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This is your life, p.3

This Is Your Life, page 3

 

This Is Your Life
 



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  Despite it being my birthday, I had now resolved to spend as much of the day as possible on my screenplay. Indeed, the night before I had read a whole chapter of How to Write a Screenplay and had even turned on my computer to retype the title page. ‘Avoidance is the writer’s greatest enemy,’ said the book. I decided to re-read the entire chapter on avoidance, lest I should succumb to this insidious trap. Then it was down to work. The manual was quite specific on how a screenplay should be set out, and so by pasting everything I’d written to date into another template, I managed to make Scene One look much more professional. But then I’d type another line into the computer and the text would suddenly revert to the earlier format, so I had to try to edit the document template all over again. I printed out a page of various fonts: first Times New Roman, and then another in Bookman Old Style, until I decided that Courier New had the most pleasing old-fashioned-manual-typewriter look about it.

  I printed out the whole of the first scene, punched a couple of holes in the margin and threaded little green string paper-binders through it. It looked fantastic. I read my name on the title page: modest and understated, just the right distance under the title of the film. The only thing that diminished my pride in my magnum opus was the slimness of the work. It was clearly only a few sheets of paper. It didn’t look anything like a completed script. I propped it lovingly on the side of my desk and set about rectifying this situation by tackling Scene Two. ‘Scene Two’, I typed at the top of the page. All right so far. I underlined those two words and then stared out of the window. After a few minutes I turned my keyboard upside down to shake out all the fluff and dead bits of skin that had collected in there. I glanced again at my printed script. And then I took a half-inch of plain paper from my printer, about a hundred and twenty sheets in all, and punched holes in every one before attaching the blank pages under the title page and the opening scene. There. At last it looked like a proper screenplay. I felt its weight and dimensions; I imagined it landing on the desk of a Hollywood executive. It looked perfect. All it needed now were the words.

  I had intended to progress to that next stage, but by now it was a quarter past five and suddenly Betty became excited about somebody bustling around my front gate, which I knew meant my mother and father had arrived. I put the screenplay out of sight and braced myself for the onslaught as I opened the front door.

  ‘Hello darling we had a terrible journey that’s a nice jumper is it new we missed the turning for Newhaven and ended up going into the middle of Brighton is it cashmere so we came along the coast road but it’s quite pretty or is it angora well they’re both goats anyway we went past that famous girls’ boarding school where Persephone James was sent when her father was gored to death by that bull in Pamplona. You won’t remember the Jameses, dear, very sad it was in all the papers and Persephone’s mother moved to London after he was killed. I expect she was upset by the sight of cows poor dear and Persephone went to board at Roedean that’s what it’s called which was a shame because she used to babysit for your brother before you were born.’

  ‘Gored to death by a bull?’ I said, suspiciously.

  ‘Well it wasn’t quite like that,’ said Dad. ‘He was struck by the bull and fell back and hit his head and died two days later.’

  ‘He was Gored To Death, darling, I’ve still got the newspaper clippings in the escritoire, there’s a big headline, “Gored To Death!”, anyway it’s much prettier than the other way.’

  ‘What is?’

  ‘The coast road though it adds on twenty minutes make sure you handwash that or you’ll ruin it . . .’ and while I was still trying to work out what it was we were talking about she had marched straight past me and begun tidying up.

  ‘Ooh you’ve lit a real log fire, I do love a real log fire, they used to have one at the Rose and Crown but they’ve replaced it with one of those lookalike gas things with the special rocks that glow when they’re hot, volcanic lava the landlord said it was, that must be a dangerous job getting them out of the volcano, he’s gone and got himself one of those Thai wives, doesn’t speak a word of English but I suppose they must have a lot of sexual intercourse, the trouble is of course they do spit so terribly don’t they?’

  ‘What, Thai wives?’

  ‘No dear, real log fires. I’ll put the fireguard up then the house won’t burn down while we’re out. I checked for your sister-in-law they do a vegetarian option and a fish dish we had some lovely fish with the new couple who’ve moved in down the road, they’re Korean but very friendly, they’re away a lot so they’ve left me a key, lovely new fitted wardrobes with lights inside, I said I’d introduce them to the new Thai wife at the Rose and Crown because that’s quite near Korea isn’t it of course your father didn’t touch the fish because it wasn’t deep fried in batter where does this go?’

  Trying to talk to Mum was like playing tennis with someone who sent back seven different balls over the net at any one time. In the end you just took cover until the barrage was over. The subject of my job was briefly touched upon out of a sense of dutiful good manners. ‘And how is your part-time teaching job?’ she enquired as if she was asking the question, ‘And how is your homosexual Iraqi boyfriend?’ or ‘How are things in the world of pre-school heroin dealing?’

  ‘Fine . . .’ I began, but this was a sufficiently comprehensive summary for her to feel that she could now move on to more pleasing subjects, such as my elder brother.

  ‘We had Nicholas and Carol over last weekend, the children are so clever, apparently little Jasper is “almost gifted”, but it’s hard to know before they start nursery, your reports were always very good until you fell in with those working-class boys, the Strongs, dreadful family I found a box of them in the attic the other day all you and your brother’s old papers and postcard albums and everything. I gave them to Nicholas to sort out I’ll just wash up these few things yes Betty hello good dog.’

  ‘Old Gareth Strong died of natural causes,’ added Dad. ‘It was in the local paper. I went through it twice but that’s all they said. “Natural causes”.’

  My heart sank at the prospect of my big brother Nicholas being in possession of my old school reports. I knew he’d read them and then be deliberately complimentary about how good they were. ‘You were quite a high-flyer at school.’ (Subtext: So what happened?) But I resolved not to feel oppressed by my family’s pervading sense of disappointment in me. I pictured the freshly printed screenplay, hiding like a winning lottery ticket in the top drawer of my desk, and wondered how they’d react this time next year when my birthday meal was quickly grabbed between takes on the set of my first movie.

  The fact that my family was treating me meant that this was the one day of the year when I could choose somewhere special for us to go. So I had opted for the place I went all year round, namely the Red Lion, a pub in the town centre. It served reasonable food and we could have a beer beforehand and I could meet up with my friends later, so it was as good a place as any if you had to eat out in the sort of restaurants that were to be found in a dump like Seaford.

  ‘Seaford is not a dump,’ I said defensively an hour later as my brother described his failed search for a semi-tasteful birthday card. We were sitting in the saloon bar of the pub, studying laminated menus with helpful photos of every dish described.

  ‘It is a dump – most of the cards in the shop said “In Deepest Sympathy”. I mean how can you live in a town where people are more likely to die than have a birthday?’

  ‘Maybe they mean “In deepest sympathy that you live in Seaford”,’ chirped his wife Carol unhelpfully.

  ‘Dennis Johnson died on his birthday,’ said Dad. ‘Double pneumonia.’

  I knew everything my brother said was true, but I couldn’t help feeling that only I had the right to say it. British commuters endlessly whinge about their public transport system, but that doesn’t mean they want foreign visitors agreeing with them.

  ‘So what are we doing later on this evening, Jimmy? Carpet
bowls or over-60s water confidence classes?’

  ‘There’s quite a lot for young people to do round here, as well you know’

  ‘Great. So it’s hanging around the bus shelter giving each other love bites.’

  ‘And there are some lovely walks as you head out of the town.’

  ‘Walks? Surely if you were heading out of town you would run?’

  The onslaught was relentless.

  ‘Well, I like it here,’ I said sulkily. My brother lived in London, and Mum and Dad had followed him there some years back to be near their only grandchildren. The reason I felt personally offended by their constant digs about Seaford was that I couldn’t help interpreting them as coded attacks upon me. Substitute ‘where I lived’ for ‘the way I lived’ and the criticism wasn’t so thinly veiled.

  ‘It’s not all pensioners and bored teenagers you know,’ I continued before casually playing my only trump card. ‘Billy Scrivens lives in Seaford . . .’

  This news prompted more surprise and excitement than I could have hoped for.

  ‘Really?’ said Nicholas.

  ‘Billy Scrivens? Lives here?!’ said my sister-in-law.

  ‘Oh now, he’s very funny,’ said Dad. ‘What’s his programme called? Gotcha!’

  ‘Does he live here all year round?’

  ‘Well, no, I’m sure he has somewhere in London, but he has a cottage between Seaford and Cuckmere Haven. You often see him in the town or jogging up on the Downs.’

  ‘Have you ever actually met him then?’

  ‘Er, yeah, I bumped into him this morning, as a matter of fact.’

  This was true, if a little misleading. I had indeed exchanged a few words with Britain’s highest-paid TV star at around half past eleven that morning. I’d taken a break from my computer and was walking Betty up on the cliffs when I suddenly saw Billy Scrivens coming towards me. He must have been jogging because he was red-faced and dripping with sweat and was now reduced to a sort of lumbering half-run, which petered out completely as he approached. He was clearly on some sort of health kick and stopping jogging certainly seemed the healthiest thing he could have done. He looked scruffier than usual. When he skipped down the steps at the beginning of his TV show he always wore a spangly jacket and his trademark bow tie, but that morning I was disappointed to see that he was allowing his impeccable standards to drop for a jog on the South Downs with his Labrador. But it was still unmistakably Billy Scrivens. His famous face seemed to announce to me ‘Hi there, Jimmy, it’s me!’ and for a split second I had the sensation of bumping into an old friend. I checked myself; I should treat him as I would anyone else, even though I was not just another ordinary member of the public. In fact, I had a direct connection with him that I wanted to share. As an undergraduate, Billy Scrivens had been in the Cambridge Footlights and my old English teacher at school had also been in the Footlights about ten years before him. I paused for a moment, wondering how to broach this, but Betty was not so reserved and ran right up and sniffed his dog’s bottom.

  ‘Bit windy today,’ said Billy Scrivens. I laughed heartily because I presumed the word ‘windy’ was a fart joke referring to his dog’s posterior and my dog’s interest in it. He seemed thrown by my laughter, which made me realize that all he’d meant was that it was a bit windy today. I searched for some witty rejoinder to demonstrate that I was totally unfazed at having bumped into a TV superstar.

  ‘Yes,’ I said. And then he walked on.

  *

  ‘So did you chat for long?’ said my brother-in-law as my family focused on me with a level of concentration that felt as pleasing as it felt unfamiliar.

  ‘Not that long, I had to get back . . .’ In fact, I had turned and watched Billy as he ran off and was then stopped by an attractive girl asking for his autograph. Funny how she’d recognized him when she hadn’t even looked up from the ground when she’d passed me.

  ‘What did you talk about?’ said Mum.

  ‘Er, well, you know, the usual stuff. . .’

  ‘No we don’t know! Tell us!’ demanded Carol.

  ‘Um, well, look, I don’t want to sound pompous or anything but with someone as famous as Billy I think one should treat private conversations as exactly that. But Billy’s just an ordinary person like anyone else . . .’ Nothing I had said so far was actually a lie.

  ‘So you often stop and chat with him, do you?’

  ‘Yeah, quite often.’

  Oh. That was.

  ‘Billy, he calls him,’ said Mum. ‘Billy, not Billy Scrivens. So is Billy coming to your birthday drinks later this evening?’

  ‘Er, no – I decided not to invite him in the end. It’s hard enough for him in a little town like this without all my mates from the language school asking him to repeat his catchphrase all night.’

  It felt good being the friend of a superstar. I’m sure he would have appreciated me protecting him like this.

  ‘Well I never! My son, a pal of Billy Scrivens’s, just wait until I tell the girls.’

  ‘No – don’t go round broadcasting it, Mum.’

  ‘Would he like to have dinner with us now, then, if he’s not coming for drinks later? Give him a ring, ask him if he wants to come and have some chicken in a basket. It looks nice in the photo.’

  ‘No, Mum, really, I don’t want to disturb him now.’

  Even though ‘Billy’ would not be joining us for dinner, there was a noticeable shift. For the rest of the mealtime I was more interesting. Mum and Dad were visibly more proud; I had gone up several notches in status. All because I had exaggerated a chance encounter with a celebrity. Now they were basking in the warmth of the Stardust that had rubbed off on me.

  ‘Maybe Billy Scrivens could help you get a job in television, darling,’ said my mother. Though I had promised myself I wouldn’t tell my family about my secret project, the moment suddenly seemed ripe. They were temporarily impressed with me, and since Mum had alluded to a change of career I proudly told them my big news.

  ‘Screenwriter?’ said my dad, sounding momentarily optimistic about this turn of events. ‘What’s that, like a computer thing, is it?’

  ‘No – writing films. A writer who writes scripts for the big screen.’

  ‘Oh lord,’ he said with a world-weary sigh.

  I didn’t expect them to understand. At least my brother was interested, as I might have expected since he was a bit of a movie buff himself.

  ‘What’s it about?’

  ‘Well, it’s very early days; it’s hard to explain.’

  ‘What is it, action adventure? Romantic comedy? Hardcore snuff movie?’

  ‘No, none of those. I don’t really want to say yet. I might let you read it when it’s finished.’

  ‘Wow! What a pitch! If I’d been a Hollywood producer, I’d have signed you up there and then, no question!’

  After dinner and kisses and family thank-yous, Mum and Dad finally headed home, while Nicholas and Carol came through to the bar to join me and the usual suspects for a birthday booze-up. The friends I’d accumulated during a dozen years in Seaford were drawn from the small pool of like-minded people who also wouldn’t be seen dead in the town where they lived. We had eventually found an ingenious solution to the problem that there was nothing to do in Seaford by going to the pub and moaning about the fact that there was nothing to do in Seaford. My family had got to know most of my friends over the years, but when they were all together like this I still felt embarrassed that my brother and his wife were so cosmopolitan and smart and that my friends were so scruffy and provincial. Although I could hardly blame my expensively dressed sister-in-law for recoiling slightly as smelly Norman, our resident biker, plonked himself down beside her.

  There are people who don’t believe in eating meat; there are religions where you are prevented from cutting your hair. Norman’s particular credo apparently prevented him from washing. For a while he had had the nickname ‘Dogbreath’, but personally I thought this a little harsh – my dog’s breath di
dn’t smell anywhere near as bad as he did. He believed it was unnatural to wash your hair. ‘If you leave it for a while, it might smell a bit,’ he conceded, ‘but eventually the hair will start to cleanse itself using the scalp’s own natural oils.’ I’d known Norman for ten years and there was still no sign of those natural oils kicking in. Maybe they were still recovering from that last splash of shampoo they’d experienced in the early 1990s. Norman was one of the last surviving males of a once populous species referred to by anxious 1960s newscasters as ‘rockers’. Every summer huge flocks had migrated to this coastline, but their numbers had plummeted because of the problem of oil on the beaches. There wasn’t enough of it. And now his grubby leather jacket was rubbing up against my sister-in-law’s expensive suit and she leapt up and generously offered to buy a round of drinks.

  As the person who made the least effort with his appearance, it was only fair that Norman was the only one of our crowd of social misfits who was in a long-term relationship. Sitting on his other side was Norman’s girlfriend, Panda. She was also clad in denim and leather, although she had omitted to have an old beer towel sewn into her jeans. The name ‘Panda’ was a bizarre corruption of ‘Miranda’ and I had known her for a couple of years before I realized that she’d been educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the whole biker’s moll image was a reaction against Alice bands and pearls. She dyed her hair black, but sometimes you could see her blonde roots coming through. It was an effort for her to remember to hold her cutlery incorrectly. Carol passed her the last of the drinks from the tray.

  ‘And yours was the glass of port. It’s Cockburns, is that all right?’ said my expensively dressed sister-in-law.

 
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