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This is your life, p.26

This Is Your Life, page 26

 

This Is Your Life
 


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  I heaved open the pub door. It was worse than I had feared. Only Chris was present, sipping a lonely lager and heroically attempting to read the beer mat. I had said eight o’clock to everyone, and it was now twenty past. One real friend left in England, and people asked me how I could possibly go and work in Kuwait. It’s still quite early, I said to myself. I expect a few more people will come along in a minute, as Robinson Crusoe said when he was washed up on the shore.

  Despite being the only person who had bothered to turn up, Chris seemed to feel compelled to apologize for the poor turnout. ‘It is the quarter-final of University Challenge tonight,’ he pointed out as a compelling mitigating factor. ‘St Catherine’s, Cambridge versus Brunel.’

  ‘Ah, that would explain it. I thought the roads were very quiet,’ I said, pretending to be mollified. ‘I just hope the national grid can cope with the sudden power surge when it finishes.’

  I bought a couple of drinks and a packet of crisps for the dog (no rotted dead fish flavour so I got her ready salted). ‘Right, let me make sure that I’ve got everyone’s drinks right. Whose was the half of lager?’

  ‘Oh, that was mine,’ said Chris, unironically.

  I sat there for a moment in silence. ‘I’ve been a real idiot, Chris,’ I said.

  ‘Why, what have you done?’

  I think Chris often missed University Challenge. We chatted awkwardly about nothing for a while. I owed it to him to make an effort. He was the one person who had bothered to come out, so the least I could do was think of some interesting question I could ask him.

  ‘Well, it tells you where the beer is from,’ he replied, passing me his beer mat to read. This subject didn’t sustain us for as long as I’d hoped and now that it was obvious no one else was coming I didn’t want him to have to stay any longer for my sake.

  ‘Actually, Chris, it’s really nice of you to come and everything but I think I might go home now,’ I said scraping back my chair as I stood up.

  ‘What?’ he exclaimed, showing more concern than I’d been expecting.

  ‘I’m sorry – I’m just a bit down at the moment. You don’t want to sit here all night with me moping on my birthday. Thanks for coming out and everything but I think I might just get an early night.’

  ‘No, don’t go!’ he said leaping to his feet. ‘You can’t go.’

  Suddenly his face looked much less anxious as he spotted something behind me and I turned and saw Nancy approaching.

  ‘Jimmy Conway?’ said Nancy rather formally.

  ‘Oh, hi, Nancy, thanks for coming.’ I was momentarily confused as she produced a large red photo album decorated with some gold lettering. And then she made an almost ceremonial announcement, the words of which I’d imagined many times, though I’d never believed I’d really hear them.

  ‘Jimmy, you thought you were going for a quiet birthday drink in the Red Lion, but you’re not. Because Jimmy Conway, teacher, friend and bloke down the pub: This Is Your Life!’

  At that perplexing moment the famous opening four notes of the This Is Your Life theme tune boomed, rather distortedly, out of the cheap pub PA system more accustomed to announcing businessmen’s sandwich orders. I was a bit unsure how to react to what I presumed to be a rather bizarre joke, when behind me the double doors to the pub’s function room swung open and I saw that just about everyone I knew in the town was gathered inside. Dave, Tamsin, Norman and Panda, friends from Brighton and Newhaven, people I had worked with, students I had taught, they were all in there. The theme tune became louder as I was led through and they burst into applause, smiling mischievously and a little proudly at their surprise. Chris and Nancy led me in to where Dave was grinning at me, Norman was standing and applauding, and even Doreen was there with her two miniature schnauzers panting on her lap.

  Above the little stage Tamsin was tying up a home-made banner that read ‘Jimmy Conway, This Is Your Life!’ and then Nancy led me up onto the rostrum. I kept spotting more old faces: people I hadn’t seen for a couple of years who’d moved away from the town but who had been persuaded to come back for this special occasion. The applause continued and I felt a great weight lifting off my shoulders as I recognized the affection in everyone’s faces. They weren’t going to let me leave the country without a real goodbye. Either that or it was an elaborate trap and they were now going to beat me up for being such a lying scumbag.

  The clapping died down and there was a moment’s pause. ‘You bastards!’ I said, and they laughed because they knew I meant it in the nicest possible way. I was smiling so broadly I could almost feel it hurting. My face wasn’t used to this, I was going to pull a grinning muscle. They should have warned me so I could do a few gentle warm-up smiles beforehand. Betty was going from table to table, wagging her tail and welcoming them all back, until eventually she sat and watched me on stage like everyone else.

  Nancy took the microphone from the stand and read from the prepared script inside the album almost like a professional. ‘You were born James Elliot Conway and grew up in 27 Elms Crescent, East Grinstead. Disillusionment set in early as you discovered that your road was not actually a crescent and that all the elms had died and been chopped down before you were born. You were a quiet baby, perhaps because being with your mother made it impossible to get a word in edgeways, but you were always accommodating even then, as your mother recalls:

  Norman pressed down the ‘play’ button on the tape deck and the unmistakable free-form experimental jazz speech of my mother poured out of the speakers: ‘Oh yes Jimmy was a very easy baby potty-trained at eighteen months one or two accidents of course there’s still a stain on the chaise longue are you sure this will record without a microphone he slept right through well I think he did but it’s hard to know because we always wore earplugs in those days so the baby didn’t wake us up things were different back then there were no disposable nappies no disposable anything if you had a shoebox you’d jolly well hang on to it and use it for keeping old postcards in I think we’ve got a microphone from our old tape player somewhere I must get it down for Jimmy and we’d cut up the postcards to make collage Jimmy made a lovely bluebird with cut out bits of the Mediterranean, Aegean mostly some Adriatic it’s a shame he never wanted to go to art college the little light’s flashing does that means it’s recording he could have been a successful artist now like Lucy-Anne Freud, she’s very good isn’t she though I think it’s a shame she has to make them quite so fat don’t you agree?’

  Apparently Mum’s short and pithy anecdote, specially recorded for the occasion, still had a little longer to run but they stopped the tape there because they only had the function room booked till closing time. Nancy then continued the narrative: ‘As a young man you dreamed one day that you might be a famous comedian. You even went so far as to foolishly write down your plans in order that you might have the piss taken out of you by your brother and all your friends on your thirty-fifth birthday. Well, as we all know, over the past year you did succeed in becoming quite famous, and even performed live on national television before you suddenly decided to quit while you were still behind.’ For a moment I was worried that we were going to hear further extracts from the embarrassing teenage scribblings that had been so excruciating this time last year. ‘Now you are off to start a new life in the Middle East. Kuwait might seem a long way away, but frankly it’s not as far from us all as you have been in the past few months. So we wanted to say that even though you’ll be three thousand miles away, Jimmy, it’s great to have you back.’

  A blast of the This Is Your Life theme tune that they had recorded off the telly was played in while at Nancy’s invitation Dave stepped up to the microphone. ‘I was asked by Nancy if I could say a few nice words about Jimmy Conway. Well, I racked my brains and I’m afraid I really couldn’t think of anything.’ A laugh went around the room while Doreen Cutbush looked very concerned that this young man should say such a thing. ‘Jimmy is a mean, cowardly backstabber who never bought a drink or sent a single bir
thday card to any of his countless illegitimate children who are scattered around the country. He is cruel to animals and oftens stops to laugh at Seaford’s three-legged dog. He is the sort of man who would go up behind a blind person at a pelican crossing and go beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. I was also asked to list some of his achievements but I drew another blank there, I’m afraid. The only thing I can think of is that he is personally responsible for the plague-like spread of pubic lice among the female students at the Sussex Language Centre.’

  By now Nancy had got down off the stage and was explaining to an ashen-faced Doreen Cutbush about Dave’s perverse sense of humour. At the back of the crowd one of the language students present had got out her English-Hungarian dictionary to look up a couple of words she’d never heard before.

  ‘But apart from those minor quibbles,’ continued Dave, ‘you’re quite a good bloke, Jimmy. I can understand why you might want to escape to Kuwait right now, but we’re going to miss you. For a day or two anyway.’

  Having prevented Doreen from setting her little dogs on Dave, Nancy now leapt back on the stage and tried to bring the evening a little closer to the spirit of the original TV show format. She thanked Dave and then returned to her red book to read out a little more of my life history. ‘Jimmy, you had a happy childhood, two loving parents and an elder brother you could always depend upon to use your head as a fart cushion. Sadly your brother cannot be here tonight because, well, I didn’t invite him, but he sends you this message:’

  High on the wall of this back room was a large black television which tonight was haphazardly connected to a VCR player on Norman’s improvised mixing desk. As the telly sprang into life there was a smattering of applause in appreciation of the effort that must have been involved in setting all this up. It might not have been as technically slick as the editing suites I’d seen during the previous year but whatever it lacked in professionalism it made up for in chaotic charm. ‘Hello, Jimmy!’ beamed my brother from a sunlounger in his back garden. ‘I’m sorry I can’t be there this evening but it sounds like they are going to give you a night to remember.’ His kids ran into the screen and waved at the camera and shouted, ‘Hello, Uncle Jimmy!’ at the screen. This was great. This wasn’t far off the real This Is Your Life that I had dreamt of. All right, as yet there had not been any references to my tireless work for animal charities, but that might have been because I didn’t do any.

  ‘You’ve been a great uncle to these two, Jimmy. They think the world of you and we’re all really going to miss you while you’re away.’ Then the elder of the two boys shoved his little brother out of the way, who fell to the ground and started to cry and Nicholas said, ‘Stop it both of you, you’re both as bad as each other.’

  Nicholas looked back to camera and apologized for the behaviour of his two boys and said that he had managed to unearth some footage of another couple of horrors that he’d transferred to video for me. A cheer went up around the room as we cut to some silent old footage of two small boys, me and my brother, splashing around naked in a paddling pool. Then an even louder hooray as I turned round to wave at the camera revealing a tiny penis, which was shamelessly waving along with me. For some reason the assembled company seemed to find this terrifically amusing. Obviously, I wasn’t at all embarrassed by this. I mean, that was me as a child; it bears no relationship to Jimmy Conway the adult.

  ‘It’s not what you’ve got, Jimmy, it’s what you do with it!’ shouted a voice from the back, and their timing could not have been better as the five-year-old Jimmy proceeded to show exactly what he could do with it: weeing in a great glistening arc against my big brother as he leapt out of the paddling pool in tears. And I’d always thought it was him who had tormented me.

  ‘Some charming early footage there,’ said Nancy as the tape ended, ‘and if you ever feel the urge to appear on television again, Jimmy, we’d be more than happy to send that clip into You’ve Been Framed.’ By now I felt I’d been up there for quite a few minutes so I was very relieved when Chris passed up a pint which I could sip from time to time as something to do during the more embarrassing moments. Nancy skimmed through my undistinguished academic career and remembered my accidental arrival in Seaford. She reminded me of some of the things I had done for her, covering for her lessons when she had childcare problems, for example. Or the time I’d convinced her that because of global warming Eskimos now had over twenty different words for water.

  I must admit I couldn’t help being pleased that Nancy had noticed I’d surreptitiously tried to help her when she was giving up smoking. ‘Jimmy, when I was trying to pack in the ciggies, you kept suggesting we all went to the cinema or café. It was only months later that I realized you had been deliberately arranging social situations away from smoky pubs where you knew I would have caved in. It was subtle and understated, but you were quietly determined to help me quit such a dangerous and disgusting habit and for that, Jimmy, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.’ And then Nancy took a final drag of her cigarette and stubbed it out on the makeshift stage.

  Now it was time for Doreen. She hauled her short but enormous body out of its chair and up onto the stage to begin her own tribute, while under her arms her moustachioed miniature schnauzers glanced around the crowd checking that everyone was listening. If there was anyone I had helped a great deal down the years, I would have to admit it was Doreen Cutbush. I’d always been on hand to exercise her little dogs or to mend the photocopier at the language school or be rung up in the evening to video her favourite programmes when I was in the middle of a rented movie. She was never afraid to ask, and I was always afraid to say no, so it was particularly poignant that she had come along this evening to acknowledge all the hours of my life that I had devoted to helping out my employer and neighbour.

  ‘I was asked by young Nancy here if I might say a few words in praise of my Jimmy. Well, I can tell you I didn’t hesitate. I will always have the utmost respect for Jimmy Conway,’ she boomed, taking off her glasses-on-a-string where they rested on the horizontal shelf of her bosom. ‘For in an age when standards seemed to have gone by the wayside, Jimmy here continues to set an example to so many. Do you know why? Do you know what is so special about this man?’

  Around the room I was flattered to see a few people nodding.

  ‘He always, and I mean always, uses the correct word for irregular plurals.’

  I double-took slightly from the stage, as she continued.

  ‘You’d never hear Jimmy uttering such hideous modern abominations like curriculums, stadiums or stimuluses – with Jimmy it’s curricula, stadia, stimuli every time.’

  I did my best to look moved by the warmth of this tribute as I thought about the winter’s night when she had got me up at four in the morning because her waterpipe had burst and I had scrambled around in the snow outside her house trying to find the metal flap to turn off the mains supply.

  ‘Radii, alumni, memoranda – what can I say? He’s the sort of man who would never say one criteria when he means one criterion. I’ve always maintained that credit should be given where it is deserved, so there you are.’ And with that she stepped down again with the dogs under her arms glancing around as if to say, ‘What? What else was there?’

  There was a slightly embarrassed pause, punctured by a heckle from Dave.

  ‘Just as long as he never bloody says two cappuccini again.’

  ‘Thank you very much, Doreen,’ I said, ‘for making the effort to come up onto the rostrums.’ Nancy then introduced a slide show of photos from the past. There were pictures of us all from ten years ago where our innocent young faces smiled at the camera oblivious to our appalling sense of fashion. Pictures of a day trip to Dieppe, scenes from parties or picnics or just friends squashing into photo booths. Near the end there was one of Nancy and me in our early twenties sitting on the beach and kissing.

  Not everyone stood up and gave a speech. Norman just said that I was ‘a good bloke and that’ but then added that he
wasn’t very good at talking in front of people. He said, however, that he would like to pay tribute to me in another language, ‘a more, like, universal language, the language of music’. And we all thought, Oh no, he’s not, is he? He’s not going to finally perform air guitar for us all here and now, is he? However much we had quizzed him about his accomplishments in this unconventional field, none of us had ever been treated to a display.

  ‘This is for you, Jimmy,’ he said, and then Panda cued the music and Norman struck a deadly serious pose, fell to his knees and started pretending that he was playing. The moment had come for him to share with us all the joy that was air guitar.

  You’d think if you were introducing a group of friends to an unconventional art form that you might try to lead them gently by giving them a brief and accessible taster. If someone had never heard an opera, you wouldn’t introduce them to the form by forcing them to sit through the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. So what did Norman choose to mime for us? One of the shorter, more popular Beatles tracks maybe? Or a brief snippet of Rodriguez’s guitar concerto number 2 perchance? No, for this crowd of air guitar virgins, Norman had selected the Everest of mimed guitar solos: Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd. All thirteen head-banging minutes of it.

  It’s quite hard to know what to do when a fully grown man is leaping around in front of you pretending he is playing a rock classic on an imaginary electric string instrument. Some onlookers tried to move their heads from side to side in a jaunty wish-I-could-sing-along-but-don’t-know-the-words kind of way. A couple of people attempted to clap in time but this was not picked up by anyone else so they sheepishly stopped again, as if they’d never meant to clap for more than twenty seconds or so anyway. Most of us adopted that benign appreciative fixed smile as worn by Western tourists incomprehensibly watching an intricate dance in the Indian subcontinent. As it happens, he looked as if he was probably pretty good at it. His fingers gave the impression that they were playing the chords that were intended; he strummed and spun and rocked like the real thing. But at the end of the day it was, you know, well, it was air guitar.

 
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