The Mathers-Rowley Wedding

The Mathers-Rowley Wedding
Saturday 30 June 2007
The Mill at Alveley, Shropshire

You can read a much longer write-up of our day on the Confetti website: http://www.confetti.co.uk/article/view/9253-7949-0-Leigh_and_Nathan_s_real_life_wedding_UK_national.do

You can also have a nose at the official pictures (which, as they say, are worth a thousand words) on our photographers’ website http://www.geminiphotography.fsnet.co.uk/ – click on ‘Recent Weddings’ and ‘Leigh & Nathan.’

I also made a little slide show of unofficial pics on my MySpace page www.myspace.com/leighrowley.

And I’ve uploaded a ton of them to Facebook, but you’ll have to be my friend to view those!

OK, grab a cuppa – it’s my wedding report!!!

Where do I start?

Well it rained! Torrentially. Put me in mind of that Alanis Morissette song – “It’s like raii-iiaaaii-nnn on your wedding day!” (Though I can’t quite see what’s so ironic about that.)

During the week prior to our wedding, the ground floor of our fabulous venue was completely flooded, resulting in new carpets having to be laid and the highly professional staff working around the clock to restore normality. My lovely Mum and some of my friends knew all about this, but didn’t tell me until the big day in order to minimise my stress levels!! I was very grateful!

Now a heavy downpour was the eventuality I was dreading most – but it’s true what they say, on the day you don’t care about the weather. It really is useless getting depressed over something you can do nothing about, and to be surrounded everyone we loved in one room was enough to banish any despondency.

And everything else went like a dream. Naturally I’d rehearsed my wedding day over and over and over in my mind for months beforehand, and I really did have the wedding of my dreams. In fact the reality was so close to the dream, it was almost spooky. Everything worked, everyone had a fantastic time, and it truly was the most euphoric day of both our lives.

From the moment I walked into that room on my mum’s arm and saw Nath looking all besotted and happy, my nerves evaporated. I’d been most jittery about saying the vows, possibly saying the wrong thing (wrong name?!) or tripping in the aisle and ending up on You’ve Been Framed, but I took my time and made a conscious effort not to gabble and rush.

It was an incredibly informal, relaxed civil service which reflected our personalities perfectly. A common comment from our friends and relatives is that we had exactly the kind of day WE wanted rather than going through the motions with a ceremony that would simply please our parents. This is exactly what we strove to achieve, and we are so glad it came across to people.

Our good friend Dave Howard gave a brilliant reading of the ‘Love is a temporary madness’ passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

During the signing of the register another friend and former bandmate of Nath’s, Ben Marshall, provided the music: a lovely Brian May guitar solo Last Horizon.

Both reading and music were applauded – no po-faced sitting in silence for our guests! My two bridesmaids – my sister-in-law Julie Mathers and best mate of 15 years Ros Thomas – looked absolutely stunning.

Our venue, the Mill Hotel in Alveley, Shropshire, has THE most beautiful grounds, hence my initial disappointment at the rain and consequent possibility that we wouldn’t get any outdoor photos. But our photographers kindly stayed a little longer than usual, in order to capture a few shots when the rain abated to a drizzle.

The speeches were wonderful and paid lovely tribute to us both. My mum (in lieu of Dad – who passed away in 2004) did a fabulous job. Nathan’s two brothers Jez and Nick as best men cracked us up with a few anecdotes from Nathan’s naughty childhood.

We were delighted that Nick and his wife Kristie were able to make it – Kristie (who had been due to be bridesmaid, but for obvious reasons had to bow out) was nine months pregnant, and just three days later gave birth to our first nephew, the gorgeous Samuel!!

Two days later, we jetted off on our mega honeymoon to Mauritius. I will never forget it, and we have never been so depressed about a holiday coming to an end. It really must be the closest place on earth to paradise. We had a total rest, beneath coconut trees on idyllic beaches, but were also on the go a great deal with activities such as parasailing (probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done – apart from get married), waterskiing and kayaking.

Once the experience was all over, I was actually rather relieved to “de-wedding” and get back to my life. Strange as it may sound, I certainly wasn’t sorry it was over. Having said that, it’s a cliche but were I to do it all over again I wouldn’t change one aspect of it.

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Our Day at the Beeb

Our Day at the Beeb

 

On Saturday 9 February 2008 my hubby Nathan and his band Queen on Fire performed on the semi-final of BBC1’s The One and Only talent show.

An fun and fascinating – if also long and tiring – day. It was a beautiful February afternoon. After a minor nightmare getting lost around the wilds of Willesden and Shepherd’s Bush, we – my MIL and DIL Chris and Frank and myself – made it to BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane (which I remembered vividly as the address they used to give out for competitions on Going Live back in my youth) at 4:30, in plenty of time to be ticked off the list, allocated our numbered stickers and sent through to the foyer.

On our way in to that vast, vast building, we happened to meet Nathan and his bandmates and had the obligatory cheesy ‘standing outside TV Centre’ shots on our phone cameras.

There was a great deal of hanging around before the 350 or so audience members were called through to the studio in the appropriate order. Contestants’ families and friends first (recognisable by their badges bearing legends such as ‘Lionel’s Mum’ or ‘Robbie’s Granddad’), then the superfans, then the rest of us.

It was absolutely amazing to see how many hundreds of crew members and assistants and technicians, how many zillions of cameras and lights and miles of cable it takes to make one TV programme.

There was great excitement, and applying of emergency ‘I’m gunna be on the telly’ lippy and powder (and that was just the men taken care of) when our group were shown to seats which we were told would feature on camera throughout the show (‘So no nose-picking,’ the floor manager ordered)! We were directly behind the bench on which the contestants sat once they had performed. I dispatched a few quick texts to my mum and friends indicating where we were and to ‘look out 4 us!!’

There is such a fun atmosphere in that studio. I must admit to cynically suspecting the unnaturally deafening sounding crowd noise was dubbed on these type of programmes – but no, the audience really do go that wild! It was a riot. Each artiste had their throng of supporters – the Lionel Richie-a-like, Moni, seemed to have a busload in. At times during the show we couldn’t hear what Graham Norton was saying over the applause (in fact we heard more watching it back on the telly).

The floor manager did a great job of hyping us up, telling us at what points to applaud and for how long, during which songs to stand up and clap and which to sit down but sway!

The lovely Graham Norton, and judges Carrie and David Grant, were announced on shortly before transmission time. Graham seemed very sweet, camp, energetic and impish – exactly how you’d expect him to come across really. He certainly gives the impression he absolutely loves doing the show.

He was chatting down with the friends and relatives, asking who won the afternoon’s rugby, when the continuity announcer boomed through to indicate the live programme was about to start, forcing our Graham to do a little ‘ooh, I’ll miss me cue’ dash up the stairs he would then descend. He was over our side of the set, and in response to Frank shouting ‘Go for it Graham,’ waved and flashed us an excitable, ‘Good here innit’ sort of smile.

The competitors performed the following numbers in this live first show:

Anthony Adams, alias Frank Sinatra – My Way (beautiful song – my dad’s song – but I’ve heard much better Sinatras)
Siam Hurlock, alias Diana Ross – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (difficult song and she did it well)
Simon Abbotts, alias Tom Jones – Sex Bomb (cringe-o-rama)
Joanna Berns, alias Cher – I’ve Found Someone (sang her socks off – the best, in my opinion)
Moni Tivony, alias Lionel Richie – Hello (sweet, sincere performance)
Katy Setterfield, alias Dusty Springfield – I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (sounded just like Dusty)
Tony Lewis, alias Robbie Williams – Rock DJ (shouty and posey)
Whole group – December 1963 (Oh What a Night) by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

The crowd all ‘gave it some’ – as instructed by the floor manager – and it was so easy to get caught up in the spirit of cheering rapturously when Carrie and David praised a contestant and booing at the vaguest hint of criticism. We were encouraged to cheer every contestant, not just our favourites, and I have to say everyone was lovely and supportive to all.

Immediately after the live show, which finished at 7:45, Queen on Fire’s performance was pre-recorded, to be inserted into the results show. There was a practice run-through – to heat up the audience – then the real take.

They had a strict three-minute time slot, and chose a medley consisting of Killer Queen and We are the Champions. Scott, Nath, Sean, Tom and Ade were just superb and gave it their all. The crowd went mad again. It was a complete buzz. I’m so proud!!

Watching it back (which I have – as you can imagine – a hundred times), they all sounded and looked great. Plenty of close-ups of my hubby – which was lovely and kind of surreal!! They were all delighted with how it went.

Hopefully the phone will start to ring with more gig offers now…

Graham then recorded a few trailers for next Saturday’s final, to be broadcast at progressive points during the week: ‘Saturday at 7:30 on BBC1!’ – ‘Tonight at 7:30 on BBC1!’ – ‘Next on BBC1!!’ – ‘Over on BBC1 now!!’

We were dispatched back to the foyer for a break – and to pounce on the free crisps and bottles of water up for grabs – and then ushered back for the results show, which kicked off at 9:25. There were two more group performances: Take Another Little Piece of my Heart by Janis Joplin from the girls and Elvis’s Suspicious Minds by the boys. Queen on Fire’s pre-recorded insert was then shown to us on monitors. Watching back, you can’t see the join, as it were, and would never know which bits were not live as they segue so smoothly.

Graham made a quip about ‘Brian May in Cher’s wig’ – then it was results time and he announced ‘in no particular order’ the first four acts going through to the grand final: Frank, Lionel, Robbie and Dusty. The audience whoops were naturally by now chimpanzee-like, and there was euphoric ‘Lionel’s in the final’ chanting – to the tune of the Conga – from his posse.

‘The act with the lowest number of phone votes and therefore leaving the competition tonight’ proved to be Tom Jones – which left Diana Ross and Cher (a travesty in my opinion – those two were the best of the night) to battle it out for their fellow contestants’ votes in the sing-off. The finalists elected to save Cher, so Diana was out too.

The result was slightly disappointing then. In my opinion, Tom (though Simon Abbotts is a fellow Dudleian) was right to go, but I felt Robbie was the next weakest. These two did a lot of posing, and the sexy choreography of the dancers around them distracted from wobbly vocals! By contrast, Diana showed total star quality.

I definitely want to go and watch more TV recordings (the ones that particularly spring to mind would be Strictly Come Dancing and Who Wants to be a Millionaire – I guess there are waiting lists you can go on?). I could even make it my hobby. Certainly when I retire I shall consider it as a regular pastime. It’s free (well not entirely, of course – most of these recordings are in London, and there are the astronomical petrol prices to consider), and a fascinating day out. There’s a fair bit of hanging about, but it’s well worth it.

Now if you and wish, for any reason, to see my in-laws and me clapping along and ‘giving it some’ – you can also watch the clip on my You Tube page www.youtube.com/user/mrslmathers. We were on the second row of the block right behind the contestants’ bench. I’m in glasses and a blue T-shirt with Sweep (Sooty’s mate) on!!

Clee Hill Yomp

Clee Hill Yomp

 

For a couple of years now, I have belonged to a walking group, Peak Hostellers.  We take quarterly yomps of between eight and twelve miles in March, June, September and December, predominantly, as the name implies, across the wild and lovely Peak District.

In May 2008, we slotted in an extra trek, this time in Shropshire’s Clee Hills.  I wrote a piece about the day, mainly for my own enjoyment and to exercise my creative muscle.  Then I thought I’d share with you too.

 

Our eleven-mile slog up and down and across Titterstone Clee Hill proved to be the most punishing I’d done with Peak Hostellers.  It took more than six hours, on diverse terrain and in wavering weather conditions.

The forecast rain thankfully never materialised, and the day remained bright – though when the seven of us convened at 10:30, a cutting wind was buffeting the hillside car park.

Opening the car door proved an effort against the elements, and once outside I was grateful I’d packed the fleece, gloves and benny hat I hadn’t been sure I’d need.  Within an hour, though, the hat and gloves were shed; by lunchtime the fleece was in my rucksack; by the end I was sweating and my cagoule was knotted round my waist.

It was a gradual gradient to the 533-metre summit of Titterstone Clee Hill via expansive scrubland that was historically a very productive mining and quarrying area.  Edifices ancient and modern crown the skyline.  The ruins of an Iron Age fort form a fragmented necklace around the giant ‘golf balls’ of the National Air Traffic Control System.  These gargantuan orbs on stilts are actually radar domes.

On such a clear morning, we had a splendid view of the boundless greenery below.  It was pretty exposed up there, and the fingerpost on the crest of the hill was a welcome prop in the robust wind.  In this once industrial landscape, the post was a waymark for the Victorian miners who crossed this moorland to nearby Magpie mine.  We clung to it while posing for the obligatory ‘looking windswept on top of a hill’ group photograph.

And on we went.  We felt noticeably warmer the minute we began our descent of the bracken-mantled slope, and thus became protected by it from the gust.  By the time we reached the scenic hamlet of Cleeton St Mary, the first layers of thermals were coming off.  This three-mile mark also proved a perfect snack-and-respite spot.  We perched on the squat church wall, and out came the muesli bars, apples and bottled water.

From Cleeton St Mary we advanced, via the country lane (single file, yelling ‘Car alert’ to one another when an intermittent Land Rover or tractor obliged us to hug the hedge) and then quaggy footpath, to the adjoining hamlet of Farlow.  This remote path is home to a surprising feature – Lanes End Recording Studio.  The studio is not visible from the track, but a ramshackle sign on a farm gate declares its presence.  Well at least there’s nobody there to bemoan the noise.

Most of the neighbours are canine in any event.  They scampered, yapping, from the nearby farmhouse to greet us: five Yorkshire terriers and a Jack Russell.  Hairy, scratchy mopes with barks that could curdle the soup in a thermos flask.  I am not a dog person, though this spry pack were friendly enough.

It was nearing lunchtime now and we tramped into Oreton the proverbial weary and hungry travellers.  Well sheltered from the wind, we were being blowtorched by the sun, and more layers would have to be shed.

Our leader, Robin, had forewarned us to pack sandwiches as the tiny pub in this hamlet was not renowned for its gastronomy.  Robin was right – the New Inn was shut.  Near derelict, in fact, with only the presence of a budgie in the upstairs window implying life inside (unless this bird had ceased, like its distant Monty Python cousin, to be and was in fact nailed to its perch).

In the absence of inn seating, we deposited our rucksacks and bodies on the grassy verge opposite to devour our picnic.  One thing regular walking teaches you is that the childhood cliché about food tasting better outside is so, so true.

The post-lunch leg of the trek was the toughie.  Predominantly uphill, in searing sun, on country lanes, spongy grass, mud, brambles, woodland and ultimately scrubland revisited.

It was lanes first, and close to our roadside picnic station was an industrial relic.  The Oreton brick kiln dates back to 1870 and is one of the country’s two surviving examples built to the distinctive ‘beehive’ design.

The remainder of the route was rather more featureless, which lent a consequent monotony to the last couple of hours and made the walk feel never-ending at times.

Hardest on the calf muscles was the spongy grassland that began our circuitous return across Titterstone Clee Hill.  In places we were knee-deep in brambles which could impale even the most impervious of waterproof trousers.

On such undulating and partially obscured terrain our steps were slow and ankles might easily be twisted.  The innocuous looking hump of earth on which you ventured a foot could give way and suck you into its muddy belly, or turn out to be concealing a trench.

This vast common was bisected by a gully of gunge, and our passage from one side to the other was by means of an obstacle course that involved inching around tree trunks, crawling under low branches and fashioning makeshift bridges, Swallows and Amazons style, from stray chunks of wood.

Now if you like your walks to have a gentle, downhill ‘last lap,’ membership of Peak Hostellers is not for you.  It was upwards all the way in sludgy boots for us.  The final hour was gruelling as we trudged to that towering car park and in that forgotten wind.  Each time we scaled a slope, or rounded a corner, I felt sure we must be nearly there – then spotted ‘there’ a disheartening two miles, mile and a half, one mile, in the distance.

It was after 5:00 by the time our cars were no longer a mirage and we could fold our dead-beat legs into them for the meandering drive home.  It had been a challenge, though on the whole a rewarding one.  I buzzed all over with energy, relief and the self-satisfaction of having done something more constructive with my Saturday than shopping or ironing.

Next day, I indulged myself with the intemperate luxury of a midday lie-in.

Puppet Love

Puppet Love
A quirky tale of chav and cuddly romance

 

‘I’m tellin’ you, this Zippy is knackered!’

To demonstrate, Sammy’s customer pinched the cuddly toy’s squashy belly.  Where the raucous Rainbow character should have let rip with a Dalek-esque boastful cackle, he emitted a mere stutter of robotic bleeps.

‘See!  This was sold to me as a talking Zippy – ’ the girl fixed her cat-green eyes on the young market trader, ‘but he don’t talk,’ she added unnecessarily, though with a flirtatious tinge to her take-no-shit demeanour, which hinted at an interest in Sammy.  ‘Now can I get me money back?’

Marlene, the nosy, bubble-permed purveyor of kinky rubber and stockings at the stall next to Sammy’s, sniggered annoyingly at this.

‘Got a receipt?’  Sammy teased, ignoring her.  He was liking this girl, with the corkscrew black hair and freckled, tanned complexion.  She was perking up his dismal Monday.  She may be patronising an indoor market now, but her clothes were clearly purchases from swisher outlets.  The tight cut of the blue designer T-shirt and black jeans accentuated her toned, sunbed-kissed figure.  Her accent was unmistakably Dudley, but refined by good education.  She intrigued Sam. 

‘Wasn’t given one,’ the tanned stunner snapped.

‘No refund then, flower, sorry.’  Sammy’s Black Country voice was – like hers – bluff but with a teasing edge.  His grin, and perpetually flickering eyebrows, gave his narrow face a kind, mischievous appearance.

‘But his battery’s flat!’  The stunner spoke with faint distress, as might a mother whose toddler had whooping cough.  ‘Why don’t you get the chap who served me last week out here – he’d recognise me.’

‘Sorry, love, no can do.’  She was persistent, this one.  ‘That would have been me dad – and he’s in Spain now.  Not that the old man would’ve helped anyhow – he’s as tight as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm.  Technically, Zippy counts as used goods an’ all.  If yo bought it last week and yo’m only just bringing it back now, how do I know yo ai’ bin a-squeezin’ him all week and flattened his little battery?’

The girl grinned wryly back, attracted in turn to this lanky, tuft-headed lad with the kindly face and the earring.

Sammy had been assisting his parents to run their stall in the Colley Centre for eight years, since leaving school at sixteen. 

Merv and Janice had made the audacious foray into market trading fifteen years ago – following Merv’s redundancy from a colossally different profession.  They’d struggled at first – it was an unconventional career move, to say the least, for he’d failed to find a job even remotely similar to his former one.  He thrived, though, in an environment where, unlike some of his ex-colleagues, nobody was liable to recognise him and thus he attracted no unfriendly attention.  These struggles consequently paid off, and the couple had turned the stall into a fruitful venture. 

The family wares were cuddly toys and memorabilia from retro children’s programmes.  Other traders in this bustling centre, in Brierley Hill, plied anything from fish to wigs; stationery to body jewellery; pet food to jeans.

Sammy met scores of people during his long, hectic days, but his was often a lonely, workaholic life.  Up at six AM, home at seven PM – and in between he worked with his parents, which had a tendency to cramp what style he could lay claim to.  His lifestyle wasn’t always conducive to romance – and his sometimes brash demeanour belied his shortage of opposite-sex experience.  Hence he greeted the chance to shed his shell now they were on holiday.

‘So you couldn’t give me any sort of refund,’ the girl attempted pouty, wheedly tactics, ‘or let me swap him for another Zippy?’ 

Sammy shook his head, but with a boyishly regretful expression.  He was normally firmer with customers about the no-refund policy, but in this case he would make an exception.
 
‘We’re not due no more Zippys ’til a week on Friday.  I could swap him for a Sooty, if you like!  No, tell you what – a Sooty and a Sweep!  Cor say fairer than that now, can I?’  He flapped the famous bear and dog on his hands like a puppeteer, smiling exaggeratedly goofily.

The girl pulled a contemplative face – then spotted what was next to Sooty on the trestle table.

‘Hey, are these Mo and Bo puppets?’  Her expression became animated for the first time.  Sammy was even more intrigued and smitten.  She was gorgeous enough when she had her ‘uncompromising’ face on; when she smiled, she was a complete babe.  ‘I haven’t seen these for years.’  She picked up the fuzzy toys with a care that bordered on reverence. 

Mo the mischievous panda and his dim lop-eared rabbit sidekick Bo were huge stars of children’s TV until The Mo & Bo Show was sensationally axed fifteen years ago.  The programme was a particular Midlands cult, for it was filmed in Birmingham throughout the 70s and 80s.

‘Wanna swap this pair for your clapped out Zippy?’

‘Yes please!’  Her smile was watermelon-wide now.  It exposed every one of her little, even teeth.

‘Tell you what an’ all,’ quick-thinking Sammy sensed an opening, ‘I’m due a break, I’ll take an early lunch.  Not only will I give you Mo and Bo, I’ll stand you a hot pork cob at Bostin’ Bites.’

‘You’re on!’  She was already folding the fuzzy glove puppets into her handbag.

Sammy meanwhile was wrenching his bottle green Colley Centre overall over his head.  ‘Now you’d best tell us your name if I’m gunna be buying yer lunch.’

‘It’s Kelly.’

‘And I’m Sammy.’  He slung the overall down behind the stall.  ‘Hold the fort for us, will you, Aaron,’ he called to the sixteen-year-old with the pierced eyebrow who helped him out in his parents’ absence.  Sammy winked laddishly at the kid, belying the slight apprehension he felt.

‘See you later, Sam!’  Marlene also winked pointedly, beneath the forest of her blonde power-ballad perm.  Sammy scowled at the leery old gossip as he strode out with his lunch date.

******

Bostin’ Bites was the café round the corner from the Colley Centre; its mainly pork-related fare was the source of at least two of Sammy’s meals each day.  A heavenly bacon and egg sarnie, oozing ketchup, for breakfast or brunch; a hot pork roll for lunch; and sometimes a pie on his knee in the van home – especially during weeks such as this when his folks were away.  Sammy and the family oven were not on speaking terms.  With all the lard he consumed, it was a wonder he maintained such a lean physique – but then at six foot two, he was a natural beanpole.

It was in this cosy, busy little Black Country eatery that Sam and Kelly got to know each other over a pork roll, or ‘cob’ as these crusty delicacies were known in this region.

Sam watched impressed as this slender girl devoured the enormous bread casing of roast pork, gelatinous gravy, tangy apple sauce, mustard and crackling. 

‘I love a girl who can eat,’ he said admiringly, besotted already.

He learned that Kelly was twenty-one, lived, as she enigmatically said, ‘just outside Stourbridge,’ and worked at Brierley Hill bowling alley.

‘Talking of which,’ she examined her watch and hastily gathered up her handbag, ‘I’d best get over there.  My shift starts at two.  Thanks for the lunch, Sammy.  See you around.’

And she was gone.

I never even got her phone number.  Sammy could have kicked himself.  Sam, me old mate, yo’m out of practice!

******

Still, he could always turn up at the Megabowl and ask for her.  And this he did, on Thursday (a chap couldn’t do anything so uncool as look over-keen, hence he held out for three torturous days).

‘Sorry love, we ai’ gorra Kelly here,’ he was told.

‘Yo sure?  She’s about so tall – long black curly hair – ’

But the girl behind the desk just shook her head gormlessly at him as she went on doling out clammy, clown-sized bowling shoes.

Sammy pondered this as he ambled back to the stall, absorbed in his thoughts.

Marlene was outside the market, taking her fag break.  ‘Yo sin that wench again?’ she rasped sourly, folding her denim-jacketed arms.  ‘Her’s a snotty ’un and no mistake!’

‘What d’you mean?’  Sam didn’t want to ask – always hating to give Marlene the satisfaction of venting her crabby opinions – but somehow couldn’t help it.

‘Her clobber – and that accent!  Yo could tell as her was puttin’ it on.  Right la-di-da young madam.  Lookin’ down her freckly little nose at me.  And yo could tell her wo’ used to shoppin’ here – fancy expectin’ to get a refund!  Her wouldn’t buy her drawers from me, that’s for sure!  Marks & Sparks’ finest wun’t be good enough for her scraggy arse.’

‘Lucky me then,’ Sam quipped, though far from confident of ever reaching a state of undress with Kelly.

‘What kind of a wench that age buys cuddly toys anyhow?’

‘One who’s good for our profits!’  Sammy stormed back into the market.

Marlene snorted, mashed her fag end beneath her green stiletto heel and followed him in.  ‘Her’s probably workin’ undercover for the DSS or summat.  Not claimin’ dole on the side are we, young Samuel?’

‘Oh sod off, Marl!’

It was certainly true that Kelly was brighter and more chic than the hoop-earringed wenches who formed Sam’s traditional clientele – with their white shell suit bottoms low slung to expose their thongs, and tattoos of dolphins across their pierced, pudgy bellies.  Hence he’d been drawn to her.  But he hadn’t found her snobbish at all.  She’d lied to him, though, and this troubled him. 

But all such niggles dissolved when, the following evening, Friday, at six, he emerged from the warm depths of Bostin’ Bites with his pie dinner, and there was Kelly, waiting for him.

She’s keen, he thought with delight, well that’s fine by me!

Kelly grinned winsomely.  ‘I just been round to the stall to look for you,’ she explained, ‘but that old bag who runs the slutty knickers stand – ’

‘Marlene.’

‘Yeah, Marlene.  She told me as you’d already clocked off, but that I’d most likely find you here.  I’m on my break, see.  Thought I might be able to return the favour from Monday, like.  But I see as you’ve already got your tea for the evening.’

Sammy’s piping hot Cornish pasty seemed to be burning courage into his hand.  Go on, it seemed to tell him, ask her out! 

‘There’s no need for you to buy me a meal.  Actually, I was thinkin’ of asking if you’d like me to take you out again.  Of an evening this time.  I know this nice little pub out Clent way.’

‘Clent, eh?’  Kelly pulled an impressed expression.  ‘Bit posh, that!’

‘I can do posh when I want to.  D’you fancy it?  Tomorrow, say?’

‘Yeah, why not?  Don’t think I’m doing anything.’

‘I’ll pick you up ’bout seven, yeah?’

‘Great.’

‘Now d’you wanna tell us where you live, or doe yer trust me with your address yet?’

Kelly bit her lip pensively – then nudged Sam, as though suddenly inspired.  ‘Tell you what – I’ll meet you on the Foley Arms car park in Pedmore.’

Sam smiled jubilantly.  ‘Can’t wait!’

******

Kelly’s first surprise of the night was when Sammy rolled up to fetch her in a Jaguar.

‘Dad’s,’ he explained, ‘but I doe dare drive it to work.  The old man’d have me knackers for golf balls if parked this baby in some scutty car park and it got broke into.  That’s why he – and I – use the van for work purposes.  You look stunning, by the way.’  Kelly wore an egg yolk-yellow strappy top, typically clinging, with a denim miniskirt.  Her ebony hair spiralled over her shoulders in a swooshy ponytail.

They had a wonderful evening.  The meal was pub grub at its gastronomic classiest, and they nattered the night away.  The subject of Sammy’s family stall set the theme for a long nostalgia-trip to the loud and yellow world of bygone kids’ shows.

Kelly even fell for Sam’s lame ‘Sooty in the nude’ gag – twiddling his hand about and saying ‘What’s this?’  A primary school classic, that one.

‘I tell you what,’ Sam proclaimed, topping up Kelly’s drained wine glass, ‘if I ever have kids, they’ll be made to watch the likes of Rainbow and The Mo & Bo Show!  There’ll be none of this Teletubbies rubbish.’

‘Mo and Bo were definitely the best,’ Kelly giggled, ‘my puppets from your stall occupy pride of place on my dressing table!’

‘That guy who presented it was ace, wasn’t he – Robin Round!’

‘He certainly was!’  Kelly took a slightly unsteady gulp of her Chardonnay.

‘Those psychedelic jumpers he used to wear!  I hear he still lives round here…’

Afterwards, Sammy wouldn’t hear of going Dutch or letting Kelly pay, despite her intention to ‘return the favour.’

‘There can always be a next time,’ he said optimistically.  ‘I’ve loved tonight.’

‘Yeah, me too.’  Kelly smiled earnestly back through the glimmer of the candle which was drizzling wax down an old wine bottle on the table between them.

‘Now d’you wanna come back to my place?’  Sammy pocketed his Switch card receipt and laughed self-mockingly at the hackneyed line.

‘For coffee,’ Kelly placed equal irony on her cheesy reply.

And then came her second surprise: Sammy escorted her back to a house the size of a small Caribbean island, in Pedmore, an elegant area of Stourbridge.  It was all block-paving, remote-control garage doors and original artwork.

‘Wow!’ was all Kelly could manage.  Sammy sensed she’d expected his home to be a decrepit council terrace but she was too polite and un-patronising to admit so.

‘Let’s just say there’s money to be made in retro cuddlies,’ he said modestly, depositing the Jag keys into a shallow pot on the long mantelpiece.

Dominating the vast, beam-ceilinged sitting room was a massive photograph of a thin little boy, unmistakably Sammy, clad in classic 80s red and grey, with two immediately familiar puppets.

‘Is that Mo and Bo with you?’  Once again, Kelly became animated and fascinated.

Fortunately for Sammy, she stayed that way all night.  They had a lot of fun up in his huge bedroom – and not a lot of sleep.

Next morning, he tested his culinary skills to their narrow limit by bringing his new girlfriend breakfast in bed.  Kelly took a gleeful crunch of Special K, then noticed Sammy’s troubled face.  ‘What’s up, chuck?’  She reached out a manicured hand to stroke his scraggy back.

What was up was that all that talk of fictional characters, and fiction generally, had reminded Sammy of Kelly’s bowling alley lie, and it jolted him.  He didn’t suspect her of being from the DSS – despite Marlene’s sniping, he had no worries on that score, never having signed on, lawfully or otherwise, in his life.  But – and much as he hated to spoil a perfect date – he had to establish the truth. 

‘Kel, why did you lie to me about working in the Megabowl?  I went there to call for you, and they said they hadn’t got no Kellys.’ 

Kelly was secretly chuffed he’d been eager enough to drop in on her supposed workplace – even if embarrassed at her witless fib being blown apart.  Sammy deserved better – and he may as well be acquainted with the facts now.

Kelly put down her spoon.  ‘It sounds saft, but I thought you’d think I was a snob when I told you what I really did.  I work in the media, you see.’

‘The media?’  Sam chuckled, half thrown by the revelation; half relieved at its trivial nature.  ‘You mean telly?  Hey, you’re not from Trigger Happy TV, are you – setting me up for some hidden camera scam?’

‘Not quite.  I’m in PR, at Taylor Made Communications, a new company that’s just set up on the Waterfront, by the Merry Hill Centre.  We represent a few toy manufacturers.  Anyway, I happened to be wandering through the market when I spotted your dad selling the Zippys.  I collect cuddly toys, you see.  Most people think I’m really sad when I tell ’em that.  But you obviously don’t!’

‘I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I did.  Cuddly toys have made my family a lot of success, in more ways than one,’ he added cryptically.

‘Some people round here get a bit arsey when I tell them what line of work I’m in – and what my dad did – ’

‘Your dad?  What d’you mean?’

‘Look, when you drop me back today, Sam, could you “take me back to my place”,’ she voiced the cliché with the same irony, ‘there’s someone I’d like you to meet.’

******

Kelly’s home was in Hagley, a refined Worcestershire village which neighboured Pedmore.  And, like Sammy’s family abode, it was of palace-esque proportions, with beams featuring prevalently in its décor.

Now I see why she wasn’t keen on me picking her up from here.  She thought I was a pov and didn’t want to embarrass me – until she saw what my house was like.

‘I usually get a lot of stick,’ Kelly warned mysteriously as Sammy slid the Jag to a smooth halt on the gravel drive, ‘when I tell folks who my dad is.  They either don’t believe me, or presume I must be a snob, or take the piss out of him for being a has-been.’

Sam frowned at her curiously, but she was already out of the car and crunching across to the front door.

‘I’m home,’ she yelled up the long hallway – which Sam noticed with amazement was also graced by a huge glossy portrait of Kelly with the original Mo and Bo puppets.

‘Hiya Kel,’ responded an uncannily familiar voice.  It was male, warmly Black Country, with a reassuring, primary school-teacher inflexion.

How freaky, thought Sammy, Kelly’s dad sounds just like –

‘Robin Round!’  Sam dropped his car keys in shock.  He was aware he sounded and looked moronic – but then an 80s TV presenter was not usually the kind of dad one expected to encounter.

Not usually.

With his big, good-humoured face and rather antiquated sideburns, he was the same old Robin from Sam’s childhood – only now a touch craggier and minus the Day-Glo sweaters.

He smiled broadly and stretched out a hand to Sam.  ‘Hi there son, pleased to meet you.  Our Kel’s told me so much about you.’

‘See – even famous fathers come out with the corniest clichés,’ Kelly cringed.

******

Over tea and Kit Kats at the kitchen table, the three of them reminisced and acquainted.

‘It was pretty galling what happened, and no mistake,’ Robin harked back.  ‘We were all devastated when the show was taken off the air.  Couldn’t get TV work for love nor money.  I’m doing mostly voiceovers these days, for radio ads.’

‘You don’t keep in touch with anybody from the show then?’ Sammy asked, taking a musing slurp from his mug.

‘Not anymore, no.  But I did hear that one of the puppeteers – Mervyn Chance – was still living local.  Apparently the poor chap got disillusioned with the business, set up a market stall, or something.  It’d be lovely to catch up with him some day.’

Kelly shot a look at Sammy, who had gone very quiet and conspicuously crimson as he bit ruminatively into his chunky Kit Kat.

‘He’s in Spain at the moment,’ blurted Sammy, ‘at the family villa.  But when he gets home, I’m sure he’d love to reunite with you.’

‘You know him?’  Robin’s sideburned face creased into an astounded smile.

‘You could say that,’ Sammy grinned drily and clonked down his mug, ‘he’s my dad!’

Dishing it Out

Dishing it Out

 

Most diners did not arrive clutching notebooks, so the Evening Herald restaurant critic was easily discernible.  Expensively dressed and eating for free at table 14 on a typically animated Saturday at Gervase’s.  Scribbling shorthand between courses; shorthand that would ultimately evolve into next Thursday’s Eating Out supplement.

The guacamole (now there was a nice tortuous word to transcribe into Teeline!) was a delectable hors d’oeuvre: delicately buttery avocado fused with explosive garlic, arranged upon a bed of fragrant coriander.

To follow, a veal steak in white wine sauce, which though rich never bordered on overpowering.  It left one desiring more; in fact, it left a convenient void for a chocolate and praline terrine.  Brittle, yet silkily toothsome, this dessert was a work of art: nuzzling between rosy strawberries sliced thinly as gauze, on a vast dish ethereally dusted with icing sugar.

Fine adjectives indeed – what a shame not one of them would make it into print!

 ******

Stephanie blanched when she finally risked squinting at her reflection in the ill-fitting uniform.  The black skirt was tasteful enough, but the blouse which Michelle, the head waitress at Gervase’s, slung at her to accompany it, was a masterpiece of hideousness.

“The new recruit always has to wear this one,” Michelle had smirked with marked malevolence, clearly enjoying Steph’s goggling reaction, “so we can spot you easily.  Now get yourself off to the bogs to change – we open in fifteen minutes.  Tie your hair back and scrape that make-up off and all!  This isn’t a modelling agency!”

Steph could scarcely bear to touch the grubby white garment, much less don it.  It was a good two sizes too large and flecked with grease – but still might have looked moderately respectable had its collar not been festooned with an enormous crimson bow.

“I look like Krusty the Clown’s sister!” she moaned at the mirror.  All she needed was a red nose and a frizzy green wig.  She was waiting for that damn bow to light up and twirl around, maybe even squirt water over the customers; that would keep them really entertained.

When Stephanie dared unbolt the door, Michelle nodded with smug approval at the ludicrous shirt, scrubbed skin and austerely ponytailed hair before tramping her down to the kitchen.

“These are your new colleagues.  Girls – this is Sophie.”

“Stephanie.”

“Yeah – whatever!”

The six young harpies, with their spiteful little eyes, sullen lips and bow-free polyester blouses, exchanged barbed glances and digs in the ribs.

That first three-hour shift was utter chaos.  Back and forth, to and from the sauna-like kitchen, doling out prawn cocktails to ungracious couples while being prodded and tripped up by their sticky, demoniac children.  Ordered to attend them with the most nauseating servility.  Yes, sir.  Can I take your order, madam?  Here’s your fillet steak, sir.  (“And your knuckle sandwich, madam,” she wanted to add.)

Back and forth, back and forth.  Stephanie’s blisters were the size of baubles.  The once glorious odours of frying chips and onions permeated her skin in a noxious way that made her long for lettuce leaves.

And thus it was for six laborious months, whilst Stephanie funded her progression through college: bawled at by Michelle, alternately patronised and commanded by the clientele, scowled at and gossiped about by her fellow waitresses, blasphemed at by the chefs – creatures alongside whom Basil Fawlty would have seemed mild-mannered – and ogled by the washer-upper, a very odd, silent individual with a bulging forehead.

Until the beautiful day dawned when she collected her P45 and embarked upon her long striven-for ‘proper’ job.  She never looked back.

 ******

Which is what, three years later, led Stephanie Gordon, the Evening Herald’s newest restaurant critic, to her plates of complimentary avocados and veal at Gervase’s.  Revenge had been a long while coming, but had not some wit once remarked that it was a dish best served cold?

On a coriander bed, in this case.

Steph’s biting critique was already formulated in her mind’s eye.  The guacamole would become ‘an insipid pulp,’ the veal ‘greasy and measly,’ the praline pudding ‘the wrong side of cloying,’ the drinks ‘monstrously overpriced,’ and as for the service….

From a legal standpoint, she was quite safe.  Should a complaint ensue, she would exercise the defence of ‘fair comment,’ which permits reviewers to be less than flattering so long as they are expressing ‘honestly held opinions.’  Granted, she was expressing nothing of the kind – but who was to know?

“Can I fetch you anything else, madam?” the waitress simpered.

“Just the bill please, MICHELLE,” Stephanie pronounced the name on the girl’s lapel badge with an emphasis that was entirely lost on her.  After all, Michelle was hardly liable to recognise elegant Steph as the dogsbody whom she once garbed in a lurid uniform – not, as was claimed, to distinguish her as the new girl but to ‘punish’ her for being too pretty.  ‘Smelly Shelley’ would probably struggle to recall the name of the ‘red bow girl’ now. 

But not for much longer.  Come Thursday, she would know it all right!

A Date with Damian

A Date with Damian
By Leigh Mathers

 

I have a horrible feeling Lisa was right, thought Martine as she checked her watch for the fiftieth time, and pressed her back against the pub wall as though she could melt into it. This isn’t the most delightful meeting place. And I’m freezing.

“The Railway Tavern?” her sister had grimaced dubiously last night. “Shouldn’t you at least pick somewhere more central for a first meeting?” 

Martine tossed her hair. “It’s too late to change the arrangements now.”

“No, it isn’t. You don’t have to go through with this.”

“I’ve chosen to, though.”

“Well I’ll have my mobile on if you need me.”

“Need you? Stop scaremongering, Lise.” Seeing Lisa’s genuine concern, Martine added in a more sensitive tone, “I know you don’t really approve of this Internet dating lark, but I’ll be all right. Damian and I have been messaging for weeks.  We’ve built up such a rapport.”

“You don’t even know what he looks like.”

“No, well Damian feels it’s shallow to be influenced by each other’s appearances. He thought we ought to communicate first, free from that.”

“Hmm.”

Saying the words had lessened Martine’s own conviction in them, but couldn’t show this. “He has the important attributes, like character and a sense of humour. If he turns out to be sexy too, well that’ll be a nice bonus!”

“If he turns out to be sexy!  Oh Mart, you’re too young to be this desperate. You’re only twenty-six.”

“This isn’t about desperation. It’s just the modern way to meet. You should try it, Lise. You’re still single, after all.”

“No thanks. Just be careful, eh?”

As she shivered now, gawped at by the Saturday afternoon drunks, Martine tried to heat herself with thoughts of their online chats, which could last several hours a night.

Damian was speedy to reply when she’d posted her ad, and they hit it off instantly. He was thirty, he said, and lonely beneath his sometimes jokey front. “But you’re becoming special to me, Martine. We shouldn’t dither to arrange a meeting.”

She’d found herself agreeing to Saturday at two, outside the Railway Tavern. Now it was twenty-past, and she stamped her chilled feet frantically. “Come on Damian!”

As if on cue, three young men hove into view, bantering matily with one another. Then one – the tallest and by far the best-looking, as it happened – started to lope out of the group. “I’d better get going now, lads. Been great catching up with you again, though.” 

“Yeah, look after yourself mate.”

“See ya, Damo.”

Damo!

While his friends made tracks in the opposite direction, he strode towards the railway, the pub – and Martine.

“Damo’s short for Damian!” Martine yelped this and pounced on the astounded man.

“Yes, I suppose it could be,” he spluttered.

Martine’s heart flipped like a dolphin in a sealife show.  He was lean and broad-shouldered, with jovial brown eyes and the kind of grin that made you grin back.

“I’m Martine,” she gibbered, still clinging to him, “as you’ll have no doubt gathered. And you’re better late than never.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t apologise. You’re here now, and it’s wonderful to finally meet after all these weeks of e-mails.”

“Er…”

“Anyway, what are we waiting for? Let’s go for a drink!” Martine linked arms and, boosted with relief, nattered unreservedly to her new friend. She manoeuvred him towards the Railway Tavern. He let himself be led – as far as the entrance.

“Actually, let’s not go in here,” he winced. Martine was surprised, since Damian had suggested this venue, but decided to take it as a compliment; a sign he thought she belonged in smarter places. They walked to a wine bar.

Over their first round he said, “Now I’ve no idea what this talk of adverts and e-mails is all about, but I have to tell you it’s brightening up my day no end!”

“What!” Martine’s wineglass paused in mid-air, halfway to her gaping mouth. “You mean…you’re…not…Damian…from Date-A-Base?”

“’Fraid not. My name is Damon. Damon Edwards.  I was about to catch the train home after meeting up with a couple of old schoolmates. I hardly ever come into town, as it happens.”

After initial blushes, they laughed all afternoon at the mistaken identity and coincidence.

“I can’t believe I frogmarched you off like that,” Martine squealed again, “you poor thing!”

“Oh, I think I could have endured being accosted by you.”

“Obviously the real Damian chickened out then. Lucky for me, eh?”

“This has been the most surreal Saturday of my life,” Damon said three hours later, gazing at her over his glass, “but easily the best.”

They were inseparable from that day onwards. Five years later, they got married.

“Guess you were right, sis,” Lisa, their bridesmaid, conceded, “Internet dating does work. Well, sort of.”

        ******

Whilst Martine and Damon had been falling in love that Saturday, the ‘real’ Damian – he was calling himself Damian today at least – was lurking in his Jaguar outside the Railway Tavern.

He was late, because he hated to linger in areas like this with a car like his, and had expected this Martine to be waiting.

“Your timekeeping will just have to be punished, young lady,” he hissed, drumming the steering wheel.

If she didn’t show up, though, there were plenty of others where she came from. Girls who’d be charmed by his online humour and lonely bachelor charade – then see the Jag and forget about wanting someone gentle who could make them laugh.

And forgive him for lopping a few years off his age.  Just a few.

Then he’d whisk them to his apartment – the bachelor pad he kept for weekend use, well away from the house where he kept his wife – and soften them up with wine. He’d slip a pill into it if the girl was resistant.

These young women never reported him. Even those who could remember what happened were persuaded that their accounts would not be taken seriously by the police.

And Martine would never know what a lucky escape she’d had.

A Civil Wedding

A Civil Wedding
By Leigh Mathers

 

Claudia smoothed the ivory satin over her five-month bump, and swayed girlishly in front of the long mirror, hardly able to believe her own reflection.  She was more at home in jeans as a rule – baggy ones these days – but today resembled an exotic princess.

She swished up and down, enjoying the gown’s rippling feel on her leg, and the serene way her new cream shoes forced her to walk.  The small tiara twinkled in her softly bobbed hair, as though giving Claudia a wink that said ‘you’re gorgeous.’

Through the bay window beyond the mirror, she could see the first clusters of guests, those few relatives who had not spitefully declined their invitations.  They looked like a rainbow of chickens in their silks and fascinators, nattering to each other, words Claudia couldn’t hear.

This was a small, weekday civil wedding at Ackleton Manor, a hotel and converted country house.  It had been booked at short notice, and there were many absentees.  Their loss, thought Claudia scornfully.
She watched her family bobbing across the gravelled car park, until a knock drew her to the door. 

Violet was there, in the colour that matched her name.  Her elegant suit emphasised her still trim figure, and her hat was as wide as the doorway. 

‘Grandma, you look stunning.’  Claudia manoeuvred herself beneath the brim for a hug.

‘Violet for Violet.’  Her grandmother did a saucy little spin.

‘Joan Collins eat your heart out!’

‘Now let me look at you.  Ah, how proud would Grandpa have been!’

‘Don’t start,’ Claudia warned, laughing, ‘I’m hormonal enough as it is, remember!  I can’t wait to see Kenny’s face, though.’

‘I know!  He is an immensely lucky man, but then I am somewhat biased!  And even if this place does flood with tears, I’ll be all right.  I can sit in this thing,’ Violet pointed to her hat, ‘and row myself to safety!’

Alan, Claudia’s father, who had been hovering in his tailcoat all this time, looking pale, now hugged his daughter.  ‘You look gorgeous, my sweetie.  Absolute knockout.  Will you girls excuse me a mo, though, I’m going to dash off for a ciggie.’

‘Thought he’d given up,’ said Claudia.

‘Poor love,’ Violet sympathised, ‘he’s working himself up about his speech.’

‘A few glasses of red at dinner’ll calm him.’

Claudia glided over to the flowers, which were propped on a cardboard block.  She picked up her posy of hyacinths and rehearsed her walk, carrying them demurely back and forth past the mirror.

‘Aunty Norma’s not coming, you might know.’

‘Didn’t expect any better from her.’

‘Disowned me, in fact.’

‘What?  How vile!’

‘Called us “grotesque”.’

‘Unbelievable!’

‘I suppose I don’t qualify as a “blushing bride” in her prudish eyes.’

Claudia stroked her tummy protectively with her flower-free hand.

‘No sour grapes there then about never having married herself!’

‘Oh, of course not!  I sometimes wonder quite who she’s saving herself for, at her age.  Not that that’s the only issue here, of course.  Then there’s Larry and Cath, who’ve had it away to Gran Canaria.  They say they’d booked the holiday before knowing about the wedding, but I’m sceptical.’

‘It’s a case of being under big sister’s thumb, though, with Larry, isn’t it?’

‘Oh, he’s always been influenced by Norma.  Honestly, you’d think Kenny and I were beasts with three heads, the way that lot carry on.  Beats me how a pair of consenting adults in love can cause so much offence.’

‘No one could be more in love than you and Kenny.’

‘I know, but that small fact seems irrelevant to the likes of them.’

‘Well you cause no offence to us, that’s for sure.’

‘No, you’ve been a total rock these last few months.’ 

The two women embraced emotionally in silence for a few moments, needing each other, drawing comfort at this poignant time.

‘“You haven’t known him five minutes,” is one of the kinder comments we’ve had.  “Got the bloke living with you before you even know what he’s all about.”  “Making a laughing stock of yourself,” “scandalising the family,” blah blah.  They’ve even taken issue with Kenny being a bit younger than me.  Anything to detract from the real reason they’re all so anti.’

‘Ah, forget them.  This is going to be a wonderful day.’

‘The best ever.  But on the issue of us rushing into this, Kenny did actually suggest postponing ’til after the baby comes along.  A tiny bridesmaid or pageboy would have been adorable, but frankly I’m impatient.’

‘Too right!  What do they think, that delaying another four months or so will give them time to talk you out of your supposed error of judgement?’  There was a knock at the bedroom door.  ‘Ooh, that’ll be Dad again.’  Claudia laid her posy down gently and opened the door. 

‘Look who I bumped into.’  Alan, smelling of smoke and still looking wobbly at the prospect of his son of the bride speech, was accompanied now by the photographer.

‘Good morning, ladies.  I’ll just grab a few shots, if I may, of the bride and her granddaughter.’

******

Twenty minutes later, Alan escorted the stately Violet down the aisle.  His pregnant only daughter, Claudia, the only bridesmaid, was beaming in ivory behind them, exchanging doting smiles with her own husband in the congregation. 

Kenny stood straight as a ramrod and grinned jubilantly at his purple-suited bride.  Today was his and Violet’s three-month anniversary.  Three months since they were first paired for a foxtrot at their ballroom class.

Within weeks, the light-footed lovers were cohabiting in Violet’s warden controlled bungalow.  A month ago, they’d booked their wedding – much to Norma and Larry’s disgust.

‘I’m eighty-two, Claudia,’ Violet had protested to her granddaughter, ‘and Ken’s seventy-one.  Your grandpa’s been gone eight years now, Ken’s been divorced nearly twenty, we’re harming nobody, we have so many shared interests, enjoy our companionship, know we want to be together.

‘Your dad’s the only decent one amongst my children.  He supports us.  Norma and Larry can rant all they like about me being impulsive and daft, but actually all they’re scared of is losing their inheritance.’

Claudia now dabbed her eyes as her grandma and new step-grandpa exchanged their gold rings and vows.
She thought of the judgemental lot who were staying away today.  Definitely their loss, she decided.

The Four Matthews intro(a lesson in fictitious history)

FROM BEST FOOT FORWARD WALKING BREAKS SUMMER BROCHUREThe Four Matthews

* 20-26 July, 1-7 September, 6-12 October
* 7-11 miles a day + ascents of up to 650 metres (2,130 feet)

Roam into Anglo-Saxon England on this 40-mile trek across some of the Midlands’ most fascinating yet forgotten natural landmarks.The quartet of hills rise at virtually equidistant intervals across the one-time Earldom of Matthew Theodoric, the 11th century Earl of Rosterbury. The audacious Earl commissioned marble busts of himself to crown each hill – thus they became dubbed The Four Matthews.

The ‘Matthews’ at Sneydley in south Shropshire and Tunclough in the Peak District mark the perimeters of his former land, while the two in between grace the Staffordshire village skylines at Manderwood and Hisley.

The Earl’s powers were drastically curtailed during the reign of William the Conqueror, and the Earldom became obsolete.

The busts were torn down over 600 years later by rioting anti-Royalists who opposed his descendants’ support for the Cavaliers during the English Civil War.Only the fragmented and centuries-ravaged head of the Manderwood bust remains, preserved in Manderwood Manor near Wolverhampton, the Jacobean manor house later owned by the Theodorics then sold to a family of local entrepreneurs. Earl Matthew’s ghost is a reputedly frequent visitor.

BFF will be taking small groups on this idyllic yet testing hike throughout the summer and autumn. We will stay in homely guesthouses along the route, and our luxury mini coach will return all participants to Sneydley on day 7.

For full booking and costs information, see page…

Chapter 1

Gap Year
Chapter 1

 

‘Yow ain’t in Dudley now, kiddo!’

Had Emily Smeed’s future lover heard this line in her fizzy monologue, he might never have approached her.

Had he caught her exaggerated Black Country (or ‘Yam Yam’) inflexion, and allusion to a home town in that region, there was a good chance he’d have passed forgettably by, blessing the girl’s handy quirk of thinking aloud.

As it happened, though, only the mute Raffles doorman stood within what qualified for ‘earshot’ (if the cabaret of a tourist talking to herself bemused him, by the way, he was far too professional to show it). The Englishman didn’t meet her – again – until she was much farther advanced down the ivory colonnade en route to the Billiard Room where, like him, she was taking high tea for the second day running.

Emily was a tactile traveller – skimming her hands across arches and balustrades (a habit: she liked to literally ‘get a feel’ for places) – and an imaginative one. This place would make a lush backdrop for a novel, and she saw characters behind every umbrella plant and beneath every ceiling fan: lecherous aristocrats; kiss-curled femmes fatales in fur stoles.

And she saw this young man in the khaki from yesterday, watching her. Emily awarded him a little smile; shy, through-the-lashes, it said: Oh, you again! Well follow me, I could be interested.

******

November was on its way out – not that Emily could tell, spending as she was her first autumn untroubled by drizzle, ice rinks of leaves, and aggressively early displays of Christmas cards. Her first autumn in jungly heat, with a snap in the air that excited the hell out of her.

She’d been in Singapore a fortnight; in the bustling Far East nearly eight exhilarating weeks. Hong Kong, Malaysia, but particularly Singapore, epitomised the East-meets-West vibe that characterised so much of contemporary Asia.

She’d seen pagodas, hawker stalls and bazaars that nuzzled between skyscrapers, sleek hotels, Starbucks and Burger King outlets and even a Manchester United shop; wizened pensioners toiling past on rickshaws; motorway-scale streets; pavements swarming with folks incapable of walking below Olympic pace. Nobody strolled here, nor mooched. The Singapore city scurry was purposeful and busy. Emily, bred in a plodding village, spent her first week nursing jostle-bruises from neglecting to dodge scurriers seeming intent on walking ‘through’ her.

The Raffles Hotel was her magnet, though. A monument to opulence, and more ‘British’ than anywhere she’d eaten near her home, at Britain’s heart. The Singaporean doorman, motionless in his Saturday Night Fever-white livery, befitted the whole sultry colonialism that Emily loved so much.

And now it was time for high tea: that genteel buffet of dainty sandwiches (crusts cut off, naturally), vol-au-vents, unidentified fried objects, noodles, rice cakes and scones. A Raffles tradition, and a typical East-West melange.

‘Beautiful,’ Emily declared, entering the Billiard Room, and finding its power to stun undiminished by a second visit.

To her observer, it was she who beautified the scene. She had a more compelling pull than the average sexy passer-by, though, in that it was not purely physical. She gave the impression she’d be sparky company too; make him feel life was fantastic. He certainly needed that.

Not that the physical played no role at all, of course. He wasn’t above enjoying the girly bounce of Emily’s corkscrew dark hair; the way her small bum undulated beneath that strappy sundress; the lime silk, luminescent against her gentle tan, rippling with every step.

Yes she was screwable, but there was an innocence about her too; a vitality. Talking to oneself seemed a wacko habit to some, but he found it oddly endearing, indicative of an open personality.

It seemed Fate was his mate, for once. Not only was she here again, but on her tod this time. He was not a routine chatter-up of women – but there were times routine had to be dispensed with?

Typically, his overture was clumsily timed. He and the waiter reached her simultaneously.

‘You probably think I’m some eagle-eyed stalker – ‘

‘Good afternoon, ma’am, sir – ‘

‘ – but I couldn’t help noticing you were here yesterday – ‘

‘ – table for two, yes?’

‘ – and I wondered if you’d like to join me?’

It was a surreal moment for Emily. Her eyes volleyed between the two men – the politely expressionless waiter, in Persil-ad whites; and this earnest Englishman, with his sensible, dark haircut – not sure who to address first.

To the former: ‘Yes, I guess it is, please.’

To the latter: ‘Hey, that accent sounds familiar.’

As, now, did hers.

The young Oriental guy glided them to a table and trickled tea into their dinky cups, like a silent swan butler. The pair discreetly appraised each other, sniggering like nervous blind-daters as each caught the other looking. Emily decided there was definitely something cute – or at least interesting – about this stranger who’d become her lunch date in this exotic palace. Another chap could have resembled an outsized scout in a khaki vest and knee-length shorts – especially with his school photograph-trimmed hair – but he had the quirky boyishness to get away with it (just).

‘Let’s go eat then,’ he prompted, with a stiff laugh.

Only on returning from the first of their limitless forays to the buffet did any verbal discourse resume.

‘So you’re a Midlands girl?’

‘Ar, a Black Country wench.’ She broadened her accent in caricature. ‘Whereabouts do you live?’ Her new friend nibbled casually on a doll-sized pizza.

‘Oh, a little village, over Dudley way.’ Emily threshed her hand around self-deprecatingly, powdering her plate with quiche crumbs. ‘You’ve probably never heard of it.’ She popped the little quiche into her mouth.

‘What’s it called?’

‘Lower Bratchley.’

‘You’re joking! I mean – I have heard of that, actually.’

‘Really?’

‘Mmm.’ He scratched the back of his neck intently. ‘It’s in South Staffordshire, isn’t it? Near to – oh, what’s that big village called – Wombourne?’

‘That’s the one. Hey, this is amazing!’ She elongated her latter, oft-used adjective with a delicious beam, parading a row of teeth that formed a twinkly zip across her face. Dominic noticed she was bare of make-up – unnecessary and grossly sticky anyway, in such a climate.

Across the table, a ruffled gulp was taken from a teacup. It was no sooner drained than attentively refuelled by the swan waiter.

‘I’m being careful with the old caffeine today,’ Emily grimaced, refusing the proffered beverage. ‘I made the mistake of knocking back six cups here yesterday. It just seemed so wasteful and rude not to drink it. But of course then I was up all night, wired and hyper. Hence I’m a little jangled today.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, you look very bright and pretty to me.’

Emily smiled again, touched by his clumsy chivalry. She’d seldom consorted with older men – or desired to, until now. Her few exes were raw-boned students with indie-guitarist hair, whose snogs tasted of cheap cider. This guy was in another sphere altogether; a mythical one almost. His kind had never existed outside Emily’s poems, or the mushy vignettes she was forever penning which she hoped to ultimately incorporate into her as yet unplotted novel.

‘So, anyway, where are you from?’ she queried.

‘Wolverhampton.’

‘No way?’

‘Way, I’m afraid!’

‘But that’s only five miles up the road from Bratchley!’

‘Indeed it is.’

‘Amazing! I can’t say as I know the city all that well yet – not had all that much cause to go there, to be honest – except to the Reflex – the 80s club – d’you ever go? – but I’m starting Wolverhampton Uni next year. D’you live anywhere near there?’

‘Quite near.’ Khaki levered back his chair. ‘I’m going up for seconds.’

Emily, still halfway through her firsts because she’d been nattering, coyly appraised his body as he reloaded his plate with baby snacks. And proved just as avid a bum-inspector as he was. She couldn’t really help it – those shorts, though 1940s PE kit-length, cupped his in a fashion that kindled daft blushes Emily hadn’t experienced since aged twelve in sex education class.

She sensed this wasn’t deliberate exhibitionism: he didn’t seem like the lairy poseurs from Upper Bratchley – Lower Bratchley’s sister village – ramming their leather-trousered manhood against your legs as you tried to enjoy an innocuous boogie in the Reflex. No, this one probably bought his shorts a size too small and couldn’t be bothered returning them to Scouts R Us, or wherever. Either that, or they’d fitted once and he’d lost weight. Whatever, the look was pleasing.

The word ‘hunky’ had probably never coexisted in a sentence with his still unknown name – but then Emily was atypical in favouring the weedier breed of male. Slim limbs and concave stomachs.

‘You’re going to university, you say?’ She flushed and jumped, guiltily renewing attention to her cucumber sandwich. ‘So that would make you, what, seventeen? Eighteen? You look older, mind.’

‘I am, that’s why.’ She was delighted, still at the age where to be taken for older was complimentary. ‘I turned twenty-two in September. The course I’ll be doing is actually post-grad. The LPC.’

‘Ah, Legal Practice Course.’

‘That’s the one! I’m on my gap year at the moment, already done one degree, Law at Staffordshire Uni.’

‘Staffordshire – that’s the one in Stoke on Trent, isn’t it?’

Yeah. Now I’m trying to make the most of every minute before I have to get back into study mode. I’ve saved like mad for years, doing all manner of part-time jobs. Been travelling a couple of months now – Hong Kong, Malaysia, and now Singapore. I’m going home for Crimbo, then I’ll scoot off again in the new year. A return trip to Asia in some shape or form – then hopefully Hawaii and Australia or New Zealand.’

‘And after that you plan on being a hot shot lawyer?’

‘Oh ar! Once I’ve done the LPC, which is for a year, I find myself a job as a trainee solicitor. If any local firm is kind enough to take me on, that is – I wouldn’t wish me on anybody! But that’s all for the future. I deferred my place at Wolvo ’til next year cuz I was desperate both for a break from ceaseless swotting and a chance to see a bit of the world. Well, quite a lot of the world actually.’

‘I bet you’ll find little Lower Bratchley a culture shock after all this globetrotting, eh?’ ‘Just a bit! I found it enough of one going home from three years in Stoke. I’m sure I’ll be dying to hop on the first plane out of Birmingham Airport after Christmas. I couldn’t wait to leave home for university and city life. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dear old village – it’s pretty, and got some fabulous characters – it’s just the kind of place where you can’t fart without everyone knowing. If you’d lived there all your life, you’d want to escape too. You can hide a bit in a city, can’t you?’

‘Mmm.’

‘But hey, look at us chuntering away like this when we don’t even know each other’s names. I’m Emily. Emily Smeed.’

‘Dominic. Dominic Osbourne. Anyway, as I said earlier, I saw you here yesterday. With a chap,’ he added, visibly pained.

‘That was my cousin Kristian.’

‘Ah, cousin!’

Emily repressed a smirk at the flattering relief in his voice. ‘Yeah, I’m staying with him and his fiancee Chantal. But Chantal couldn’t make it yesterday. She had to go to the dentist – poor girl.’

‘They live here then?’

‘Yeah, they both sing in a band. The resident band at the Hard Rock Cafe in fact. Colonel K, they’re called. Go down a storm every night. Come a long way from playing shabby pubs in Wolverhampton. They still can’t believe their luck.’

‘How handy, having relatives here. You don’t sing yourself?’

‘Ooh no, voice like a parrot with piles.’

‘They been out here long?’

‘Nearly a year. They rent an apartment in the Bukit Timah district. They’ve been fab tour guides. Kris brought me here yesterday, obviously, and I just fell in love. I had to come back a second time. I know I shouldn’t, on my student budget, but high tea at the Raffles Hotel is not exactly an experience I’ll be able to repeat back home.’

‘Too right! You have to make the most of the landmarks when you’re in these countries.’

‘You must like it too then, if it’s your second time as well. D’you come here often?’ She pulled a face to parody the hackneyed chat-up line.

‘Yes, I love it too,’ Dominic replied economically. He drained yet another cup. ‘Right, I need cake now.’

‘I’ll join you. The profiteroles are to die for.’ They availed themselves of the cloying scones, profiteroles – and token segments of fruit to ease diet consciences.

******

She had such an open face, Dominic thought as she dissolved a choux flake on her tongue, sighing. Such an open character – as he’d guessed. Not immature, yet still young enough to be appealingly astonished by life’s delights.

‘I rather like my food, as you may have gathered.’

‘Girls with appetites are good to see.’

‘Anyway, you’ve heard all about me, but what brings you to the Far East, Dom? Are you backpacking too?’

Backpacking – bless her! There was something so free about that word, so free, fresh and infectious about this girl.

‘Oh no, I’m well past gap year stage now I’m an old crock of twenty-nine.’ Dominic felt miraculously less crock-ish, though, with each successive gaze at her. Even her hair had vivacity. Not the sprucest barnet in the world – no exorbitant gels to trendy it into submission – but every mocha whorl bounced as though independent from her head.

‘Oh?’ Without Emily’s polite prompt, he could quite possibly have continued staring dopily at her until sunset.

‘No, I actually won this trip.’ He gulped from, then spoke behind, his replenished teacup.

Won it?’ Emily was typically agog. And oh, she was off again. ‘On a game show? I know someone who goes on game shows – actually he’s the vicar in Bratchley, believe it or not. Been on about twenty. Won all sorts. Told you our village was full of characters, didn’t I!’

‘Extraordinary! No, mine was actually a competition in the, er, Daily Mirror. One of those “answers on a postcard” jobbies.’

‘Well done you! Aren’t these trips normally for two, though?’

‘What?’ Dominic spluttered as a jet of tea went down the wrong way.

‘For two people. WIN A HOLIDAY FOR 2! they always say. Don’t tell me you couldn’t find a friend to accompany you to this stunning country for free! I’d have thought they’d be queuing up.’

‘Oh, they were. My mate – Tim – has come with me, but he’s in bed back at the hotel. Touch of the old Singapore belly.’ Dom patted his own belly, adding unnecessary emphasis with a ‘sick’ mime rather too vivid for a mealtime.

‘What a shame, missing out on all this.’ Emily’s eyes swelled with genuine concern. They were huge, Dom noticed, and the colour of Bournville chocolate. His favourite. A man could sink into those eyes;swim;drown in them.  ‘I hope he’s better soon. Give him my love, won’t you!’ This sounded less bizarre than it might: extending her goodwill to strangers was a total Emily-ism.

‘I will,’ vowed Dominic.

******

‘I’m sorry, Em,’ he plonked down the mini eclair that was halfway to his mouth, ‘I’m going to have to love and leave you right now.’

‘Aw, why so soon? You’re still halfway through your sweet course.’

‘Running late. Got to catch a boat. Tour up the Singapore River. It’s a trip the competition people have organised. So, much as I’d love to stay here and carry on chatting all day?’ Standing already, he spread his hands and gave a little ‘What can I do?’ smile.

‘I understand. You’d best go see if Tim’s all right too.’

‘Tim? Oh yeah, course. Told him not to have those prawns last night. In the meantime,’ he fished self-consciously for his wallet, ‘you can have this meal on me, Emily. It’s been a complete pleasure to eat with you.’ He fanned the appropriate notes on to her side plate, lifted her cake-free hand and, with extraordinary gallantry, kissed it.

Emily shivered in the mugginess. Some diners were politely agog and there was the odd snigger behind toy teacups – but she didn’t care. She wanted to be seen, feeling such a lady in this glorious tearoom.

She could not let him evaporate away, this older chap with suspect taste in shorts but the vocabulary and shy gallantry of a Disney prince. Who lived flukily local too! Emily was ripe for a holiday romance. Or, even better, a romance without the ‘holiday’ prefix, which could resume and flourish back home.

‘Are you free tomorrow night?’

Dominic scratched his neck noncommittally. ‘Think so.’

‘Why don’t you come and see Kris and Chantal’s band at the Hard Rock? With me?’ she added unnecessarily.

‘What sort of music do they play?’ Dominic procrastinated.

‘Party songs. You know, the kinda stuff you hear at wedding receptions.’

He swallowed. Hard. ‘Yes, I’d love to.’

‘You would?’ Emily’s face sparkled like Walsall Illuminations. ‘Shall we meet outside the Hard Rock then? About eight?’

”bout eight.’

‘Hope Tim’s well enough to come too.’ She hoped nothing of the sort – but could hardly say ‘Fingers crossed he’s still poorly, he’d be a gooseberry.’

‘See you tomorrow then, Emily Smeed.’ Dominic grinned lingeringly, pivoted on his sandaled heels and was off.

******

As Emily watched him pace away, he was battling an urge to kick himself with said sandals.

The irony wasn’t lost on Dominic that he’d approached her yet finished up pondering excuses: ‘I hate cheesy music. Sorry, love, you’re just not my type. You’re too young for me, and you yack too much. Can’t stand little wenches with verbal diarrhoea.’

Then he’d looked at her again – really looked at her, his sweet, garrulous Emily with the freckles and Bournville eyes – and knew he was doomed. He could quite tolerate being talked to death by those lips, and as for other consequences – well, bridges could be crossed when they were reached?

Oh, why couldn’t I have chosen a girl from Edinburgh, or Sydney, or Ouagadougou, to chat up? As she said herself, what are the chances of two sightseers meeting six thousand miles from their neighbouring homes? Trust my bloody luck.

All the Rage Prologue

All the Rage
Prologue

 

There was no buzz on earth like applause – and the members of All the Rage had never heard such a roar as this. Through the dazzling studio lights, they could just discern the wobbly shapes of faces. Oceans of faces. Oceans of people, cheering and stamping. And the cherished figures of families and boyfriends, whose Yeahs were the loudest of all.

The group had just sung to their biggest ever audience – and the incredible thing was, the baying gallery in here was not even the sum total of it. Far from it. No, it was the eight million – EIGHT MILLION – or so with their feet up in front of ITV1 who really counted, for to them fell the task of picking up their phones and voting in this live contest.

Glowing with exhilaration, the three girls beamed into the camera monitors, as they’d been told to, and then at each other. There had never been such powerful camaraderie between them. It positively crackled both on- and off-stage – that’s what made them such a wow to watch perform. As they clasped hands now, there was electricity; a shared pulse that charged through their linked bodies. The grins and winks they exchanged were proud and congratulatory. We’ve done it, they said, aren’t we the greatest! These are my best mates, and we’re living our dream!

It was a dream which, in sixteen hectic months, had taken them from the rough-and-ready pub circuit to primetime television exposure. But where would it take them next? That was the question filling the girls’ minds now.

‘The Sugababes ought to be feeling a tad nervous, is all I can say,’ chirruped Todd Davies, Talent Scout‘s ever-excitable presenter. He would have still gushed had they sung like a trio of tortured cockatiels, but in this case his praise was sincere. All the Rage had brought the current heats of this popular talent show to a spectacular close. Todd thought they were easily favourites to be voted back into next week’s grand final.

They seemed like a viewer’s – and a record company’s – dream to him: Chantal, with a cherubic face and a buxom shape that owed nothing to silicone, looking divine in a sea blue mini dress; elegant, willowy Faith, in silky indigo, whose sound possessed a rich, Madonna-like quality; and little, husky Justine, wearing blazing orange, all dimples and wiry energy.

‘Don’t just take my word for it, though,’ Todd continued cheesily, pointing into the camera, ‘let’s see how our celebrity panel rates this hot new girl band. Carla – did you think they were bostin’, our kid?’

Chantal, Faith and Justine hailed from the Black Country – the industrial hub of the West Midlands – and Todd lampooned their accent and vernacular at every opportunity. Many Talent Scout viewers were cringing in their living rooms at this point – particularly in the Black Country region itself, where many a cry of ‘That saft cockney prat cor do our accent’ resounded – but the All the Rage girls were far too euphoric to take offence. They just giggled along with the audience, who hooted convulsively at Todd’s every wisecrack.

‘Well I sure dunno what bostin’ means,’ Carla Day, 1970s disco idol, latter-day star of musical theatre and regular panellist, declared in a New York twang, ‘but I’ll tell ya something, honey – I thought these three ladies were awesome tonight! I never heard It’s Raining Men put across with such passion. If the record companies ain’t beatin’ a path to your door after this, I’ll eat ma sequins, baby!’

The audience whooped like apes, as they did whenever a celeb judge complimented one of the acts. The girls themselves were more demurely delirious.

‘Rory – your thoughts?’

More whoops greeted chest-waxed Australian soap hunk Rory Powers simply for opening his mouth.

‘I agree with everything Carla said, Todd,’ he drawled, with a trademark lazy smirk that drew yet another chorus of squeals. ‘And the girl on the left – ‘

‘Justine,’ Todd interjected.

‘Justine – sweetheart, you remind me of a young Geri Halliwell!’

Justine glowed. Rory wasn’t to know, but no comparison could have flattered her more.

Chantal smirked to herself also; she knew a certain person who’d be green to even see her in Rory’s company.

‘Reuben,’ Todd addressed the third and final panellist, ‘d’you reckon All the Rage will live up to their name?’

‘Absolutely,’ rasped Reuben Greenway, zillionaire record producer and laconic wearer of Ray-Bans and black leather. ‘A classic disco anthem, well delivered. They’ll be dancing to you three in the discos of the future!’

‘Cheers, Reuben,’ said Todd, ‘and big thanks to all of this week’s guest judges. But don’t forget, viewers, it’s your votes that truly matter. So, if you want to see our trio of bostin’ Black Country babes here next week, dial the following number?or text ‘RAGE’ to this number?but not ’til after the show! I know you’re all eager beavers, talent scouts, but the phonelines aren’t open just yet! In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, give it up one more time for All the Rage!’

The girls, still clutching hands, demurely bowed and departed backstage.

******

In the green room, it was all hugs, shrieks, champagne and pandemonium. The other four acts, though upbeat, were rather reserved (the girls sensed their rivals took the competition more seriously, and their self-esteem was more dependent upon the outcome of the public vote), but All the Rage were behaving like they’d won already. To them, appearing on TV, spending a day in a studio, having their make-up professionally done and being paid compliments by celebrities were sufficient thrills.

These were Black Country girls who’d practised their art in pubs, not stage school graduates who were blas頡bout brushes with showbiz. As far as they were concerned, the party could start now.

The trio yelled ‘Yessss!’ in unison and leaped into a circle, turning their traditional group hug into a kind of Greek dance of jubilation.

‘Well done, girls!’

‘That was so wicked!’

‘Rory Powers compared me to Geri! Rory Powers – I’ve had a thing about him for years!’

‘Did you hear what that Reuben guy said?’

‘What d’you think – bit different to doing karaoke down the old Red Lion, eh?’

Joe, their manager and so much more, was there already, as their behind-the-scenes champion, along with the other contestants’ mates and parents.

‘That was stunning,’ he cheered, and emotionally cuddled them in turn. This band meant so much to him, and they thought the world of him too?in differing ways. Things were about to happen to these girls – and it just seemed so bittersweet that?No! Mustn’t spoil their night by getting blubby.

‘So how do you rate your chances, girls? The panel certainly seemed to like you the best.’

‘Ye-es,’ wavered Chantal, ever the cautious one, ‘but that lad who did the Justin Timberlake number could take some beating. All the little girlies will be begging Mommy to borrow the phone and vote for him.’

‘But it’s not the winning,’ Justine argued, in her husky, shouty voice, as she filched four flutes of champagne from the complimentary tray and doled them amongst the girls and Joe, ‘it’s the taking part – as you yourself used to tell me, Miss Brown! Cheers!’

They clinked glasses sloppily, giggling as bubbles spilled over their fingers – yet they stood and drank in abrupt and loaded silence. They became oblivious to their extraordinary surroundings, the other singers, the backstage crew busying about in black, shouting things into headsets.

In their relatively short coalition, Chantal, Faith and Justine had forged an almost psychic bond. They were far more than bandmates; even ‘best mates’ scarcely covered it. To each girl, the other two were the sisters she had never had. They were attuned to each other’s moods, tastes and even menstrual cycles.

When they simultaneously glanced up from the depths of their flutes, caught each other’s eyes and laughed tautly, they knew all was not quite wonderful but nobody wanted to voice such spoilsport thoughts on such a special night.

‘D’you reckon it’s true what Carla Day said – that we could get a record deal out of this?’ asked Chantal, sounding, oddly, more troubled than elated.

‘It could happen,’ Faith responded in similarly wobbly tones. ‘Record company execs watch shows like this, don’t they? One of them could ring in if they like us. Or maybe it’s only the winners of these competitions that get offers – I don’t know.’ She bit her lip, and twiddled with the white gold ring on her left hand – nervy gestures that were very uncharacteristic.

‘That would be a marvellous break for us, wouldn’t it?’ said Justine, but equally flatly. ‘One that we’d have to be bonkers to turn down?’

Nods, further sips and contemplation.

Then Faith took command, and spoke in a ‘right, the time has come’ voice. ‘Let’s go into the dressing room for a bit. I think we need a chat.’

‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ Justine said slowly, ‘it’s quieter in there, we’ll be able to talk.’

‘And we’ve got an hour to kill before we have to be back on air for the results show,’ added Chantal.

‘Want me to come with you?’ Joe asked Faith attentively.

Faith squeezed his hand, smiled in a ‘thanks but no thanks’ manner – then murmured ‘Would you? This affects you just as much as us, after all.’

She discarded her almost full glass on a random table, and the four trooped away to the little dressing room which All the Rage had been assigned for the day. Everything here was so showbiz – down to the little touches like the gold star bearing the band’s name that had been tacked to their door.

How many nights, getting changed in putrid pub toilets to sing on stages the size of orange boxes, had they dreamed of fame, and the glitzy cliches that went with it?

How many editions of Talent Scout had they watched at home with fish and chips on their knees, heckling the envied contestants?

This day had been the best of their lives, and whatever happened now, whatever the upshot of the dressing room confessional they knew was coming, nothing could ever erase the fabulous memory it would become.

As Joe softly closed the door behind them, they wedged into the room, occupying any spare square centimetre of chair, dressing table and window sill they could. The enormous, light bulb-surrounded mirror portrayed their young faces, riveted to Faith as though she were a boss about to deliver a ‘good news and bad’ speech to her staff. Faith took a huge breath, and glanced briefly at Joe, as though to draw courage from his dependable, ponytailed presence.

‘Girls,’ she said, ‘I’ve got an announcement to make.’

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