Chapter 10

10
The Crash of Destiny

‘I hope you like hospital food.’

‘Actually I do.’  After a smug, loaded pause came the punchline, ‘I’m in Bupa!’

‘Aaand…cut!’

Aaand…breathe.

It was hard not to cringe at some of the dialogue we were obliged to churn out for this literal car-crash of a drama called The Crash of Destiny.  It was curious, this aptitude I had for flipping into ‘acting’ mode and convincingly delivering lines – i.e. doing my job – coupled with this inability to mask my sincere feelings off-camera or stage.  Majella the actress was as much a part I played as the actual parts Majella Bracebridge the actress played.  It’s a pseudonym, after all.  I’ve always been able to slip in and out of Majella, so to speak, but can never suppress Michelle.

I helped myself to a coffee, practising my breathing exercises to release tension: breathe in for three, out for three, in for three, out for three.

‘Bit cheesy, eh?’  Russell Varden, my co-star in this epic, had clearly spotted my expression.  I exhaled swiftly, despite only counting to two on my inhale.  His grin was winningly infectious.  Mmm.

‘It’s Dairylea.’

‘Quite.  Not even a nice mature cheddar, but a plastic wedge of processed cheese.’

I was so gratified that he’d ‘got’ my humour; taken my pitiful cheese analogy and run with it.  He stretched past me for a cup, and I noticed he smelt heavenly.

‘Wrapped in foil,’ I persevered feebly.  He was still grinning, as though anticipating more from me.  ‘I particularly liked Lisa’s line to you earlier: “Why are you wearing a suit?  Am yow up in court?”  That’ll become a classic.’

Russell broke into a full-blown guffaw at that, his playful brown eyes flashing.  ‘You’re dry.  I like it.  Listen,’ he tapped my elbow, resting his fingers there for prolonged seconds, ‘what you doing after?’

‘After this?  I believe I’m about to pretend to whack you over the head with a bookend and get arrested.’  I blew on my scorching, acrid coffee.  I was enjoying pretending not to understand his drift; prolonging the interaction.  I’d indulged in pathetically little flirtatious interaction since the Gareth days.  So few men had interested me in the interim.  Once you’ve had perfection – and I’m afraid my concept of perfection still began and ended with Gareth Rushcliff – it’s hard to take what you see as a downwards step.

‘No, I mean after we’re done here.  When Robin releases us from this cheesy hell.  I’m up for an Italian.  How do you fancy Lorenzo’s?’

No, he wasn’t Gareth, but there was definitely a bold charm about him, which he’d been working on me for a few days now.

I beamed back at him.  ‘Yeah, Russ, that would be lovely.’

******

The Crash of Destiny, made in the spring of 1989, marked my first – and thus far only – foray into film.  Its scriptwriter and director was an old BAPA classmate, Robin Lucas.  No, he was no relation to George.  Yes, he was forever getting asked whether he was.  Yes, it’s quite possible his career did suffer from comparisons made with his more famous namesake.

Robin had headhunted me for the lead part of Claire Black in what he hoped would capitalise on the recent success of the blockbuster thriller Fatal Attraction.  In fact The Crash of Destiny’s budget wouldn’t have bought the crisps for Michael Douglas and Glenn Close.  In the absence of any meaningful roles, I’d accepted this one.

The central premise of The COD, as I christened it, saw Claire, ‘an ordinary Brummie girl,’ during a late night drive home, smash into the car in front.

After a fiery exchange about who was to blame, the rear-ended driver, Andy, played by the lovely Russell, put forth a bargain, couched in Robin’s trademark style: ‘I don’t have to report this, Claire.  Not if you do a little something for me in return.’  He produced a box from his pocket, with convenient ease, and waggled it, displaying the Durex label to the camera.  ‘I can follow you back to your place now.  The alternative…well, let’s just say I’m mates with a junior doctor who owes me a favour.  “My patient suffered terrible whiplash, Your Honour.”’

The latter was hissed into Claire’s – my – face in a snivelling tone, as though voiced by Andy’s fake doctor mate in an improbable court scene.

Obviously exchanging insurance details would have been far too simple for these people.

Claire implausibly agreed to Andy’s indecent proposal.  She let him follow her home, thus exposing her address, among other things, to him.  Of course one extorted shag proved insufficient to appease his demands.  He began making more recurrent unannounced visits to Claire’s apartment, dangling the threat of a doctored doctor’s note in front of her.

In an ensuing scene, a furious girl named Lorraine (played by a really rather sweet girl named Lisa) stormed into the flat, carrying a baby (played by the producer’s little boy, Axl, possibly the most convincing performer on set) and a suitcase, both of which she alleged were Andy’s.  She dumped the suitcase, and walloped Claire around the face (yes, in case you’re wondering, it did hurt).

Andy then forcibly moved himself into Claire’s beleaguered flat, insisting that as she had so callously seduced him, and thus it was her fault his girlfriend had chucked him out, rendering him homeless, the very least she could do was house him.  Stalker turned cuckoo.

Then came that aforementioned unpleasant scene with the bookend, and it really all became far too Prisoner Cell Block H to talk about, so I’ll leave it there, if you don’t mind.

‘I just hope life won’t imitate art,’ I said to Russ now.

That teasing smile again!  ‘I’ll take my pepper spray, just in case any offensive weapons should be lurking on bookshelves.’

It was during that period that groups like Black Box, Technotronic and Milli Vanilli were being accused of not singing on their records, or using lip-synching models to front their acts, rather than the genuine vocalists.  I’d have been happier, frankly, had my voice been coming out of some wooden model’s mouth.  Rather that than be the face of such a film.  Not that the film exactly brought my face mass recognition.

The exterior scenes’ location was Balsall Heath, with shots being frequently interrupted by nosy locals asking us what the hell we were doing.  The neighbourhood prozzies also carped about our presence interrupting their trade.

These interior scenes were being filmed at The Final Cut, the canalside studios where I’d memorably auditioned for the A&B commercial.

Ideally, my return to The Final Cut should have been in triumph, my appearance in a film demonstrating progression from a beer ad.  The opposite felt true, though.  There was an irony in that somewhere.  A kick in the teeth.  Birmingham’s canalside district was starting to be renovated, although back in the early 80s the dinginess of it had all added to the fun; now it felt oppressive and uneasy.  So Russell’s chats were brightening the slog.

‘You wanna go straight from here, or shall I pick you up later?  You live local, don’t you?’

I thought of the unworn new yellow shift dress in my wardrobe at the flat.  Its colour blazed in comparison with the monochrome hues I’d been in all day (Claire Black appropriately favoured black T-shirts and dull jeans).  It was begging to be showcased at a spot like Lorenzo’s.

‘I’d prefer to go home and change.  If that’s OK with you.’

I had an unbidden vision of Sean Spendlove, grinning at me in that way of his, laughing at something I’d said to Keith in the audition.  How random, as one might say nowadays.   The vision fleshed out, to include Sean being the one taking me out, admiring me in the lemon dress.  Why the hell was he invading my thoughts?  It was this bloody studio.  Too many ghosts lurked.

‘Earth to Majella!’  I realised Russ was wagging his hand in front of my eyes.  ‘You were miles away then.’

‘Sorry, Russ.  I’ll give you my address.’

******

‘Mel, poppet,’ I flung my handbag down and bowled into the living room, where he and Tesco were glued to Blockbusters, ‘I need to commandeer the bathroom for an hour or so.’  Mel as a rule was the bathroom queen, the hot water hogger, but tonight he’d got no chance.  ‘Got my first date in God knows how long.  This is big, mate!’  I tickled Tesco’s little black ear.

Mel yelled at the telly as a cocky girl from Horsham with a wedge haircut failed to answer ‘Tandoori’ to the ‘What T?’ question, before granting me his full attention.  He crossed his legs in an exaggerated Kenny Everett gesture and leaned, elbows on knees, all agog.  ‘Sooo…the lady’s got a hot date!  Who’s the lucky man?’

‘Russ.’  I blushed.  How pitiful, at my age.  I was practically a born-again virgin.  And people called actresses tarts.

‘Your leading man, no less.  He is quite a cutie, I must admit.’  Mel had come to pick me up from the set one day, and ended up being roped in as an extra, mainly because he had nothing more productive to do that day.  That’s how cheap and cheerful that production was.

‘He’s taking me to Lorenzo’s.’

‘Swish!  I’m dead pleased for you, honest.  Want a lift?’

‘No ta, he’s picking me up from here.’

‘You sure that’s wise, giving out your address so early on?  Bearing in mind the subject matter of your latest piece, and all?’

‘Dear Mel.’  I popped a fond kiss on to his forehead.  ‘You’re like my dad.’

He did a little ‘Well, if you’re sure’ frown.  People were more trusting back then, although the zeitgeist was starting to change, and of course such first date caution is the norm nowadays.  Mel was so concerned and sweet.  I was developing a new appreciation for him, having often scoffed at his ‘mumsy nagging.’

‘You’re OK bathroom-wise anyway.  I’m in the company of Bob for the time being.’  He motioned admiringly towards Bob Holness who was chortling gamely as yet another sniggering contestant requested ‘a P, please,’ to the shrieks of the adolescent audience.

‘You lurve him,’ I chanted.

He didn’t deny it.  ‘Just look at him, all stern and headmasterly.  Bob is my inappropriate crush.’

‘I thought that was Richard from The Communards?’  I started pulling out my earrings.

He’s not inappropriate.’

‘Come off it!  He looks like a vicar.’

I juggled the earrings in my palm.  The sight of my discarded bag, creating a tripping hazard, filled me with guilt.  It was another issue he used to pull me up on.  I could be a slob, I admit.  I scooped it up on my way to the bathroom.  ‘Right, I’m off to the suds.’

******

Lorenzo’s was dinky.  The lighting was soft and discreet; the background music came courtesy of that Reflections tape of ‘instrumental hits’ which everyone’s mom had a copy of in the 80s.  I still rarely ate out, and with its pink napkins and free breadsticks, this Italian eatery seemed preposterously exotic.  Hey, back then an establishment seemed sophisticated to me if it had tablecloths.

This date with Russell was going cheesily perfectly.  He’d presented me with flowers, and I laughed pathetically at his line ‘Pour vous, mademoiselle,’ delivered in an ’Allo ’Allo accent.  He was suitably flattering about my lovely new dress.  He held doors for me, took my coat, even insisted on sharing a strand of spaghetti and meeting with a kiss in the middle, as per Lady and the Tramp.

Folks were ogling, sniggering, some possibly vomiting, but to me this was a soap opera fantasy date sequence.  Looking back, it must have been a dismal period in my life, if that was the fabulously romantic highlight of it.

He spent ages musing over the carta dei vini – the wine list – despite my insistence that I’d be more than content with the house red.

‘No need to be “content,” when you can have the best, Majella.  I’m picky about wine.  I’d rather appreciate one or two glasses of a quality one than get kaylied on Kwik Save plonk.’

Taking my lead from Russ, I’d ordered spaghetti carbonara.

‘I’m more used to hoops,’ I giggled, thinking of the tins Mel frequently opened to crown our toast.

‘You won’t eat hoops with me, sweetheart.’  Russ winked enticingly.  He was swirling his wine studiously, the way I’d seen Julian Crowfoot do on TV, though thankfully he didn’t then swig it crudely back as that infamous chef used to do.

I looked at him, with his spruce white jacket and his blond blow wave, and wanted to drum my heels under the table.  I wanted to raise my glass to the restaurant at large and proclaim, ‘He’s on a date with meee!’  He understood wine, he looked like a rich boy from a Brat Pack movie (the kind who might take Molly Ringwald to prom).  It was giddying.

‘Not exactly Tenko, is it, this Crash of Destiny thing?’ I grinned, over the carbonara.  ‘This is heavenly, by the way.  The COD.  “Cod” seems about right, seeing as the plot’s distinctly fishy.’

‘You could be right, babe, but I’ve got big plans.’  He coolly motioned the waiter over for extra black pepper.  ‘Today Balsall Heath, tomorrow Hollywood.’

‘Get you, Mr Confident!’  Russ, it seemed, didn’t do false modesty.

‘You gotta have ambition.  I’ve got irons in the fire right now, actually.’

‘Oh yeah?’  I sipped my wine during the expectant pause.

‘Yeah.  Doing panto with Timmy Mallett this Christmas.’  He picked up his own glass and sat back, letting that glorious news sink in.  Once again, I made the erroneous assumption that he was joking.

‘Will you have to look at each other and go “Bleurrghh!”?’

‘How about you, Majella,’ he queried smoothly, ‘you doing panto this year or got any projects lined up after this?’  He’d got me there, I had to admit.

‘Well, since we’re in the mood for sharing achievements, I did an advert once.’  There I was again, grinning broadly at another memory of Sean Spendlove.  ‘It was for a certain well-known beer.  Oh, it was – ’

‘More black pepper, sir?’  It was the waiter, who had materialised imperceptibly with the gigantic mill, summoned by a non-verbal motion from Russ.

‘Got the world at my feet,’ Russ continued, as though uninterrupted by my reminiscences.  ‘My mom always said I was mature beyond my years.’

On that subject, one thing I was surprised to learn was Russell’s age – twenty-three to my twenty-seven.  I had never dated a younger man, nor had I harboured any intention of doing so.  I’d taken him for thirty at least.  He expressed his own surprise – ‘I didn’t know you were that old’ – before less smoothly moving on to, ‘Hey, what about that Mandy Smith and Bill Wyman?’  As a change of subject it was rather unflatteringly Freudian.

******

Russ and I dated for the remainder of the shoot.  That first night, after Lorenzo’s, he drove me home in his Audi and made no attempt to jump me.  Over Kilroy next morning, Mel nearly choked on his Ricicles when I told him Russ had been ‘the perfect gentleman’ and hadn’t stopped over.

‘You sure he isn’t…well, more my type, if you get my drift?’

‘Melvyn Derek Corns!  Are you suggesting the blokes I usually go out with are After One Thing?’

‘They’ve tended to follow that pattern of late, yes,’ he admitted.  He had a point.  ‘I hope this works out for you.  Really.’

‘So do I.  I’m hacked off with one-night stands.’

I sounded like a bored slut who’d had hundreds, but the truth was the few I’d had taught me that aimless sex was not for me.  Living under the shadow of AIDS had not, in my experience, made blokes less promiscuous.  It just meant they donned condoms for their encounters.  I’d grown disillusioned with the emptiness of it all.

Russ was the first man who ever took me to an art exhibition.  We went to see Twelfth Night too, and a Mozart recital.  Woo, get us!  We dined in Italian and French restaurants.  I had never been out with anyone who exuded such a cultured air.  Even Gareth, for all his pinstripe pretentions, was at heart an Erdington boy most at home down the pub.

I’m not saying my dates with Russ remained chaste.  We concluded a handful (so to speak) of our nights in the Midland Hotel in the city centre.  Russ asked me a few days in advance of our first stopover whether I would have any objection to him making the booking.  ‘Give you chance to pack your toothbrush,’ as he archly phrased it.

‘Never mind toothbrush, you ought to be tucking your gas mask into that thing,’ Mel quipped as I left the flat with the now-scuffed white case my parents had bought me when I started BAPA.  I stuck my tongue out at him.  Whilst it was true I resembled an evacuee, I seldom stayed in hotels so had never thought to upgrade my luggage.  Russ, by contrast, rocked up with one of those snazzy pull-along jobs that are these days ubiquitous.

******

A bottle of Poison – perfume, not strychnine – was nestled on my pillow like a jewel on a cushion as I emerged from the en suite in my new negligee.  I had sneaked up to Rackhams’ lingerie floor in my lunch break for something lacy and black, which I thought was terribly provocative and slinky but, looking back, was really quite demure.  It may have been sophisticated sex I sought, not a dirty screw – but, seriously, I looked more like my mom.

‘My favourite!’ I scooped up the black bottle reverentially.  The advert fascinated me, particularly the voiceover guy’s curious pronunciation of the product name, as ‘Pyzzun.’

‘I remembered,’ Russ said proudly.

I adored receiving perfume; it always felt like such a sophisticated gift.  The day you’ve progressed from Superdrug gift sets to eau de parfum is the day you’ve gone from girl to woman.

I spritzed my wrists, resisting the temptation to rub them together, because I’d read in She magazine that such an action ‘bruised’ the scent.  The room came to life with the sultry spice.  At least I would smell good tonight.

‘Think of all the stars who must have stayed here,’ I squeaked, slithering into the vast, enveloping bed.  The Midland was close to the Hippodrome and Alexandra theatres.

‘Like us,’ was Russ’s typically self-effacing response, as he topped up my Champagne flute.  ‘Someday, there’ll be punters reminiscing about the night Majella Bracebridge and Russell Varden spent here.’

Yes, I said Champagne!  And I don’t mean he’d smuggled in a bottle of warm fizz to drink out of the bathroom tumblers; he actually ordered a magnum from the bar, with an ice bucket and everything.

And yes, the sex was rather perfect too, since you ask.

Russ perked up my life, and the shoot of that turgid film in particular.  We had a laugh together, even if he wasn’t into the whole self-depreciation thing.  If I had to characterise our time together in a single word, it would have to be ‘diverting.’  I needed a diversion from the banal, and it conveniently came, in his suave form.

After we’d wrapped on The COD, we saw each other only sporadically, though maintained telephone contact.  Russell Varden possessed a mobile, or ‘portable phone,’ as they were called then – he was the first person I knew to regularly use one.

He was busy, rehearsing the panto with Timmy, and other projects (he pronounced the word ‘pro-jects,’ with a long o sound, as in ‘probes’) which he ‘had to keep hush-hush for the moment.’

I had commitments of my own too.  I made a cheesy promo film for the Pallasades Shopping Centre (now Grand Central) in Brum city centre.  I had scant experience of addressing a camera directly, and I must admit walking in a straight line while earnestly pointing out shops proved a challenge.  There was a moment when I tripped while disembarking off the escalator, because my focus was on the camera rather than my feet.  The budget did not allow for retakes, so my clumsy transition from moving staircase to floor had to make the final cut.

Mel owns the only known surviving copy of that video, and there have been nights we’ve got trolleyed together and put it on.  He’ll sashay round the lounge, pointing like a hyperactive air hostess and going, ‘Here’s C&A,’ before dramatically stumbling.

I also did this ghastly thing called The Goldfish Aviary, which was filmed in a Birmingham club and shown on Channel 4 as part of their ‘late night arts strand.’  Mel roped me in.  Its title was supposed to reflect the ‘fish out of water’ nature of its viewers (of which there were about eighteen) and guests.  I believe its viewing figures were among the lowest ever recorded.  The producer was on Ecstasy.

It seemed as though every arts show had to be set in a nightclub at that time.  The 80s were about to give way to the day-glo 90s, with raves and dance music gaining prevalence.  Everyone I encountered on that shoot was hatefully snotty.  I felt suddenly old and untrendy.

I played a waitress.  There were four of us, and our task was to serve drinks to the guests – who generally consisted of polarising figures from the arts, media or politics – and then hurl paint over them.  The paint colour would be determined by the club audience reaction, i.e. whether the particular guest was left wing/down with the kids (cheers – yellow), or a reactionary stuffed shirt (boos – poo brown, may well have contained actual poo). Still, I earned a few easy quid for a few baffling hours’ work.

I had also retained my dependable day job at Rackhams.

The point I am meandering to here is that I was busy too.  Russ and I had made no commitments or promises to one another.  We were never exclusive, as they say nowadays.

******

However, when Robin rang to invite me to The COD ‘premiere,’ I found that my heart bounced at the prospect of seeing Russ again.  I was to find out, though, just how non-exclusive we were.

I’d been suffering from a stubborn cold when Robin called, so was not feeling at my sparkiest.  I was suddenly cheered by thoughts of the sky blue strapless creation I’d been eyeing at work for weeks.  The perfect excuse to splurge my staff discount.  I indulged in a small fantasy involving me, slinky strapless-dressed, preening and posing against a dickie-bowed Russell on a red carpet – even though I doubted the Jasper Arts Centre boasted such a fixture.  Any ‘paparazzi’ covering such an event was likely to be limited to a wheezy old ’tog from the Birmingham Bullet.

And then Robin dropped the bombshell.

‘How many tickets shall I put you down for?’ he asked, in the bored, aloof monotone he used.  ‘We’re tight on numbers.  You bringing Mel?’

‘I assume I’ll be coming with Russ,’ I said, with a gleeful little quiver.  Oh, my optimism!

‘I hardly think so,’ Robin laughed harshly.  ‘He’ll be with his wife.’

The repertoire of ‘shocked’ faces I’d practised in the mirror as a teen thesp did not come close to the real thing.

‘His what?’

‘I assumed you knew.’  Robin’s tone was hurtful now; contemptuous.  He clearly thought me a heartless slut who cared nothing for her boyfriend’s poor cuckolded wife.

‘Russell Varden?’ I snuffled, as though there were a hundred Russells on this production.

Life was almost mirroring art – apart from the car crash, fake whiplash and blackmail.

‘Of course.’  I could virtually hear Robin rolling his eyes.  ‘She’s called Jess.  She’s a journo with the Midlands Argus.  They married young.  He said it was an act of rebellion.  Look, Russ will always be Russ, but on this occasion we have to suck up to wifey.  She has to come, or we don’t get a write-up.’  I squeezed my dribbling nose with one of my ever-present tissues.

‘Do they have any kids?’

‘No.’  At least life would not mirror art in terms of my lover’s baby being presented on my doorstep.  ‘Look,’ Robin had had enough of this conversation, ‘I’ll put you and Mel down for tickets.  Be there at seven on the dot, OK?’

‘OK.’  The phone was a grenade in my hand.  I slithered down the wall, my knees folded up to meet my arms, which sagged on to them as I let the receiver dangle on to the ratty fawn carpet.  Above the callous drone of the dialling tone, I could hear Billy Joel on the radio, insisting he didn’t start the fire.  I have always hated that song.

Married.  Bloody married.  I was a mistress; a mug; a cliché.  Such a twist had never figured in my visions – because, as much as anything, Russ didn’t seem old enough, despite his worldly demeanour.  No wonder he played the role of randy Andy so plausibly.

When you’re full of cold, you feel downright shitty anyway.  Feeble, dirty, nauseous from the constant smell and taste of Lemsip, and kind of shrivelled.  You shrivel into yourself, hiding behind tissues saying to the world, ‘Please don’t look at me, I’m too gross and sickly.’   I was a million miles from the kind of glossy babe somebody like Russell Varden would favour.

He’d seemed so into me, though.  So to speak.  The impression he’d always given was that he enjoyed my company and I brightened his life.  There was nothing furtive or apathetic about him that suggested the presence of another woman in the wings with a prior claim on his affections.

‘Russ will always be Russ,’ Robin had said.  So he had form for this sort of conduct.  Yet again I’d been a dupe; easy prey to yet another arch seducer armed with a nice bouquet of flowers and a warm bedroom manner.

I have no idea how long I crouched there in a stupor, with that Billy Joel earworm, and then other songs on the radio, before I snapped to and decided to stab Russell’s number into the phone.  My fingers were all over the place.  I left clammy prints on the buttons.  The mobile made sense now.  As did the recurrent use of hotels.

‘Hello, Russell Varden speaking.’

‘Hi Russell Varden Speaking.  This is Majella Bracebridge.  Remember me?’  I was amazed how assertive I made myself sound (yes, after all those years in my chosen profession, I was still amazed that I could act).  My cold-ridden voice was husky with fury.

‘That’s correct.’  His tone was heartbreakingly businesslike.  I could guess why.

‘Is she there with you?  Your wife.  You know, the one you neglected to tell me about.’

‘Hmm, hmm.’

‘I don’t suppose you’ve told her about me either, eh?’  I let him have it them.  When it came to melodrama, The COD had nothing on the rant that followed.  At intervals, Russ punctuated my livid outburst with a well-timed ‘A-ha’ or ‘Hmm,’ obviously to convince the unsuspecting Jess that this was a work-related call.  The bastard didn’t miss a beat.  My tirade didn’t throw him at all.  I wanted to punch him, but also weep at his callously hurtful dismissal of me.  He sounded so calm and formal.  An experienced Lothario.  This kind of scenario was not alien to him.  There was a dark facet to many a cool personality, and I was seeing his now.

‘I really don’t feel this pro-ject is viable anymore.’

‘See you on the twenty-third.’  That was the date of The COD premiere.  I made a pitiable stab at injecting menace into that statement.  ‘Shove your pro-ject up your arse!’

‘That’s correct.  No, I do not wish you to contact me again.  Ciao.’  He actually said that.  The Italian word for ‘goodbye’ – or, as Mel put it, the Italian word for ‘I’m a wanker’ – had been adopted as part of the yuppie lingo, and became something of an 80s cliché, but I had never heard it in real-life use before.

Neither had I ever met anyone with a mobile phone – another yuppie hallmark – until I knew Russell.  On the subject of his phone, it was permanently unobtainable after that final fraught call.  I may have been one of the world’s first victims of mobile phone blocking.

Was no man – even for the duration of a small fling – capable of being faithful to me?  Or rather, since technically his wife was the cuckolded party, was I not capable of attracting a faithful man?

I picked desolately at a frayed carpet fibre.  There was a fag burn I hadn’t spotted before, as well as crisp crumbs and specks of foil from chocolate bars.  It was dispiriting.  We needed to hoover.

I wondered what environs Russell Varden resided in, with his glossy, brainy journo wife.  Probably an elegant apartment, with a balcony on which they would sit and toast each other’s brilliance while looking down at the less elegant mortals of Birmingham city centre.  No dust would be permitted to linger.  They probably had one of those robot vacuum cleaners I’d seen on Tomorrow’s World.

I had never had his address.  He had never volunteered it, of course, and in fact it hadn’t occurred to me to solicit it.  On a shoot, interactions tend to take place on set or in nocturnal establishments post-filming.  We had never exactly had a ‘come home for tea’ arrangement

I finally heaved myself off to the bathroom, where I hawked up a ton of snot, generated by a combination of germs and sobbing.  I spat purple bubbles of mucus (I had just swallowed a Strepsil) into the ancient pink sink, and watched them flob slowly towards the plughole.  I turned on the rusty cold tap, and a judder of water emerged, which I half-heartedly pushed around the porcelain with my fingers, in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ it.

******

Of course, despite my attempts at ‘threats’ on the phone to Russ, I later broke down in front of Challenge Anneka, and bawled to Mel that I couldn’t go through with the premiere.

‘You’re bloody going, my girl!’ was his bluff response  ‘This is your big screen debut.  He’s the one who should be nervous about showing his face.  Fancy messing about with someone who he knew was going to be meeting his missus!  Not the sharpest crayon, is he?’

‘He was so cultured,’ I wailed idiotically.

‘Being cultured is no bar to being a cheating shit, sweetie.’

I languidly looked at TV for the rest of the evening.  Much of it was wallpaper to me, but at one point a paint commercial came on, depicting a young couple in matching denim dungarees, decorating what was clearly their forthcoming baby’s nursery.  They exchanged doting glances, and the mother-to-be caressed her neat little bump.  They wore no overalls to protect their pristine denims, and there were no paint splodges in sight.  The lighting was all yellow and warm and lovely.

‘I want that,’ I blurted out.  Mel looked nonplussed, as well he might.  We typically took the piss out of ads like that.  I was starting to yearn for a cosier set-up in life.

‘What, paint?  I don’t think old man Lycett’ll let us decorate in here.’

‘No, the lifestyle.  I’d like to be settled.  You should have heard Robin’s voice earlier, Mel.  The shame of it.  He was so disgusted.’

‘He’s a prick.  It’s not as though you knowingly set out to snare a married man.’

‘That’s irrelevant, though.  The fact is, Russ saw me as fair game; the sort of woman who would provide him with an extracurricular little fuck to pass the time.  I’m not wife material.’

I had never voiced those thoughts before.  I had never thought those thoughts before.  Now a twee commercial for emulsion had stirred up some emotion.

Mel was still unconvinced. ‘Wives seem to get a raw deal, from where I’m standing.’

******

Marriage and babies were far from the horizon, though.  Before all that, there was a ‘premiere’ to endure.  At least I was well over my cold by the time that night rolled around.  Every little helps.  The first night you sleep through without coughing; the first moment you cease to be a gross, wheezy mass of snot, you feel mighty.

Nonetheless, I was a bag of nerves as I manoeuvred the coveted blue strapless around my anatomy.  Wiggling in the mirror, I was confident I had made the right choice on that score at least.  The dress was a knockout.  I had crimped my hair – hey, the 80s hadn’t finished yet – and pinned one side up with a glittery butterfly hair slide.  A bit OTT by my standards, but Joan Collins remained a style icon from her Dynasty days, and bold glamour was still a winner.

Screw you, Jessica Varden!

But while Alexis Colby’s cat fights with her arch rival Krystle Carrington may have been legendary, I had no intention of degrading myself by clumping my ex’s wife in a pond.

‘How do I look, Mel?’ I pouted in the doorway.

‘Fabulous,’ he assured, not averting his eyes from the ‘destructions,’ as he called them, for the video.  We were about the last people in the world to acquire a VCR.  In terms of comprehensibility, the instruction pamphlet was on a par with algebra.  Teletext, another 80s innovation, was an addictive novelty.  We loved to ‘page the Oracle’ – read the news or play games presented in crudely colourful graphics.  It was the internet of its day.

‘You’re not even looking, you stupid yam-yam!’

‘I’m trying to record Howard’s Way.’  He shoved a huge blank video tape – which resembled an artefact from medieval times compared with the slimline DVDs and blu-rays of today – into the machine, then cursed when the machine inexplicably spat it out again.

‘You haven’t managed to tape the right channel yet.’

Mel finished stabbing buttons and finally looked up.  ‘You look hot.’

‘Really?’ I queried doubtfully.

‘Really.’

‘Just the thing to sock it to my ex and his bloody wife?’

‘Absolutely.’

******

The Jasper Arts Centre – named in honour of Jasper Carrott – was a tired little theatre set at the edge of an urban park close to Birmingham city centre.  The word ‘park’ may suggest an enchanted forest setting, but there were no twinkly lights or wood elves.  In fact, I deftly avoided jamming one of my new high heels into a stack of dog shit when I stepped out of the taxi.

Mel was in black tie (bless him, he had, as he put it, ‘butched up’ for the evening) and I swept in on his arm.  Or rather, I imagined I was sweeping.  Just as I imagined the red carpet, the frenetic camera flashes, the waving crowds.

In reality I couldn’t say there was a buzz – or anything approaching one – about the place.  Folks were just milling about the foyer, clutching plastic cups of warm Blue Nun and looking awkward.  Normally the mundanity of the environment would not have dispirited me.  It reminded me of a school hall, and I used to derive a kick from knowing I was going to be enlivening such a scene by performing my little arse off in school productions.

While Mel was at the bar I stood rigidly alone, my eyes – my only moving body parts – darting about frantically.  Just as Mel joined me, handing me a drink and the raffle ticket he’d exchanged for my coat at the mobile clothes rail behind a curtain, which they grandly dubbed the ‘cloakroom,’ I spotted Russ.

Russell bloody Varden, in a purple silk shirt and leather trousers, shaking hands with someone.  It was clear from the way he carried himself that he possessed ‘I’m the star of the show’ mentality.  I used to find his self-confidence sexy, but now he just seemed chillingly ruthless.  Another man might have been sheepish or evasive in the same room as his wife and lover, but he was devoid of any shame or emotion.  How dare he – the cocky bastard!

‘They’ve run out of…ah,’ Mel followed my gaze, ‘there’s not many straight men as can get away with lilac, I must admit.’

Then Robin, the only man apart from Mel apparelled in black tie that night, materialised next to me, with a rangy girl wearing tie-dye skinny jeans and a Stone Roses T-shirt.  She had huge shaggy hair, and was dangling a beer bottle between her thumb and forefinger (I wanted to ask her where she’d got that, seeing as everyone else there was sipping tepid ‘fizz’).

I ought to have outshone her in my Joan Collins get-up, but I instantly felt overdressed and desperate.

‘Ah, here’s Majella Bracebridge, our leading lady.’  Robin’s tone was about as warm as if he’d said, ‘Ah, here’s some dog shit.’  ‘And this,’ he added, muzzling me with a glare, ‘is Jess, Russ’s wife.’

******

It was only when I took my seat that I seethed, squirming with an urge to kick myself.  When I’d finally met my rival, I’d dumbly shaken hands and responded to her ‘Nice dress’ compliment with a lame ‘Thanks.’

She’d sounded sincere, to be fair to her, but in my defensive stance I assumed she must be taking the piss.  She looked so effortless and messy, with her ‘I’m too cool to use a brush’ air.  I envied her ‘Take me as you find me’ confidence.  The cockiness of youth.

‘Why am I such a wet, Mel?’ I carped now.  ‘That was my perfect opportunity to say “Look, love, here’s the thing – I’ve been banging your husband!  Did you know?”  But I just sort of drooped there!’

‘Because you’re better than that, that’s why.’  Mel gave my knee a firm pat.  ‘come on, do you really want to cause a scene here?  Why not rise above it all and enjoy your big night?’

‘I pictured her to be glam and glossy, but she’s like an overgrown student.  What’s she got that I haven’t?’

‘An unfaithful maggot of a husband,’ Mel responded reasonably.

‘Still looks bloody pleased with herself, though.  She’s so bloody young, Mel!  I’ve never felt so wrinkly as I do now.  They must have married when they were about twelve.’

‘His head was turned from the young chick to you, remember,’ Mel pointed out.

‘So he got bored and thought he’d give the old turkey a stuffing instead?  As well, rather.  That supposed to make me feel better?  And I was still speechless when he sidled up all suave – the ponce!’

‘Hadn’t we better be taking our seats, darling?’ Russ had said, before adding with phoney surprise, ‘Oh, hello Majella,’ as he whisked his wife away.

‘Eh up, it’s show time.’  Mel nudged me now as the house lights went down.

******

Robin was no showman.  His public speaking skills were what you might call ‘wanting.’  Some audience members were openly checking their watches as he banged on about what a ‘labour of love’ this work had been, and how ‘proud’ he was as its coming to fruition.  In his ill-fitting penguin suit, he had the air of a maths teacher who had been asked to step in and introduce the end of term show because the music teacher was off sick.

‘Our stars will be available for press interviews following the screening,’ he concluded, with, I thought, a pointed glance at me.  I would look forward to that.  I was already mentally flexing my knuckles in anticipation of a showdown.  I pretended not to notice as Mel also cast a wary look in my direction.  I would ignore his voice of reason on this occasion.

Robin finally wrapped up, and the heavy orange curtain behind him slid open to reveal a screen.  After ‘a word from our sponsors’ – advertising slots for the local Indian takeaway and discount office furniture warehouse, featuring still photographs – the titles rolled.  A GCSE Art student could have designed them.  ‘THE CRASH OF DESTINY’ blazed across the screen in a blocky yellow font.  Despite myself, the legend ‘STARRING MAJELLA BRACEBRIDGE’ gave me a dart of elation.  Sweet, supportive Mel nudged me, but the smirk that forced its way across my face was short-lived.

As if the film didn’t have a hard enough time achieving suspension of disbelief, the aforementioned nosy locals, including the odd hooker – could be spotted in the background of numerous scenes, gaping at the camera.

There was no natural flow or interaction, just stilted thesps reciting lines at one another.  The scenes were all dimly lit, with sleazy saxophone music and dramatic close-ups, like an AIDS advert.

At last the house lights came back on, illuminating twenty rows of glazed faces.  The ripplet of applause was so apathetic as to be patronising.  It would have been less shameful had they greeted the closing titles with complete silence.  Mel and I stayed put as the punters piled towards the exits.

That was, I confess, a lonely moment.  There we were, the leading actress and her gay pal, detached from the bustle.  My parents and Sophie were in Lanzarote, and Spencer was on his gap year in Australia (the country to which he would later emigrate).  Mom and Dad had offered to change their holiday dates, I’d declined and, glad as I was now that I hadn’t impelled them to sit through such drivel, I was conscious that Mel and I must have made a forlorn pair.  This was in a sense ‘my’ night; I should have been surrounded by adoring companions and showered with flowers.

‘Fancy another drink?’  Mel smiled.  ‘Although “fancy” might be too strong a word bearing in mind the stewed piss they serve up here and pass off as alcohol.’

‘It’s interview time,’ I said, trying to mask my jitters.

‘Now you behave!’  He wagged a finger.  ‘Don’t get saying anything silly.  He’s really not worth it.’

‘She seems a nice girl, though.  She deserves to know the truth.’

‘See sense, love!  Russ’ll be shadowing her every move.  You think he’s going to give you and wifey any alone time, when you’re likely to spill the beans?’

‘Look, if I turn up every day and churn out those cheesy lines with a straight face, I can talk to my ex’s wife – in front of him if need be.  I need a wee first, though, mate.’

******

The toilets were grim.  No star powder rooms for us.  Just skidmarks, scratchy bog roll, and a temperamental flush mechanism.  It was my urge to urinate, though, that precipitated my dreaded encounter with Jess the mess.

I tugged the flush four times before the glob of paper and piss finally sloshed down the pan.  I exited the cubicle – and encountered Mrs Scrawny herself at the sinks.  She was applying lippy, one of those nude shades so it looked as though she wasn’t wearing any make-up at all.  Not that she required make-up anyway, with her milky, freckly, youthful complexion.  My make-up looked caked and laboured by comparison.

My make-up looked caked and laboured by comparison.

‘Oh, hiya,’ she greeted, pleasantly enough.  So bloody cool and sure of herself.  What wasn’t there to hate about her?  ‘Great performance.’

I slammed my handbag on to the vanity top, rammed the tap on and shoved my hands under the fierce spurt.  The sudden tingle on my clammy skin was very welcome.  I was shaking.  I resisted the temptation to smooth my OTT dress over my hips, or fish my knickers out of my bum; any preening gestures that would have betrayed nerves in any way.

‘You don’t have to lie.’

She appeared, unsurprisingly, nonplussed at my spiky tone.  The au naturel lipstick was poised momentarily in mid air.

I snatched a paper towel from the dispenser.  Another four fluttered out.  I furiously swabbed my hands with the wodge.  I recognised this was my golden shot at time alone with Russ’s wife.  As Mel said, Russ was bound to chaperone her during any interview.  This was the one place he could not accompany her.

‘I’ve got an idea, Jess – why don’t you do your interview with me now?’  I loaded the word ‘interview’ with as much patronising sarcasm as I could.  I didn’t prefix it with ‘little,’ but the implication was unmistakable.  Such a diva.

‘Here?’

I tossed the paper towel mound into the bin, and shrugged.

‘Why not?  Get it over with.’

Fair play to the girl, she was unfazed.  She pulled herself up and actually sat on the vanity unit (no airs and graces there, or maybe she’d had a tetanus shot beforehand), shoving aside the sad bowl of pot pourri.

‘You not a fan of the Midlands Argus then?’ she grinned, bloody annoyingly understandingly, as she withdrew a very rumpled notebook from her bag.  She had a mustard coloured canvas knapsack that resembled – and quite possibly was – an old school bag, that she no doubt lugged around in an attempt to appear ‘ironic.’

I shrugged again, the picture of indifference. ‘I read the Birmingham Bullet.’  The BB was the main city rival to the Argus.

Jess crossed one stringy leg over the other, and leant the book on her knee, bitten Bic in hand.  ‘You’re out of luck tonight then.  Rumour has it the old geezer from there’s covering the under 13s disco dance championships in Lower Gornal.’

‘You’re not what I expected, you know.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing.’

She was still smiling, ever the personable journalist.  ‘Now shall we start?’

‘Sure.’

‘So when did you first get the fame bug?’

She pelted me with questions, about my life, my training, my career, my character in The COD.  She was good, I’ll give her that.  Her style was benignly probing.  She asked the right questions, to engender easy chat.  Or they would have done, had I been arsed to chat easily.  I answered honestly, fully – hey, I wasn’t shunning the publicity – but with a clipped disdain.  Jess, clearly used to obstructive thesps, bowled on valiantly, with no trace of unease, and made shorthand notes; anarchic, illegible strokes across the dog-eared sheets.

I admit to a pang when discussing my childhood coaching with Miss Webley with such coldness, but I just wanted to skip through the dialogue.  I was building up to the terrible moment when I told this really rather pleasant woman I’d been banging her husband.

Am I really up to doing this?  I’m not a slut.  I’m nice.  I never set out to be a mistress.  Maybe Mel’s right – I should just try to enjoy this night and not stir things up?  I’ll move on from stupid Russ.  He was never going to be the love of my life.  Jess will probably find out in her own sweet time what sort of a man she’s married to.

Why did I never pay heed to my inner sensible voice?

One minute I was contemplating keeping my trap closed, next minute the words were out there.  Jess had reached the question on her list ‘What was your personal highlight of making this movie?’ and the response simply presented itself.

I took a huge breath.  ‘My personal highlight, Jessica, would have to be the affair I had with my leading man, who until a couple of weeks ago I had no idea was your husband.’

There.  The longest sentence I’d uttered during this whole surreal toilet tête-à-tête, and it was really quite a corker.

This woman could have decked me, or scratched at me, screeching like a wounded banshee, but all had come to an eerie standstill in that dirty pink powder room with its dusty pot pourri.

The pen paused in its scratchy progress across her notebook.  Something definitely registered on that lovely face of hers.  In fact I got the oddest impression it was relief; perhaps at confirmation of something she had long suspected?

Were we in a rom-com, I’d have defused the atmosphere by smiling winsomely and saying something shallow and girlie like ‘Hey, you’ve got fabulous skin!  Got any tips?’  After her initial rancour she’d have melted, I’d ,have bunched up next to her on that awful sink top, and we’d have bonded over moisturising techniques and heartache about our mutual ex.  We’d have fist-bumped, and I’d have said earnestly, ‘You deserve so much better than him.  You’re a diamond.’  Despite myself, I had actually started to rather like her.

But I hadn’t done – and never would do – a rom-com.  There was no bonding, moisturising, or bumping of fists.  Neither was there any wailing, or scratching, or slapping.  Was I disappointed?  Well I can’t deny the actress in me might have relished a fight scene.

‘I see.’  She jammed the lid on to her pen and tossed her notebook into that dreadful canvas bag.  She jumped down.  I disobeyed my instinct to back away defensively, preferring to – in current parlance – woman up, and face whatever punches or words Jessica intended to throw at me.

She heaved the bag on to her spindly shoulder, and just when I thought she was going to glide out of there without a word, she hissed in my ear, ‘For your information, my husband and I enjoy an open marriage.’

‘It’s a wonder there’s room in your house for both of your egos,’ I spat back, but she had wrong-footed me again.  She had won, with her calm decorum and her liberal sexual arrangements.  I felt like a pitiful child, whereas she was a 90s woman before the 90s had even started.

The door burst open, and we were ironically interrupted by Lisa, who played the part of Andy’s cheated-on girlfriend Lorraine.  Her chirpy squeals were jarring in the strained atmosphere.

‘Ooh, hello you two!’  A bubbly blonde Brummie, Lisa would have had no qualms about the state of the toilets, or the lukewarm audience, tonight.  She was simply grateful to be in a film.  I quite envied her.  ‘I’m ready when you are for my interview, Jess.  No rush, though, Majella love.  I’m dying for a widdle first anyway.’

‘Don’t worry, Lisa,’ Jess shouted, over the cubicle door clunking shut behind my co-star, ‘this interview’s over.’

******

Her review was her masterpiece of revenge.  I had to hand it to her – no other journo I knew had ever constructed a critique without a single mention of the leading lady.

Printed under the byline Jessica Cooper-Varden, alongside an article about a man from Smethwick who made his own toilet paper, it pointedly name-checked everyone from baby Axl to a man who had two lines.

‘It might as well be my obituary,’ I wept to Mel.

‘Chip wrapping,’ was his loyally dismissive response.

‘Bloody “electrifying Russell Varden,”’ I quoted, ‘with his “mesmeric menace.”  I’m surprised she’s so complimentary about him.’

‘Yeah, and I’m sure the “open marriage” thing was a lie to save face.’

So much for chip wrapping, though.  For weeks I was batting off ‘I thought you were in it?’ comments from curious friends who had read Jessica’s piece.  It was devastatingly embarrassing.

‘All those weeks I was fannying about in that studio, and getting off with electrifying Russell, I might as well have gone shopping in the Pallasades every day.  It’s not as though I can easily prove I’m in it.  The COD isn’t exactly being shown in every multiplex in the country.’

I told everyone – and myself – that forfeiting plaudits on the local rag’s ents page was a price worth paying to expose Russell’s slimy affair to his smug wife.  I said I maintained the upper hand, because I had sacrificed publicity for integrity.  In truth, it was – I can’t deny – a pisser.

I now recognise this episode as the onset of my slide into major depression.

******

Incidentally, the aged hack from the Birmingham Bullet who Jess told me was covering the pubescent disco contest in Lower Gornal, was later imprisoned under Operation Barbel, the same police investigation that nailed Vince Rook of Lucky Lights fame and also Rod Rudge, the smiling, cable knitwear-clad host of The Mo & Bo Show.  The latter allegedly assaulted the young lady who puppeteered Mo and Bo’s fluffy crustacean friend Bjorn the Prawn.

The whole Crash of Destiny episode gave rise to some unfortunate consequences all round.  Approximately eighty-five people were in attendance to watch the premiere, the majority being friends with or related to at least one member of the cast or crew.

The word ‘premiere’ may imply it was the first of several COD screenings, but in fact this was the one and only time it was seen in a cinema.  Robin Lucas blamed his masterpiece’s lack of success on the fact all of the local picture houses opted to show another British classic, Shirley Valentine, instead.  As though, had that comedy been released a week later, the BAFTA and Oscar nominations might have come our way.

Robin’s directorial career did not flourish.  Last I heard, he was teaching Media Studies in Solihull.

Interesting postscript: in the early 1990s, Russell Varden found God, renounced infidelity, and magnanimously forgave me for ruthlessly ‘seducing’ him.

I never maintained contact with him, so how did I know this?  I saw him on Central Weekend, holding hands with his forgiving wife Jessica.  He didn’t appear as a household name (for all his ambitions and pretentions, I’d only seen him in an Asda commercial), but as a zealous debater on an edition about born again Christianity.

He didn’t refer to me by name, of course, but to the numerous actresses who had enticed him on film sets over the years, and how his new found faith had given him the strength to forgive us all for diverting him from his saintly wife.

Note that myself, and the other nameless malevolent sirens, were the guilty parties, and Russell’s God-given strengths did not extend to shouldering the blame for his own adultery.

I resisted the temptation to throw things at the telly.  Such as my own vomit.  I had, I am very glad to say, moved on with my life by then.

Jess, eyes cast down, hand limply resting in her husband’s, looked terribly drawn, and far less sure of herself than on the last occasion I’d seen her.  She was no doubt blinded by the pious gleam in his eye.  Never was there a person I was gladder not to be.

Mel was probably right, her claim of an open marriage – an arrangement which by implication she’d have been complicit and content with – was bullshit.

A VHS copy of The Crash of Destiny exists to this day, boxed up in some dusty niche of my loft.  Strangely, I have never got around to converting it to DVD.  Just as I would never have converted to Russell’s particular brand of religion.  That pardoning by the would-be messiah on regional TV was the last I ever saw of him.  Our destinies, unlike Claire and Andy’s cars at the start of that wretched film, would never collide again.  For small mercies I am always glad.

 

Chapter 11: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-11/

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