Shiny Happy People
As reunions went, it was unusual.
Who knew that a day I began in character as my feminist loom worker – suffragette stripes and all – in an incongruously modern meeting room, would become such a watershed?
I’d tried pointing out, tongue in cheek, that ‘team briefings’ in rooms containing whiteboards were an anachronism in the period we were supposed to inhabit, but was informed that so were lunch hours, during which we could avail ourselves of the distinctly non-historical canteen and vending machine.
Today our PR officer (we were one of the first museums in the region to have one), Anton, commandeered the floor.
‘Now we’ve got a visitor to BLHM this morning. A film director.’ Twenty bewigged heads shot up with interest. Anton did little jazz hands, to underline just how thrillingly showbiz this all was. ‘He’s making a new period drama, for which our streets could become the set. Hence he’s here on a recce – or reconnaissance – visit. That’s when a director checks out a location’s suitability for filming.’
A few eye rolls greeted this; most of us were already familiar with the terminology. It was good-natured irritation, though. The promised presence of a filmmaker generated an undeniable buzz among us latent performers, notwithstanding any pretence at nonchalance.
‘He’s going to be with us all day, visiting each area of the site. Now I know I can count on you all to roll out the red carpet, and when your time comes welcome him to your particular domain.’ Anton should have gone on the stage. He was loving this. ‘Without further ado, please welcooome…Sean Spendlove!’
Sean Spendlove! The director of my Arrowsmith & Broom commercial, about three-hundred years ago. The man responsible for unleashing ‘It’s a bostin’ pint’ – or ‘point’ – on the nation. That memorably attractive young man who had never quite left my thoughts, despite our paths never crossing in the interim.
Sean bounded in, Anton having actually made him wait outside the door so he could make a grand introduction and announce him into the room, like he was Leslie Crowther on Stars in their Eyes.
With his keen smile and smile and endearingly sticky-up hair, Sean hadn’t aged a day. The cynical world of showbusiness appeared to have sapped none of his contagious enthusiasm. He should have come over as horribly cheesy, but didn’t because nothing about him was forced. I doubted his body possessed a cynical bone.
By contrast, years of depression had dispirited me; shrunk me. For too long I had adopted a defeatist slouch, but now an invisible string puppeteer appeared to be pulling my head and shoulders upwards. It was as though the Posture Police were saying, ‘Enough now.’ Something about Sean made you sit up straight.
The movement caught his attention as his gaze wove along the rows of absurdly bewigged staff, but he betrayed no sign of having recognised me.
I instantly clocked – not that I was checking, of course – that his left hand was devoid of a wedding ring.
‘Hello everyone, and thank you for hosting me today. Yes, as Anton explained, my job here today is to assess the suitability of the museum site for a new historical drama called The Lunar Society. It’s going to be set around Birmingham, of course, so I’ve high hopes that this place should prove an ideal backdrop, to bring lots of Brum flavour.’ When he said ‘flavour,’ his eyes seemed to subconsciously drift to me, as though making a word association. Flavour – food – drink – beer commercial.
‘We’ll be needing extras too, when it comes to filming scenes, so if anybody’s interested in a background part do make yourselves known.’
I have to admit what resonated that morning was not Sean’s words but how horribly self-conscious I was in my sweaty wig – halfway between Princess Leia and Emmeline Pankhurst – dumped on my head, and my stupid prickly blouse and apron. I had never felt more unattractive (and that was saying something).
It was after twelve by the time Sean made his way to what Anton termed my ‘domain.’ I’d kept an oh-so-casual eye on the door throughout a torturous morning educating a mob of bored GCSE students on early twentieth century factory conditions, and role-playing arguments that involved lots of hand-wringing with Bob who took the part of my callous boss.
A forbidden lipstick was thumping up and down in my apron pocket, and periodically I surreptitiously applied it in defiance of the no make-up rule. Just in case, you know.
I’d just finished a heated scene in which I stormed out on strike in defiance of Bob when I espied Sean, with a gigantic grin on his face. As ever, he gave the appearance of a person who was continually enchanted by the world and everything in it.
He bounced over to me as soon as Bob was outside earshot. ‘It’s a bostin’ point,’ he said by way of greeting.
A pathetic little gurgle escaped me. ‘You remembered?’
‘How could I forget? Recognised you straight away. That advert made me.’ I was so absurdly flattered, I could have cried. ‘So what brings you here, Majella?’
‘A long story.’ Not one I wished to share while on duty, with straggles of West Midlands history buffs milling about. His question wasn’t unkind; not mocking, in a ‘Why has your career not flourished?’ way. He actually seemed interested. I suddenly felt wretchedly emotional.
He tapped my arm. ‘What time you on lunch?’
‘Do they let you out this place for good behaviour? I could just go a Pukka pie if you know any good chippies round here. My treat.’
‘There’s Sole Mates, round the corner.’
‘Sole Mates?’ he grimaced. I couldn’t help but giggle.
‘The grub’s better than the name. Come on.’
Calling back to Bob that I was going on lunch, I led this film director through the cobbled streets of the mock-up village, out of the site to the car park. My feet propelled me independently of my body; unbidden by brain commands.
It never occurred to me to detour via the staff room to retrieve my coat and handbag. Taking him in there would have meant sharing him somehow; spoiling some sort of illusion. I’d waited all morning for my ‘turn’ with Sean. For some reason, the need to escape the museum premises with him and avoid being stopped or bumping into a colleague became an urgent game; like bunking off school and trying to make it to the other end of the playground without being clocked by the headmaster.
‘I’m supposed to be showing you round the mill,’ I said unconvincingly.
‘No need. I’m sold already. The museum’s perfect – a readymade village with no TV aerials, cars, street markings or whatever to remove. Some of the buildings pre-date the period we’re going for, but most of it’s perfect. We can hide any anachronisms with a handy fog. You can do wonders with a bit of dry ice.’
‘What’s this TV series about then?’
‘The Lunar Society was a group of Birmingham industrialists and inventors that included Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt. They used to meet during a full moon because the extra light made the journey home safer. This was back in the days before street lighting.’
‘Sounds thrilling. How often do full moons occur?’ Why was I asking this? I didn’t give a fuck; I was only trying to keep him talking.
‘About once a month.’
‘This way.’ I took him along a shortcut to the car park, and as I pulled my pass card from my pocket and flashed it at the sensor on the gate, I wanted to jig with relief. Mission complete. We were safely in the twentieth century.
‘I’ll drive,’ said Sean, jingling his keys. That was fortunate, since my own car keys were in the aforementioned staff room.
As we walked across, I untied my (authentically grubby) apron, hastily folded it up, yanked off my stupid wig and hairnet, and shook my hair down.
‘Better,’ approved Sean. He smiled, as though acknowledging I was making the effort for his benefit, rather than because he’d been shallow enough to be repulsed by the matted syrup. He was used to wig-clad actresses, after all.
He had a beige Morris Minor van, ‘as previously driven by Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army,’ he joked. The whole vehicle was so Sean, it made me smile. A Comic Relief red nose was strapped to the grille, while inside a tiny rubber clapperboard dangled from the rear-view mirror.
‘Makes a change from furry dice,’ I commented, swinging it. He flicked it playfully back towards me.
‘Where to then, Maj?’ I liked his instant, chummy use of the shortened name.
‘Turn left out the car park, then right at the lights.’
As Sean cranked the archaic van to life, I surreptitiously checked myself out in his wing mirror and grimaced. I fluffed out my clammy hair with my fingers. There were no shampoo commercials on my CV, but right now I wished I was in one and could unpin a bun to achieve instant sex goddess hair, letting it swoosh elegantly into place. Hmm, I’d do, I supposed. Not a lot could be done about the blouse and skirt. Good job it was Sean going in for the chips.
We located Sole Mates, and I guided him to the rough car park behind it.
‘What’ll it be then?’ He unsnapped his seatbelt.
‘Cod and chips, please.’
‘Salt and vinegar?’
‘No, thanks. Can’t stand them.’
‘Be back in a jiff. I’ll leave the radio on for you.’
It was BRMB, the popular Birmingham station. Shiny Happy People by REM, a huge hit from the previous summer, came on. A clappy, bouncy, spirit-lifting track. I sensed it would become one of ‘our songs.’ The first of many. The ‘Majella waits for Sean to return from the chip shop’ song.
I was still tapping my toes along when he swiftly returned, clutching the two tantalising white paper parcels. Incidentally, when and why was the old-fashioned practice of wrapping fish and chips in newspaper outlawed? I am not aware of anybody ever dying from newsprint poisoning (though do correct me if I’m wrong), and batter has never tasted quite so much fun without the Express & Star property section striped across it.
Anyway, Sean handed me one of the hot bundles and a little wooden fork.
‘Perfect timing, that was. They’d just done a fresh batch.’
‘Ooh, thanks Sean.’
Instantly the car smelt divine. That tormenting, vinegary tang which transmits a message right to your belly saying, ‘I’m ravenous.’ I unravelled the paper hastily and began to dig in.
Sean winched his window down (because obviously the lingering whiff of vinegar in an unventilated Morris Minor would not be quite so divine after a couple of days).
‘Swap you a bit, if you like?’ He sawed me a dollop of his chicken and mushroom pie – a fiddly task with the blunt fork – and I snapped off a chunk of cod and plonked it in the foil carton, giggling all the while because this was so terribly naughty schoolgirl-ish.
So that was how we bonded. Over exquisite white fish encased in golden batter, and thick, hot chips, zingy with vinegar and those large salt crystals that twinkled all over it. We were instant friends. We chatted about everything, from the industry, to the current unlovely view through Sean’s windscreen (the back of a scrap metal yard, where a man in a vest was wiping his nose on his arm), to Sophie’s pregnancy in Home & Away, to the night-time ghost walks we had recently started conducting at the museum.
‘Our first one was a bit of a joke. The guy playing the headless monk, you could see his jeans and trainers beneath the habit. It spoiled the scary illusion somewhat! I play a factory girl who was buried under rubble when the place burnt down!’
For a second it actually crossed my mind that Sean might be gay, because I had only ever felt this pally and comfortable with one man before, and that was a certain Melvyn Corns. I entertained a ludicrous vision of Sean and Mel marrying in a camp ceremony, with me as their gracious bridesmaid, sporting a silly poodle hairdo and staring disconsolately into my bouquet, and Tesco with a corsage round his fluffy neck, loyally poised to scratch their eyes out.
‘Well thanks for the recommendation, Majella. That was yum.’ Sean produced a Safeway bag into which he deposited his scrunched-up greasy paper, before proffering it to me.
‘That’s very organised of you.’
‘Habit. There’s hardly any bins when you’re out on location. I must say I’ve never seen an actress enjoy her food so much as you.’
‘I’m a pig!’
‘You’re no such thing. It’s refreshing. Now I suppose I’d best be getting you back.’
‘Yeah,’ I agreed, with no enthusiasm. Sean made no attempt to start the car. My knees were all warm where the chips had been balancing. I liked the sensation; the lingering trace of the lunch. A continuing sensual experience.
‘Look, I’d like to take you out,’ he said suddenly.
Bingo! My thought bubble containing Sean and Mel’s unlikely gay nuptials popped.
I beamed at him. ‘You free tonight?’ Hey, because life’s too short to play hard to get.
‘I am. Have to make it an early drink, though. Got to leave for Dorset at some unearthly hour in the morning. Filming a thing with Anneka Rice. I’ll pick you up about seven, say? You want to jot your address down for me?’ He magicked a notebook and biro from the door pocket, further testament to his organised nature. ‘You’re not far from me then,’ he observed as I noted down the flat address, and my number for good measure. ‘I’m in Harborne.’
‘Seven o’clock then,’ I beamed at him, popping the pen back in its lid and handing it and the notebook back.
‘Seven it is, and we’ll take it from there.’ I liked the sound of that. ‘Now let’s get you back to your loom, wench!’
I scooted out of work promptly that evening. Sean and I had not crossed paths for the rest of the afternoon, and if any of my colleagues witnessed our lunchtime flit to the chip shop, they made no mention of it.
I abandoned my bag on the floor, fed Tesco, and then a shower was a must, to wash my hideously sweaty hair. I wrenched the rusty dial, and undressed while the water considered whether it was going to reach a bearable temperature for me tonight. I had become very accustomed to the quirks and jerks of the flat’s prehistoric shower, but right now they frustrated me. I needed a full date-night scrub, not a sporadic dribble that by turns scalded and chilled me. I cursed as I danced under the water, trying to catch the intermittent jets, and scoured ferociously at my skin with my seldom-used loofah.
My everyday soap – from the ‘five for a quid’ shelf at Brian’s corner shop – sat sad and unlathered in its dish; this was an occasion that demanded Body Shop shower gel and cleanser. I inhaled the gloriously fruity scents, and shivered – due partly to excitement and partly to the sticky, cold suds of shampoo on my head lowering my body temperature even further.
After drying off, I reapplied make-up, blow-dried my hair and zapped myself with Dewberry, another Body Shop product. It was my favourite perfume; a very popular perfume of the day. In fact, in my mind, the whole early 1990s smell of Dewberry.
The outfit I opted for was so 90s it hurt. A black strappy linen dress splodged with daisies, black floppy hat and black velvet choker adorned with a silver dolphin pendant. A pair of sneakers and a denim jacket would complete the cliché. I was even sporting a spiral perm in those days.
Sean had seen me at my worst today, in character as an Edwardian drudge. He would have to concede that I scrubbed up respectably.
Punctually at seven, the doorbell bleeped. I tried not to look uncoolly keen by galloping down the steep stairs – but Sean outside would have heard my giveaway speedier footsteps as I approached the door.
There he stood, in a white shirt with black collar and cuffs, and a black waistcoat (what a trendy pair we made), holding a splendid multicoloured tulip bouquet.
‘Sorry to be cheesy.’ He half hid behind the flowers, in mock embarrassment at what I might perceive as an unimaginative gesture.
‘Don’t be daft,’ I said. ‘They’re lovely.’
He kissed me on the cheek. He had this divine, mossy aftershave on. ‘Not as lovely as you look tonight. Eek, that was corny as well, but in this case true.’
‘Thank you, Sean. Come on up, I’ll introduce you to the cat.’
‘You’ve still got Tesco?’
‘You’ve got a good memory.’
‘He’s a little star, that one.’
Of course Sean had been a major catalyst for Tesco’s stardom, having passed my pert pet’s picture to Glenn Clinton, the director of his first Buster commercial.
It never occurred to me to feel embarrassment about ushering this film director into my flat. I saw no need to be guarded, or anticipate a supercilious reaction. There were no cheesy ‘Welcome to my, ha, ha, humble abode’ comments. Sean certainly didn’t turn his nose up. At least, on account of my OCD propensities, the place was clean.
That flat, while no palace, had functioned as a comfortable enough home for Tesco and me. Bill Lycett was a decent landlord, and once you got past the permanent eau de raw pork, it was adequately snug, and convenient for town.
When we got upstairs, the cat was curled in his basket, his long tail forming a cosy C shape around his body. Not for long, though, as Sean fussed him and the little charmer was instantly all over him – another promising sign.
‘I think he approves of you,’ I commented as Tesco wove around Sean’s legs, purring like a diesel engine and gazing up dotingly at his new buddy.
I lifted my jacket off the back off the chair. Sean chivalrously took it from me and held it while I plunged my arms into the sleeves. It had been so long since a man had made even that simple gesture towards me, I felt piteously grateful and shy as I fanned out my hair which was caught in the collar.
‘You eaten?’ Sean asked.
I shook my head. ‘Still a bit full from the fish and chips.’ Not to mention that my tummy was all whisked up at the thought of where tonight might lead.
‘Me too, to be honest. Drink, then?’
He brushed the stripes of cat hairs off his black jeans, and off we went.
Back in the Morris Minor van – no longer reeking of chips – it was a brief ride to Cadell’s, a dark bar with mismatched chairs and antique brass ceiling lights, that served cocktails and played discreet jazz. It was an unpretentious place; relaxed, and conducive to unreserved chatter which was absorbed by the music.
I found I had an uncharacteristic lack of desire for alcohol. I’d been watchful of my intake since starting on the antidepressants, which had a tendency to be a volatile combination with booze, and although I was far from depressed now, tonight was a night for remaining sober and controlled. That way nothing could be regretted in the morning, or blamed on the booze.
I ordered a virgin mimosa, Sean a Vermouth and soda. We wedged into what appeared to be an old church pew, and gassed the night away. Some of his anecdotes made me laugh in a way I hadn’t done for years. Not the polite, dutiful chortle of a disengaged listener, but a genuine, unstoppable belly laugh borne of total joy.
It was a flirty conversation too, following all the phases of a first date: the ‘let’s see how long we can maintain eye contact,’ ‘let me see how much bodily contact we can work up to, ‘let me nudge you and keep my hand on your knee.’ We progressed quite unconsciously to holding hands.
We pondered why, bearing in mind we had clicked so successfully now, we had never got together at the time we collaborated to advertise Arrowsmith & Broom beers.
‘Perhaps it would have been weird,’ I contemplated, for want of a meatier explanation, ‘like a pupil and teacher trying to date. Though I’m sure that happens often enough.’ As do relationships between actors and directors. I’d had no idea whether he had a girlfriend while we were filming the ad. Whatever and whoever we’d been back then, our respective life experiences since had shaped us into two people who made a compatible couple. I was already envisioning us in those terms. A couple. An item.
I made reference at one stage to the recent passing of my close friend. This wasn’t a ploy for sympathy; the conversation simply evoked a memory of Nelson, which it seemed only natural to share.
There is a reading that is very popular at funerals which talks about how one can shed tears because the departed person has gone or smile because they have lived. It rang so true now. I could certainly smile fondly over recollections of Nelson.
Grief and loss are as much part of life as love, friendship and fun. While I inhabited an unusual world in many ways, with many of my friends and colleagues over the years being well-known, as I’d learned of late, in other respects my experiences were not exceptional. We were all people at the end of the day, and I was no more a victim of bad fortune or circumstance than anybody else. I wasn’t poor Majella with depression and a friend dead from AIDS. Could it be that, finally, in my thirties, I was starting to feel grown-up and rational?
‘One of the clichés about getting on a bit, isn’t it, when songs you remember from your youth feature in the Golden Oldies slot? This is one I haven’t heard in yonks.’
We were in the car returning home. Our continuing chatter had drowned the radio out at first, but now Sean turned it up. And then the song filtered through my consciousness. Sean knew as yet nothing of my connection to Gareth Rushcliff, and here he was, blithely drumming the steering wheel to Wistful, an early number one hit by Glinda Spitfire.
Gareth bloody Rushcliff! I realised he’d been absent from my thoughts for a hearteningly long time; in fact the longest spell since we’d parted. Of course there had been other boyfriends since my New Romantic heartbreaker, but his presence had always lurked in the background. Only, it dawned now, because I’d allowed it to lurk.
By Pavlovian instinct I’d always snapped the radio off the second I heard his voice ooze out of it, so it was years since I’d heard more than a bar of a Glinda Spitfire hit. I’d been unhealthily, childishly, nurturing his memory; feeding nostalgic pain I hadn’t recognised I had long since ceased to feel.
Our final fuck-off shag at Zena’s funeral in 1986 was supposed to empower me, but in reality had tethered me to the memory of a man who no doubt never honoured me with a second thought. My sister Sophie, four years my junior, was engaged, whereas I’d failed to move on from my first love.
I braced myself for heart-piercing pain now, but there was nothing. Heartening, serene, glorious nothing. The song was just a song.
All that engulfed me was a surge of love for this man beside me, manoeuvring his vintage van into a gap outside my flat. I hadn’t planned a big seduction scene for tonight, but the thought of Sean driving away now was unbearable.
‘Do you want to stop over?’ I blurted out.
‘I’ve got to be up early.’ I knew this wasn’t a brush-off; on the contrary, a warning he might disturb me when vacating my bed. The implication of that thrilled me.
‘I’d rather be woken up early than not spend any part of the night with you at all.’
He kissed me goodbye as he departed at dawn.
I did what one did in these situations. I phoned my best friend.
‘I’m in love,’ I announced to Mel with no preamble. Good job I knew I wouldn’t be waking him up. ‘I’m finally over Gareth.’
‘Right. And you know what, it feels bloody fabulous. I’ve been released from prison, metaphorically.’
‘Come round for a bacon butty, chick. If you’re not over the limit.’
‘Haven’t had a drink all night.’
‘Drunk on lurve, I bet. Perry’s here. We’ll have a nice chat.’
I knew a bacon sandwich was a dawn ritual after a show. Under his new stage name, Melba Most, he was busier than ever, gracing more salubrious venues, in increasingly extravagant costumes. ‘Perry’ was a friend of Mel’s who I knew and liked, a ‘spoof lounge singer,’ who under the pseudonym Perry Common performed camp parodies of famous crooners, wearing polyester suits and a deliberately awful toupee.
‘Get the red sauce out for us.’ I clonked the phone down, and rapidly dressed. I couldn’t bear to stay in a bed that was still tormentingly warm from Sean’s body.
I tap danced across the lino, scooped my car keys off the kitchen table into the air and caught them with a cocky little flourish. From his basket, Tesco slid open one sardonic eye, decided there was nothing to see here, and promptly closed it again. He was accustomed to actors, dahling.
The streets of Birmingham at that ludicrous hour seemed eerily magical in a way they certainly never did by brutal daylight. Hey, the mood I was in, the streets of Beirut would have seemed enchanted. The butcher’s van, the all-night McDonald’s, the tower blocks, the tramp slumped in the bus shelter, the smashed up telephone boxes standing in moats of their own glass, the milk float, the upended supermarket trolleys, were washed in a serene mauve glow on that five-minute drive.
Mel, defrocked but with his face still bearing the faint residue of make-up, kissed me on the cheek.
‘We’re all ears,’ he urged, presenting me with one of his specials: a pile of bacon pressed between two breezeblocks of white bread. Perry, bald sans the toupee, was at the table devouring a scrambled egg sandwich.
‘Fish and chips and a bacon sarnie in twenty-four hours!’ I sat down gleefully. I was now starving, the fish and chip lunch having been my last meal.
I managed to hoover up my sandwich without any hiatus in my narrative.
‘And to think,’ I concluded, wiping an unladylike finger through the spatters of ketchup on my plate, ‘twenty-four hours ago, he was just another director I’d worked for in the past, who I never imagined seeing again.’
Mel was watching me with the oddest mixture of pride and confusion. Perry shot Mel an ‘I thought you said she was intelligent’ look.
‘What is it?’ I was baffled.
Mel drummed on his Frank the Tortoise mug. ‘Well whilst this is wonderful news, and I’m really pleased for you and everything, isn’t there one thing you’ve forgotten, in this giddy flush of love?’
Just as it was beginning to dawn on me what a numpty I’d been, he clarified, ‘You’ve just booked to go round the world for three months.’
Ah yes, my long-awaited trek along the clichéd backpackers’ route: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong. Obliterated from my memory by one day spent in love with Sean Spendlove. I dropped my stupid head into my hands.
It was Perry who said simply, ‘Hey, if he feels the same way about you, he’ll wait.’
Did Sean wait? Now there’s the question.