Chapter 4

4
Correspondence from another era

OK, I played down my heartache.

Where the hell had my nonchalant ‘we’ve decided to cool things off for a while’ come from? ‘We’ had decided nothing. I’d caught Gareth and Romy entwined in the kind of contortions I’d until then only thought achievable by zoo animals.

I’d jetted tears on to Mel’s shoulder (he joined in – moved as ever by drama). I sobbed so hard I retched. Dear Mel actually tucked me into bed with a hot water bottle and my moth-eaten Sooty teddy bear.

Even now, I couldn’t tell you quite why I felt the need to save face with my family. Perhaps it was a sense of duty to portray myself as a worldly student daughter/sister, to justify their encouragement and pride. My mother was hooked on Brideshead Revisited; her notion of undergraduate life was all sophistication and champagne. I hated to disenchant her.

Or possibly I was merely trialling my acting skills. I hadn’t been thinking only of the family when I was practising my ‘wistful’ face that night I’d cooked. Who knew kippers could be so stirring?

I remained an emotional shambles for a week. The silliest triggers set me off. It was only when Mel saw me crying at 3-2-1, over a gutted-looking couple from Brighton winning a dustbin, the booby prize, that he decided even he could only take so much wailing and drama and declared that he was taking me out for ‘the piss-up of your life, girl.’

So my dear flatmates hauled me to Larry’s to commemorate the dregs of my twentieth birthday. I threw up in a drain, filled a few more canals with my tears, came home with the phone number of a bricklayer called Donna pressed into my pocket and food poisoning from one of Bert’s fetid hot dogs, and finally passed out in bed clutching Sooty to my wounded heart.

Not one of my better nights out, all things considered.

******

I was reflecting on all this one Wednesday morning a lifetime later, by which time I’d acquired so many things I didn’t have in 1981 – maturity, wisdom, stretch marks, a laptop.

I was in the jangled state of the overtired. Sleep having eluded me the previous night, I’d flicked through the graveyard slot TV, landing on Channel 5 at the start of Poker Face: The Lady Gaga Story, which seemed the perfect escapist rot to stultify me. I lolled cosily back on the sofa in my pyjamas.

‘Introducing Felicity Rushcliff as Lady Gaga,’ blared the lurid credits.

Rushcliff? Rushcliff!

It was the kind of kitsch biopic that always earns one star in the Radio Times reviews, I think my first school Nativity was staged on a larger budget (I’d played a sheep – opposite Andrea Clamp’s Mary), and under normal circumstances I’d have been snoozing before the first ad break. Instead I found myself alertly scrutinising the wooden leading lady for resemblance to her dad (she had his eyes), while wondering why the hell it mattered after all these years.

Had I been watching this with Mel, a few vodkas under our belts, I’d have had a good fun bitch about ‘all my years at drama school’ being wasted when this lumpy kid could bag a starring part – even though I wasn’t naive and knew how nepotism worked.

When I finally slithered into bed beside my snoring husband, long-dormant images spooled through my mind, further hindering sleep.

My twentieth birthday. The car, parked where it shouldn’t have been in a discreet street behind Rackhams. Not his new car, which sported a personalised number plate, but his mother’s white Polo, which he used when he wanted to go incognito. My naive glee that, after being away for weeks, he’d clearly remembered my birthday and come to whisk me away for a surprise treat.

How had he known I’d be working today, though, and what time I finished? He must have turned up at the flat in search of me, and been told by one of my obliging flatmates where I could be located. What quaint ways we had of communicating in the pre-mobile phone era. That flat didn’t even have a landline.

Me tottering along the cobbles clutching the lavish bouquet my colleagues in the toy department had clubbed together to buy me. Then tugging open the car door, squealing, ‘Well this is a – ’

The unsaid ‘surprise’ would have been a massive understatement. Instead of occupying the driver’s seat, with an expectant grin and an expensive gift, my Gareth was writhing in the back, squeezed to the point of asphyxiation between Romy’s sumo thighs. It was a greasy orgy of flesh and feral hair.

‘Hop in, love.’ Romy’s coarse tone sounded grotesque. ‘This’ll complete your education. I’ll show you somewhere to stick your flowers and all!’

Did people really talk like that outside of two-bit porn? Evidently! Mind you, she probably had experience in the genre.

‘Shut the door, you bitch!’ I heard as I scampered away in anguish, still gripping those flowers.

******

Over my eighth coffee the day after that flashback-filled night, I checked my messages. I’d been inundated since Come Dine with Me. It was my first time on TV since Mel was on Piers Morgan.

There had been the frothy text from a certain Melvyn Corns:

Saw you on CDWM – what a triumph, my girl!! You kept that one quiet. I still remember those charred Pot Noodles!! Once again it’s been far too long since we convened for a good old chinwag. Mom asks after you constantly too – AND I can’t wait for you to meet Donald. After all the loves of my life he could be the one!!! Once this tour ends next month, we really must synchronise diaries. Toodle-oo and much love, Melly xxxx

An e-mail had come from my brother Spencer in Australia:

Thanks for the link to the show, sis. We all watched it last night. Bonza stuff!! I’m dead proud of you.

Well it looks like we’re coming back for Dad’s 80th – checking out flights as we speak!!

Better dash – am at work. Mo and the kids send their luv to you all. Talk soon. Big hugz sis.

xxxx

Even a Facebook friend request from the Virgin Mary/Cinderella herself, Andrea Clamp, landed in my inbox:

U OK hun? Saw you on telly the other day LOL. U still doin all the acting & that? I got 12 grandkids now…the youngest bein baby Kanye (our Sinitta’s youngest) born 3 days ago!! Howz bout u? U member that time I tied you to a tree with your skipping rope and left you their the whole of lunch? Happy dayz! Mrs Beresford put you in detention for bein late. LOL x

I hadn’t ‘membered’ it actually, Andrea, but thanks for the flashback.

I was on my laptop in the snug, which by tacit consensus was designated ‘my study’ in the house. I’d had free rein on the decor, which was in what my hubby calls my ‘camp’ style, and it was crammed with comforting memorabilia and trinkets from my mercurial career.

One wall was dominated by a huge monochrome print of my dearly missed cat Tesco. Scott, a photographer friend of mine, had expertly captured the perky appeal of that gutsy urban moggie who had become such a star.

Adorning the opposite wall was Scott’s dramatic shot of dear Nelson Love in full Bob Fosse mode, pouting confidently, a translucent shirt exposing his beautifully toned torso.

Anyway, call me conceited (I’ve been called worse) but after ‘my’ episode of Come Dine with Me aired I watched it numerous times on YouTube, revelling in the – I might as well admit it – rewarding buzz of seeing myself on television again.

It set me off on a nostalgic tangent. I actually unearthed the old Arrowsmith & Broom commercial. Believe it or not, it took nerve after all those years. I hovered my cursor over the play button for several minutes as though it were a trigger.

It was absurdly emotional and mesmerising seeing that fuzzy clip of the young, fearless Majella Bracebridge in a plywood pub set, squealing to my pretend boyfriend (Keith, his name was – dreadful halitosis. I kept offering him Polos between takes, but he refused to take the mint hint) about the mellow virtues of Arrowsmith & Broom brown ale.

‘Brewed in Brum,’ I squawked. What was I on? I downed Keith’s pint, while he gaped on in overacted disgust, then wiped the back of my hand across my mouth in that controversially ‘unladylike’ manner (I mean, there were actually letters to the Evening Mail about it, all while the Miners’ Strike was raging and Ethiopia starved) and declared ‘It’s a bostin’ pint!’ Point, I pronounced it.

And there it was – the catchphrase repeated by a thousand copycats in playgrounds, offices, pubs especially of course. I heard Les Dennis even did an impression of me in a panto. A Brummie twang in a TV commercial was such a novelty back then.

Since the Come Dine with Me appearance, my ad was actually trending (get me – down wiv da kidz) on YouTube. I scrolled, fascinated, through the comments below the clip. Many of those that predated CDWM were of the ‘Where is she now?’ ilk. ‘I saw her at a funeral once,’ one had replied. The less imaginative observers merely repeated my catchphrase, exaggerating my accent with capital letters and too many vowels, as in ‘IT’S A BOSTIN POIIIIINNNT!!’

Someone who gloried in the username GavVillaFan declared that he ‘still would.’ How honoured I was! Believe me, that was clean compared with some of the desires expressed. I am so glad there had been no internet to give instant access to such squalid outpourings when I was young enough to be creeped-out – or stupidly flattered – by them. Perverts had to write letters in those days. At least there was a bit of effort involved.

The set was authentic, I had to admit. A proper old-fashioned boozer, with a jukebox in the corner, and plastic ashtrays and beer mats and foam spewing out of leather-look seats. A period piece really. It conveyed an atmosphere you could almost smell through the screen. I imagined such an establishment having long since been converted to a Wacky Warehouse – which was absurd considering it wasn’t even real.

As usual, watching YouTube proved a nostalgic, addictive activity. Before I knew it, I’d been through all of Tesco’s adverts, with the usual tear in my eye. I adored that little fuzzball. Missing a beloved pet is nothing original. At least I’m lucky mine lives on through the medium of film, advertising everything from chocolate to electricity to, more predictably, cat food.

Over lunch, I checked my work e-mails. My cheese and onion bagel was poised halfway to my expectant mouth (such a good look!) when I saw his name. His name – the father of Felicity Rushcliff, the world’s most lacklustre actress – and not in the showbiz news or on an 80s forum, but in my inbox.

I blushed – after all this time, actually blushed – and automatically put down my bagel, as though he could somehow see me through the screen, with crumbs and globs of cheese dotting my ancient Garfield T-shirt.

It had been thirty years. Ludicrously, my fingers wobbled as the cursor hovered over his name – the twenty-first century equivalent of not opening a letter due to fearing its contents. I was disgusted with myself.

I’d put my little TV on, for Loose Women (I know, I know!). It was the ad break, and from a very long way off Cheryl Cole was swooshing her lovely hair around. ‘Becoz ya worth it, pet.’ Or something. All was normal with the world. The world outside my whirring head, anyway.

With a timid double-click, his message whooshed open.

What a turn-up!

Providence must have drawn me to the tour bus telly the day you were on Come Dine With Me. I don’t normally watch rubbish like that, but Fate always finds a way, as they say.

You haven’t aged a day, my love. Bit of a ball ache turning 50, though, eh? Ouch! Trouble is in my head I’m still 20. I daresay you’re the same? Me and the boys will be needing Stannah stairlifts to make it to the stage soon, but we’re still here – several wives/boyfriends, children, lawsuits and operations later.

We’re coming to Weston Park on Saturday the 26th on this Now That’s What I Call a Pension thing. I’m sure you’ve seen it advertised. Glinda and Schadenfreude on the same bill for the first time ever!! Who’d have thought? I would love to catch up with you. A backstage pass could be yours if you so desire. Seeing you again brought back a raft of memories. I realised I hadn’t clapped eyes on you since Zena’s wake in 86. I can put you on the guest list if you fancy reminiscing about our hazy youth?

I’ve done things in life I’m not proud of. The difference is that now I choose not to carry my mistakes around with me – I place them under my feet and use them as stepping stones. I learned that in rehab.

I still think about our time together. If you think the grass is greener on the other side, stop looking and water your own. I have always been grateful for the fact you never sold out to any kiss ’n‘ tell rag, unlike some I could mention. You maintained your dignity.

Hope to hear from you soon.

All the best,

G xx

Wow. And, to quote Gareth himself, ‘Ouch.’ I wasn’t sure which bit to gape at first: the over-familiar use of his initial; the dismissive arrogance he still couldn’t quite disguise; his spooky echoes of my own thoughts on ‘providence’ drawing me to the TV the night his daughter was on; the clumsy pseudo philosophy.

What is it, incidentally, with people continually trotting out this Facebook ideology as though it’s gospel? They are usually the same types who think writing ‘FACT’ at the end of a sentence magically makes it true.

I had seen the Weston Park show advertised in the Express & Star. Judging by the publicity shot, I had to admit Gareth, Trevor, Joe and Mike had aged relatively well. Romy, their steadfast appendage, looked, at fifty, like a poster woman for a fetish chatline.

My mind was sent hurtling back to our last encounter which, as he rightly recalled, was at Zena’s wake. Our ill-advised hook-up. Our retro-shag, if you will.

******

In December 1986 the legendary Zena was found dead in her bathroom from an overdose; she had spent years hoovering the sale proceeds from her iconic nightclub up her nose.

Her electricity had been cut off, and her fetid flat was devoid of food, but she died – and was by all accounts buried – in a lime green puffball gown with matching feather boa, and every iota of jewellery she owned (and hadn’t pawned). Mourners spoke with awe of how she had glammed up for her final journey, overlooking the squalid manner of her passing.

Gareth hosted the wake at the club itself, which had retained Zena’s name despite being rebranded as a ‘discotheque’ by its new owners.

Of course I was mourning a Birmingham icon, celebrating the club in which I’d met Mel and spent many a joyous night. I’d be lying, though, to deny that Gareth was the main draw; that there was a morbid curiosity, as it were, about reuniting with my lost love. Judge me if you so wish for making a funeral the backdrop for such a reunion.

Boyfriends had flitted through since 1981, but I was presently unattached. I was aware Gareth was between wives, father to two little boys, Felicity’s half-brothers Caspian and Isambard, and newly discharged from his first stretch in rehab.

New Romanticism was strictly passé by this stage, and Glinda Spitfire were increasingly conspicuous by their absence from Top of the Pops. The zenith of their career had come a couple of years before, when they recorded the theme to the latest Bond film, Chopper to Mombassa. By contrast, their most recent album, Monochrome, had barely scraped the top twenty.

I had blossomed in confidence. That ‘little me dating a pop star’ humility of five years ago had disappeared. There was a sense that I could meet him now as an equal; that I was somebody now, even if it was ‘that girl from that advert.’ In truth, I’d had little work myself since my two scenes in Crossroads in the summer. I was grateful for sporadic shifts at Rackhams, and for the royalties from Tesco’s little appearances.

In fact the ceremony deeply moved me, and undoubtedly inspired my subsequent career change. It wasn’t Glinda Spitfire’s tired performance, or Romy’s ‘expressive dance’ which supposedly represented Zena’s exhilarating life (although to me it just looked like a load of swirling and sobbing), but the overall effect which was that of a show with little substance.

Enigmatic to the last, Zena’s eulogies yielded few more details about her than her life had done. If a family existed, they were not in attendance, having either disowned her as per the rumours or passed away themselves. There was a clutch of celebrities in attendance, including my mom’s favourite TV chef, Julian Crowfoot, whose infamous drink problem was just then becoming the stuff of tabloid column inches.

‘You look bloody good in black, girl,’ was the line that stirred me from my melancholy at the bar afterwards. And there was Gareth, large as life and twice as gorgeous. I maintained the cool facade I’d been rehearsing, though my heart gave a worrying lurch.

‘They say it’s a slimming colour,’ I responded, with a catty glance at Romy, who had squeezed her squat frame into a pair of salmon pink leggings and a tight turquoise top, and was slurring to Julian – who was openly transfixed by her cleavage – about how ‘Zee would have wanted me to come in bright colours.’ She resembled a melted Zoom ice lolly.

‘From the way she’s walking, she looks like she has just come!’ What was I doing? I was never normally acidic like this – even if the girl had happened to have shagged my boyfriend.

Gareth looked at me with a kind of baffled admiration. ‘Drink?’

‘Cinzano, please.’

I did look good in black, I must admit. I had lost weight of late, and the clinging dress was new, courtesy of my Rackhams staff discount. I persuaded myself that none of this was for Gareth’s benefit – oooh no! – but for my own self-esteem. I was a million miles and as many years away from the wailing girl who had bussed it to his mom’s house after that disastrous birthday, to fight for him, plead with Mrs Rushcliff to pass messages to wherever he was in the world – until she told me to get lost.

‘I even wrote you letters, like some crazed fan,’ I laughed with affected incredulity.

‘I never got them, babe,’ he said sincerely.

He looked older – well of course he was, but there were shadows under his lovely brown eyes, and a weariness about him, but also an intensity and a palpable pain. He looks, I must admit, better now than he did then. He was tall and by then had adopted a slight stoop, which gave him a bashful, little-boy-lost air that I tried not to find appealing.

The whole band had aged. Trevor Lilley looked dazed and scrawny. A few months ago, the Sun’s front page had screamed ‘MY GAY HELL, BY GLINDA SPITFIRE HEART THROB’ when he took the what was then, in those Clause 28 days, very brave step of bursting out of the closet. Trevor’s admission earned him admiration and derision in equal measure. He broke a million teenage girls’ hearts. In every other respect he followed what appeared to be the pop star syllabus: ‘DRUGS HELL’ ensued (every adversity was ‘HELL’ in tabloid-speak), and then the inevitable ‘REHAB.’

As Gareth spouted on about his first wife Lisa, and how his most recent girlfriend Stacie Slack (the name fitted, by all accounts), a Page 3 ‘moddul,’ as my dad called them, had callously dumped him, I listened and smiled sweetly like an interested friend.

I was not jealous, I told myself. These women were more than welcome to him. He could break whose heart he wished, but he would never break mine again. I felt all mature and virtuous, conveying friendly empathy, while at the same time hoping to dazzle him with my new self-assurance.

In fact I harboured designs on us being what they nowadays term ‘friends with benefits.’ If he dipped his wick elsewhere, it would make no odds to me since we would never be an official couple.

There was no apology or even acknowledgment of the fact I’d caught him being carnal in his car with Romy. I wasn’t seeking apologies. I had risen above all that.

Even back then he was parroting supposedly ‘profound’ maxims.

‘Our eyes are placed in front because it’s more important to look forward and not back,’ was one.

Well he gave the lie to that one, if what he meant was it was unwise to rekindle past affairs. We slunk upstairs and ‘did it’ – as I used to quaintly term it back then – in a deserted room above the club.

It didn’t last very long – we’d had plenty to drink, after all – but it had the urgency of a goodbye present. I knew this was going to be our last time together, and I screwed furiously and vengefully. He was clearly stunned by my licking, probing, clasping, scratching ferocity.

‘Shall I call you, or…?’

It was his turn to be abandoned mid-sentence. After doing up my clothes, without even looking at him, I stalked out of that seedy little room and didn’t stop until I got home. I would not take my place in line with all his other groupies and bimbos. I’d decided the best revenge would be a life lived well. I felt powerful and proud. It was much later that a strange sense of emptiness began to develop.

******

On Christmas Day, watching EastEnders with the family, I inexplicably burst into tears just as Dirty Den was dishing up the divorce papers to Ange. I found myself finally spilling the beans to Mom, about Gareth, about the past anguish that I’d never unburdened to her. I have no idea why it chose that moment to escape me, but it was a cathartic sob. I was utterly spent by the time I finished, and slept solidly until noon on Boxing Day.

In the New Year, I read how Gareth had enjoyed ‘an emotional Yuletide reconciliation’ with Stacie Slack, and three months later their wedding photos were splurged across the Sun (Stacie did not become fish-eyed Felicity’s mother – that fate was reserved for the third Mrs Rushcliff). They divorced a year later, thus begetting another cycle of ‘HELL,’ booze, rehab, etc, etc.

And now here I was, a lifetime later, with Loose Women making white noise in the background, dizzily rereading an e-mail from him.

Swallowing the last wodge of bagel, I started to type out a reply.

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