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This is your life, p.27

This Is Your Life, page 27


This Is Your Life

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  The piece took nearly a quarter of an hour to perform but it only felt like twice that. Exhausted and emotionally drained from his athletic and frankly sweaty performance, Norman finally took a bow to an explosion of applause and cheers and whistling. Chris shouted for more, except it came out as ‘More-ow!’ because someone kicked him under the table to shut him up. As the applause died down, Norman staggered to the bar to get himself another gallon of cider, while Nancy took the stage once more. ‘Thank you very much, and Norman will be concluding his tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd later on this evening by miming a plane crashing into the side of a mountain.’

  Nancy had clearly planned out the whole evening but now one or two of the non-speaking onlookers wondered if they might add a spontaneous word or two.

  ‘I was once in a car with Jimmy and we were stuck in a traffic jam and he let two cars out instead of just one.’

  ‘He always follows the country code and closes gates to prevent livestock escaping.’

  I wondered if we might be starting to scrape the barrel a bit now. Next I’d be credited with always putting the lid back on the toothpaste, I thought, until I remembered that actually I didn’t. Nancy realized the show was coming to an end and stepped in to round things off.

  ‘Jimmy, you explained to me that you made up all that rubbish about being famous because you so wanted to be a success. Well, before you finally leave us all for sunnier climes, your friends and colleagues wanted to reassure you that you always were a great success. I know it was always your dream to appear on This Is Your Life, and, OK, maybe now you’ll never get to be on the real thing. But you’re the biggest star around, Jimmy. So it gives me great pleasure to say to you at last, Jimmy Conway, This Is Your Life!’

  And her emphasis made me realize where I belonged. Standing on that little stage in the back room of an ordinary pub in a nowhere town I felt at ease with myself, so much surer of who I was and where I fitted in than I had done on the huge stage with pretend friends like Billy Scrivens. My real friends were more sincere because they were cynical, more flattering because they could be rude, richer because they were poorer. Nancy passed me the big red book as Norman cued in the signature tune once more and everyone gathered around to laugh at the photos and point out the little mementoes they had done for me. Norman rolled a joint and Panda tried not to wince as he failed to pass it to the left.

  We carried on drinking into the evening and then food was served for everyone. And this was a proper meal, not stupid fancy nibbles that leave you starving. Betty went from table to table, doing her very hardest stare at whoever happened to be eating, failing to use her psychic powers to convey the inspired idea that they should give all their food to her immediately. Everyone commented on how sweet she was as she mournfully rested her head on the laps of various diners. Then their legs started to feel damp and they realized she was drooling all over them.

  I went round the room talking to people I hadn’t seen for ages, and laughed and joked among friends with whom I had so much to catch up. And now that we were all relaxed, they asked me what it had been like to meet all those famous people and be on telly and perform on stage and be in an advert. I gave them the honest answer that there had been moments when it had been thrilling and terrifying, but throughout it all there had been an anxious empty feeling inside me that had never gone away. Until now, I thought: I never felt so much like a celebrity as I did that evening. Everyone was on a high because we knew we’d had a really special night and what was more we’d done it ourselves. Even Tamsin couldn’t help but smile. I made sure I had a chat with her on her own in the corner and this time I was going to report every word of it to her mother.

  When the evening was over we walked slightly drunkenly along the seafront, laughing about the night that had just been.

  ‘You can’t say we didn’t give you a good send-off, Jimmy,’ said Dave.

  ‘Er, yeah, about that,’ I said awkwardly. ‘Do you know, walking along the seafront with you here now, I’m not so sure that I want to go.’


  ‘Well, after how sad everyone said they’d be to see me leave, it sort of makes me feel like staying now.’

  ‘Really?’ said Nancy, seeming pleased.

  ‘What – after Nancy went to all that bloody effort?’ objected Dave.

  ‘That’s fantastic, Jimmy,’ interjected Nancy. ‘Would you just come back to working at the language school then?’

  ‘Well, for the time being, I suppose. Tamsin once said she wished I was her teacher. It made me wonder what it would be like to teach kids who actually understood what I was saying to them.’

  ‘You’d be brilliant, Jimmy, I know you would.’

  Chris seemed confused by this and said, ‘I reckon you ought to make a go of this stand-up comedy lark, Jimmy. That seemed to be going pretty well for you.’ And then he added ‘What? Why’s everyone stopped walking? Why are you all staring at me like that?’

  Eventually each of them peeled off the group and weaved their way up their various streets until it was just Nancy and me walking along the seafront. We left the promenade and crunched our way across the shingle and sat down. I let Betty off the lead so she could run off down to the shore and bite the sea. Twelve years I had lived on the coast and I was still surprised every time I discovered that the waves carried on dutifully crashing on the shore at night-time as well as during the day.

  ‘Nancy, I don’t know how to thank you. All that trouble to say goodbye, and now I’m saying hello again.’

  ‘Yeah, well, it worked then, didn’t it?’ she said with a smile.

  ‘Suddenly it feels like everything in the world is perfect,’ I said tactlessly and her face fell. ‘Sorry, that was stupid of me.’

  We sat in silence for a minute.

  ‘Nancy, I spoke to Tamsin before she went off with Kelvin tonight.’

  ‘The father of my grandchild, God help us . . .’

  ‘Yeah, well, I chatted about that with her this evening.’

  ‘I know, I saw you; why, what did she say?’

  ‘Well, she talked about herself and how awful it was but how she had no moral choice except to go through with it. But there was something about the way she was relishing the drama of it all that made me suddenly wonder if . . . well, you know . . .’

  ‘No, I don’t know, tell me!’

  ‘Well, I wondered if she was making the whole thing up.’

  Nancy looked completely astonished at this suggestion and yet I saw that it prompted a glimmer of hope in her face.

  ‘What, pretending to be pregnant? Why on earth should she do that?’

  ‘To exercise some sort of power over her mother. To make people talk about her.’

  ‘That’s a pretty massive lie to tell just to get a bit of attention.’

  ‘Not the biggest though – remember you’re talking to the expert here. And that’s what I’m trying to say. I recognized the syndrome. I think it’s just desperate attention-seeking; it’s not that different to what I did or even what Billy Scrivens did.’

  ‘You didn’t ask her outright, did you?’

  ‘Of course I didn’t. I was just a sympathetic ear. I asked her about the morning sickness and she said it was awful. I asked her if she’d felt more tired than usual and she said she did. I asked her if her tongue felt larger than normal at the end of the day because of course that’s always the first sign, and she said, oh yeah, that’s definitely the worst thing about being pregnant, the terrible tongue-swelling . . .’

  ‘Hmmm,’ said Nancy. She lay back on the shingle and stared at the stars. ‘Do you know, now I think about it, she wouldn’t let me see the test. She wouldn’t let me take her to the doctor and then last week for the first time ever she did her own laundry. My God, I think you’re right. I think you’re probably right. How could she do that to me? She’s a bloody headcase!’

  ‘But that’s better than a pregnant headcase!’

  Nancy laughed and burst into tears at the
same time. ‘Oh Jimmy!’ And then in her delirious state she kissed me full on the lips and hugged me tight.

  And then we kissed again, more gently this time and now without any pretend excuse. With the moon reflecting on the water and the waves lapping on the beach it could not have been more romantic and perfect. Perhaps the only tiny detail I would have changed was not to have Betty bringing us a dead half-rotted seagull she found on the beach . . . but maybe I’m being picky.

  ‘Thanks for organizing this evening,’ I said. ‘It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.’

  ‘The things a girl has to do to make a man see she’s interested in him!’

  I realized that I’d got it into my head that nobody would be interested in me until I became somebody special, but I didn’t want to go over all that again.

  We kissed some more and Nancy said, ‘I thought we were supposed to be just friends.’

  ‘We are. I’m a boy, who is your friend. A sort of “boyfriend”, if you will.’

  ‘And I’m a friend who is a girl . . . there must be a word we can find for that. Look, are you really sure you want a woman with a screwed up teenage daughter in tow?’

  ‘Oh Tamsin’s all right. She’s pretty balanced compared to some of the kids I’ve taught at the language school. I really think that together we could help her find herself. She’ll pass through this phase soon enough, you watch. And then think of the money we’ll make with all that scrap metal.’

  We kissed again and then just sat there watching Betty running excitedly in and out of the breaking waves.

  A couple of weeks later Tamsin came back from walking the dog and actually brought us both a cup of tea in bed.

  ‘How disgusting!’ she said.

  ‘I’m sorry, Tamsin. Would you rather I slept in the spare room?’ I said.

  ‘Not you – Mum. When did you get your navel pierced?’

  ‘I thought you’d like it.’

  ‘Urgh, no. It’s awful.’

  Nancy pulled her T-shirt down to cover her midriff and we sat up in bed sipping the tea, and flicking through the Sunday papers.

  ‘Yuk! What is Kylie wearing!’ said Nancy.

  ‘Yeah, but look at Mel Gibson. He’s put on weight, hasn’t he?’

  Eventually I chucked the papers to the side and stared at the ceiling. I think I had disappeared into this mystery tour hoping that I would earn the love and respect of the people I knew by becoming somebody special for all the people that I didn’t. At last I no longer craved the love of millions of strangers, now that I was confident I had the real love of just one person right beside me. Because although you can get a certain type of instant synthetic love from an audience, it’s not the dependable, forgiving, deep-rooted love that we all really need.

  You can’t leave your pants on the floor in front of an audience. You can’t sit on the toilet and casually chat about what sort of day they had as your fans brush their teeth before bed. You can’t be grumpy and monosyllabic with an audience and expect them to work out why you’re sulking. You can’t row and make up with the general public. You can’t take them a cup of tea on Sunday morning and say sorry and lie in bed and chat about nothing for a bit. You can’t have a sexual relationship with all your fans, even if a few rock stars might have attempted it. In any case, the public don’t really love you, they love an invented image of you and a lifestyle they fantasize about having for themselves. Hello! magazine doesn’t feature photographs of celebrities’ homes with all last night’s washing-up piled high around the sink, with an unshaven Julio Iglesias yawning and staggering into the kitchen with his willy swinging about under the crumpled T-shirt he wears in bed. You cannot be yourself to the public, and so even if you were adored by millions, you would still feel empty and hollow. There can’t be anything lonelier than getting that much phoney love.

  Nancy had shown me that there were greater riches in this life than the overvalued currency of celebrity. Every human being is a hero in one way or another, whether it is bringing up a kid on your own or helping Edna Moore understand the prices in the Mr One Pound shop. That is what she had shown us all when she organized that haphazard night of nostalgic tributes in the back room of a pub. It was such an inspired idea. It made me think that everyone deserved a night like that just once in their life. In fact, that would make a really good television programme: a This Is Your Life for the common man. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me offering that idea into the BBC: a weekly entertainment show that made heroes out of ordinary people and proved you don’t need to be famous to be special.

  I decided I should send it in because it was a message that needed to be heard; a programme like that might become the antidote to the celebrity-obsessed culture that was distorting what really mattered in this world. I was going to send it in because it was time some of the real heroes of our society got some credit. I was going to send it in because people had to see that celebrities aren’t important; people are important.

  And anyway, you never know, I thought. They might even let me present it. . .


  Thanks are due to Bill Scott-Kerr, Georgia Garrett, Mark Burton, Pete Sinclair, John McNally and, most of all, Jackie O’Farrell. With apologies to the real Betty, a slightly less mad Border collie.

  JO’F 2002



  John O'Farrell, This Is Your Life



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