It was 20 years ago today…

It was 20 years ago today that I set off, with my packed lunch and my naive hopes and dreams, into the world of work.  It was the era of the Spice Girls, TFI Friday, Cool Britannia, Cold Feet and Bacardi Breezers.  A carefree time, I can see now.  I was only 19.  Blimey, 19!!!  I was a baby.

That day still seems like 5 minutes ago, even though I am now a jaded and cynical almost 40-year-old with considerably more wrinkles and no prospect of retirement, with several varied jobs under my belt since starting out at the Stourbridge News.  After 4 years in journalism, I temped for a bit, then spent 14 years as a legal secretary, and am currently an administrator within the health service.

I had hoped I’d be halfway through my working life by now.  In reality I’m nowhere near.  Mind you, I suppose I imagined back then I’d still be in journalism by now, not suspecting how quickly I’d fall out of love with the profession.  But then technology and social media swiftly superseded the dinosaur of print journalism, and I’d have certainly been made redundant anyway.

Oh well, plod on.

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Brace yourself for more Majella

After far too long a hiatus, I have been writing again.  Life, as it has a tendency to do, has rather got in the way this year and hampered my creative process.  2016 has been a bit pants so far, to tell you the truth (that’s another story).

But now I am back, as is Majella.

I have added two brand new Majella Bracebridge chapters: 14 https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-14/ and 16 https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-16/

Chapter 16, as its title suggests, brings MB’s story to its denouement, but I haven’t actually completed the novel yet as I am going back in and adding chapters.  Hence you will see I have re-jigged the numbering about, and what will now become Chapters 5, 8 and 10 are as yet unwritten and denoted as “Coming soon…”

I hope you enjoy these two new scenes from Majella’s life, including the conclusion to her story.  I will of course update this when I have slotted each of the new chapters in.

In other news, I am still looking forward to working my way through my “40 things at 40” list.  My major birthday is rapidly approaching, which is very scary indeed.  I swear it’s five minutes since I was zealously planning my 18th birthday party.

They say life begins at 40. Let’s hope it does next year, after a horrendous run of chicken pox, floods, gas leaks, water leaks, flu, chest pains, back pain, insect infestations, cowboy builders and officious councils.

Chapter 16

16
The Grand Finale at Rawlinson Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How the devil are you?’

‘Really well, thanks. You?’

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

Yeah right, I thought.

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

‘Cinzano, please.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I love it. It’s very rewarding.’

‘No chance of you returning to showbiz then?’

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

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

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

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

‘Terribly sorry.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So have I.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I hate that expression.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I should hope so!’

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

‘I didn’t.’

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

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

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

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

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

******

Well, what can I say? Sean waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We married three years after I landed from the Far East, in a low-key civil ceremony at a Lichfield country hotel.  I was thirty-seven, and Sean forty-three, when we were blessed with twins: Jared Sean and Zara Michelle.  I wanted Michelle to be my daughter’s middle name, honouring the name my parents gave me.

I went on Come Dine with Me as Michelle Spendlove.  I am still known professionally as Majella Bracebridge, and maintained the pseudonym when I set up the funeral business, so I’m accustomed to compartmentalising my work and personal life.  CDWM marked the one occasion I was showcased to the public as myself; as Mom.  To present my own home, my own plates, my own food, under an assumed name, would have felt wrong.  That didn’t stop me being recognised as ‘the girl from that advert’ by Wayne, the eventual winner, who has become a good friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jared had finished eating and was studying his phone.

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

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

‘She had a good time?’ Sean asked.

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’re kidding!’

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

‘What as?’

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

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

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

I almost gagged on my coffee.

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

‘He doesn’t act anymore.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘OK then, I’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

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

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

‘Really.’

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

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

‘Cheers!’

‘Here’s to you, Balsall Heath Betty!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tiny gulp escaped me.

‘Everything OK?’ Sean queried.

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

 

And if you want to read the whole saga again from the beginning, here’s Chapter 1: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-1-majella-bracebridge/

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!”

‘I fucked things up with Majella, of course.  She caught me in flagrante delicto – apparently that’s Latin for shagging – in a car with Romy.  My mom’s old Samba – how classy can you get, eh?  At least now I can afford to do it in a Jag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 15: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-15/

Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Or are more regular these days?’

‘Due to their high fibre diet.’

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

‘The muscles are relaxed enough.’

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

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

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

‘Oh, we’ve all been there!’

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

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

‘Got any leftover chips?’

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

No, I had no idea either.

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

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

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

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

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

How wounding!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 6: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-6-majella-bracebridge/

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 her two thugette sidekicks – known collectively as The Three Bitches – 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 directors 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 9: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-9/

Chapter 10

10
The Crash of Destiny

‘I hope you like hospital food.’

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

‘Aaand…cut!’

Aaand…breathe.

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

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

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

‘It’s Dairylea.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

‘He’s taking me to Lorenzo’s.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You lurve him,’ I chanted.

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

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

He’s not inappropriate.’

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

‘I remembered,’ Russ said proudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had also retained my dependable day job at Rackhams.

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

******

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

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

And then Robin dropped the bombshell.

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

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

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

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

‘His what?’

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

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

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

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

‘Do they have any kids?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hello, Russell Varden speaking.’

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

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

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

‘Hmm, hmm.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

‘He was so cultured,’ I wailed idiotically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

Screw you, Jessica Varden!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Really?’ I queried doubtfully.

‘Really.’

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

‘Absolutely.’

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Still looks bloody pleased with herself, though.  And I was still speechless when he sidled up all suave – the ponce!’

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

‘You don’t have to lie.’

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

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

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

‘Here?’

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

‘Why not?  Get it over with.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing.’

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

‘Sure.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

‘Chip wrapping,’ was his loyally dismissive response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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?

One day I watched this gigantic bluebottle flapping about manically like a psycho jumbo fly.  It kept flying into my full-length mirror, twatting itself against the glass, falling to the floor, then buzzing back upwards even more enraged and disorientated.  I could see such a metaphor for my own life in this poor creature, I hadn’t the heart to kill him, and opted instead to trap it in the bathroom and swat it out of the window.

‘What kind of anal bint have you become, if you’re seeing metaphors for your life in bloody bluebottles,’ Mel scoffed when I told him the story.

He wasn’t always deep like me.

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

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

I did occasional acting myself (it hadn’t entirely dried up).  There was my stint in Crossroads (I felt I invested my line, ‘Which way to the gym?’ with all the beauty it merited), two lines in Boon, a Little Chef advert, a sketch with Bobby Davro, a health and safety corporate video in which I had to pretend to topple off a ladder in impractically high heels.

No starring roles in sitcoms set on canal barges, though.

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

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

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

I even stopped painting my nails.  I loved painting my nails – still do – and had applied a fresh coat at least twice a week since I was fourteen.  It was a small way of making myself feel special.  There is such a sweet pleasure in erasing tatty polish with a cotton wool ball soaked in remover, then brushing on a shimmering layer of Flirty Flamingo or Magenta Dream, or whatever.  It’s like wiping the slate clean; starting anew.

But during this period I wasn’t up to even that most therapeutic of tasks, which essentially entailed sitting in front of the telly with my fingers splayed on the cover of the TV Times.

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.  I would miss our weekly foot spa sessions like you wouldn’t believe.

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.

One evening, as I watched The Crystal Maze, 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.

I used to compulsively bite my lips and cheeks, and pick at the skin around my nails.  An irksome childhood habit.  Subconscious; distracting, to the point where I was incapable of focusing on anything beyond gouging at my fingers or licking at my lumpy mouth ulcers.  The raw soreness was the masochistically gratifying consequence.  Scabs would develop, which in turn would be picked at, leading to more bleeding, thus starting the whole brutal process again.

It was a habit I had to quit.  Ultimately there was no scientific technique to it’ I simply went cold turkey and stopped.

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, as well as my ill-fated role as Russell’s bit on the side.  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.

‘It’s a tale of woe and a half.’ I apologised, not least because it sounded so ungrammatical (shouldn’t it have been ‘a tale and a half of woe’?).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nelson’s dead,’ he sobbed.

 

Chapter 13: https://leighmathers.wordpress.com/category/novels/majella-bracebridge/chapter-13/

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.

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