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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