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This is your life, p.15

This Is Your Life, page 15


This Is Your Life

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  ‘Yeah, but he’s got AIDS; didn’t you know?’

  ‘Oh, fair enough, then.’ He shrugged. It turns out that the Lifetime Achievement Award is the last rites of the showbiz industry.

  The second course was a chicken leg with new potatoes. Everyone got a leg. There was no breast. That’s a thousand chicken legs but no white meat, the sort of order that would really annoy my butcher in Seaford. I ate mine slightly too quickly and noticed that, just as with her starter, Stella didn’t even pick up her knife and fork. She didn’t even pretend to push stuff around the plate for a while. Some people didn’t eat wheat; some didn’t eat dairy products. Stella didn’t eat food. I sat there longingly eyeing her untouched roast chicken, but I guessed it wasn’t correct form here to help yourself to someone else’s leftovers.

  Stella had a lot of people to whom she wanted to go and say hello and I watched her confidently flit from table to table. Everyone watched her cross the room. They all knew who she was and I felt proud that she’d been sitting with me. Finally she plonked herself in an empty seat beside an old friend, while the chair’s original occupant returned and patiently waited for her to finish. I sat at my table, now feeling a little self-conscious and increasingly nervous as the awards ceremony proper was about to begin. I decided to slip away to the toilet just to get a break from it all. But they had even contrived to make the act of relieving oneself into a luxurious five-star experience. Standing to attention by the washbasins was a short old man in a ridiculous maroon bell-boy outfit designed to be as demeaning to him as possible. He was employed to hand everyone a little towel as they finished washing their hands. Thank God for that – otherwise they might have had to pick up the towelette from the pile themselves and then where would they have been? The towels were passed from the pile with a pair of gleaming tongs, just in case the old man didn’t already feel completely worthless. ‘Right, Stanley, on Saturday night, there’s a big awards ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. A five-course meal, free champagne, funny speeches, the lot. And you’re going to be there . . .’

  ‘In the banqueting suite?’

  ‘No – your job is to stand in the bog all night passing hand towels to everyone. Oh, and use these disinfected tongs because we don’t want any of the guests cringing at the thought of catching your filthy germs, you disgusting little leper.’

  I pushed open the toilet door and was relieved to see there was no one employed to squeeze into the cubicle with you to tear off little pieces of toilet paper and pass them across with tweezers when required. I locked the door and sat down. I didn’t need to go to the toilet. I kept my trousers done up and sat down on the toilet lid for a break. I just needed somewhere to hide for a few minutes, somewhere to get a rest from pretending to be relaxed. What was I doing here? It was ridiculous. I must be insane to have let it come this far. It was all going to come out this evening. The compère was going to announce the shortlist and then reveal that they had tried to find anyone who’d seen Jimmy Conway, and discovered that he’d never been on a stage in his life. At which point I would try to bolt for the door only to be grabbed by two ex-SAS bouncers who’d march me to a cashpoint machine and make me pay hundreds of pounds for my three glasses of champagne and chicken leg with new potatoes and cherry tomato.

  I tried to calm myself down. It was all right; this evening was just a bit of an adventure. My old showbiz chum Mike Mellor would win best new stand-up. I would applaud and try not to look disappointed or jealous and that would be that. I would drop this ridiculous charade and disappear out of sight after my hour in the sun. I should just enjoy tonight like a society fairground ride.

  I heard the door swing open and voices braying and echoing off the tiled walls.

  ‘So whose table are you on?’

  ‘Oh, Penny Webster; directed What Are You Laughing At?. You know, the comedy-clips panel show on E4. It’s up for Best Comedy Quiz.’

  ‘Oh yeah, I taped that but I haven’t watched it yet. I’m here with Mike Mellor – he’s up for best new stand-up.’

  ‘He must be in with a chance, isn’t he?’

  ‘Well, they reckon it’s between him and Jimmy Conway. Conway’s been very clever . . . not doing telly, being so selective about where he plays. Makes him seem special from the outset.’

  ‘Yeah, well, the papers love him. Did you see that Sunday Times spread?’

  ‘Yeah, though I’m not sure the journalist really got to the heart of him.’

  ‘Have you seen his act then?’

  ‘Er – well, not recently. I saw him ages ago, you know. When he was just starting out. But I could tell he was going to be huge even back then. That fish routine. Bloody hilarious.’

  ‘Was that at the Banana Christmas Cabaret a couple of years ago?’

  ‘Er – might have been actually, yeah.’

  ‘God, that’s amazing – I was at that gig as well. I thought he looked familiar. Yeah, he was really good, wasn’t he?’

  ‘Yeah – although, um . . . I’ve seen him do better than that.’

  ‘Where was that?’

  ‘Catch a Rising Star in New York. He brought the house down.’

  Game set and match to the biggest liar. Well, second biggest liar after the bloke sitting on the toilet lid anxiously lifting up his legs in case he was identifiable from his shoes and trousers, even if they were the same black shoes and black trousers that everyone else was wearing. If these two poseurs could convince themselves they’d seen my act, were others going around saying how good I was? Was it possible that the jurors deciding on the award might fail to admit to each other that they’d never actually seen me? Would they all bluff and jump on the Jimmy Conway bandwagon to avoid the risk of looking hopelessly out of touch? A couple of years before I’d been approached in a bookshop and asked to take part in a literary poll. When they asked me for my Novel of the Century I went all pensive to hide my panic and then said solemnly, ‘Ulysses, by James Joyce.’ I’d never got beyond page bloody one of Ulysses, but it just felt like the right sort of answer to give the clever girl with glasses. And indeed Ulysses went on to win the poll. Had everyone who’d given that reply been bluffing just like me?

  I sat in the cubicle for another few minutes, but my visit to the toilet had not been successful. I had not flushed any of my worries away. I had anxiety-constipation. It wasn’t just the nomination that made me nervous. It was the easy self-confidence of all the beautiful people around me. I was a fish out of water, I thought. No, worse than that: a fish that had been taken out of water and expected to play centre forward for Manchester United in front of 60,000 people. Hmm . . . was this the beginnings of that legendary fish routine? I think not.

  I unlocked the cubicle door and realized I ought to flush the toilet to keep up appearances. And having pretended to use the lavatory I then felt obliged to wash my hands. As I did so, I was handed a towel by the man with the least rewarding job in the world.

  ‘Um, thank you, thanks a lot.’

  ‘You’re welcome,’ he said with a routine courtesy as he stepped back into position beside his pile of clean folded towels. I wiped my hands for slightly longer than normal, demonstratively making thorough use of the little towel, hoping he might feel that little bit more appreciated. ‘Do you know what, dear?’ he’d say to his wife that night. ‘There was one man who genuinely relished the towel I gave him this evening. He made sure he got every last drop of water off his hands – it’s moments like that that make my job worthwhile.’

  I considered unbuttoning my shirt and giving my armpits a quick wipe but decided that might be overdoing it, so I just did the backs of my hands and wrists once more.

  As I did so, my eye caught a bowl of coins next to the soap. For a split second I thought this was such a luxurious venue that they left bowls of free money lying around like complimentary sweets; handy amounts of loose change to which you could help yourself if you fancied a pound coin or two. Then I realized that I was supposed to tip the towel man. The
bowl contained mostly pound coins, with a couple of fifty-pence pieces pushed to the bottom to discourage anyone from leaving such a paltry amount. A tip? I thought in astonishment. For giving me a towel?

  I have never thought of myself as a particularly mean person but I couldn’t help feeling that a pound was rather a lot to pay to someone for handing you a flannel. In the Mr One Pound shop in Seaford you could get a set of three screwdrivers for a pound. Or a plastic football. Or a framed picture of a little girl holding a kitten. Here you didn’t even get to keep the flannel. And it’s not as if I’d been presented with any choice – I mean, I wouldn’t have minded picking up my own little towel, rather than pay a pound to have someone do it for me.

  If there was any moisture on my palms now it was from anxiously sweating over what I should do next. I quickly realized that I had no choice but to add to the pile of gold coins that the towel millionaire was extorting from all the foolish famous people. No, no, no, stop! I had to put such petty parsimony out of my head; he probably relied on these few tips to feed his wife and disabled sister-in-law. What could I have been thinking of, being so mean as to hesitate over the price of half a pint of lager? I handed him the used towel and with a confident smile reached into my pocket and took out the only coin in there. Shit. A two-pound coin. Two quid. That was an absolute fortune. In the Mr One Pound shop in Seaford, that could buy – well, two of anything.

  ‘Oh, erm – I haven’t got any change, sorry.’

  ‘Beg your pardon, sir?’

  Damn, he was going to make me repeat it.

  ‘I haven’t got any change – you know, to pay for the towel. Sorry.’

  ‘There’s no charge for the towels, sir – and any tip is at sir’s discretion.’

  ‘That’s what I meant, sorry about the tip. I’ve only got a two-pound coin.’

  ‘Very good, sir.’

  Aargh! Why did I say that? ‘A two-pound coin’ like it was a fifty-pound note or an American Express Gold Card. During this exchange another satisfied customer had taken a towel, quickly dried his hands and casually hurled a pound coin into the bowl with the expertise of Michael Jordan throwing a basketball.

  ‘Um, how about if I put my two-pound coin into the bowl but took a pound coin back in change?’

  ‘Beg your pardon, sir?’

  ‘I was just thinking, because two pounds is a bit too much, can I put in this two-pound coin and take out a one-pound coin, leaving you with a pound? Which is still quite a lot after all.’

  ‘Thank you, sir. Much obliged.’

  Wow – was I classy! James Bond move over, there’s a new ice-cool player in town. Sophistication, casual understated generosity, that certain je ne sais quoi – some of us are just born with it, I suppose. A man standing at the urinals had been listening to this exchange. He looked across at me taking my change from the little plate and then glanced down at the appendage in his hand and then back at me as if there was no discernible difference between the two. As I went to push the door to go, I told myself I might have handled the tipping business with a little more dignity and poise. But I discovered too late that the door opened inwards and I headbutted the wood panelling in my eagerness to leave. I did a double-take and then pulled the handle towards me, attempting a faint long-suffering smile at the towel man who switched his gaze away from me immediately our eyes met. I had begun by wanting him to feel better about himself, and after encountering such a total prat he must been eternally grateful to be the person he was.

  I had been intending to get another beer from the bar on the way back but decided to switch from paying for the beer to drinking the free wine. I had to cut down on the volume of liquid. It was bad enough forking out £3.15 for a half of lager without paying another quid on top to siphon it off again at the other end. Before I had come along this evening I had thought I was only there to make up the numbers and there was no chance of me winning the award. I had not thought up an acceptance speech or worried about how much I was drinking. I tried to tell myself I still believed this, even after the conversation I’d overheard in the toilets. But when I went to fill up my wine glass a strange thing happened. I put the bottle down again and switched to water. Just in case, I said to myself; just in case.

  The plates were being cleared away and the ceremony proper was about to begin. There must have been something not quite right with that chicken because an ache was growing in my stomach. Stella had returned and I talked to her about all the times Billy had been nominated. He loved collecting prizes. Stella said he’d often volunteered to collect awards for showbiz colleagues who were unable to make the ceremony and then he’d simply refuse to pass them on. Stella still had one of Hugh Grant’s BAFTAs on her mantelpiece.

  ‘Do they ever tell you beforehand whether you’ve won?’

  ‘Well, they used to have to tell Billy because he’d only turn up if he was collecting a prize,’ said Stella. ‘His agent demanded to know beforehand. But, no, a lesser celebrity wouldn’t normally know until the same moment that everyone else does.’

  The guy next to her chipped in. ‘One time I was up for this award and so was the producer with me. And just before they opened the envelope the cameraman shoved me out of the way to get a really good shot of the nominee sitting beside me. That sort of gave me a clue.’

  I tried to smile but my nerves must have made it seem very false.

  ‘Usually you know you are not going to win it,’ he said; ‘that Joe Bloggs is going to win it. You are convinced it is impossible that you could win it, this is so clearly Joe Bloggs’s year, but then they open the envelope and for a split second you think, maybe I can win it, maybe she’s about to read out my name.’

  ‘And then she does read out your name?’

  ‘No, she reads out Joe Bloggs’s name. And then you feel disappointed and stupid for even briefly deceiving yourself that any other outcome was possible.’

  ‘Jimmy’s up for the award after this one,’ said Stella, squeezing my arm.

  ‘Oh well, good luck,’ he said, marginally impressed, and we sat back to watch the proceedings begin.

  The first award was for the Radio Personality of the Year and was decided by a Radio Times readers’ poll. The winner was generally the radio presenter who did the most telly. A while back a former DJ had won it for three years in a row without ever performing on the radio once. Roving cameramen picked out the nominees whose faces were then transmitted on huge monitors beside the stage as their names were read out. The winner was announced and he gave a slightly too shocked expression before kissing his partner and leaping up to collect the statuette, giving a word-perfect impromptu speech.

  My category was up next. I felt myself physically shaking. The host made some joke about this room containing the biggest collection of comedians outside the House of Commons, which got only a small laugh so they applauded instead to show they at least appreciated the sentiment. A cameraman kneeled right down beside me and stuck a big lens in my face. Occasionally you come across people you sense are a little bit too intrusive into your personal space, but this bloke was ramming the door down and barging right in there with a live television camera. Apparently the trick is to behave as if you are completely unaware that a camera or anyone was even looking at you, but I was buggered if I was going to pick my nose and wipe it under the chair. I adopted a sort of benign smile that I imagined was relaxed yet confident, interested and yet enjoying myself. I casually reached to take a sip of water and discovered slightly too late that it was a small vase of flowers.

  The host was looking out towards a camera but from where I was sitting I could see his script scrolling past on an autocue. ‘Previous winners of this award have gone on to create some of the finest lager commercials ever made,’ he quipped. The shadow chancellor of the exchequer had been invited on to read out the nominations for best new stand-up, and did so with such fluency that at home millions of voters must have thought, Well, he read those names off that card pretty well; he’d clearly do a fant
astic job running the economy. The little red light on the end of the camera came on as they read my name out – and then it was off again as the faces of the other nominees momentarily filled the screens. But for that split second the camera on me was live; my face had been beamed into millions of homes around the country. In nearly every road in every town, in every block of flats in every city, someone will have been looking at me. People in the pub in Seaford, old school friends in East Grinstead, all of them would have sat up and gone, ‘Bloody hell, that’s Jimmy!’

  The shadow minister opened the large gold envelope and read the name on the card to himself before sharing it with the expectant crowd. And in that split second I noticed the little red light on the television camera that was pointing at me had come on again and I couldn’t understand why that should be and then he leaned towards the microphone and proclaimed: ‘And the winner is . . . Jimmy Conway!’

  I didn’t move or react for a second or two. Stella kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘Go on, Jimmy.’ A thousand people were all looking directly at me as I tremulously rose to my feet, stunned and terrified and totally elated. I was the Best New Stand-up Comic in Britain, though with my knees weakening beneath me the ‘standing up’ bit was in question. I weaved my way between the tables vaguely aware that the band was playing an instrumental version of ‘Make ’Em Laugh’ that could just be heard over the applause. I realized I was probably rushing too much, so I slowed down to make the moment last longer. For those few seconds that evening I was Robbie Williams coming out for an encore, I was Adolf Hitler approaching the podium at the Nuremberg rally, I was Ronaldo walking up to collect the World Cup. The chairs magically parted for me as I walked and the applause and adulation built, and it flashed through my mind that millions of viewers at home would be watching my progress to the stage. I was totally the centre of attention, everyone was focused on me; it was like nothing I had ever experienced. Being third donkey in the Infants nativity didn’t even come close.

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