept solidly until noon on Boxing Day.
In the New Year, I read how Gareth had enjoyed ‘an emotional Yuletide reconciliation’ with Stacie Slack, and three months later their wedding photos were splurged across the Sun (Stacie did not become fish-eyed Felicity’s mother – that fate was reserved for the third Mrs Rushcliff). They divorced a year later, thus begetting another cycle of ‘HELL,’ booze, rehab, etc, etc.
And now here I was, a lifetime later, with Loose Women making white noise in the background, dizzily rereading an e-mail from him.
Swallowing the last wodge of bagel, I started to type out a reply.
28th October 1981
Dear Mom, Dad, Soph & Spence
I’m sorry I’m a bit tardy in writing, but you know how it is – my diary is so full these days, what with panto rehearsals, socialising, Rackhams and learning to be self-sufficient.
Thank you again so much for the beautiful birthday cards, my birthday meal and the lovely glasses. No more swigging wine out of mugs! Tell Nan she needn’t worry about me ‘drinking too much,’ though. I’m a student – it’s practically the law. Besides, I’m of Crabb stock – I can handle it! We’re hardy wenches (you’re possibly right about me picking up a hint of a Black Country twang and turn of phrase since I met Mel).
In answer to your question, no I got nothing from Gareth. I don’t see him so much these days. We’re cooling things for a while. He’s off hither and thither since Business with Pleasure got to number one.
Flat-dwelling is proving to be great fun, though my friends have their own foibles and habits that can grate. Nelson never stops dancing. I have visions of him whirling so uncontrollably one of these days that he’ll plummet through the floorboards, spinning through mid air like a drill bit, sending clouds of sawdust flying into the air. And he’s permanently ‘on stage.’ He can’t just walk into a room, he has to pirouette in and strike a camp pose up against the door.
Mel hogs the bathroom. Every morning I’m hammering on that door with my loofah, and by the time he emerges the water is cold.
Linda lives on pickled onions. She wolfs her way through whole jars of those great crunchy ones the size of tennis balls. The whole flat reeks of vinegar. And once she’s scoffed the jar she lets out one of those awful throaty burps you hear in pubs.
But for all that I love them all!!!
You still coming for dinner? Week on Friday still OK for you all? We’ve got Blue Nun in the fridge, and I’m going to set up a sweet trolley, just like we used to get in Guernsey every evening. I was fascinated by that as a kid, wasn’t I? The cake slice and the can of squirty cream! We’ve got all that! Doilies and all!!
I promise my cooking has really come on, with practice. I’ve progressed from perpetual Pot Noodles.
On Thursday night I tried out our old family favourite, kippers, on my guinea pig flatmates. There weren’t too many bones, and they were only a little bit dry. Mel said I boiled them too long. But I lost track of time because I was reminiscing about all our Saturday nights scoffing kippers and brown bread and butter in front of The Generation Game. I’m not ashamed to admit there was a little tear in my eye.
Then, while the mood was on me, I started practising my wistful expression in the kitchen mirror. I do a pretty good wistful, as it happens. I stored it up in my actor’s memory. By the time I’d perfected it, there was hardly any water in the pan and the bread still had to be buttered.
So if a future part ever calls for me to pensively reminisce about my family, you’ll always remember that I took our family smoked kipper teas as my muse.
Matthew, that lecturer with the beard and the funny eye I told you about, wheeled in the huge TV today to show us Stephanie Southwick unconvincingly ‘choking’ to death in a public information film. She was one of his students last year and apparently her ‘success’ is what we must aspire to.
It’s rumoured Matt was having an affair with her and pulled a few strings, though. He kept joggling with his crotch every time he mentioned Stephanie. We made a pretty unimpressed group.
Anyway, better fly – bed beckons. Or rather my essay on method acting does, but bed thereafter. Got a busy few weeks ahead. Going to see Madness at the Odeon with some of the others, and of course the panto rehearsals are hotting up.
I’m thinking of you all. I can just picture Dad watching Terry and June with his Breakaway.
Sophie better not have scratched my Lena Zavaroni records!!
Big hugs and kisses to you all.
Mel was doling out the post two weeks later. ‘Kays catalogue for you, Nelson. Electric bill.’ He lobbed that one behind the toaster with a level of contempt usually reserved for hate mail. The infamous gap behind the toaster was a cavity for bills. We all harboured subconscious hope that they would magically vanish down one of the many cracks in the tiles and shoot off into an invoice black hole from which no final demands would ever emanate. ‘Letter with a Lichfield postmark for someone called Michelle Crabb.’ He scrunched up his face in bewilderment. ‘I’ll have to stick “return to sender” on that one.’
‘Er, that’s me,’ I revealed sheepishly.
I had been officially identifying myself by my pseudonym ever since that night I first met Mel. My BAPA classmates accepted the change without question, being used to pretension, some of them having adopted stage names themselves, but I forgot Mel had never known my real name. I was Michelle only to my family – or a catch-all ‘M’ when signing letters to them.
‘Miss Crabb, eh?’ He pushed my parents’ letter across to me. ‘Wouldn’t like to catch you on a dark night!’
I stuck my tongue out at him. ‘Put your legs away, you old tart! I can see your niff.’ My brother’s name for the collective bum/privates area was a ‘niff’ when he was little, and it always made us laugh.
Mel uncrossed said legs and bent over with exaggerated modesty to tug his towelling hem about a centimetre down his thighs. ‘Good to see you smiling again, chick,’ he said sincerely. ‘Who’s Majella then?’
‘There was a girl called Majella in my little sister Sophie’s class at primary school. Half Irish. I’ve always loved the name. Bracebridge Road is a name I once saw on a map in geography, and I thought it sounded so grand. The two together had an impressive ring, I thought.’
I simultaneously heaped Rice Krispies into my mouth and thumbed open the envelope. How times change. Those were the days when the postal delivery – which contained handwritten letters, like this one on pretty lilac notepaper – used to coincide with breakfast.
14th November 1981
Just wanted to say how enjoyable last Friday was. Thank you so much for your hospitality. Your flatmates are very characterful (though that Linda is a bit loose with her language at times). You went to enormous effort with that meal, and you’re right – your cooking is really coming on.
The prawn cocktail was better than I had in the Berni Inn on my birthday. And never mind about the mini kievs – I prefer chicken well done anyway. The sweet trolley was a lovely touch. You really should return that trolley to Tesco soon, though. The kids loved the Angel Delight. The fruits of the forest gateau could have done with coming out of the freezer a bit earlier, but overall it was a very fun evening.
Would you like Nan’s old bike, by the way? You could take it back with you after Christmas. It would save you a fortune in bus fare, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this but you have chubbed up a bit of late. Perhaps it would help if you get on your bike like that Norman Tebbit!
You don’t want to end up like that girl Romy, or whatever her name is. Sophie saw her on Tiswas with that Gareth and said she was the size of a bus. You say you aren’t seeing so much of him lately? Probably as well – he’ll have girls all over the world by now. Our Soph prefers that London group – what is it they’re called, Schadenfreude? Their singer (Dominic Law?) is plastered all over her bedroom. She says Gareth looked better with a custard pie in his face actually.
That Mel seems like a nice boy. Got nice teeth. And you’ve met his mom too – how splendid! Our Spencer says he’s a ‘fudge-packer.’ I thought you said he worked in a furniture shop? The dark boy must work at the same place then, if what Spence says is correct?
We’d like four tickets for the pantomime, if that’s still OK. We’re all looking forward to it. Our very own Fairy Godmother! You’ve come a long way since you played the back end of the horse in your third year at St Chad’s.
By the way, Andrea Clamp who was in your year is pregnant again. I bumped into her mother in Kwik Save on Tuesday. Apparently it’s to be Floella if it’s a girl and Indiana for a boy! She’s already got little Rocky, who’s three.
Andrea played Cinderella that year you were in the horse – do you remember? She was always Mrs Beresford’s favourite. Another Stephanie Southwick by the sound of it. But look at you now! We are all so immensely proud of you, Michelle (yes, we know you’ll be ‘Majella Bracebridge’ when your name is up in lights, but to us you’ll always be our Michelle).
We miss you heaps. We love receiving your entertaining letters, though please don’t take the trouble to send such long compositions at the expense of your college work. Just a quick postcard to let us know you’re all right would suffice. Do make sure you’re getting enough sleep too.
I must dash. I’ve a mountain of shirts and school uniforms that won’t iron themselves. Everyone sends their love. Your dad and Spencer are watching 3-2-1 and Sophie is reading. Animal Farm – you hated doing that one for O-Level too, didn’t you?
All our love, Mom, Dad, Sophie & Spencer xxxx
The Genesis of Melba Most
‘See him,’ my neighbour at the bar nudged me the second the interval began, and gestured towards the stage with his cigarette (you could smoke in clubs back then), ‘on the keyboards?’
I looked around, and then up, due to the stranger’s height. A six-foot wisp, with cobalt blue eyes and a flop of blond hair like David Bowie in the Ashes to Ashes video, he wore a billowy yellow silk shirt, tight black trousers fastened with elaborate, corset-style lacing, and the obligatory eyeliner.
As it happened, I had hitherto not noticed this striking creature, having had eyes all evening only for the stage and its occupants, Birmingham’s hottest New Romantic band.
‘Trevor,’ I replied to him.
‘Closet,’ he half mimed, half yelled over the racket, pouting and winking like Les Dawson in a Cissie and Ada routine. He briefly reminded me of someone, other than Les Dawson, but the recollection faded in an instant. ‘Big fan of Judy Garland, if you catch my drift.’
I didn’t. At least not immediately. I was still quite unworldly, more so than you might expect for a drama student, though I summoned up my thesp skills and nodded convincingly sagely.
I was warming to my new companion. While it was more the norm here at Zena’s to project an intimidating pose, there was something cosy and gossipy about him, with his Black Country accent and comically expressive features. He bizarrely – or on second thoughts not so – reminded me of my mother.
‘Takes one to know one, as they say. I’ve seen him in Larry’s, ingeniously disguised in dark glasses and a hat. Très inconspicuous!’ His every sentence ended on an upward inflection, making it sound like a question.
Larry’s, named after Larry Grayson of Generation Game fame, was a gay club in Hurst Street. I’d been there once myself, to see a hilarious drag queen. I just wasn’t au fait with some of the vernacular. Finally the penny dropped with a clank. ‘That’s not true about Trev,’ I protested. He’s got a girlfriend.’
‘Oscar Wilde had a wife.’
‘I’m just glad you didn’t say the same thing about the singer.’
‘I’ve been seeing him for a few months,’ I responded nonchalantly, quashing the image of the wedding dress I’d furtively doodled in my journal during a lecture on Harold Pinter only yesterday. I was actually flattered this chap had made the assumption I was the girlfriend of Gareth Rushcliff as opposed to a crazed groupie.
‘Lucky lady! Look, can I get you a drink, bab?’
I smiled at the Black Country term of endearment, so much more down to earth than the ‘darling’ generally favoured by theatrical types. ‘Cinzano, please.’
‘Two Cinanzos, please Jermaine.’ He did a little wave at the gaunt barman. Jermaine was all puckered lips and sparrow eyes; the latter of wihch scoured me up and down, while the former conveyed evident distaste. Even the staff subjected you to the once-over you at Zena’s.
I returned Jermaine’s haughty stare, entertaining a fantasy that I would one day be a star and he would crow obsequiously to the press about how many drinks he used to serve me, claiming his pathetic fifteen minutes of fame by association.
In that spring of 1981, this was the place to be in Birmingham. To be thus scrutinised was almost an honour; it meant you had been granted entry in the first place. Anyone not deemed adequately glamorous was famously denied admission by the ruthless door staff. Many a spurned clubber could be seen drooping back down Broad Street of a night.
However, to be disdained by said door staff was conversely viewed as a badge of honour by some. There was a bet under way in my year on who could earn the most creative insult. This term Tim Bellows was winning thus far, having been snubbed for possessing ‘all the fashion sense of a bucket of hot poo.’
Inside was a sea of tartan, frills, quiffs and smoke. It was a veritable hat party, with pirate tricorns, cloches and Pierrot hats adorning numerous beautiful heads. Jermaine sported preposterously long earrings and a glittery black shirt with a ruff.
Zena herself was overseeing proceedings from a royal box type area, her customary diamante cigarette holder wedged in her scarlet mouth. Tonight she was garbed in a 1920s style turban and a silvery space suit that predated Lady Gaga’s fashion sense by a good thirty years.
She was reportedly a duke’s daughter – although I had heard alternative rumours that she was a Russian prostitute disowned by her wealthy family who were descended from the last Tsar, or that she was in fact from Dudley and had circulated the two more outlandish stories herself to create mystique.
She had started her club the previous year, as Birmingham’s answer to the legendary Blitz in London.
‘Thanks, Jermaine. Get that down your Gregory, chick.’ My friend did a little mock stumble as though about to spill the Cinzano on me, in parody of the famous commercial starring Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter. ‘That’s my mom’s favourite advert, that is. That and the Andrex puppy. What’s your name, by the way?’
‘Majella Bracebridge.’ It was the first time I had divulged my future stage name to anyone but Gareth. I always felt like Majella at this club. The place was like a film set anyway; an underworld of fantasy and facade.
‘How glorious! You should go on the stage with a handle like that.’
‘I intend to. I’m in my first year at BAPA.’ I was presumptuous enough back then not to clarify that the acronym stood for Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts. It appeared I didn’t need to in this case, though.
‘So we’re both performers. I’m Melvyn Corns,’ he grimaced, proffering a hand to shake, ‘but don’t hold that against me. It’s Mel to you. Melvyn’s my Sunday name. You may already be familiar with my Tuesday night name.’ He flicked his eyebrows up and down archly.
I racked my brains for haunts in which I had spent recent Tuesday nights. It wasn’t easy to narrow down. In fact it wasn’t easy to distinguish Tuesday from any other night. I was rarely in. There was nothing like being a clichéd socialite student.
In answer to my no doubt mystified expression, Mel wagged his cigarette about like a baton, pouted and raised his voice to a shrewish cackle. ‘I’ve seen yow round the back of Rackhams with more than just your label hanging out!’
‘Heidi Sausage!’ Heidi Sausage was the resident drag queen at Larry’s. Now I knew why he’d been fleetingly familiar when he distorted his pretty face into that of a Black Country crone.
He nodded, grinning. ‘Except when I perform at my mom’s British Legion club in Dudley. Then I’m Poppy A. Peel. The old boys love a bit of drag actually. I think it takes them back to their ENSA days. The act needs more work, though, I admit.’
‘Oh, I think you’re a hoot.’
‘Shucks!’ Mel pretended to cry, with theatrical gratitude. ‘I spotted you in the audience actually.’
‘Yeah, I went with my friend Nelson. He’s just got a job there himself actually.’
‘The black dancer.’
‘You know him?’
‘Beautiful boy.’ Mel’s blue eyes went all misty and wistful.
‘Great character. You know, at his audition he spun a sob story about how he hitchhiked all the way from Antigua with only his teddy bear and ballet shoes in his rucksack. Just showed what an awesome actor he is – he actually comes from Wolverhampton.’
Mel guffawed. ‘Super stuff.’
‘He’s working tonight. I’m surprised you’re not over there. He’s been rehearsing all week. Blasting out the halls of residence with nonstop ABBA and Eartha Kitt.’
‘Heaven! Well tonight I’m on a works outing, believe it or not. The day job, that is. The gang from Lee Longlands wanted to experience Brum’s underground scene.’ He laid ironic emphasis on the word ‘underground’ by flexing his fingers into quotation marks and rolling his eyes. I had wondered why someone so vivacious appeared to be out alone. ‘They’re over by that wall. I prefer a better vantage point to watch the bands.’
He waved at a huddle of suitably terrified-looking men in suits, who returned his wave without much enthusiasm. Mel’s workmates occupied a table, and in a place like this their conservative attire made them appear outlandish.
‘How did they get in? Because they’re with you, I suppose,’ I answered my own question as Mel smiled modestly. ‘I must admit I can’t quite picture you selling sofas, though.’ Lee Longlands was a long-established furniture shop in Broad Street.
‘Have you considered a leather loveseat, Moddom?’ He immediately assumed a more demure persona that was a million miles away from bawdy Heidi, while still retaining a twinkle, and I could see what a good actor and born salesman he in fact was.
‘You never thought of going to drama school?’
‘Couldn’t afford it. Hence I flog dining tables and pouffes – no sniggering, please – to the good people of this city and send money home to Mom in Dudley while hawking my arse around the clubs in frocks of a night. It pays the rent. Leave it to Lee, leave it to Lee,’ he chanted the store’s catchy advertising jingle.
‘Where do you get your frocks from?’
‘My mom mostly. Miss Brierley Hill 1954. Anyway, I’ve rabbited on about me long enough. Tell me about you, Majella Bracebridge.’
‘Well I’d love to become the next Lena Zavaroni.’ I giggled, doing self-conscious jazz hands in Mel’s face. ‘I won my school talent competition with an impression of her. I idolised her. Still do. I won a record token for that effort. I got the bug from then on. I was that annoying pushy kid who was in all the shows.
‘I would get such a buzz just from being backstage – or, as it was known during the day, the art room. I didn’t love school, but loved that room when it was transformed into the “backstage” area for Bugsy Malone or Oliver. Leotards and sequins all over the desks; waiting for your cue to go out in front of that curtain.’
‘I was the same.’
‘Don’t say they let you do Heidi or Poppy at school!’
‘That wouldn’t have gone down too well at Dudley Boys Grammar. No, but when we did Shakespeare I was always first on with the tights. Anyway, I think you should go for a part in Crossroads. I adore Noelle Gordon. So drama school then – is it really like that film, Fame? You all leap on the desks and burst into dance routines?’
‘Sometimes! Until I get my big break, I need a bit of pocket money to keep myself in rice and booze. So I’ve got a job interview next week – at Rackhams, would you believe.’
Rackhams was a vast department store in the city centre. The patch at the back of it, as maligned by Mel in his Heidi Sausage guise, was an alleged red-light district.
‘You going to be one of those painted dames on the perfume counter, who squirt every passing shopper?’ He sounded as enchanted about my prospective Saturday job as about my acting ambitions. ‘I love watching them. Research for the act. The way they spade their make-up on fascinates me.’
‘No, the post I’m going for is in the toy section.’
‘I used to love that too. My mom used to take me to the grotto every Christmas. Magic, it was. I still get a thrill when I walk through the doors. Most folks get their thrills behind the store these days. So are these lot – what’s it they’re called, Glinda Spitfire – gonna be the next big thing?’
‘They’re hoping so. Got a record deal. First single out in a couple of weeks.’
‘Super stuff. That Romy’s a dirty cow, though. There’s nothing she won’t do for a tin of beans, from what I’ve heard. Even tried it on with me once – that’s how indiscriminate she is. Said she could “turn” me. Made me feel positively queasy.’
My stomach plummeted. Romy Rotunda (I had no idea of her real name – pseudonyms were becoming a bit of a theme here) was a five-foot-nothing, sixteen-stone ‘performance artiste.’ Her stage name was derived from the iconic cylindrical tower block in the centre of Birmingham. A picture of her superimposed on to a shot of the Rotunda, appearing to give it a blow job, hung on the wall in this club.
Her act, such as it was, essentially consisted of hurling herself on stage, her blubber bulging out of a tiny costume, whirling her knee-length hair around. The hair appeared to assume a life of its own. It was like a creature, freaky and furry, which I half expected to leap off Romy’s head and scurry across the room to an unseen burrow.
She was a friend of Zena’s, hence was given free rein whenever there was a band on. Due to Glinda Spitfire being the house band here, she generally hurled herself at them. There was currently a debate afoot on whether Romy ought to become a permanent member of the band. It had reached stalemate, with Joe the drummer and Mike the guitarist in favour (for obvious reasons – both were rumoured to have ‘had’ her); Trevor (for what would appear now to be even more obvious reasons) and Gareth (to my relief) against.
It all made the title of their impending debut album, Business with Pleasure, seem disconcertingly apt.
As if sensitive to my unease, Mel nudged me, changing the subject. ‘Anyway, have you ever met this so-called girlfriend of Trousers Down Trev then?’
‘Well no,’ I admitted.
Just then, a pudgy man in a rumpled suit lurched over and plonked his arm around Mel’s shoulders, breathing beer gusts.
‘We’re moving on. You joining us, son? It’s like a bloody fancy dress party in here.’
‘No thanks, Doug. The band are about to come back on. See you at work Monday.’
Doug rolled his eyes and lurched off with the rest of Mel’s colleagues, who burbled similar farewells.
‘Go with them, if you like,’ I urged, not wanting him to be excluded from the party. ‘Please don’t stay on my account.’
‘You mean you’re not loving my company?’ He feigned a weep again. ‘No, they’re decent enough chaps, but we’ve got different interests, as you might have gathered. They’ve obviously seen all they want to see of what they call the underground scene, and I don’t exactly fit in at the sort of hostelries they favour. Eh up, it’s time for action again.’
There was a roar as the lights dimmed, and Joe Lucas, short, stocky and cocky, beer in hand, plopped himself down behind the vast drum kit.
Trevor Lilley, ‘the enigmatic one,’ in his black army great coat, assumed his spot behind the keyboards and acknowledged the audience with a shy nod.
Mike Ramshaw was the pretty boy of the group, though it was not about him that rumours circulated, for he was a known ladies’ man. The band hadn’t even been on Top of the Pops yet, and girls had already been known to faint at the sight of Mike’s floaty hair and pouty mouth. He swaggered on stage, blowing a kiss in proud acknowledgement of the female screams and whistles, his guitar swinging around his lean body like a sword.
Finally came Gareth Rushcliff, the sable-haired, self-assured frontman, in leather trousers and the military jacket of some indeterminate army. My callow heart still did aerobics at the sight of him.
He swiped the microphone off its stand and bowed flamboyantly, then for the first time that evening looked in my direction and grinned.
He saluted – keeping the military theme – and declared, over the intro to Rainbow Eyes, the new song that would become their first monster hit, ‘This one’s for Majella!’
It was not until we were in our thirties, over a late-night gossip-and-vodka session, that Mel and I reminisced over that night and, covering my face with my hands, I tipsily cringed, ‘I can’t believe I made you wait with me an hour and a half by that stage door. It was bloody freezing.’
‘It was a bit raw for April, I must admit, but you hardly made me. I was enjoying the company. It was me who felt awful for you, for what happened afterwards.’
After that Glinda Spitfire show, Mel had declared he was ‘starved’ and suggested we procure ourselves an extremely early breakfast from Bert’s Burgers, the legendary van pitched just down the road from Zena’s.
‘Salmonella on a bap?’ I grimaced, even though I knew my willpower would be no match for those oily, oniony aromas. It was practically the law: after a night on the booze, you would stave off the two o’clock munchies by willingly spending money on a trashy snack containing dubious meat and too much mayonnaise. Bert’s (unofficial slogan: ‘A bit of dirt woe hurt ya!’) always drew infinite queues of revellers with the same idea.
‘I’d like to go and wait for Gaz first, though, by the stage door.’ I was giddily eager to see him. Stuff Romy bloody Rotunda – Gareth had publically dedicated a song to me! That had to mean true love.
Mel helped me into my coat (the perfect gentleman – he’d have been the perfect boyfriend were it not for the obvious impediments) as we emerged into the bracing Birmingham air.
‘Don’t you have a backstage pass?’
‘No,’ I admitted, buckling up my coat and shivering as I adjusted to the temperature.
If Mel was sceptical about that, he didn’t show it.
As I said, we were an hour and a half stomping from foot to foot outside that stage door. There was a sizeable cluster of fans out there, though nothing like the mobs Glinda Spitfire would be attracting within the next few months.
Mel uncomplainingly stayed with me, hands wedged into deep pockets, except when he lit a periodic cigarette. We chatted so easily, like school friends who didn’t want to end their playground conversation and return to lessons, I forgot I’d only met him that night. We darted from subject to subject, as we had done all evening.
Before Gareth surfaced, I’d learned that Melvyn Corns was aged twenty, an only child, who originated from the Kates Hill area of Dudley but had been lodging in digs in Edgbaston for just over a year, and was currently taking driving lessons. His dad passed away when he was nine. He’d mentioned his mother several times that night, and described himself as ‘the daughter she never had.’
We passed the time so affably, I almost forgot our reason for standing in that chilly car park like participants in a fire drill – untiln the stage door burst open.
‘Gareth!’ I lurched towards him. He was alone initially, although Trevor briefly dipped his head outside but then just as quickly retreated, possibly on spotting Mel.
My boyfriend waved in acknowledgement of me, but scribbled a few autographs for the patient crowd before coming over and dropping a kiss on to my forehead.
‘Thank you for serenading me in there.’ I roped my arms around his waist, utterly blissful at the feel of his strong body; the scent of him. I snuggled my face into his chest. I must admit I was enjoying the knowledge that there would be jealous girls in this crowd realising I was the aforementioned ‘Majella,’ not just another fan but Gareth’s girlfriend. Now I know I must have resembled a submissive puppy, all scrunched into him like that.
‘Yeah, yeah. Look, babe, I gotta get back in there. Paul’s called a meeting.’ Paul was the band’s manager.
‘At this hour?’ I pouted.
‘The hour doesn’t matter, babe. We’ve got important business to attend to. Things are hotting up for us and there’s a lot to discuss. Nothing you’d be interested in.’
‘This is Mel, by the way,’ I gestured desperately.
‘All right, Mel.’ Gareth tossed a glance towards my new friend. ‘Look, I’ll call you, OK.’ He clasped my face between his hands and slapped another kiss on my head, as if with the vigour of it he would shut me up and fulfil us both for a few hours.
My ‘…you’ was drowned out. Gareth dived for the door, just as Joe edged it open. ‘Yow coming, geezer?’ The drummer didn’t come fully out, but from the little I saw of him he had a fag in his mouth and his other arm was lolled around Romy Rotunda’s plump shoulders.
‘Yeah, yeah, mate,’ Gareth replied as he disappeared back inside without a backward glance.
I stood there piteously for a second, his kiss still drying on my forehead, before Mel put a surprisingly strong arm around my shoulders and declared, ‘I don’t know about you, chick, but I’m dying for that burger.’
While the ‘Gareth’ situation may have lacked promise, the night marked the commencement of a beautiful friendship at least.
Within a few weeks, Mel had taken me home to Dudley to meet his beloved mother, Gloria. She was a tiny, warm lady, and the best cook in the entire world. The uses she didn’t have for black pudding were not worth knowing about.
I still recall the divine smell that greeted us the first time Mel let us into the small terrace. Gloria was all rosy, in her apron, pulling a tray of scones out of the oven – a classic mother hen.
‘He gets his height from his dad,’ she crooned in her Black Country tones, looking up at Mel as he cuddled her. Their relationship was really more like that between a mother and daughter than mother and son.
Gloria was enlightened and shrewd too. She put me in Mel’s room for the night (to be fair, the house only had two bedrooms), under no delusions that her son was, or would ever likely be, ‘bringing a girl home’ in the traditional sense. I had the bed, Mel a sleeping bag on the floor, and we all knew he wasn’t going to be slipping anything under my covers.
Mel confided to me that he aspired to ‘buy Mom a mansion’ with his first million, but in fact I couldn’t picture Gloria Corns in a roomy, austere home. Modest as her house was, its very walls exuded love.
Pictures, frills and nick-nacks occupied every square inch, as though she loved all of her possessions so much she couldn’t bear to consign any to a cupboard. The family cat, a corpulent tabby called Cherub, was nuzzled up on a patchwork cushion.
On Saturdays, World of Sport would blast out of Gloria’s little TV while she baked in the adjoining kitchen. She was addicted to the wrestling and would vigorously cheer on the local hero Lord Lump Hammer the Gornal Grappler (real name: Walter Goody) against Big Daddy or Giant Haystacks.
I met her next door neighbour, who had similarly chatty, bustling personality and was named Alice Cooper, would you believe. She wore considerably less mascara than her famous namesake. When Alice and Gloria nattered, passing the biscuit tin back and forth, it was easy to see who inspired Heidi and Poppy. I could picture the young Melvyn, ostensibly watching The Sooty Show but really eavesdropping like mad. He’d lifted some of their patter word for word for his act.
One night we went to the Legion to watch Poppy A. Peel in action. Poppy was a somewhat tamer creature than the Heidi Sausage who Mel unleashed on Birmingham’s late-night gay crowd, but he was right when he said she went down a storm with the old soldiers. One, who had cataracts, declared that Poppy was more attractive than his wife, and requested ‘her’ phone number.
Fifteen years later, Gloria, Alice and I were on the studio front row when Mel – who by now had adopted his ‘Melba Most’ alter ego, having wisely decided ‘Heidi Sausage’ was not very telly-friendly – won The Big Big Talent Show.
It was a long graft from the tough Birmingham club circuit to eventual mainstream stardom, which saw Mel(ba) presenting game shows and standing in for Judy on This Morning, in a beautiful bouffant wig and custom-made versions of Gloria’s 1950s halter-necks. His act became more refined over the years. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though.
In my second year at college, Mel and I became flatmates. Four of us shared mildewed digs on the Bristol Road in Edgbaston. My friend Linda, who was doing the stand-up comedy module at BAPA, and I were labelled ‘fag hags’ for lodging with Mel and Nelson, the flamboyant dancer, but we didn’t care. It was a happy time.
I drove past the place only a couple of months ago, as it happens. It’s a mobile phone shop now, but in my mind’s eye was a vision of Mel’s decrepit Cortina (he was the only one of who owned a car) plonked on double-yellows outside, and us gleefully unloading endless boxes from the boot and lugging them up the poky staircase.
Late that night, the four of us, lolling in the deckchairs that constituted our provisional ‘lounge’ furniture, toasted our new home with sparkling wine in mugs.
I never forget how elated I felt that day. I was young and independent in an exhilarating city, I was enjoying the job at Rackhams, my three best friends and I were going to be megastars, and I was tenaciously in love with a fledgling pop star.
Two weeks later, I caught Gareth around the back of Rackhams with Romy Rotunda. It was my worst birthday ever.
September 27, 2013 at 7:18 am (Blogs)
A little story that I wrote some time ago, Scents of Time, was recently turned down by one of the women’s magazines (though I did receive very positive feedback on it, for which I was grateful).
So I thought I would share it here for your pleasure (or otherwise):
Jasmine, I pondered. Or possibly Lily? Or, what was this one that had toppled over at the back? My fingers scrabbled determinedly into the reaches of my scented candle cupboard. Ah, Sensual Cotton. Perhaps that would best set the mood this evening.
You did read that correctly – I actually possess a scented candle cupboard. Other women devote closets to their shoe or handbag hoards; my fixation is with scented candles. I can’t pass a gift shop without seeking out a new fragrance for my collection.
Decisions, decisions. I added Sensual Cotton, pretty and powder blue with its overtones of fresh washing, to the line-up already on the carpet next to me. I experienced a silly spurt of glee seeing them all in formation, like colourful soldiers, their assorted heights reflecting the lengths of time each had been lit.
Patrick had been working away and was on his way home. On a romantic whim, I had decided to cook an intricate dinner involving couscous and butternut squash. One of these candles surrounding me on the floor would, I hoped, set the scene to perfection. An aroma can be as powerful as a piece of music at both evoking and creating memories.
I picked up the first in line. Lemon. One of my favourites, melted to virtually a stub. A purchase made immediately after our week in Italy, so impatient had I been to relive our holiday evenings dining amidst those heady Tuscan lemon groves.
Lily. Patrick bought me a sensational bunch of lilies on our first Valentine’s Day. “I suppose they should be roses really,” he’d said, but I vigorously disagreed. To me, roses are rather a cliché, and their smug, thorny quality leaves me cold.
It’s not just that – my ex-boyfriend, Mark, bought roses for me. And for the girl he was seeing behind my back. I might never have found out had the florist not mixed up our cards. He gave me a rose scented candle too. That one was consigned to the bin. Along with his flowers.
I shook my head, attempting to dislodge the memory.
Moving on, I took a lungful of mellow Coconut Breeze. It spoke to me of beaches, suncream and my favourite drink, rum.
Vanilla and Nutmeg, the first candle I ever bought, for the first flat I rented, with my sister, over a butcher’s shop. This isn’t that actual candle; I’ve burned many successors to the one which masked those raw meat wafts.
I can see that flat, and the yard outside, in my mind’s eye. The hanging basket drooping from a hook on the wobbly fence, containing indistinguishable husks of what had once been flowers. We had many fun times there, despite its off-putting frontage.
Then came a cerise monstrosity with an unlit wick, that I initially couldn’t place. “Raspberry Blush,” proclaimed the label. I cringed at both the name and its artificially fruity stench. Not something I would have chosen myself. A village fete raffle prize, now I came to think of it.
Chocolate. Do I really need to explain the appeal of that one?
Mulled wine. I reserve that for Christmas only.
Licorice. Actually that tends to remain in the cupboard as it’s a reminder I once knocked it over and scorched the living room carpet. I never confessed my mishap to Patrick, just slyly relocated the coffee table over the mark.
Strawberries and Cream. My favourite dessert, evocative of childhood and summer, and picnics with Mum, Dad and Georgina, my sister.
Cinnamon. That was the topping I sprinkled on to my coffee on our first semi-official date, when Patrick invited me impromptu to Starbucks after work.
We met in a lift, would you believe. We worked for different companies in the same building, him on the fourth floor, me on the tenth. He was wearing amber aftershave that day. Amber Musk – that’s another of my favourite candles.
Ah, now Jasmine. My mind instantly drifted to Egypt, where the exotic white flower had been in glorious bloom that night he produced a tiny box at dinner and asked, “Roberta, will you marry me?” I stole a peek at my beautiful diamond now, still a novelty on my left hand. I was planning a jasmine bridal bouquet.
Pine. Walks in the forest, in that sweet, bracing air. Our first winter together. Patrick and I in woolly hats and gloves, cuddling and giggling together like one of those nauseating couples in films set at Christmas when it’s permanently snowing.
Mint. The smell of Granny’s garden from my childhood. She used to grow tons of the stuff. Georgina and I would play amongst it. Dear Granny. She had been poorly of late but I dearly hoped she would be able to make it to the wedding.
By the time Patrick arrived home, my chosen Jasmine was infusing the lounge with its blossom scent.
“Hi darling. Ooh, I’ve missed you. But eek, what’s that smell?”
“Jasmine,” I replied, proudly kissing him. I traced my finger flirtatiously down his lapel. Mmm, he was wearing the amber aftershave again. “Doesn’t it take you back to a certain evening in Egypt?”
“Of course. It’s just there’s definite overtones of something else there. You haven’t been setting fire to the carpet again, have you?”
“You knew about that?” I was too taken aback to deny it.
“Ah, we need a new carpet in here anyway.”
I gave a little yelp and zoomed into the kitchen. “The dinner!”
“Don’t worry, Roberta,” Patrick consoled as I tipped cremated pellets of couscous into the bin.
“I suppose I’m not much of a cook, am I really?” Come to think of it, a fair number of my candle aromas evoke occasions spent in restaurants or on holidays.
Patrick unearthed a Chinese restaurant menu from a drawer. “Hey, darling, check out the name of this one.”
The Jasmine Palace. I couldn’t help but smile. The scent would carry new connotations now.
I blew out the candle as Patrick booked us a table.
May 18, 2013 at 6:38 pm (Blogs)
About this time last year, I wrote a blog in praise of Catherine O’Flynn, a Birmingham author whose second novel, The News Where You Are, I was reading at the time and which inspired me to pick up my pen once again after a couple of years’ absence and procrastination.
I recently unearthed her acclaimed first novel, What Was Lost, in a charity shop (2 paperback novels for £3 – bargain). Oh wow, I’m only a third of the way through and I just know it’s going to be one of those books I will be incapable of putting down and will finish in a couple of days.
What Was Lost is set in Birmingham (partly) in the 1980s – what’s not to love? And its main location is a shopping mall named Green Oaks, very reminiscent of Merry Hill, the Black Country colossus in which I whiled away many an hour as a teenager. For Black Country youth, the “Mezza” was (and doubtlessly still is) a popular Saturday afternoon hangout, and bunking-off destination if you fancied escaping school on the bus.
I won’t give too much away, but Chapter 1 begins in 1984 aboard a bus, with Kate, seemingly a young policewoman, observing the shifty antics of her fellow passengers. It soon becomes clear, however, that Kate is in fact a lonely, precocious, fantasist 10-year-old girl who, bored with humdrum school life and left to her own devices by her family, dreams of becoming a detective and lives out her fantasy by making notes of “suspicious” behaviour and painstakingly drawing assorted noses, moustaches, glasses, etc, in a makeshift Identi-Kit book.
This is an utter gem of a book. The writing just leaps off the page. I adore the setting, of course, and the 80s touches. Most of all, I can identify with little Kate.
The younger Leigh harboured no aspirations to investigate crime, but I was that quiet, imaginative kid in class, whose brain would leap ahead of her; the misfit; the one who usually befriended the deprived, unruly, misunderstood genius (named Teresa Stanton in the book). I yearned for a world away from netball, incomprehensible maths and watching Science Workshop on that huge telly and Betamax video the teachers used to wheel in. In my case I used to bury myself in creating stories. Some things have not changed.
The urge to write still marches through my fingers. I am feeling so inspired today. Engrossing myself in effortless-looking prose like Catherine’s really spurs me on to try and make something of my own writing.