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This is your life, p.2

This Is Your Life, page 2


This Is Your Life

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  It’s like everyone else in my class gets their homework and starts writing an essay straight away without doing a plan first, and surprise, surprise, they get a C+. But I do a plan beforehand on a separate piece of paper like Mr Stock says and I always get an A or A- (except one D- which doesn’t count because I wasn’t there when we did ‘Lord of the Flies’). And then everyone leaves school and they don’t do a plan of what they are going to do any more than they ever planned their essays and so it’s no wonder they have lives that are only C+. So I am now going to write a plan of everything I am going to do on a separate piece of paper, and that is why in my life I think I am going to get an A or A- unless something really terrible that’s not my fault happens, like I get bitten by a dog in France and catch rabies.

  I should say that I only want to be really successful so that I can help those who through no fault of their own are less fortunate than myself. It’s not for my sake that I want to be a celebrity or anything. I only want to be really famous for doing good for others, not for shooting John Lennon or something like that. And if I was really rich I’d be able to give some of my money away to charities and stop people pouring lots of oil into the sea near where there are lots of gannets. Instead they should be made to give that oil away to people in the third world who probably don’t have any oil of their own.

  The important thing, Jimmy, James (people call you James now like you always wanted them to), is how you use your good fortune, although it won’t just be good fortune, you will have worked very hard for it as well. I mean, OK, so you’re fabulously rich and everything but at least you earned every single penny through your own efforts. Just because you are really important now does not mean you have to be all pompous and stuffy. On the contrary, it means you can be the kind of adult who still wears jeans, for example. And when a group of sixth-formers come to hear you give a lecture about all your work for animal charities, you could turn the chair the wrong way round and sit on it back to front when you are talking to them.

  But I’ve been going on too long again (just like my homework!!) and so I will stop now and write again in a few days’ time. When I’ve finished all these letters I’ll put them in a shoebox in the attic, so if you’ve forgotten where you put this letter twenty years ago and you can’t find it, that’s where it will be.

  Mine sincerely,


  A year before I was to make my showbiz debut at the London Palladium, I was indeed performing for a living, albeit to a different sort of crowd. Many entertainers boast of playing difficult audiences. I’d never played the Glasgow Empire on a wet Tuesday in February, I’d never done an open spot at the Tunnel Club in Woolwich, but no performer could have had a tougher grounding than standing up and talking for a hour in front of the beginners’ class of brain-dead teenagers at the Sussex Language Centre. To say they were slow to respond would suggest any response whatsoever. Teaching English as a foreign language to this particular group was like explaining quantum physics to a bowl full of goldfish, except at least goldfishes close their mouths occasionally.

  The beginners’ class at the Sussex Language Centre was where they sent people if they were unsure whether or not they’d come out of a coma. The students would sit at their desks, slumped forward and staring blankly at me, as I cheerily spouted an endless stream of meaningless syllables at them. ‘Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah? Blah! Blah blah, blah blah blah, blah blah blah! Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.’ I did actually say that to them once just to see if it might provoke any sort of reaction, which I soon realized was wildly optimistic of me. Of course, it is possible to begin to teach English to students who only know the words ‘OK’, ‘taxi’ and ‘Beatles’. You can teach any language to anyone who wants to learn, but this, I think, was the problem. These adolescents had been exiled to this dismal suburb-on-sea against their will, leaving behind their friends in Turkey or Algeria or Brazil. Denied the opportunity to smoulder at their parents, they sulked at the nearest available adult, who happened to be me.

  ‘Ball!’ I said brightly, holding up a ball. ‘Ball! Now you try’ And I pointed to a young Russian sitting at the front. After about five seconds he blinked, which was progress of a sort; it was the most reaction I’d had all week. ‘Ball!’ I prompted him again, because after all it was a lot of lines to learn all at once. He looked at me. Not even a blink this time; we were going backwards now. There had been quite an exciting breakthrough earlier in the week when one of them had coughed. I had wanted to telephone his parents to share this exciting development. ‘Wonderful news! Nadim lives! Young Nadim actually coughed!’ and they would weep with joy at the first sign of life since their son was stunned into a silent stupor by finding himself imprisoned in a language school in some dreary English coastal town.

  I had moved to the south coast at the age of twenty-one and got myself a temporary job at the local language school, where I was now their longest-serving teacher. I had only come to Seaford to be with my Truelove-for-Evermore but six months after we’d self-consciously set up home together and got proper jobs we had split up; the white-hot comet of our love had burnt up on entry into the atmosphere of the real world. We parted amicably; I got her Hermann Hesse novels and she got the interesting life away from Sussex.

  Seaford is not the glamour capital of Western Europe. There are plenty of swinging songs about New York and LA, but I’m struggling to think of a single line that ol’ blue eyes ever sang about the bleak weather-beaten collection of bungalows that I’d made my home. ‘Seaford, Seaford, that’s my kinda windswept English coastal resort.’ Nope. ‘I wanna wake up in a town that fell into a coma in 1957.’ It wasn’t ringing any bells. On the plus side, the town did have a wool shop, so if knitting was your passion then I suppose it might possibly have justified a brief diversion off the A259. I’d lived in Seaford for thirteen years now, which was quite a short amount of time compared to how long it takes most of the local inhabitants to find the right change when they get on the bus. The wind blowing off the sea is so strong on this part of the coast that the indigenous population grows up at an angle. Like those bent-over trees you see on clifftops, some of the old people have spent so long staggering along the seafront leaning inland at an angle of 75 degrees that their bones are permanently set in that position. It must be impossible organizing the over-60s music and movement classes. Every time they turned around they’d bump heads.

  I didn’t plan to be around here for quite as long as that. I managed to make my job tolerable by not turning up to it every other week – I had a loose arrangement with the school’s owner to work alternate weeks or mornings only. This was when I would turn my attention to what I privately considered my real job: my comedy screenplay. The film idea was such a good one that I was sure someone would be desperate to make it. Ever since the concept had first popped into my head I’d had a positive spring in my step, sensing that my life was on the cusp of a great change. The thought of that brilliant opening scene up on the screen at the Odeon Leicester Square filled me with excitement. I had considered giving up teaching altogether so that I could concentrate on the screenplay full-time, but I had no idea how long it took to write a movie so I thought I’d better keep some money coming in until I sold the script. But the boredom of my everyday routine, the relentless aggravation of never having any money – none of the things that habitually got me down had bothered me much since I’d had this brilliant idea. It was my ticket to another life. I was tempted to tell everyone I met, but it was so precious that I had to keep it locked up inside in case someone stole it from me.

  As I finished my last class of the week I was excitedly looking forward to the prospect of a whole clear week getting to grips with the next scene. These were the times I lived for. I had to admit there wasn’t much job satisfaction spending weeks teaching a class English only to drop them off at the ferry terminal and have them turn and shout a final fond ‘hello’. I dumped a few books in the office and gave a goodbye wave to
Nancy, a fellow teacher and friend, who seemed to be involved in a serious phone call.

  ‘How can you be so bloody stupid!’ she shouted into the phone.

  Either she was talking to her daughter or the speaking clock had forgotten to bring its watch that morning. Like me, Nancy worked irregular hours at the Sussex Language Centre, fitting in alternate weeks between her fourteen-year-old’s court appearances. How fate had conspired to give such a kind-hearted, generous spirit as Nancy a daughter like Tamsin was one of the great mysteries of life. She did once bring her mother some flowers but even that ended up in an argument. Tamsin said that whoever tied them to the lamp post obviously didn’t want them any more.

  Nancy slammed down the phone and put her head in her hands.

  ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’

  ‘Everything all right?’ I said, disguising nosiness as concern.

  ‘Guess who’s been suspended from school again?’

  ‘What’s it for this time?’

  ‘Setting off the fire alarm.’

  ‘Setting off the fire alarm? Why on Earth would she do a thing like that?’

  ‘She says there was a fire.’

  ‘Honestly! Is that the best excuse she can come up with?’

  ‘The fire brigade put it out and everything, but she’s still suspended for two weeks.’

  ‘This fire? It wouldn’t have been started by Tamsin by any chance, would it?’

  ‘Well, obviously the head has jumped straight to that conclusion. But they’re picking on her again. Just because she was seen near the rubbish dump with matches and a box of firelighters. Oh God, why does she do these things?’

  The phone rang again and I stood there trying to do a bit of supportive hovering while Nancy and her daughter argued back and forth.

  ‘Let me have a word with her,’ I said.

  ‘Hi, Tamsin. It’s Jimmy here ... Er, look, while you’re suspended, do you think you could walk the dog for me? I’ll pay you and everything.’

  Tamsin was delighted at this prospect. In the background her mother was hissing: ‘Don’t pay her! She’s supposed to be being punished!’

  I continued chatting as Nancy listened to me with growing incredulity.

  ‘So, was it a big fire? Right. What sort of firelighters did you use? Oh yeah, Zip, they’re good, aren’t they? That was very forward-thinking of you, firelighters and matches and everything. Oh, was it? Well, say hello to him for me. Yup, see you soon.’

  ‘What was all that, “Oh yeah, Zip, they’re good, aren’t they”?’ exclaimed Nancy. ‘Why didn’t you suggest she used petrol next time?’

  ‘I thought you were supposed to show an interest in a kid’s hobby?’

  ‘Not when it’s arson.’

  ‘Well, it turns out that Kelvin brought in the firelighters and everything – he obviously put her up to it, and it was only a load of old leaves and stuff. She doesn’t deserve to be suspended.’

  ‘Oh God. What am I going to do with her?’ Nancy sighed a world-weary sigh. ‘I’m working all next week but I can’t leave her in the house on her own all day. She’s only fourteen and anyway I can’t afford the bills from the Home Shopping Channel.’

  ‘Take next week off,’ I heard myself say. ‘I’ll cover for your lessons here.’

  ‘But you were desperate not to work next week.’

  She’s right, I thought. What am I saying? Take this chance to back out while you can . . . ‘Er, that’s OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll try and grab some time around the edges.’

  ‘Oh God, Jimmy, you are such a star,’ and she gave me a peck on the cheek and suddenly a precious five days on my script had evaporated.

  Many moons ago I’d actually had a brief relationship with Nancy, but her having had a child by a former boyfriend made it all a little complicated. One can only put up with so many childish tantrums and eventually she got fed up with them and we split up. I think I probably hadn’t felt ready to become a stepfather, especially before the real dad had finally disappeared from the scene completely. But when she’d said, ‘I don’t want to lose you as a friend,’ for once it had been true. I still thought she was attractive with her big blue eyes and her infectious laugh, but we were living proof that it was possible to be just good friends with an ex; over the years we had disproved the theory that former partners only ever remained friends in the vague expectation of eventually getting back together.

  In any case, I wasn’t on my own any more. Now I lived with the beautiful Betty. Betty was young and happy and loved me with all her heart. If she hadn’t been a Border collie she might have been the answer to all my problems. She was, however, a constant companion for me – wherever I was in the house, she wanted to be there too. I drew the line at allowing her into the toilet with me, so while I sat on the lavatory she lay on the floor outside with her nose pressed against the crack at the bottom of the door, snuffling and inhaling deeply for any clue as to what I might be doing in there. For the first couple of years I’d also had a rule that Betty was not allowed into my bedroom at night. My reasoning had been that no woman I brought home would feel particularly inclined to throw aside her inhibitions and embark upon a wild night of naked sexual passion while a Border collie sat there watching, wagging her tail and barking at sudden movements. At some point I must have realized that the absence of a voyeuristic panting sheepdog in my boudoir was not making much difference either way, and so now Betty was permitted to sleep in the same room as me.

  The next morning, I climbed out of bed at around half past nine and went downstairs to make myself a cup of tea. Not a particularly exciting or surpassing sequence of events for a Saturday, but my dog was never one to appear indifferent to anything going on around her. I imagined Betty’s approximate thought process for what followed la grande levée:

  ‘Oh wow – he is getting out of bed! I don’t believe it, how exciting, he is putting on his dressing gown and he is going downstairs; ladies and gentlemen, he is going downstairs!!! Quick! Quick! Follow him down, hurry, I’m not missing this, excuse me, excuse me – I’ve got to get down before him to be there first. Whoops, nearly tripped him up on the stairs there, oooh he didn’t like that, but it was worth being shouted at, I wouldn’t have missed this for all the world, and now what’s he going to do? Oh incredible, he is flicking on the kettle! Can you believe this? This is extraordinary – spin around in excited circles – he just flicked it on, without so much as a by-your-leave! Clear my diary, cancel licking my bottom and chewing my basket, because right now I have simply got to sit here and watch what happens next. Oh God, I’m shaking with excitement . . . Here we go, here we go, he’s going to the cupboard and, yes, yes, he’s opening the cupboard door and, this is amazing, he is getting a tea bag from the tea bag box and, oh wow, he is putting the tea bag in the mug, ladies and gentlemen, HE IS PUTTING THE TEA BAG IN THE MUG!! Oh dear, I barked, I couldn’t help it, he didn’t like that, I’m sorry but it was pretty phenomenal you must admit, and oh God I’m sorry I barked but sometimes the excitement is all too much and oh dear, oh no – he’s opening the back door and telling me to go out for a wee. Oh God, oh God, oh God, he’s so right, he is so right, I do need a wee, he’s so clever like that; that’s why I love him so much but I couldn’t bear not to be here to see what he does next, and now I’m really torn because I don’t want to miss any of this but I really do need a wee, and if he wants me to go out then it must be the right thing to do, because he just knows, he really does . . .

  The kettle clicked itself off and luckily Betty managed to rush back inside in time to witness the event. I proceeded to make myself a brew, only tripping over the dog three or four times before I sat down on the sofa to drink from a Princess Diana commemorative mug, which I hid from those visitors I feared would not appreciate the irony. I noticed that my answerphone was flashing. The strange electric lady informed me that I had: ‘THREE, new, messages . . .’ and her voice went up at the end as if she was about to add something more important but she never did. The fir
st caller was my mother. ‘Happy birthday, Jimmy darling!’ ‘Many happy returns, son!’ chipped in Dad, adding the cheery afterthought, ‘Oh, and Brian Meredith’s got Parkinson’s.’ Message two was my nephews who sang ‘Happy birthday’ in such perfect close harmony that it would have relegated the Von Trapp family into second place at the Salzburg folk festival. This was followed by another birthday greeting from my brother’s wife, Carol, who generally did all that remembering-the-family-stuff for him, adding cheerily, ‘See you later for the gathering of the clan!’

  Today was my thirty-fifth birthday. Halfway through my three score years and ten, and the first birthday greeting of the day was still from my mum and dad. I treated myself to a cooked breakfast, and since it was a special occasion I dished my egg and bacon onto a plate instead of eating it out of the pan while standing up. It’s surprising how table manners deteriorate when you are on your own. When the Queen has a slice of toast in bed on her own does she stuff it in all in one mouthful, chewing with her mouth open and then forcing out a satisfying baritone burp? For me, eating seemed to have become a simple bodily function: feel-need-for-food, ergo put-food-in-mouth. Now when I dined out I had to try to remember to remain sitting down and not to eat with my bare hands, wandering aimlessly across the restaurant to stare out of the window.

  For my birthday last year, Mum and Dad had given me a special cookery book to communicate that they had finally come to terms with my long-term single status. Entitled One Can Be Fun, it was based upon the Goebbels-esque mendacity that cooking and eating alone can be every bit as joyful as a dinner party with your oldest and dearest friends. I checked the back page of One Can Be Fun but they had failed to come clean and print the telephone number of the Samaritans. If it had been a little more honest, One Can Be Fun would have had just one solitary recipe along the following lines: 1) Take one can of baked bins. 2) Open and put into saucepan. 3) Heat on stove. 4) Eat straight from saucepan in front of telly. 5) Drink several strong cans of lager after abject failure to find whole bottle of sleeping pills for dessert.

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