There’s something heart-wrenchingly poignant about a wizened man in his fifties frolicking around a frost-coated field on a bitter February morning in a linen shirt and outdated frock coat. Trust me on this one. Howard James was not blessed with manifest physical grace, elegance or fluidity, but he was game, I’ll give him that. He mimed to In Love We Trust with gusto, take after freezing fucking take, in barns and outhouses, by icy streams and in misty copses. Quite whose idea it was to cart a film crew, fake backing band and poor old Howard to a remote swathe of countryside in Berkshire, I don’t know, but he was clearly a sadistic prick. I was struggling to make the link between a song about trusting in the inherent beauty of love to make a relationship work and the frozen, dung-laden greenery in which we were all suffering, but perhaps I lacked the aesthetic sensibility to fully appreciate it. The final scenes were shot in a stone-built farmhouse with an oddly ineffective log fire burning in the period fireplace, while Howard cuddled a girl half his age on the hearth. It was vaguely offensive, but by then I wouldn’t have cared if he’d been wrestling naked with John McCririck in a vat of vomit. I just wanted this day to be over. Ben was on hand to keep the spirits up, although I’d have appreciated him more if he’d arranged a warm Winnebago for those not involved or, better still, smacked the director across the jaw when he first unveiled his vision. Elaine drove up in the afternoon and we spent much of the time giggling at the insanity and being shushed by the director, a middle-aged man with an earring for whom feature films would forever be a distant dream.
Elaine drove me home and I thought it only sensible to tell her where I actually lived rather than have her drop me off miles away and face a nose-numbing walk home. Our conversation as we trundled along the A40 was, for once, rather prosaic. Fewer giggles, more straight talking. Somehow she’d guessed that the idyllic family life I’d trumpeted was no longer extant, although quite when I’d signalled the fact, I don’t know. Perhaps I’d confessed during my drunken stupor, or perhaps it was the fact that I’d been so obviously attracted to her. Either way, she would have figured it out as soon as she caught sight of my pathetic bachelor pad, wouldn’t she? I tried to convince her that I was better off being single, that Lisa and I needed space, that it was healthier for the kids not to be in a house where tension reigned and she accused me of rationalising. Which I was. Frankly, this female intuition thing was beginning to get on my tits.
The car heater had only managed a weak whisper of tepid air and we were both in need of warming up, so I invited her up for a hot drink. She declined. She had to get home, she said, to ready herself for some sort of music biz bash and, if I’m honest, it was a bit of a relief to have the evening to myself. I just wanted a hot bath and a chance to reflect. Later, as I lay there steaming the ice out of my pores, it dawned on me that I’d played the part of the vulnerable, emotionally confused man to perfection. I’d mis-read Elaine’s signals. Ours was the burgeoning relationship of Platonic soul mates, not potential lovers. And that was fine with me. As much as I liked Elaine, as much as we got along, it didn’t add up to anything. I mean, never mind that I wasn’t her type; something was missing. Something like feelings.
My answerphone was blinking furiously in the gloom of the living room when I padded in huddled into my dressing gown. I pinned the ratty curtains I’d manufactured from a couple of old sheets to the window frame, flicked the light on, then the kettle, and dragged my fan heater to within an inch of my legs, setting it to maximum. A nasty, burnt wool smell filled the room. I pushed the ‘play’ button.
’What’s the fucking matter with you, eh? How long have you
known me, you tit? I just wouldn’t do something like that. I just fucking wouldn’t. But…’
The tape ran on and I thought Chaz must have hung up, until: ‘But there is something you need to know.’ Another long pause. ‘Look, I’m not going to do it in a bloody answerphone message. Call me, ok? And stop being an arsehole.’ Long pause. ‘God you’re an idiot.’
’Fuck off,’ I muttered bitterly.
Another Saturday, another day to fill with Millie and Katia. This was the plan: after the pick-up, we were heading straight for a squalid little bowling alley in Hammersmith, then onto McDonalds (‘it’s our little secret, ok?’) then, if it stayed dry (and even if it drizzled) Kew Gardens (they were going to love that, weren’t they?, looking at flowers) and finally back to my flat for pizzas and a DVD. Probably Shrek. I felt for the poor little sods.
You don’t have to be away from your own house for long for it to stop feeling like home. Everything was familiar, the walls, the doors, the furniture, the bits and pieces lying around, the smell, but it wasn’t home, not any more, not for me. I sat in the kitchen waiting for Millie to pack her little pink rucksack upstairs. Lisa was in the shower (as she always seemed to be when I turned up) and Katia was at the kitchen table humming as she studiously filled in a crossword in a kids’ pop music magazine. She had only recently taken an interest in music and was now obsessed. Next week it would be computer games. I just hoped the following week - and for that matter, month, year and lifetime - would not give rise to any interest in boys. I know what boys want. She was struggling with a couple of clues, so I pulled my chair around the table to sit next to her. To the right of the crossword page was a composite photo of the British Eurovision contestants with the gangly Howard standing in the centre, looking like the others’ wacky and rather sinister old uncle. Either side of him, strewn awkwardly across a variety of chairs and sofas were, variously: a black hip hop outfit wearing, even I knew, naff white headbands; a female duo (one ugly one gorgeous - which one could actually sing? Hmm); a sugary male/female combo; a little boy who’d been a one hit wonder a couple of years earlier and; a bubble-gum band which had failed to make it through the auditions on X Factor. It was quite a mix. One thing I did know was that Howard had a modicum of talent, which probably set him apart and made him favourite to come last.
Millie finally joined us and saw me looking over Katia’s shoulder at the magazine. ‘Dad,’ she laughed, ‘you’re too old for that, silly.’
’No I’m not. Music doesn’t have an age limit. I like lots of pop groups that you like.’
’That’s not important. But why shouldn’t I?’
’Er, ’cos you’re old?’
It was cogent and unarguable, but I gave it ago.
’A, I’m not old and B, I’m not old.’
’A and B, yes you are,’ said Millie as she disarranged the fridge in search of a bottle of a blackcurrant Froob.
’What about the Eurovision Song Contest? That’s pop music and it’s watched by millions of people. They can’t all be young, can they?’
’Eurovision?’ she said, her eyebrows slanted in pity. ‘Dad. That’s absolute shit.’
While the girls ate their dismal thin crust Margheritas in my drab little lounge, transfixed by a green cartoon monster with an accent from God-knows-where, I settled for the dry ham sandwich I’d bought in Sainsburys a couple of days ago, my own gaze firmly on the blinking answerphone light. It had to be Chaz and I was in no mood to listen to his whining self-justification. He’d also left two voicemail messages on my mobile and a text, none of which I’d returned. When was he going to get the message?