This is your life, p.8
This Is Your Life, page 8
Although I was sure that thousands of pounds must have been spent on food and drink, there was no actual meal laid on as such. Instead elfin waitresses flitted around the groups of guests offering them a selection of expensive looking meal-substitutes. I found it hard to get too excited about this feast. ‘Another sliver of carrot! I shouldn’t really, I’ve already had one, I might explode if I eat any more! No, no, just half a quail’s egg for me please – I’m on a diet.’
These beautifully presented little nibbles, artistically arranged on silver platters, had clearly required a great deal of care and money to prepare but they failed to leave you feeling as if you’d eaten anything. In fact, the dainty morsels of spiced prawn or sculpted radishes dipped tantalizingly in exotic sauces only served to remind you how bloody starving you now were, how much you really fancied a couple of big cartons of Chinese takeaway. Even on the culinary front, image had triumphed over substance. It must take real expertise to create dishes that leave you hungrier than eating nothing, I thought; to pull off the gastronomic conjuring trick of combining garlicky breath with a rumbling empty stomach in order that guests leave the party belching spicy reminders that they’re completely famished. Of course, any true gourmet will know that this burp food is only intended as a starter. If you wish to avoid a fierce headache when you wake up next morning, you’re strongly advised to follow such dainty entrees with a large bowl of Weetabix for your main course when you get home. Only then can you lean back with the satisfaction of the replete diner, taking care not to stab yourself in the leg with the grubby cocktail sticks you secreted in your pocket earlier in the evening because there was nowhere else to put them.
The waitresses dispensing these morsels were petite and skinny as if they had been raised on a meagre diet consisting only of this negative-calorie food they were now bearing before them. They appeared like holograms around the edges of the circles and the guests acknowledged the platters but never the bearers, as if the selections were somehow hovering in front of them by magic. It puzzled me that no one was talking about Billy or even bothering to appear particularly bereaved – even drinking champagne seemed a little odd. I thought you were only supposed to have that when you were celebrating something. Then an approaching waiter offered me a glass.
‘How much is it?’ I enquired.
This prompted a big laugh from some nearby guests.
‘Yeah, I wouldn’t put it past him, the old bugger. That’s just the sort of thing Billy would do, isn’t it, charge for the champagne at his own funeral!’
‘Er, yes, ha!’ I said, taking a glass from the tray. It was free. Obviously it was free. I can’t believe I could have been so stupid.
‘So where do you fit into all this?’ I was asked.
I had prepared for such a question on the drive up from the coast. Someone was sure to ask me, ‘How did you know Billy?’ and I would reply, ‘Well, we were sort of neighbours . . .’ and then if necessary I could talk a little more about us occasionally jogging together . . .
Unfortunately the question was asked by a very striking young woman, who added the irresistible bonus query, ‘Are you in the biz as well?’
‘Yes,’ I tutted long-sufferingly, immediately realizing that more information was expected. And then I thought about my teenage letters and how they’d reminded me what I had always wanted to be; what people had always said I was good at.
‘I’m a comedian.’
‘Really,’ she said, sounding impressed. ‘I always think that must be the hardest job in the world.’
‘Er, sometimes . . .’ I quipped effortlessly.
‘Are you doing the circuit at the moment?’
‘Oh yeah, The Circuit,’ I said casually, ‘and, you know, a few other clubs beside that one,’ and then they all laughed some more and I wondered if I really was just naturally very funny.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Jimmy Con way?’ I replied, tentatively phrasing my name as a question that could only prompt the answer, ‘Never heard of you!’
‘Oh yes . . .’ she said hesitantly. ‘Yes, I’ve definitely heard the name . . .’
‘Can’t say I’ve ever seen you on the telly,’ said a posh man dismissively. He emptied his glass and clicked his fingers to summon more champagne. I wanted to assert myself, to stand up to this showbiz snob.
‘No, I won’t do television,’ I said defiantly. ‘It’s killing real stand-up.’ I had read this line in a magazine in an interview with some comic who had clearly repeatedly failed to get his own television series. ‘Pure stand-up comedy is just the comic, the microphone and the audience, nothing else, live, right there in that room,’ I declared, emboldened by the free champagne. ‘Sure, telly might pay more. But which is better – to make a million people mildly entertained for five minutes, or to have a hundred people in the palm of your hand, weeping with laughter for a whole hour or more. Telly’s a sell-out.’
It was my best performance since my tribute to Billy on the news and they all looked a little dumbfounded.
‘That is so refreshing,’ she said. The woman introduced herself as ‘Arabella from the Sunday Times’ and we chatted a little more about my experiences playing the various comedy clubs.
‘You must know Mike Mellor then,’ she said and before I could stop her she waved across a short stocky bloke with a shaven head.
‘Mike, do you know Jimmy Conway? Jimmy’s a stand-up comic like you.’
‘Er, no, can’t say the face rings a bell.’ He shrugged. Mike Mellor was drinking champagne like the rest of us. But he was drinking it straight from the bottle. ‘Just starting out, are you?’
‘No. Jimmy’s on the circuit, a proper comedian.’
I attempted a smile but it wasn’t returned.
‘So where might I have seen you recently?’ he said, taking another swig.
I said the name of the only comedy club I’d even been to, hoping that he was unlikely to have ventured that far out of London. ‘The Chuckle Cabin at Brighton?’
‘Oh yeah, you must know Chris.’
‘Chris, yeah. He’s a good bloke, Chris.’
‘Oh, that Chris! Sorry. I was getting it mixed up with another club run by a bloke called Chris.’
‘Which other comedy club run by a bloke called Chris?’
‘Oh it’s a little one down there, tiny really, above a pub in Seaford, the, um, the Funny . . . the Funny Place.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘No, Chris needs to do a bit of work on his publicity I think . . . but that’s Chris all over,’ I said, shaking my head in despair.
‘Jimmy doesn’t do television like you, Mike,’ said Arabella.
‘I do telly,’ he insisted. ‘I’ve got my own show!’ and then he felt forced to add, ‘. . . being piloted on BBC Four.’
‘Well, Jimmy won’t do it on principle,’ continued Arabella. ‘He only performs live.’
‘I’ve played most comedy clubs and I can’t say I’ve ever seen you,’ said Mike Mellor. He took another big swig from the champagne bottle and wiped his mouth like the hard man in a cowboy film.
‘No, I haven’t done much in this country for a year or two,’ I replied, the drink making me even more reckless. ‘I’ve been, um, gigging in the States for a couple of years, actually. They seemed to really go for me but, you know, it’s a great scene they’ve got over there now’
‘Wow, the British comic who broke the States before he made it big in England!’ said Arabella.
‘Well, I wouldn’t say I was that big in the States, you know .. . I get by’
‘You must be good if you’re here. Billy wouldn’t be seen dead with an unfunny comic’
‘Poor choice of phrase,’ said Mike Mellor.
Soon after this Arabella spotted someone she urgently wanted to speak to and I was left on my own with this scowling skinhead of a comic. We stood together in awkward silence for a
‘So how did you know Billy?’ I asked him.
‘I didn’t. I’m here with my girlfriend. She knew him through work.’
‘Oh well, he was a great guy,’ I reflected. ‘A great guy . . . I’m really going to miss him.’
I chatted with one or two other people over the next hour or so and maintained the same persona, becoming increasingly confident in the role of stand-up comic returning home after storming every comedy club from New York to LA. I was a little shocked at myself, weaving such elaborate webs of deceit, and eventually I felt overwhelmed by the need for somewhere to hide for a while. I slipped out into the lobby and wandered along a corridor. On a trolley outside the door was an abandoned platter of food and, after a furtive glance in each direction, I picked up a paper serviette and packed it with half a dozen chicken sticks, garlic prawns and asparagus spears, and looked for somewhere to stuff my face in private.
I found a little ante-room, walked in and closed the door behind me. The room was small and private but it was only after twenty seconds or so that I realized with a start that I was not alone. I’d been so preoccupied with my own hunger that I’d failed to notice a woman sitting silently in a chair in the corner. I could tell that she was a guest rather than a waitress, but I couldn’t see her face, nor did she choose to look at me, even though she must have been aware of my presence all this time. She just sat immobile, her face in her hands, not so much in despair but in world-weary exhaustion. Like me, she had evidently come in here to escape.
‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry!’ I blurted out through a mouthful of battered prawn Szechwan. ‘I didn’t see you there . . . I’ll leave you in peace.’
‘No, you’re all right, don’t worry,’ said the voice from behind the hands.
Her defeated posture reminded me that I was at a funeral. This was someone who had needed to get away from the gossipy cacophony in the main hall.
‘I just needed a moment away from the crowd,’ I volunteered, deciding to put the smuggled supplies to one side for later consumption.
‘I know just how you feel,’ she said, and then she lowered her hands and I recognized her immediately. Back from the cremation and now hiding from the hordes of drunken celebs next door was Stella Scrivens. I had gatecrashed a celebrity funeral and now I found myself confined in a tiny room with the widow and forced to make small talk.
‘You’re Stella Scrivens, aren’t you?’
‘That’s right, yes. I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you . . . ’
This was not said in a suspicious or accusing way, but still I could feel the warm rush of blood to my face.
‘Sorry, no, we’ve never met. Jimmy Conway – are you sure you don’t want to be on your own?’
‘No, you’re fine, it’s actually quite nice not to recognize someone. I don’t know half the people here. I just keeping thinking I do because I’ve seen them on the television.’
‘Oh, that’s not just me then?’ I said, and we shared a smile of recognition.
‘No, everyone does it. Even Billy does it,’ and she sighed and corrected herself. ‘Did it.’
‘I’m very sorry,’ I said helplessly.
‘Thanks,’ she said.
Apart from the embarrassment of talking to the widow at a funeral I had no right to attend, I was doubly discomfited by her almost oppressive loveliness. She was so strikingly beautiful I felt I had to look away, that it would seem like I was staring at a disabled person. She couldn’t help it; it wasn’t her fault she was born that exquisite. I had not been so attracted to anyone for a very long time but something told me I should banish any thoughts of finding out if she was available at the moment. So, tell me, are you seeing anyone right now? It might not go down very well. No need to blub, darling. There’s nothing wrong with being on your own. No, it definitely felt wrong, I’ve always been a good judge of these things.
Trying not to be too obvious about my fascination with all the people who had turned up, I quizzed her a little further about the celebrity guest list.
‘Some of the stars out there didn’t even know Billy,’ she revealed. ‘They’d never even met him, not once.’
I winced inside, while shaking my head in disbelief at the cynicism of some people. ‘Really?’ I tutted. ‘That’s awful. But then again, you know, the whole country felt like they knew him. When you’re as famous as Billy was, it’s like you’re an old friend for people who you didn’t even know existed.’
‘No, it’s not that.’ She smiled. ‘They’re here to get on the front page of the newspapers. To be seen as one of the in-crowd. They’re not here for Billy’s sake or my sake. They are here because it’s today’s place to be famous.’
I searched for something pertinent yet philosophical to say. ‘Blimey,’ I finally mumbled.
‘Their grieving comes later,’ she added, ‘when they buy Hello! magazine and discover that the photographer failed to snap them here.’
‘Er, yes, I noticed that Hello! were helping organize things in the church. Are they here as well then?’
‘They offered a fortune for the exclusive rights to photograph all the mourners at the church and reception. Said I could give it to charity if I wanted. But I said no.’
‘Quite right. What a vulgar thought! I mean, it’s a private wake, isn’t it?’
‘No, I said I wasn’t giving it to charity. Why should I give all that money away when there’s this whole funeral to pay for?’
‘Er, yeah, right – I see what you mean. Good for you!’
So Hello! were paying for the entire funeral! I’d heard of magazines paying for celebrity weddings, but surely this was a new development. ‘Still, they must be pleased with the turnout,’ I said. ‘All those stars carrying the coffin will be one of their most famous front covers ever, won’t it?’
‘Well, that was a bloody nightmare to organize I can tell you!’ Stella laughed, and rolled her eyes heavenward. ‘First of all Hello! said the chief mourners weren’t famous enough and so we had to change them for bigger stars, even if Billy hadn’t known them.’
‘My God! Didn’t you object?’
‘If they pay for the show, they get to choose the cast.’ She shrugged. ‘But then it got worse. Can you imagine six different agents and publicists arguing over who should be at the front of the coffin?’
‘How charming. So, how did you resolve that one?’
‘In the end it came down to whose publicist had the most power. That’s why the deputy prime minister was at the back,’ she chuckled, almost revelling in the cynicism of it all.
I wanted to offer some sort of consolation, to try to reclaim the funeral for her. ‘Well, anyway, it was a great send-off.’
‘And it was a lovely service.’
And then six words slipped out.
‘It’s what he would have wanted.’
She looked up and did her best impression of a widow thankful for those few crumbs of comfort. Beyond all the grief and anger that death brings to the nearest and dearest, there is another, unexpected form of suffering the chief mourners must endure. The torture of being subjected to an endless barrage of platitudes. ‘It’s what he would have wanted,’ I had said, and she smiled and thanked me for my kind words. No, it’s not what he would have wanted, is what she should have said. A big showy funeral paid for by Hello! magazine is not what he would have wanted at all; staying alive for another forty years and dying peacefully in his sleep surrounded by lots of grandchildren – that’s what he would have wanted. Of course, no grieving wife is permitted to say this. Manners demand that she graciously react as if this latest cliché was the most appropriate, touching and thoughtful comment that any guest at a funeral could possibly come up with.
I thought perhaps the time had come to leave her in peace, so I said it was nice to meet her and reluctantly returned to the coalface of chit-chat. I stood around a little longer, but realized I wasn’t enjoying this at all and since
‘Ah, Jimmy! I’ve been looking for you everywhere,’ said Arabella from the Sunday Times.
‘Oh, hello again.’
‘Look, do you have a card or anything?’
‘A card? What do you mean, like a postcard or something?’
‘No – a card, you know, with your number on.’
‘Oh I see. Erm, no, no – didn’t bring any with me today.’
‘It was just that I’ve been thinking of doing a feature on the state of British comedy and I was wondering whether I ought to include you, “the stand-up comic who won’t do television”. I’ve been chatting to Mike Mellor but I think I’d rather interview you, if that’s possible?’
I know I should have thought long and hard about agreeing to do this but I didn’t think long and hard at all, I thought short and easy.
‘Er, yeah, that would be OK, I suppose.’ I shrugged, my heart suddenly racing inside. ‘I’ll have to try and fit it around my gigs, of course,’ I said coolly, but then I worried that she might decide it was all too much trouble. ‘Although I could always cancel if you were stuck for dates,’ I gabbled. We exchanged mobile phone numbers and then one of the people from Hello! magazine asked us to move to the side slightly, as we were standing behind a couple of stars who were obligingly posing for the camera and our anonymous faces obviously weren’t adding anything to the shot. Everywhere there were shallow celebrities who only turned up to this wake to further their own career prospects. Could their egos really be so enormous as to lose any sense of what was decent and appropriate?
‘Great, Annabel, I’ll look forward to hearing from you!’ I said as I headed off. A feature on stand-up comedy including me, I thought. My name in the Sunday Times. What a result! This is the best funeral I’ve ever been to!
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes