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This is your life, p.24

This Is Your Life, page 24

 

This Is Your Life
 


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  I grunted the first joke with a disinterested sneer, not even attempting to hide the fact that I didn’t want to be there.. And they laughed. They really laughed at the comic conceit that had been served up before them. On paper I had not considered the joke to be any funnier than anything I’d said before, but it seemed that the way I’d delivered it had somehow amused Mistress Audience. I glanced round, half expecting to see Billy Scrivens tiptoeing out behind me – or even Princess Diana and Elvis Presley dancing the tango across the back of the stage. But there was only me. Still exuding the same miserable antipathy I reluctantly wheeled out the next joke and they laughed again. Now they seemed comfortable with me; surprised and amused that I dared to be this rude to them.

  It occurred to me that first time out they must have been barely able to concentrate on a single word I was saying, knowing that Billy was going to creep up on me at any second. That might explain my earlier failure. Either that or I’d been a crap comic. But whatever the reason, now that the tension had been released, they were laughing at every joke, exploding every time I pressed the detonator. Some gags got more than I expected, others less than they deserved, but I was finding my balance. I was off and cycling away. I was being a successful stand-up comic.

  I focused on maintaining this sneering, disinterested posture that seemed to have them hanging on my every word. Now when I knew that I had a good punchline coming I had the confidence to slow right down, to make them wait a second or two before I deigned to share it with them, holding back till exactly the right moment for maximum comic effect. Then ‘Bang!’ and their delight was all the greater. I felt so in control; I could make the sea of eager faces still and silent on my command or summon the waves of laughter to break upon the shore. I finished the set to enormous applause and as I took a small and humble bow I could hear increasing numbers of people shouting ‘More! More!’ Not wanting to push my luck, I decided against performing Billy’s planned encore. I wanted to freeze this moment for ever. I was safe out here on stage, I thought; they wouldn’t dare hurt me in front of all these witnesses. It would only be when I walked back to the wings that the recriminations would start. Where once I’d been terrified by the prospect of going out onto the stage, now I was frightened at having to leave it. I gave the audience a final farewell wave before I stepped out of the lights and into the darkness. I had no defence I could muster, no mitigating circumstances I could possibly plead. I braced myself for whatever it was that Billy Scrivens was about to say to me.

  ‘Jimmy, me old mate!’ he chuckled, ironically I presumed. ‘Sorry to do that to you, y’old bastard, but great TV, eh! You have to admit, bloody tip-top TV!’ and he gave me a playful punch on the arm, clearly delighted with the way the evening was going. ‘When you ran to the door like that, Jimmy, brilliant, brought the bloody house down! You never dreamed, did you, not for a moment, you never imagined what was going to happen?’

  ‘Er, no. No, I didn’t,’ I stammered, regarding him suspiciously. He muttered contentedly to himself at being reassured of this.

  ‘Well, it’s great to see you again, Jimmy, it really is. It’s bloody boring being in hiding for twelve months I can tell you. You start to miss all your mates a bit. Know what I mean?’

  I still was unsure what I should say. Was this another test? Was he providing another opportunity for me to incriminate myself further? On stage a band I half recognized were playing their hit single and the lead singer shouted, ‘Sing along if you know the words . . .’

  ‘Um, yeah, well it’s great to have you back, Billy,’ I ventured. ‘And well done, you know, on pulling this off.’

  He liked that. I could almost hear him purr with satisfaction.

  ‘You know, Jimmy, we never saw enough of each other before my little sabbatical. We should make sure we get together more often.’

  ‘Er, yeah. That would be, um, lovely.’

  And I just stared at him and he smiled back at me and then looked out at the group on stage, happily tapping a foot in time to the music.

  It was at this point that I realized that Billy Scrivens was completely mad. He was so totally self-obsessed that he couldn’t remember who he knew and who he didn’t. He literally didn’t know who his friends were. All the anxiety I had expended about my deception was based on the presumption that Billy Scrivens was a sane person who would have noticed that we’d never properly met before. But the media said that I was an old friend of his, so he presumed it must be true. Were all his friendships so superficial that he couldn’t remember who he’d spoken to and who he hadn’t?

  There had been no mention of all the material I had just done and I wondered if he’d even been listening.

  ‘Oh, and Jimmy – I definitely recognized half of those gags you just did.’

  Shit! I thought. He had been listening. Here it comes.

  ‘Typical bloody writers, eh? Billy Scrivens drops dead and the first thing they think is: That means he won’t be using that stuff we wrote for him. Let’s see if we can flog it a second time; get Jimmy Conway on the phone!’ and he slapped me on the back and gave a huge laugh.

  ‘Yeah, writers, coh!’ I concurred. ‘Who needs ’em?’

  ‘We do, worst luck. Ha ha ha!’

  It appeared that I had got away with it scot-free. My mind raced through all the possibilities, all the exits that needed to be covered, and from every angle it suddenly seemed I was in the clear. I had claimed to be a friend of a dead comic and even he had believed me. I had gone on stage as a proper comedian and after a fashion and for whatever reason got a fantastic response. OK, those weren’t my jokes, but it transpired they weren’t Billy’s either. The writers had already been paid for them, so they weren’t going to kick up a fuss if Britain’s top comic had chosen to pass them on to a friend. I had got away with it, and what’s more I’d been good. I had found my voice and been a proper entertainer, and just because I couldn’t write the stuff, it didn’t mean that I couldn’t hire some writers to do it for me like Billy obviously did.

  I had achieved everything I had ever wanted. I crept into the hospitality room where a collection of stunned celebrities were exchanging accounts of how it had felt to have a dead superstar come up and tap them on the shoulder while they were onstage. Each one was patiently waiting for the current speaker to stop talking before immediately launching into their own identical account of the same experience. I needed to go back to my dressing room to get my head together so I went to take a bottle of beer from a six pack of fancy Czech lager and then just picked up the whole pack.

  It had been less than thirty minutes since I had left this little cocoon, but now I was completely transformed. I lay back on the sofa and drank the first beer straight back and then started on the second one. I was a proper comic. I had done it. I felt euphoric and dizzy and ten foot tall.

  And then I remembered that just before I had gone on stage my mobile phone had rung. Who on earth could have been ringing at such a time? I wondered as I took another swig of beer. I’d ring them back and ask them if they’d seen the show. I turned on the phone and saw that whoever it was had left a message. The voice on the recording was distant and distorted but still unmistakable, even if we hadn’t spoken for weeks. It had been Nancy calling me from Seaford. She relayed her message in tears. Tamsin was pregnant.

  11

  19 Station Road,

  Seaford,

  Sussex

  Dear Jimmy,

  When you were thirteen years old you wrote a series of letters to your future self, sort of time-capsule telegrams to remind your adult incarnation of all the plans you had for your fame and fortune. You may remember that when you were reunited with these letters as a grown-up it seemed that life hadn’t turned out quite as you had hoped. You felt a failure, and went to some fairly unconventional lengths to try to put that right. Well, I’m writing this letter to you after all that has happened. I think I’m now a lot older and wiser than I was two decades ago, or indeed twelve months ago. At last I
know what it means to be a success.

  It seems to me that the process of maturing is learning not to worry too much about what other people might think of you. As a teenager you are crippled by this overwhelming anxiety; countless precious opportunities are not taken out of fear of embarrassment. It is not until you reach your thirties that you finally realize with a huge sigh of relief that you don’t much care if a few people don’t like you. What a liberating day that is, when someone asks you an unreasonable favour and you have the confidence to say no.

  The problem is that evolution hasn’t yet found a way of making this curve level out when a person has developed exactly the correct degree of concern for what others might think. Halfway through your life you get it about right, but the trajectory continues inexorably on the same path until you’re a pensioner who simply couldn’t give a toss. What else could explain Doreen Cutbush’s once green, now grubby-grey gilet with its permanent doggy sheen, or the grumpy old man in the bread shop who, when asked if he’d like his loaf sliced for him, replies ‘Piss off!’ One can be too unconcerned about what people think.

  So the only advice I send to my elderly self, Jimmy, is that you try to cling to a fragment of vanity, both physical and social, and make the effort to stand in the post office queue without muttering obscenities. Oh, and if the area of your facial hair has spread upwards, and huge grey tufts are now sprouting above your cheekbones, then it might be an idea to shave those off as well.

  But more importantly, when you accidentally come across this final letter in your old age, filed between your money-off catfood coupons and the set of teeth you’d been looking for, I don’t want you to start trying to impress the other residents at the Eventide Home for the Elderly by cheating at carpet bowls or forging little scribbled drawings from invented grandchildren. You have been a success; you don’t need to lie to anyone. ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’ as you will remember from when you read Hamlet. Oh, all right, I admit, I never read Hamlet. I saw the quote on the back of a matchbox.

  Mine sincerely,

  Jimmy

  Watching the events of that evening back on video was a compelling and cathartic experience. First and foremost I have to acknowledge that it was one of the most memorable nights of television I have ever witnessed. The viewing figures soared during the course of the night as people watching at home telephoned friends and relations to say what was going on over on BBC1. I realized that my own part in it would be forgotten in the wake of the astonishing return of Billy Scrivens, whose status as Britain’s foremost entertainer was now established beyond any doubt. The BBC agreed a five-year deal far in excess of anything they had been offering before his apparent demise, and his Christmas special coincided with the publication of his autobiography, which Billy had been busy writing during his year in hiding.

  The enormous church set in which I had performed made perfect sense when you saw how Billy revealed himself to the audience. With an angelic choir singing movingly in the background, the audience was shown edited highlights of Billy’s career, climaxing with the news reports of his untimely death. As they were reminded of the day he died, a coffin came up out of the ground, at first barely visible in the swirling dry ice and flashing lights. With the audience moved close to tears by music and the sadness of the montage the coffin was hydraulically raised to the vertical position.

  The choir were singing a specially arranged version of Billy’s old theme tune, suddenly there was an explosion of fireworks and Billy burst out of the coffin and sang, ‘Hello, Hello, Good to be Back’. The cameras cut to the reaction of the stunned audience, where individuals were covering their mouths in disbelief while Billy ran up and down the aisles so that people could see it really was him. One elderly woman was kneeling in the aisle, kissing her crucifix and giving thanks to God.

  Billy then gradually brought the audience down by explaining how this idea had come to him. Every joke was greeted with a fantastic response in the hysteria of the moment. He said that for this year’s Star Appeal Night he had wanted to do something more memorable than ever before, and he joked that coming back from the dead hadn’t been done for a couple of thousand years. He thanked the handful of people in authority, the Sussex police and Brighton doctors and the coroner, who had been party to his faked demise knowing that their cooperation would help raise a great deal of money for charity. And then in a conspiratorial mock whisper, he revealed that inside this theatre were dozens of celebrities who were still in the dark about this little secret, and that while these stars were performing tonight they might get a little surprise while they were up on stage.

  Different stars had reacted in different ways to the shock. Dame Judi Dench had been in the middle of reading a moving speech from a Shakespeare play unaware that viewers had already phoned in and pledged £203,500 to have Billy come up from behind and goose her in the middle of it. ‘Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment. . .’ she said as a familiar-looking entertainer came up and pinched her on the bum. Dame Judi put her hand to her chest and said, ‘Oh my goodness,’ which I sensed was marginally more dignified than my panic-stricken attempt at running away. Mick Jagger looked so completely unsurprised to see Billy that I wondered if he’d ever been aware he’d been dead in the first place. Elton John looked like he’d really had the rug pulled from over his head. Gwyneth Paltrow burst into tears, while one of the Spice Girls fainted. It really was great TV.

  Seeing myself die on stage during the first part of my performance did not seem so bad in context. You knew the audience was waiting for something else more exciting to happen, and as a viewer you were concentrating on the door at the back of the stage. My attempts to run for it were generally taken as a brilliant piece of comic improvisation and after that the audience was so completely hyped up that I think if I’d performed my entire act in Norwegian they still would have laughed and cheered at every word. I draw the line at the stuff about Vulcan fish or dodos deserving to be extinct – that would have died whatever.

  There was a little feature on what Billy had been doing for the past twelve months including some footage filmed at the cottage outside Seaford, which to my relief did not feature me creeping around downstairs and going through all his papers while he was upstairs in the bath. However, Billy had not spent a year as a total recluse but had gone out and about in disguise. We were treated to some footage of him in a rather ludicrous false beard sitting reading the newspaper outside a café and walking across Trafalgar Square. It must have been a bit of a shock for him to have to queue for the cinema, to be told there were no tables available in the restaurant, to have to start paying for everything.

  Having had twelve months to plan his comeback show, Billy didn’t overlook a single detail and the jokes and set-pieces kept coming all night. Then at the end of the evening all the celebrities and myself were summoned back to the wings ready for the grand finale. I had been sitting alone in my dressing room, surrounded by empty lager bottles, repeatedly calling Nancy’s home phone number and her mobile but getting no reply from either.

  A Beatles tribute band played onstage while Billy circulated in the wings, chatting and laughing with various other stars. I caught Stella Scrivens’s eye across the crowd and she half smiled and raised her eyebrows knowingly at me before continuing a whispered conversation with a TV chef. She was running her hand up and down his lapel as she talked and he panted like a puppy dog and giggled. Honestly, some men are so gullible. Thank goodness I saw through her all those minutes ago, I thought.

  The wings were filling up, and the stage manager was miming ‘Hush’ to the less scary of the celebrities. Near by, Billy was holding court to a circle of old showbiz friends when a young runner came up and brought him a bottle of mineral water on a tray. Without even noticing her he took a swig and his eyes seemed to bulge as he swallowed.

  ‘Is this still?’ he snapped at her.

&n
bsp; The runner looked terrified. ‘Is this still what?’ she stammered.

  ‘Don’t fucking joke with me,’ he said, even though I don’t think she had meant to. ‘I asked for still; this is fucking sparkling. How fucking difficult is that, you useless piece of shit?’

  The stage manager heard a raised voice and said ‘Shhh!’ and Billy spun round and caught his eye and the SM realized his mistake and said, ‘Sorry, sorry, do carry on.’

  Billy shook his head in disbelief and then casually resumed his conversation where he had left off. The runner took this as her cue to leave, bursting into tears as she passed me. I tried to offer her a consoling smile but she was too embarrassed to make eye contact with anyone. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded drinking the water because I realized I was feeling quite drunk.

  The tribute band finished their penultimate number and then we were prodded back out under the spotlights. The church interior was gone – we were now standing in a replica of the set for Billy’s TV show. I found myself holding hands with David Beckham and George Michael and singing along to ‘All You Need Is Love’ as everyone swayed from side to side. When I watched the tape I noticed I was the only one swaying the wrong way. When the singing of the international anthem was over, Billy walked down to the front of the stage to thank the audience for making it such a memorable evening and I listened and nodded, and about two minutes into his speech I realized I was still holding George Michael’s hand so I let go. Having heaped praise on all the people in front of him, Billy turned to thank the people with him on stage. Touching piano music was playing and on the giant screens on the back of the stage there was a succession of black and white still shots from Billy’s funeral. ‘I’m just so grateful still to be alive and to be able to do so much to help all those British kids,’ said Billy. And then the sad music was turned up as pictures of Billy holding hands with disabled children were flashed up on the screen. ‘Charity’ is the backstage pass that says ‘Access All Areas’, I thought. No grounds of taste are out of bounds if you are going there on behalf of charity. And then I remembered how I had justified the deception involved in doing my advert by deciding to help out Nancy. I’d wanted to do something I shouldn’t, so I did it for charity. There were plenty of ways I could have helped Nancy more directly than that. Refraining from telling her daughter to go and get herself pregnant was possibly one of them. The recording of Nancy crying on my mobile phone still ran round in my head as I watched slow-motion footage of Billy pushing a wheelchair. The passenger was not in shot.

 
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