This is your life, p.10
This Is Your Life, page 10
I opened the door and she sighed in her rushed-off-her-feet way.
‘Jimmy dear, are you taking Betty out for a walk today?’ This was the opening salvo of a two-part trick question that ensnared me every time. On answering, ‘Er, yes,’ I’d create the opening for her to ask if I could possibly take her dogs while I was at it. Bishop to King’s Knight 4: checkmate. In fact, I had been planning to dash quickly up to the cliffs with Betty, but taking these dogs for a walk was a more complex operation, as you might expect with dogs that are not really used to walking anywhere. You didn’t take them for a walk, you took them for a ‘carry’.
Doreen ran the language school where I worked. She had even found me this house to rent a few doors down from her own when I first started. I’d been repaying the favours ever since. Because I worked part-time, people quite often asked me to help them out or just called round when they fancied a chat, and, well, you have to give people the time of day. I suppose celebrities employ other people to give people the time of day. ‘Her Majesty has asked me to thank you for your letter,’ somebody would always reply from Buckingham Palace when I used to write to the Queen about smoking beagles. Famous people don’t give individuals the time of day, they give everyone the time of day, all at once. They don’t chat with one neighbour, they chat with the whole country, the whole planet even – that’s what being a star means. You don’t do your neighbour a favour, you do millions of people a favour. So while I might do my bit for humankind by feeding Edna Moore’s cat when she was in hospital, Bob Geldof might do a little good deed of his own like organizing a major concert for famine relief. They all have their place in the scheme of things. I mean, who’s to say one is more significant than the other?
I’d read all about the determination and single-mindedness of stars on the way up. They never mentioned that they had to give up having time for people, but that must be the price of fame – that you have to keep putting yourself first over and over again. That point had now come for me. I did not enough have the spare time to walk Doreen’s miniature schnauzers. I had more important things to do – I had a hit comedy routine to write. I’d just have to be firm and say no. In fact, I would look her in the eye and explain that I was so busy that actually I needed her to walk Betty for me. I gathered up my courage and began.
‘The thing is, Doreen—’
‘Because I’ve got to go and see my brother,’ she continued, ‘in hospital in Brighton. You know, the one with cancer I told you about. . .’
As I helped one of the miniature schnauzers over a particularly large clump of grass, I wondered if I’d ever achieve the destiny I had set for myself. On Odysseus’s epic journey he had to defeat a one-eyed giant, or sail between the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis, or resist the seductive song of the sirens. But you don’t get so much credit for overcoming the mundane obstacles that stop you getting anywhere in the journey of everyday life.
‘Lo, see how the hero resists checking his emails, for he is strong of will!’
‘Yea, and marvel at his immense courage as he dares battle with the council over the parking ticket that was unjustly slapped on his Nissan Sunny!’
‘But look, forsooth, now he faces the ultimate foe – the giant lady with the two dog-heads under her arms! Is our hero strong enough to say no to her request to walk her miniature schnauzers?’
‘No, it would seem, he is not.’
It took Odysseus twenty years to sail home, which seemed approximately the time it was going to take me to write my stand-up set. But by the weekend I had the beginnings of a routine and I performed it pacing maniacally up and down my front room. It went like this:
‘The dodo. What a crap bird that was!’ I put an anxious note to myself in the margin – ‘topical enough??’ – and carried on. ‘So the dodo is extinct. Well, I’m sorry but, like, whose fault is that? I mean, like, dodos – right? I’m sorry but you had it coming.’ Maybe laugh here slightly. ‘There must have been a point, right, where, like, there was one last breeding pair of dodos left in the whole world and the sailors thought, Well, what’s it to be? Lose this species for ever more to Planet Earth or not have roast dodo a 1’orange for dinner? Well, I’m sorry, but it’s no fucking contest!’ (I had tried that bit without the swear word but it didn’t feel so funny.) ‘Listen, dodos, you can’t fly and you’re delicious. I’d say that was pretty crap planning on your part, so tough shit! You’re extinct. Get over it! Move on!’ And then I would give a little shake of the head as if I still couldn’t believe how ridiculous they were, and maybe repeat, ‘Dodos. Crap birds!’ just to myself, perhaps pretending to suppress another little laugh at this point. I practised these lines out loud and for some reason found my voice mutating into some weird outraged cockney, somewhere between Bob Hoskins and Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. I also found that by regularly inserting the words ‘like’ and ‘right’, I gave the piece an authentic, just-made-up feel.
Although I was encouraged that at least I’d now written something, I still had a problem with the length. I timed what I had so far and it fell short of the twenty minutes I’d been aiming for by nineteen minutes and twelve seconds. Maybe if they laughed a lot that would pad it out a bit. To be honest, I didn’t have the faintest idea how the audience would react. Wasn’t it all a bit dodo-ist?
On Monday I was at work all day, and during the morning coffee break Nancy told me that her daughter was now back at school.
‘That’s good to hear,’ I said, adding, ‘I’ll tell you something, dodos were crap birds, weren’t they?’
‘You know, dodos. OK, so they’re extinct, well, I’m sorry but, like, whose fault is that? I mean dodos – right? I’m sorry but you had it coming to you. You can’t fly and you’re delicious. I’d say that was pretty crap planning on your part, so tough shit! You’re extinct. Get over it! Move on!’ I chuckled.
She stared at me for a second, not even cracking a smile. ‘Sorry, what are you talking about?”
‘Well, it just struck me as a funny thought.’
‘Except that the dodo was the first significant animal to be hunted to extinction and now we are losing hundreds of species every year.’
‘Mmm, good point,’ I nodded.
I had tried the same routine out on Chris. He’d just looked concerned and said, ‘Dodos? Extinct? When did that happen then?’ I hadn’t told Nancy or any of my friends about my situation. Perhaps I was embarrassed to reveal the depths of deception I’d got myself into, or maybe it felt unlucky to talk about my performance beforehand, but for the time being I had to keep it locked up inside. Not that I would have had any trouble making Nancy believe me; her generous spirit meant that she always gave people the benefit of the doubt. The downside of this admirable trait was that it made her chronically gullible. She could be convinced that Narnia was a former Soviet republic or that Princess Michael of Kent was so called because she hadn’t been allowed to change her Christian name after her sex change. I think she quite liked me teasing her, but everyone did it. I once caught her putting a tea bag in a casserole ‘to add flavour’. Several hours later I finally convinced her that this was not normal culinary practice, and that what she had seen her mother place in a stew all those years ago was in fact a bouquet garni. Her mum had obviously only been joking when she said it was a tea bag, but Nancy had been cooking Coq au PG Tips ever since,
I put the dodo routine to one side for a while and that night spent a couple of hours trying to come up with some more stuff. What about my famous ‘fish’ routine that New York’s Village Voice had called the ‘Hey Jude of British stand-up comedy’. Fish, they’re funny, what could I say about fish? ‘Have you ever noticed, right, how fish, like, have all these different fins? There’s the dorsal fin, the pectoral fin, the pelvic fin and the tail or caudal fin.’ No, too dry. Most fish have an anal fin; that might get a cheap laugh, I suppose. OK, I’ll come back to the fish. I tried to remember funny things that I had said in the pub but it wasn’t t
And then I tore up the top sheet of paper and screwed it up and stared and stared at the blank nothingness in front of me. Several times I was close to ringing Arabella and telling her not to come and to scrap the feature and forget all about it. But then I thought about the possibility of really being someone, about what it must feel like to be a person of real significance, about how illogically proud I’d been when I’d read back those fictitious American reviews. I was closer than I had ever been in my life to really achieving something. Which was why I was so terrified. Because now I was faced with the imminent possibility that I might fail.
There was of course another reason why I wanted to be famous. From where I was standing, it seemed to unlock everything. I’d not been in a proper relationship for years. Why should anyone be interested in a part-time English-as-a-foreign-language teacher in his mid-thirties with nothing to his name except a neurotic dog and an assorted collection of Allen keys left over from self-assembly furniture kits? Everyone knows that fame makes a man attractive. You only had to look at the contrast between the plug-ugly Billy Scrivens and his stunning wife to see just how famous he must have been. Fame was the ultimate in ostentatious peacock-feather mating displays. Fame wouldn’t Just bring status and respect and money and purpose. It would mean an end to being so bloody lonely all the time.
The next day I resolved to be strict with myself and work really hard on writing this stand-up set. I paid Nancy’s daughter Tamsin to walk Betty for me. Tamsin was only fourteen but her face lacked the fresh innocence of most girls that age. Well, those parts of her face you could still see behind all the bits of metal sticking out of it. It had started with matching studs through her nose and navel; maybe Tamsin had been given a pair of earrings and had carelessly stuck them on her body without reading the instructions properly. But after that her mother had been unable to dissuade Tamsin from having her lip, septum, tongue and eyebrows seemingly attacked with a nail gun. In fact, what with the tattoos, piercings and love bites, there was very little of her visible skin that was not mutilated in one way or another Thanks to Tamsin’s face, the jobs of British steel workers were safe for another few years.
My dog was one of the few creatures in Seaford that did not recoil on seeing her, and soon they were out on the beach and I had gained an hour’s time in which to try to write. I stared interminably at the page, scribbling down half thoughts and then crossing them out again. But then, finally, a bite! To my astonishment, I actually thought of a fish joke! Quick! It’s hooked, reel the joke in, careful now, draw it into the keep-net . . . Then the doorbell went and the thought escaped.
Tamsin was back and she wanted to talk. I don’t know why but she always chose to talk about her problems when she was round at my house. Nancy had suggested that I was something of a father substitute, but from what I knew about fourteen-year-old girls they didn’t really talk to their dads and I’m not sure I particularly wanted Tamsin shouting ‘I hate you!’ and running up the stairs and slamming my bathroom door. In any case, she didn’t talk directly to me. She got round her embarrassment by pretending she was confiding in Betty while I happened to be in the room.
‘Oh, Betty, what am I going to do?’ she said as she tickled the dog’s tummy. ‘I think Kelvin’s going to chuck me.’
‘Look, Tamsin, thanks for walking the dog and everything, but I’ve got some work to get on with so I can’t chat, I’m afraid.’
‘That’s OK. I won’t disturb you, will I, Betty? Good dog!’
I had to be strong. This time I couldn’t cave in.
‘I’m sorry, but I really need the house to myself’
Tamsin started crying. ‘Betty! Kelvin is going to chuck me,’ she sobbed. The tears ran down her face and over the metal studs and lip rings and I couldn’t just leave her there to rust.
‘Oh dear,’ I lied.
Kelvin had not been good news for Tamsin. Although he was supposed to be her boyfriend, Nancy said the only time they’d spent an entire evening in each other’s company was when their facial piercings got snagged together.
‘So has Kelvin said as much then?’
She told the dog that he hadn’t but she could just tell he was planning it. Betty wagged her tail at this development.
‘Maybe he’s just not very good about expressing his emotions . . .’ I suggested to the girl who was communicating her own feelings via a border collie. I made more sympathetic noises and a cup of tea but eventually I told her I had to get on with some work now. She seemed embarrassed, as if she was holding something back and asked if she could just stay and play with Betty.
‘I’m really sorry, Tamsin, but I can’t work with you here talking to the dog.’
‘But she’s the only one who understands, and it’s important. . .’
‘Tamsin, I’m afraid nothing you could possibly say could be so urgent as to prevent me from working right now.’
There was a long silence.
‘Betty, do you think it would stop him from leaving me if I got pregnant?’
About an hour later I finished listing the reasons why I thought this was not a very good plan. I found it faulty on many different fronts. Indeed, though I pride myself on usually seeing both sides of any issue, I struggled to spot a single merit to young Tamsin’s idea.
‘Where did you get such a stupid idea from?’
‘It’s not stupid. It was on ER.’
I must admit I was naïve enough to be shocked that sex should even be on the agenda for a fourteen-year-old girl. It was too young, it was wrong, it was immoral. And more to the point, if I’d had to wait till I was nineteen, why shouldn’t the teenagers of today? Finally I was confident that she was dissuaded from this course of action, for the time being at least.
‘Tamsin, you don’t need Kelvin to tell you you’re special, you are special,’ I said. ‘People notice you already.’
This was actually true. There was so much metal on her face that passing ships lost track of true magnetic north.
‘A baby won’t make you someone special. In fact, in this town it might make you pretty average. You’re somebody special already, Tamsin. If Kelvin doesn’t understand that, well, then he doesn’t deserve you,’ I concluded, feeling like the agony aunt in Jackie magazine.
Tamsin felt better after that and thanked the dog for listening to her. It was all sorted. Then I realized I would have to tell her mother about the conversation and when I mentioned this, Tamsin got upset again and begged me not to and we talked for another half an hour. She said if I told her mum she would run away with Kelvin and have his babies and they’d make a living in London busking and juggling and stuff. The addition of the words ‘and stuff made me suspicious that this might be another plan that had not been fully thought through.
‘Your mum is one of my best friends. I have to be completely honest with her.’
‘Are you going to go back out with her?’ she asked me directly.
‘Don’t change the subject.’
‘I’m not, but if I wasn’t around, she might find a boyfriend. So I thought if I ran away with Kelvin. . .’
‘Tamsin, can you stop coming up with so many completely stupid ideas!’
Against my better judgement I promised not to tell her mum, and finally she was gone and I was free to do some work. At which point I opened a beer and collapsed exhausted on the sofa.
The idea of getting up on a stage had seemed like a logical solution when it had been an unimaginable ten days away. But now that D-Day was imminent it struck me as an absolutely insane concept. The early Christians didn’t turn up at the Colosseum hoping they might be able to get an open spot with the lions.
‘So you say you’ve
‘No, but I’ve heard it’s very popular and I’m sure I’ll pick it up as I go along.’
‘Oh yeah, don’t worry – the lions tend to lead and you’ll find your role then comes to you quite naturally.’
And yet here I was, willingly volunteering myself to be sacrificed for the entertainment of the modern-day mob. I wanted to put it out of my head, but found myself thinking about it every moment of the day
I wanted experience, but I wanted it now. I wanted instant experience: just-add-water-microwaved-experience-to-go. Already I was discovering the downside of celebrity. I had liked the idea of everybody admiring me, of people giving me free tickets and inviting me to exciting parties and paying me lots of money and making me feel really special wherever I was. I just didn’t like the ‘working-very-hard-at-something-it’s-very-difficult-to-be-good-at’ side of the deal.
Arabella rang my mobile the day before to check a couple of ‘facts’ for her piece and added, ‘See you tomorrow’ just when I was hoping she’d say she didn’t think she’d be able to slip away from her friend’s dinner party. With so many distractions I’d barely written ten minutes of material – not really enough for a proper set, but possibly enough for someone pretending to do an open spot. But it was great stuff, I kept telling myself. I was going to be fantastic. I was going to blow everyone off the stage. I was so funny, I was so hilarious that nothing could possibly go wrong. It was a deliberate self-conscious survival tactic; Mike Tyson didn’t go into the ring thinking, ‘Actually I’m a big sissy, me. I’ll probably lose, but it’s the taking part that counts.’
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes