Mel’s View of the BAPA Reunion
Why was I at the reunion? I hear you cry. As you’ve been following Majella’s saga, you’ll know I was never a student of Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts. I received no formal training at all. My ‘training’ came via hawking my arse around the clubs and holiday camps; my muses were my dear mother’s coffee morning cronies.
In fact the reason for my presence was that, having quit the Lee Longlands furniture emporium prior to my 1984 summer season, which failed to set North Devon alight, I’d been obliged to take a succession of menial occupations to get by, amongst them janitor-cum-dogsbody at BAPA. Despite sponging urinals for a living now, I hadn’t abandoned my nightclub alter egos. In fact the cleaning ladies’ filthy gossip inspired me anew, with fresh material for Heidi and Poppy.
My job encompassed such responsibilities as arranging tables for events like reunions. However, on this particular occasion I had also been permitted to remain on a semi-guest basis to represent Majella. Quite why I felt the need to provide representation for her I couldn’t tell you, but hey ho.
I’d tried to coax her to attend. ‘She won’t be there, chick. She’ll be ranting about tampons to the lucky citizens of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. I checked her tour schedule.’
Linda, our former flatmate and pal, self-styled ‘slut feminist,’ had become ‘she’ to us. ‘She’ who must not be named. Even my allusion to her now made Majella shudder. Linda Dyson. She sucked like a Dyson too, from what I heard. Pity I couldn’t use that joke back then, but Mr Dyson didn’t invent his super duper vacuum cleaner for a good few years. ‘Oh, please come. Nelson’s just back from his cruise. He’ll be disappointed not to see you.’
‘They’ll all be sniggering,’ she bleated. ‘It’ll be all “Oh, did you see Lock & Quay? Wasn’t Linda terrific?” and then “Oh Majella, you were very good in the, er…Monthlicare commercial. You ice skate like a pro…and those white trousers fit you like a glove!” Why do I want to spend a night listening to that?’
‘Why the assumption that you’ll be the focus? Most of that lot haven’t had the level of success that you have.’
‘Wow, poor things!’ She returned to flipping indolently through the Woolworths Christmas catalogue she was pretending to read.
The pair of us were still flatmates, though had relocated to threadbare quarters above a butchers in Edgbaston. We accessed our abode via a yard alongside Lycett & Sons Quality Meats. Our version of a ‘garden’ was a hanging basket drooping from a hook on the wobbly fence, containing indistinguishable husks of what had once been flowers.
I was contemplating moving on, though had yet to broach the notion with Majella. Even I was growing self-conscious of our set-up. We were known within certain circles as The Odd Couple – which, bearing in mind the company we had been known to keep, was saying something. We were like the most unorthodox married couple ever: shared bathroom; shared cat; separate bedrooms; communal make-up bag; London Boys posters on the fridge; occasional boyfriends grunting awkward greetings over the Rice Krispies. We would watch Blind Date together while preparing for Saturday nights out, take it in turns to cook the evening meal, test one another on lines (when she actually had any acting engagements), nag, bicker. I’d caught myself sniping ‘At least one of us is in regular employment’ the other day.
And the continuous stench of raw offal was starting to get on my tits.
‘You due at Rackhams today?’ I asked as I toggled my coat up.
‘Supposed to be, but I’ll call in sick.’
‘Well I am sick. You said.’
‘I know, sweetheart, but get help. See the doc. You can’t wallow.’ I was concerned about Majella’s state of mind. I found myself making a mental inventory of all the sharp objects in the flat, wondering if it would be prudent to hide them. I felt hopeless, to be quite honest. But there was little I could achieve right now, as I was on my way to work. ‘Look, we’ll talk later, OK? Give your mom a ring, or my mom.’
‘Promise.’ She was wearing a My Little Pony T-shirt, and looked about six years old. She had lost so much weight, she could fit into children’s clothes. Also, she claimed she was being ‘ironic and retro.’
‘We’ll put the tree up when I get back, if you like.’ I dropped a kiss on the top of her head. A devoted hubby off to earn a few groats. The cat came padding in from his nap. I ushered him towards Majella, slouched in the armchair. ‘Come on, Tesco, talk to Mommy.’
As it was a radiant, bracing afternoon, I shunned the bus (I was presently between cars, the Cortina having finally juddered off to the great mechanic in the sky) and walked. The nippy air was a perfect antidote to the flat’s leaden atmosphere.
The Christmas lights were draped across the streets, ready to burst forth into colour the minute darkness fell, and festive displays adorned the shop windows. The window dressing was the one aspect of working at Lee Longlands that I missed. Having been deemed ‘a bit…ahem…artistic’ by the boss, I was always assigned that responsibility.
I passed Lee Longlands en route to the college now. Ah, that tableau lacked my touch! If I say so myself, I could always work magic with a couple of footstools and a few sprigs of holly.
Birmingham was becoming a pleasanter place to walk these days. Well right now much of it was under a mass of scaffolding, as the what-would-become world-renowned Symphony Hall and National Indoor Arena were under construction. This was the start of the city centre’s vast redevelopment, from concrete 1960s hangover into the vibrant bubble we know today.
The nondescript patch in front of the college entrance had been jazzed up with a few statues and flowerbeds and named Centenary Square that year, 1989, to mark the centenary since Birmingham was granted city status.
There were changes afoot in the world at large too. The Berlin Wall – constructed in the year of my birth, so long a symbol of division and oppression – had been torn down; all over Europe, Communist states were overthrowing their authoritarian governments; new countries whose names I would never memorise were declaring independence from the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavian and Czechoslovakian states.
I used to be randomly obsessed with geography when I was a kid, and could identify all the flags of the world. Not anymore. Still, my confusion at future Olympic Games opening ceremonies was a tiny price to pay for the end of the Cold War. A new decade was dawning; it was a time of great excitement and liberation.
OK, so excited and liberated were not quite what I felt when I donned my tabard and hoisted forth the Toilet Duck, but it was a living.
The first face I recognised at the reunion, as I was mopping up someone’s spilt Martini, was Tim Bellows. He clomped in, with a simpering bimbo on each arm. I wasn’t aware he was ever in Jesus Christ Superstar, but he looked the part, with his artfully unkempt hair and beard and big shaggy sheepskin.
Last week’s TV Times had dubbed him ‘the nation’s favourite postboy,’ extolling his ‘down to earth charm and cuddly appeal.’ When I happened to glance up and establish eye contact, this cuddly postboy recoiled as though I’d spat on him. The hired help daring to behold his betters.
‘No autographs,’ he sneered. ‘Where’s your curlers, Hilda Ogden?’ The bimbos twittered. I yearned to retort that actually I’d dropped Hilda Ogden from the act years ago, and these days it was all about Liz McDonald, darling. But he’d probably have had me fired.
Bellows did a cursory lap of honour of the room, shaking hands with his fawning classmates as though anointing them. He then left, his cameo appearance at the function having lasted approximately three minutes. Believe me, nobody laughed harder than I did when he cropped up decades later flogging late-night Viagra.
Whilst anticipating the grand arrival of Nelson (he was always late), I chatted to other acquaintances of Majella’s who I remembered from those days. They all asked after her; none derided her whilst revering Linda as she’d prophesied. It strikes me that had mobile phones been in widespread usage then (and not just the yuppie bricks favoured by Del Boy), I could have rattled off a text to Majella. ‘Get your arse down here Maj,’ I could have said. ‘They’re all friendly.’
There was Finn Maynard, not a familiar face but a prolific voiceover artiste, who had lent his larynx to toilet rim block, among other products.
Lydia Goode I recognised from The Mo & Bo Show (well I was at home lunchtimes, and there was only Going for Gold on the other side). The show was filmed across the road at the Central studios in Birmingham. She was a pretty little blonde thing with plaits – the very archetype of a children’s TV presenter. She even had one of those squeaky, ‘I’ve got a hundred and one uses for a toilet roll tube’ voices.
During my break I was at liberty to avail myself of a plateful from the buffet. I was pushing a chicken drumstick around my plate when I encountered Dale Burfoot. Mmm, I remembered him. Swarthy, serious (sadly heterosexual), once played Hamlet. I recalled an evening in an old Birmingham pub, The Old Joint Stock, egging Majella on to make a play for him, but she was still too fixated at the time on Gareth bloody Rushcliff to admire any other man.
‘Hello Dale!’ I greeted him now, pathetically enthusiastically. Bewilderment shadowed his handsome face. I introduced myself. He was clearly none the wiser but flashed me a polite, stern smile. ‘You most likely don’t remember me. As soon as I walk away, you’ll be thinking, Who the hell was that crazy fool who thinks he knows me?’ I laughed woodenly. Why on earth was I gabbling away like a ninny? ‘So, er, what are you up to these days, Dale?’
‘Just finished a season with the RSC.’
He didn’t enquire what I was ‘up to these days’ – though it was possible he’d just seen me remove my apron, which may well have rendered such a question unnecessary.
My plate felt leadenly heavy in my hand. I jabbed my charred chicken leg into a pool of salad cream, toying with it, not enjoying it. In doing so, I dislodged a crisp, which fluttered to the floor and splintered. Flushing, I retrieved it and tucked it crossly behind an empty prawn shell so I would remember not to eat it – although I liked to boast that my floors were clean enough to consume one’s dinner off.
Victim of Love by Erasure was playing, and I started nodding my head in time, as if to say ‘I’m quite happy listening to the music and enjoying this cardboard food, you really don’t need to keep me company politely, this is not at all awkward.’ What was I like! It was an actual relief when I could dive away from this divine man to mop a floor.
Later, I spotted the aforementioned Lydia Goode sobbing on the shoulder of Kelly Boardman, who was now a dancer with the Brian Rogers Connection. It’s a cleaner’s cliché that you never mean to eavesdrop; it’s just sometimes you can be mopping up a clandestine corner, and details simply filter through.
Mo & Bo’s fluffy arses, I gathered, were not the only places where Rod Rudge was fond of sliding his hands. I caught the words ‘I see why he’s known as Rudge the Sludge…in my knickers…likes it in the Wendy house…I need the job…threatened me…he’s got friends in high places…all started with Jimmy Savile…’
I became conscious that I was mopping fiercely, as though I could scrub away my revulsion at what went on behind the Wendy house flaps on that studio set across the street.
I beetled off, back to the thick of the party, straight into Stephanie Southwick. She hadn’t been in Majella’s year, but was there in her capacity as the girlfriend of Matthew Pardoe, a lecturer.
She’d recently delivered a single, hammy line in a sitcom. I can’t even recall its title, but it was of a type that was becoming ubiquitous, featuring characters called Caroline or Justin who had overacted arguments on pastel Habitat sofas situated opposite the camera. The women were typically advertising executives or graphic designers, with huge hair, gold earrings and shoulder pads you could land a helicopter on. Gaudy, bold colours were in back then. When I see repeats on ITV3 now, my retinas blaze.
‘I played her secretary,’ Stephanie was slurring again (she’d consumed a few Babychams). She burbled on like she’d had the lead in Dynasty, while Matthew looked as though he wanted to merge into the wallpaper. Yes, if texting was invented I could have discreetly typed ‘Steph Southwick – what a f-ing airhead!!’ to Majella, instead of zoning out and wearing a glazed expression.
Unfathomably, Stephanie took to me. She was all over me like I was an exhibit. I detest bigots, of course, but fag hags can be a pain too.
‘Ooh, Matt, he’s all cute and camp,’ she crooned later in the evening, scrabbling at me. ‘Can we keep him as a pet?’ Matt shot me an apologetic grimace. Then again, he was boss-eyed, so I couldn’t actually be entirely positive he was looking at me.
He was practically carrying Stephanie out as Nelson slithered in.
He no longer used the doorway as a life-sized picture frame, executing a pirouette and posing against the frame until all attention was on him, but my old friend still made an impact on a room. He moved with lithe dancer’s grace, robed in a long synthetic brown fur coat.
‘Melly!’ His beautiful face lit up when he saw me. When I hugged him, the enormous coat initially camouflaged how pitifully skinny he was. I just assumed he was exceptionally toned, fresh from his dancing stint on the Princess of the Aegean. ‘No beasts were harmed in the making of this,’ he trilled, indicating the enormous coat, ‘although Basil Brush got a bit anxious at one point!’
He tellingly refused to remove it, despite my mumsy warnings about not feeling the benefit.
‘Come here then, Princess of the Aegean,’ I swathed my arm round his furry little shoulders, ‘let’s fix you up with a drink.’
‘So that’s how Linda got the part in Lock & Quay then,’ reflected Nelson, as he drained another Malibu and coke. I’d filled him in on the origins of our former flatmates’ hissy feud. ‘I did wonder. It’s hardly surprising poor Maj is depressed. Still, after all this time…’
‘She’s stuck in a rut, Nelse.’
‘Who’s to say she’d have got the part herself anyway?’
‘I’ve tried applying that logic with her, but…’ I made a forlorn hand gesture. ‘She’s got depression, I’m sure of it. Been trying to get her to see a doctor, or go for some counselling even. They were brilliant with my cousin last year. Her Arrowsmith & Broom advert’s being shown again as part of the centenary celebrations. I thought that would cheer her up. Ah, I feel hopeless.’
I sighed, suddenly feeling dreadfully jaded and old. Nelson patted my shoulder, and we sat in pensive silence for a few moments. Then he got up.
‘Time for another drink, Melly Moo?’
‘Best make it a soft one, as I’m still technically on duty.’
‘As the drag queen said to the bishop.’
When Nelson returned with his round, we deviated to lighter subjects. He had found a new heroine in the bubble-haired Kylie Minogue. It’s funny to think I’ve met Kyles numerous times over the years since then. Like many English fans of the well-liked soap operas Neighbours and Home and Away, Nelson had unconsciously adopted a faint Australian twang, for instance pronouncing ‘No’ as an elongated nasal ‘Nouw,’ and dropping Aussie phrases like ‘daggy’ and ‘dobbing in’ into conversation.
‘I’m addicted to Neighbours, darling,’ Nelson enthused. ‘She’s such a doll. I even forgive her for marrying Scott. I wanted to do a tribute to her in the show. I Should Be So Ducky, I’d have called it. Tried to pitch it to the cruise people before they sacked me but they weren’t going for it. Incidentally, why is everyone in Home and Away fostered? Australia must be a haven for long-lost relatives and orphans.’
He babbled on, but I honed in on a single word, which boomed in my head, ominous and loud.
He bit his lip, seeming to realise he’d said too much. And then I knew. The weight loss, you see. He wasn’t just toned, he was gaunt. I should have cottoned on sooner. There was pain etched in his deep black eyes as they met mine.
It was one of those moments where I was in a hideous daze at the time yet now can recall every detail as distinctly as if I’d videoed it. The rest of the room seemed to recede as though down a tunnel, but ridiculously, I remember what song was playing in the background – Labour of Love by Hue and Cry – when Nelson divulged to me that he had ‘the big disease with the little name, as Prince sang.’
A cruel acronym for gay was ‘got AIDS yet?’ and I knew of far too many who were succumbing, both within my personal sphere and of course the celebrity world. Rock Hudson, Liberace, and in due course we would lose Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett, amongst others.
‘They don’t admit that’s the reason, of course. My bosses. They’re far too careful. Apparently they’ve got “too many male dancers so they’ll have to let me go.” I can’t prove discrimination.’
‘How did they find out?’
‘I made the mistake of confiding in someone I considered a friend. Bitch! Blabbing bitch, as it turned out. She dobbed me in. The rest of them are paranoid the passengers will catch it off cabin door handles.’
‘Do your parents know?’
‘They’re in denial. They still – despite knowing everything about me – entertained hopes of me waltzing home with a nice Antiguan girl and giving them a legion of grandbabies. Their hopes are dying now. Like me. But hey ho, what can you do?’
He sipped his drink, the little finger protruding; always refined. I could have been taking tea with an old lady facing no more vexatious a setback than her iron breaking down. It was very humbling.
I touched his arm. The gesture was entirely inadequate, but I remember seeming incapable of removing my hand, as though if I did so he would dissolve, I wouldn’t have saved him, and I would be left with nothing to cling to. I remember staring trancelike for ages at my right hand glued to his furry brown coat sleeve. The withered arm inside it was barely discernible.
I was tumbling off a cliff. Majella had depression, Nelson was dying. Was this really the same evening I’d thought the worst that could happen was dropping a crisp in front of Dale Burfoot?
‘Melvyn! Melvyn!’ It was Pat, another cleaner, whose clamorous voice summoned me to reality from along the tunnel. ‘Sorry to disturb you, flower, but we need more bog rolls in the gents’ disabled!’
There was a horrible urgency as Nelson and I hugged goodbye. When we said ‘We must meet up again, soon,’ it wasn’t, couldn’t be, a cliché; we had to follow through on the promise. We could no longer take for granted that we had limitless opportunities to reconvene.
I floated home. The lights, the riotous work dos sprawling out on to Broad Street, were a fuzz, eddying around me.
There was a note from Majella taped to the fridge.
Gone to bed. Couldn’t finish my dinner, so left half for you in oven – it’s a Menu Master lasagne, but I’m trying! Hope it went well tonight. Sorry I’m grumpy. We’ll do the tree tomorrow.
It seemed an aeon since I’d mentioned the Christmas tree. At least I was spared having to tell her about Nelson tonight.
A rubbery ready meal was the last thing I relished right then, but I reheated it nonetheless, in recognition of Majella’s efforts. Hauling herself off her arse to insert a frozen lasagne in the oven qualified as ‘efforts’ these days.
While my supper warmed through, I sagged into an armchair. I didn’t bother putting a light on; the street light flooding through the fraying curtains afforded all the illumination I desired, and lent the room an eerily soothing quality.
The evening, and particularly Nelson’s news, had left me feeling sapped, yet with an angry urge to do something. Obviously I was powerless to reverse the effects of Nelson’s illness, but there was one wrong I could attempt to right.
I picked up the phone from its home on the carpet and cradled it in my lap. It was one of those old style ones, with a dial, so the laborious process of ringing the number afforded me plenty of time to mentally rehearse the call.
Let’s just say Rod Rudge was not the only one with well-connected associates.
‘Oh good evening.’ My voice sounded surprisingly sure and unemotional. ‘Is it possible to speak to Inspector Parrott, please?’
Yes, I had a friend in the West Midlands Police Force (don’t ask), and he was most appreciative of my tip-off on his night shift. Rudge the Sludge’s days at liberty to assault women were numbered.