It was all very well expecting it, but seeing my sweaty, beaming face on the front page of the Mirror (‘A Star Is Born’), The Star (‘The Old Ones Are The Best’), The Sun (‘Stand In, Stands Out!’) and even The Times (tucked away, smirkily, on page seven - ‘Substitute is a Hit’) was still a massive shock. Especially that double chin. Can they all have got the wrong angle? I’d taken a cab back from Elaine’s at around seven, jumping out at the dingy indoor bazaar opposite my flat to buy the full range of dailies and some semi-skimmed. The owner didn’t recognise me even after I casually held my front page photo up beside my face, but then he never remembered me from one day to the next. I’d hoped there’d be no early risers in the press corps, but two men with grey faces and rumpled coats popped out of a car outside my block and bounded towards me. I believe the correct response in such circumstances is ‘no comment’ but I asked them if they wouldn’t mind fucking off. In my defence, this only came after the one with the Dictaphone asked me why my marriage had fallen apart. It was ill-advised, of course, and no doubt an asterisked version of my invective and a photograph of my sour, sleep-starved face would appear the following morning as the backlash began, but I hoped I had a few more weeks in the upward cycle of goodwill before they started the demolition process in earnest.
Inside, my answerphone was blinking wildly. It had actually run out of recording space, not something I would normally expect to happen if I left it untouched for a year. There were countless messages from friends and relatives as well as the press (how the hell do they find out your number? You’d think they hack people’s phones, or something!). I rang the people who mattered, telling and re-telling my story without tiring of it. Both my mobile and landline phones trilled all morning and I did my best to screen unwanted calls, but in the end I just let them ring out unless I was absolutely certain who was on the other end. I caught up with Lisa around nine. She’d been followed to the station and onto the train, but managed to shake the parasites off somewhere near Bond Street. The kids had been smuggled out of the curiously unattended wooden door at the back of the garden by my mother and had not been tailed. At least, she didn’t think so. Perhaps a separated wife was more instantly newsworthy than a couple of kids, but I feared they’d be targeted when they tired of Lisa.
Ben called, slightly after the horse had bolted, to tell me to say nothing to the press. I asked to speak to Elaine to thank her for looking after me, but she was on another line and Ben said she’d call me back in one minute. Thirty seconds later, the phone rang and I picked it up without thinking.
’Fuck’s sake, don’t hang up!’ yelled Chaz.
I was tempted, but opted for stony silence.
’Listen. I am not, nor have I ever slept with Lisa.’
’Lousy grammar, Bill Clinton, but just as disingenuous.’
’But I haven’t! Ok, look. I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but you’ve been such a fucking juvenile...’
’Why don’t you just f...’
’Lisa…she’s…ok, listen, she’s been having an affair…’
’I fucking know that, don’t I?’ I snapped. ‘Bye, bye.’
’Not with me, Mike. Understand? Not with me!’ Chaz paused, hardly able to bear the responsibility of spitting it out. He took a nervous breath, then delivered the coup de grace. ‘Don Ellwood.’
’Yeah, really,’ I blustered, but already knew it was true.
’It’s been going on a while.’
’You’re such a little...’
’Three weeks ago I had a meeting with her at the gallery about
the sponsorship deal, got there early, walked in on them in her office. Kissing, Mike.’
’That’s conclusive, is it?’ I said, the earth shifting irrevocably beneath me.
’No. Her admitting it was conclusive.’
My shoulders slumped. ’Ok, well, That’s quite conclusive.’
It made perfect sense, of course. The doe-eyed, coquettishness whenever he was around, the intimate little touches, the hugs, the flirtatiousness. How had I missed it? Or been so wilfully blind? Swiftly substituting the grim mental image of weasley little Chaz for that of the handsome, muscular superstar sweatily humping my wife didn’t make me feel any better. Worse, if anything. How could I hope to compete?
’She said they’d been seeing each other for a few months and I wasn’t to say anything to you. But now I have, because I want you to stop blaming me and because you’re my mate.’
I was shaking, couldn’t swallow. ‘If you were a mate, you’d have told me sooner.’
’Oh do fuck off, Mike. You wouldn’t let me anywhere near you. She said she was going to tell you when the time was right, whenever that was going to be, but she obviously hasn’t, so...’
’So you stepped in. Cheers.’
’I never wanted to hurt you, Mike, but it’s been driving me insane. I just need you to know it wasn’t me. Our friendship’s important to me, even if it isn’t to you.’
My eyes were stinging. It was all I could do to force the words out. ‘It is. Course it is.’
’I’m sorry for you, Mike, but you should know me better than that, arsehole.’
’Yes, yes I should.’ I held the phone away from my face so he wouldn’t hear me sobbing. I was numb, which didn’t prevent my vanquished machismo from helpfully pointing out that she must have been having sex with me and Ellwood at the same time. I felt dirty and disgusted, and suddenly angry enough to recover my composure. ‘I owe you an apology, don’t I?’
’Ok. So…well, the thing is, ok, I am,’ I’m a man, remember. This kind of bollocks doesn’t come easily.
’That it? God almighty. That was a bit shit...oh go on then, you’re forgiven, you fucking tit.’
’I’m bloody pathetic, aren’t I? Can’t hold onto my wife, no job, didn’t trust my best friend…and, I mean, as if she’d sleep with you.’
’Seriously, I’m just ridiculous, a complete waste of space.’
’Normally, I’d be the first to agree but, with respect, no man who wins Eurovision:You Decide can ever be ridiculous in my book.’
For the first time in several hours, I’d forgotten about my trivial little victory. ‘Yeah. Doesn’t seem such a big deal now though, does it? Not when you’ve been cuckolded by the next James Bond.’
’Are you mad? It’s the biggest fucking deal of all time. You won! You’re going to Paris. For the Eurovision Song Contest! You are the man. I’m getting a posse together. I’m not missing that.’
’Face it, we’ll never beat the Balkans or the...Baltics or whatever.’
’The French managed it last year. And you’ve got the advantage of not being French. We can take them!’
Ben sent a car to pick me up at ten. The press boys, whose number had grown significantly, were looking a bit cold and bored as I exited my building, but they perked up a bit when I told them I’d give them proper interviews later on when I got back. I was lying, of course, but teasing them was so much fun.
Elaine ushered me into Ben’s office and, as feared, he enveloped me in a massive, Paco Rabanne-scented bear hug. I could feel a headache coming on. Sitting elegantly in one of Ben’s fine leather chairs was a formidable looking woman of about fifty with swirling black hair and fiercely plucked eyebrows. She wore a sturdy tweed skirt suit which accentuated her broad hips and even broader shoulders. She stood, surprising me with her immense height, and we shook hands. ‘Good to meet you, Michael. Mary Dillon. Congratulations,’ she said in a thin voice that belied her appearance. ‘You must be absolutely chuffed.’
’It’s a bit surreal.’
’Well it’s going to be that and a lot more besides for the next few weeks, so we need to be prepared. That’s my job, to guide you through the minefield.’ She flashed a sweet smile but was all business. ‘Press snapping at your heels?’
’All over me.’
’Well, they’re a venal, nasty little pack when they’re hungry, so we’re going to feed them a few scraps to make sure we keep them onside, ok?’
’Mary’s the best, Mike, the best. Listen to her and you’re gonna be just fine.’
Mary acknowledged Ben’s accolade with a confident smile. ‘A few simple rules and we shouldn’t have any problems.’
Elaine brought in a tray of hot drinks and a selection of goodies from Dunns, the exquisite bakery just across the road from the studio. I’d been too excited to eat anything of substance since gorging myself in the green room and the aroma of the coffee and plump, buttery croissants triggered a sudden ravenousness. I tore off a flaky chunk and stuffed it into my mouth as Mary outlined her action plan. In essence, I was forbidden from speaking directly to the press unless she was within two yards of me. Three yards? Don’t even think about it. If they did corner me unaccompanied, I was to say ‘no comment’ and absolutely not, under any circumstances, rise to any bait. Telling them to fuck off the previous night, therefore, appeared to be somewhat of a misjudgement on my part. Mary showed me the evidence on The Sun’s website and wagged her finger, chiding the silly child.
A little later, Ben took me aside and shoved a stapled sheaf of papers into my hand.
’New contract. Standard sole composer. You baled us out, baby,’ he said, slapping my shoulder, which was now beginning to bruise from the constant battering. ‘We told the world who really wrote the song, so we don’t need to pretend Howard had anything to do with it. Motherfucker’s blown it with me big time. Breach of contract et cetera, et cetera. I’m gonna sue the shit out of him.’
’Not really worth it, is it?’
Ben flapped his arms at my rhetorical question. ‘Anyway, now it’s out there, we need a piece of paper to reflect it.’ Ben jabbed at the contract in my hand which I speed-read. It named me as the composer and the royalty provisions seemed ok, but I told Ben it still warranted a professional eye. He heaved a wounded ‘what, you still don’t trust me?’ sigh. No, I didn’t.
Mary called Lisa to give her a similar briefing. I imagined a distracted Lisa sitting there nodding wearily, being taught to suck eggs. That was just before I imagined her breathless beneath the slick, tanned, hairless body of Don Ellwood. I had to confront her with it at some point, but was pleased to have so much else going on to justify delaying that awful conversation. Mary said she was going to leak some basic, anodyne personal information to the press and it went without saying that she’d handle the issue of the separation with practised sensitivity; we were still friends (were we?) and, like any caring, devoted parents, we were putting the children first. It seemed obvious to me that Lisa’s dalliance was going to come out - how could it not? We’re talking Don Ellwood here. Through gritted teeth, I divulged this sensational tidbit to Mary. Who already knew. Of course.
First up, then, would be a series of photographs showing me in relaxed mode at home (ie an appropriately furnished studio rather than my scum hole). There’d also be fly-on-the-wall-yet-artfully-posed shots of me, guitar across my knee, scraps of paper everywhere, spit-soaked pen between my teeth, beavering away at the emotionally draining art of song writing. The world would learn of my refusal to admit defeat, about how I’d overcome the odds to fulfil my lifelong passion. All news to me, this shit, but it sounded great. This little PR package would keep the press sated for now, leaving the coast clear to get our teeth into the stuff that really mattered. Most urgently, I had to get into the studio to record my own version of the song. We’d then shoot the companion-piece video and have some new photos taken for the CD cover and the press who would soon need something fresh to gorge on. Most urgently, at least as far as my specially selected style gurus were concerned, was a trip down the Kings Road to get myself a decent wardrobe (a first), some ‘happening’ shoes (no idea) and a funky haircut (why?). Mary would then put me through my PR paces to prepare me for appearances on a host of TV and radio shows. It was all about promotion and awareness to boost record sales and gain momentum going into Paris. The simple schtick: ‘the stand-in who took Britain by storm.’ If we could make Europe aware of my poignant yet uniquely heart-warming struggle, record sales could go through the roof, although I’d be up against other contestants who might have equally gripping tales to sell - maybe an ex-soldier who cheated death but lost his guitar-playing fingers in Bosnia, or a Finnish mother of nine (years old) with something terminal. In the X Factor age, tragedy is everything.
Mary, no slouch she, had scheduled a swathe of radio appearances for that afternoon, stretching long into the evening and necessitating several seat-of-the-pants cab rides across London. A host of local stations around the country wanted to interview me but as we couldn’t waste time sitting in a feeder studio, Mary arranged for these to be conducted by telephone to coincide with my downtime in the cab. She wasn’t too worried about the quality of the line; the very fact that I would be live and on the hoof only added to my everyman myth. That said, I’m not the best of passengers in lurching, liberty-taking, diesel-fumed metal boxes and my interview with a radio station in Liverpool was cut short to allow for the ejection of copious stomach contents from a window.
Despite my discomfort, I turned out to be a decent interviewee, or so Mary said. Apparently I displayed just the right blend of articulacy, wit and, if I may be so humble, humility. I was good at this. Who knew? Informality combined with an inability to take anything seriously hadn’t served me too well in my previous career, but it was a boon in this one. Mary remained in my eye line at all times to ensure I didn’t stray into difficult territory. A raised eyebrow here, a wince there kept me on track.
Jonathan Ross’s people had called my people (yes, I had people) to set up a short interview followed by a live rendition of the song on his Saturday night show. Before that, I was scheduled to make several more appearances on national and local radio as well as BBC1′s Breakfast, Daybreak, some moronic show on E4 and Lorraine. That, plus newspaper interviews, features in the TV listings magazines and possible spreads in Hello, OK, Woman’s Own and Time Out. It was endless and bewildering. I’d assumed there’d be a minor media storm, but I realised I’d been thinking more in terms of a light shower.
I slept at Elaine’s again, having first eaten too much at an odd Moroccan restaurant, drunk too much alcohol and talked too much about myself. I was out in an instant, too far gone to toss and turn. It had been all-consuming and I still had to summon the energy for the far more demanding days ahead. There’d been no time to reflect, no time to gather myself, no time to analyse my chewed-up personal life. But whatever else happened, I was determined to keep my Saturday morning date with the kids. It might be truncated, possibly interrupted, but if I let that go, I could wave goodbye to reality. Being newly owned by the public, I wasn’t going to be able to pick them up from the house, nor spend another stultifying day shuffling around museums, eating crap in McDonalds or hunting for DVDs in Blockbusters. Someone would be following with a camera and I couldn’t put them through that. I had to find a way to keep things normal for them, and I would, dammit.
It was while I was stiffening this resolve that Mary called to say I was block-booked for Saturday.
I had fifteen minutes to kill before my Friday afternoon interview with Richard Bacon, a rare moment of tranquillity in the maelstrom. I made my excuses to Mary, sneaked off to a BBC toilet, locked myself in a cubicle and dialled the familiar number with cold, nervous fingers. Lisa answered, her voice surprisingly fluffy and upbeat. This wasn’t the time to mention Ellwood; rather to revel in her sunny mood while it lasted. I explained that I couldn’t make it on Saturday - she understood - and asked her to put me onto the kids. They were deliciously unimpressed with my instant stardom. On the contrary, why hadn’t I just refused to go on, it was that shit? Why couldn’t I have, like, written a song for like One Direction or Dappy - whatever that was - someone who could sing and was cool? Wasn’t I embarrassed about being in all the newspapers? They were. They’d even taken some light-hearted stick at school. I was no hero to the under-tens. I promised them I’d do something way cooler after the contest was over to spare them further embarrassment. I’d like to say they were too young to fully comprehend what was going on, but in fact they were too worldly-wise, too au fait with the sheer nebulousness of fame to be fazed by it.
And then I called Faye.
I was pretty good on Jonathan Ross. There I go again, but I was. I was made for this, if nothing else. Wossy took the piss out of my age, my squareness and the naffness of Eurovision, while I reminded him that he was older than me, his hair was dated and that it wasn’t called Euwovision. And he’d been a judge on some Eurovision show a few years earlier, so who was he to scoff? I garnered a few laughs, raised a few eyebrows and splashed around in the goodwill flowing down the banked studio seating like a waterfall. Wossy shook my hand and I turned to acknowledge the enthusiastic applause. A wobbly, out-of-body moment followed as I caught sight of my shiny face in a giant monitor. Who was that man and how the hell did he get here? On Jonathan Ross. It made no sense. In a moment of scary prescience, I knew I’d look back on this one day and find it impossible to believe it had ever happened.
In the green room, I mingled easily with a dazzling, miniature poodle-hugging American film actress and her massive, fussing entourage, a chubby British comedy actor (no entourage, lots of cakes) and a slightly whiffy Indie band who’d closed the show. I’d sung my song from the sofa - an acoustic version comprising the first couple of verses and a chorus. And very intimate it was too, like being in Jaques again if you ignored the studio audience, the millions watching at home, the cameras, the lights, Wossy...
Chaz had somehow blagged a ticket and I sneaked him into the
Green Room like my own little miniature. After an abortive attempt to add the actress and the fat boy to his client base, he joined me, Ben, Elaine and Mary at Locatellis where, had I still been Michael Kenton, IT Nobody, I’d have struggled to get a table any time before global warming finally turned properly nasty and fried the planet. I’d eaten furiously in the Green Room, post-show hunger apparently another new phenomenon to which I’d have to adjust, and still had room for a plate of pasta before Chaz and I made our excuses, leaving Ben to foot the bill. This was all on highly optimistic credit. Mary chased me into the street and made me swear not to speak to anybody about anything before allowing me to get into Chaz’s car. He drove us to Hanger Lane where I introduced him to the delights of April Moon. All that savoury food had left me gasping for something sweet and where better than here, with its faded chintz, dowdy décor and uncomprehending waiters, to gorge on soggy banana fritters and vanilla ice cream? Seemed like no-one else had the same idea, so it was mercifully quiet in there. No press either, their relentless pursuit foiled or at least on hold. I passed Chaz a copy of the new contract Ben had asked me to sign and he was only too pleased to give it the once over. I think it made him feel connected, an integral cog in the vast Eurovision wheel.
No longer fearing my seething opprobrium, Chaz opened up about Lisa. He’d suspected the viperous Ellwood for a while, having bumped into him more than once at the gallery before stumbling in on the fateful kiss. Ellwood had initially struck him as a natural charmer with a genuine appreciation of art, but his appreciation of Lisa was clearly the point. I’d witnessed them flirting first hand but chosen to brush it under the carpet and would probably have continued with this self-delusion had Chaz not spoken up. The whole Barcelona thing was red herring. Chaz had flown out to start discussions about setting up a new office there. Lisa’s trip was completely coincidental.
’It’s my fault, really. This whole thing,’ I said, trying to make light. ‘I vomited all over his jacket.’
’Oh. Now it all makes sense,’ said Chaz.
’I’m so sorry. My husband’s a terrible embarrassment. What about a fuck to apologise?’
’Well hopefully the jacket’s knackered.’
I swirled an oily globule of banana around my mouth. ‘I know I’ve been bloody aimless for God knows how long, but she could’ve at least talked to me first.’
’What, and got your permission?’
’Yes. ’Would you mind awfully if I screwed around a bit with James Bond?’ I mean, That’s only civilised, isn’t it?’
’Why didn’t she tell me she was that unhappy?’
’You’re saying you didn’t know?’
I shrugged. I’d known for years.
’Why didn’t you tell her you were unhappy?’ said Chaz.
’Yes you were.’
’Yeah, ok, I was, but I had my head in the sand. Separating’s what other people do. It’s so...drastic. And, I mean, what about the girls? I couldn’t contemplate not having them around.’
’Now...now I realise I loved her out of habit. I was lonely with her and I’m lonely without her but...I haven’t missed her for a second. I’ve missed ‘home’, I’ve missed the girls. Not her. That make any sense?’
Chaz nodded. He always got me. At least someone did.
’It still hurts, what she’s done,’ I said, ‘hurts like hell, but That’s just my ego getting all het up. It’s a delicate little flower.’
’I think I know,’ Chaz said, offering a wry smile.
’I miss those kids so much...being part of them and their little worlds. Yes, I get my Saturdays and the odd Sunday, but it takes us half a day to get to know each other again and it’s all over before it’s started. And I’m left having to get through another week on my own in this fucking shithole.’ I looked up. Only a yellowing Artexed ceiling separated us from my living room.
’Well all that’s going to change. Ok, not everything, but I mean, whatever else happens you’re going to make some dough, aren’t you? You’ll move out of here and find somewhere appropriate to a Eurovision legend and you and Lisa will sort things out like the sensible adults you are...well she is. And the kids will be the absolute priority. Can’t imagine Lisa making things difficult on that front.’
’No,’ I said, dreamily immersed in the simple joys of tucking them in, feeling their soft, tired kisses drying on my cheek, their cool, fuzzy skin and tangy, shampooed hair. ‘Kids…they’re magic, they really are.’
There I went again, insensitive to a fault. Didn’t I know how much Chaz and Louise wanted kids of their own? Well didn’t I? God. I winced at my faux pas but Chaz, ever the diplomat, rescued me from my own crassness.
’We’re trying IVF again. Might as well, eh?’
’Can you afford it?’
’Depends how many test tubes we fuck up,’ said Chaz. ‘Maybe we’ll crack it this time.’ The pain was etched into his pale face like a tattoo.
’I meant can you afford kids? School fees, braces, laser correction, boob jobs, car insurance...?’
’Better start saving up, eh?’
Chaz and I took the long trek back up to my flat; a sharp left turn, through the security door with the broken lock and a trudge up a single flight of narrow, cat piss drenched stairs. A couple of hacks with snappers in tow who’d evidently arrived while we were eating, slipped in behind us before the door clicked shut. I asked them – politely, note - to leave, but Chaz was having none of it, gurning for the cameras and giving them an exclusive on this ‘gay lovers’ tryst’ before slamming the door in their faces. Over tea and Kit-Kats, we watched my Jonathan Ross interview on the knackered old video recorder I’d rescued from the loft, me mostly through my fingers. There’s nothing worse than hearing your own voice, except seeing yourself using it. We sank a few bottles of lager and chatted until two, when Chaz got up and slipped his coat on. At the front door he turned to look at me with a disturbingly fluttery-eyed smile. I thought he was going to kiss me. ‘I’m glad we’re, you know…’
Then Chaz opened his arms and stepped towards me. He was going for the full man hug but stopped just short as I flinched. We’d never hugged in thirty years. I don’t think we’d even touched each other in all that time other than accidentally or whilst of us, me, was beating the other one, him, up.
’Go on, fuck off,’ I said.
’See ya, arsehole.’
The interviews were becoming tedious, repetitive and unwelcome, but I had another slew of them to endure on Sunday morning. Mary picked me up at eight and said I could have the afternoon off if I was a good boy. She handed me a buff file of the day’s press clippings and said they were ‘mostly pretty good’, and suggested I bear in mind that the only thing worse than bad publicity was no publicity. Hmm. I’d hoped to sneak in a visit to the kids, but had to make do with a quick call from the car to get my fix. They were going to a cousin’s party in the afternoon so I wouldn’t be able to see them then. Or was that an excuse? Ben called as we approached a small studio in Dean Street to say he’d set up the video shoot for Tuesday and he confirmed, under interrogation, that we wouldn’t be going anywhere near a petrified meadow. I guested on a phone-in for a radio station in Newcastle down an ISDN line and sang the song acoustic style. Three further interviews followed before I was whisked across to Absolute Radio’s studios to appear on the Martyn Lee show. Absolute Radio used to be Virgin, apparently, and I had a story to tell about them, didn’t I? Ruined my career, those bastards. By 1pm I was shattered. There’s a limit to my bonhomie. I was sick of talking about myself, especially as I was following Mary’s template, not the truth. And, seriously, how many times can you spout the same fabrications?
I had a quick bite to eat in a Wardour Street brasserie with Elaine who’d arrived to lend her support. I relished our easy intimacy, the lack of sexual tension - mine, at last; she never had any - leaving no subject off limits. I told her how I’d got to forty-two with so little to show for it; explained how things had gone so sour with Lisa and what she was doing and with whom; my fears about losing my kids. Elaine, in turn, revealed that she and Ben had had a relationship which had ended a few years earlier, something which, with unaccustomed male intuition, I’d sensed when we first met. Ben continued to pine for her but there was no going back for Elaine. She was a well-educated Home Counties girl who’d gone off the rails for a while and got involved with all sorts of n’er do wells. She’d been a rock chick cliché, done drugs and rehab, and it was Ben who rescued her from complete meltdown. But with that came a proprietorial claim which made him possessive, obsessive and jealous. She broke it off to save them both. A couple of years later, Ben asked her to come and work for him, no strings. She was connected, knowledgeable and hugely capable and gave President Records a stronger administrative hand on the tiller. And, to his credit, Ben had honoured his promise to leave his romantic flame doused. But I’m pretty sure he still goes home every night and bashes his head against the walls in unrequited frustration.
I got back to the flat around three and settled in with a mug of tea and the press clippings to wallow in all the nonsense about some singer called Mike Kenton. There were some decent stills of him performing on Eurovision:You Decide and one paper had even unearthed a photo of the be-mulleted, twenty year old Mike when he was the lead singer in a college band. The Sunday Mirror carried a photo of him on a grimy staircase beside a short, bald man with the headline: ‘Eurovision Mike Walks on the Wild Side!’ but the story made light of my ‘outing,’ having identified Chaz as the married (and therefore probably heterosexual) senior partner of Glaziers and Mike’s best friend. Some less flattering reports variously guessed at this guy Kenton’s role in the break-up of his marriage, that he suffered from stage fright and might make a sorry mess of things in Paris, that he’d abandoned his kids, that his favourite colour was yellow, that he preferred brunettes with plastic boobs, that he was a serial failure with a low IQ, that he was known at school as Farty Mike. I was beginning to feel a bit sorry for the poor bastard, to be honest.
Sunday remained relatively quiet until Lisa called asking if I fancied putting the kids to bed. I was in the car in thirty seconds. There were no obvious signs of long lenses when I left the flat or arrived at the house. Maybe I’d peaked. I was only a Eurovision entrant, after all, not someone important like Jordan or Gazza. Here today, gone tonight. The girls were tired but effusive. The party had been shhhi...useless and the food all vegetarian rubbish because Harry’s parents were, like, weird. The chips with their skins on were, like, ok but not as good as the ones at Macs. We drank hot chocolate together in the kitchen before they headed upstairs for a bath. I followed a few minutes later to tuck them both in, telling Kattie some stories about my Eurovision adventure and reading Millie a few pages from a Shrek book. She
was going to grow out of this fixation, wasn’t she?
Lisa was waiting for me in the kitchen when I came downstairs. She usually hustled me out of there as soon as possible, but this time she offered me tea and pulled back a chair for me to sit on. I sensed this was the moment when she and I would finally get everything out in the open.
’I’m not contesting the divorce,’ she said, dunking an M & S tea bag.
’Good. Me neither. Nothing to argue about, is there? And it’s not good for the kids if we slug it out.’
’I mean, ideally, I’d like to keep the house and have them stay with me so they aren’t uprooted, but you should be able to see them whenever you like. Keep your key if you like but, obviously, ring first.’
’Yeah. Fine. Sensible.’
My, we were being mature. When was this going to turn ugly?
’You’ll get out of that vile flat soon enough, won’t you? Now you’re a superstar,’ she said, offering a cool, stunning smile. ‘Maybe get somewhere they can stay with you in a bit more comfort?’
’That’s the idea. Although I am getting quite attached to woodchip wallpaper and rusted window frames now.’
’I can understand that,’ said Lisa, sounding a bit like her old self. She reached across and put her hand on mine. ‘I’m sorry, Mike. I’ve been a complete bitch.’
Lisa took a deep breath. ‘Look, I know you know about me and…’
’Chaz told me.’
’Can’t that fucker keep anything to himself?’
’I made him. He’s not very good under pressure.’ Lisa’s face went all sad at the edges. ‘I’m not in love with him.’
’Who could love Chaz?’
Lisa smiled. ‘Don paid attention to me. It was nice.’
’I get it, Leese,’ I said. I hadn’t called her that for a while. ‘I knew things weren’t right. Why didn’t I try and talk to you like a normal human being? I thought our problems would just miraculously resolve themselves.’
’We were both dissembling.’
’Exactly. Whatever that means. Maybe neither of us thought it was worth fighting for.’
’You think so? It was good once, wasn’t it?’
’Yeah, but...something happened along the way...fuck it, sorry, That’s Earth Wind and Fire. You get the drift.’
Lisa chuckled. ‘And now, after we’ve made a mess of everything, you’re finally doing something fantastic with your life. I quite fancy you now. Shallow bitch, aren’t I?’
’Nah. All the girls fancy me now. I’ve got groupies, hangers-on…blue rinsers, mostly.’
Lisa leaned across the table and pecked me on the cheek. ‘You’d better go before I ask you not to.’
I stood up and we studied each other for a moment before embracing. God, it felt so good, so natural, to hold her again. The familiar contours of her body, her unique, sexy smell, her moist breath coating my neck. My heart raced and something dislodged inside my personal universe, an old, forgotten feeling, one I wasn’t ready for. I backed off and made for the front door. Was I hoping she’d stop me? She followed me down the hall but let me go without another word. I turned, waved from the gate and headed for the car.
I drove back to my flat with watery eyes and confusion raging. Was she suggesting we try again? Was that something I even wanted? I didn’t know anything about anything for a change.
And then Faye rang.
The thing I particularly like about Faye is - everything. Smart, funny, beautiful, thoughtful, informed, mature. Most of which I’m not. I have my qualities, of course, but I think I understood why Faye never went for me. Just too many gaps in the CV to be a viable long term partner; a fairly sensible, well brought up boy, but one with no clear defining purpose who, instead, dreamed of a career in music. The fool! Still and all, why did she go for that creep at Brunel? And if he was good enough, where did that leave me?
The prospect of seeing Faye again was as uplifting as it was depressing. Just to spend some time in her company was reward in itself, but it was tinged with the emptiness of knowing nothing I could ever do was going to make her want anything beyond a very occasional, very platonic relationship. Chemistry, with its myriad sexual, physical and personal components, is a tough nut to crack. You can’t magic it up and we always fell short. Not that she wasn’t fond of me, or that we weren’t physically attracted, or that we didn’t once have a flirty, zingy thing going on, but it didn’t add up to a whole number for her. We were friends, never lovers; Faye, a girlfriend, never a girlfriend. So the best I could hope for was to become her friend again, albeit a besotted, unrequited bundle of frustration like Ben.
She shimmered like some glorious apparition in the doorway of La Lumiere restaurant in Richmond, flicking her windswept hair unselfconsciously yet unostentatiously from her face. There was nothing ‘look-at-me’ about her, nothing arrogant. I almost didn’t want to reveal my whereabouts, preferring to drink her in from my vantage point across the room, but she spotted me and I stood up to greet her. We kissed on the cheek, her cool, damp skin against mine, sending the usual frisson through my core. Her saliva began cooling on my face, a living gift evaporating all too fast. She sat down, smiled and took a second to catch her breath.
’Hi,’ she said.
’You look great.’ Already? Save it, idiot.
’Oh shut up.’
She blew a jet of warm air past my ear. ‘Sorry I’m late. Unbelievable traffic, nowhere to park and the...I’ll shut up.’
’You’re here, That’s all that matters.’
She nodded. ‘I’m here.’
Yes she was. Right in front of me. If only I could bottle this and stick it in the fridge.
There are some people with whom you can have a reasonable and cogent conversation whilst thinking about fifteen different things. Not Faye. She commands absolute focus, especially if you’re besotted. Eyes like magnets, a voice like golden syrup, wit and nous evident in every sentence, and a smile like a gilded invitation to kiss her moist lips. And she didn’t know any of this. She was just being herself. Back when we were teenagers, my inexperienced self believed her to be the perfect woman. The intervening years had eroded that certainty. Maybe it had simply been youthful infatuation unsullied by harsh reality. Yet here we were, twenty years on, with so much muddy, turgid water under the bridge, and nothing had changed, for me at least. I felt faintly ridiculous as I sat there, heart pounding, muddled, befuddled, inadequate, a gauche eighteen year old again. I so wanted to reach across, take her hand and simply fly away, like Peter Pan, to somewhere nobody could touch or separate us. It’s foolish, I know, to deify someone. I’d put Lisa on a pedestal as well, but if I’ve learned nothing else, people let you down in the end and it’s as well to maintain some perspective. If only Faye would let me.
I don’t recall anything I said in those first fifteen jittery minutes; my conversation can only have been sketchy, disjointed, discursive, but Faye kept smiling that smile of hers, making me laugh, drawing me out until, with a little help from the wine inveigling my nervous system, I relaxed. Which was probably how I had the gall to ask her how she’d allowed herself to marry such a shit. The question saddened rather than angered her. Going in, he’d seemed like the soul mate she’d been searching for, she told me, and she’d been happy for a couple of years. But then she’d done nothing as he philandered and misbehaved. What kind of man could do that to her, to Faye? Why hadn’t she left him immediately and found someone worthy of her? Faye didn’t have any answers. She’d just let things get away from her, become marooned, closed herself off from reality and the possibilities beyond her miserable relationship. I empathised, albeit my circumstances were entirely different. Lisa could never be bracketed alongside Faye’s appalling ex. We simply ran out of steam and I should have seen it coming, but maybe it’s easier to do nothing than challenge the status quo.
So Faye wasn’t perfect, didn’t have everything covered. She’d fucked up. It was a bit of a shock, to be honest. But as shocks go, it was nothing compared to…
’Married? Really?’ I tried to muster a smile, a couple of thin words of congratulation, but couldn’t squeeze anything past my childish pout. I sat back, shoulders slumped, shattered, already deep into a crushing, terminal sulk. Louis had proposed on a weekend break in Amsterdam. Got down on one knee beside a canal, the fucking, ingratiating, cliché.
’I’m so excited,’ said Faye.
’Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t you be?’ I said with the numbness of a man having a conversation with the speaking clock. ‘One knee. Wow.’
’He’s a terrific guy. You must meet him.’
’Yes. You’ll like him.’
Wrong. I wanted to kill him.
’Ok, now I know I didn’t mention this before but…brace yourself.’ Faye paused for comic effect. ‘He’s an actuary. Sorry, I know, boring! But he’s not. He’s a real laugh.’
’I bet. All those actuarial tables and pensions and things.’
’I mean, what’s more important is that he’s the polar opposite of Rob, you know? He’s not going to screw around. He’s steady, he’s reliable, I can trust him. Exactly what I need after that bastard.’
Louis certainly boasted a splendid melange of sturdy attributes. But what about that special feeling, the one I had for Faye?
’Rob was never home, never called, or if he did, you could hear the lies slithering out of his mouth. Louis calls me twice a day, sends me flowers, looks after me. He’s solid. Don’t look at me like that, Mike. I know you think it’s pathetic, but after everything I’ve...look, sometimes solid’s what a woman needs.’
I nodded, humbled and defeated by this block of solidity. ‘You must love him a lot.’
’He’s a great guy, a really great guy.’
Having your entire world implode is bad enough, but try it when all you’ve got to go back to is a dank, mildewed grotto overlooking the Hanger Lane Gyratory System. It transcends hell and transports you into a whole new dimension of utter desolation. Take it from me. I know what I’m talking abo...sorry can’t hear myself wallow in morbid self-pity for that three-thousand-tonner hurtling towards Reading outside my window.
In need of a friendly voice, I called Chaz, but only got a sleepy Louise who was polite but, unlike every other Australian ever born, frosty. He was in Rio de Janeiro on business, the poor bastard. I wasn’t going to foot that phone bill. I rang Elaine who was in bed and probably didn’t appreciate being woken up, but she was kind enough not to let it show. We talked about Eurovision, my impending divorce, the next day’s activities, but not Faye. I lacked the vocabulary to even begin to articulate that scenario. If you can call nothing a scenario. We finished up and I put the phone down.
And then there was silence. I couldn’t even hear the traffic.
It’s all relative, you understand. Misery, I mean. It’s about how you feel, not what others think you should be feeling. So it would’ve been no use telling me that I had Eurovision coming up and that I was a little bit famous and extremely lucky to be following my dream. That’s not life in my book; That’s only what I happened to be doing with my time. It was superficial, a low-grade pursuit, a minor achievement. It had no bearing on what really mattered. Of course my kids loved me - and me them - without qualification; I had a soul mate in Chaz and a rock in Elaine; I even had a career of sorts. I’m not blind to all that. But in the end we all need that special someone to love, and mine was lost in perpetuity.
Tomorrow I had to record the vocal and the latest plan was to shoot a shoestring video in the studio. Mike Kenton raw, the man and his music. There would be no frolicking through frozen fields in a cheesecloth shirt, thank fuck. But how the hell was I going to raise the smile that might win European hearts?