I’d only ever been to a television studio once before. I was about nine and my dad had somehow wangled me a ticket to sit in the Tiswas audience. I loved it and even got flanned by the Phantom Flan Flinger. Actually, the kid next to me got flanned, but I got a collateral flanning when a squirt of goo flew off his head and hit me in the throat. Brilliant! I was fascinated by the cameras and lights, the undergrowth of chunky cables, the monitors, the studio manager fussing about in headphones, the sheer chaos of the whole operation. I resolved then to be a TV producer, although I had no idea what that meant or entailed, and bandied that career aspiration around at school for a good year thereafter. It lent me a certain kudos. I mean, I’d spent the morning with Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry and spoken to a number of people on the team who said I should get in touch one day now that I’d acquired such an intimate understanding of the whole TV production thingy. And, what is more, my son, I got flanned. Top that. The whole spoke-to-people, get-in-touch thing was a fabrication, of course, my sole tangible memento of the day being a lump of dried goo which I tried, and failed, to preserve in a jar. I was eventually trumped by a little git in the year above who had a part, an actual part, in a kids’ TV drama about kids on bikes, biking everywhere and having bike-related adventures that kids generally didn’t have - on bikes or any other mode of transport. My TV production career paled into insignificance and I put it, sensibly, on the back burner in favour of a future in investment banking, thank you very much, whatever the hell that was. I did attempt to revive my interest, writing to the BBC when I was about seventeen to enquire about getting onto their trainee producers’ course, but it involved living in far flung places around the UK, learning the ropes and earning fuck-all, so I let it slide.
Ben sent a cab to collect me from Hanger Lane just after eleven. I’d have been perfectly happy to take the Central Line - it’s only a few stops to White City - but he insisted I arrive in style. Or maybe he’d got a two-for-one with Luxor Cabs (Hornsey) Ltd. As I waited to be collected from the flashy glass-fronted BBC reception area in Wood Lane, I spotted a couple of newsreaders, an aged singer whose name I couldn’t recall and a sickly-sweet children’s TV presenter I’d once bad-mouthed in front of the kids. Your average star-struck stalker/psycho would have a field day sitting there.
Sarah, a pretty girl in her early twenties who was desperately trying to disguise her Home Counties accent by dropping a few ‘h’s’ and scrambling her ‘f’s’ and ‘th’s’, led me through the revolving security turnstile and on through a warren of corridors until we reached the old reception area where I took another seat. Minutes later, a virtually identical but, I’m almost certain, different girl arrived to escort me into the studio. I was deposited at the side of a large auditorium from where I could see three limber black guys wearing white towelling headbands and tight tee shirts flouncing with ersatz aggression through a tortuous routine to the accompaniment of a thumpingly dull hip hop track. Sarah-clones with clipboards flitted hither and yon and, fleetingly, Gordon O’Hara himself popped his head round the studio door before disappearing, covering his not inconsiderable ears with his hands. I didn’t think it was possible to rap out of tune, but the guys on stage were giving it a hell of a go.
I was spellbound. Above me, banks of monitors suspended from metal rigging displayed the hapless, dripping trio from various angles. To the rear, a huge control booth teemed with people. Cameramen jockeyed around the stage finalising positions and angles. No flans, but this was way better than Tiswas. Elaine, appearing out of nowhere, tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to follow her. We negotiated another maze of corridors and arrived at a dark wooden door halfway down a long corridor. Elaine knocked and Ben answered. The dressing room was narrow and long, furnished with a couple of stained orange sofas, fitted wardrobes, a table groaning under the weight of bottled water, snacks and sandwiches and the obligatory mirror with bulb surround. A shower/toilet cubicle nestled at the back. Howard was conspicuously absent, but wasn’t due on stage for forty-five minutes for his first run-through so panic hadn’t yet set in. Ben slapped my back.
’Hey, like this place? This is all down to you, baby,’ bellowed Ben.
’I like it.’
’Everything’s riding on your song now.’
’No pressure then.’
Ben roared disingenuously and slapped my back again. He was nervous and overcompensating. ‘No pressure! Get this guy! Don’t worry, we’re gonna enjoy this, ok?’
’Sandwich?’ piped Elaine.
’Maybe later,’ I said, watching the cheap white bread curl in real time. I reached for a bottle of Evian.
’Well listen, Mikey,’ said Ben (Mikey? I was Mikey now?). ‘Just chill. You want anything, press zero and some lah-di-dah chick’ll come tend to your every need.’ Ben paused as the lame, tasteless leer formed in his head. ‘You know what I mean? Hope you brought protection.’
Ben roared. Elaine shot him a weary, disgusted look, one she must have given him a million times before.
’Cheers. I’m fine at the moment.’
’I’m fine at the moment,’ he mocked in an accent indistinguishable from his own. ‘You’re so damn British. I been living here twenty-five years and I still get a fuckin’ buzz from all that reserve.’ Resoive. The man was adrenaline-crazed.
Ben paced the room, his megawatt grin and desperate conversation failing to mask his growing concern. Howard still hadn’t arrived and, worryingly, his driver had called in to report that he’d not been at his west London flat when he arrived to pick him up. Howard, of all people, needed some stage time to make sure he knew what he was doing. He was a legendarily undisciplined performer, someone who often sang half his set from the balcony or the front row of the stalls, anything to be different, dangerous. I always thought it was choreographed and it probably was, but that kind of shit was unbecoming of an old man on live prime time TV. Tonight he needed to pander to old ladies in Hull, nurses in Norwich, bookkeepers in Balham. Their votes were vital. His, and a few other careers, hung on his likeability and professionalism.
Three o’clock came and went. Ben had exercised considerable diplomatic skills to engineer adjustments to the rehearsal rota, but the director, a sallow, diminutive man with an etched frown, had lost patience and declared the run-through over at three fifteen. He wanted to start the second and final run-through in ten minutes. Having missed the first opportunity to rehearse his routine, Howard was about to miss his last. Ben was in pieces. He’d been calling Howard every ten minutes to be parried by an infuriating outgoing message, sung to the tune of one of his late 80s hits, while Howard’s equally perplexed personal assistant, Ged, had been filing regular reports of his fruitless chase from one sad gin joint to another in search of his idiot client.
Howard finally tottered in at four, looking cadaverous and vacant and stinking like a skunk marinated in alcohol. His voice was reedy and tremulous, but I wouldn’t say he was acting any more stoned than normal. Ben tried to maintain a semblance of calm as he chatted to Howard, knowing he couldn’t afford to anger or upset him this close to kick off. Howard seemed nonchalant and unaware of the havoc he’d wrought. His story, for what it was worth, was that he’d been at his girlfriend’s flat in Bayswater and was convinced he’d told Ged to arrange for the BBC car to pick him up from there. His mobile phone had been switched off because he was low on battery power and didn’t want to waste it. It hadn’t occurred to him, apparently, to call Ged or Ben from ‘his girlfriend’s flat’ to find out what was going on when the car didn’t arrive. Blatant bullshit, every word.
Howard urgently needed to spend an hour in the shower, but there wasn’t time. He was due on stage immediately. He clapped his hands, said something tragically Spinal Tap (‘Let’s rock,’ I believe) and marched out of the dressing room, his hands on the shoulders of the Sarah-clone who’d been given the unenviable task of collecting him, like a boxer making his way to the ring. Ben, Elaine and I trudged along in his reeking slipstream, pinching our noses and shaking our heads with a tangible sense of foreboding.
Once inside the auditorium, Howard galloped towards the stage and, forgetting he was fifty-three and as athletic as a warped stick, leapt up and tripped over a feedback monitor. He landed face first but didn’t linger on the floor. He sprang to his feet, brushed himself down without a hint of embarrassment and said, to no-one in particular, ’Whoo! I’m ready, man. What do you want me to do?’
Whatever he was on was working. For now. Elaine buried her head in my shoulder and groaned, ‘We’re fucked,’ which I think nailed it pretty accurately.
Ben, looking nauseous, nevertheless stapled a super-smiley grin to his sweaty face and marched confidently up to the stage, conveying the false impression that everything was all right with the world. He spoke confidentially to Howard who nodded and ‘yupped’ and said ‘ok man’ a few times, then smiled at the floor manager, the director and anyone else wearing a look of vexed concern (ie everyone). Ben made an ‘O’ with his thumb and forefinger and winked at the producer in the control box whose face resembled that of a drowning man who’d just realised he was also bleeding to death. Gilbert, hitherto detached and other-worldly, rose from a stool in front of a crew of jobbing musicians and raised his arms. They responded with a collective been-there-done-that-and-it’s-shit look, raised their instruments and prepared for the off. Gilbert whipped his arms up vertically and they launched into the opening bars of In Love We Trust. From such unpromising beginnings, it was an amazing rush to hear the song played live by such a large, professional ensemble. We held our breath as Howard pogo-ed on the spot, knees crossed like he needed a piss, waiting for his cue. Was he going to hit it? Was he going to remember the words?
Every day, I want to tell you I need you
And I look in your eyes to see
If you need me too
’Cos I believe, as I must
That we can be together
I hope that in love we trust
Ok. Sorry. I recognise that, in the cold light of day, just sitting there on the page like that, the lyrics look banal and cretinous beyond all imagining, but when Howard sang them with his dry-throated wail, they sounded heartfelt, profound, even. He had a way of investing words with emotion that you couldn’t teach. I’m not ashamed to say I welled up. I looked at Elaine through the mist and saw that she was trembling, but probably with relief that Howard was actually there and apparently capable of pulling this off. I put my arm around her and she dabbed away the single embarrassing tear which was snaking down my cheek. Howard belted out the final chorus with gut-wrenching conviction, then took a simple bow as the violins and horns conspired to make the last chord soar. He took another bow, this time with a sweep of the arm, then another, throwing his head back to the sky before falling forward again like a rag doll. He was actually rehearsing his bow, the prick. The entire studio - technicians, Sarah-clones, the producer, the still-grimacing director, everyone - applauded wildly. I don’t know for sure whether any of the other contestants had been rewarded with a similar ovation, but the ones I’d watched on the dressing room monitor had simply mooched off to the sound of the studio readying itself for the next act. Ben rushed across to Howard, jumped onto the stage and all but snapped him in half in a bear hug. He turned to me beaming a beatific, veneer-perfect smile. We were saved.
Howard lay comatose on his dressing room sofa. His six minute performance had understandably left him drained. With only an hour to go till showtime, he would soon have to be roused. Given the copious drool and crusty white residue lining his lips, I wasn’t about to volunteer. Ben spent much of the intervening time rebuking Ged in an apoplectic whisper for failing to ensure Howard was delivered on time and in full working order. I felt sorry for him; Howard was as slippery and inchoate as mercury. Late in the afternoon, Gordon O’Hara put his head around the door to wish Howard luck, his newly reconstructed Irish nose wrinkling at the stench of smoke, booze, sweat and smack which had become part of the weave of Howard’s DNA. The rest of us had become inured to it, although whenever Elaine and I wandered off for one of several turgid BBC coffees, we had to steel ourselves for re-entry. But I was too enamoured of the magical scent of light entertainment to let a little stink like that bother me. I was going to savour every moment, record and log the sights, sounds and obnoxious smells of this day, to sustain me through the dark, lonely days I knew were bound to follow. For even as I revelled in the thrilling electricity of the day, my mind wandered to the gruesome image of Lisa and Chaz rutting naked on my bed, and how that one vile act (probably several of them) had drawn a line through my marriage and deprived me of my best friend. I would never again walk into my own house to receive the casual, throwaway hugs of my children on a wet Tuesday night. It would be by appointment now, imposing a formality upon my relationship with them that would inevitably erode all spontaneity.
With thirty-five minutes to go, Ben was pacing, sweat pooling on his upper lip and soaking the armpits of his dated, silk shirt. The fickle, essentially useless Ged had scarpered and was no longer answering his phone, leaving Ben to rouse the still unconscious Howard. He’d probably left the building and, if he was sensible, show business and the country. Gilbert drifted in and out of the dressing room expressing concern, in his own muted, monosyllabic way, about the state of the reeking Howard who was stretched out, legs askew, a stream of viscous saliva dribbling onto the fatally ruined orange sofa. Only by setting fire to it and disposing of the ashes thirty miles out to sea could others be spared. And I, too, was beginning to panic about the level of performance we could expect from the wreckage. This was going to be the only time one of my songs would be heard by an audience larger than seventeen. I couldn’t bear to see that opportunity thrown away.
’We’ve got to wake him up,’ urged Elaine, aware that she was stating the obvious but too vexed to care.
’Shit, Elaine. You think I don’t know that? You don’t think I know that?!’ snapped Ben, glancing at Howard’s filleted, prostrate form. ‘Motherfucker!’
’He can’t just wake up and go on.’
’I know, I fuckin’ know.’ Ben, though, was edging further away from the gurgling, disgusting Howard.
’Well I’ll do it, then’ said Elaine.
’For God’s sake, Ben.’
’Jesus. Why did we have to use this fucker?’ winced Ben, slumping into a chair, head in hands.
’It was him or no-one. And now we’re stuck with him so, step over the...gate...whatever...…’
’Step up to the plate,’ whimpered Ben.
’Yeah. Ben! Come on! Stop feeling sorry for yourself.’
Elaine grabbed Ben’s elbow and hauled him upright. He went floppy, yielding like a recalcitrant schoolboy, head bowed, pouting.
’Ok, ok,’ he said, wrenching his arm free. ‘You guys take a walk. He won’t want to see a lot of faces when he wakes up. I’ll have him ready, ok?’
Elaine and I looked at each other, shrugged and left Ben to his grisly task.
Elaine stepped into the Ladies, leaving me alone in an unusually quiet corridor. No Sarah-clones screeching into walkie-talkies, no techies rushing about like manic androids, no Ben, no-one, just me and the quiet hum of the air conditioning. How I ached to call Lisa, despite everything, to tell her to watch the show. It would make no difference, of course, but for twenty years she’d always been the first person I called when there was news, good or bad, the only person in whom I confided everything. I guess she confided everything in me until the gravity and import of her secrets made that impossible. I wanted the girls to watch too, to be proud of Daddy, but I didn’t think they’d quite understand what I’d done or how I was involved in something so remote from them. And Eurovision was ‘shit’ after all.
Elaine re-joined Ben in the dressing room to bolster the poor bastard, but I chose to stay outside. The smell was something I could no longer tolerate, much less the angst and anger. I glimpsed a couple of Sarah-clones and the exasperated director at Howard’s side as the door closed. They were all wasting their time. I wandered off, certain now that the jig was up, and lost myself in the maze of BBC corridors before somehow pitching up at the studio door. Inside, the audience was settled and in the throes of being warmed up by a large man in too-tight jeans. We should have been in the holding room backstage by now, along with the bouncing headband boys and the sugary pop plodders, but the show would have to go ahead with five rather than six songs. Gordon O’Hara was going to be on waffle overload tonight.
I returned to the dressing room and put my ear to the door. I heard a whooshing sound and the muted voices of Elaine, Ben and even Gilbert. I knocked. Elaine answered and her face told me what I already knew. Her melancholy eyes drifted to the back of the room and I followed the route they were mapping. No sign of Howard on the sofa. Ben stood facing the wall, head bowed, shoulders slumped, while Gilbert sat staring at nothing. I walked towards the shower cubicle, pulled back the screen and looked inside. Howard lay slumped in the shower tray, water powering onto the top of his head, highlighting the patches of skin where his wiry hair was thinning. His eyes remained resolutely closed. I looked back at Elaine who shrugged in abject defeat.
’Get up you motherfucker!’ yelled Ben in a sudden fit of righteous anger. ‘Get up! Get the fuck up!’
Ben spun and took three quick strides towards Howard, growling like a bear. I think he was ready to kill him, which would have been a little Pyrrhic but nonetheless cathartic. I bravely tried to hold him back but he was too pumped, too strong, and I was surprised when Gilbert stepped in and flipped Ben away from the cubicle with some sort of judo move. He was full of surprises.
’That’s not gonna help,’ said Gilbert in an alien display of articulacy and forthrightness.
’Leave him, Ben,’ said Elaine. ‘It’s over.’
’We’re fucking finished,’ muttered Ben. ‘Finished.’
A Sarah-clone - I think it was the original Sarah, but don’t quote me - pushed through the door. Elaine walked over to her, placed a consolatory arm around her shoulder and confirmed that we’d tried everything. Howard wasn’t going on. Poor Sarah would be the bearer of the bad news to the director. She looked like she’d rather eat splintered glass.
A groan came from the shower cubicle and we all turned to see if it signalled a last minute reprieve. Instead, a dripping Ben emerged with a wicked smile that had Schadenfreude written all over it. ‘Couldn’t even rouse him with my foot in his balls.’
Well at least Ben felt a bit better.
Elaine and I sat in the draughty old reception area staring at a flickering wall of plasma monitors. There wasn’t much to say as we waved goodbye to the chance of a lifetime with wistful resignation. It was eight o’clock and the opening titles of Eurovision:You Decide were just flashing across one of the screens. The cheerful, sarcastic smile of Gordon O’Hara hove into view, followed by shots of a wildly enthusiastic audience. Beside O’Hara stood a slim, blonde girl, better known for hip music shows and yoof TV, in a shimmering, semi-Gothic outfit which screamed ‘still credible, say what you like’.
’Why am I so upset?’ said Elaine. ‘You shouldn’t gamble everything on someone like Howard and expect to win.’
’Doesn’t matter, does it? You’ll go back to making compilations and I’ll go back to singing for my Tiramisu. It’s all about the art, anyway, not the money.’
’Now we both know That’s bollocks, don’t we?’
’Yes we do.’
O’Hara introduced the first act, the ugly/beautiful girl combo, neither of whom, I had ascertained during rehearsals, could actually sing a note. I wondered aloud how they were going to handle the fact that they were a song short, but Elaine was confident that O’Hara, along with the panel of C-list celebrities hauled in to pass comment, could talk shit till the cows came home. Howard was originally due on second last and I suppose, deep down, we clung to the remote hope that he might yet recover in time, but when we returned to the dressing room he lay dripping on the sofa, out cold and groaning as he cupped his testicles with a bony hand. Ben was staring, hollow-eyed, at his visibly ageing reflection in the mirror while Gilbert rocked gently on a chair, knees drawn to his chest, adrift in Gilbertworld.
Sarah-clone came in and sat next to Ben who didn’t bother adjusting his mien for this conversation. They mumbled to each other for a few minutes before Ben sprang to his feet and snapped, ‘Are you shitting me? Look at me. I’m sixty-two years old for Chrissakes. I haven’t stood in front of an audience in thirty years.’
’Well couldn’t you, you know, do it now? Just this once?’ whinnied Sara-clone.
’Get out of here!’ bellowed Ben. ’Motherfuck!’
Elaine stepped in to save Sarah-clone from further abuse. ‘Ben! Don’t shoot the messenger. Sorry, he’s a little upset,’ said Elaine to the shaken young Old Roedeanian.
Ben was instantly contrite and planted an unwanted kiss on Sarah-clone’s cheek. ‘Honey, sorry, I can’t do it. I lost my nerve. Long story. That’s why I do what I do. I can’t sing in front of my own mother, God rest her soul.’
And then it happened. Elaine and Ben turned to me in slow motion. Nothing needed to be said.
’Oh no. Shit no. No way,’ I said, hands raised, backing away until I hit a wall.
’Why not? It’s your song. Who else can sing it like you?’ said Elaine.
’Man, do it for me, for Elaine, for your family, your kids, do it for the sake of this contest.’ Dramatic pause. ‘Do it for Britain.’
I don’t think he left anyone out.
’Oh for…I can’t! You could fit my aggregated audience since I was eighteen into the front row out there. Never mind...six million!’
’Eight,’ said Sarah-clone with instant regret.
Ben ground his veneers. ‘Six, eight? Big deal. It’s just a camera.’
’No. Absolutely not. I’m not...ready.’
’Perfect,’ said Elaine. ‘That’s to your advantage. Imagine if you’d had time to think about it. Now you can just go out there and do it. Just pretend you’re in that little bistro.’
I gulped, Scooby Doo-fashion, blinked a few times and collapsed onto the nearest chair before my legs gave way. Elaine and Ben looked at me, all puppy-dog-eyes and pleading, winsome smiles. Sarah-clone tilted her head to one side and mouthed ‘ah, go on’ and even the de-tranced Gilbert mustered some fleeting eye contact. Head and heart started crowding in on me. Terror, excitement, trepidation, fear of failure, doors opening, doors closing, redemption. I thought of Lisa, Chaz, my mother; Faye popped into my head - what would she think? And, of course, my children? Was I going to be an eighty-year old bore recounting for the umpteenth time how I let this one slip by, how I coulda been a contender?
’Oh, fuck it,’ I said.
Trust me, twenty-five minutes was plenty of time to think about it, and plenty of time to shit myself. But, in truth, I’d been protesting when all along a little voice had been screaming at me to stop being such a bloody idiot. I knew I was going to do it as soon as Ben and Elaine looked at me. I needed to go through the motions to buy myself some time to absorb the sheer magnitude of what I was about to do. Understudy becomes star for the night - it’s as old as the hills - and I was Little Mikey Nomark, about to play the part of the humble, reluctant protagonist in the best Hollywood tradition.
Sarah-clone rushed me down some new corridors towards make-up, all the while conducting a bellowed conversation on her walkie talkie. ‘His name’s…sorry what’s your name?’
’Mike,’ she said.
The reply was belligerent and unintelligible.
’Surname?’ she said, looking ever more suicidal.
’Kenton. Mike Kenton.’
’Mike Kenton!’ she screamed.
Elaine held my cold, clammy hand as the make-up girl fussed around me, smothering my face with skin-tone which seemed a little redundant as I already had my own, albeit it was currently at the sheet-white end of the spectrum. Elaine was constantly checking my expression in the mirror, smiling encouragingly, and I could see how much this meant to her. Make-up over, Elaine hooked her hand under my elbow, helped me up, then looked me up and down. I was still wearing the fraying-at-the-cuffs denim shirt I’d arrived in. Elaine tugged it out of the trousers into which they’d been tucked all day - I’m forty-two you know - and shook her head. ‘Ok, this needs an iron,’ she said as she started to unbutton it. I held my flaccid stomach in as she pulled it off my back and handed it to a sullen woman who was slumped in the corner looking slightly put out at having to fire up the steam iron again.
Throughout this getting-ready process I was cracking lame, nervous jokes about my hair needing a cut and blow-job, how I wanted the cameras to get my good side if only I had one, checking to see if mikekenton.com was still available - you get the idea. Not exactly Lenny Bruce. Elaine and the make-up girl tittered and gushed, my first and probably last taste of being humoured and pandered to like a star with an ego to feed. It wasn’t doing much for my nerves. My heart was exploring escape routes out of my chest, beating at a rate beyond the capacity of those bleeping machines that count it; my breathing became increasingly shallow and rapid; my throat felt steely and constricted. How the hell was I going to hit a single note?
I didn’t want to think about performing live in front of five hundred people with a TV audience of - Scooby gulp, cotton wool mouth - 8 million. That way madness lay. Elaine was right; I had to treat it like Jaques with better lighting. I started a quick mental rehearsal of the song but got no further than the first line. What the fuck was it? I knew it like the back of my hand, but all trace of it had deserted me. Maybe it would come to me once I got up there in front of those 8 million people. Yes, That’s right, it would all flow then once the pressure was off. Piece of piss.
The warm ironed shirt was returned to me and I put it on, fumbling with every button. I was still in my almost-matching jeans which completed the rather sad uniform of the dress-in-the-dark Gap-Dad I’d become. ‘Nope, you can’t wear those,’ said Elaine. ‘You look like Shakin’ fucking Stevens.’ She’d never sworn before. It was getting to her. ‘Off.’ I obeyed. I was putty. She disappeared for a few minutes leaving me sitting on the faux leather make-up chair in my pants.
What’s the first fucking line?
Elaine returned with a pair of black trousers and ordered me to stand up. Behind me, a pool of sweat in the shape of an arse crack sat steaming on the chair. She held the trousers out for me like I was her seven year old son and I stepped into them. They, too, were warm and a little damp.
’They’re Ben’s. Sorry. Best I could do.’
I instantly recoiled, a cold wave of nausea rippling through my stomach. I might have had a sweaty arse, but I didn’t want it anywhere near where Ben’s had been. But there was no time to protest. I’d have to shower and disinfect later. Forget Ben’s arse, I told myself, forget it! Now...
The first line. Come on, brain, try and bloody remember...
The make-up girl lumped some gel into my hair and swept it up into a ludicrous quiff. I shook my head in despair, which she took as a signal to muss it into little, electric shock spikes. I plastered it back down and teased it into a vaguely acceptable, forty-two year old man’s style, of which she clearly disapproved. It was my bloody hair, though, wasn’t it? I was going to decide how shit it should look in front of those eight million poor souls. Eight million. Oh God. I stood up and checked myself in the full length mirror behind the door. There stood a middle aged man with a matt tan face, oily hair, an over-pressed shirt and fear spurting from every pore. The make-up blotted some beads of newly-formed sweat from my nose and forehead with a tissue and reapplied some slap, but this was a losing battle.
Like an executioner’s assistant, Sarah-clone arrived and told me it was time to go. I looked at Elaine who smiled reassuringly. ‘I’m not ready. I’ll never be ready,’ I said.
’Knock ‘em dead. I’ll be right here when you get back.’ She gave me a hug and caressed my cheek, before Sarah-clone grabbed my arm and guided me into the corridor to meet my fate. My limbs felt barely co-ordinated as we entered the studio, like I was in the wrong body altogether and we’d all made a huge mistake. The headband hip-hoppers were just starting up, their percussion vibrating through the floor and up into my petrified soul as we neared the stage. A few more steps and I’d have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide
Dead man walking.
We were live, yet somehow O’Hara had been told, and absorbed the fact that we had six songs again instead of five and that the arsehole who was supposed to sing it wasn’t going to and that some complete amateur nobody was stepping in to save the day and his name was Mike Kenton who wrote the song anyway so that was even better. He conveyed all this in his seamlessly casual Irish lilt, omitting ‘arsehole’, I think, to the expectant audience. What a pro. I didn’t even cotton the fact that I was now being credited as the composer. I was just thinking about the first line. Which was what, exactly? Fuck!
I watched, glassy-eyed, from the wings as O’Hara wound up his schtick. He said something about making me welcome and giving me a chance as this was my first TV appearance, every word piling additional tonnes of pressure on my lyric-free head. Most of my senses had already shut down, so by the time he announced my name, I was effectively dead. Applause, some cheering; a cold, clone hand in the middle of my back applying gentle pressure; unable to move like an obstinate horse in its stall; more pushing, harder. And then out I stumbled, instantly bemused by the noise and the lights and the shiny stage. I’d been told to look for a mark on the floor where I was supposed to stand at the beginning and end of the song, but didn’t absorb the information, forgot to look out for it and wouldn’t have seen it anyway. I couldn’t focus on anything. I was vaguely aware of cameramen racing around trying to reposition themselves. They hadn’t rehearsed this either. I held a radio microphone in my hand - how the hell did it get there? - and some instinct told me that the intro was almost over and it was time to sing.
What was the first fucking line?
Whatever it was, I missed it, my jaw flapping like a dying fish as nothing came out. First line, no vocal. I didn’t panic. I was too scared to panic. But then the familiarity of the melody sparked an almost atavistic moment of clarity. I raised the microphone to my lips - Pavlov dog style - and started singing. It just came out. And once I’d broken the ice, I forgot about the lights and the shiny stage and the fact that I was now singing one of my little songs to 8 million people. My voice sounded like it should and, God help me, the lyrics were now flowing as if on autopilot. Well of course; I wrote them, didn’t I? And I’d sung them a hundred times. Now I was moving around the stage, the cameramen scuttling this way and that to keep up. I smiled as my confidence grew and even allowed myself the luxury of throwing a few shapes, carefully avoiding anything that might resemble a Dad Dance just in case the kids were watching.
I was reaching the end now. Why wasn’t the song a bit longer? I could go on all night. The audience was with me, no longer that hostile death squad of my worst imaginings. Surely the 8 million were feeling it as well. It was my song, the song I’d written for Faye, and I was singing it to the nation. Bloody hell!
So obviously you’re waiting for something to go catastrophically wrong, aren’t you? I would be. But nothing did. Sorry. I finished with an unwavering final note, standing on the newly discovered mark, looking into the camera. I was born to do this, a natural. Gilbert waved the orchestra to a swooping halt and there was a moment of scary silence before the audience exploded. Cheering, whistling, whooping, the works. I stood there beaming, arms akimbo, chest heaving, a little lump dancing in my throat. O’Hara was at the side of the stage waiting to ask the panel for their invaluable opinions, but the ovation continued, building if anything, and he waved his arms to try and calm them down. They were having none of it. I bowed, still smiling like an idiot, trying to look a little bashful now - hey, come on, what’s all the fuss about? - but I couldn’t have been more disingenuous. I was eating it up and didn’t want it to end. And then I spotted Elaine and Ben in the wings. Ben was punching the air and I could hear him shouting above the din: ’Fucking awesome, fucking awesome!’ Elaine’s eyes were glistening, her hands together in satisfied supplication. I waved my hands in my own humble attempt to calm the audience, but was complicit in all this. Humility aside, I’d blown the place apart and would happily have let the applause ring on forever.
O’Hara finally threw some superfluous questions at the panel whose responses were almost drowned out by the febrile mob. I was wonderful, the song was fantastic, I’d done an unbelievable job stepping in like that. The audience lapped up every accolade, cheering and clapping like…well, Americans. I left the stage carried, metaphorically, shoulder high. The birth of the kids apart, I can’t remember ever feeling more elated.
Back in the dressing room I couldn’t stop shaking; perspiration pumped from every pore; I was enervated, disorientated. Elaine kissed me, Ben kissed me, Sarah-clone shook my hand and even Gilbert anointed me with a single pat on the back. I guzzled down litres of water and slaked a sudden fierce hunger by forcing several wooden sandwiches down my face. Well-wishers, programme executives, the producer, the director, all sorts of Sarah-clones flitted in and out. It was overwhelming, this moment in the sun, something I’d never dreamed of or bargained for. I’d turned up as the humble ‘music consultant’, there to witness Howard taking the plaudits, but I was going home with the glory. Even then I think I knew this was ephemeral, that it had no value, no substance, but for a brief moment I felt the breath-taking power of celebrity; everything centred on me, everyone else was irrelevant.
I wanted to ring anyone who’d ever doubted me, who’d thought I wouldn’t amount to anything. It would take all night. And then I wanted to call everyone who’d ever loved me, stood by me, believed in me, a necessarily shorter list. This was my moment, however short-lived it might prove to be, and I wanted the world to know - and then maybe rub it in a bit.
I was feeling light-headed and a shade nauseous having eaten too much too quickly, and I asked Ben if he could clear the room so I could have a minute or two on my own. Like an on-side bouncer, he ushered the disappointed throng out, promising them further access to me in the Green Room. Only Elaine remained once the hubbub had subsided. She flopped onto the uncontaminated sofa opposite me and closed her eyes with a profound sigh. I swiped my mobile phone from the dressing table and flicked it on. The screen was alive with icons denoting texts, emails and messages. I dialled into my voicemail account and was immediately assailed by my mother’s screeching, frantically excited voice, although she still managed to deliver a rebuke for failing to forewarn her. There were messages from a couple of old school friends I hadn’t seen in ages; Matthew, my solicitor (wonder what he was going to charge me for watching); Kevin, who wanted to congratulate me and ask if I’d deign to do a celebrity spot at Jaques; various relatives I only ever bumped into at weddings and funerals; and, needless to say, Chaz, his voice a mixture of wonderment and pain. There were texts from my dentist (‘can’t wait to drill one of those famous teeth’), a couple of estate agents I’d last dealt with three years earlier (opportunistic motherfuckers), some people from my old office and one or two of the lost souls from the telesales wasteland. There was even one from Marcus, expressing ironic admiration while making it clear that he’d only glimpsed me on the big screen in the pub. I wondered how many of these people would have owned up to watching a show with a nil credibility factor had there not been this opportunity to bask in my dim reflection.
I scanned more texts until, finally, I found the oneI’d been
’That was you, wasn’t it? OMG, as the kids say, apparently. Why didn’t you tell me you were going to be on the telly? Call me if you’re not too famous. Got to go now and register my vote for that hip hop band. Love Faye.’
I needed to be somewhere quiet, somewhere I could draw breath and take everything in; somewhere I could call the kids, my mother, maybe even Lisa, and definitely Faye. But there was no prospect of doing any of that. I’d been left to my own devices for precisely five minutes before being dragged into the Green Room. The fizz and fuss surrounding me was already becoming oppressive. The other acts and acolytes were drinking and networking somewhere in my periphery, but I, very definitely, was the centre of attention, besieged by back-slaps, kisses and the incessant ruffling of my gel-hardened hair. People bellowed at me, Sarah-clones fussed around me, Ben showed me off like a proud father. Too much, too much.
There was a sudden hush and the crowd parted like the Red Sea to allow Gordon O’Hara access to the man of the moment. He shook my hand and offered some sage words about how my life was going to change and how to cope with it. He used to be a dog handler, or something - I wasn’t paying proper attention - and he’d had to adjust to being ‘O’Hara,’ so he knew what he was on about. Some of the judges followed him over and we laughed and joshed like old mates; well they did. But I was in, and once you’re in, you’re in. Until you’re out, I suppose. Elaine made sure she was always in my field of vision. Her nods of reassurance and private smiles sustaining me through this madness. For the first time that evening, though for the thousandth time overall, I noted how attractive she was, and tonight she was a-twinkle, euphoric, pleased for me, pleased for Ben. I’d made a new friend, a real friend, something you don’t expect when you’re forty-two. And, who knew? Maybe I’d be more her type after this triumph.
It wasn’t long before the boiling cluster of celebrities, hangers-on and sundry movers and shakers were bellowing at each other rather than at the new star. They didn’t take long to lose interest. But at least it gave me the chance to slip away from under their noses. Back in the now empty dressing room I rang home, if I could still call it that, and Lisa answered. Her voice was stone which didn’t necessarily indicate whether she’d seen the show or not, but as we edged through our stilted conversation, it was clear she hadn’t. I asked to speak to the kids but was informed they were both in bed. Then I heard Kattie’s sleepy voice in the background asking who it was, so Lisa, who never got in the way of my relationship with the girls whatever she thought about me, put her on.
’Hi baby,’ I said, ‘how are you?’
’I’m good, Daddy. How ‘bout you?’
’I’m really good. You sound tired.’
’I am a bit.’
’Well, I love you, and I’ll see you on Saturday.’
’Love you too.’
I could hear Katia leaving the echoey environs of the kitchen and padding into a room with flatter acoustics. Privacy.
’What’s the matter, sweetheart?’
’My friend Amy just called me. That’s why I’m up. You know Amy? She’s the one with no front teeth and a ponytail.’
Amy could have been any one of a dozen of Katia’s classmates. ‘Of course.’
’Well, I think she’s gone completely crazy ‘cos she said you were just on telly and I was like, what? And she was like, yeah, really, it was your dad and I was like, don’t be so stupid and she was like, I’m not being stupid, he was, like, singing in some competition?’
Bea was, like, letting them watch too much American trash and I was going to have to step in at some point. For now, though, I had to deal with Kattie’s curiosity. I knew for sure that my photo was going to be on the front pages of any number of tatty tabloids in the morning, win or lose. ’Ok, listen. Here’s what happened. I wrote a song and someone liked it and wanted to enter it in this song contest so I said yes. I wasn’t supposed to be singing it, but the man who was supposed to be singing it was ill, so I stood in for him. That’s all.’
’Yeah, right,’ she said with weary scepticism.
’Well, ok, but That’s what happened. It was all very last minute so I didn’t have time to call you to tell you to watch.’
’Come on Dad. That’s like a fairy tale. I’m nearly nine.’
’I know, I get that, but it’s a fairy tale that came true so...’
Lisa entered whichever room Katia was hiding in to tell her it was getting late. Then followed Katia’s off-mike, nine year old’s version of events as relayed to her, followed by the unmistakeable sound of the phone being snatched from her hand.
’What are you telling her stupid stories for? Now she’ll never sleep.’
’That’s what happened. Sorry if it’s going to embarrass you. Don’t worry, you won’t have to explain me away for much longer.’
I hung up and switched off my phone.
Yes, I know, over the top, too shirty. Maybe it was the adrenalin, but more likely it was that all-too-familiar tone, the tetchy one she reserved for me, and I had no time for it. On reflection, I should have given her the benefit of the doubt. I knew her better than that. She didn’t think much of my musical skills, but she wasn’t grudging or spiteful. Once I’d explained everything she’d have been happy for me, but I’d allowed my scrambled emotions to obfuscate reason.
I sat there a little longer, hoping for few minutes’ peace, but someone was rapping on the door. ‘Hang on.’
’Oh, thank God you’re there.’
’Out in a minute.’
’No, need you right now!’ she shouted. They’d sent an assertive clone. ‘Results show in fifteen minutes.’
’Ok! Toilet! One minute!’
There was a time when I’d have used those precious sixty seconds to call Chaz. Now, the idea seemed sad and ridiculous. But there was just one call I had to make.
She was fit to burst.
’That has to be the most surreal five minutes of my entire life,’ she said.
’I was ironing a blouse for work and I only had that rubbish on for background noise - sorry, not rubbish, but, you know - anyway, up pops this face and I thought, shit, that cannot be Michael!’
’What can I tell you?’
’You kept that one quiet.’
’I’m a sly one.’
’I even recognised that song. You played it at that place.’
’Top marks.’ And I wrote it for you.
’So now I know a celebrity. How cool am I?’
’Honestly? Not that cool.’
’No, true, it’s only you isn’t it? But seriously, Mike, well done you. Proud of you.’
’Hey, were you miming, ‘cos the voice was really good?’
’Kidding! I’ve always said you’ve got a good voice, haven’t I?’
’Ok, I haven’t, but I’ve kept meaning to. God, what if you win?’
’I haven’t even thought about it.’ Which I realised was true. I hadn’t landed since coming off stage. There was another, furious knock at the door and now Elaine was shouting at me to come out.
’Minute!’ I bellowed.
’You being called away now you’re so important?’
’The results show’s going out in a minute. I suppose I ought to be there.’
’No, hide. It’ll be more fun.’
’Yeah, but…my mum’s watching. ’
’You were always a good boy, Mike, just a bit of a...well you know.’
I didn’t and I wanted to find out, but was interrupted by more knocking, fiercer this time, and the screaming voices of at least three people in deep panic.
’So…can I call you maybe?’ I ventured.
’You just did.’
’No, I mean…’
’Of course call me. Take me out for a meal and then I’ll be snapped by the paps and be in Heat. I’d better buy some decent shoes.’
I laughed. ‘Me too. My Hush Puppies have seen better days.’
’Good luck Mike. You’re gonna win you know.’ Faye paused. ‘Really great that you called.’
So? Shall I keep you in suspense a bit longer? Do you give a toss? Ok, here’s what happened. I stood on the stage with all the other acts and we pretended we were all mates and were going to be happy for whoever came out on top. They replayed excerpts of each song (mine got the loudest cheer), then O’Hara and the blonde sidekick started reading out the results in reverse order. For the suspense. The hip hoppers didn’t make the cut, but at least that gave them a shot at regaining their credibility back out on the street - that or being slain for their disservice to an important musical art form. The ugly/beautiful girls also got the chop, followed by the male/female duo and the one-hit wonder. It was down to me and the bubble-gum pop band in their deliberately not-quite-matching-but-matching-anyway outfits. They’d actually delivered a catchy little ditty and danced their socks off and I seriously wouldn’t have begrudged them the win. Well, I would, but they seemed like a worthy pair who probably had a better chance of impressing the European audience than me. We stood on either side of O’Hara and the blonde as he ramped up the tension, backed up by some manically portentous music.
’And the winner is….’
It was a landslide.
If the mêlée surrounding me after the first show was overwhelming, it was as nothing compared to the suffocating smothering I endured after the results show. My cheeks were kissed raw by a phalanx of over-familiar people I’d never met before; everyone talked at me about going to Paris for the ‘big one’ and how they were all behind me; hangers-on congratulated me to within an inch of my life. Over in the corner of the Green Room, Ben graciously accepted the plaudits and spoke in his broad, patriotic Bronx about how we were going to win the whole fucking thing for Britain, while Gilbert perched on a chair like a little bird swigging a Bud as he stared into some personal abyss. He knew this wasn’t about music and that, of course, was all he was about. Meanwhile, Elaine flashed her lop-sided smile and bestowed honeyed charm on all who entered her aura.
I was spent by the time Ben ushered us all into a large black car outside Television Centre while flashbulbs exploded all around us. We pitched up at some club in the West End, its glittering lobby dense with photographers, second rate footballers and third rate soap stars (by definition) all poised to welcome the singing hero; Ben had doubtless been on the phone to his PR person as soon as the results were in. He was not to be underestimated. Ben hand-picked three journalists and dragged them into the car. He’d given me a brief Not Putting Your Foot In It For Dummies master class on the way over. I was to talk only about the song, my musical influences and my aspirations for the final. Nothing personal, nothing controversial. And I did my best, honestly, but simply wasn’t sharp or experienced enough to play this game and win. Or even draw. I parried a few early questions, the softener-uppers, then got too comfortable with my friendly, earnest inquisitors who then sneaked in a question about how my wife and kids were feeling tonight. I took the offered bait, naturally, while Ben and Elaine were momentarily out of the car chatting up a vaguely familiar actor, and explained that my kids were delighted and that although I was separated from my wife, I’d spoken to her and she was very happy for me. Bits of which were true, of course, but I’d blown it, something I should have realised as soon as they salivated onto their notebooks.
I’m not much of a drinker and I can’t take excessive noise, so I’m not really built for night clubs. Faye was right about me. I was always a sensible old fart, despite my rock and roll pretensions. After an hour of bellowing and being bellowed at - I now had all sorts of fabulous new best friends who would remain so for, ooh, minutes - I was fading fast and I gestured to Elaine that I’d had enough. She led me to a quiet room at the top of a flight of steel stairs which I presumed was reserved for special guests. We talked briefly and incredulously about the evening’s events before the car she’d ordered arrived to whisk us away. We emerged from a back door into the chilly night; only one photographer had second-guessed us, but he got nothing thanks to Elaine’s quick thinking in draping her jacket over my head as we ducked into the car. She insisted we go back to her place reasoning that the press would probably have sussed out my address by now and be lying in wait. On the way, I picked up a message from Lisa who’d watched the results show. She apologised, although God knows what for. I’d been the arse, not her and, when I returned her call, it was me who blathered in humble contrition. She sounded cheery, maybe even slightly taken with me, making me feel less of an oaf for my earlier boorishness. Her reaction surprised and delighted me. I’d spent the last few years falling below her expectations and I’d let her down, not because I’d chosen a career that offered so little, but because I hadn’t tried to improve my lot. Being a good father and a faithful husband was a given. Settling for mediocrity was my sin. I told her to close the curtains and keep herself and the kids out of sight. The press would be after her and she should avoid engaging with them. She said not to worry; she knew how to handle the press - well of course she did - and she would make sure Bea understood the importance of protecting the kids at all times. We said goodbye like we used to, with warmth, not mere words.
Elaine and I talked over a pot of tea. I was still fizzing, partly because of my whirlwind fifteen minutes in the spotlight but mostly in response to my having stepped off the gangplank into foreign waters. It was too late to swim back to shore. Scary, yes, but utterly thrilling. Elaine counselled me on what to expect, but I felt, naively, that I had nothing to fear from fame and success. I could think of nothing more exciting than emerging from obscurity to become the focus of the world’s lens. Maybe That’s overstating it. This was only Eurovision, for Christ’s sake, not the G8 summit, but why not revel in whatever attention came my way rather than shrink from it? Elaine left me to my misguided designs and went to bed. There was never any question of sleeping anywhere other than on Elaine’s spongy little sofa. I hadn’t changed just because I’d been on the telly, hadn’t become more attractive, more desirable. And why even think of complicating our relationship with something as pointless as sex? Can’t believe I said that. I was a coiled spring that night despite my exhaustion and, frankly, sex would have been a nice way to top things off. But not with Elaine. Our friendship was the thing and it would have been meaningless and gratuitous. I was better than that.
And, minor detail, she didn’t want me anyway.
I lay there replaying every moment. From zero to...well something a bit more. One minute O’Hara was that really famous bloke off the telly, the next he was shaking my hand and cautioning me about the vagaries of fame. I was a guy who fell asleep watching crap like Eurovision, not someone who appeared on it. But tonight, millions of people had watched little old me. More than that, they liked me, or at least they liked my story, and I was now fastening myself in for the ride of my life.