Chapter 14

14
A Therapy Session with Gareth Rushcliff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 5

5
(She Just) Died on Her Arse

Coming soon…

Chapter 8

8
A Club for Tiny Show-Offs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who’s that, her girlfriend?’

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Floozie’ was a new word to me then.

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majella’s a nice name, I thought.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10

10
The Crash of Destiny

Coming soon…

Chapter 12

12

Spring Cleaning My Life

 

Cleaning.  You could say it was cleaning that saved me during my spell of depression.  My ‘blue period,’ as I came to delicately term it.

Cleaning became my way of attaining control.  I equated it to anorexics’ relationships with food.  To sweepingly oversimplify, they attempt to assert control over what they perceive as chaotic lives by counting calories and severely curtailing their food intake.  My way of doing so was to zealously dust and mop.  Just as an anorexic might stand before a mirror and visualise a fat person, I would survey our immaculate flat and see acres of dust.

Mel cleaned for a living at that time, but at home I was the one wielding the Mr Sheen can.  I was happy (relatively so, at least) when I was cleaning; I had a purpose, a mission.  My time was not wasting away.  I was achieving.  The simple concept that one minute dust was there and then the next, because of me and my mighty duster (typically a pair of Mel’s old underpants), it wasn’t, boosted my meagre self-esteem; gave me a slender sense of power.  Tiny goals can feel like monstrous achievements when you have depression.

I had a specified ‘cleaning day,’ Wednesday, partly because in my precarious profession I craved a semblance of routine, of regularity.  On cleaning day I was galvanised.  I became OCD.  Still am, to a certain extent.  Petty inconsistencies leap out at me.  Drawers that are not fully closed, flecks of fluff on the carpet, CDs adrift from their cases.  I itch until I can rectify them.  I can’t unsee them.  I know they are there.  To this day, Wednesday remains my cleaning day, as if in homage to that period.

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

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

The days when I wasn’t cleaning, I wasn’t galvanised.  Simple as.  I worked the shifts at Rackhams I’d had the foresight to retain.  I visited my family.  I ate little and unenthusiastically, I lost weight, wore children’s clothes and saved the VAT (though inexplicably bemoaned my inability to ensnare a boyfriend with these unsexy outfits).  I goggled numbly at soap operas and game shows even though I knew I should be fulfilling my time with more useful pursuits.  I could feel my very brain cells rotting, yet my arse was suckered to the comfortable settee and I was powerless to break the cycle of monotony.  I washed my hair, I ironed, I slept, I did the shopping.  I drove Tesco to his little casting calls.

I did occasional acting myself (it hadn’t entirely dried up).  There was my stint in Crossroads (I felt I invested my line, ‘Which way to the gym?’ with all the beauty it merited), two lines in Boon, a Little Chef advert, a sketch with Bobby Davro, a health and safety corporate video in which I had to pretend to topple off a ladder in impractically high heels.  No starring roles in sitcoms set on canal barges, though.

So I was far from idle.  Yet through it all I felt a sense of nothingness; a sense I was viewing the world through a window.  A sense of ennui.  I liked that French word.  It sounded rather elegant and Jane Austen heroine-ish.  Everything was an anticlimax.  I longed to feel anger, emotion, something.  Anything would have been preferable to this detached listlessness.

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

My self-expression and assurance dissolved.  I seldom went out; socialising became an ordeal because I would fret about every phase of the evening, from leaving the flat on time to whether I had a ladder in my tights.  When I wasn’t acting – and thus wasn’t tethered to a script and had to articulate my own thoughts – I could barely construct a sentence.  I was an undoubted disappointment to companions who expected an actress to be ‘on,’ to be droll, gregarious company.

******

The rare spells between 1984 and 1989 (I could actually count them) when I did break down and howl came as such tremendous relief.  The emotion felt healthy and natural; it demonstrated I was alive.

One of those moments came when I learned about Nelson’s illness.

The evening of the BAPA reunion, I had sagged into bed after watching Catchphrase, though not without experiencing a rare blast of energy and scrawling a note for Mel directing him to my unfinished dinner in the oven.  Despite being entirely averse to the idea of attending the reunion myself, as I flipped the TV off I’d started to half-heartedly wonder how Mel’s night was going.  Poor Mel.  He didn’t deserve my dramas.  I loved him, and tomorrow we were going to deck the Christmas tree together.  I girlishly appended a string of kisses to my scribbly note, and headed to bed.

I awoke relatively energised by the childlike promise of putting up our wiry tree and decorating it with the paltry baubles and bald tinsel we possessed.  Mel had an eye for that kind of thing – he was used to decorating himself like a Christmas tree on a regular basis, after all.

The flat was filled with an uncharacteristic fug, and I couldn’t hear Going Live, which was a discouraging sign (we never missed it, both harbouring devoted crushes on Phillip Schofield).  I found Mel slouched at the kitchen table, looking about fifty and drawing on a Marlboro.  He had given up smoking six years earlier.  When he lapsed, I knew things were not good.

Then he delivered Nelson’s news.

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

I am ashamed to say I experienced a nanosecond of foot-stamping disappointment that we had been going to put the tree up, and now those plans were all spoilt.  Then I immediately mentally bashed myself for being so childishly selfish.

An illogical urge to escape overwhelmed me.  To escape my own embarrassment as much as anything.  I was clad in my pyjamas and slippers, with no money or keys about my person, yet all I knew was that I wanted to – had to – be out of this stifling flat which reeked of raw pork and stale smoke, where my best friend was telling me another of my best friends was dying of AIDS, and I was acting like a twat, putting my own trivial needs first.

I have a grainy memory of the next few moments.  Pelting down the sparse stairway, hauling open the door, taking a voracious gulp of the sharp December air as though it were my first breath, whooshing along the entry, past the parched hanging basket, out of the gate, behind the butcher’s van and into the road, to a cacophony of car horns and expletives as a car whose arrival had been obscured by the van shrieked to an emergency stop to avoid me.  And then a pair of arms around me, tugging me away as though out of a canal in which I had almost drowned, and Mel sobbing ‘You stupid cow,’ over and over at me.

Mel was supremely in control that day: apologising to the poor driver who’d nearly had to scrape my Kermit-pyjama’d form off his front bumper, pushing me up the stairs, making me tea, calling Dr Dolphin, who came out despite it being a Saturday (those were the days) and him surely having a plethora of elderly hypothermia victims to attend to.  I cried for those frozen pensioners who I pictured dying due to lack of medical attention because Dr Dolphin was ministering to stupid Majella Bracebridge who’d run in front of a Maxi.  I was patently sick too, though, according to his diagnosis, as he prescribed me antidepressants.

Mel and I talked and talked that day.  I well and truly unburdened.  The effect was exhausting.  I barely halted for breath in my chaotic monologue, about Nelson, Gareth, my career, Linda, even Andrea Clamp’s clandestine bullying of me at school.  Cups of tea materialised in front of me, without any apparent interruption in the flood of conversation.  For once I had justification to cry, and the tears jetted forth without restraint.

I don’t think we ever put that bloody tree up.

Depression can be a very self-absorbing condition, and I had been sorely lacking in perspective for far too long.  The simple revelation that I was not the only person in the world with problems set me off into a cycle of pitiful guilt and melancholy, until I made the decision that such self-reproach was counter-productive.

That day was the last time I let anybody be in control of me.  My last day of being this passive clod I’d been for far too long.

The prospect of entering a co-dependent relationship with antidepressant pills was unnerving.  I was fairly ignorant about their effects – they were just not talked about then, and of course the internet was a yet-to-be-invented research tool – but knew they were not sweets to be consumed nonchalantly.  I envisaged these ‘happy pills’ achieving the absolute opposite effect to the depression itself, thus transforming me into a giddy, manic monster, grinning and cackling uncontrollably like some horror movie dummy that comes to life and murders the ventriloquist.

It was days until I gathered the courage to hand my prescription in at Boots; further days before I swallowed my first tablet.  They intimidated me, but in fact had a calming, kind of softening impact.  They engendered a long-absent sense that I could cope; that my life was not hurtling out of control.

******

Over Christmas, Mel and I met up with Nelson.  He wouldn’t let us go to his house – he told Mel on the phone that he disliked the implication this held of ‘being visited, like a patient,’ but insisted on meeting at the Greyhound in Wolverhampton.

Even despite Mel’s warning, I was shocked by his dramatic weight loss.  We were not to talk about ‘it,’ the pink elephant in the room.  Nelson’s friendly eyes were poignantly hollow now, though shone with the same light of old.  We talked about Kylie, Neighbours (I shared his obsession, since my settee/daytime TV addiction had me in its grip), the collapse of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, Tiananmen Square, Judy Finnigan’s new hairdo.

There was a gang of football fans in the pub, bundled up in cagoules and Wolves scarves and vast cagoules.  I had no interest in football, but there was something oddly comforting about the way these lads were enjoying their weekend routine; about the way normal life was going on, even while others were experiencing personal turmoil.

******

When the royalties for the Arrowsmith & Broom advert repeats came through, I donated them to the Terrence Higgins Trust.  Mel actually said I’d have been better served saving them towards the rent, as in 1990 he declared his intention to move out, thus ending our eight-year non-sexual cohabital relationship.  We’d lived together longer than many married couples.

He inherited a small legacy from Alice Cooper, not the mascara-clad rock star (who had ironically made a recent comeback), of course, but his mother’s recently deceased spinster neighbour, and decided to, as he put it, venture a stiletto on to the property ladder.  He purchased a small terrace in Selly Oak, thus leaving Tesco and me the sole occupants of the flat where no amount of pot pourri could mask the whiff of raw offal.  My modest wages and savings met the rent, and I at least got the odd discount cut of meat, and free liver for the cat.

I helped Mel move.  Unpacking box after box of frock after frock, then scoffing fish and chips on upturned tea chests, carried larky echoes of that carefree day when Mel, Nelson, Linda and I moved into our first student flat.

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

That first night was odd.  When I hugged Mel goodbye, I made a He-Man effort not to cry.  We maintained constant contact by telephone, an almost running commentary, as though connected by walkie talkies.  I’m sure he thought if he broke the link I’d relapse and drift into loneliness.  Poor Mel.  I put him through hell.

Those first few days of living totally solo for the first time, I was as restless as a flea.  I couldn’t sleep, so I cleaned, then went to bed in the early hours, convinced I would slumber until teatime, but of course hungry Tesco had other ideas and nudged me awake with his damp little nose.  I couldn’t return to sleep once I’d opened his tin of Buster (which we still got for free).  So I cleaned again, inside the cupboards this time.

I was, to employ a modern phrase, now ‘thinking outside the box,’ and cleaning on days other than Wednesdays.  I could never sit still.  I was too restless to be passive.

I’d unwittingly become a hoarder – another common symptom of depression – and this was a process that had to be reversed.   The last thing I needed was to become one of those people who lives with eighteen cats and hasn’t got into bed for three years because her route to it is blockaded by old Argos catalogues.

I purged the cupboards, filling four binbags with moth-eaten clothes, ancient bank statements, concert ticket stubs, bus ticket stubs, single earrings I’d clung on to in the vain hope their lost twins might magically resurface, globs of Blu-Tack with shards of Smash Hits posters stuck to them, a sock, Biros whose nibs oozed congealed ink, a broken fondue set, carrier bags.

I unearthed a Polaroid of Gareth.  My heart flipped despite myself.  He was a ludicrously good-looking man, after all.  It was the first photo I ever took of him, outside the old Bull Ring in Birmingham, denim blue sky behind him lending a romantic quality to the urban scene.  ‘I’m in a band,’ he’d told me that day.

I dangled it over the bin now, but changed my mind and consigned the tattered snap to a photo album, feeling mature for not ripping it but acknowledging him as part of my history.

On I went with my excavation.  There were those happy-go-lucky photo booth snaps of Mel and me.  Next a brochure for Birmingham Living History Museum.  I’d visited there once on an O-Level History trip.  I hung on to that one.

An A4 notepad containing, oh my word, the first scene and fanciful cast list of Crisp Notes: The Musical (Based upon the Novel of the Same Name), which Mel, Linda, Nelson and I had bashed together over several ciders years ago in our old flat.  It was to tell the story of the staff from the Super Crunch Crisp Factory winning an unspecified fortune on a TV quiz show and making far-reaching changes to their lives.  Hey, we loved crisps and we loved game shows – what better way to fuse our interests!

Cecil (Factory Owner)          Mel Corns

Cecily (His Twin Sister)          Heidi Sausage

Verna (Their Mother)          Noele Gordon

Blanche (Factory Forewoman)          Linda Dyson

Tarquin (Chief Crisp Packer)          Nelson Love

George (His Boyfriend)          George Michael/Boy George

Zara (Chief Potato Peeler)          Majella Bracebridge

Maxwell (Her Lover)          Gareth Rushcliff

Game Show Host          Ted Rogers

The Bank Manager          Lenny Henry

The Office Cat          Tesco

Chorus          The Brian Rogers Dancers

 

I wondered if any of us possessed the clout nowadays to assemble a cast of that calibre.

We’d planned to pen both the libretto and the novel ‘upon which it was based,’ and envisaged scores of our fellow students would be queuing up for roles in this epic show.

I remembered specifically wanting my character to be called Zara.

‘It’s a beautiful name,’ I’d said.  I still think it is.

I sat cross-legged on the carpet leafing through our green-inked screenplay, until my limbs went to sleep.  It was fascinating stuff.  A preposterous tale, yet this raw script demonstrated a youthful chutzpah that was startling and at the same time heartening to my jaded psyche.  I could recapture that chutzpah; shrug off my jaded reserve.

******

Killer by Adamski topped the charts that spring and was constantly on the radio.  It became the soundtrack to my extended spring clean.

Mel moving out was the catalyst I needed to pull my proverbial socks up.  I finally took driving lessons, passed my test and bought a Renault 5 with 100,000 miles on the clock and a leaking sunroof.  I loved that car as one might love an ugly but affectionate puppy.

I developed a thirst for new hobbies to fill my solitary evenings.  Enjoying them for their own sake was not enough, though; I had to push myself to ridiculous levels to excel at them.

I took up running, but without a competition to train for, a means to an end, I had no incentive.  So I enrolled for the Birmingham Fun Run and completed it in a respectable time.  Once the competition was over, my incentive was removed and my enthusiasm spent, and I never pulled on another pair of running shorts.

Then, having burned many a saucepan to annihilation in ill-fated kitchen exploits over the years, I took up with cooking, with surprisingly edible results.  I bought Julian Crowfoot’s book and attempted every recipe in it (the Wispa rum cake remained a dinner party staple for years).

I was frequently guilty of starting things but never finishing them.  For a phase, I decided I could be the next Jackie Collins.  I had a crack at Crisp Notes: The Novel (I lacked both the inclination and the musicality to remodel it into a musical).  I was serious and all – I even went to WH Smith (and incidentally, it can’t be just me who thought as a kid it was pronounced ‘Wuh Smith’?) and purchased a notebook with a fabric cover bearing a picture of a peacock, experiencing a childlike glee at the pretty stationery.

I fell into a frustrating yet elating routine of living and breathing a story, consulting my trusty pocket thesaurus, and falling asleep dreaming of troublesome sentences and paragraphs.  Ideas, scenarios, sentences and singular lines of dialogue would form in my head, like flashes of genius, though sadly without the strong storyline to prop them up.  The idea of taking my pen for a walk across the paper was intimidating.  I felt too shy.  The whole concept died a death.

At times I was paralysed with indecision; with a sense of having so much to do that the panic about fitting it all in froze me.  I could stand there shaking, not moving this way or that.  All these ideas buzzed around like wasps with no escape route.  So I obsessively made lists.  Lists of lists.  I would add items to lists just so I could cross them off.  Even today, I do this.  I detest being bored, or even sitting still.  I cook constantly.  I can’t be idle.  I’m afraid of those still moments which afford me too much time to think.  I apply constant pressure to myself to Do Something Useful.

Back then, I berated myself for not achieving; I was under constant self-imposed pressure, aware that the only person capable of changing my life was me, yet lacking the stamina and confidence to see projects through.  I expended more energy telling myself what I ‘should’ be doing than actually doing.  I would tell myself I was a worthless person; a waste of space.

******

I exhaled a mighty breath and sagged back against the patchwork cushion after relating all of this to Roger, my counsellor.

I automatically reached for a tissue from the ever-present box on his pine table.  Crying was second nature to me now, though it was at least starting to take the form of an outpouring of relief rather than a torrent of woe.  Today was the most cathartically talkative I’d been with Roger, following weeks of rather hesitant sessions.

Dr Dolphin, who continued to monitor my progress and administer antidepressants, had made the referral, and now I underwent therapy for an hour each Wednesday, in this tastefully furnished room in a converted terrace in Moseley.

I’d arrived for my first appointment expecting to be confronted with a clichéd mad professor type: a wild-eyed buffoon in a white coat, sporting a flaming red beard and Ronnie Barker glasses, who would order me to lie on the couch and administer electric shock treatment while asking me about my mother.  In fact Roger was genial and welcoming; the first word he would greet me with at every meeting was, ‘Welcome.’  He possessed a squashy, careworn dad sort of face, and a fine line in pastel jumpers.  There was a Garfield poster on the wall next to his practising certificate.

During that first meeting he probed me with gentle questions about my background, family, friends, personal relationships, work, etc – setting the scene and finding out what sort of a person I was.  It was very difficult at first.  I was not used to talking about myself in such great detail, and felt self-conscious and defensive about giving voice to certain things which I had never told a soul before.  I knew I had to be completely honest, however difficult I found it, or else there was little point undergoing this treatment at all.  He needed to be in possession of the full facts.

He told me I could make as many or as few appointments as I liked, but advised me to visit him at least eight times to make the exercise worthwhile.  The format of these future sessions, he said, would involve him listening to me moan but also giving me ‘homework,’ strategies I could work on to help me relax and build up my confidence.

He never patronised or tried to blind me with science.  At times I found the sessions very draining, but that was only to be expected.  The very fact I was taking positive steps to improve my life gave me confidence.  I was surprising myself with the things I ended up talking about, but I guessed these topics must have been relevant for them to crop up in conversation at all.

The thorny ‘Gareth’ topic had been touched upon.  If Roger was surprised that a one-time famous pop star had broken my heart just as he was becoming famous, he betrayed no hint of it.

He now nodded pensively, perusing his notes – or at least pretending to while he formulated his next question.

‘Now you’ve mentioned a female flatmate a couple of times – Linda, was it?  I gather there is or was some conflict between the two of you.’  He shot me a kind, encouraging smile.  ‘Do you feel ready to tell me about that yet?’

Some conflict, ah yes.  I’d been dreading our discourse heading in this direction.  A failed affair of the heart was one thing, but – and I don’t know why this was – the betrayal of a friendship, by a member of the so-called sisterhood, seemed somehow more shameful.  But the time had come to be candid.

My mind played a crazy word association game.  I was currently on my period.  I associated periods with Monthlicare, the product I’d advertised with that ridiculous ice skating routine, the gig I’d got because I failed to land the Lock & Quay role, with which Linda became synonymous.  Therefore, according to that meandering logic, this seemed an appropriate juncture to give Linda a good old thrashing – of the verbal kind at least.

An excruciating cramp tore through my tummy, as if goading me; bringing the pain into sharp focus.

As I talked I kept my eyes pinned on the aquarium in the corner of the room.  I think the gaudy fish were intended to have a hypnotic effect.

‘I had an audition arranged for Lock & Quay, the sitcom on Channel 4.  It was for the part of Fran.  I was convinced this had my name on it, you know, that it was going to make me.  A troupe of actors living on a canal barge.  I thought it was right up my street – or cut, in this case.’  That line came so instinctively to me.  ‘I crammed like mad.  I had never rehearsed so hard in my life.  I was in Devon at the time, Woolacombe, with my friend Mel – I told you about him – and all the while I was down there I was in preparation for this show I thought was going to make me a household name.

‘Well, unbeknown to me, the date of this audition changed.  I had this useless agent at the time – Roger, I’m talking chocolate teapot useless – and he, Barry his name was, phoned the flat where I was living at the time to let me know.  He shouldn’t have rung me there at all.  I’d told him I was in Devon for two months, and given him a number where he could reach me there.  Linda was in at the time and she took the call.  Barry asked her to pass the message on.  Linda neglected to let me know the audition date had changed – she claims she forgot – and she went and bloody auditioned and got the bloody part herself!’

Roger did a polite little double take.  ‘She’s that Linda?  Linda Dyson?’

I wondered if Roger might be beginning to think I was a fantasist, and that these friendships and relationships with celebrities existed in my delirious imagination.  His easy recognition of her name hurt me, though, and illustrated my point about having hoped the show would bring me household-name fame.

‘Yes, and Linda claims she had always intended to audition for it anyway, so we’d have been rivals whatever, but I don’t believe her.  I sacked Barry after that, and decided I’d go with Linda’s agent, Kevin Light, seeing as how he was clearly getting her the best gigs.  When his first words to me when I marched into his office were, “So you want to emulate Linda’s success then, eh?” I was disgusted!’

My watery gaze drifted from the fish tank to the parade of family photos on the bookcase next to it: two buck-toothed teenage girls in school blazers, and a smaller snap depicting a cocker spaniel.  I addressed my next comment as if to them.

‘You know, I’ve never even told my parents all this.  They just think I didn’t get the job.  I never admitted to them that muggins here travelled all the way back from North Devon, only to find the audition had taken place a week earlier.’

I slumped back on the cushion again.  I felt as though I’d been hollowed out, like a boiled egg.  Yet also present was a sense that I was being divested of something that had been festering for far too long.  I knew my recovery was beginning.

******

One summer morning I emerged, drained, from such a session, yearning for some light relief.  I walked to my car past a signpost for the Birmingham Living History Museum, and remembered the brochure I’d exhumed from my brimming cupboard.

With no work to engage me for the rest of the day, and no desire to return to the flat, which in that heat would resemble a corned beef tin in a sauna, I suddenly craved the innocent escapism of a good old-fashioned school trip-style day out.

The museum comprised a faithfully rebuilt Victorian city street scene, featuring factories, shops, a school, pub, cinema and back-to-back houses.  I spent a very pleasant day, wandering along cobbles, eating ice cream and learning about Birmingham’s social history.  It was years since I’d tasted such simple pleasures (or such glorious ice cream).

I was growing more confident and content in my solitude.  Being alone no longer equalled loneliness or self-consciousness that imaginary passers-by might take sufficient interest in me to judge me as a sad individual leading an empty life.

Outside the reconstructed pub (the Boot Inn) hung a poster, whose mock Victorian typeface and artfully torn appearance caused me to initially overlook it.  However, the heading ‘CHARACTER ACTORS WANTED,’ and inclusion of a phone number, denoted this was not a Victorian relic but a contemporary sits vac.  The museum were recruiting re-enactors, ‘with drama experience,’ to don period costumes, perform interactive little scenes and bring history to life for the good folk of Birmingham.

My sweet little day out at the museum had certainly awakened something in me.  A dormant thirst for knowledge, an interest in nostalgia, which I wanted to impart to others.

Nothing ventured, as they say.  I auditioned.  And got the job.

Little did I predict the extent to which it would transform my life.

******

One Saturday, I came home from my stint being Dora the Victorian loom worker for the day, my hair still in its austere bun, flat and clammy from the hairnet in which I’d encased it.  I fed Tesco, and switched on the TV.  The BBC News were still leading with yesterday’s sentencing of the children’s TV presenter Rod Rudge for assaulting fourteen women.  Was there no innocence in the world anymore?

I was, quite honestly, sick of the story by now.  The trial had been debated to death during lunch break, the only time of day when we were allowed to abandon the illusion that we were nineteenth century characters, and could discuss pop culture.

It was an astonishing fall from grace.  I wondered how Rudge’s crimes had first come to light.  According to one of my colleagues, Jackie, who played the cane-wielding schoolmarm with unnerving enthusiasm (she relished the ‘discipline’ aspect of her role so much, in fact, I suspected her of being a part-time dominatrix), the perky puppeteer was a regular sleaze.  ‘Been bonking his way round Central telly for years.’

Bonking!  Now there’s a word I haven’t heard in several years.  Such an 80s word; so jolly and saucy and British.

I flicked over to ITV, who were showing Stars in Their Eyes, grabbed a cider from the fridge and sank on to the sofa, tucking my legs underneath my bum.

Almost immediately, the phone rang with an ominous peal.  I didn’t have to get up to answer.  Not possessing such a luxury as a ‘telephone table,’ the dog and bone lived on the floor on my side of the sofa.  Even as I reached down, I knew instinctively it was Mel, with the call I had been hoping never to receive.

‘Nelson’s dead,’ he sobbed.

Reunited with an old friend…

…first name: Jane, surname: Norman.

On a self-indulgent shopping trip to Birmingham yesterday, while enjoying some annual leave, I was pathetically excited to discover that the womenswear floor in House of Fraser (I still can’t get used to calling the Brum branch that – it will be forever “Rackhams” in my mind) now boasts a Jane Norman section.

In the 90s and 00s, about 80% of my wardrobe came from Jane Norman (most of those clothes still remain in my wardrobe – timeless classics). I was gutted when JN went into administration and disappeared from our high streets, and have never really found another clothes shop I like as much. Their clothes were so flattering. I even loved their shiny, colourful carrier bags! They make great “bags for life.”

So yesterday was a special moment! Does it sound sad to say it was like being reunited with an old friend? Probably, but I don’t care. I must have tried on about 20 outfits, eventually coming away with 4 tops (altogether now: “I’llll be theeeere…”).

Shopping these days is rarely the joyous experience it was in my carefree 20s, but yesterday some of the magic returned. They even had 90s music playing in the store, which enhanced the atmosphere.

I am loving the current 1990s renaissance. Long may it continue. The new series of the marvellous Cold Feet is a luxury that can now be enjoyed while sporting a Jane Norman asymmetric ribbed bardot top.

Happy New Year, Dear Reader

You wait ages for a Majella Bracebridge chapter (or maybe you don’t – I wouldn’t wish to generalise), and now two come along at once.

For some bizarre reason, the setup of WordPress means it has illogically stuck Chapters 10 and 11 underneath Chapter 1 in the list on the left, so here are 2 quick linkies to save you searching:

https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-10/

https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/chapter-11/

I hope you enjoy the slightly darker tone I’ve attempted in these new episodes in Majella’s on- and off-stage life.

Chapter 12 is well under way.  I have, as I said, criminally neglected my writing of late, but am determined to keep my new year’s resolution to stick at it.  It is so important to me that I nurture my creative side.  Without it I’d be a machine that goes to work, goes to the gym and goes to sleep.

Chapter 15

15
Shiny Happy People

As reunions went, it was unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Now, theoretically.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s this TV series about then?’

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

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

‘About once a month.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cod and chips, please.’

‘Salt and vinegar?’

‘Please.’

‘Mushy peas?’

‘No, thanks.  Can’t stand them.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ooh, thanks Sean.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s very organised of you.’

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

‘I’m a pig!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’ve still got Tesco?’

‘You’ve got a good memory.’

‘He’s a little star, that one.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You eaten?’ Sean asked.

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

‘Me too, to be honest.  Drink, then?’

‘Lovely.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He kissed me goodbye as he departed at dawn.

******

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

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

‘’Bout time!’

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

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

‘Haven’t had a drink all night.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What is it?’  I was baffled.

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

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

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

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

Did Sean wait?  Now there’s the question.

 

Chapter 13

13
Goodbye to Love

It was a funeral like no other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’re kidding!’

‘She’s had death threats – ’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

‘OK, Guy.’

Guy?

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody hell!

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

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

******

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

‘The funeral industry fascinates me,’ I began.

Majella –

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

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

‘Well, I suppose – ’

‘Hi Mel, Majella.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Pretend to sob?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Reflections on 2015

And so here we are again, at the close of yet another year.  One in which I have been somewhat less than prolific on here (what’s new, eh?).

2015 has been an interesting, up and down year. I’ve managed to lose 1.5 stone and gain a new job along the way, and also fit in a fab holiday to Crete and a couple of spa breaks in between.

Another highlight was meeting the wonderful Black Country actress Gill Jordan and her “lazy cow” alter ego, the legendary Doreen Tipton (click on this link: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/doreens-story/ for an explanation about Doreen) at a showing of her hilarious movie.  The Black Country accent and humour are woefully underrepresented in the media.  I belly laughed at that film like I hadn’t done in years.

Here is a pic of me and my hubby with “Doreen” in character:

Us with Dor

(The Lazy Cow is the one in the middle, by the way.)

I promise that in 2016 I will devote more time to writing.  I promise I will share more chapters of the never-ending Majella Bracebridge saga with you on here.  I have been unforgivably lax with my writing this year.  I have made too many excuses, citing too much stress at work or too much to do in the house as reasons for not sitting down and being creative.  I know I need to make the effort to do things I enjoy in my spare time; to appreciate and enjoy my free time.

I am also edging dangerously towards my 40th birthday, and the “40 things to do at 40” bucket-ish list here: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/40-things-to-do-at-40/ continues to evolve and grow.

Happy New Year, one and all!! xxx

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