Chapter 16

16
The Grand Finale at Rawlinson Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How the devil are you?’

‘Really well, thanks. You?’

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

Yeah right, I thought.

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

‘Cinzano, please.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I love it. It’s very rewarding.’

‘No chance of you returning to showbiz then?’

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

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

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

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

‘Terribly sorry.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So have I.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I hate that expression.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I should hope so!’

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

‘I didn’t.’

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

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

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

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

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

******

Well, what can I say? Sean waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jared had finished eating and was studying his phone.

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

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

‘She had a good time?’ Sean asked.

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’re kidding!’

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

‘What as?’

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

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

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

I almost gagged on my coffee.

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

‘He doesn’t act anymore.’

‘Nor do I, officially.’  I had a recent walk-on role in Peaky Blinders, but that’s been virtually it for years now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘OK then, I’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

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

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

‘Really.’

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

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

‘Cheers!’

‘Here’s to you, Balsall Heath Betty!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tiny gulp escaped me.

‘Everything OK?’ Sean queried.

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

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Chapter 14

14
A Therapy Session with Gareth Rushcliff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

5
(She Just) Died on Her Arse
Mel’s Musings

Recently, when I was meeting Don in a city ‘coffee lounge,’ the sight of a man marching towards the toilets with a Daily Mail jammed under his arm evoked an amusing memory.

We catch up when we can during my tours.  My schedule is brutal.  I’m as unfathomably popular as ever in the guise of Melba Most.  At least assuming a drag persona on stage enables me to wander round relatively incognito when I’m in civvies.

Lately I’ve contemplated scaling back; seeing if I’m cut out for the retired lifestyle.  There was a time when growing vegetables, learning to knit, and watching daytime TV shows whose ad breaks endorse walk-in baths and funeral plans would have featured in my vision of hell, but I’m starting to rethink.

I could never kill Melba off.  I love her like the twin sister I never had (it’s true!) – but perhaps I could retire her to a luxury rest home for decrepit dames and bring her out by popular demand if I get bored?  I could do endless ‘farewell tours,’ like Status Quo did.

Or I could devote eleven months of the year to my garden/knitting/whatever and narrow my workload down to panto.  Or be ‘reduced’ to doing panto, as the snooty press always phrase it, in ‘provincial theatres.’  I mean, what other types are there, in towns outside of London?  I don’t see it as a reduction at all, but rather a noble, fun way to earn a living during the festive season.

Anyway, this meeting to which I refer occurred at a fairly early stage in our relationship, when Don was still insistent on meeting me in ‘classy’ venues.  I’m not quite sure where Don derived the impression either I or the coffee lounge was classy.  He didn’t know me too well yet, and was in the eager-to-impress phase.

In fact, I’d go for a good honest greasy spoon any day.  Bacon, a gorgeous plump tomato, fried egg, baked beans, huge flat mushroom swimming in an oil slick, white doorstop toast, squeezy farty sauce bottles with dregs of ketchup welded to the sides like wax dripping from a candle.  You’re hungry now, aren’t you?  Admit it.

There are people who assume I’m vegetarian.  I can see the way their mental connection works (‘He’s limp-wristed, I bet he can’t handle anything more robust than asparagus stalks and rocket.’), but I can annihilate a fry-up.

Rather that than pay a fortune for a cardboard panini containing soggy rocket and half a cherry tomato, and a bucket of bitter coffee which, despite the server’s promise, never does have quite enough ‘room for milk.’  You always end up disappointed and somehow sad with the world.

By contrast, the cheap and cheerful fry-up is joyous, filling, hearty, colourful.  And disastrous for my cholesterol, I know.  Hence it’s a treat, to be enjoyed infrequently.

In a similar vein, I love corner shops.  There’s something fun and naughty about nipping out in your slippers to pay over the odds for a bag of Skips rather than a reasonably priced multipack from Morrisons.  I’ve been accused of being an inverted snob.

Maybe it’s due to having lived so many years in proximity to general stores, both during my childhood and the shared house days when one or more of us was forever flitting to Brian’s corner shop with the munchies.  I adore the randomness of those establishments.  Cat food next to Sellotape and stale fig rolls.  There’s also no expectation to dress to impress; in fact it’s almost a prerequisite to rock up wearing at least one component of your nightwear, hastily concealed by an anorak.  It adds to the sheepish urgency of it all.  You duck your head as you slide your coins across the counter.  The transaction is akin to a drugs deal.  You don’t meet eyes.

Why are these soulless coffee ‘lounges’ so-called anyway?  They certainly don’t resemble my lounge in any way, despite the faux ‘cosy’ sofas.  My housekeeper Sheila keeps mine immaculate; she’s a whizz with Mr Sheen.  I still feel embarrassed saying that, ‘my housekeeper.’  I worry about sounding like a smug prat.

She wouldn’t abide stains like these.  A myriad of perfect, coffee cup-shaped circles besmirching the pale wood.  Guaranteed to make OCD customers twitch.

Temporary traffic lights are another bête noire of my life.  I once sat for an inordinate amount of time poised on the clutch (that’s one of my worst habits, not applying the handbrake) at a set that were stuck on red.  As a consequence, I’m paranoid they’re all faulty and I’m doomed to remain marooned in four-way filter hell.  They take such an age to change, you never know how long to give it before deeming they are stalled on red and cautiously driving off.

But I digress.  I do that a lot, as you’ll have gathered.  I’m like a gay Ronnie Corbett doing one of his meandering monologues in that oversized chair.

This particular establishment was called Juno’s.  Pencil drawings of the Colosseum and Leaning Tower of Pisa bedecked the walls, to push home the Italian connection implied by the Roman goddess namesake.  I couldn’t work out whether one of the Pisa pictures was wonky in deliberate homage to the leaning qualities of the landmark or because it had been coincidentally hung by someone with either no spirit level or a slapdash work ethic.

I eschewed coffee on this occasion and ordered a glass of milk.  I love milk – another surprise weakness of mine.  Such a basic, comforting drink.  The first liquid any of us ever consume.  Cold, silky, childish; the mid-morning nursery school refreshment served with a biscuit.  Its more ‘adult’ use, in tea or coffee, in my opinion diminishes its creamy joy.  When taken in its purest form it’s a delight.

Anyway (I keep saying that), the toilet-bound DM reader evoked a bygone afternoon when Majella and I enjoyed a boozy lunch, in a far friendlier haunt than Juno’s; one of those dark, city pubs that were popular before ghastly ‘gastro’ and chain pubs began to proliferate (no, you’re right, there really isn’t much I like about contemporary eateries).

It wasn’t even a weekend.  It was a Tuesday, from memory.  Folks like us, not constrained by conventional working hours, could enjoy luxuries like idle Tuesdays.  We loved the naughtiness of it all; the sense we were out of kilter with the rest of the universe.

We were surrounded by offices; the archaic buildings in that quarter of Birmingham still to this day house banks, accountants and barristers’ chambers.  The pinstripe-clad yuppies for some reason favoured dingy haunts for their elongated lunch breaks.  As they were hauling themselves back to work from their cigars and prawn baps, we bought another round and stopped on.  For the whole afternoon!  On (as I might have mentioned already) a Tuesday! What a life.

I had half hoped one of the pinstripes would tumble, Del Boy style, through the bar flap, but alas none of them obliged.  However, one swaggered to the bogs with a Financial Times under his armpit.

‘I know the quantity and quality of the bog roll in here’s a bit hit and miss,’ I observed, ‘but this is ridiculous.’

‘Do people still read on the loo?’ Majella snorted into her wine.  ‘My dad used to spend entire afternoons in the bathroom with the latest Frederick Forsyth.  Sometimes he’d take the radio in there as well, listen to the football results on WM.  Do people still do that?’

She was blithely giggly, her shoes were installed beneath the table, her feet not in them but tucked comfortably under her bum, a sign she was well and truly settled in for the afternoon.  Her second bag of scratchings was open on the table between us.  In her profession she usually watched her figure – except when the munchies hit after a spell on the sauce.

Her hair was tethered up into a casual bun, and for once she wasn’t daubed in war paint (nor was I).  Majella didn’t look like this often enough.

‘Maybe they don’t have time?’ I suggested.

‘Or are more regular these days?’

‘Due to their high fibre diet.’

‘No need to spend hours reading a novel while coaxing out a shy poo.’

‘The muscles are relaxed enough.’

‘I really don’t know.  Perhaps you could write a thesis on the subject.’

‘Thesis?  You’re the student, my girl.  Or were.  I’m a graduate of the university of life, remember.  Anyway, you brought the subject up.  By the way, I’m sure FT man hasn’t come out of there yet.  I haven’t seen him.’

‘Maybe he’s doing the crossword and got stuck on a hard one.’

‘Oh, we’ve all been there!’

We frittered an entire afternoon debating the waning custom of people reading on the toilet, the pathetic hilarity of it all escalating in direct correlation with the amount of alcohol consumed.  It was one of those impromptu get-togethers that turned into an unforgettable joyous lark.

The day ended in McDonald’s, with us propping each other up.  Chips staved off the drunken munchies like no other snack.  Whether they were from Bert’s botulism burgers or the Cypriot chippie by us, where they doled out free scraps at the end of the night.  There was an 80s joke beloved of piss-heads passing chip shops on their way home from clubbing:

‘Got any leftover chips?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, you made too many then, didn’t you!’

Ah, I bet that never got old.  Anyway, the fast food colossus ‘Macky D’s’ was still a novelty in the West Midlands then; a red and yellow blaze of American culture.

‘I tell you what,’ I said, launching a handful of wispy chips (I hadn’t yet got used to calling them ‘french fries’) into my mouth, ‘you’re funnier than me, girl.  I’m putting all that in the act.’

‘I’ll sue you when you’re famous.’  She was eyeing her towering Big Mac warily, clearly contemplating how to tackle it.  In the absence of cutlery, did one flatten the structure or separate it into bitesize segments?

I did put it in the act.  The entire spiel: FT reader, football results, high fibre diet and all.  Majella didn’t sue me, of course.  When I started making enough money to have programmes printed, I credited her.  ‘Additional material by Majella Bracebridge.’

‘Additional material’ in a comedian’s credits is a grand way of saying a joke was somebody else’s concept.

******

I certainly found Majella funnier that day than Linny was in her stand-up debut – or at any point during her career, in fact, but that’s just my (controversial) opinion.  I’ve always found Linda Dyson a tad ‘Emperor’s New Clothes.’  Not that I ever said as much.

It’s possible I was crabby because my own audition at Loff, the venue of her first stand-up gig, had failed so spectacularly a few weeks earlier.

Loff was a new underground (literally, occupying as it did the basement of a forlorn 60s shopping complex) alternative comedy spot in Birmingham.  Though not so ‘alternative,’ it seemed, as to chance it with a gay club turn looking to cross over from the niche audience of Larry’s.

‘Drag is passé, mate,’ I was informed by Wesley, the ‘talent booker,’ a thin, bored man with long unwashed hair, who was virtually concealed behind both his gigantic glasses and the smog from his continuous cigarettes.  I was still Heidi Sausage then.  ‘You’re obviously straight.  Drop the Mr Humphries act.  It’s OTT.  Embarrassing.’

‘If I’m straight,’ I hissed, ‘you’re the new star of the Alberto Balsam campaign,’ before turning on my stilettos with what I hoped passed for dignity.  I took pride in that line; a brave, sharp riposte in the circumstances.  Wesley, however, did not call me back with a ‘Hey – that was a brave, sharp riposte in the circumstances!  Go on then, we’ll give you a try!’

The lone echo along that endless, fuggy corridor came from my cloppy stilettos.  Until I stopped, wrenched them off in a drama-queeny gesture and padded disconsolately to the toilets to change into my sneakers.

The ‘slut feminist’ got the gig, though.  That’s not bitchiness on my part; she actually blazed on to the tiny stage and announced, in her broad Derbyshire twang, ‘I’m Linda Dyson, slut feminist of our generation!’

Petite and feisty, with a gingham bandana wrapped around her blaze of blonde curls, she wore a denim mini that barely skimmed her crotch.  Her stocky legs had been unshaven for several weeks.  There was the ‘slut feminist’ paradox right there: it was all on show for the taking, but no smooth ride could be guaranteed.

To couch it in polite terms, she had not quite honed her act at that point.  If I ever hear that Cutting Crew song (I Just) Died In Your Arms, which was released a few years later, I always change the lyrics in my head to ‘She just died on her arse that night,’ and applied them to her.

Fond of filth as I am, I do like a routine with more substance than what to my ears was a volley of ‘Tampons!  Vaginas!  VAT on sanitary fucking protection!  Outrageous!  Periods!  Jam rags!  Gussets!  Scargill!  Vulvas!’ with little linking narrative.

I remember that night so well.  A big night for one of our tribe.  I took it upon myself to book and pay for our taxi into Brum city centre.  I was chivvying everyone along.

Nelson – for whom every minute of the day was a rehearsal opportunity – was whirling around the lounge to Rondo Veneziano, oblivious to the driver tooting his hooter downstairs, until I snapped the tape player off.  He was still bundling himself into his coat in the back seat.  He slithered out of the taxi the other end like an It Girl pulling up at a premiere.

‘You’re our mommy,’ Majella clucked, kissing my cheek.  I felt like it that night.

The seating arrangement in Loff resembled a comprehensive school science lab: rows of deliberately mismatched desks and uncomfortable chairs.  Mistyped menus listed the gastronomic horrors on offer, which were served by bored girls with Max Headroom wedge haircuts and Max Wall leggings.

For reasons best known to us at the time, we decided to avail ourselves of the chicken and chips in the basket.  I may have admitted to a penchant for junk food, but I still like it to be cooked, and presented to me with minimal bloodshed.

These drumsticks were essentially coal on the outside but pink inside, seeping their vile juice over sad chips arranged on kitchen roll in dirty raffia.  A similar basket housed the toilet rolls in our bathroom at home.

This chicken, to maintain the comedy/joke theme, looked capable of getting up and crossing the road.

All thoughts of putrid poultry were obliterated when Linda was announced on stage and we cheered with rowdy loyalty – although we soon regretted advertising our association with her.

Linda still talks today of how she became a phoenix after she was booed off at that grubby club that infamous night.  Comedy – as exemplified at Loff and the more famous Comedy Store in London – was enjoying an anti-Tarby, anti-mother-in-law joke backlash, but she proved too random even for that audience.  Certain punters rewarded Linda by pelting her with tampons, or ‘jam rags,’ as she called them.  We got our money back for the chicken; others demanded refunds of their entrance fees.

‘I’d rather listen to fucking Tarby talking shit about golf,’ was one critique I heard being yelled.  I must note that the paralytic critic’s hands were around the box office clerk’s throat at the time.

Linda devotes several paragraphs of her autobiography to how, despite watching her cry pursued by Lil-let missiles, ‘Wes’ saw something in her (ahem!), mentored her and hooked her up with her agent, Kevin Light.  Kevin’s surname was conveniently apt for showbiz.  The name of his agency, Light & Sound, can’t have won him any originality awards.

To be fair, after weasly Wesley took her under his wing (again ahem!), she became less shouty and honed her timing.

I once asked Linda how she could stand Wesley’s ratty hair dangling all over her.  She said the ticklishness added an edge to the sex, ‘and anyway shampoo is a symbol of oppression.  A needless invention of a cosmetics industry run on shallow, Thatcherite values.’  She stopped washing her own trademark 50s-esque blonde wave.  That was until Kev Light advised her a manky mane would look terrible on television.

The slightly scrubbed-up ‘slut feminist’ soon became the most popular turn at Loff.  She even returned for a sell-out guest appearance to mark the club’s twenty-fifth anniversary, when she unveiled a blue plaque commemorating it as the venue where ‘top comedian, writer and actor Linda Dyson’ made her stand-up comedy debut.  I heard rumours the same chicken was still on the menu, and the same unmatched school chairs and desks remained in situ.

Shortly after breaking into television, Linda ditched wet Wesley and earned herself a reputation for shagging her way through a series of Channel 4 and later BBC comedy producers.  Now I would hate to accuse Linda of sleeping her way to success – but, hey, if the (Dutch) cap fits!

These days Linda is as mainstream as they come (not that I have much room to talk).  She’s competed on Celebrity Maserchef and Let’s Knit for Comic Relief.

My own route to success was, it’s fair to say, slower.  I took the now oft-trodden talent show route.  My auditions for the legendary New Faces, filmed in Birmingham, failed.  It was not until well into the 1990s, when drag started enjoying an earthier renaissance, that Melba Most was victorious on The Big Big Talent Show.

I was able to purchase my dream abode in Upper Bratchley, a village in South Staffordshire to which many Dudley residents aspire to relocate.  I ensconced my beloved mom in an apartment in Lower Bratchley, the only slightly less upmarket neighbouring village.  She remains there to this day.  Home prior to that was our old family terrace in Kates Hill, and for years pride had thwarted my attempts to re-house her.

‘I’d rattle in anything that vast,’ she’d said.  ‘One of them could billet a family of thirty.  Don’t you gooo a-spending on me, our Mel, it gives me more pleasure to see you doing so well.’

I knew I’d officially Made It when I acquired a stalker.  A woman, would you believe, who for a couple of years wrote me relentless letters on Garfield stationery.  She rumbled my identity – and this was in the days before social media made celebrities’ everyday lives an open book – and informed me she had once spotted me in M&S in Kidderminster (guilty as charged).

‘You have the most beautiful eyebrows,’ she blathered.  She went on to make earnest assertions that she could ‘turn me,’ if only I would ‘give hetero pleasures a chance and let her make love to me, ‘softly and slowly,’ in her bedroom, which she described in intimate, peach satin detail.

She evidently grew bored of her effusive one-sided pen pal correspondence (or perhaps she died, or Garfield writing paper was discontinued – I never investigated the matter), because her epistles abruptly dried up.

Linda Dyson has had scores to stalkers, she says.  She oh so humbly asserts to be at a loss as to why these men have been rendered so unhinged with lust for her.  Well, that makes two of us.

In her autobiog she reveals Wesley tragically overdosed because he never got over her (oh please!); she maintains his death remains on her conscience and is one of the reasons she still receives such a glut of hate mail to this day.

As for me, I recently revived the ‘reading on the toilet’ routine.  The contemporary twist is that I now speculate on whether the people who used to read a hardback while having a poo are now more regular these days, or take their iPhones in there instead.

******

I recently had the displeasure of the company that Gareth Rushcliff.  What a tosser!  We were on Alan Carr (so to speak), a Chatty Man Midlands special.  There was me, ‘reformed 80s legends’ Glinda Spitfire and a surgically-enhanced young lady called Daisy from Bull Ring, which is apparently a new reality series set among the beautiful people of Birmingham.  She did little beyond giggle, wiggle her jumbo boobs and repeat ‘Orlrite’ in a helium voice.

‘I’m surrounded by you,’ Gareth sneered at one point, during the after-show bash.  ‘Alan, you, Trev.  Good job I’m here to realign the straight vibes, eh?’

No, I had no idea either.

The band were releasing a blu-ray of Phosphorescence (no idea why it was called that), the documentary they’d made in their heyday.  Filmed in ‘arty’ black and white, it was full of lingering close-up shots and ‘insightful’ musings, made mainly by Gareth while exhaling smoke plumes and staring dolefully at ceilings.

I did chuckle to myself when his magnanimous ‘Who wants an autograph?’ offer to the knot of young people outside the stage door was met with a derisive ‘We’re here to see Daisy, you old fossil!’

Of course he was drooling like a randy Great Dane over Daisy.  She tagged alongside Alan or me at the do, as if for protection.  She looked ludicrously young and naked, in her baby pink crop top and white jeans, slung strategically low enough to display her diamante thong.  I harboured a rare paternal urge to put a cardigan on her.

The TV people laid on cars for the guests.  I saw her to hers, to ensure she wasn’t pursued by a geriatric pop star.

‘I’ve never heard of you, Melinda,’ she trilled, kissing my cheek, ‘but fanks anyway.’

How wounding!

Talking of wounding, one of the runners on the show later said to me, ‘Apparently her boyfriend’s in Winson Green.  Armed robber.’  So much for defenceless Daisy.

Going back to Gareth, though, he was as big a tosser back in the days when poor Majella was so gullibly besotted with him.  Whenever I’ve encountered him in the intervening years, he’s never acknowledged meeting me in the 80s.  I know not whether his ignorance is genuine, and he really doesn’t compute that Majella’s skinny queer friend is now the international diva (ha!) Melba Most.

I remember the first time I was officially introduced to the Glinda Spitfire members.  Maj was so proud and excited for me to meet her new ‘friends.’  It was not a comfortable night.

There was clear antipathy towards Majella, towards regular girlfriends in principle.  She was barely tolerated by Joe, Mike and Romy; politely acknowledged by Trevor.

They commandeered the snug of a crammed pub in Erdington (now a 24-hour super-gym), which they apparently favoured because the regular punters were unimpressed by celebrity and left them alone.  I ventured towards the bar, which was four deep with blokes, only for Gareth to scoff, ‘They don’t serve your type in here, ducky,’ before ironically sending Trevor up to get drinks instead.

To be fair, he had a point.  The clientele was an uneasy mix of overcoat-clad codgers and human bulldogs in shiny suits with tattooed knuckles.  Both groups incessantly smoked roll-ups.  Neither, I imagined, had been impressed by celebrity since George Formby came to town during the War.  Ironically, as it turned out, this was a pub owned by the Arrowsmith & Broom brewery.

The only females in the joint were Majella, Romy, the aged barmaid – an alleged genuine Romany gypsy, who resembled Cher’s granny – and Linda, who spent most of the evening engaged in a furious row with Joe about the Sun (his favourite newspaper, which she considered the devil’s rag), before getting off with him.

‘He’s an ace snogger, for a sexist gargoyle,’ she later professed.

The band had evolved from their florid New Romantic image to adopt a slicker, more masculine style, favouring suits and Brylcreem, both on and off stage.  Joe looked especially incongruous in his whistle and flute, resembling a schoolboy from the Beano wearing his big brother’s uniform.  They all walked with a wide, cowboy gait, as if their enormous manhood couldn’t possibly breathe freely if they kept their legs together.

Majella confided me in that she ‘preferred Gareth in jeans,’ because he ‘looked softer and more approachable.’  I’d have preferred him in a concrete overcoat but, hey, personal choice and all that.

Their cringeworthy body language put me right off my crisps.  Most couples cuddle, but she nestled right into him, as though she was trying to climb inside his pocket.  The feisty, self-assured actress disappeared, and I hated this particular part she assumed.  Gareth was not a partner who could ever bring out the best in her.  He held her at such an angle as to display his ownership of this adoring girl, while preventing her from rumpling his suit.  I also caught the frequent loaded glances he exchanged with Romy Rotuna the feral cat.

Romy was prone to touching men’s knees for prolonged seconds (even mine – I always said she was indiscriminate, that one).  Her hair was a hedge from behind which cigarette smoke belched and into which pints of beer would disappear and emerge empty.

There was an apple-cheeked Princess Di (Lady Di, as we still called her then) quality about Majella then.  She embodied early 80s style, with her shimmering blonde pageboy cut and the rosy, natural glow which no girls nowadays seem to possess.

She’d been riveted by the Royal Wedding, and fantasised about Gareth and she assuming the label of the Charles and Di of pop royalty.  Right there all the time was Romy, the ‘other woman,’ the Kwik Save version of Camilla to Gareth’s Charles.  How easily we bought into ‘fairy tales’ back then.  Even if Gareth’s facade fooled nobody but Majella, the world certainly still had yet to learn about Charles and Camilla.

The band’s imminent video shoot was one topic of conversation that night.

‘I’ll be in your video if you like,’ Majella simpered.  She routinely made such offers, in a jokey, coy tone that never fooled me.  With her thespian grounding she ought to have been well placed, but her offers were never taken up.

‘No offence, love,’ Joe chuckled offensively, squashing his fag into the brimming ashtray, ‘but Romy is be the only bird we want in our vids.’

Majella laughed valiantly, as though a starring role as Gareth’s sexy love interest in one of Glinda Spitfire grandiose videos was not her aspiration.

I sensed Romy’s triumphant smirk, despite her face being virtually veiled by her riotous hair.  I wondered how smug she looked later down the line when, as the band’s budget multiplied, ‘the only birds’ welcome in their promos were supermodels.

‘Majella, chick,’ Gareth swiped a fiver out of his breast pocket and jabbed it at her, ‘why don’t you go and fetch us some more crisps, eh?’

She patted his lapel submissively and pouted in anticipation of a kiss, but there was an insistent look in his eye as he nodded and gestured with the note, that suggested he was in no mood for flirtation.  Accepting the note from him, she trotted off to the bar like an obedient puppy.

‘I’ll come with you,’ I offered, ignoring Gareth’s crack about me not getting served.

I welcomed our protracted absence from the group.  In those days, a ‘family pub’ was an alien notion, and boozers were a testosterone-dominated domain; true to form, it was an aeon before ‘Cher’ the barmaid flicked a scalped eyebrow in our direction, which was to be interpreted as ‘Whaddya want?’

It’s funny, by the way, how pub culture, such as it was it was then, has largely disappeared now.  Café culture, coffee culture, more commonly associated with Europe and America, began to burgeon in the decade that followed.  It’s not my favourite thing, as I’ve covered, but there’s no getting away from it.  Few pubs don’t do food now.  Back then, crisps and Big D nuts were the only cuisine on offer.  This place was all beer mugs and darkness, the chief source of light being the jukebox that belched out Glen Campbell and Foster & Allen on a loop.

‘Do you fancy a holiday?’ I asked, as much to my surprise as Majella’s.  ‘Abroad?’

I couldn’t tell you what brought forth that whim.  Maybe it was a sense of claustrophobia engendered by that dismal pub, the riots in Birmingham (which The Specials sang about, while Glinda Spitfire were posing on yachts, warbling about eyeshadow), or the incessant rain for which Britain remains infamous.  I’d only ever been to Brean Sands or Bridlington before, but package tours to Spain and Greece were becoming popular, more affordable and temptingly accessible.

It was only a few weeks later that poor Majella discovered her beloved Gareth in flagrante delicto in a Polo with rancid Romy.  The perfect justification to ‘get away from it all.’

‘You know that holiday you suggested,’ she sniffled.  That was that.  We marched into a travel agent (remember those?) in Corporation Street and booked five nights in Benidorm.  Finally we utilised our beloved Woolworths photo booth for sensible shots, which would grace our first passports.

We lived on crisps, prawns and Sol beer.  I got sunstroke, and Majella puked for three hours one night after consuming a dodgy prawn.  It was ace.

We were quite hilariously naive.  Spain, and even Birmingham Airport, seemed so colourful, hot and friendly in comparison with home.  The fact both were full of Brits was a bit lost on us.

We availed ourselves of the duty free, or to put it another way, we got pissed on the plane.

I sent Mom one of those dreadful postcards saying ‘Benidorm by Night’ over a plain black background, thinking it was hilarious, not realising they were sold everywhere from Shanklin to Cancun and the joke would wear thin very quickly.

I had to forcibly stop Majella sending a pleading postcard to Gareth.  Years later she confessed she sneaked out and posted it anyway (‘I had to feel I was fighting for him, but I cringe as I came across as so needy.  And of course I never got any sort of reply from the git!’

I’ve flown hundreds of times since then.  Everybody does now.  It’s arguably easier to fly these days than to catch a bus.  I’m absurdly blasé about it.  However, I still associate that ‘airport’ smell with Majella.  That heady brew of bacon, coffee, jet fuel, magazines, disinfectant, perfume and fatigue.  That smell never varies, whether you are in economy class or upgraded to first, and it always evokes that first Spanish sojourn.

That holiday cemented our relationship.  We were inseparable.  Trailblazers, in a fashion, since these were the days before a GBF – a gay best friend – was considered every straight woman’s essential accessory.  Some wit one said, ‘If I didn’t know you better, Mel, me old mate, I’d swear you were giving her one.’  We loved ABBA, Soft Cell, Lena Zavaroni, Judy Garland, and later on Madonna and The Communards (so clichéd).

I spent a lot of time shielding her from references to Gareth Rushcliff, which was no easy task as he was everywhere for a while.  Thank goodness, though, there was no social media back then, and just three – later four – TV channels, so it was only a matter of taking her out for a walk when Top of the Pops came on, or steering her away from the magazine rack in Brian’s.  Ah, how simpler things were when ‘everywhere’ didn’t literally mean everywhere, and we were not saturated by celebrity culture.

She still maintained a complex about him, which was never healthy.  As I may have covered, he was one ‘idol’ for whom I never saw the appeal.  I always found his music limp and tasteless.  Like this sandwich in Juno’s coffee lounge.

Chapter 8

8
A Club for Tiny Show-Offs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who’s that, her girlfriend?’

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Floozie’ was a new word to me then.

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majella’s a nice name, I thought.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10

10
The Crash of Destiny

Coming soon…

Chapter 12

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.

I detested the moths and daddy-longlegs that defiled my Ajaxed bathroom, yet experienced a disproportionate sense of guilt when I annihilated them.  It seemed so piteous that these creatures’ final moments should be spent in my bog; that their grave was my bin, where they would decompose, squashed in a pile of loo roll.  I overthought everything.  Did they leave behind little arachnid wives and families?  Was I a heartless killer, or simply houseproud?

My mom said I was oversensitive.  I harboured an overblown sense of my own niceness, believing I was one of the few moral, compassionate souls left, and my angle on the world was unique.  Actually I was simply insular.

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), two lines in Boon, 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.

I did a spot of voiceover work too.  I memorably voiced a bogey in a nasal spray commercial.  As Mel put it, I hawked all the way to the bank.  I told nobody but him about that particular role.  Whilst it was true advertising was lucrative work– as I knew from my A&B experience – it was hardly boastworthy that I’d been deemed convincingly snot-like enough to win that part.

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.

Sometimes I would literally stand in doorways, simply paralysed by fear, indecision.  I was so hopeless and pathetic, I couldn’t even decide whether to walk into the room, embrace new surroundings, or retreat to where I had been.

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, which was a discouraging sign (we never missed it, both harbouring 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.

To me, there is no sadder sight than a solitary tear meandering down someone’s cheek.  It renders the crier so vulnerable and yet dignified.  It’s much more touching than a histrionic gush.  At that moment I focused on a droplet making its wet track down Mel’s face.  My heart snapped in two.

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’d run 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 into 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 fact 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 Mel, Nelson, Linda and I moved into our first student flat.

The house number – 42 – had been eye-catchingly spray painted on the exterior wall by the previous occupants.  That was hardly Mel’s style, so I spent laborious but satisfying hours scouring the yellow graffiti-esque signage off the brickwork, and eventually bought him a cute mosaic ‘42’ sign to conceal the stain.  The physical act of using unaccustomed ‘elbow grease’ felt like an achievement.

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.

I unearthed a Polaroid of Gareth.  My heart flipped despite myself.  He was a ludicrously good-looking man, after all.  It was the first photo I ever took 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 now, but changed my mind and consigned the tattered snap to a photo album, feeling mature for not ripping it but acknowledging him as part of my history.

On I went with my excavation.  There were those happy-go-lucky photo booth snaps of Mel and me.  Next 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 had 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 of that calibre.

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 and at the same time heartening to my jaded psyche.  I could recapture that chutzpah; shrug off my jaded reserve.

******

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 and 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 fitting 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 lacking 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; the first word he would greet me with at every meeting was, ‘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 exercise 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.  I think 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 at the time, Woolacombe, 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 bloody 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 leading 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 Dora the Victorian loom worker for the day, my hair still in its austere 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 with unnerving enthusiasm (she relished the ‘discipline’ aspect of her role so much, in fact, 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 saucy and British.

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.

Chapter 15

15
Shiny Happy People

As reunions went, it was unusual.

Who knew that a day I began in character as my feminist loom worker – suffragette stripes and all – in an incongruously modern meeting room, would become such a watershed?

I’d tried pointing out, tongue in cheek, that ‘team briefings’ in rooms containing whiteboards were an anachronism in the period we were supposed to inhabit, but was informed that so were lunch hours, during which we could avail ourselves of the distinctly non-historical canteen and vending machine.

Today our PR officer (we were one of the first museums in the region to have one), Anton, commandeered the floor.

‘Now we’ve got a visitor to BLHM this morning.  A film director.’  Twenty bewigged heads shot up with interest.  Anton did little jazz hands, to underline just how thrillingly showbiz this all was.  ‘He’s making a new period drama, for which our streets could become the set.  Hence he’s here on a recce – or reconnaissance – visit.  That’s when a director checks out a location’s suitability for filming.’

A few eye rolls greeted this; most of us were already familiar with the terminology.  It was good-natured irritation, though.  The promised presence of a filmmaker generated an undeniable buzz among us latent performers, notwithstanding any pretence at nonchalance.

‘He’s going to be with us all day, visiting each area of the site.  Now I know I can count on you all to roll out the red carpet, and when your time comes welcome him to your particular domain.’  Anton should have gone on the stage.  He was loving this.  ‘Without further ado, please welcooome…Sean Spendlove!’

Sean Spendlove!  The director of my Arrowsmith & Broom commercial, about three-hundred years ago.  The man responsible for unleashing ‘It’s a bostin’ pint’ – or ‘point’ – on the nation.  That memorably attractive young man who had never quite left my thoughts, despite our paths never crossing in the interim.

Sean bounded in, Anton having actually made him wait outside the door so he could make a grand introduction and announce him into the room, like he was Leslie Crowther on Stars in their Eyes.

With his keen smile and smile and endearingly sticky-up hair, Sean hadn’t aged a day.  The cynical world of showbusiness appeared to have sapped none of his contagious enthusiasm.  He should have come over as horribly cheesy, but didn’t because nothing about him was forced.  I doubted his body possessed a cynical bone.

By contrast, years of depression had dispirited me; shrunk me.  For too long I had adopted a defeatist slouch, but now an invisible string puppeteer appeared to be pulling my head and shoulders upwards.  It was as though the Posture Police were saying, ‘Enough now.’  Something about Sean made you sit up straight.

The movement caught his attention as his gaze wove along the rows of absurdly bewigged staff, but he betrayed no sign of having recognised me.

I instantly clocked – not that I was checking, of course – that his left hand was devoid of a wedding ring.

‘Hello everyone, and thank you for hosting me today.  Yes, as Anton explained, my job here today is to assess the suitability of the museum site for a new historical drama called The Lunar Society.  It’s going to be set around Birmingham, of course, so I’ve high hopes that this place should prove an ideal backdrop, to bring lots of Brum flavour.’  When he said ‘flavour,’ his eyes seemed to subconsciously drift to me, as though making a word association.  Flavour – food – drink – beer commercial.

‘We’ll be needing extras too, when it comes to filming scenes, so if anybody’s interested in a background part do make yourselves known.’

I have to admit what resonated that morning was not Sean’s words but how horribly self-conscious I was in my sweaty wig – halfway between Princess Leia and Emmeline Pankhurst – dumped on my head, and my stupid prickly blouse and apron.  I had never felt more unattractive (and that was saying something).

******

It was after twelve by the time Sean made his way to what Anton termed my ‘domain.’  I’d kept an oh-so-casual eye on the door throughout a torturous morning educating a mob of bored GCSE students on early twentieth century factory conditions, and role-playing arguments that involved lots of hand-wringing with Bob who took the part of my callous boss.

A forbidden lipstick was thumping up and down in my apron pocket, and periodically I surreptitiously applied it in defiance of the no make-up rule.  Just in case, you know.

I’d just finished a heated scene in which I stormed out on strike in defiance of Bob when I espied Sean, with a gigantic grin on his face.  As ever, he gave the appearance of a person who was continually enchanted by the world and everything in it.

He bounced over to me as soon as Bob was outside earshot.  ‘It’s a bostin’ point,’ he said by way of greeting.

A pathetic little gurgle escaped me.  ‘You remembered?’

‘How could I forget?  Recognised you straight away.  That advert made me.’  I was so absurdly flattered, I could have cried.  ‘So what brings you here, Majella?’

‘A long story.’  Not one I wished to share while on duty, with straggles of West Midlands history buffs milling about.  His question wasn’t unkind; not mocking, in a ‘Why has your career not flourished?’ way.  He actually seemed interested.  I suddenly felt wretchedly emotional.

He tapped my arm.  ‘What time you on lunch?’

‘Now, theoretically.’

‘Do they let you out this place for good behaviour?  I could just go a Pukka pie if you know any good chippies round here.  My treat.’

‘There’s Sole Mates, round the corner.’

‘Sole Mates?’ he grimaced.  I couldn’t help but giggle.

‘The grub’s better than the name.  Come on.’

Calling back to Bob that I was going on lunch, I led this film director through the cobbled streets of the mock-up village, out of the site to the car park.  My feet propelled me independently of my body; unbidden by brain commands.

It never occurred to me to detour via the staff room to retrieve my coat and handbag.  Taking him in there would have meant sharing him somehow; spoiling some sort of illusion.  I’d waited all morning for my ‘turn’ with Sean.  For some reason, the need to escape the museum premises with him and avoid being stopped or bumping into a colleague became an urgent game; like bunking off school and trying to make it to the other end of the playground without being clocked by the headmaster.

‘I’m supposed to be showing you round the mill,’ I said unconvincingly.

‘No need.  I’m sold already.  The museum’s perfect – a readymade village with no TV aerials, cars, street markings or whatever to remove.  Some of the buildings pre-date the period we’re going for, but most of it’s perfect.  We can hide any anachronisms with a handy fog.  You can do wonders with a bit of dry ice.’

‘What’s this TV series about then?’

‘The Lunar Society was a group of Birmingham industrialists and inventors that included Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt.  They used to meet during a full moon because the extra light made the journey home safer.  This was back in the days before street lighting.’

‘Sounds thrilling.  How often do full moons occur?’  Why was I asking this?  I didn’t give a fuck; I was only trying to keep him talking.

‘About once a month.’

‘This way.’  I took him along a shortcut to the car park, and as I pulled my pass card from my pocket and flashed it at the sensor on the gate, I wanted to jig with relief.  Mission complete.  We were safely in the twentieth century.

‘I’ll drive,’ said Sean, jingling his keys.  That was fortunate, since my own car keys were in the aforementioned staff room.

As we walked across, I untied my (authentically grubby) apron, hastily folded it up, yanked off my stupid wig and hairnet, and shook my hair down.

‘Better,’ approved Sean.  He smiled, as though acknowledging I was making the effort for his benefit, rather than because he’d been shallow enough to be repulsed by the matted syrup.  He was used to wig-clad actresses, after all.

He had a beige Morris Minor van, ‘as previously driven by Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army,’ he joked.  The whole vehicle was so Sean, it made me smile.  A Comic Relief red nose was strapped to the grille, while inside a tiny rubber clapperboard dangled from the rear-view mirror.

‘Makes a change from furry dice,’ I commented, swinging it.  He flicked it playfully back towards me.

‘Where to then, Maj?’  I liked his instant, chummy use of the shortened name.

‘Turn left out the car park, then right at the lights.’

As Sean cranked the archaic van to life, I surreptitiously checked myself out in his wing mirror and grimaced.  I fluffed out my clammy hair with my fingers.  There were no shampoo commercials on my CV, but right now I wished I was in one and could unpin a bun to achieve instant sex goddess hair, letting it swoosh elegantly into place.  Hmm, I’d do, I supposed.  Not a lot could be done about the blouse and skirt.  Good job it was Sean going in for the chips.

We located Sole Mates, and I guided him to the rough car park behind it.

‘What’ll it be then?’  He unsnapped his seatbelt.

‘Cod and chips, please.’

‘Salt and vinegar?’

‘Please.’

‘Mushy peas?’

‘No, thanks.  Can’t stand them.’

‘Be back in a jiff.  I’ll leave the radio on for you.’

It was BRMB, the popular Birmingham station.  Shiny Happy People by REM, a huge hit from the previous summer, came on.  A clappy, bouncy, spirit-lifting track.  I sensed it would become one of ‘our songs.’  The first of many.  The ‘Majella waits for Sean to return from the chip shop’ song.

I was still tapping my toes along when he swiftly returned, clutching the two tantalising white paper parcels.  Incidentally, when and why was the old-fashioned practice of wrapping fish and chips in newspaper outlawed?  I am not aware of anybody ever dying from newsprint poisoning (though do correct me if I’m wrong), and batter has never tasted quite so much fun without the Express & Star property section striped across it.

Anyway, Sean handed me one of the hot bundles and a little wooden fork.

‘Perfect timing, that was.  They’d just done a fresh batch.’

‘Ooh, thanks Sean.’

Instantly the car smelt divine.  That tormenting, vinegary tang which transmits a message right to your belly saying, ‘I’m ravenous.’  I unravelled the paper hastily and began to dig in.

Sean winched his window down (because obviously the lingering whiff of vinegar in an unventilated Morris Minor would not be quite so divine after a couple of days).

‘Swap you a bit, if you like?’  He sawed me a dollop of his chicken and mushroom pie – a fiddly task with the blunt fork – and I snapped off a chunk of cod and plonked it in the foil carton, giggling all the while because this was so terribly naughty schoolgirl-ish.

So that was how we bonded.  Over exquisite white fish encased in golden batter, and thick, hot chips, zingy with vinegar and those large salt crystals that twinkled all over it.  We were instant friends.  We chatted about everything, from the industry, to the current unlovely view through Sean’s windscreen (the back of a scrap metal yard, where a man in a vest was wiping his nose on his arm), to Sophie’s pregnancy in Home & Away, to the night-time ghost walks we had recently started conducting at the museum.

‘Our first one was a bit of a joke.  The guy playing the headless monk, you could see his jeans and trainers beneath the habit.  It spoiled the scary illusion somewhat!  I play a factory girl who was buried under rubble when the place burnt down!’

For a second it actually crossed my mind that Sean might be gay, because I had only ever felt this pally and comfortable with one man before, and that was a certain Melvyn Corns.  I entertained a ludicrous vision of Sean and Mel marrying in a camp ceremony, with me as their gracious bridesmaid, sporting a silly poodle hairdo and staring disconsolately into my bouquet, and Tesco with a corsage round his fluffy neck, loyally poised to scratch their eyes out.

‘Well thanks for the recommendation, Majella.  That was yum.’  Sean produced a Safeway bag into which he deposited his scrunched-up greasy paper, before proffering it to me.

‘That’s very organised of you.’

‘Habit.  There’s hardly any bins when you’re out on location.  I must say I’ve never seen an actress enjoy her food so much as you.’

‘I’m a pig!’

‘You’re no such thing.  It’s refreshing.  Now I suppose I’d best be getting you back.’

‘Yeah,’ I agreed, with no enthusiasm.  Sean made no attempt to start the car.  My knees were all warm where the chips had been balancing.  I liked the sensation; the lingering trace of the lunch.  A continuing sensual experience.

‘Look, I’d like to take you out,’ he said suddenly.

Bingo!  My thought bubble containing Sean and Mel’s unlikely gay nuptials popped.

I beamed at him.  ‘You free tonight?’  Hey, because life’s too short to play hard to get.

‘I am.  Have to make it an early drink, though.  Got to leave for Dorset at some unearthly hour in the morning.  Filming a thing with Anneka Rice.  I’ll pick you up about seven, say?  You want to jot your address down for me?’  He magicked a notebook and biro from the door pocket, further testament to his organised nature.  ‘You’re not far from me then,’ he observed as I noted down the flat address, and my number for good measure.  ‘I’m in Harborne.’

‘Seven o’clock then,’ I beamed at him, popping the pen back in its lid and handing it and the notebook back.

‘Seven it is, and we’ll take it from there.’  I liked the sound of that.  ‘Now let’s get you back to your loom, wench!’

******

I scooted out of work promptly that evening.  Sean and I had not crossed paths for the rest of the afternoon, and if any of my colleagues witnessed our lunchtime flit to the chip shop, they made no mention of it.

I abandoned my bag on the floor, fed Tesco, and then a shower was a must, to wash my hideously sweaty hair.  I wrenched the rusty dial, and undressed while the water considered whether it was going to reach a bearable temperature for me tonight.  I had become very accustomed to the quirks and jerks of the flat’s prehistoric shower, but right now they frustrated me.  I needed a full date-night scrub, not a sporadic dribble that by turns scalded and chilled me.  I cursed as I danced under the water, trying to catch the intermittent jets, and scoured ferociously at my skin with my seldom-used loofah.

My everyday soap – from the ‘five for a quid’ shelf at Brian’s corner shop – sat sad and unlathered in its dish; this was an occasion that demanded Body Shop shower gel and cleanser.  I inhaled the gloriously fruity scents, and shivered – due partly to excitement and partly to the sticky, cold suds of shampoo on my head lowering my body temperature even further.

After drying off, I reapplied make-up, blow-dried my hair and zapped myself with Dewberry, another Body Shop product.  It was my favourite perfume; a very popular perfume of the day.  In fact, in my mind, the whole early 1990s smell of Dewberry.

The outfit I opted for was so 90s it hurt.  A black strappy linen dress splodged with daisies, black floppy hat and black velvet choker adorned with a silver dolphin pendant.  A pair of sneakers and a denim jacket would complete the cliché.  I was even sporting a spiral perm in those days.

Sean had seen me at my worst today, in character as an Edwardian drudge.  He would have to concede that I scrubbed up respectably.

Punctually at seven, the doorbell bleeped.  I tried not to look uncoolly keen by galloping down the steep stairs – but Sean outside would have heard my giveaway speedier footsteps as I approached the door.

There he stood, in a white shirt with black collar and cuffs, and a black waistcoat (what a trendy pair we made), holding a splendid multicoloured tulip bouquet.

‘Sorry to be cheesy.’  He half hid behind the flowers, in mock embarrassment at what I might perceive as an unimaginative gesture.

‘Don’t be daft,’ I said.  ‘They’re lovely.’

No man, it seemed, was capable of giving me flowers without recourse to coy humour.  I recalled Russ’s cod French accent three years ago when he’d proffered a bouquet before our outing to Lorenzo’s.  This time, though, my laughter was not forced.

He kissed me on the cheek.  He had this divine, mossy aftershave on.  ‘Not as lovely as you look tonight.  Eek, that was corny as well, but in this case true.’

‘Thank you, Sean.  Come on up, I’ll introduce you to the cat.’

‘You’ve still got Tesco?’

‘You’ve got a good memory.’

‘He’s a little star, that one.’

Of course Sean had been a major catalyst for Tesco’s stardom, having passed my pert pet’s picture to Glenn Clinton, the director of his first Buster commercial.

It never occurred to me to feel embarrassment about ushering this film director into my flat.  I saw no need to be guarded, or anticipate a supercilious reaction.  There were no cheesy ‘Welcome to my, ha, ha, humble abode’ comments.  Sean certainly didn’t turn his nose up.  At least, on account of my OCD propensities, the place was clean.

That flat, while no palace, had functioned as a comfortable enough home for Tesco and me.  Bill Lycett was a decent landlord, and once you got past the permanent eau de raw pork, it was adequately snug, and convenient for town.

When we got upstairs, the cat was curled in his basket, his long tail forming a cosy C shape around his body.  Not for long, though, as Sean fussed him and the little charmer was instantly all over him – another promising sign.

‘I think he approves of you,’ I commented as Tesco wove around Sean’s legs, purring like a diesel engine and gazing up dotingly at his new buddy.

I lifted my jacket off the back off the chair.  Sean chivalrously took it from me and held it while I plunged my arms into the sleeves.  It had been so long since a man had made even that simple gesture towards me, I felt piteously grateful and shy as I fanned out my hair which was caught in the collar.

‘You eaten?’ Sean asked.

I shook my head.  ‘Still a bit full from the fish and chips.’  Not to mention that my tummy was all whisked up at the thought of where tonight might lead.

‘Me too, to be honest.  Drink, then?’

‘Lovely.’

He brushed the stripes of cat hairs off his black jeans, and off we went.

Back in the Morris Minor van – no longer reeking of chips – it was a brief ride to Cadell’s, a dark bar with mismatched chairs and antique brass ceiling lights, that served cocktails and played discreet jazz.  It was an unpretentious place; relaxed, and conducive to unreserved chatter which was absorbed by the music.

I found I had an uncharacteristic lack of desire for alcohol.  I’d been watchful of my intake since starting on the antidepressants, which had a tendency to be a volatile combination with booze, and although I was far from depressed now, tonight was a night for remaining sober and controlled.  That way nothing could be regretted in the morning, or blamed on the booze.

I ordered a virgin mimosa, Sean a Vermouth and soda.  We wedged into what appeared to be an old church pew, and gassed the night away.  Some of his anecdotes made me laugh in a way I hadn’t done for years.  Not the polite, dutiful chortle of a disengaged listener, but a genuine, unstoppable belly laugh borne of total joy.

It was a flirty conversation too, following all the phases of a first date: the ‘let’s see how long we can maintain eye contact,’ ‘let me see how much bodily contact we can work up to, ‘let me nudge you and keep my hand on your knee.’  We progressed quite unconsciously to holding hands.

We pondered why, bearing in mind we had clicked so successfully now, we had never got together at the time we collaborated to advertise Arrowsmith & Broom beers.

‘Perhaps it would have been weird,’ I contemplated, for want of a meatier explanation, ‘like a pupil and teacher trying to date.  Though I’m sure that happens often enough.’  As do relationships between actors and directors.  I’d had no idea whether he had a girlfriend while we were filming the ad.  Whatever and whoever we’d been back then, our respective life experiences since had shaped us into two people who made a compatible couple.  I was already envisioning us in those terms.  A couple.  An item.

I made reference at one stage to the recent passing of my close friend.  This wasn’t a ploy for sympathy; the conversation simply evoked a memory of Nelson, which it seemed only natural to share.

There is a reading that is very popular at funerals which talks about how one can shed tears because the departed person has gone or smile because they have lived.  It rang so true now.  I could certainly smile fondly over recollections of Nelson.

Grief and loss are as much part of life as love, friendship and fun.  While I inhabited an unusual world in many ways, with many of my friends and colleagues over the years being well-known, as I’d learned of late, in other respects my experiences were not exceptional.  We were all people at the end of the day, and I was no more a victim of bad fortune or circumstance than anybody else.  I wasn’t poor Majella with depression and a friend dead from AIDS.  Could it be that, finally, in my thirties, I was starting to feel grown-up and rational?

******

‘One of the clichés about getting on a bit, isn’t it, when songs you remember from your youth feature in the Golden Oldies slot?  This is one I haven’t heard in yonks.’

We were in the car returning home.  Our continuing chatter had drowned the radio out at first, but now Sean turned it up.  And then the song filtered through my consciousness.  Sean knew as yet nothing of my connection to Gareth Rushcliff, and here he was, blithely drumming the steering wheel to Wistful, an early number one hit by Glinda Spitfire.

Gareth bloody Rushcliff!  I realised he’d been absent from my thoughts for a hearteningly long time; in fact the longest spell since we’d parted.  Of course there had been other boyfriends since my New Romantic heartbreaker, but his presence had always lurked in the background.  Only, it dawned now, because I’d allowed it to lurk.

By Pavlovian instinct I’d always snapped the radio off the second I heard his voice ooze out of it, so it was years since I’d heard more than a bar of a Glinda Spitfire hit.  I’d been unhealthily, childishly, nurturing his memory; feeding nostalgic pain I hadn’t recognised I had long since ceased to feel.

Our final fuck-off shag at Zena’s funeral in 1986 was supposed to empower me, but in reality had tethered me to the memory of a man who no doubt never honoured me with a second thought.  My sister Sophie, four years my junior, was engaged, whereas I’d failed to move on from my first love.

I braced myself for heart-piercing pain now, but there was nothing.  Heartening, serene, glorious nothing.  The song was just a song.

All that engulfed me was a surge of love for this man beside me, manoeuvring his vintage van into a gap outside my flat.  I hadn’t planned a big seduction scene for tonight, but the thought of Sean driving away now was unbearable.

‘Do you want to stop over?’ I blurted out.

‘I’ve got to be up early.’  I knew this wasn’t a brush-off; on the contrary, a warning he might disturb me when vacating my bed.  The implication of that thrilled me.

‘I’d rather be woken up early than not spend any part of the night with you at all.’

He kissed me goodbye as he departed at dawn.

******

I did what one did in these situations.  I phoned my best friend.

‘I’m in love,’ I announced to Mel with no preamble.  Good job I knew I wouldn’t be waking him up.  ‘I’m finally over Gareth.’

‘’Bout time!’

‘Right.  And you know what, it feels bloody fabulous.  I’ve been released from prison, metaphorically.’

‘Come round for a bacon butty, chick.  If you’re not over the limit.’

‘Haven’t had a drink all night.’

‘Drunk on lurve, I bet.  Perry’s here.  We’ll have a nice chat.’

I knew a bacon sandwich was a dawn ritual after a show.  Under his new stage name, Melba Most, he was busier than ever, gracing more salubrious venues, in increasingly extravagant costumes.  ‘Perry’ was a friend of Mel’s who I knew and liked, a ‘spoof lounge singer,’ who under the pseudonym Perry Common performed camp parodies of famous crooners, wearing polyester suits and a deliberately awful toupee.

‘Get the red sauce out for us.’  I clonked the phone down, and rapidly dressed.  I couldn’t bear to stay in a bed that was still tormentingly warm from Sean’s body.

I tap danced across the lino, scooped my car keys off the kitchen table into the air and caught them with a cocky little flourish.  From his basket, Tesco slid open one sardonic eye, decided there was nothing to see here, and promptly closed it again.  He was accustomed to actors, dahling.

The streets of Birmingham at that ludicrous hour seemed eerily magical in a way they certainly never did by brutal daylight.  Hey, the mood I was in, the streets of Beirut would have seemed enchanted.  The butcher’s van, the all-night McDonald’s, the tower blocks, the tramp slumped in the bus shelter, the smashed up telephone boxes standing in moats of their own glass, the milk float, the upended supermarket trolleys, were washed in a serene mauve glow on that five-minute drive.

Mel, defrocked but with his face still bearing the faint residue of make-up, kissed me on the cheek.

‘We’re all ears,’ he urged, presenting me with one of his specials: a pile of bacon pressed between two breezeblocks of white bread.  Perry, bald sans the toupee, was at the table devouring a scrambled egg sandwich.

‘Fish and chips and a bacon sarnie in twenty-four hours!’  I sat down gleefully.  I was now starving, the fish and chip lunch having been my last meal.

I managed to hoover up my sandwich without any hiatus in my narrative.

‘And to think,’ I concluded, wiping an unladylike finger through the spatters of ketchup on my plate, ‘twenty-four hours ago, he was just another director I’d worked for in the past, who I never imagined seeing again.’

Mel was watching me with the oddest mixture of pride and confusion.  Perry shot Mel an ‘I thought you said she was intelligent’ look.

‘What is it?’  I was baffled.

Mel drummed on his Frank the Tortoise mug.  ‘Well whilst this is wonderful news, and I’m really pleased for you and everything, isn’t there one thing you’ve forgotten, in this giddy flush of love?’

Just as it was beginning to dawn on me what a numpty I’d been, he clarified, ‘You’ve just booked to go round the world for three months.’

Ah yes, my long-awaited trek along the clichéd backpackers’ route: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong.  Obliterated from my memory by one day spent in love with Sean Spendlove.  I dropped my stupid head into my hands.

It was Perry who said simply, ‘Hey, if he feels the same way about you, he’ll wait.’

Did Sean wait?  Now there’s the question.

 

Chapter 13

13
Goodbye to Love

It was a funeral like no other.

It was my first since Zena’s to be attended by so many people; some folks had to stand in the rain outside the crem and hear the celebration of Nelson Maurice Love’s life relayed via speakers.

It was my first experience of a dress code, specifying ‘bright colours please, no black.’  Of course such a convention is common nowadays.

It was the first time I’d seen a red ribbon, the universal symbol of AIDS awareness, which is also ubiquitous now but had then just been launched.  They were dished out at the door, along with envelopes in which to drop donations to the Terrence Higgins Trust.  I was more accustomed to passing a church collecting tin along a pew.

Rather than sport a traditional black armband, I’d made myself one in the purple, green and white colours of the suffragette movement.  I wore it for work – in the fictitious world populated by our characters, mine had taken up the cause of women’s emancipation – and it seemed appropriate somehow.

I felt Linda’s presence before I saw her.  I was pinning my ribbon on my green jacket (they say red and green should never be seen, but on this occasion I forgave Nelson for engendering the eye-watering clash), when I felt an eerie draught on the back of my neck.

I oh so nonchalantly turned, to see her bustling into a seat at the back with a very tall man who had a thatch of dark hair and wore glasses on a gold chain.  I’d only ever seen Larry Grayson model such an accoutrement, but this man didn’t look camp.

The ribbon slithered out of my quavering fingers.  Mel retrieved it and fastened it on me.

‘He’s her lover, apparently,’ he whispered.  ‘Some Tory toff.  Owns half of Derbyshire, by all accounts.’

‘You’re kidding!’

‘She’s had death threats – ’

‘I didn’t send them, honest!’  I held my hands up in mock surrender.

‘No!  From her old Socialist Worker crowd, who say she’s sold out.  He funded her last tour, apparently.  Which was a disaster.’

Interesting.  It was the first time I’d seen Linda in seven years – in the flesh, at least – and I watched her in grim fascination.  Posh boyfriend or not, she was still evidently cultivating a ‘scruffbag’ image off-screen as well as on.  She wore a cherry crushed velvet top, with a matching bandana knotted around her scarecrow blonde hair, and a jumble of beads clonking round her neck.

I averted my gaze only at the last second, when she sat down and eye contact was threatened.  I saw Glasses On Chain Man shoot me a stern look, but I didn’t much care about him.  A funeral was an inappropriate backdrop for a scene.  I had to rise above my own issues and pay my respects to Nelson.  Anyway, the service was starting.

‘Welcome,’ declared the officiant, a stout lady with a kind face and a Wolverhampton accent.  ‘What a spectacular turnout we have here on this drab, wet morning.  It’s a real honour and privilege for me to be here today in front of you all, and I would like to personally thank Nelson’s family for their encouragement and support in allowing me to perform this last task for a very special person.’

And that was me in bits straight away.  I clamped a hanky over my nose and mouth, to stifle any embarrassing teary snorts.  I practically stifled breath too.

‘I know that most of you will be more familiar with a very different form of service, but I hope we can agree that the human values we all share are of far more lasting importance than those matters which may divide us in this respect.

‘We are here this morning to pay our last respects and bid a sad but fond farewell to Nelson, also to honour and pay tribute to his far too short life, and in our own way to express our love and admiration for him.  We have all been profoundly affected by Nelson’s passing, and though he was taken from the bosom of his family and friends far too early we will try in the short time we have here this morning to make this occasion a celebration of his life and to express our thanks for having known him.

‘We have come together from different places, and we are all at different stages on our journey through life, our paths are varied and we look at life in different ways.  But there is one thing we all have in common: at one point or another, and to some degree or other, our lives have touched the life of Nelson.

‘I sincerely hope that at the end of this farewell ceremony for him you will also feel glad that you took the opportunity to do some of your grieving in the presence of others who have known and loved him.’

Nelson’s parents and sister Aurelia remained stoic, almost detached, throughout, but there were plenty of tears in that crammed room.

One of his fellow dancers, a lithe wisp of a girl called Ruby, delivered the eulogy.  It appalled me how much I was learning about Nelson’s recent life, and thus the inference therein of how out of touch with him I’d become.  I felt selfish and sad that I’d been engrossed in my own issues.  I made a mental note to make more time for the friends I had remaining.

As a video of Nelson performing an exuberant dance routine to Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler was projected on to a huge screen, a pre-chosen troupe of dancers filed up to place rainbow roses on the coffin.  I later speculated to Mel whether the flowers were real or synthetic; he enlightened me that they were real roses artificially coloured by the means of drawing dyed water up through the stems (he knew stuff, did Mel).

I wondered which, if any, of the girls was the one who’d betrayed Nelson’s confidence and snitched to their cruise ship employers, resulting in his dismissal from the Princess of the Aegean.  I wondered whether, alternatively, she’d stayed away, possibly scared she’d be infected.  My one-time desire to rip her face off had abated.  What purpose would it serve?  Nelson was still dead, after all.  Nothing could amend that sad state of affairs.

Watching Nelson power his way across the stage, so robust and graceful, I was struck anew by the unfairness and tragedy of the situation.  Dancers have always fascinated me.  The manoeuvres and lifts they execute so effortlessly seem like magic.  Nelson was born for the stage.  I simply could not relate him to the multicoloured rose-festooned box positioned in the corner.

‘Let’s remind ourselves,’ summarised the officiant, unwittingly paralleling my thoughts, ‘that the departed reside not in the grave or an urn but in the hearts and minds of the living.’

My tears were pouring unimpeded and unselfconsciously as the curtain slid around the coffin to the strains to Nelson’s favourite song, This is My Life by Eartha Kitt.  I always hate that moment in a cremation.  It feels so final.  I have this desperate, irrational urge to reach out and yell, ‘Please don’t go!’

The heavy grey curtain snagged on one of the wreath arrangements on the floor, so until the funeral director tactfully rescued it Nelson and the roses were momentarily visible through the gap.  It seemed so fitting; Nelson’s cheeky encore before his final curtain call.

The Condom Fairy, a six-foot transvestite in glitter lipstick, doled out condoms as we exited the ceremony.  Johnnies appeared to be omnipresent then; dispensed like sweets, so to speak.  With AIDS panic at its height, they had evolved from ‘something for the weekend,’ rubbery devices to be sniggered at, into vital lifesavers.

Our service overran somewhat – Nelson always was late – and as we emerged, the next party were already waiting to go in.  A very small party.  Consisting of five people, to be precise.  In traditional black, grief etched across their craggy faces, staring openly curiously at the Condom Fairy.  Their jet black suits contrasted sharply with our jazzy attire.

My mind reeled back to the other funeral I’d been to in recent months, that of Alice Cooper.  Only Gloria, Mel, one of the nurses from Russells Hall Hospital and I had been present at Gornal Wood Crematorium that day.

An idea I’d previously entertained started to brew anew.

 

We filed outside, through a line of floral tributes beneath a long archway that shielded us from the hammering rain.  Each recently departed person was allotted a slot, designated by a name handwritten on a sign that looked as though it belonged on a fruit and veg stall.

Linda and Glasses On Chain Man were some way ahead, he with his arm round her.

‘You hang on there, Linny,’ he boomed, his voice predictably commanding and posh, ‘I’ll bring the car round.’

‘OK, Guy.’

Guy?

I lingered and studied the flowers to avoid catching up with ‘Linny’ while Guy fetched his vehicle (probably a Bentley or Range Rover).  I speculated about the lives of these people, commemorated by flamboyant ‘NAN’ or ‘DAD’ displays as well as more understated sprays.

There was even a display shaped like a TV: a photograph of the late Harry Hooper in close-up grimace from Part & Parcel, framed by chrysanthemums, and even a little remote control alongside it fashioned out of petals.  Well, it was different.

******

We drove to a huge banqueting hall on the main road out of Wolverhampton for the wake.

This event was very much a modern memorial, entirely appropriate for a young person.  I’d never been to a funeral for someone so youthful before.  Nelson was thirty.  So was I – which always gave me quite a jolt.  Too young for death, yet too old to be coasting through life as an aimless actress.  When I was eighteen, the age I met Nelson, thirty had seemed so remote and mature.  I didn’t feel particularly mature now (remote at times, yes).  I was still playing at life.  Perhaps that was the mere nature of my profession.

From nowhere, the thought struck me that I ought to travel.  I had never travelled extensively.  A cousin of mine had recently backpacked around Australia, and I’d shown a shameful lack of interest in her infinite photographs of Outback scenery, only pumping her for information about what was happening in Neighbours and Home and Away (their storylines being a good six months ahead of the UK transmission dates at the time).

I needed to expand my horizons.  I had a narrow knot of allies in my life, which following Nelson’s passing had shrunk even further.  Outside my family, there was Mel, Gloria, my fellow Victorian re-enactors from the museum, a few college friends.  Hey, even Roger the counsellor counted – at least we had a conversation once a week.

Back to the funeral: the massive room was bedecked with flags in the rainbow colours of Gay Pride.  There were pinboards dotted around the room, covered with collages of photos of Nelson in various costumes, striking poses on and off-stage, intercut with clippings of his favourite performers.  Liza Minnelli, Wayne Sleep, Eartha Kitt, Andy Bell, that girl from Flashdance and, prominently, Kylie.

Poignantly, there was just one photograph depicting Nelson with Mel, Linda and me, in our carefree flatmate days.  It was an extremely early ‘selfie,’ our quartet squished into the frame, Mel’s right arm stretching out of the shot at an odd angle denoting that he was the photographer.  Like Ruby’s eulogy, this lone shot was sadly symbolic of what a tiny role I had played in his life.

It’s sobering how your illusion that you figured as significantly in someone’s life as they did in yours can be shattered.  Merely carrying memories is not enough; people move on.

People outnumbered chairs at the event, but Mel managed to bag a couple on the end of a trestle table.  I reserved them – my bum forming an inelegant bridge across the two – while he got us some drinks, then it was his turn to do likewise while I nipped to the loo (funerals are an endurance test for the bladder).

Actually ‘nipping’ to the loo proved easier said than done, as there was a queue longer than at the IKEA sale.

At last I dived into a cubicle.  The lock was wobbly, and there were holes in the wood around it, plugged up with soggy loo roll.  I wedged my handbag against the door as an extra blockade.  I heard a woman outside simper, ‘I’m surprised you’re queuing with the rest of us – I thought you VIPs had your own gold plated toilets.’  It was hard to tell if she was being sarcastic or genuinely obsequious – probably the latter.

An ominously familiar Derbyshire voice rasped, ‘Ah, bless ya.  Nah, I need to wet me lettuce same as everybody else.’

Oh, how down to earth she was – reducing a toilet queue to gales of laughter with her delicate turn of phrase.  Presumably Linda’s fawning, full-bladdered fan wasn’t one of those penning the death threats.  Well at least I was poised over a convenient receptacle should I wish to vomit.  I held my breath.

The conversation outside the door had somehow progressed to the recent rejuvenation of Birmingham.

‘I tell ya, I hardly recognised the city last time I were there,’ Linda reflected.  ‘That Symphony Hall’s dead ace, and down by the canal used to be dead scuzzy but now it’s all wine bars and that.  Even Lewis’s has gone – you know, the big department store.  We used to use that expression: “If so-and-so fell off Lewis’s, they’d land in a brand new suit,” another way of saying they were a jammy bastard.’

I admit to experiencing a pang at this.  Birmingham was changing, and for the better – even Bert’s Burgers had been shut down, following a listeria outbreak – but I cherished my memories of the grotty old city of our blithe student days.  When we were friends.  I didn’t end up having to tear off any of the scratchy bog roll to wipe my eyes, but it was close.

I stayed hunched in that cubicle for as long as feasibly possible – thinking I could perhaps invent a heavy period or gastroenteritis, should I be asked to justify taking up residence in the lav – hoping enough of the others would empty to absorb the ladies in the queue, including Linda.

‘Are this lot gunna hurry up or what?  I’m spillin’ over.’

Bloody hell!

I was a schoolgirl all over again, evading PE.  I had read and reread the graffiti on the side of the sanitary towel bin proclaiming that ‘Chantelle’ was a slag.  Finally I could endure it no longer.  Someone flushed, and a gust of shite whacked me right in the nostrils.  I feared I really would heave up my breakfast.  I tugged the hefty chain, and marched out of there, head held as high as possible.  Linda, still queuing, looked unusually taken aback.  Her gaze landed upon my armband.  ‘Good to see your feminist stripes.’  I couldn’t gauge if she was being sarcastic, or was simply at a loss for something to say.  She sounded rather absent.

‘I’ve earned my feminist stripes, Linda.’  As she barrelled into the cubicle I’d just vacated, and shut the door, I added nonchalantly to the mirror, ‘And that toilet won’t flush.’  Let her think she was sharing a confined space with my stagnant piss.  I ran a jet of blistering water over my hands and shook them triumphantly over the sink.

******

Over the Caribbean buffet – another queuing/seat-reserving relay – I finally confided in Mel about my new career brainwave.

‘The funeral industry fascinates me,’ I began.

Majella –

He shot me a dubious look as he heaped jerk chicken on to his baked sweet potato.  I could hardly blame him.  He’d pulled me out of the path of a car just over a year ago.  It was natural he’d worry if my mind appeared to be straying into morbid areas it should be avoiding.

‘There’s nothing macabre in it,’ I reassured him.  He looked unconvinced.  ‘Honestly.  I mean, there’s a wonderful turnout here today, but what about all those people who have no family or friends?  Who have even fewer folks to grieve for them than dear Alice did?  Who is there for them when they pass away?’

‘Well, I suppose – ’

‘Hi Mel, Majella.’

No, not Linda – the interjector was in fact Trevor Lilley, of Glinda Spitfire keyboard and ‘GAY HELL’ fame.

He was dressed informally, in a beige roll neck and matching slacks.  The quiet one of the group, who’d always been the least comfortable with fame and scrutiny, he now looked fit and calm.  Chilled, I suppose you’d say nowadays.  We chatted awhile.

‘I don’t see the guys anymore,’ Trevor said, with what I thought was a pointed glance in my direction, as if to preclude me from enquiring after Gareth, who I believed had by now entered rehab.  I was long over him anyhow.  ‘I’ve retrained as a tai chi instructor.’

The last Glinda Spitfire album, which had flopped spectacularly, was named Wudang Mountain, which was supposedly the birthplace of tai chi in China and had also given its name to a sequence of exercises in the ancient Chinese art form.

He eventually departed, bound for the buffet.  There was such a huge gathering, we queued up in batches, and the trays of chicken goujons and ackee and saltfish were replenished as quickly as they were emptied.

‘So I’ve had this idea,’ I continued to Mel.  ‘It’s a chance to use my acting skills, to a degree, but also perform a final deed for these poor folks who would otherwise be buried by the council with no fanfare.  Homeless people, those who have no relatives, or are estranged from their relatives.’

Mel’s expression was still perplexed.  ‘So what do you propose doing?’

I speared a kidney bean with my fork and wagged it in front of me, a prop to hide behind.  Over Mel’s shoulder, I spotted Linda and Guy leaving.  The odd couple, who looked weirdly comfortable together; Glasses On Chain Guy to all appearances fond and protective over this messy girl.  As they departed, relief washed over me, yet also a curious sadness.  I realised I’d been keeping my voice down, subconsciously afraid of them overhearing and scoffing at my little ideas.

‘To set myself up as a sort of rent-a-mourner, to put it very crudely.  To be a presence at their funerals; show that somebody is thinking about them, even though I never knew them personally.’

‘Pretend to sob?’

‘Nothing so vulgar.  I could do a little reading, say a few words, just give them a dignified send-off.  I could even do readings where there are relatives present, but they’re just too emotional, or too shy, to deliver eulogies.’

‘So how would you get to know about the deaths?  Hang out in graveyards; become a freelance grief groupie?’

‘I’m hoping I’d get referrals from councils, or funeral directors.  You know, I read in the Evening Mail about this poor old man who lay undiscovered in his flat for three months.  Imagine that – to be missed by nobody?  How does someone, who must have been wanted at some point in their life – at birth, at least, you’d imagine – become reduced to that?’

I popped the congealing kidney bean into my mouth, to fill the poignant silence, not because the image of a decaying Birmingham pensioner was one I wished to dwell on whilst eating.

‘You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?’

The first time you give voice to a pipe dream is always momentous.  I recall when I first announced to my parents my intention to become a professional actress.  You get that little buzz inside that makes you feel grown-up and decisive; a sense that it – whatever ‘it’ might be – is becoming real.

‘I’ve never felt more motivated by an idea in my life.  But there’s something I’d like to do before that.  Would you be able to look after Tesco for a few weeks?’

 

 

Chapter 12

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.

Chapter 11

11
Mel’s View of the BAPA Reunion

Why was I at the reunion?  I hear you cry.  As you’ve been following Majella’s saga, you’ll know I was never a student of Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts.  I received no formal training at all.  My ‘training’ came via hawking my arse around the clubs and holiday camps; my muses were my dear mother’s coffee morning cronies.

In fact the reason for my presence was that, having quit the Lee Longlands furniture emporium prior to my 1984 summer season, which failed to set North Devon alight, I’d been obliged to take a succession of menial occupations to get by, amongst them janitor-cum-dogsbody at BAPA.  Despite sponging urinals for a living now, I hadn’t abandoned my nightclub alter egos.  In fact the cleaning ladies’ filthy gossip inspired me anew, with fresh material for Heidi and Poppy.

My job encompassed such responsibilities as arranging tables for events like reunions.  However, on this particular occasion I had also been permitted to remain on a semi-guest basis to represent Majella.  Quite why I felt the need to provide representation for her I couldn’t tell you, but hey ho.

I’d tried to coax her to attend.  ‘She won’t be there, chick.  She’ll be ranting about tampons to the lucky citizens of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.  I checked her tour schedule.’

Linda, our former flatmate and pal, self-styled ‘slut feminist,’ had become ‘she’ to us.  ‘She’ who must not be named.  Even my allusion to her now made Majella shudder.  Linda Dyson.  She sucked like a Dyson too, from what I heard.  Pity I couldn’t use that joke back then, but Mr Dyson didn’t invent his super duper vacuum cleaner for a good few years.  ‘Oh, please come.  Nelson’s just back from his cruise.  He’ll be disappointed not to see you.’

‘They’ll all be sniggering,’ she bleated.  ‘It’ll be all “Oh, did you see Lock & Quay?  Wasn’t Linda terrific?” and then “Oh Majella, you were very good in the, er…Monthlicare commercial.  You ice skate like a pro…and those white trousers fit you like a glove!”  Why do I want to spend a night listening to that?’

‘Why the assumption that you’ll be the focus?  Most of that lot haven’t had the level of success that you have.’

‘Wow, poor things!’

‘Most of them haven’t done films.’

Films!  The Crash of bloody Destiny was hardly When Harry Met Sally, was it?  They’ll take the piss.’  She returned to flipping indolently through the Woolworths Christmas catalogue she was pretending to read.

The pair of us were still flatmates, though had relocated to threadbare quarters above a butchers in Edgbaston.  We accessed our abode via a yard alongside Lycett & Sons Quality Meats.  Our version of a ‘garden’ was a hanging basket drooping from a hook on the wobbly fence, containing indistinguishable husks of what had once been flowers.

I was contemplating moving on, though had yet to broach the notion with Majella.  Even I was growing self-conscious of our set-up.  We were known within certain circles as The Odd Couple – which, bearing in mind the company we had been known to keep, was saying something.  We were like the most unorthodox married couple ever: shared bathroom; shared cat; separate bedrooms; communal make-up bag; London Boys posters on the fridge; occasional boyfriends grunting awkward greetings over the Rice Krispies.  We would watch Blind Date together while preparing for Saturday nights out, take it in turns to cook the evening meal, test one another on lines (when she actually had any acting engagements), nag, bicker.  I’d caught myself sniping, ‘At least one of us is in regular employment’ the other day.

Not to mention that the continuous stench of raw offal was seriously starting to get on my (foam) tits.  I had to get out.

‘You due at Rackhams today?’ I asked as I toggled my coat up.

‘Supposed to be, but I’ll call in sick.’

Majella!’

‘Well I am sick.  You said.’

‘I know, sweetheart, but get help.  See the doc.  You can’t wallow.’  I was concerned about Majella’s state of mind.  I found myself making a mental inventory of all the sharp objects in the flat, wondering if it would be prudent to hide them.  I felt hopeless, to be quite honest.  But there was little I could achieve right now, as I was on my way to work.  ‘Look, we’ll talk later, OK?  Give your mom a ring, or my mom.’

‘OK.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise.’  She was wearing a My Little Pony T-shirt, and looked about six years old.  She had lost so much weight, she could fit into children’s clothes, which she wore incessantly, maintaining that she was being ‘ironic and retro.’

‘We’ll put the tree up when I get back, if you like.’  I dropped a kiss on the top of her head.  A devoted hubby off to earn a few groats.  The cat came padding in from his nap.  I ushered him towards Majella, slouched in the armchair.  ‘Come on, Tesco, talk to Mommy.’

******

As it was a sunny, bracing afternoon, I shunned the bus (I was presently between cars, the Yugo having finally juddered off to the great mechanic in the sky) and walked.  The nippy air was a perfect antidote to the flat’s leaden atmosphere.

My eyes were masochistically drawn to my bedroom window, even though I hated the sight of my clunky metal headboard jammed against the glass.  Space constraints meant the bed was wedged right up to the window, which was terrible feng shui, but of course nobody was really into that sort of thing back then.  I used to have to clamber over the bed to open the window or draw the hideous curtains.  The rails framed in the tiny pane resembled prison bars.

I cringed at the slumminess of it all, and vowed that as soon as I could afford it I would buy a property with a boudoir capacious enough to accommodate a bed I could walk around.

The Christmas lights were draped across the streets, ready to burst forth into colour the minute darkness fell, and festive displays adorned the shop windows.  The window dressing was the one aspect of working at Lee Longlands that I missed.  Having been deemed ‘a bit…ahem…artistic’ by the boss, I was always assigned that responsibility.

I passed Lee Longlands en route to the college now.  Ah, that tableau lacked my touch!  If I say so myself, I could always work magic with a couple of footstools and a few sprigs of holly.

Birmingham was becoming a pleasanter place to walk these days.  Well right now much of it was under a mass of scaffolding, as the what-would-become world-renowned Symphony Hall and National Indoor Arena were under construction.  This was the start of the city centre’s vast redevelopment, from concrete 1960s hangover into the vibrant bubble we know today.

The nondescript patch in front of the college entrance had been jazzed up with a few statues and flowerbeds and named Centenary Square that year, 1989, to mark the centenary since Birmingham was granted city status.

There were changes afoot in the world at large, too.  The Berlin Wall – constructed in the year of my birth, so long a symbol of division and oppression – had been torn down; all over Europe, Communist states were overthrowing their authoritarian governments; new countries whose names I would never memorise were declaring independence from the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavian and Czechoslovakian states.

I used to be randomly obsessed with geography when I was a kid, and could identify all the flags of the world.  Not anymore.  Still, my confusion at future Olympic Games opening ceremonies was a tiny price to pay for the end of the Cold War.  A new decade was dawning; it was a time of great excitement and liberation.

OK, so excited and liberated were not quite what I felt when I donned my tabard and hoisted forth the Toilet Duck, but it was a living.

******

The first face I recognised at the reunion, as I was mopping up someone’s spilt Martini, was Tim Bellows.  He clomped in, with a simpering bimbo on each arm.  I wasn’t aware he was ever in Jesus Christ Superstar, but he looked the part, with his artfully unkempt hair and beard and big shaggy sheepskin.

Last week’s TV Times, while previewing his impending appearance on Give Us a Clue, had dubbed him ‘the nation’s favourite postboy,’ extolling his ‘down to earth charm and cuddly appeal.’  When I happened to glance up and establish eye contact, this cuddly postboy recoiled as though I’d spat on him.  The hired help daring to behold his betters.

‘No autographs,’ he sneered.  ‘Where’s your curlers, Hilda Ogden?’  The bimbos twittered.  I yearned to retort that actually I’d dropped Hilda Ogden from the act years ago, and these days it was all about Liz McDonald, darling.  But he’d probably have had me fired.

Bellows did a cursory lap of honour of the room, shaking hands with his fawning classmates as though anointing them.  He then left, his cameo appearance at the function having lasted approximately three minutes.

He’d been, frankly, an embarrassment on Give Us a Clue, becoming stroppy when Lionel Blair failed to guess Please Mr Postman from his histrionic miming.  Believe me, nobody laughed harder than I did when he cropped up decades later flogging late-night Viagra.

Whilst anticipating the grand arrival of Nelson (he was always late), I chatted to other acquaintances of Majella’s who I remembered from those days.  They all asked after her; none derided her whilst revering Linda as she’d prophesied.  It strikes me that had mobile phones been in widespread usage then (and not just the yuppie bricks favoured by Del Boy), I could have rattled off a text message to Majella.  ‘Get your arse down here Maj,’ I could have said.  ‘They’re all friendly.’

There was Finn Maynard, not a familiar face but a prolific voiceover artiste, who had lent his larynx to toilet rim block, among other products.

Lydia Goode I recognised from The Mo & Bo Show (well I was at home lunchtimes, and there was only Going for Gold on the other side).  The show was filmed across the road from the college, at the Central studios in Birmingham.  She was a pretty little blonde thing with plaits – the very archetype of a children’s TV presenter.  She even had one of those squeaky, ‘I’ve got a hundred and one uses for a toilet roll’ voices.

During my break I was at liberty to avail myself of a plateful from the buffet.  I was pushing a chicken drumstick around my plate when I encountered Dale Burfoot.  Mmm, I remembered him.  Swarthy, serious (sadly heterosexual), once played Hamlet.  I recalled an evening in an old Birmingham pub, The Old Joint Stock, egging Majella on to make a play for him, but she was still too fixated at the time on Gareth bloody Rushcliff to admire any other man.

‘Hello Dale!’ I greeted him now, pathetically enthusiastically.  Bewilderment shadowed his handsome face.  I introduced myself.  He was clearly none the wiser but flashed me a polite, stern smile.  ‘You most likely don’t remember me.  As soon as I walk away, you’ll be thinking, Who the hell was that crazy fool who thinks he knows me?’  I laughed woodenly.  Why on earth was I gabbling away like a ninny?  ‘So, er, what are you up to these days, Dale?’

‘Just finished a season with the RSC.’

‘Oh, super!’

He didn’t enquire what I was ‘up to these days’ – though it was possible he’d just seen me remove my apron, which may well have rendered such a question unnecessary.

My plate felt leadenly heavy in my hand.  I jabbed my charred chicken leg into a pool of salad cream, toying with it, not enjoying it.  In doing so, I dislodged a crisp, which fluttered to the floor and splintered.  Flushing, I retrieved it and tucked it crossly behind an empty prawn shell so I would remember not to eat it – although I liked to boast that my floors were clean enough to consume one’s dinner off.

Victim of Love by Erasure was playing, and I started nodding my head in time, as if to say ‘I’m quite happy listening to the music and enjoying this cardboard food, you really don’t need to keep me company politely, this is not at all awkward.’  What was I like!  It was an actual relief when the moment came that I could dive away from this divine man to mop a floor.

Later, I spotted the aforementioned Lydia Goode sobbing on the shoulder of Kelly Boardman, who was now a dancer with the Brian Rogers Connection.  It’s a cleaner’s cliché that you never mean to eavesdrop; it’s just sometimes you can be mopping up a clandestine corner, and details simply filter through.

Mo & Bo’s fluffy arses, I gathered, were not the only places where Rod Rudge was fond of sliding his hands.  I caught the words ‘I see why he’s known as Rudge the Sludge…in my knickers…likes it in the Wendy house…I need the job…Bjorn the Prawn…threatened me…he’s got friends in high places…all started with Jimmy Savile…’

I became conscious that I was mopping fiercely, as though I could scrub away my revulsion at what went on behind the Wendy house flaps on that studio set across the street.

I beetled off, back to the thick of the party, straight into Stephanie Southwick.  She hadn’t been in Majella’s year, but was there in her capacity as the girlfriend of Matthew Pardoe, a lecturer.

She’d recently delivered a single, hammy line in a sitcom.  I can’t even recall its title, but it was of a type that was becoming ubiquitous, featuring characters called Caroline or Justin who conducted overacted arguments on pastel Habitat sofas situated opposite the camera.  The women were typically advertising executives or graphic designers, with huge hair, gold earrings and shoulder pads you could land a helicopter on.  Gaudy, bold colours were in back then.  When I see repeats on ITV3 now, my retinas blaze.

‘I played her secretary,’ Stephanie was slurring again (she’d consumed a few Babychams).  She burbled on like she’d had the lead in Dynasty, while Matthew looked as though he wanted to merge into the wallpaper.  Yes, if texting was invented I could have discreetly typed, ‘Steph Southwick – what a f-ing airhead!!’ to Majella, instead of zoning out and wearing a glazed expression.

Unfathomably, Stephanie took to me.  She was all over me like I was an exhibit.  I detest bigots, of course, but fag hags can be a pain too.

‘Ooh, Matt, he’s all cute and camp,’ she crooned at one point, scrabbling at me.  ‘Can we keep him as a pet?’  Matt shot me an apologetic grimace.  Then again, he was boss-eyed, so I couldn’t actually be entirely positive he was looking at me.

He was practically carrying Stephanie out as Nelson slithered in.

My old friend no longer used the doorway as a life-sized picture frame, executing a pirouette and posing against the frame until all attention was on him, but he still made an impact on a room.  He moved with lithe dancer’s grace, robed in a long synthetic brown fur coat.

‘Melly!’  His beautiful face lit up when he saw me.  When I hugged him, the enormous coat initially camouflaged how pitifully skinny he was.  I just assumed he was exceptionally toned, fresh from his dancing stint on the Princess of the Aegean.  ‘No beasts were harmed in the making of this,’ he trilled, indicating the enormous coat, ‘although Basil Brush got a bit anxious at one point!’

He tellingly refused to remove it, despite my mumsy warnings about not feeling the benefit.

‘Come here then, Princess of the Aegean,’ I swathed my arm round his furry little shoulders, ‘let’s fix you up with a drink.’

******

‘So that’s how Linda got the part in Lock & Quay then,’ reflected Nelson, as he drained another Malibu and coke.  I’d filled him in on the origins of our former flatmates’ hissy feud.  ‘I did wonder.  It’s hardly surprising poor Maj is depressed.  Still, you’d think after all this time…’

‘She’s stuck in a rut, Nelse.’

‘Who’s to say she’d have got the part herself anyway?’

‘I’ve tried applying that logic with her, but…’  I made a forlorn hand gesture.  ‘She’s got depression, I’m sure of it.  Been trying to get her to see a doctor, or go for some counselling even.  They were brilliant with my cousin last year.  Her Arrowsmith & Broom advert’s being shown again as part of the centenary celebrations.  I thought that would cheer her up.  Ah, I feel hopeless.’

I sighed, suddenly feeling dreadfully jaded and old.  Nelson patted my shoulder, and we sat in pensive silence for a few moments.  Then he got up.

‘Time for another drink, Melly Moo?’

‘Best make it a soft one, as I’m still technically on duty.’

‘As the drag queen said to the bishop.’

When Nelson returned with his round, we deviated to lighter subjects.  He had found a new heroine in the bubble-haired Kylie Minogue.  It’s funny to think I’ve met Kyles numerous times over the years since then.  Like many English fans of the well-liked soap operas Neighbours and Home and Away, Nelson had unconsciously adopted a faint Australian twang, for instance pronouncing ‘No’ as an elongated nasal ‘Nouw,’ and dropping Aussie phrases like ‘daggy’ and ‘dobbing in’ into conversation.

‘I’m addicted to Neighbours, darling,’ Nelson enthused.  ‘She’s such a doll.  I even forgive her for marrying Scottie the hottie.  I wanted to do a tribute to her in the show.  I Should Be So Ducky, I’d have called it.  Tried to pitch it to the cruise people before they sacked me but they weren’t going for it.  Incidentally, why is everyone in Home and Away fostered?  Australia must be a haven for long-lost relatives and orphans.’

He babbled on, but I honed in on a single word, which boomed in my head, ominous and loud.

‘Sacked?’

He bit his lip, seeming to realise he’d said too much.  And then I knew.  The weight loss, you see.  He wasn’t just toned, he was gaunt.  I should have cottoned on sooner.  There was pain etched in his deep black eyes as they met mine.

It was one of those moments where I was in a hideous daze at the time yet now can recall every detail as distinctly as if I’d videoed it.  The rest of the room seemed to recede as though down a tunnel, but ridiculously, I remember what song was playing in the background – Labour of Love by Hue and Cry – when Nelson divulged to me that he had ‘the big disease with the little name, as Prince sang.’

A cruel acronym for gay was ‘got AIDS yet?’ and I knew of far too many who were succumbing, both within my personal sphere and of course the celebrity world.  Rock Hudson, Liberace, and in due course we would lose Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett, amongst others.

‘They don’t admit that’s the reason, of course.  My bosses.  They’re far too careful.  Apparently they’ve got “too many male dancers so they’ll have to let me go.”  I can’t prove discrimination.’

‘How did they find out?’

‘I made the mistake of confiding in someone I considered a friend.  Bitch!  Blabbing bitch, as it turned out.  She dobbed me in.  The rest of them are paranoid the passengers will catch it off cabin door handles.’

‘Do your parents know?’

‘They’re in denial.  They still – despite knowing everything about me – entertained hopes of me waltzing home with a nice Antiguan girl and giving them a legion of grandbabies.  Their hopes are dying now.  Like me.  But hey ho, what can you do?’

He sipped his drink, the little finger protruding; always refined.  I could have been taking tea with an old lady facing no more vexatious a setback than her iron breaking down.  It was very humbling.

I touched his arm.  The gesture was entirely inadequate, but I remember seeming incapable of removing my hand, as though if I did so he would dissolve, I wouldn’t have saved him, and I would be left with nothing to cling to.  I remember staring trancelike for ages at my right hand glued to his furry brown coat sleeve.  The withered arm inside it was barely discernible.

I was tumbling off a cliff.  Majella had depression, Nelson was dying.  Was this really the same evening I’d thought the worst that could happen was dropping a crisp in front of Dale Burfoot?

‘Melvyn!  Melvyn!’  It was Pat, another cleaner, whose clamorous voice summoned me to reality from along the tunnel.  ‘Sorry to disturb you, flower, but we need more bog rolls in the gents’ disabled!’

******

There was a horrible urgency as Nelson and I hugged goodbye.  When we said, ‘We must meet up again, soon,’ it wasn’t, couldn’t be, a cliché; we had to follow through on the promise.  We could no longer take for granted that we had limitless opportunities to reconvene.

I floated home.  The lights, the riotous work dos sprawling out on to Broad Street, were a fuzz, eddying around me.

There was a note from Majella Sellotaped to the fridge.

 

Gone to bed.  Couldn’t finish my dinner, so left half for you in oven – it’s a Menu Master lasagne, but I’m trying!  Hope it went well tonight.  Sorry I’m grumpy.  We’ll do the tree tomorrow.

xxxx

 

It seemed an aeon since I’d mentioned the Christmas tree.  At least I was spared having to tell her about Nelson tonight.

A rubbery ready meal was the last thing I relished right then, but I reheated it nonetheless, in recognition of Majella’s efforts.  Hauling herself off her arse to insert a frozen lasagne in the oven qualified as ‘efforts’ these days.

While my supper warmed through, I sagged into an armchair.  I didn’t bother putting a light on; the street light flooding through the fraying curtains afforded all the illumination I desired, and lent the room an eerily soothing quality.

The evening, and particularly Nelson’s news, had left me feeling sapped, yet with an angry urge to do something.  Obviously I was powerless to reverse the effects of Nelson’s illness, but there was one wrong I could attempt to right.

I picked up the phone from its home on the carpet and cradled it in my lap.  It was one of those old style ones, with a dial, so the laborious process of ringing the number afforded me plenty of time to mentally rehearse the call.

Let’s just say Rod Rudge was not the only one with well-connected associates.

‘Oh good evening.’  My voice sounded surprisingly sure and unemotional.  ‘Is it possible to speak to Inspector Parrott, please?’

Yes, I had a friend in the West Midlands Police Force (don’t ask), and he was most appreciative of my tip-off on his night shift.  Rudge the Sludge’s days at liberty to assault women were numbered.

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