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This is your life, p.22

This Is Your Life, page 22


This Is Your Life

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  This was about the most depressing thing I could think of. Apart from the fact that she didn’t.

  ‘Don’t be ridiculous! There must be plenty of blokes who’d be attracted to you,’ I said, trying to think of someone who worked in a magnet factory. ‘No, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Sorry.’

  ‘But what else can I do?’ she pleaded and then she went quiet for a minute or two before finally reaching for the nuclear button once more.

  ‘Betty, would you be jealous if I had Kelvin’s baby?’

  ‘Oh, not this again!’ I snapped, angry that she’d resorted to blackmail. ‘Get pregnant then, you stupid child. Ruin your life if that’s what you want. I can’t stop you.’

  I tried to go back to my work but the only words I wrote down were ‘Ring Nancy about Tamsin’. I put this note by the phone, but I still felt guilty that I’d never told Nancy about her daughter’s ludicrous pregnancy idea. The shame I felt at losing my temper with a fourteen-year-old girl kept coming back to me as I attempted to think up jokes. It didn’t help me feel funny.

  Tamsin stopped coming round to walk the dog and after a few days I finally made the call I should have made months ago. The phone seemed to ring for longer than was feasible in Nancy’s tiny flat and then there was a beep and her recorded voice informed me (and any burglars who happened to ring) that she and Tamsin were on holiday in Normandy. That was the holiday we’d always had together. I rang Chris and Norman and Panda; no one seemed to be around, until finally I got a reply from Dave’s mobile.

  ‘Hello?’ he shouted, sounding surprised.

  ‘Dave? It’s Jimmy.’

  ‘Hello, stranger. Don’t you have a PA or someone to make your calls for you now?’

  ‘Where are you?’

  ‘We’re in France, where do you think? It’s August bank holiday.’

  In a clipframe on the wall were various photos of holidays from years gone by. There we all were on the ferry from Newhaven or struggling to put up tents or waving on the beach with bottles of cheap wine in our hands.

  ‘Oh. I didn’t know it was happening this year.’

  ‘What, because you’re too busy, everyone else cancels their holiday?’

  ‘No, I just didn’t know you were all going away ... I might have come along maybe, for a few days.’

  ‘What, a celebrity on a walking holiday? And who’d carry the bloody sedan chair?’

  In one of the photos I noticed Dave with his arm around Nancy. That had never bothered me before.

  ‘Is Nancy all right?’

  ‘Hang on, Jimmy. L’addition, s’il vous plaît,’ I heard him ask, exaggerating his Yorkshire accent. ‘We’re in a crêperie. Panda said that was a crepê restaurant. But I thought it was quite good.’ I could hear everyone laugh in the background. ‘You can have that if you want, Jimmy, you know, for your comedy act.’

  ‘Thanks. So everyone’s all right, are they?’

  ‘Yup, we’re all fine, Jimmy. Tamsin’s gone off for a sulk, but it’s quite useful having someone who keeps spare barbecue skewers through her nostrils.’

  And I could hear everyone laughing again and I said I’d see them when they got back. I’d started the Tamsin jokes. Nancy would be playfully slapping Dave on the arm now.

  I didn’t even attempt to work for the rest of that day. They must have made a decision not even to tell me they were going on holiday; there must have been a conversation when someone said, ‘What about Jimmy? Shall we invite him?’ and they’d agreed there was no point or that they’d rather go without me. The final photo I’d put in the clipframe was from last August, a picture of me way out at sea waving from the water. Waving goodbye, lost, presumed famous.

  The next day I took down the photos. Every morning I went through the charade of sitting at my desk, in the hope that the invisible joke-writing pixie might turn up at the same time and put down the magic words for me. Whenever I decided I was stuck I’d take this as my cue to walk Betty up to the cliffs. The poor dog was pressganged into three or four walks a day. But she always threw herself into her task with far more enthusiasm than I managed for mine, and today as I followed her route over the cliffs and away from the sea I envied her enthusiastic optimism.

  Oh brilliant! Here’s a big bit of grass! I’m going to run and run and run, oh no, stop! There’s a big branch, I’ll have that, God it’s heavy, I’ll just lift the end up and half drag it round and round in circles, ooh, hang on, there’s something else, an insect just buzzed near me, I’ll have that! Snap! Snap! Snap! Missed it, never mind, charge over the hill, roll on my back, leap up, charge down the hill, this is brilliant, this is fantastic, this is the most fun you could possibly have in the whole wide world!

  When I had bumped into Billy Scrivens up here on the cliffs, I had been so excited and honoured just to be in his presence, flattered to be breathing the same air as someone so incredibly famous. Now that precious currency had been devalued. Having seen so many celebrities close up and observed their faults and foibles, for me they’d turned back into mere mortals. They weren’t all the wonderful people with the perfect lives portrayed in the magazines, any more than they were all self-obsessed megalomaniacs. I’d learnt that they were as different as any group of people, with the same number of insecurities and anxieties as the rest of us. Some seemed fairly balanced and self-aware, while others had had their idiosyncrasies magnified a thousand times until a slight human failing became a hideous neurosis. I’d seen multimillionaires taking home all the free boxes of tissues from their dressing room. I’d heard a slightly shy actress in the back of a limousine calling her agents to ask them to phone her driver to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Real life, it was not.

  There was, of course, something else they possessed that I had been hoping I might be able to get by without. Talent. Ah yes, that endless supply of gold that I had been attempting to weave from straw for the past few weeks. The fact that I felt I could no longer sustain my life as a celebrity without getting up there and doing the very thing for which I’d become a star seemed to have provided a conclusion to my unwitting experiment. Although it was indeed possible to be famous for being famous for a short while, eventually talent, or lack of it, will out.

  In the distance I could see Stella Scrivens’s cottage. All I had to do was go round there now and explain that I was unable to appear in the charity gala on account of the fact that it was my grandmother’s funeral that day. No, I was having a testicle removed, but I didn’t want to talk about it. It was my grandmother’s funeral and I was having a testicle removed, so I definitely wouldn’t be able to make it.

  The alternative was going back home and trying once more to write a funny routine and such a prospect made me quicken my pace towards the cottage. I was giving up. It was over.

  The gate was heavy with entwined honeysuckle. The path up to the front door led me through a dark pergola tunnel sagging with fading roses and overgrown Virginia creeper, just starting to turn red as the summer came to an end. The front door was slightly ajar and yet when I rang the old-fashioned bell there was no response. I pulled on the rope a second time, but it failed to prompt any approaching footsteps or a barking dog. I had tied Betty up at the gatepost because, like its former owner, Billy Scrivens’s Labrador had a reputation for attempting to mount any female that crossed his path and this was not something I felt would assist me in the awkward conversation I was about to have. I wondered if Stella was somewhere in the garden so I walked around the entire house before finally pushing the front door open and shouting a quizzical ‘Hel-lo?’ Breakfast things were still on the kitchen table and a newspaper was cast to one side. There was a picture of Stella and Billy with Prince Charles on the mantelpiece, and another of Billy just fooling around on some exotic beach. There were shelves of books about television and comedy and the great performers of the past. Things seemed to have remained exactly as they were since Billy had died. Stella had obviously not found it in herself to start clearing out his books and
videos or replacing his pictures.

  And then in a scruffy old armchair I noticed a large cardboard box full of papers and photos and important-looking documents. I could not resist flicking between the files. I saw a camera script from one of Billy’s old shows, some boring receipts and a few meaningless scraps of paper before I spotted a copy of a contract with the BBC, which I carefully lifted out of the box and nosily scanned. The document revealed that Billy had been earning £75,000 a show before he died. I remembered how there’d been something of a standoff between Billy’s agents and the BBC in the weeks before his death. The Beeb had criticized Billy’s management company for being greedy when they had demanded even more. Then a couple of days later the corporation had found themselves rapidly going into reverse gear as they paid emotional tributes to this wonderful performer so tragically cut down in his prime.

  Suddenly there was a loud noise behind me. I panicked and guiltily shoved the documents back in the box until I realized it was the chimes of a grandfather clock in the hallway. Even more nervous now, I none the less tentatively flicked through the box again, but I was about to leave it and go when I noticed a few sheets of paper packed with closely typed words in an unusually small font. I pulled the document out of the box and glanced over the dense printing that had caught my eye. I understood immediately that I was looking at a comedy routine. My hands were shaking as I clutched the script and yet I could not prevent myself from smiling at the opening joke. It was so completely superior to anything I could ever have written and I knew I’d never heard it before. The second line was even better, the punchline catching me completely by surprise, and as I read on I found myself laughing out loud.

  I could almost hear Billy’s voice delivering this comic monologue and yet I didn’t recognize any of this material. There was a date printed at the bottom of the first page – two days before Billy had died. The enormity of my discovery suddenly struck me: this routine must have been penned by Billy himself – possibly the last thing he ever wrote. It was priceless; it was a piece of comedy history and yet it would never be performed. I put it back in the box. And then I glanced around furtively before picking it up again and slipping the sheets of paper into my inside pocket. At that moment there was an explosion of gushing water in an outside drain, like the adrenalin that was suddenly rushing through my veins. Upstairs, feet were moving about on creaking floorboards. I hurriedly tiptoed towards the door. From an old photo on the wall, Billy’s face smiled knowingly at me as I slipped out. Tripping slightly on a flagstone, I dashed along the pergola tunnel and untied Betty, glancing back at the house as I did so. The curtains were still drawn upstairs. Stella must have been having a bath while the dog was being walked. She should be more careful – anyone could have walked in and stolen something.

  This comedy routine could not have been more perfect for me. It matched the voice and technique I’d adopted for the television commercials, although I guessed this was probably because I’d been subconsciously aping Billy Scrivens’s style of delivery. The monologue was fantastic: there were back references and running gags and a building narrative all climaxing to a brilliant punchline that I was certain would bring the house down. There was even another half page of stuff for the inevitable encore. There was no hilarious fish routine but you can’t have everything. But now I was armed. Now I believed I could do it.

  When I was a child there was a comic-strip story called Billy’s Boots in which a young boy played like a brilliant footballer whenever he wore the enchanted old boots of a great soccer star of days gone by. I would be playing the London Palladium with Billy’s Jokes. I’d be protected by this magical routine, this hypnotic gag-packed mantra that would cast a comedy spell on any audience exposed to it. Nothing was going to stop me now. After weeks of fear I couldn’t wait for Saturday night. I strode around my living room performing the material with a swagger and a confidence I’d never felt before. The night was billed as a gala concert in memory of Billy Scrivens a year after his death and what greater tribute could there be than for me to perform his final routine? Obviously I’d be the only person who knew it was Billy’s routine, but it was the principle that counted here.

  My mobile rang but I refused to be distracted. I finished delivering my final joke before taking another bite of toast and nonchalantly answering the phone.

  ‘Yeah?’ I said, perhaps slightly too cockily.

  ‘Hi, it’s Stella Scrivens here.’

  I dropped the toast. My heart was suddenly pounding so hard that I was worried Stella might hear it on the other end of the phone.

  ‘What? What is it?’ I said panicking.

  ‘Are you all right?’

  ‘Yeah? All right? Of course I’m all right, why shouldn’t I be?’ I replied far too aggressively.

  ‘Nothing. I’m just checking you’ve been fully briefed for Saturday?’

  ‘Oh. Is that all?’ I said, watching Betty wolf down the slice of toast that lay at my feet. ‘Sure. Of course. In fact, I think I’ve got some pretty good material together, actually.’

  ‘Great. It’s just the researchers said you hadn’t replied to their emails with all the details.’

  ‘Oh, sorry, I’ll have a look,’ I said, covering up the script on the table as if she might be able to see it with some new special phone attachment at her end.

  ‘And thanks very much for doing this,’ she said in that special flirty voice she always used when she talked to me. ‘It really means a lot to me, George . . .’

  ‘George? This is Jimmy Conway.’

  ‘Oh, sorry, Jimmy. George is next on my list.’

  Having initially made me very nervous, the phone call then seemed to confirm that I’d got away with it. The box of old paperwork had contained so much rubbish that Stella obviously hadn’t sorted through it all yet and I felt sure now that the script would never be missed. Over the next couple of days I performed the routine in the shower, I recited it walking along the beach, I declaimed it from the clifftops, and I whispered it to myself in bed last thing at night. Betty tilted her head to one side as she listened carefully to every line. I could sense she wanted a rewrite. She felt it lacked the words ‘walkies’ or ‘din-dins’.

  On Saturday morning I awoke and immediately leapt out of bed. In the newspaper’s TV guide the show was listed as ‘Pick of the Day’ and there was an impressive roll-call of some of the stars who were going to appear, although it seemed that my name hadn’t quite made the roll-call. I didn’t mind. Most of the people listed there were more famous than me. Except two of them. Not that you can really measure such things. Actually three of them, now I re-read it, but it was no big deal, honestly. And then I wondered if I’d been mentioned in any of the other TV listings. Because the gala night was for charity, all sorts of top stars had been persuaded to take part, and illustrating the feature was a photo of Dame Judi Dench. Wow! I thought. I wonder if I’ll get to meet Dame Judi Dench. That really would be something!

  One moment I had far too long to think about the evening ahead, and then it seemed I had hardly enough time to rehearse my piece once more before heading up to London. I’d decided to drive there myself and leave my car at my parents’ place. I didn’t want to be chauffeur-driven all that way in some shiny black Mercedes with an obsequious driver; too much of that kind of treatment can start to affect a man. Although I was a little surprised to realize that I’d absently-mindedly climbed into the back seat of my Nissan Sunny as if someone else was going to drive it away. I had my best suit in a special protective bag beside me, and I kept feeling my script inside my pocket. At traffic lights I would get it out and stare at the words meaninglessly until a car horn sounding behind me set me on my way again.

  I arrived at the Palladium a couple of hours before the show began but already there were throngs of fans gathering obediently behind the crash barriers. Above the doors in huge letters were the words ‘A Tribute to Billy Scrivens’. It seemed typical of Billy to get top billing even after he’d died. Insi
de, the security was already far tighter than anything I had experienced. Some areas were even off-limits to the performers. This was the riskiest sort of television show: a live outside broadcast with no dress run, dependent on all the acts keeping to the time they had promised while the channel controller sat behind the director’s box praying that nobody said the ‘F’ word or something even worse, like suggesting viewers switched off their tellies and read a book.

  I’d wanted to say hello to Stella and to check that she was OK but I was told that would not be possible. ‘Tell her it’s me, Jimmy Conway,’ I said and they disappeared for a moment but then told me again I couldn’t speak to her right now. I tried to tell myself they hadn’t even asked her. The security men were polite but very firm – I had walked into a military-style operation where everyone had a clearly defined job and no one was going to bend any rules or make exceptions for people who happened to think that regulations didn’t apply to them. I was granted a quick sound-check in which I quickly recounted what I had for breakfast while trying not to look too dumbstruck by the size of the empty auditorium in front of me. For some reason the set on stage was of a huge church, as if we were attending a memorial service to the late St Billy. There were an altar and a pulpit and some lilies, which two set designers were busy spraying because they didn’t look quite right. Once the stage manager had terrified me with the enormity of the venue, I was taken to Make-up before being dumped in my dressing room in order that I should have plenty of time in which to panic.

  I got changed and lay trembling gently on the sofa in the dressing room. I tried not to listen to a wasp that was buzzing madly by the skylight. It must have been my heightened sense of tension that made me exaggerate the symbolism of this trapped insect. That’s what my life had been like, I thought: banging my head endlessly against a pane of glass trying to get out. That’s what most people’s lives are like: repeatedly coming up against the same barriers whatever they do. They can see there’s so much more to the world out there, but it always remains incomprehensibly out of reach.

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