This is your life, p.25
This Is Your Life, page 25
I had already come to the conclusion that Billy Scrivens was the most dreadful man I’d ever met, but out there on that stage I decided that I was taking part in the most vulgar, distasteful event I had ever witnessed. I wondered if it may even have been the lowest point in the history of Western civilization, or perhaps the second lowest after Elton John singing a hastily reworded version of Candle in the Wind at a funeral in Westminster Abbey in front of the entire British royal family. Holding back the tears because he had in fact survived his own faked death, Billy returned to paying tribute to us suckers who were gathered on stage to pay homage to him. ‘For these people are not just the most wonderful and talented group of people you are likely to find gathered together anywhere on the entire planet,’ he said, ‘they also all happen to be my very dearest and closest friends.’ He paused for dramatic effect. ‘Every. Single. One of them.’
There was a slightly weak sycophantic round of applause and I winced at his sickening insincerity when I thought of how one of my real friends must be feeling right now. At this point you might say that something inside me snapped, except that I don’t think it did snap: it reconnected, it healed, it mended.
‘I’m not!’ I said, emboldened by too much strong lager. ‘I’m not a friend of yours! You said it was great to see me again, but you have never had so much as a single conversation with me before tonight.’
Billy looked momentarily surprised to be interrupted but there was a glint in his eye. He seemed to relish the prospect of a verbal duel here live on stage.
‘Celebrities don’t have conversations, Jimmy. They just meet up and say, “Enough about me. What did you think of my show?”’
The audience laughed heartily at this. Some might even have imagined my intervention was scripted. But even if I was inadvertently making him look even better, I wasn’t going to stop now.
‘Ah yes, but I’m not a celebrity, you see. I was lying when I claimed I had known you before you died, and then I lied about being a stand-up comic. I forged my reviews, I invented a career, I falsified an entire celebrity lifestyle because I wanted to be famous.’
There was a nervous half-laugh from one or two people in the audience but nothing more. Even Billy could not come up with a brilliantly apposite punchline to that and for the first time ever I saw him momentarily lost for words. Now in his eyes there was almost an expression of pleading. ‘Why are you doing this, Jimmy?’ his eyes seemed to say. The lines on the autocue machine were maniacally scrolling up and down looking for this section of the script. The theatre was incredibly quiet, though from the headphones of a cameraman I could hear the distorted, frantic screams of some remote director. I didn’t dare pause for another second. ‘In fact, I never performed a single joke in public before tonight. So I am not your friend, Billy. If anyone’s interested, my friends are Nancy, Dave, Chris, Norman and Panda and everyone else back in Seaford,’ I said, thinking I had better stop soon because this was starting to sound like a dedication on the Radio 2 Breakfast Show. ‘And if you’re watching, Nancy, don’t worry, it’s going to be OK.’ And proud that I had made such a speech without slurring my words I made a dignified exit from stage, which was only slightly spoiled when I failed to remember the two steps down from where we were standing at the back of the stage, which caused me to fall flat on my face. And that was the last laugh I ever got as a celebrity stand-up comic.
Having already seen Billy come back from the dead that evening, the audience was suspicious that this whole speech might be part of another elaborate scam. They refused to be impressed or surprised, choosing instead to wait for Billy to explain what on earth was going on. When I watched the tape later I couldn’t help but be impressed by what he said after I had walked off the stage.
‘Knock, knock!’ he shouted to the audience.
‘Who’s there?’ they dutifully replied.
‘Jimmy who?’ they shouted back.
‘Hey, that’s show business!’ he said, gesturing to where I had disappeared, and then got on with the show. And that old gag kind of said it all.
I was shaking as I got to the wings, but attempting my very best proud and defiant look, I walked straight past the stage manager and out of the door. On the other side was a dimly lit corridor at the end of which I discovered a pair of locked double doors. So I turned round and walked back again. I passed the puzzled stage manager a second time before forcing the handle of the fire exit. I had gone from being under the warm glare of the spotlights, live on stage and simultaneously broadcast into millions of homes, into a dank, urine-soaked alleyway where a couple of people were sleeping under strips of cardboard.
My speech may have been cut from the instant repeat granted to Billy’s comeback show but in the acres of newsprint that were given over to his return, a small section was devoted to the novelty story of the hoaxer who’d had everyone believing he was a real celebrity. But the moment that I ceased to be a star was completely overshadowed by the story about someone who still was. My downfall was only really covered to pad out the Billy Scrivens episode yet further. The American reviews I had written were checked and proved never to have been printed; genuine stand-up comics confirmed they’d never seen me on stage. It was strange when the media recounted how I’d pulled the wool over their eyes. Every newspaper and magazine gave the impression that they themselves had remained above all the eager gullibility they mockingly described; this ‘media’ they referred to was a group of foolish people somewhere over there.
However, my display on live television and the subsequent coverage was sufficiently embarrassing to prompt the agency to halt transmission of the bank adverts. It turns out that banks are quite touchy about being associated with fraud. The agency were furious; they even threatened legal action until the advertisers realized this was one thing they did not want advertised any further. A similar campaign was soon launched featuring a premiership goalkeeper, but not before the agency had been along to a game to check that he really did play in goal and that he could actually catch. I had so far been paid just over two thousand pounds for the advert and after the night of the gala I didn’t receive another penny. I never really wanted a stupid jet ski, anyway. But now I wanted to find a way to help Nancy more than ever.
Her tearful message was still on my mobile and I couldn’t help listening to it over and over again. There was something in Nancy’s tone when she relayed the news about Tamsin that seemed to say, I don’t know if you’re still interested in any of this but I thought I’d tell you anyway . . . Nancy sounded abandoned, like I’d let her down. So how was she going to feel when she found out I’d been lying to them all for the past year as well?
Unable to track her down that night, I had finally rung Chris the following morning and had a long talk with him about everything that had happened. He’d watched my declamation from the stage of the Palladium and had been amazed. He’d heard my public confession and listened as I explained why I’d rejected the world of celebrity and everything it stood for. I told him how I had been an idiot to be seduced by the fool’s gold of fame and hoped he would accept my apology for having deceived them all. I was wasting my time. He kept repeating the same thing. ‘Yeah, but it was amazing! You mentioned us on telly! We’re famous now!’
‘That wasn’t really the point of what I was trying to say to you . . .’
‘Yeah, but my name on telly – in front of all those people! What a result!’
Unfortunately for me, Nancy was far more understanding about why I felt so guilty; in fact, she seemed to totally agree that I should feel that way. Although I was still staying with my parents, I finally managed to speak to her on the phone. My embarrassed apology didn’t follow the script at all. When you offer up a repentant statement like, ‘I just feel like I’ve let everyone down’, your comforting friend is supposed to say, ‘No you haven’t, don’t be silly, no one feels that way . . .’ Nancy said, ‘Yes, you have.’ Then I said, ‘I suppose we all do stupid things somet
There was a defeated depression in her voice that I’d never heard before.
‘I’m sorry, Nancy, I really am. Are you totally pissed off with me?’
‘Jimmy, what do you expect?’ she blurted out. ‘You lied to us all. You tried to impress us with all this celebrity bullshit and then you’re surprised when your best friends feel hurt. If you’d included us in the secret, that would have been different. But why did you have to deceive all of us as well? We’re not OK! magazine, we’re not daytime TV hosts. Why were you trying to impress us?’
‘I just wanted to be a success. I wanted to be noticed.’
‘We noticed you more when you were still around, you fuckwit. We always noticed you. I always noticed you. When I saw the piece in the Sunday Times I noticed you become artificially over-serious like you always do when you’re lying. I noticed you avoid eye contact every time you lied about going to the Comedy Store or having played comedy clubs in the States. I noticed every time you went vague or changed the subject. I always noticed you.’
‘You mean you knew all along?’
‘I just knew I didn’t believe a word of it, that’s all. I knew you were lying to me. But I didn’t think you were lying as much as that.’ And with that she hung up the phone. It turns out she wasn’t so easily taken in when it really counted.
After hearing Nancy’s angry and disappointed voice I felt I had burnt my boats in Seaford and now I had no life in London either. Once the mirage of my fame had evaporated before me I was left with nothing. Not only had my identity and imagined raison d’être been whisked away in an instant, but worse than that the blind optimism that I’d one day amount to something had also now vanished. The undying faith in my own future success that had sustained me all these years had finally expired.
In the waiting room at the chiropodist’s they have Feet Today magazine on the table, because while you’re getting your verrucas done you’re bound to want to catch up on the latest news from the world of feet. On the table at the hairdresser’s they have Hair magazine, because you’re obviously interested in hair otherwise you wouldn’t be in there getting a trim. But what magazine would you put in Jimmy Conway’s waiting room? Don’t Know Yet news? Can’t Decide monthly? No Point Whatsoever magazine? It wasn’t just that I didn’t have a career; I didn’t feel like I had any purpose. I was the only person I could think of who’d managed to become famous for not being famous.
It is at times like these that a man can make some stupid and destructive decisions. Despairing prisoners serving life sentences will lacerate their arms with broken light bulbs. My self-destruction took another, more subtle form. I decided that taking that a job teaching English in Kuwait would be an excellent career move at this stage. Phrases such as ‘turning over a new leaf’ and ‘wiping the slate clean’ came into my head; such hideous clichés that frankly I should never be allowed to teach English again. But I thought, hey, Kuwait, it’s a great opportunity; one of the great cultural centres of the world. Paris has the Louvre, New York has Broadway and Kuwait has its famous, erm, sand. I looked the place up in the encyclopaedia. It said that 92 per cent of the terrain was stony desert. But that still left 8 per cent, and I’m sure they could really use an English teacher in Umm Qasr to explain that you’re supposed to put a ‘u’ after the letter ‘Q’. I just wanted to get far away from everyone and everything, and suddenly 92 per cent stony desert sounded perfect. I called Doreen Cutbush at the language school and for some strange reason the job hadn’t already been snapped up.
‘Oh I am pleased, Jimmy,’ she said. ‘Although it’ll be a sad day as well of course.’
‘Oh, thanks Doreen.’
‘My dogs will miss your Betty’
I did a short email to my various friends as a way of letting them know without providing them with an opportunity to talk me out of it. Or even worse, not trying to talk me out of it.
I feel I owe you all something of an apology. When I said that I was a successful stand-up comic, what I meant was that I was a tragic fantasist with an ego problem. What can I say? I feel embarrassed and foolish and the only thing I can say in my defence is that I tried to do the right thing in the end, albeit far too late in the day.
I hope you can accept this apology and I hope that none of you have switched to text message banking because frankly it is a stupid bloody idea that will never catch on.
I’ve decided to make a clean break of things and I’ve got myself a job teaching English in Kuwait starting in a few weeks. It’s a two-year contract. Betty is going to live with my mum and dad till I come back.
I’ll miss you all.
P.S. My birthday seems to have come round once again. If anyone would like to let me buy them a farewell drink I’ll be down the Red Lion next Sunday from about 8 p.m.
I didn’t want to make a big deal about the invitation. I needed a reason why nobody was going to turn up. Part of me was tempted to stay in that night, to have a quiet birthday dinner for two with the one pal I could rely on to be there. That’s the thing about Border collies, they never say no to a dinner party. I could have laid on a real feast for Betty, sat her up at the table as she quizzed me about each item on the menu: ‘Yes, the viande pour chien en boîte – what is that exactly?’
‘Ah, that is one of chef’s specialities, madam. It is dog meat. From a tin. Scraped into a bowl.’
‘Mmmm. Sounds delicious!’ she would say, licking her lips. ‘And what about this one: traditional meat chunks in their own jelly?’
‘That’s a tin of dog meat, as well, really, er, served in the traditional manner, chopped up into a big bowl that says “DOG” on the side.’
‘Ooh, that sounds lovely too, but then they all do.’
But much as I loved Betty there was something extremely oppressive about having a dog staring at you for every single second that you are in her company. Whatever you did, she wanted to do it with you. ‘It’s all right, Betty, you don’t have to leap up quite so excitedly, I’m only turning the page of my book.’ There was no waking hour of the day when you were not being watched, no movement you could make without her being engrossed and excited. I suppose that must be what it’s like to be a real celebrity, with a hundred thousand Bettys all watching you wherever you went, with the added risk of them suddenly transforming into a pack of rabid Rottweilers at any given moment. Who’d want to live like that for evermore? I asked myself.
As it happened, the chances of my adoring fans numbering more than one three-year-old Border collie had rapidly faded and as I headed off for my birthday drinks I took her with me so that it would look a little bit less tragic when I was sitting in the pub on my own. We walked down along the seafront and she chased the waves fizzing up and down the shingle and I sat looking out at the horizon for a while until eventually she came and sat next to me. How could it be right for me to abandon the one companion who would always stick by me no matter what? How do you tell your dog that you are going away for two years? She had found a stick and she dropped it beside me. ‘Betty. I’m taking a long-term job in Kuwait and you’re going to have to live with my mum and dad in London while I’m away.’ She nudged the stick closer to me in the hope that I would throw it for her. She always focused too much on the short term. ‘I wish I could take you with me, but it’s just not practical. I know it’s very hard for you to understand and I’m sorry.’ She picked up the stick, dropped it in my lap and gave an excited bark. ‘Yeah, yeah, two years, whatever, just throw the bloody stick.’ I pulled her close to me and buried my face in the back of her thick mane. She liked this attention so much that the tail wagged the dog. Her whole bottom was doing the twist as the creature she loved most in all the world was giving her his undivided love and attention. And then I kept my face pressed hard against her shiny fur because I didn’t want her to see that I was trying not to cry.
I have always maintained that th
I hugged her tight and wished I could give her everything she wanted in the whole world, and since this merely involved throwing a stick a few yards along the beach, it was quite easy to arrange. As I sat and watched her biting and spitting out bits of wood, I wondered if this was the only meaningful goodbye I’d have to make. It was hard for me to know how many of my old friends I had completely alienated at the end of a whole year of lying. As Betty pulled me reluctantly towards the Red Lion I could feel confident only about one or two people making the effort on my behalf. It was a pub I had been to hundreds of times before, I was going to meet up with friends I had known for years, and yet strangely I felt as nervous approaching those pub doors as I had done when I walked out onstage in front of millions of television viewers. I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach. I had flocks of seagulls flapping about in there.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes