This is your life, p.5
This Is Your Life, page 5
I wonder if in the old days ploughmen ever felt they were stuck in a bit of a rut? It was now 3 a.m. on the third Sunday in September in the wet and windy seaside town of Seaford. All night the wind had whistled like a Scooby Doo soundtrack, banging wooden gates and spinning polythene bags along the seafront. Betty was sitting beside the bed staring at me expectantly, shaking with excitement as to what I might do next.
‘Go to bed, Betty,’ I mumbled, and she reluctantly slunk off to her beanbag. Before she finally lay down she liked to walk around in little circles a few hundred times, endlessly scrunching the squeaky polystyrene gravel inside like some ancient Chinese torture for irritable insomniacs.
Just as football matches generally start at 3 p.m. and school always began at 9 a.m., three o’clock in the morning is the long-established kick-off time for the traditional ‘where did my life go wrong?’ meditation. There is no better moment than the low-energy loneliness of the small hours to enter that innermost cavern of self-pity and regret. They ought to market special negative-thinking tapes that you could play to yourself when you wake up in the middle of the night, just in case you weren’t convinced of your own worthlessness. To the echoey background music of distant panpipes and mysterious tubular chiming, a Californian with a gentle but authoritative voice could assert, ‘You are a worthless piece of shit. You have achieved nothing. Your life is a mess and it’s all your fault.’ Apparently over 50 per cent of suicides happen in the small hours of the night. I’m sure with my negative-thinking-tape idea they could get that figure up another 10 per cent or so.
As you grow older, you gradually realize that the gulf between where you are now and where you had hoped to be is never going to be bridged. In your daily life you pretend that you will catch up, make up all that lost ground and suddenly be catapulted to that elusive magical place called ‘Success’. But slowly it starts to seep through from your subconscious to the conscious: this is your fate, this is who you are, this is your life. I seemed to live permanently with that feeling you have when you’re lost on a car journey and you just keep on driving further and further in the wrong direction hoping there’ll be a turning or signpost somewhere up ahead.
Maybe everyone experiences this sense of creeping disappointment. When Alexander the Great was still in his twenties he had conquered most of the known world. Did he lie awake at three in the morning thinking, ‘I dunno. I just always imagined I’d have done so much more by now . . .’ Did Michelangelo feel the Renaissance had sort of passed him by? This theory failed to cheer me up since there was no escaping the fact that, unlike these rather poorly chosen examples, I had neither conquered Persia nor painted the Sistine Chapel; most days the sum total of my achievements was walking the dog and maybe hoovering the stairs. Youth is like the mornings: if you don’t make a good start before lunch, you’re in danger of wasting the whole day. Well, I must have spent my entire twenties clearing up the breakfast things and reading the paper and then having another cup of tea and suddenly it was the lunchtime of my life and I really should have made a start on something by now.
How did those famous people originally know in which area they should apply themselves? Does having a gift for something automatically impel you towards that outlet for your talent? Or was it just good luck that matched great people with the means to achieve their greatness? If Beethoven’s dad had sent him to martial arts classes instead of piano lessons, would young Ludwig have developed into a rather disappointing sumo wrestler? If Kasparov had been given some other game instead of a chess set, would he have eventually found his true gift or struggled to become a grand master at Buckaroo? Perhaps the thing that I was great at hadn’t been discovered yet. What did great goal-scorers do before the invention of football? It seems a bit unfair that Mary, Queen of Scots got her head chopped off for being a failed monarch; for all we know, her real talent might have been as the greatest female goalkeeper of her generation. If the rules of Association Football had been drawn up four hundred years earlier, she could have represented her country at the Women’s Soccer World Cup finals and become the heroine of all Scotland after stopping the ball three times in the penalty shootout that settled the 1566 final against the Holy Roman Empire.
Unlike me, my brother had always achieved to order. A good degree followed by a good job, a nice flat; married a nice wife, two lovely children now living happily in a lovely house. It wasn’t fair. Why wasn’t Mum shouting through from the kitchen, ‘Nicholas! Let Jimmy have a turn with the nice life now!’ As children we had niggled and bickered and fought like any two inmates sharing a small cell, and I lost every encounter. He was stronger, smarter, more experienced, more confident and just plain older than me. There had been a period when his ascendancy had been very directly expressed. For about a year and a half, I do not think Nicholas ever once broke wind unless he had first tracked me down, forcibly pinned me to the ground and sat upon my head, where his fart would finally be detonated with a triumphant ‘Yes!’ For eighteen grim months it was only in these precise circumstances that he deemed it right and proper to break wind: when his bum was pressed as close to the head of his little brother as possible. He would save them up, search the house and garden for me, then suddenly wrestle me to the ground, place his posterior on my head and release a methane blast while I struggled and protested underneath him. Sometimes my day would begin with this animal brutality. I would be awoken, not with a gentle kiss from mother, not with the melodic birdsong drifting in from an English country garden, but with a loud bottom burp blasted right into my eardrum at point-blank range, followed by the delighted cackling of my older brother.
For an outsider to our society looking for clues as to the pecking order in this particular social grouping, I’d say that my big brother’s version of wind power might well indicate his supremacy over me. If you were observing a meeting of the council of European ministers and trying to discern who had status over whom, this sort of tell-tale body language would definitely point you in the right direction.
‘Hmmm, they’re both speaking French, but which countries do they represent?’
‘Ah look, that minister has just leapt up, grappled the other delegate to the ground and farted on his head. So the bloke on top must be France and the one underneath must be Luxembourg.’
My brother was indisputably the boss, the master, the führer. Mao said that power comes out of the end of a gun. In our family power came out of my brother’s bottom.
Of course, this ritual humiliation only took place due to the breakdown of the pax parentis – the real power brokers in our family did nothing to safeguard the human rights of the weaker sibling under their supposed safekeeping. I might try to protest and wail, ‘Mum! Nicholas farted on my head again!’ but somehow this made me party to a disgusting act for which it seemed I shared responsibility.
‘Stop fighting, both of you! It’s disgusting. You’re both as bad as each other!’
I felt then and I would still humbly maintain today that we were not ‘as bad as each other’. He was the farter and I was the fartee. And to have your head used as a fart cushion for a year and a half does something to your self-respect. Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ I’d like to have seen her say that with my brother sitting on top of her, farting into her right ear. It is very hard to maintain an air of composed dignity, I can tell you.
The digital clock blinked and now it was four o’clock in the morning. I thought about Billy Scrivens: rich, successful and popular. He must have achieved everything he ever hoped for. He had his own TV show, he’d written books, he’d launched his own charity, he had a number-one novelty record and he even went bloody jogging in the mornings. How do other people find the time to achieve so much? I have this theory that nobody else in the world sleeps. They’re all conspiring to tell me that I have to get some rest but as soon as I nod off everyone else gets up again and busies themselves practising the piano or learning clever Latin phrases or reading no
Now that I considered the matter, it seemed strange that someone as busy and famous as Billy Scrivens found the time to go jogging. I thought the super-rich paid other people to do all that boring stuff for them. Shopping, cooking, cleaning, answering letters .. . If I was a millionaire, going jogging would the first thing I’d delegate. Maybe it isn’t the half-hour spent exercising that’s the point. Maybe it’s what it does to the rest of your time. Perhaps the reason I never seemed to achieve very much on any given day was because I failed to attack the early morning with sufficient vigour. Was this why you always saw pictures of have-it-all high-achievers like Billy Scrivens and the American president going jogging? If I too started the morning with some strenuous exercise, perhaps the rest of my day would continue on the same high-octane go-getting level. Pd return home supercharged and ready to whizz through all my tasks for the day, ticking off each duty on my to-do list with a bold sweep of my pen before sitting down to read a little poetry before my fencing lesson.
My mind was made up. Instead of my usual morning workout (gently turning the pages of a newspaper and sipping a mug of tea), from now on I was going to leap out of bed at 6 a.m. and go for a vigorous run along the beach and up onto the clifftops, whatever the weather. Starting in two hours’ time. This was it: the start of a dynamic new regime, and I set the alarm accordingly. With the riddle of how to sort out my life finally solved I felt at peace with the world again . . .
I was on a steam train with my old maths teacher when the station tannoy suddenly emitted a similar buzz to the noise of my alarm clock. And then I woke up and it was all a dream. I looked at the clock, which said 6:00, and then I felt depressed that my alarm had gone off accidentally early, and then even more dejected when I realized it hadn’t. Right, come on, Jimmy, get up! You’re going jogging! Today is the first day of the rest of your life, go for it, just do it, feel the force or whatever.
I closed my eyes for a split second and then I fear I must have been kidnapped by aliens or sucked into a time warp or something, because even though I opened them again immediately the clock tried to claim it was three hours later. It glowed ‘9:15’ at me mockingly, in that annoying digital clock font that looked slightly futuristic for about five minutes in 1973. Ten minutes later I was dashing along the pavement towards the beach, being dragged by a Border collie unable to believe her luck. Betty would pull me along faster than I could possibly run until she smelt a bit of abandoned food, when she would suddenly slam on the brakes, nearly yanking my arm out of its socket, and then refuse to budge.
Betty was quite picky about what she ate in the sense that it had to have been a foodstuff at some point in its history. To dine on driftwood or an old flip-flop that had been washed onto the beach would have been an offence to her polished canine etiquette. But if it were food, or rather had possibly been a human dinner in any former incarnation, then she was very open-minded about its preparation. Here’s a favourite recipe from the Larousse Gastronomique de Betty: take one KFC chicken leg, strip most of the flesh and dump in a grass verge for several weeks until well rotted. The decayed bone should be sprinkled lightly with dirt and ants before serving and then it is customary to attempt to swallow the bone whole before gagging violently.
By the time we reached the path up to the cliffs I could run no more. I let Betty off the lead and staggered, exhausted, up the path in my now sweaty T-shirt and shorts, my plimsolls slipping on the sodden rabbit-mown grass. This is where I had pictured myself racing across the skyline, occasionally overtaking less energetic athletes. Instead I was bent double, panting with nauseous exhaustion. I felt stupid for having gone out of my way to contrive another failure as I staggered wheezily up the path.
Coming up the hill was a herd of determined walkers. They overtook me on the path as if I was standing on the wrong side of an escalator, their determined pace and self-consciously swinging arms showing the world that they were ‘Walking’ while I was just shuffling aimlessly along. How is it that people can make you feel as if you’re doing something as basic as walking incorrectly? I had always presumed that walking at least was a skill I had mastered some time ago, but apparently not. At the head of the pack was a confident guide who had an Ordnance Survey map in a plastic cover swinging like a giant pendant around his neck. Why can’t we have these route-finders to tell us where we should go in our everyday lives, I wondered. I could have used this bloke’s directions a few years back.
‘No, come back, Jimmy, you’ve taken a wrong turning there. You want to head towards that town there, then apply for this job here. On the desk on your left you’ll see a girl called Linda. Ask her out for a drink and then a year later propose marriage and have three children called Polly, Sean and Samantha. All clear?’
As I clambered breathlessly to the first summit I turned and looked back at how far I had climbed. On the hills up towards the cliffs was a small golf course and a couple of golfers were now looking around seemingly confused as Betty tore over the brow of the hill with a small white object in her mouth. In the car park at the bottom of the hill was a van with a large satellite dish on top, an unusual sight in a cultural backwater like Seaford. Perhaps they were filming The Antiques Roadshow from the prosthetic limb shop. I tried to start running again. I thought I’d veer to the left today, which happened to be the path where I had passed Billy Scrivens the day before. But as I came over the brow of the hill I could see an unfamiliar cluster of people who looked strangely out of place. A smart-looking woman in a coat more suited to the fashionable streets of London or Brighton than the howling winds of the South Downs was standing in front of a TV camera looking sombre and significant, while a couple of other slightly less important people clutched clipboards and talked into mobiles.
Being unimpressed by such things I carried along my intended path. About 1.5 seconds later I turned sharply towards them in the hope of gleaning some indication of what could possibly have attracted what looked like a documentary film crew to a muddy hilltop in East Sussex.
‘What’s all this in aid of?’ I asked a girl in a puffy anorak holding a clipboard.
* * *
Premature deaths of famous people are always a shock. Their celebrity makes you feel intimately connected to them, making it impossible not to feel some personal loss. But this was different. I really wasn’t just another of Billy Scrivens’s viewers; I had exchanged a word or two with him up on this hill the day before. And today I had come out jogging here, yes, I admit it now, hoping to bump into him again, not quite sure what I would say if I did. But instead I discovered that a couple of hours earlier he had been out jogging on this very hillside, had felt unwell and returned home, where he’d had a massive heart attack and died.
‘God. I was talking to him up here only yesterday . . .’
‘Really?’ said the girl with the clipboard excitedly, before calling to the presenter. ‘Maggie! This guy knew Billy Scrivens.’
Her boss strode over and shook my hand.
‘Maggie Belfitt. BBC News South. How do you do? Very sad news.’
‘Yeah. I can’t believe it. I was talking to him up here only yesterday.’
‘He was only forty-four . . .’ she mused ruefully.
‘God. I was talking to him up here only yesterday.’
She nodded sympathetically although in her eyes I detected the slightly forced attention of someone being compelled to listen to an elderly relative with Alzheimer’s.
‘Was Billy a keen jogger like yourself?’
I was so impressed by this presumption about my own dedication that my brain-to-mouth transmission was jolted out of sequence.
‘Er – well, he jogged yesterday and again today so I suppose he must be pretty fit. I mean apart from having the heart attack, obviously. Er
The cameraman shook his head in contemptuous disbelief.
‘Sorry,’ I said to the producer. ‘That wasn’t meant to be a joke.’
‘That’s OK. Billy would have seen the funny side.’
‘Yeah, he would have done, wouldn’t he?’ I said, already using his death to justify my actions, and I realized all over again what she was saying, that this national treasure had died at the peak of his fame, had died so unexpectedly.
‘Look, would you mind saying a few words on camera?’
‘Me?’ I said in astonishment. ‘But, what do you want me to say?’
‘Just what you told me – that he was jogging here only yesterday and what a shock it is for everyone. And you know, just something about Billy Scrivens in your own words.’
Subtly the shocking reality of this celebrity death seemed to be mutating into some shamefully thrilling drama for which I seemed to have passed an audition for one of the minor roles. Of course I was upset by the news, but there was a perverse excitement to it as well. A national tragedy that involved me. When the whole country briefly comes together to feel a unifying sadness, we all want to place ourselves as close to the event as possible: ‘Of course, it was especially poignant for me. I’d been up the Twin Towers only three years earlier.’ Here I was being asked to be that special person; my proximity to this drama made me feel like some peculiar sort of hero.
Betty had her nose in a rabbit burrow and I knew that unless I called her off, she would dig and sniff for hours.
‘Er, yeah, of course . . .’ I said, failing to sound laidback about this suggestion.
‘Great, thanks.’ And then she called out. ‘Mike! This guy’s just going to do a piece to camera. He used to jog up here with Billy Scrivens.’
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes