A new chapter

Chapter 8 of Majella Bracebridge is now uploaded, for your enjoyment:

 

https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/chapter-8-2/

 

In this one I have revisited Majella’s childhood and the inspiration which led her to act in the first place.  I had great fun writing it.  Let me transport you back to the 1970s, above a Happy Shopper somewhere in Staffordshire.

As ever, please feel free to comment…

A Tale of 2 Tattoos

And so last week this happened:

tattoo-cropped

I survived my second inking, and am delighted with it.

It depicts, as I’m sure you now, the yin and yang on the left; the symbol on the right is the Greek evil eye – supposed to ward off evil spirits!  I had a terrible 2016, which coincided with me losing a small evil eye trinket I had kept with me for years.  I’m sure that was a coincidence, but I don’t like to take the chance!  At least now the eye is with me always.

The tattoo experience was rather different to my first one, 15 years ago.  You can read more about that here: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/non-fiction/cat-on-my-shoulder/

Then, there were no airs and graces.  I didn’t even need to make an appointment, I was told to “just turn up.”  I was given no aftercare tips, just a piece of cling film which I was told to leave on for an hour.  Perhaps tattoo aftercare cream was a product that was yet to infiltrate the market back then, since body art was far less common?  To be fair, I had no scabbing or issues whatsoever (and haven’t this time around either).

This time around, I was whisked into the back office where the artist (Andrei) inputted my chosen design into a computer, talked through what size I wanted and how to position it.  I chose the tiniest possible design (to minimise potential pain – such a wuss!).  Andrei then made up a stencil, imprinted it on my left shoulder and photographed it so I could check the positioning and angle.  He mixed up his colours and was away to go.

An important difference was that last time I had to choose from the thousands of sheets of designs hanging up in the studio.  This time it was much more open; much more my choice.  I had, when I booked the appointment, been asked to have a look online for a design and email it in.  That’s how it should be really – entirely down to the customer, not limited by the stencils that happen to be available at that studio.  It’s your skin after all.

It was a very friendly and professional studio – a luxurious purple and black decorated lounge – and it seemed like a good omen when one of my favourite songs of recent times, Cheap Thrills by Sia, blasted across the studio just as Andrei was about to set to work on my shoulder with the needle.

I am glad to say there was no pain!  Like last time, there was just like a pin prick and a buzzing present.  The only sensation was in my left arm as it started to ache slightly after leaning on it for a while reclining as I was on the couch.  The process only took about 20 minutes – roughly the same length of time as the last one.  I didn’t envy the girl sitting across from me who was having her leg done (though it was her choice, of course).

Andrei really put me at ease.  I was excited, and of course it was entirely my choice to have a tattoo; the only nerves I felt really centred around the aftercare of my new inking.  I was anxious to follow any instructions about washing and maintaining my super tattoo to the letter.  I bought a tube of a tattoo aftercare cream named Sorry Mom (other brands are available), which I was instructed to apply about every four hours for the first week.

As before, the fresh tattoo was covered with a sheet of cling film.  I was instructed to leave this on for a maximum of two hours and then let the tattoo breathe.  As soon as the cling film came off, I was to gently wash the tatt with antiseptic soap (I bought two Dettol bars especially) and then rub on my first coating of Sorry Mom.

“Always clean hands when you touch,” he advised, pointing at the tatt.

I really hope my blue, white and black Greek evil eye will defend me against evil spirits, as per the superstition which I know from a few holidays to that part of the world that the Greeks take very seriously.  Maybe now it’s permanently imprinted on my skin, good fortune will befall me?  Ha, I can but dream.

Life begins…

Well Happy New Year to you, dear reader!

I hope the festive season brought you all you wished for.  For my part I returned to work today; back to reality after 10 days of eating cheese and crackers at every mealtime, having a drink every night, never knowing what day it was, and always feeling slightly constipated.

So I have officially entered my 40th year, the one where “they” say life begins.  You may have noticed I have updated my 40 things at 40 list, since I have now started ticking things off it, and I will continue to update it throughout the year, each time I achieve one of my labours: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/40-things-to-do-at-40/

Thus far I have completed 40 lengths of a swimming pool, donated £40 to charity, tried contact lenses, and watched four classic movies on my list, namely Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bell Bottomed George and Anything Goes.

I have other things booked for the coming months, so please tune in again for updates…

Tatt 2

In honour of my next tattoo, which I have just booked for January as one of my 40 things to do at 40 (see list here: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/40-things-to-do-at-40/), I thought I would re-share with you the story of my original inking, back in January 2002.

2002!!  I was a mere 25 then.  Tattoos were a relatively rare form of expression; now it seems like every other person you meet sports one.  It speaks volumes about the comparative popularity of tattoos then and now, that 15 years ago I didn’t need an appointment and was advised to “just turn up,” whereas this time around I have had to book a slot with an artist two months in advance.

Rereading what I wrote back then brought back vivid memories: my late dad’s misgivings (he never liked my tattoo); the “evil-sounding” whirr of that needle; the sense of anticipation in the waiting room; the gleeful feeling when I finally sat in the chair and told myself I was being silly worrying as nobody was forcing me to undergo this procedure.

It’s interesting that in the last sentence I vow never to get another inking, yet here I am nearly 15 years on about to mark a milestone birthday in exactly that way.  Well they do say never say never…

Anyway, enough waffle.  I give you Cat on my Shoulder:

https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/non-fiction/cat-on-my-shoulder/

It was 20 years ago today…

It was 20 years ago today that I set off, with my packed lunch and my naive hopes and dreams, into the world of work.  It was the era of the Spice Girls, TFI Friday, Cool Britannia, Cold Feet and Bacardi Breezers.  A carefree time, I can see now.  I was only 19.  Blimey, 19!!!  I was a baby.

That day still seems like 5 minutes ago, even though I am now a jaded and cynical almost 40-year-old with considerably more wrinkles and no prospect of retirement, with several varied jobs under my belt since starting out at the Stourbridge News.  After 4 years in journalism, I temped for a bit, then spent 14 years as a legal secretary, and am currently an administrator within the health service.

I had hoped I’d be halfway through my working life by now.  In reality I’m nowhere near.  Mind you, I suppose I imagined back then I’d still be in journalism by now, not suspecting how quickly I’d fall out of love with the profession.  But then technology and social media swiftly superseded the dinosaur of print journalism, and I’d have certainly been made redundant anyway.

Oh well, plod on.

Brace yourself for more Majella

After far too long a hiatus, I have been writing again.  Life, as it has a tendency to do, has rather got in the way this year and hampered my creative process.  2016 has been a bit pants so far, to tell you the truth (that’s another story).

But now I am back, as is Majella.

I have added two brand new Majella Bracebridge chapters: 14 https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-14/ and 16 https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-16/

Chapter 16, as its title suggests, brings MB’s story to its denouement, but I haven’t actually completed the novel yet as I am going back in and adding chapters.  Hence you will see I have re-jigged the numbering about, and what will now become Chapters 5, 8 and 10 are as yet unwritten and denoted as “Coming soon…”

I hope you enjoy these two new scenes from Majella’s life, including the conclusion to her story.  I will of course update this when I have slotted each of the new chapters in.

In other news, I am still looking forward to working my way through my “40 things at 40” list.  My major birthday is rapidly approaching, which is very scary indeed.  I swear it’s five minutes since I was zealously planning my 18th birthday party.

They say life begins at 40. Let’s hope it does next year, after a horrendous run of chicken pox, floods, gas leaks, water leaks, flu, chest pains, back pain, insect infestations, cowboy builders and officious councils.

Chapter 16

16
The Grand Finale at Rawlinson Park

The voice a billion girls had fallen in love with over thirty years ago still possessed the power to move an audience.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention as an entire field sang obediently along with him, the fluorescent glow sticks some besotted fans waved in time with the classic chorus illuminating the enchanted semi-darkness of Rawlinson Park.

I love outdoor concerts. Commonly in Britain they turn into mud baths, with waterproof-clad spectators catching pneumonia in squelchy fields, but the weather was kind on this occasion.

I particularly love the diversity of picnics at such events. At one end of the scale you see Dairylea sarnies in a Tesco bag being furtively unwrapped from an anorak pocket. Then there are the folks who do it in style: pitch up a camping table, crack open a bottle of wine, load plates (not paper ones) with sushi and canapés.

I love the crisp, wholesome sound of clapping in the summer air; the intermingled scents of meadow and fried onions; the unifying nature of these events. I mean, here I was in my fifties, rubbing shoulders with teenagers, thirty-year-olds, whole families, celebrating the 1980s in the grounds of a South Staffordshire stately home.

Enjoying the mighty voice of Dominic Law, as the highlight among the six acts on the Now That’s What I Call a Pension bill.

Yes, it was true, the lead singer of Schadenfraude still had it.

The same, as I’d discovered earlier, could not quite be said for his Glinda Spitfire counterpart, his one-time arch rival, one Gareth Rushcliff.

Unlike the famously teetotal Buddhist Dominic, Gareth’s lifestyle of chain smoking, hard drinking and hard women had evidently taken its toll. I had to admit it was a mind-boggler that this could be the man I was once so pitifully smitten with. From whose cruel spurning it had taken me many years to recover.

His picture on the poster advertising the concert must have been sympathetically lit. Or airbrushed. In that shot he might have passed for ‘distinguished’ – that’s a polite adjective often used to describe a man who’s aged – but under the unforgiving stage lights, ‘craggy’ didn’t even cover it. His voice embarrassingly cracked at one point, while attempting a high note he hadn’t reached since 1985.

I knew Gareth had noticed me earlier in the course of the evening, but we hadn’t had the opportunity for a conversation yet.

******

That opportunity came in the backstage tent after the show. Well, I say ‘tent’ – that evokes images of campfires and soggy pillows – this was a luxury marquee with squashy sofas, fluorescent beanbags, an enormous bar, and those trendy signs dotted about, which spell random words like ‘EAT,’ ‘LOVE’ and ‘MUSIC’ in oversized light bulbs.

There was a convivial atmosphere backstage. It was like a celebrity game of Where’s Wally to spot the 80s pop idols and their famous guests.

Julian Crowfoot, the boozy chef who’d slobbered over Romy at Zena’s funeral, was now a teetotal hotelier, looking dapper and relatively trim.

The unlikely couple of the vivacious vocalist Sharla, who had opened tonight’s show, and her husband Nigel Munro were making a rare public appearance together. She had constructed an entire career around her one 1987 hit, Too Cute, while he was a notoriously reclusive prog rock star, handsome, not in a devastating way but earnest and fit.

There was an apt 80s theme to the decoration. The tables were giant Rubik’s Cubes, and bunting consisting of Pac Man and Space Invaders figures was draped the length of the marquee ceiling.

Gareth and I met at the bar – at least there was a consistent theme to our reunions. It was just over a fortnight since he had e-mailed me, the day after I’d watched his daughter Felicity lumber her way through the Lady Gaga film.

He sidled up to me (he was the sort of person who sidled), smelling of something overpowering and ‘manly,’ presumably aimed at masking the sweat of performing. He was still in his traditional black suit, though had changed out of his white shirt into a Shaun the Sheep T-shirt. Combined with the jacket it lent him the air of someone who had hauled himself out of bed in a fire and thrown random clothes on. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

I had to take a step back from him. He possessed that kind of presence. Whether it was his scent, or his physical bulk, or his propensity for space-invading, there was a lot of him, and he had a tendency to lean, or rather fold himself in half. The stoop he had adopted when I saw him at Zena’s funeral had not been corrected, but instead of being a vulnerable, little-boy-lost, he now exuded a faintly predatory quality. I was bizarrely reminded of the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper in a Shaun the Sheep T-shirt.

‘The lady we’d all like to come and dine with!’ He kissed my hand, as I’d known he would.

‘How the devil are you?’

‘Really well, thanks. You?’

‘Oh, you know,’ he replied ambiguously. ‘You could have knocked me down with the proverbial feather when I saw you on the box, I tell you. Joe and I recognised you straight away. We were on the tour bus at the time. You haven’t aged a day, princess! He said, “Hang on, ain’t she that wench you was knocking off years ago?” I said, “Joe, don’t be so base!” That would have been funnier if he was actually the bass player and not the drummer, but there you go.’

Yeah right, I thought.

He did a little nod as the mute barman floated past, and a huge whisky materialised in front of him. He gestured at me, inviting me to order too.

‘Cinzano, please.’

‘Good, this free bar, isn’t it?’ Gareth said, with the air of a missionary introducing an African tribe to the concept of running water.

There was a distinct sense of déjà vu as he droned on about his frigid wife Katy (‘I bought her a Porsche and a boob job for her last birthday – and haven’t had much pleasure out of either.’), his genius children Isambard, Felicity (‘Going to be the next Keira Knightley, that one.’) and Caspian, his two cats Cheryl and Kimberley (‘Sometimes I think they’re the only true friends I have in this world, even though they piss in my shoes on a regular basis.’) and his philosophical insights into his capacity for forgiveness and the strength he had found to cope with his pitiably harsh life (‘Hanging on to resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free inside your head.’).

He was the verbal equivalent of those PowerPoint presentation-style quotes you see on Facebook, presented in snazzy fonts superimposed on to pictures of wolves or rainbows, and attributed to Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Because that makes them true. And meaningful.

‘Are any of your kids with Romy Rotunda?’ I’m not quite sure why I asked that, except she was in my line of vision at the time; she was across the marquee chatting to somebody, but her brown cow eyes periodically slid over to Gareth.

I was also eager to interrupt another mangled analogy, this time in which he was likening his life to a washing machine (‘For all its twists and spins, for all it’s knocked me about, in the end I feel I’ve come out cleaner, brighter and better than ever before.’ OK, shut up! Shut up now!).

In reply to the Romy question, he flapped a dismissive hand. ‘No chance! She’s as barren as a doorpost.’ For all his merciful wisdom, it seemed Gareth could still be caustic when it suited.

For the first time ever, I pitied Romy. At one time I had envied her the hold she had over Gareth, with her gripping thighs and kinky moves, but now I saw what a pathetic cow she was. A clingy globule of a woman, wasting all those years in anticipation of a crumb of his love before he went back to his wives. Her stupidly long hair was still riddled with split ends, and her many years spent braless had left her colossal breasts with no shape or support.

Gareth took a ferocious slug of whisky, and waved the barman down for another one. I had barely sipped at my drink. ‘So enough about me.’ You don’t say! ‘Do you still hang out with that poof?’ Oh jeez!

‘I am still best friends with Mel, if that’s what you mean.’

‘Not that I mind them,’ he laughed magnanimously. ‘I’ve worked with enough of them over the years. There’s Trev, of course. And that Alan Carr’s a lovely fella.’

‘I’m sure he speaks highly of you too.’

‘Your job sounds a bit dismal, by the way. Eek!’

‘I love it. It’s very rewarding.’

‘No chance of you returning to showbiz then?’

‘I never say never, but it’s unlikely.’

‘Shame. Still, we can’t all be successful. I was always expecting to find you up there with Dame Helen Mirren or Judi Dench one of these days. You did Come Dine with Me, though?’

‘Bit of fun, that was. A sort of dare. I love cooking. And being on TV again was fun, I admit. I might be doing a documentary about the funeral business – ’

‘I’m bored now, Majella,’ he interrupted, doing a big mock yawn. I could tell the sentiment was more heartfelt than the exaggerated mannerism implied.

‘Terribly sorry.’

‘Mind you, I bet a lot of your bereaved choose you because they want to say they’ve had their loved ones buried by the bostin’ Majella Bracebridge off of the telly.’

‘I doubt it. A lot of them are homeless.’

‘They have TVs in hostels, don’t they?’

Sometimes when you meet up with a former love, there may be, if not that spark of old, at least an understanding of why your younger self might have been attracted to that person. A nostalgic ‘I remember why I first fell for you, though I’m over you’ feeling, to send you home to your current partner with a warm gratitude for the past which shaped you but is happily just that – the past.

And then there are those encounters with exes that beg the question, ‘What was I thinking?’

I wondered whether Gareth had become obnoxious with age, or had been forever thus and I’d spent too long too blindly besotted to spot it.

Yet another whisky had appeared, replacing his depleted tumbler. In seconds, that was down his throat too.

‘Let’s cut to the chase, Majella.’ He actually said that. ‘We both know why we’re here.’

‘Well I know why I’m here, and you know why you’re here – to perform songs, I assume.’

‘I mean, we know why we’re having this conversation. I’ve got a room here in the big house tonight – ’

‘So have I.’

His eyes illuminated. ‘So how about we take our drinks and continue this conversation in the comfort of Lord, er, Rawlinson’s four-poster bed?’ He took his pudgy fingers for a little walk along the bar in a grotesque parody of the old Yellow Pages advert. When he reached my hand, he jabbed at it with his forefinger – a gesture he seemed to think was arch and tempting. I recoiled. I actually recoiled from Gareth Rushcliff.

‘Propositioned at my age. Oh, please!’ Thirty years ago I’d have invested that ‘please’ with meaning; yearning. Jumped, so to speak, at the opportunity he was offering me. Now it was a sarcastic, incredulous ‘please.’

‘Why not? You don’t exactly look like a granny.’

‘I’m not! My son’s over there. He’s only seventeen.’ I neglected to mention I also have a daughter. I couldn’t stand the thought of Gareth fantasising over her; speculating on her possible resemblance to me.

‘You’re a MILF, as they say nowadays.’

‘I hate that expression.’

‘I always had a soft spot for you,’ he pouted. ‘Took me years to get over you.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, you looked pretty over me when I copped you in the back of the car round the back of Rackhams with Romy that day!’

‘It’s pointless harbouring bitterness about that, sweetheart.’

‘O…K…so I’m the one who’s bitter? We’ll roll with that.’ The only thing I rolled was my eyes.

‘Even the guys in the band said I was mad to let you go.’

He made them sound collectively like a three-headed mother-in-law who has realised too late that her son’s hated wife who she saw off was actually the best thing that ever happened to him.

‘Don’t make me laugh. They always hated me. I was a precocious bitch drama student, whereas they were all Brummie grafters. It’s funny when I look back at how upset I was when they wouldn’t have me in any of your videos. It was “No offence, chick, but we want Romy.”’

‘Then later on, it became “No offence, Romy, but we want supermodels.” So what? You should still be flattered, you know.’ His voice had adopted a conspicuously harder edge now. In fact he suddenly looked desperately tired. If I thought the stage illumination was unforgiving, the muted light of the marquee brutally accentuated the hollows and pouches of his face.

‘I’m a married lady.’ I waved my wedding-ringed hand in his face. Subtlety wasn’t going to work here.

‘And? So was the last one. I don’t exactly specialise in virgins these days.’

‘“The last one”? Blimey, good to know I’m in such exalted company!’

‘An honest penny is better than a stolen pound!’ Now he’d resorted to throwing meaningless and irrelevant expressions at me, he’d well and truly lost it. I was just laughing now.

‘You’re a fine one to mock me, Dame Majella Bracebridge that never was. You’re a little old to be accused of prick-teasing, don’t you think?’

‘I should hope so!’

‘Why did you take me up on the offer of the backstage pass, then, if you weren’t interested?’

‘I didn’t.’

‘I put your name on the door. You’re here.’ He made little box-shaped gestures with his hands, which I took to mean ‘go figure.’

He’d been handsome, this one-time mythical prince of my dreams, but now his features were actually ugly with animosity. The drink – clearly Dutch courage – was causing the facade to unravel.

‘I didn’t ask you to put my name on the door, Gareth. Actually I was coming anyway, with my husband Sean. He’s directing a documentary.’

‘A documentary?’ Gareth jolted to life and whipped around as though he expected the camera to be lurking at his shoulder to capture his best side. ‘To be honest,’ he confided, ‘we could do with the publicity.’ The man was shameless! Which made my next revelation such a killer.

‘Bad luck – we’re here with the Schadenfraude crew! And, by the way, the big house isn’t owned by Lord Rawlinson anymore. My friend Linda and her husband have just bought it. Hence I’ve got a room.’

******

Well, what can I say? Sean waited.

Deep down – and this is horrifically cheesy – I knew he would. Even while I was on safari in Borneo, or taking high tea at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, or contorting my body into yogic poses on the beach in Phuket. Even in those pre-Skype, pre-text message days, when a postcard, or a sporadic call via a patchy line from a grimy hotel phone, was our only communication. Instinct told me that, whatever or whoever else may move on in my absence, this precious man was going nowhere.

I – and here is another unforgivable cliché – truly found myself on that unforgettable trip, which was (again, ouch) a journey in every sense of the word. I met fabulous people, encountered astonishing wildlife, breathtaking scenery, architecture and natural features; was alternately amazed, exhilarated and humbled. I was ripe for an adventure like that in my life. Through it all, Sean was a warm presence back home; my longed-for treasure at the culmination of my epic trek.

I didn’t request he collect me from the airport, in fact I never even told him what time I’d be landing – but, as I trudged into Arrivals at Birmingham just before Christmas 1992, there he was, obscured by a bunch of flowers the size of the Borneo rainforest. I ran at him and we hugged for an aeon (he had to swiftly put the flowers down), and I experienced the purest sense of homecoming I have ever known.

As I hadn’t expected a lift, I’d been more than happy to hop in a taxi, but as soon as I stepped into the khaki Dad’s Army van, and saw the duvet and pillows on the passenger seat, I burst into tears of relief and gratitude. I fell asleep five minutes into the drive. It was the first time he ever heard me snore. Always good to get such a potentially off-putting milestone out of the way early on in the relationship.

Sean and I have always said happy accident drew us together. Fate reunited us while I was working my notice at the museum, nine years after our first meeting on the fake pub set where my ladette coarseness and pretend belch had impressed him and successfully advertised Arrowsmith & Broom beer.

The years we spent apart in between shaped us into the rounded people we needed to be to appeal to each other on more than a superficial level. When we met, Fate had decreed that we were not ready to get together. I was still unrequitedly in love with Gareth, and I’d had no idea whether Sean had a girlfriend (I subsequently discovered he did, but she left him for another man the night before Live Aid).

We married three years after I landed from the Far East, in a low-key civil ceremony at a Lichfield country hotel. I was thirty-seven, and Sean forty-three, when we were blessed with twins: Jared Sean and Zara Michelle. Even though I’ve rarely acted in recent years, I am still known professionally as Majella. I kept the pseudonym when I set up the funeral business, so I’m accustomed to compartmentalising my work and personal life, but I wanted Michelle to be my daughter’s middle name, honouring the name my parents gave me.

Jared, who harbours ambitions to work in film or sound engineering, was with us at the Rawlinson Park gig, shadowing Sean. However, I was grateful for Zara’s aversion to 80s music and consequent decision to spend the night at a sleepover with mates. Physically she’s a beautiful version of the young me, and the thought of that lecherous hulk Gareth perving over her turned my stomach.

Mel, who I still love to bits, is their unofficial uncle, or ‘fairy godfather,’ as he prefers, even though we are atheist and so our kids have never had official godparents. His schedule is insane – when he’s not touring, he’s in panto – but when we do get together we raise hell as the Cilla and Paul O’Grady of the Midlands. He still dispenses down to earth advice and bacon sandwiches when the occasion demands.

He’s had a glitter-strewn warzone of a love life, but Mel is of late loved up with Donald, an amateur actor and retired teacher who volunteers in a local stately home twice a week.

As for my family, we live an unstarry, country lifestyle just outside Lichfield.

Sean still possesses the Dad’s Army van, though it sits in the garage these days. He occasionally exhibits it at vintage car shows and fetes; it’s even appeared in the background of the odd period drama, when an authentic automotive prop has been called for.

I venture into Birmingham quite often. I take a protective pride in the pulsating city that is unrecognisable from the grey 80s maze of my student youth. Many of the Brutalist buildings with which my sharp and fond memories are inexplicably tied up have been long pulled to the ground, including dear old BAPA itself (the old halls of residence survive to this day, though – as a drive-thru mega-Starbucks).

I could wax lyrical for pages and pages about how Sean and I are happily married; how, like every golden wedding couple you have ever read about in your local paper, ‘we’ve had our ups and downs,’ but we love our family and our home and our life. I could have devoted numerous chapters to the period between me landing from Singapore and the present day. But frankly I’d sound nauseatingly smug. And it would be really insufferable of me, wouldn’t it, to say that I haven’t had time to write about these last few years because I’ve been too busy living them.

But please indulge me my happy ending (even though I hesitate to employ that expression – my life is nowhere near ending, and also I understand the phrase carries smutty connotations these days). I feel I’ve endured enough low points in life to have earned it.
I won’t do a whitewash job on my life by purporting to be cured of depression. Once you’ve had that condition, it’s at best dormant, and can be triggered with unnerving ease. If you’re prone to it, you’re always prone. I won’t deny I’ve suffered sporadic lapses throughout my life. Depression is a treatable illness but not a curable one. Even the most seemingly perfect life is no remedy or impediment.

I present corporate DVDs on the subjects of depression and suicide for the NHS and other bodies, such as colleges. Sadly a lot of my funerals are suicides. I am fortunate to have harboured no serious suicide ideation since my impetuous bolt into the traffic in those silly pyjamas all those years ago, when Mel had hauled me from the perilous path of a Maxi.

Sean became pally with Dominic Law and the Schadenfreude guitarist Marc Herbert when they competed on an episode of Celebrity Pointless he directed. They hit it off, and the band commissioned Sean to direct this fly-on-the-wall documentary about them. A more down to earth bunch of guys you couldn’t wish to meet.

It’s so ironic when I think of all the years I made Gareth, and Glinda Spitfire, such a major focus of my life, when I ignored the diligent band perceived to be their main rivals, out of some misguided loyalty to him. Schadenfreude are constantly releasing new music too – unlike Glinda Spitfire, who reunite each time one of them is declared bankrupt, and regurgitate an unvarying set list.

Oh yes, I referred to ‘my friend Linda.’ In case you’re wondering, that is indeed Linda Dyson. She reached out to me via Twitter – social media is the means by which one ‘reaches out’ these days – and we met and reconciled, figuring neither of us harboured any desire to end up on our Zimmer frames still entrenched in a feud with a college flatmate.

At her suggestion, our reunion venue was a genteel, quirky tea room in Staffordshire where the waitresses wore 1950s dresses and the toilet walls were plastered with cuttings of Ethel Merman and Billie Holiday – an establishment the old Linda would have derided as twee – but things were so unceremonious we could have easily been in the pub, or lolling on our deck chairs in the old Bristol Road flat.

We lead vastly different lifestyles these days – indeed her lifestyle is preposterously different to the one she ever could have envisaged for herself – yet we amazingly resumed our easy student friendship in minutes.

We ate exquisite potato and watercress soup, and Linda told me about the unbelievable hate mail she receives on a regular basis. So many of her original left-wing fans seem personally offended that she became, in the words of one, ‘the biggest sell-out since Ben Elton,’ married a moneyed Tory and purchased a derelict stately home. That was another justification for my burying the hatchet. I saw no point sinking to the level of the ‘haters’ (that’s a word my kids use).

Linda was tailor-made for the role of Fran in Lock & Quay, I had to admit, once I could bring myself to watch an episode (on You Tube, several years after its original broadcast). I’d never have done justice to the kooky character. She wore headbands, pedal pushers and violet lipstick. Linda ‘rocked’ (as they say nowadays) that look. I’d have looked like Alice in Wonderland trying to be Audrey Hepburn. As Linda had quite reasonably pointed out at the time, which I hadn’t wanted to hear, there was no guarantee I’d have landed the part had I even made the audition. I would certainly have played her very differently.

Lock & Quay may have brought her the household name status I’d once craved, but also conferred the kind of attention I could never envy. I would hate the burden of maintaining the crumbling Rawlinson Park too. The gas bills alone are astronomical – thus events like this 80s concert are a crucial fundraising enterprise.

******

Gareth clomped away from the bar when it became evident his efforts to bed me were fruitless. He later left the marquee with his arm around Romy’s pudgy shoulders. He steered her past me – even though to do so took them on an unnecessarily circuitous route – and threw me a ‘look what you’re missing out on’ smirk. When Sean and I finally hit the sack, I heard guttural grunts emanating from what I later discovered to be their room.

‘Being a pain in the arse to you last night, wasn’t he?’ Sean said to me as we saw them shuffle into the vast breakfast room next morning. Gareth looked hungover and hunched, Romy not so much like the cat who’d got the cream as a mangy moggie who’d managed a lick from a bottle of silver top left out in the sun for too long.

Gareth briefly met my eyes, with a sheepish expression. When a young, pretty waitress in an old-fashioned frilly pinny (Linda and Guy had hired staff for the event) slithered across to take their order, his body language was suddenly open. He was in obvious full-on flirt mode, peering at her legs and leaning back with his enormous legs spread wide in a ‘heeeyyy, look at this’ way.

The girl looked professional and embarrassed, her notebook and pencil poised aloft as if for protection. Romy’s smug grin vanished as she snapped her order to the young woman.
The pity I’d felt for Romy last night dwindled somewhat. She continually screwed Gareth with no heed for his wife, yet him chatting up a young waitress was apparently a heinous insult to her.

‘He’s nothing I can’t handle,’ I replied to Sean.

‘They do a mean fry-up here I must say.’

‘Rare treat, this, eh? They breed their own pigs, you know. And keep chickens.’

The breakfast was indeed a work of art. My glossy fried egg yolk oozed all over the succulent crispy bacon the second my fork pierced its membrane. It was like a pond of hot gold.

‘Wonder how old those curtains are?’ Sean grimaced. They were blue velvet, obviously antique, bobbly and dusty, as though afflicted with curtain dandruff.

Jared had finished eating and was studying his phone.

‘Text from Zar,’ he said, handing it to me.

Had great time @ Abi’s. Hope yr night was good. Tell Mom I You Tubed her ad last night to show the girls!!! They were well impressed. I am officially the proudest daughter IN THE WORLD!!! Totes emosh! Luv u all – even u Jaz xxxx

‘She had a good time?’ Sean asked.

‘Yeah.’ I smiled, passing the phone back to Jared.

‘Listen, I’ll catch you’s two later,’ he said, easing himself up, mega-nonchalantly, just as Nigel and Sharla Munro’s daughter Petal – a raven-haired angel sporting a belly ring – also rose from her parents’ neighbouring table, casting a loaded look in our son’s direction.

‘Makes us feel ancient, eh?’ Sean chuckled. He gave me my hand an understanding squeeze.

I stacked my last mushroom and strip of bacon on to the last crust of toast I’d been saving, and swiped it all through the eggy, tomatoey, beany residue on the plate. I suddenly found it tough to swallow.

‘Talking of which,’ he said, ‘you’ll never guess what. I meant to tell you this yesterday. Arrowsmith & Broom have been on the phone. They want to make a sequel to the “bostin’ point” ad.’

‘You’re kidding!’

‘It’s their centenary. And they want you, my darling.’

‘What as?’

‘The same character, thirty-odd years on. Only now she’s a widow. No belching or squawking required this time. They know about your work in the funeral industry, and want a tie-in. You should see the storyboard they’ve come up with, my darling. It’s beautiful.’

‘You’re excited, I can tell.’ I was incredulous, but I also knew my husband. He wouldn’t expound with such zeal about a project he thought was naff.

‘They’ve got you gazing misty-eyed at a photo of Keith on the sideboard. He’s your dearly departed husband – ’

I almost gagged on my coffee.

‘I’d have to summon up all the acting skills I possess to do that! Don’t tell me, he was overwhelmed by the smell of his own halitosis and keeled over?’

‘He doesn’t act anymore.’

‘Nor do I, officially.’

‘He’s a psychiatric nurse now. He’s given permission for his photo to be used, so he’ll only appear in a frame on the sideboard. Anyway, you go to visit his grave and then go back home and toast him with his favourite A&B pint glass.’

I positioned my thumb and forefinger a centimetre apart and swished an imaginary tagline through the air. ‘Arrowsmith & Broom – the beer of choice for the bereaved!’ I jested, but had to admit the ad sounded sweet.

‘And they’ve got Esme Lacey doing the music. Cover of Changes by Ozzy Osbourne.’
I clonked my teacup into its saucer. Now that was impressive. Esme Lacey was a hot new singer, famously discovered during her Selfridge’s Saturday shift, being dubbed Birmingham’s answer to Ellie Goulding.

‘Breathy, folky covers of rock hits are the in thing in advertising these days. Stuff Simon Cowell – this has got Christmas number one written all over it.’

Sean will never retire. He’ll never become jaded enough.

The stirring within me was not just of a dormant longing to act; to partake in a project I could sink my ageing teeth into; boost my kudos in the eyes of my children. Amid the bewildering fizz of emotions, what prevailed was a comforting sense of life turning full circle.

The nameless protagonist of the Arrowsmith & Broom ads had, like me, grown up. Once a loudmouth in a plywood pub, parodied by Les Dennis and vilified in the regional press by Disgusted of Solihull, she’d become a wife, a mother, now tragically a widow. My life hadn’t mirrored hers precisely, but parallels did exist.

I could see Romy across the room now, flinging scrambled egg into her great fat mouth, and stubble-chinned Gareth, glowering into his coffee, cheering up only at the sight of the waitress’s knees beneath her French maid frillies.

But they were mere haze, could only ever be bit-part blurs, when the foreground focus was the open, loving face of my Sean. My rock.

‘Merry’ has such twee, tinkly, Christmassy overtones, but there exists no better adjective for those hazel eyes that still dance behind the glasses he’s been compelled to wear for several years now. You can’t possibly look into them and not smile back.

I thought of my Jared, his dad’s double; now apparently smitten with a prog rocker’s daughter. My beautiful Zara. My other loved ones: the fabulous Mel; my parents, still going strong in their eighties; my sister, brother, innumerable nieces and nephews; treasured friends. I wanted to jiggle my toes on the floor and squeal.

I was loved; wanted. Hey, even Gareth had wanted me last night (though that hardly put me in a select group of women). And now, although as Gareth had incisively pointed out, I was no Helen Mirren, a TV commercial I’d made over thirty years ago had achieved sufficient cult status that the advertisers were seeing fit to produce a sequel, and wanted me, Majella Bracebridge – not Helen Mirren, not Julie Walters, not Gill Jordan, not Stephanie Southwick, not Andrea bloody Clamp – to star in it.

How could that advert – which provided the stage for my first meeting with my wonderful Sean – fail to hold a special place in my heart?

Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be Keith’s pretend widow, toasting him with a pint of Brum-brewed beer while Esme Lacey trilled on about going through changes (and not the menopausal kind).

Plus, my daughter was rendered ‘totes emosh’ by my performance. I run a weekly drama club at the kids’ school and had at times feared my presence there embarrassed them, so pride in me was progress.

‘OK then, I’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

Sean was thinking I’d say no, I could tell. His delight was touching.

I sat back in my ornate chair and grinned at him across the bacon.

‘Really.’

Auspiciously, the sun poured in through the enormous mullioned windows. Of course the drawback of sunlight through a window, the thing that stops its effect being heavenly, is its tendency to accentuate dust and smears, especially in an old room like that. These dust motes, though, seemed to be dancing in the stripe of sunshine; pirouetting and floating upwards, as if they were celebrating too.

‘Mrs Spendlove, I think I love you. And I know it ought to be Champagne, but – ’ Sean clinked his china teacup against mine. Such a cheesy, British thing to do.

‘Cheers!’

‘Here’s to you, Balsall Heath Betty!’

Mrs Spendlove, Balsall Heath Betty, Michelle Crabb, Claire Black, Monthlicare Girl, Dormouse, Fairy Godmother, Dora the Suffragette, Girl in Foyer in Crossroads, Majella Bracebridge, Mom.

Yes, I have assumed a lot of mantles in my life.

I’ve shed my skin several times. It’s fair to say I wasn’t always comfortable in my own skin, though all that changed a long time ago.

I haven’t always been the heroine. Sometimes I’ve been the victim. I hope I haven’t been the villain too many times. I’ve been a chameleon but, above all, a survivor.

As I refilled my teacup, I saw Romy stomp out of the room. Gareth made a token effort to stall her, but lost interest as soon as the waitress slithered over with more toast.

My phone pinged twice to indicate two successive text messages. Mel. The first an essay (his texts tend to be as long as his emails) asking how the show had gone, how ‘Linny’ (he’s always called her that) was, and whether I’d seen ‘Tosser Rushcliff.’ The second, the afterthought, two minutes later: ‘PS, thinking of asking Don to marry me. What say you, Mrs S? xxx’

A tiny gulp escaped me.

‘Everything OK?’ Sean queried.

I nodded effusively. ‘I think this is the best day of my life.’

Chapter 14

14
A Therapy Session with Gareth Rushcliff

‘In all honesty, I’m not sure quite why I’m here. I mean, the very notion of “counselling!” It’s not what we built an empire on, is it?

‘You’re not quite what I expected, Marilyn, I must admit. I mean you’re, to put it bluntly, fit. You think “counsellor,” you think of some lesbian in flip-flops and a kaftan. Not that you’re allowed to say things like that nowadays, are you? Political correctness has been the death of freedom of speech. You’re writing that down, I see. Analyse it all you like. It’s my opinion.

‘But these days it’s almost become a status symbol to have your own therapist, especially in the celebrity world. I expect you’ve heard of me? Your mother has some of our records? Wow, you know how to bruise a fella’s ego, Marilyn.

‘Well, a therapist cured my mate Mike of his sex addiction. He’s the keyboard player. Oh, ask your mom! He’s strictly a one-woman man now. You should see his missus, Pauline. She’s his third wife, got a face like a urinal, but he’s never strayed from her.

‘That’s what I think I am, you see. Not Mike Ramshaw’s third wife, of course. Not that kinky. No, a sex addict. Like Michael Douglas. Mind, it got him Catherine Zeta Jones. What did I get – Romy Rotunda! You’ll have never heard of either, I suppose, being eleven years old.

‘My trouble is I’ve been a victim of my own success. Girls have thrown themselves at me, and I’ve been hopeless at resisting. I’m a weak man.

‘I’ve been married three times as well. Are you married, by any chance, Marilyn? There I go again! I can’t help it, see. I keep acting on these instincts. This is what I mean; why I need help.

‘Were you named after Miss Monroe, by any chance? Blimey, she was a looker, eh? A boster, we’d say in Brum and the Black Country. You’re an intelligent lady, though, of course. Not that she wasn’t. I think she was underestimated. People thought she was just a great pair of tits, and lips, and legs. She was all of those things, admittedly.

‘Where was I? Yeah, I’ve been married three times. Three kids. No grandkids yet, thank God. Not that I’m anti the notion of my babies having babies, just not nuts about being, you know, old. Being a granddad can’t not carry connotations of “old.” You can’t be a granddad when in your head you’re still twenty-four.

‘So, yeah, three wives, and there’s also this bird Romy who I’ve been keeping on the side for thirty years. God forgive me, Marilyn, but she’s a filthy cow. There’s just something, I don’t know, animal about her. Her tits – pardon me, breasts – have their own time zone. And the things she can do with them are nobody’s business. And her hair! There are things living in it, I swear. It grows in all kinds of places. I know it’s trendy to wax down there nowadays, but sometimes I need the, I don’t know, tangle.

‘She’s filthy in every sense of the word. She literally never washes. She’s a gross little blob, she’s small and rough, she’s like a sexy mole, or something.

‘I don’t even know whether Romy has had any other relationships. I know she puts her wares for all the world to see on certain, shall we say, speciality websites, so she must hook up with blokes off there. I don’t need to know. After thirty years I hardly know anything about her actual life, her life away from what we have between us. I have no idea what makes her tick, outside of bed anyhow.

‘It’s like when we get together, nothing else exists. Everything that’s decent and pretty in the world flies right out of the window. It’s almost bestiality, Marilyn. I hate to say this, but I don’t even think of Romy as a person. I never think about what she does outside of whatever bedroom we happen to be in. Hell, I barely notice what she does on stage these days.

‘A lot of people over the years have wondered what Romy’s precise role is within the band. She’s a kind of appendage, I suppose. I can’t even recall how she came to be part of Glinda Spitfire. She calls herself a “performance artiste.” Which means she careens around stage as though she’s on drugs – which she is sometimes – and calls is “expressive dance.” Her routines aren’t choreographed. She says she feels the music and her dances are a physical expression of what her emotional response to it happens to be that day.

‘We don’t wink at each other while we’re performing, or do little secret signals like couples do. We don’t share any in-jokes, or have anything in common even. I don’t look at her on stage, or wherever we are, and think Phwoarr – that’s all mine! We aren’t a couple. But then we get on our own, and this sort of mist comes down. What we have exists only in these scutty hotel rooms where we jump on each other and eat each other. We barely even talk. I always hate myself afterwards.

‘You see why I need help? Listen, can I have your number, Marilyn? You don’t give it out? In case I need a bit of dial-a-therapy, as it were. It’s not always easy for me to get to appointments. I’m on the road so much. I’ll pay upfront. Cover the cost of a few appointments hence. I can afford it. Not bankrupt anymore. You still don’t give it out?

‘But Romy isn’t the woman I love. The only one I’ve ever really loved was this Majella girl. We met when I was twenty-one, I’d just started out with the band. Best time of my life, I realise now. I was making music, being creative, but I could still walk down the street. I know I can walk down the street now – hey, I walked in this room without being recognised, not holding that against you, Marilyn – but back then I was free of responsibility and all that jazz. I hadn’t even started anything with Romy at that stage. I was unsoiled, you might say.

‘I just saw her one night in Zena’s. That was a New Romantic club in Birmingham. It was a proper thunderbolt moment. Thunderbolt and lightning. Very, very frightening. She was with a bunch of her student cronies. Drama students. Majella was a bit of an actress in her day. She did this beer advert in the 80s.  Ask your dad, or your granddad, since we’ve established I’m as old as Thora Hird’s dog.  Arrowsmith & Broom.  “It’s a bostin’ pint” was the slogan.  Pronounced “point” in the Birmingham dialect.

‘Anyway, there was just something about this girl.  Cheeky smile, blonde wavy hair, blue eyes.  I guess I’ve always been attracted to natural women.  OK, I did marry a Page 3 girl, but that was kind of the law in the 80s.  Romy is natural, in her own way.  There’s certainly nothing tweaked or plucked or particularly fragrant about her.  They’re nothing alike, though.  Majella was Shirley Temple compared to her.

‘I wrote songs about this girl.  She inspired me.  She was my favourite type of muse.  Never sold any stories to the press – “I’m the girl who inspired Rainbow Eyes, blah, blah – or asked for a penny in royalties.

‘She seemed to, kind of, shine. Back then the only actresses I knew of were Noele Gordon, or Joan Collins, or leftie anorexic types who wafted about doing Shakespeare with no shoes on, but she was different. She wasn’t shy or aloof, or all “tits and teeth” as though she was auditioning. She radiated this inviting air that made you want to be with her.

‘I took her to a Berni Inn on our first date. Those were the days, when I thought I was really something because I could afford steak Diane at a Berni! I had a tomato cut into the shape of a lily pad, with one of those sprigs of parsley that look like they’re made of plastic plonked in the centre. I didn’t feel any prouder when I took Stacie, that’s my second wife, to the Ivy. I experienced that same sense of “I’ve made it!”

‘My daughter Felicity is an actress now. I know I’m supposed to be a proud daddy and unconditionally supportive, blah, blah, but she’s a wooden as a wine keg. Makes Madonna look like Olivia Colman. I can’t help wondering if Majella and I had had kids together, they’d have inherited stronger acting genes.

‘I’ve seen her recently – Majella, I mean – not in the flesh, on the telly. Come Dine with Me. It dredged up so many memories. To be quite frank with you, Marilyn, I was scared. Those memories had lain dormant for so long. It frightened me that a girlfriend from my youth should wield such power over me.

‘She’s a funeral director now, or something. I don’t do funerals. It’s like a phobia with me. I couldn’t go to my brother Tom’s. Couldn’t face it. My mom was fine about it in the end. Well, I say “fine,” she didn’t speak to me for two years. But then I bought her a house, and it seemed to soften the blow.

‘It never got in the papers. Well it wouldn’t nowadays. I’m not news anymore. My brother had led a very ordinary lifestyle, in a semi in Erdington. Nobody would have linked him with me. I always offered to buy him a bigger house, but he refused what he called my “charity.” His lookout. Keeled over at forty-eight. Heart attack. It doesn’t just happen to rock ’n ‘rollers.

‘I went to Zena’s, of course, but I was performing. I had a duty to get over my phobia so I could do Zena proud by singing. And it was at that wake I shagged Majella for the final time. Yes, at a wake! I know – we celebs, eh! Perhaps that intensified my phobia. What do you think, Marilyn?

‘I feel this urge to meet up with her again. No, Marilyn, it probably isn’t wise, but we’ve established I have a history of making unwise moves. She hadn’t aged a day, I swear. I know that’s a cliché but it’s true.

‘I’m not sure why I’m telling you all of this, Marilyn. I think I’m beyond any kind of cure. What does Majella want with a hopeless old goat like me? Ah, I bet she’s never been in therapy in her life.’

Chapter 5

5
(She Just) Died on Her Arse

Coming soon…

Chapter 8

8
A Club for Tiny Show-Offs

When I was six years old, my parents enrolled me in Bessie Webley’s School of Acting. Whilst the ‘School’ moniker may imply an academy where youngsters were coached, Fame-style in dramatic arts alongside their Geography and Science, essentially this was a Saturday morning club for tiny show-offs.

Mom, wheeling newborn Spencer in his pram and tugging at Sophie’s podgy hand, would walk me every week up to that minuscule room above the Happy Shopper. I’d hounded her to let me attend ever since I first spotted the yellowing stencilled sign in the upstairs window advertising Miss Webley’s illustrious class.

It grabbed me, that sign. Even framed as it was by a moth-eaten net curtain, blu-tacked on to glass that hadn’t seen Windolene in a generation, it spoke of glamour; fascination; escapism. I can still picture it now. The tipsy stencilling, the black capitals, spaced reasonably evenly at the start of each line, then squished at the ends where the writer had underestimated the word lengths. The endearing chaos of it all still makes me smile.

From virtually the time I could talk, I would ‘entertain’ my poor family, who were a captive audience every Christmas to my living room monologues and re-enactment of scenes from Crossroads or The Sooty Show. I expanded into impersonations of Shirley Temple and subsequently Lena Zavaroni. I even added to my repertoire the clipped tones of the young Mary Berry, who I’d seen making fish pie on an afternoon cookery show when I was off with chicken pox. Who knew then what a renaissance she would enjoy via The Great British Bake Off forty years later?

So my parents sent me to Miss Webley’s in the probable hope I’d exorcise performing from my system and take up a more gainful, genteel hobby like tennis by the time I was ten. At that point there was no supposition that I’d pursue a thespian career.

Miss W herself seemed about 103 (she was probably in her sixties). She twined her beautiful powdery grey hair up into a French pleat, sported a vivid gash of coral lipstick, and teetered on a walking stick while recounting spurious anecdotes that usually featured Basil Rathbone. I cared not a fig whether they were true; I was rapt.

I idolised that lady. She could have told me to stand on my head and pretend to be a bottle of milk, and I’d have joyfully obliged. Which is a good job, because she once did just that. She launched me on to the stage, in my first ever role: the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland.

She later cast me as the title role in Anne of Green Gables at the local guide hut (Brown Owl let us use their stage). I practically expired from the total bliss of it all. I was a controversial choice, not possessing Anne’s trademark red hair, but I was fitted with a nice wig. That book was, and has remained, a favourite of mine.

In the early years, at least, the blissful Saturday routine was rounded off with kippers and Angel Delight for tea. Some evenings, Nan and Granddad came over, Granddad bringing one of his James Last records, to which I would often devise a dance routine loosely based around an exercise from that day’s class.

Granddad’s eyes would spill and he’d say, ‘Ah, Michelle, me babby, yer gunna be a star.’

******

When it came to casting junior school plays, my extracurricular acting experience counted for naught. Andrea Clamp remained the queen of that little stage. Rumours persisted that Miss Beresford, our headmistress, was terrified of Andrea’s mother, who had no teeth and possessed two bulldogs named Ronnie and Reggie.

On one infamous occasion, Andrea and two of her thugette sidekicks suspended me over the toilet in a headlock.

It was break time after the Nativity dress rehearsal during which I’d been fitted into my sheep costume for the first time, while Andrea had modelled the pious tea towel to characterise the Virgin Mary. A low point in my youth, it’s fair to say.

‘Bet yow’m disappointed not to get Mary, eh, snob! Think yow can get all the parts just coz yow go to that poncy acting class! My mom won’t let me go there coz she reckons that old bat who runs it’s a dirty lezzer. Know what that means, Crabb Stick?’

‘Yeah, course,’ I yelped. ‘I’ve seen Sister George.’

‘Who’s that, her girlfriend?’

‘Yeah, probably.’ I’d learned at a very young age to use humour to deflect threat. Being in a drama group set me apart. I could assume a kind of nonchalant worldliness most little girls didn’t possess at the time. In modern terms, I was good at winging it. In truth it was hard to imagine the ancient Miss Webley indulging in sexual relations with anyone of either gender.

One of the little harpies sniggered, seeming to forget she was my antagonist then stifled it with an apologetic cough when it earned her a glare from Andrea.

‘Yeah, well,’ Andrea slackened her grip on my neck and shrugged, ‘whatever. I reckon she’s a man, like that Danny La Rue.’

‘Come on, girls – back to class!’ A pair of clapping hands and a perm visible over the tiny cubicle door announced the arrival of a dinnerlady to break up the little party.

******

I continued at Bessie Webley’s until I was fifteen, by which time I was twice the age of most of my classmates, but I didn’t care.

Other kids went to the cinema or shoplifted on a Saturday morning, but without fail I was to be found emoting and doing improv above that tiny general store.

I began to adopt a kind of unofficial ‘uniform’ for my Saturdays at Bessie’s: a mustard polyester blouse with bell sleeves and a collar you could toboggan down, worn under a cropped black woollen tank top, with black flared jeans. Well I thought I looked stylish anyway, and the ensemble was a jazzy departure from my weekday uniform of grey and royal blue.

We actors are a superstitious bunch, and the wearing of my ‘lucky’ outfit became a Saturday prerequisite, to the extent that if one element was absent (i.e. in the wash) I swear I performed under par.

Andrea’s accusations of snobbery were unfounded. I was never destined for Cambridge Footlights. There was absolutely nothing privileged about my background (in terms of wealth, I mean – as I’ve already covered, I was more than blessed in terms of love and affection). For all her grand stories, Miss Webley’s ‘school’ was one resolutely rooted in the working class.

I once overheard Dad say to Mom, ‘If she really is old Sherlock’s floozie, what’s she doing teaching a rabble of kids above a shop in Lichfield?’

‘Floozie’ was a new word to me then.

When we’d been good children, Miss W would dispatch one of us (usually me, as the oldest) down to the store to buy us each a Fab ice lolly.

Mr Hubbold the shopkeeper once thrust a clanking carrier bag into my hand, with a wink and sotto voce instructions to convey ‘Bessie’s special medicine’ up to her. His subterfuge was pointless; the two green bottles and their Gordon’s labels were plainly visible through the thin polythene. It wasn’t easy juggling them and the lollies, I can tell you.

I feebly started counting out the hot coins Bessie had pressed into my hand, as though I could magic enough to cover the cost, but Mr H assured me, with another wink, that the bottles were ‘on the house.’ He’d be shut down nowadays, using a minor as a courier in such a fashion.

Miss Webley patted my cheek and called me a ‘dear young soul.’ Alan Duckhouse – who sported permanent snot streaks, and was rumoured to be dumped at Miss Webley’s just so his parents could spend every Saturday in the King’s Head – told me he saw her finish one of the bottles by the time school was out for the day. I didn’t believe him. How was she still standing up if that was the case? A ‘functioning alcoholic’ was an alien notion at that tender age.

******

As I progressed through secondary school, I developed a hatred of the institution where I was obliged to receive my formal education, and retreated even further into the fantasy world of Bessie Webley’s creation.

I finally ‘came out’ to my parents about my latent ambition to go to drama school. For the 1970s Midlands, this was an avant-garde aspiration. ‘Bloody theatricals’ was a muttered epithet I began to hear with frequency. Where I grew up, ‘a bit theatrical’ was a tag, usually illustrated by a limp wrist gesture, levelled at the likes of John Inman or Larry Grayson. Female ‘theatricals’ slotted into the categories of political (Vanessa Redgrave), eccentric (Beryl Reid/Bessie Webley), posh (Penelope Keith), or slut (Sylvia Kristel).

My parents accepted my announcement with remarkable grace. Mom only cried once. I think they knew in their hearts I was never destined for a housewifely role or a safe, office-based career.

The prospect of a place at the illustrious Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts, with its entry requirement of three A-levels, was my only spur to stop on at school and acquire qualifications.

I loathed Mondays especially. That four o’clock Sunday stomach swoop, that sense I was hurtling towards the dreaded curtailing of my freedom, was a weekly feature of my entire school life. I am fortunate to have not really had a convention nine-to-give occupation, and thus such pre-Monday dread did not have to continue into adulthood.

PE was certainly purgatory. Andrea and her cronies would snigger at my ineptitude on the hockey pitch or netball court, even though they were far too languid and breathless – due to chain-smoking – to demonstrate any sporty prowess themselves.

Our monstrous PE teacher, Miss Finton, would bark insults at me across the boggy pitch, turn a convenient blind eye and deaf ear to Andrea’s abuse, and watch us girls in the showers with disturbing attentiveness.

At parents’ evenings Mom and Dad would come home from meetings with ferocious Finton wondering why their otherwise healthy daughter developed so many illnesses on PE day.

Feigning migraines or killer period pains to skive off Physical Education became an early test of my acting skills. Devising schemes to evade PE was a game far more rewarding than hockey or rounders. I began to love and shamelessly capitalise on the fuss I earned from the motherly dinnerladies who always unquestioningly believed me and ensconced me on the sick room couch before I could say ‘hypochondriac.’

They would offer to phone my mom and invite her to fetch me; usually I would tell them, with a little Orphan Annie snivel, that she was ‘out shopping.’ Being born in the era pre-answer machines and mobile phones was a boon to the experienced skiver – if Mom was out, it automatically meant she was unreachable.

Usually I would make a miraculous recovery after the lesson had ended, and would skip happily off to English, or whatever. Sometimes I attempted realism by varying the routine, so instead of feigning a recovery I submissively accepted the dinnerlady’s offer to call Mom. She administered foul medicine, which I swallowed without complaint to maintain the pretence of being so poorly I would gamely accept any remedy that might save my fragile little life.

Ironically, I acquired in early adulthood a love for fitness, engendered via the pre-breakfast exercise routines of Mad Lizzie on TV-am. I once smashed a jar of Coffee Mate by swiping it on to the lino while overenthusiastically attempting a ‘spotty dog’ move. I was swept along by the aerobics craze and owned numerous pairs of legwarmers, as so many of us did, in every conceivable colour. Nelson, Mel and I used to pool our collections and coordinate each morning, because woe betide if we ever left the flat in clashing shades.

I’m an active gym member to this day, having long been converted to the fun aspects and health benefits of sport, which schools seem to bafflingly ignore. At my old comp it was all about ‘playing for the house,’ and winning sports day. I must admit team games still leave me cold.

******

In my later school years, Andrea tended to leave me alone more, mainly by virtue of the fact she was suspended or skiving more than she was actually there.

Over thirty years later, I happened to spot Andrea Clamp in the audience on The Jeremy Kyle Show, cheering on her daughter Zola. A DNA test was involved (isn’t it always!), and it seemed half the men in South Staffordshire were likely candidates for the paternity of baby Rylan.

I could only decipher intermittent words because every other one was censored by the beep. I also don’t claim to be a body language expert, but I could tell by her animated mannerisms that young Zola harboured a great deal of anger towards the seemingly constant flow of toothless, hoodie-clad lads who poured forth from backstage.

******

My O-Level year was pivotal for two other reasons, namely that two very special people passed away.

Firstly my beloved Granddad, who had prophesied I would someday become a star.

Then Miss Webley, who apparently expired peacefully in her armchair, wearing a cerise kimono, clutching her ever-present gin glass. Her carpet, by all accounts, bore no spillages, implying the drink was entirely consumed with not a drop wasted. For some reason, this facet of the story has always given me a shot of pleasure.

Like Zena, she died a solitary but supposedly serene, glamorous death.

Mom and Dad allowed me the morning off to attend the funeral, even though school took a dim view of absences during such a crucial year. Ironically, it clashed with PE. Finally, after all those excuses to avoid bitch Finton, I had a legitimate one and was too distraught to feel any triumph.

Basil Rathbone was not in attendance, on account of having passed away himself in 1967. In fact, the brief little service at Sutton Coldfield Crematorium was notable for its lack of any well-known faces from the thespian world, despite Bessie’s alleged roll-call of acquaintances.

It was a surprisingly austere affair for such a flamboyant personality. Just her nephew, niece, Mr Hubbold from the shop, and a few parents of other kids from the club. Not an old thesp in a dickie bow in sight.

There were very few flowers too; the spray on the coffin was disappointingly spartan. I wanted to yell: ‘Did you really know her; the essence of her?’ But that would hardly have been dignified. Maybe they were actually the ones who knew the real Bessie Webley, and she was acting a part in the presence of us, her pint-sized protégées? She was a drama coach, after all. Were we all of us, at the end of the day, acting a part?

I wore a black pinafore dress for the occasion, and tied my hair back in a prim plait. I chose a pale grey eyeshadow that lent me a suitably gaunt, dignified air. I have to confess I rather admired my slim, adult reflection. We theatricals! Forever on show, projecting to an audience.

Every moment was a rehearsal for some tragedy. One never stopped emoting, dahling. I would practise expressions, gaits, gestures, looks, delivery, stance, and store them all up in my actor’s memory, my bank of techniques to draw upon for future roles.

I admit there is a streak of pretension in many actors, writers, creative types collectively. There’s a tendency to consider ourselves too otherworldly for the banalities of real life. Being a creative/theatrical, I spent a good deal of time daydreaming at my desk about a world away from the inkwell and blackboard.

This time, though, the bereft sensation, the icy emptiness in my tummy, was utterly genuine. I would later recall these emotions when directions called for me to cry on command.

My mom ran me a bath that evening, pouring in a blob of the Badedas bubble bath that was usually rationed. Soph lent me her Girl magazine to read in bed, ‘because you’re sad, even though we’re all still grieving for Granddad. But I want the John Travolta poster back, coz I promised it to my friend Majella.’

Majella’s a nice name, I thought.

******

Nobody took over the drama club. I detested my newly idle, dismal Saturdays. The poky rooms were converted back to a flat. It was a long, long time before I could walk past that Happy Shopper store again.

When I finally faced taking that route home, I looked up at the window and gamely swallowed a sob as I saw the faint mark left by the sugar-paper sign that for so many years bore Miss Webley’s stencilled phone number. The yellowed oblong stood out against the grey of the net curtain that had been retained by the flat’s new occupants.

I took some pride in my adult acceptance of Miss W’s departure. I dabbed my eyes with a hanky, took a deep breath, pulled up the collar of my bomber jacket, bowled into the shop and bought a Lyon’s Fab from Mr Hubbold. It was hardly lolly weather, but that was my idea of a tribute to Bessie. As my teeth jumped at the cloying chill of the unseasonal icy sweet, I was conscious I had reached a Turning Point in my life. I vowed to give the audition of my life for BAPA, and win Oscar after Oscar in her honour.

I applied myself zealously to my theatrical studies, and did enough revision in my other subjects to scrape the passes I needed to bag a place in sixth form. I achieved an A in my O-Level Drama, and stopped on to take Drama, English and General Studies for A-Level. When I auditioned for BAPA, I delivered a scene from Anne of Green Gables as one of my pieces.

The selection panel – a trio of androgynous robots in mime-artist black – were entirely impassive, but I clearly impressed them because, in amongst the bills and free newspapers, my glorious letter of acceptance plopped through the letterbox three weeks later. I was pogoing around the kitchen that day.

Mom and Dad were fairly muted initially; I suppose they were coming to terms with this actually happening, their eldest daughter becoming one of those (gasp!) theatricals. There had always been that possibility that I might fail the audition and be obliged to settle into an office career or a sensible degree (History, Business Studies or the like).

To their credit, however, they uttered not a word of dissent. I came home one day to find a beautiful new white suitcase standing in my room, and a pile of leotards folded skilfully on my bed. My dear Mom!

I suspected, though the sentiment was never voiced within my earshot, that their being blessed with a pair of more conventional offspring softened the blow. Spencer topped the class in Maths and later, when it was added to the curriculum, Computer Science; Soph’s fortes were German and Typing.

I’m certainly not aware my siblings ever sported leotards. I did on a rotating basis during my spell at BAPA (it’s the blue one, must be Wednesday), though could never fold them as adroitly as my mother. They always looked creased around the crotch, so I resembled a tortoise at an aerobics class.

At that audition, in classes, and in any studio or theatre I’ve ever worked in, I am mentally in that little room above the Happy Shopper that smelt of tea and Pledge. I’m the wide-eyed little girl in the dressing-up box; the teenager in the lucky garish yellow blouse.

******

As I towed my new suitcase up to the third floor of the halls of residence (I didn’t move to the flat on Bristol Road until my second year), I thought: This is all for you, Miss W.

When I was sixteen I’d honoured her memory with a Fab ice lolly. Now I was an adult, and fully fledged student, I sank several enormous gins in homage.

I awoke fully clothed on top of my mauve candlewick cover, with a brutal hangover and the phone number of a dark-eyed young musician called Gareth crushed into my hand. My palm was so clammy, the ink had run, imprinting the digits back to front on my skin. I was scouring away with the Avon soap (part of my going-away supplies from Mom) for ages.

I’ve pondered the different course my life might have taken had I not gone out that night. If I wanted to get deep, I could say my temporary tattoo was symbolic of the way Gareth would become so imprinted on my psyche.

I collected the first of many letters from Mom from my pigeonhole at nine that morning. She’d posted it the day before (mail was speedy in those days, and always delivered before breakfast).

‘We’re already missing you,’ she wrote. ‘We’re watching Juliet Bravo. Maybe one day we’ll be watching you in it? I think you’d be better than this Juliet.’ Bless her, she always thought that was the character’s name.

‘Granddad and Bessie would have been so proud of you,’ she went on to say, which I must admit choked me.

I never thought my parents had much time for Bessie, much less deem her capable of opinions. They dismissed her as a daft old thesp; a doddery fantasist. I’d developed a defensive instinct towards her. After Bessie’s funeral, I’d repressed my grief. Granddad’s passing still overshadowed us a family; hers felt almost peripheral It was like ‘Let’s indulge Michelle her sad moment because she’s lost her Saturday drama club, before we focus on the weightier concerns – sorting out Granddad’s pensions, organising a headstone, and caring for Nan.’

Therefore the simple coupling of Granddad and Bessie in a sentence, my parents’ blessing to my aspirations, meant the world.

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