This is your life, p.12
This Is Your Life, page 12
‘OK, Dad, lovely to talk to you . . .’
‘And Arthur Lloyd has got to have a triple heart by-pass. Not many people survive those . . .’
I felt a slight pang of guilt at allowing this deception to extend to my own family, but it was not enough to make me feel I had to put them straight. Obviously there were some people I was more comfortable about deceiving than others, and when I thought about this I realized that ultimately it came down to levels of resentment. The more I resented someone, the easier I found it to lie to them, but a certain measure of resentment was required in all cases.
One of the first people I had lied to on this journey was my older brother. Obviously I resented him, but I imagine this is perfectly normal behaviour: isn’t it exactly what successful siblings are for? My parents’ adoration of him brought resentment by proxy which allowed me to mislead them as well. Sophie’s Choice would have been a very short film if it had been our family captured by the Nazis. ‘Mrs Conway, only one of your children may live and you must make that choice.’
‘OK; Nicholas please.’ The End.
Nicholas had towered over my childhood and twenty-five years later continued to metaphorically fart on my head by outperforming me in every single department. His life story was one of uninterrupted success, wealth and happiness; unless of course you happened to read his entry on Friends Reunited, which recorded a catalogue of abject failure, bankruptcy and prison. He still hadn’t discovered what I’d written on his behalf. Actually Friends Reunited had provided me with a whole new supply of people to resent. I’d forgotten about many of my classmates but this website meant I could look them all up and resent them all over again. ‘Jamie Kerslake – Database manager for software company in Reading. Married to Denise; two girls aged 2 and 4.’ It’s like, all right, you big show-off, you don’t have to go on and on about it. Many of my classmates had made me feel inferior when I was a child – even my imaginary friend got better exam results than I did. They ought to create another site called Imaginary Friends Reunited – it would be nice to see what he was up to. I expect he’s in computers as well. Everyone else seemed to be.
Arabella from the Sunday Times would have almost defied me to deceive her – she generated resentment on more fronts than I could count. She was a successful journalist on a national newspaper; an appallingly provocative piece of behaviour in itself, made worse by the fact that she seemed to take it completely for granted. She was obviously privately educated, again her fault and grounds for entirely justified major bitterness, since this meant that she only had to speak a few sentences in that special accent of hers to be instantly appointed Head of the BBC. She said “two cappuccini’ not ‘two cappuccinos’, and to cap it all she lived in London. I realized that I actually resented the entire population of Greater London, approximately ten million people, all because they happened to live in a place where the beer was too expensive and everyone presumed that you must live there too in what they thought was the centre of the bloody universe. Even the beggars sleeping on London’s pavements would have been included in this malevolent generalization. ‘Ooh no, you wouldn’t beg on the streets of Seaford, would you? Not good enough for you, I suppose.’
If I had drawn a Venn diagram of my grudges I would have had to create resentment circles for all the following groups of people: people who were important, people who knew people who were important, posh people, rich people, famous people, people with personalized number plates, people who described themselves as living ‘in London and Gloucestershire’, people with fake tans, people with real tans, people with swimming pools, people who got laptops out on the train, people who had letters after their name, people who had titles before their name, people who wore suits, people who wore uniforms, people in any position of authority, be it policeman, traffic warden or librarian receiving overdue books. Bouncers, bishops, bank managers, any sort of umpire or referee in any sport and any person who was president or prime minister of a major world power (except Boris Yeltsin, who was pissed the whole time so he was forgiven). If an individual occupied the area where my grudges overlapped, then obviously I resented them twice or three times as much accordingly. Prince Edward, for example, was in so many overlapping circles it would have needed a three-dimensional Venn diagram to fit them all together. Who else prompted indignant contempt? People who got taxis, people who played golf, people who wore significant ties, people who gave their kids stupid names, people who had an initial in the middle of their name, people who pretended they liked sushi (i.e. everyone who ate sushi), people who were members of any kind of club (particularly health clubs), people who went to raves, people who wore sunglasses indoors, people with silly facial hair (pointy sideburns, tiny goatees, etc.), people who printed or broadcast their personal opinions, businessmen who appeared in their own adverts, families who sent Christmas cards with a photocopied sheet recounting what an incredibly successful year they’d had and, most of all, people who wrote bestselling books about their bloody holiday homes in Southern Europe.
But apart from all of the above, I generally felt a benevolent sense of love and goodwill towards all mankind. Oh, hang on, I forgot everyone in the United States for thinking that theirs was the most important country in the world, just because it was. And everyone from Canada for minding that you’d presumed they were from the United States.
But I hadn’t wanted to resent anyone; in fact, I would have much preferred it if lots of people resented me. And the wonderful thing about the article in the Sunday Times was that I could almost feel myself becoming warm-hearted and generous towards the whole world as I re-read it. ‘Do you know Arabella from the Sunday Times? Lovely woman, very thorough journalist.’ ‘Oh you must read Scorpions in the Swimming Pool; he’s spot on about all the hilarious problems of having your own villa in Tuscany.’ At last I could look everyone in the eye as an equal, now that I deserved the respect and admiration of everyone out there; I was Jimmy Conway the celebrated comic.
On the morning the article came out I walked along the front at Seaford with a ‘yes-it’s-me’ cod modesty that presumed everyone in the whole town had already rushed out to buy the Sunday Times and turned straight to the review section. But people were walking straight past me as if nothing was different. Couldn’t they see how the whole world had changed? Were they going to carry on as normal? It was quite unnerving. Now look here, I thought; I’m quite prepared to behave as if I’m just an ordinary member of the public, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe that I am.’
Because I was so enjoying the immaculate fit of this celebrity costume I was modelling, I didn’t want to do anything to remind me of the darker reality of my situation. I had told a massive lie about myself which had been printed in a national newspaper and before long my friends would be asking for an explanation. Though it felt extremely risky, the only thing I could possibly do would be to tell them the truth. I’d present it as a trick against all those clever London media types; an elaborate wind-up by one of the little people. I imagined my friends laughing at how gullible this journalist had been to believe the ludicrous idea that I could be someone. And the more I thought about this, the more I wished the article was true.
I did a quick ring round and suggested we meet up for lunch; since Nancy was giving up smoking I suggested the café rather than the pub. I knew they’d never have bought and read a Sunday broadsheet, so I didn’t give them any clues on the phone. We met up in Mario’s café in the High Street, the only place in town greasier than Norman’s hair. We often ate there together because there was nowhere else you could get such an excellent and reasonably priced fry-up. Admittedly, you may not have ordered a fry-up, you probably asked for the shepherd’s pie, but Mario was so convinced of his amazing powers of memory that he refused ever to write his orders down.
‘I’ll have double egg, sausage, bacon and tomatoes, and a slice, please,’ I said to him optimistically, as he nodded wearing the smile of a man whose mind was a million miles away.
‘No, not beans; bacon.’
‘Oh, you want bacon too, now. OK, no problem.’
For Mario the words ‘no problem’ were an involuntary verbal tic he stuck on the end of any sentence in which he had, in fact, just created a problem.
‘Bacon instead of sausage, no problem.’
‘No, as well as the sausage. Double egg, sausage, bacon and tomatoes, and a slice.’
Similar versions of this routine were then repeated with everyone else’s order and we sat back and waited to see what would appear.
‘Somehow I feel Mario is not in the right business,’ said Nancy.
‘Well exactly,’ I replied. ‘His wife told me she’d asked him to buy a little shoe repairers but he hadn’t been listening.’
‘Really?’ said Nancy, and everyone laughed and she hit me lightly on the arm and said I was funny, and it was the perfect opportunity to tell them about the story in the paper. So I can’t explain why I didn’t take it. Suddenly the conversation had moved on. Norman was telling us about something exciting that had happened to him. Everyone has some talent hidden away inside and Norman had been fortunate enough to discover his gift. Norman was a great air guitarist. If miming a musical instrument was your thing, then you would look up to Norman as one of the masters. And after years of developing his hobby in private, he announced that he had reached the finals of British Air Guitar championships.
‘That’s fantastic news. So if you win, do you pretend to pick up an imaginary cup?’
I couldn’t help feeling that playing air guitar must fall slightly short of the satisfaction you get from playing a real live guitar; that imagining you are producing brilliant guitar solos, impossible riffs and elaborate chord sequences can’t be quite as fulfilling as doing it for real. Maybe I was just jealous. My parents were too straight to let me do air guitar. I had to do air cello.
‘Can we come and see you play?’
‘No way. You might put me off and then I might play a bum note or something.’
We had often asked Norman to perform a bit of air guitar for us and he had always refused. ‘Couldn’t we just listen to a tape then?’
‘No, that wouldn’t work,’ pointed out Chris, astute as ever.
The conversation moved on and almost immediately there was another obvious opening for me, but I couldn’t now dive in there and share my own news because it might look like I was just doing it to go one better than Norman. Then Nancy talked anxiously about Tamsin and I felt a little guilty for keeping our conversation secret from her. I reassured myself that if my course of action was the most likely to prevent her daughter from getting pregnant then Nancy would thank me in the long run. Tamsin had apparently been feeling a little unwell.
‘What, in the morning?’ I said, panicking.
‘No, it was last night. It’s just period pains.’
‘Oh thank God,’ I said. ‘I mean, thank God it’s nothing more serious . . . I mean, they’re such a worry, aren’t they?’
My friends stared at me with a little concern and I thought that since I now at least had their attention I might as well confess about the story in the paper.
‘Anyway, there was a reason I suggested we all met up for lunch,’ I announced. ‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ and my formality seemed to make them sit up.
‘Jimmy Conway!’ yelled Panda, throwing open the door of the café. ‘You’re a bloody dark horse and no mistake! Has he shown you today’s Sunday Times, everyone? Jimmy, why didn’t you tell us?’
‘What? Tell us what?’ said Dave.
‘How long have you been reading the Sunday Times?’ said Norman to his girlfriend.
‘Oh, um, the motoring section does bike reviews, doesn’t matter,’ she said making an extra effort not to pronounce the ‘t’s. ‘Jimmy here has only been secretly going off and appearing at cabaret clubs in London and that. He’s famous. Jimmy’s famous!’
‘What are you talking about, Panda?’
‘Don’t take my word for it. It’s all here. The Sunday Times, no less. The one time I buy it!’ She tutted and slapped down the paper, and there was my face staring up at them, with Steve Martin and Billy Crystal no doubt adding to the impact. There was a loud crash from the kitchen, or it might have been the sound of their jaws dropping, I’m not sure. It was the moment when Clark Kent first lifts up a truck or the expanding muscles rip through the shirt of the Incredible Hulk.
‘Oh my God, Jimmy!’ exclaimed Nancy.
‘So that’s why you were mates with Billy Scrivens,’ said Dave, ‘because I thought it seemed a bit unlikely at the time.’
‘Bloody hell, Jimmy!’ said Norman, looking at it in amazement. ‘You mean, you’re a celebrity.’
Panda continued: ‘Look, there’s a photo of him in the Comedy Store.’
Nancy rubbed my arm proudly. ‘Well done, good for you. I knew you’d achieve something like this one day.’ She seemed genuinely pleased for me, as if she knew this was what I’d always wanted. ‘Maybe you’ll be on This Is Your Life,’ she added.
‘Why do you mention that?’
‘It was in those teenage letters, remember? And admit it, you’d still love it, wouldn’t you? Was this what you were about to tell us when Panda came in?’
‘Er, yeah,’ I heard myself say. ‘Yeah, it was . . .’
And I tried to take a casual sip of my steaming tea but winced as I burnt my tongue.
‘So, are you any good?’ said Chris.
‘Er, well, I dunno, I haven’t seen me.’
‘He’s bloody brilliant according to this,’ said Dave, scanning the text.
I could feel myself going red. ‘Well, they have to take an angle, you know – it’s either “I love it” or “I hate it”.’
‘Bloody hell, Jimmy!’ said Norman again, still in shock.
‘It’s incredible, well done!’ said Nancy.
‘I can’t believe it!’ said Dave. ‘You’re not a nobody!’
And I tried not to enjoy the attention too openly, and then thought it might be a nice gesture to change the subject and ask them what else they’d been up to, but it was too obvious an attempt at modesty, like Neil Armstrong saying to his wife, ‘But enough about where I’ve been – how was the shopping mall?’
Panda ordered herself a greasy fry-up, all washed down with a big mug of Earl Grey, while the others crowded around the page, fighting for space to be able to speed-read the article. Having allowed this lie to take hold, I felt increasingly powerless to prevent it growing ever larger. As my friends re-read the feature, they started to ask more questions.
‘Hang on, when were you in America for two years?’
‘Oh – typical journalist – she’s got that all wrong. I said I was in America two years ago.’
Nancy looked a little perplexed as to how such a thing could have slipped her mind. ‘But this whole piece is based on the fact you’ve just come back from having made it in the States . . . it doesn’t make sense.’
‘Look, I went over to America for a few weeks a couple of years ago, you probably don’t even remember; I kept it quiet in case it all went horribly wrong. I tried my luck at stand-up and it went quite well.’
‘But they say you’ve made it really big there over the past couple of years! How can anyone get something as basic as that so wrong?’ said Norman in astonishment, and for a second I was tongue-tied.
‘Eggs, beans, sausage and chips,’ announced Mario, providing an answer as he plonked down a spectacularly incorrect combination of fried food in front of me. ‘Mario, have you ever thought of going into journalism?’ I said, as he followed this up by placing various random mix-and-match orders before the others. We apologetically pointed out that these dishes were not exactly what we’d ordered and Mario rolled his eyes in disbelief at the incompetence of his kitchen staff. He whisked the plates away, all the while maintaining an utterly charming exterior, but once he’d kicked open the swi
‘Oh no, he just told them chips instead of tomatoes,’ I said. ‘Is this the best moment to put my head round the door and point that out?’
‘Probably not,’ ventured Dave.
Once my friends had accepted that they had an important and successful creative person in their midst there were all sorts of incisive questions they wanted to ask about this most modern of art forms. ‘So how much do you get for a gig?’ ‘What’s the most you’ve earned in one night?’ ‘How much does that make a year?’
I did my best to answer them as evasively as possible and I’m sure I noticed Chris starting to laugh at my jokes just a little bit more than before. They shared the news with Mario, who showed his other customers the front of the newspaper and pointed me out to them. And then he brought a white coffee for Nancy who’d asked for tea without milk, and an espresso for Norman who’d asked for a cappuccino. But when he took my pudding and coffee order he remembered it exactly. Apple pie with cream not custard, and another cappuccino with no chocolate. Perfect, thank you, Mario. ‘Oh, Mario, actually my friend here wanted a cappuccino as well.’
‘Oh, terribly sorry, sir, coming right up, sir.’
I was enjoying this now, starting to really play the part. ‘Yeah, so that was two cappuccini.’
It just slipped out. I was feeling a little bit cool and I over-reached myself.
‘Two cappuccini?’ sneered Dave. ‘Since when has the plural of cappuccino been cappuccini?’
‘Well, er, it just is, that’s all.’
‘It might be in bloody Tuscany, mate, but round here we say “two cappuccinos”.’
‘Or “one cup of chino, please” if you’re my mum,’ added Nancy.
We each paid for what we’d eaten, except Mario would not accept any money from me. He insisted that my meal was on the house. Norman and Dave looked suitably disgusted.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes