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  But then technology and social media swiftly superseded the dinosaur of print journalism, and I’d have certainly been made redundant anyway.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 and 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

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.’


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.


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.


‘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

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

(She Just) Died on Her Arse

Coming soon…

Chapter 8

Miss Webley’s School of Acting

Coming soon…

Chapter 10

The Crash of Destiny

Coming soon…

Chapter 12

Spring Cleaning My Life

Cleaning. You could say it was cleaning that saved me during my spell of depression. My ‘blue period,’ as I came to delicately term it.

Cleaning became my way of attaining control. I equated it to anorexics’ relationships with food. To sweepingly oversimplify, they attempt to assert control over what they perceive as chaotic lives by counting calories and severely curtailing their food intake. My way of doing so was to zealously dust and mop. Just as an anorexic might stand before a mirror and visualise a fat person, I would survey our immaculate flat and see acres of dust.

Mel cleaned for a living at that time, but at home I was the one wielding the Mr Sheen can. I was happy (relatively so, at least) when I was cleaning; I had a purpose, a mission. My time was not wasting away. I was achieving. The simple concept that one minute dust was there and then the next, because of me and my mighty duster (typically a pair of Mel’s old underpants), it wasn’t, boosted my meagre self-esteem; gave me a slender sense of power. Tiny goals can feel like monstrous achievements when you have depression.

I had a specified ‘cleaning day,’ Wednesday, partly because in my precarious profession I craved a semblance of routine, of regularity. On cleaning day I was galvanised. I became OCD. Still am, to a certain extent. Petty inconsistencies leap out at me. Drawers that are not fully closed, flecks of fluff on the carpet, CDs adrift from their cases. I itch until I can rectify them. I can’t unsee them. I know they are there. To this day, Wednesday remains my cleaning day, as if in homage to that period.

The days when I wasn’t cleaning, I wasn’t galvanised. Simple as. I worked the shifts at Rackhams I’d had the foresight to retain. I visited my family. I ate little and unenthusiastically, I lost weight, wore children’s clothes and saved the VAT (though inexplicably bemoaned my inability to ensnare a boyfriend with these unsexy outfits). I goggled numbly at soap operas and game shows even though I knew I should be fulfilling my time with more useful pursuits. I could feel my very brain cells rotting, yet my arse was suckered to the comfortable settee and I was powerless to break the cycle of monotony. I washed my hair, I ironed, I slept, I did the shopping. I drove Tesco to his little casting calls.

I did occasional acting myself (it hadn’t entirely dried up). There was my stint in Crossroads (I felt I invested my line, ‘Which way to the gym?’ with all the beauty it merited), a Little Chef advert, a sketch with Bobby Davro, a health and safety corporate video in which I had to pretend to topple off a ladder in impractically high heels. No starring roles in sitcoms set on canal barges, though.

So I was far from idle. Yet through it all I felt a sense of nothingness; a sense I was viewing the world through a window. A sense of ennui. I liked that French word. It sounded rather elegant and Jane Austen heroine-ish. Everything was an anticlimax. I longed to feel anger, emotion, something. Anything would have been preferable to this detached listlessness.

My self-expression and assurance dissolved. I seldom went out; socialising became an ordeal because I would fret about every phase of the evening, from leaving the flat on time to whether I had a ladder in my tights. When I wasn’t acting – and thus wasn’t tethered to a script and had to articulate my own thoughts – I could barely construct a sentence. I was an undoubted disappointment to companions who expected an actress to be ‘on,’ to be droll, gregarious company.


The rare spells between 1984 and 1989 (I could actually count them) when I did break down and howl came as such tremendous relief. The emotion felt healthy and natural; it demonstrated I was alive.

One of those moments came when I learned about Nelson’s illness.

The evening of the BAPA reunion, I had sagged into bed after watching Catchphrase, though not without experiencing a rare blast of energy and scrawling a note for Mel directing him to my unfinished dinner in the oven. Despite being entirely averse to the idea of attending the reunion myself, as I flipped the TV off I’d started to half-heartedly wonder how Mel’s night was going. Poor Mel. He didn’t deserve my dramas. I loved him, and tomorrow we were going to deck the Christmas tree together. I girlishly appended a string of kisses to my scribbly note, and headed to bed.

I awoke relatively energised by the childlike promise of putting up our wiry tree and decorating it with the paltry baubles and bald tinsel we possessed. Mel had an eye for that kind of thing – he was used to decorating himself like a Christmas tree on a regular basis, after all.

The flat was filled with an uncharacteristic fug, and I couldn’t hear Going Live on the television, which was a discouraging sign (we both had devoted crushes on Phillip Schofield). I found Mel slouched at the kitchen table, looking about fifty and drawing on a Marlboro. He had given up smoking six years earlier. When he lapsed, I knew things were not good.

Then he delivered Nelson’s news, and something within me snapped. I felt as though I could physically see it; in my mind it was embodied as an inflexible object like a ruler, bent to shattering point.

I am ashamed to say I experienced a nanosecond of foot-stamping disappointment that we had been going to put the tree up, and now those plans were all spoilt. Then I immediately mentally bashed myself for being so childishly selfish.

An illogical urge to escape overwhelmed me. To escape my own embarrassment as much as anything. I was clad in my pyjamas and slippers, with no money or keys about my person, yet all I knew was that I wanted to – had to – be out of this stifling flat which reeked of raw pork and stale smoke, where my best friend was telling me another of my best friends was dying of AIDS, and I was acting like a twat, putting my own trivial needs first.

I have a grainy memory of the next few moments. Pelting down the sparse stairway, hauling open the door, taking a voracious gulp of the sharp December air as though it were my first breath, whooshing along the entry, past the parched hanging basket, out of the gate, behind the butcher’s van and into the road, to a cacophony of car horns and expletives as a car whose arrival had been obscured by the van shrieked to an emergency stop to avoid me. And then a pair of arms around me, tugging me away as though out of a canal in which I had almost drowned, and Mel sobbing ‘You stupid cow,’ over and over at me.

Mel was supremely in control that day: apologising to the poor driver who’d nearly had to scrape my Kermit-pyjama’d form off his front bumper, pushing me up the stairs, making me tea, calling Dr Dolphin, who came out despite it being a Saturday (those were the days) and him surely having a plethora of elderly hypothermia victims to attend to. I cried for those frozen pensioners who I pictured dying due to lack of medical attention because Dr Dolphin was ministering to stupid Majella Bracebridge who ran in front of a Maxi. I was patently sick too, though, according to his diagnosis, as he prescribed me antidepressants.

Mel and I talked and talked that day. I well and truly unburdened. The effect was exhausting. I barely halted for breath in my chaotic monologue, about Nelson, Gareth, my career, Linda, even Andrea Clamp’s clandestine bullying of me at school. Cups of tea materialised in front of me, without any apparent interruption in the flood of conversation. For once I had justification to cry, and the tears jetted forth without restraint.

I don’t think we ever put that bloody tree up.

Depression can be a very self-absorbing condition, and I had been sorely lacking in perspective for far too long. The simple revelation that I was not the only person in the world with problems set me off in a cycle of pitiful guilt and melancholy, until I made the decision that such self-reproach was counter-productive.

That day was the last time I let anybody be in control of me. My last day of being this passive clod I’d been for far too long.

The prospect of entering a co-dependent relationship with antidepressant pills was unnerving. I was fairly ignorant about their effects – they were just not talked about then, and of course the internet was a yet-to-be-invented research tool – but knew they were not sweets to be consumed nonchalantly. I envisaged these ‘happy pills’ achieving the absolute opposite effect to the depression itself, thus transforming me into a giddy, manic monster, grinning and cackling uncontrollably like some horror movie dummy that comes to life and murders the ventriloquist.

It was days until I gathered the courage to hand my prescription in at Boots; further days before I swallowed my first tablet. They intimidated me, but in fat had a calming, kind of softening impact. They engendered a long-absent sense that I could cope; that my life was not hurtling out of control.


Over Christmas, Mel and I met up with Nelson. He wouldn’t let us go to his house – he told Mel on the phone that he disliked the implication this held of ‘being visited, like a patient,’ but insisted on meeting at the Greyhound in Wolverhampton.

Even despite Mel’s warning, I was shocked by his dramatic weight loss. We were not to talk about ‘it,’ the pink elephant in the room. Nelson’s friendly eyes were poignantly hollow now, though shone with the same light of old. We talked about Kylie, Neighbours (I shared his obsession, since my settee/daytime TV addiction had me in its grip), the collapse of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, Tiananmen Square, Judy Finnigan’s new hairdo.

There was a gang of football fans in the pub, bundled up in cagoules and Wolves scarves and vast cagoules. I had no interest in football, but there was something oddly comforting about the way these lads were enjoying their weekend routine; about the way normal life was going on, even while others were experiencing personal turmoil.


When the royalties for the Arrowsmith & Broom advert repeats came through, I donated them to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Mel actually said I’d have been better served saving them towards the rent, as in 1990 he declared his intention to move out, thus ending our eight-year non-sexual cohabital relationship. We’d lived together longer than many married couples.

He inherited a small legacy from Alice Cooper, not the mascara-clad rock star (who had ironically made a recent comeback), of course, but his mother’s recently deceased spinster neighbour, and decided to, as he put it, venture a stiletto on to the property ladder. He purchased a small terrace in Selly Oak, thus leaving Tesco and me the sole occupants of the flat where no amount of pot pourri could mask the whiff of raw offal. My modest wages and savings met the rent, and I at least got the odd discount cut of meat, and free liver for the cat.

I helped Mel move. Unpacking box after box of frock after frock, then scoffing fish and chips on upturned tea chests, carried larky echoes of that carefree day when we moved into our first student flat.

That first night was odd. When I hugged Mel goodbye, I made a He-Man effort not to cry. We maintained constant contact by telephone, an almost running commentary, as though connected by walkie talkies. I’m sure he thought if he broke the link I’d relapse and drift into loneliness. Poor Mel. I put him through hell.

Those first few days of living totally solo for the first time, I was as restless as a flea. I couldn’t sleep, so I cleaned, then went to bed in the early hours, convinced I would slumber until teatime, but of course hungry Tesco had other ideas and nudged me awake with his damp little nose. I couldn’t return to sleep once I’d opened his tin of Buster (which we still got for free). So I cleaned again, inside the cupboards this time.

I was, to employ a modern phrase, now ‘thinking outside the box,’ and cleaning on days other than Wednesdays. I could never sit still. I was too restless to be passive.

I’d unwittingly become a hoarder – another common symptom of depression – and this was a process that had to be reversed. The last thing I needed was to become one of those people who lives with eighteen cats and hasn’t got into bed for three years because her route to it is blockaded by old Argos catalogues.

I purged the cupboards, filling four binbags with moth-eaten clothes, ancient bank statements, concert ticket stubs, bus ticket stubs, single earrings I’d clung on to in the vain hope their lost twins might magically resurface, globs of Blu-Tack with shards of Smash Hits posters stuck to them, a sock, Biros whose nibs oozed congealed ink, a broken fondue set, carrier bags.

A Polaroid of Gareth. Ah! My heart flipped despite myself. He was a ludicrously good-looking man, after all. It was one of the first I’d taken of him, outside the old Bull Ring in Birmingham, denim blue sky behind him lending a romantic quality to the urban scene. ‘I’m in a band,’ he’d told me that day. I dangled it over the bin, but consigned the tattered snap to a photo album, feeling mature for not ripping it but acknowledging him as part of my history.

A brochure for Birmingham Living History Museum. I’d visited there once on an O-Level History trip. I hung on to that one.

An A4 notepad containing, oh my word, the first scene and fanciful cast list of Crisp Notes: The Musical (Based upon the Novel of the Same Name), which Mel, Linda, Nelson and I bashed together over several ciders years ago in our old flat. It was to tell the story of the staff from the Super Crunch Crisp Factory winning an unspecified fortune on a TV quiz show and making far-reaching changes to their lives. Hey, we loved crisps and we loved game shows – what better way to fuse our interests!

Cecil (Factory Owner)      Mel Corns
Cecily (His Twin Sister)      Heidi Sausage
Verna (Their Mother)      Noele Gordon
Blanche (Factory Forewoman)      Linda Dyson
Tarquin (Chief Crisp Packer)      Nelson Love
George (His Boyfriend)      George Michael/Boy George
Zara (Chief Potato Peeler)      Majella Bracebridge
Maxwell (Her Lover)      Gareth Rushcliff
Game Show Host      Ted Rogers
The Bank Manager      Lenny Henry
The Office Cat      Tesco
Chorus      The Brian Rogers Dancers

I wondered if any of us possessed the clout nowadays to assemble a cast like that.

We’d planned to pen both the libretto and the novel ‘upon which it was based,’ and envisaged scores of our fellow students would be queuing up for roles in this epic show.

I remembered specifically wanting my character to be called Zara.
‘It’s a beautiful name,’ I’d said. I still think it is.

I sat cross-legged on the carpet leafing through our green-inked screenplay, until my limbs went to sleep. It was fascinating stuff. A preposterous tale, yet this raw script demonstrated a youthful chutzpah that was startling yet also heartening to my jaded psyche.


Killer by Adamski topped the charts that spring and was constantly on the radio. It became the soundtrack to my extended spring clean.

Mel moving out was the catalyst I needed to pull my proverbial socks up. I finally took driving lessons, passed my test and bought a Renault 5 with 100,000 miles on the clock and a leaking sunroof. I loved that car as one might love an ugly but affectionate puppy.

I developed a thirst for new hobbies to fill my solitary evenings. Enjoying them for their own sake was not enough, though; I had to push myself to ridiculous levels to excel at them.

I took up running, but without a competition to train for, a means to an end, I had no incentive. So I enrolled for the Birmingham Fun Run and completed it in a respectable time. Once the competition was over, my incentive was removed and my enthusiasm spent, and I never pulled on another pair of running shorts.

Then, having burned many a saucepan to annihilation in ill-fated kitchen exploits over the years, I took up with cooking, with surprisingly edible results. I bought Julian Crowfoot’s book and attempted every recipe in it (the Wispa rum cake remained a dinner party staple for years).

I was frequently guilty of starting things but never finishing them. For a phase, I decided I could be the next Jackie Collins. I had a crack at Crisp Notes: The Novel (I lacked both the inclination and the musicality to remodel it into a musical). I was serious and all – I even went to WH Smith (and incidentally, it can’t be just me who thought as a kid it was pronounced ‘Wuh Smith’?) and purchased a notebook with a fabric cover bearing a picture of a peacock, experiencing a childlike glee at the pretty stationery.

I fell into a frustrating yet elating routine of living and breathing a story, consulting my trusty pocket thesaurus, and falling asleep dreaming of troublesome sentences and paragraphs. Ideas, scenarios, sentences, singular lines of dialogue would form in my head, like flashes of genius, though sadly without the strong storyline to prop them up. The idea of taking my pen for a walk across the paper was intimidating. I felt too shy. The whole concept died a death.

At times I was paralysed with indecision; with a sense of having so much to do that the panic about filling it all in froze me. I could stand there shaking, not moving this way or that. All these ideas buzzed around like wasps with no escape route. So I obsessively made lists. Lists of lists. I would add items to lists just so I could cross them off. Even today, I do this. I detest being bored, or even sitting still. I cook constantly. I can’t be idle. I’m afraid of those still moments which afford me too much time to think. I apply constant pressure to myself to Do Something Useful.


Back then, I berated myself for not achieving; I was under constant self-imposed pressure, aware that the only person capable of changing my life was me, yet lacked the stamina and confidence to see projects through. I expended more energy telling myself what I ‘should’ be doing than actually doing. I would tell myself I was a worthless person; a waste of space.

I exhaled a mighty breath and sagged back against the patchwork cushion after relating all of this to Roger, my counsellor.
I automatically reached for a tissue from the ever-present box on his pine table. Crying was second nature to me now, though it was at least starting to take the form of an outpouring of relief rather than a torrent of woe. Today was the most cathartically talkative I’d been with Roger, following weeks of rather hesitant sessions.

Dr Dolphin, who continued to monitor my progress and administer antidepressants, had made the referral, and now I underwent therapy for an hour each Wednesday, in this tastefully furnished room in a converted terrace in Moseley.

I’d arrived for my first appointment expecting to be confronted with a clichéd mad professor type: a wild-eyed buffoon in a white coat, sporting a flaming red beard and Ronnie Barker glasses, who would order me to lie on the couch and administer electric shock treatment while asking me about my mother. In fact Roger was genial and welcoming; in fact, the first word he would greet me with at every meeting was a simple, ‘Welcome.’ He possessed a squashy, careworn dad sort of face, and a fine line in pastel jumpers. There was a Garfield poster on the wall next to his practising certificate.

During that first meeting he probed me with gentle questions about my background, family, friends, personal relationships, work, etc – setting the scene and finding out what sort of a person I was. It was very difficult at first. I was not used to talking about myself in such great detail, and felt self-conscious and defensive about giving voice to certain things which I had never told a soul before. I knew I had to be completely honest, however difficult I found it, or else there was little point undergoing this treatment at all. He needed to be in possession of the full facts.

He told me I could make as many or as few appointments as I liked, but advised me to visit him at least eight times to make the whole thing worthwhile. The format of these future sessions, he said, would involve him listening to me moan but also giving me ‘homework,’ strategies I could work on to help me relax and build up my confidence.

He never patronised or tried to blind me with science. At times I found the sessions very draining, but that was only to be expected. The very fact I was taking positive steps to improve my life gave me confidence. I was surprising myself with the things I ended up talking about, but I guessed these topics must have been relevant for them to crop up in conversation at all.

The thorny ‘Gareth’ topic had been touched upon. If Roger was surprised that a one-time famous pop star had broken my heart just as he was becoming famous, he betrayed no hint of it.

He now nodded pensively, perusing his notes – or at least pretending to while he formulated his next question.

‘Now you’ve mentioned a female flatmate a couple of times – Linda, was it? I gather there is or was some conflict between the two of you.’ He shot me a kind, encouraging smile. ‘Do you feel ready to tell me about that yet?’

Some conflict, ah yes. I’d been dreading our discourse heading in this direction. A failed affair of the heart was one thing, but – and I don’t know why this was – the betrayal of a friendship, by a member of the so-called sisterhood, seemed somehow more shameful. But the time had come to be candid.

My mind played a crazy word association game. I was currently on my period. I associated periods with Monthlicare, the product I’d advertised with that ridiculous ice skating routine, the gig I’d got because I failed to land the Lock & Quay role, with which Linda became synonymous. Therefore, according to that meandering logic, this seemed an appropriate juncture to give Linda a good old thrashing – of the verbal kind at least.

An excruciating cramp tore through my tummy, as if goading me; bringing the pain into sharp focus.

As I talked I kept my eyes pinned on the aquarium in the corner of the room. No doubt the gaudy fish were intended to have a hypnotic effect.

‘I had an audition arranged for Lock & Quay, the sitcom on Channel 4. It was for the part of Fran. I was convinced this had my name on it, you know, that it was going to make me. A troupe of actors living on a canal barge. I thought it was right up my street – or cut in this case.’ That line came so instinctively to me. ‘I crammed like mad. I had never rehearsed so hard in my life. I was in Devon with my friend Mel – I told you about him – and all the while I was down there I was in preparation for this show I thought was going to make me a household name.

‘Well, unbeknown to me, the date of this audition changed. I had this useless agent at the time – Roger, I’m talking chocolate teapot useless – and he, Barry his name was, phoned the flat where I was living at the time to let me know. He shouldn’t have rung me there at all. I’d told him I was in Devon for two months, and given him a number where he could reach me there. Linda was in at the time and she took the call. Barry asked her to pass the message on. Linda neglected to let me know the audition date had changed – she claims she forgot – and she went and bloody auditioned and got the part herself!’

Roger did a polite little double take. ‘She’s that Linda? Linda Dyson?’

I wondered if Roger might be beginning to think I was a fantasist and that these friendships and relationships with celebrities existed in my delirious imagination. His easy recognition of her name hurt me, though, and illustrated my point about having hoped the show would bring me household-name fame.

‘Yes, and Linda claims she had always intended to audition for it anyway, so we’d have been rivals whatever, but I don’t believe her. I sacked Barry after that, and decided I’d go with Linda’s agent, Kevin Light, seeing as how he was clearly getting her the best gigs. When his first words to me when I marched into his office were, “So you want to emulate Linda’s success then, eh?” I was disgusted!’

My watery gaze drifted from the fish tank to the parade of family photos on the bookcase next to it: two buck-toothed teenage girls in school blazers, and a smaller snap depicting a cocker spaniel. I addressed my next comment as if to them.

‘You know, I’ve never even told my parents all this. They just think I didn’t get the job. I never admitted to them that muggins here travelled all the way back from North Devon, only to find the audition had taken place a week earlier.’

I slumped back on the cushion again. I felt as though I’d been hollowed out, like a boiled egg. Yet also present was a sense that I was being divested of something that had been festering for far too long. I knew my recovery was beginning.


One summer morning I emerged, drained, from such a session, yearning for some light relief. I walked to my car past a signpost for the Birmingham Living History Museum, and remembered the brochure I’d exhumed from my brimming cupboard.

With no work to engage me for the rest of the day, and no desire to return to the flat, which in that heat would resemble a corned beef tin in a sauna, I suddenly craved the innocent escapism of a good old-fashioned school trip style day out.

The museum comprised a faithfully rebuilt Victorian city street scene, featuring factories, shops, a school, pub, cinema and back-to-back houses. I spent a very pleasant day, wandering along cobbles, eating ice cream and learning about Birmingham’s social history. It was years since I’d tasted such simple pleasures (or such glorious ice cream).

I was growing more confident and content in my solitude. Being alone no longer equalled loneliness or self-consciousness that imaginary passers-by might take sufficient interest in me to judge me as a sad individual living an empty life.

Outside the reconstructed pub (the Boot Inn) hung a poster, whose mock Victorian typeface and artfully torn appearance caused me to initially overlook it. However, the heading ‘CHARACTER ACTORS WANTED,’ and inclusion of a phone number, denoted this was not a Victorian relic but a contemporary sits vac. The museum were recruiting re-enactors, ‘with drama experience,’ to don period costumes, perform interactive little scenes and bring history to life for the good folk of Birmingham.

My sweet little day out at the museum had certainly awakened something in me. A dormant thirst for knowledge, an interest in nostalgia, which I wanted to impart to others.

Nothing ventured, as they say. I auditioned. And got the job.

Little did I predict the extent to which it would transform my life.


One Saturday, I came home from my stint being a Victorian loom worker for the day, my hair still in its frumpy bun, flat and clammy from the hairnet in which I’d encased it. I fed Tesco, and switched on the TV. The BBC News were still leading with yesterday’s sentencing of the children’s TV presenter Rod Rudge for assaulting fourteen women. Was there no innocence in the world anymore?

I was, quite honestly, sick of the story by now. The trial had been debated to death during lunch break, the only time of day when we were allowed to abandon the illusion that we were nineteenth century characters, and could discuss pop culture.

It was an astonishing fall from grace. I wondered how Rudge’s crimes had first come to light. According to one of my colleagues, Jackie, who played the cane-wielding schoolmarm (she relished the ‘discipline’ aspect of her role so much, I suspected her of being a part-time dominatrix), the perky puppeteer was a regular sleaze. ‘Been bonking his way round Central telly for years.’

Bonking! Now there’s a word I haven’t heard in several years. Such an 80s word; so jolly and terribly saucy.

I flicked over to ITV, who were showing Stars in Their Eyes, grabbed a cider from the fridge and sank on to the sofa, tucking my legs underneath my bum.

Almost immediately, the phone rang with an ominous peal. I didn’t have to get up to answer. Not possessing such a luxury as a ‘telephone table,’ the dog and bone lived on the floor on my side of the sofa. Even as I reached down, I knew instinctively it was Mel, with the call I had been hoping never to receive.

‘Nelson’s dead,’ he sobbed.

Reunited with an old friend…

…first name: Jane, surname: Norman.

On a self-indulgent shopping trip to Birmingham yesterday, while enjoying some annual leave, I was pathetically excited to discover that the womenswear floor in House of Fraser (I still can’t get used to calling the Brum branch that – it will be forever “Rackhams” in my mind) now boasts a Jane Norman section.

In the 90s and 00s, about 80% of my wardrobe came from Jane Norman (most of those clothes still remain in my wardrobe – timeless classics). I was gutted when JN went into administration and disappeared from our high streets, and have never really found another clothes shop I like as much. Their clothes were so flattering. I even loved their shiny, colourful carrier bags! They make great “bags for life.”

So yesterday was a special moment! Does it sound sad to say it was like being reunited with an old friend? Probably, but I don’t care. I must have tried on about 20 outfits, eventually coming away with 4 tops (altogether now: “I’llll be theeeere…”).

Shopping these days is rarely the joyous experience it was in my carefree 20s, but yesterday some of the magic returned. They even had 90s music playing in the store, which enhanced the atmosphere.

I am loving the current 1990s renaissance. Long may it continue. The new series of the marvellous Cold Feet is a luxury that can now be enjoyed while sporting a Jane Norman asymmetric ribbed bardot top.

Happy New Year, Dear Reader

You wait ages for a Majella Bracebridge chapter (or maybe you don’t – I wouldn’t wish to generalise), and now two come along at once.

For some bizarre reason, the setup of WordPress means it has illogically stuck Chapters 10 and 11 underneath Chapter 1 in the list on the left, so here are 2 quick linkies to save you searching:

I hope you enjoy the slightly darker tone I’ve attempted in these new episodes in Majella’s on- and off-stage life.

Chapter 12 is well under way.  I have, as I said, criminally neglected my writing of late, but am determined to keep my new year’s resolution to stick at it.  It is so important to me that I nurture my creative side.  Without it I’d be a machine that goes to work, goes to the gym and goes to sleep.

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