A week to go before Paris and my life had transcended hectic and slipped towards chaos. The two months since Eurovision:You Decide had flown by, and so much had happened without the luxury of distance to allow me to digest things objectively. Engulfed and overwhelmed, I was splashing around, swallowing water, trying to hang on.
May! Spring! Whoo-hoo! So went the theory. But the weather was still miserable, with a pervasive gloom that glowered at me both inside and out. The flat was typically cold despite the boiling cauldron of traffic outside and, curled up under a duvet in front of breakfast TV, I could barely face the day’s myriad radio, TV and personal appearances stretching out before me like an endless, rain-spattered road. I shuddered. What had I got myself into? I’d always wanted to be a famous pop star, but not for the fame; for the pop. I wanted the world to appreciate my art (yes, art, ok?) to be someone whose name was synonymous with high calibre output, like Elton John or Paul McCartney. Even as a young musician, I harboured such high-flown ideals even though I’d probably have settled for a fleeting, Gary Numan-esque moment in the sun. I’d always believed that if the music isn’t up to it, it isn’t worth putting out there. Quality is everything. And today, at three fifteen, I was due to open a leisure centre in Penge. Penge! What did that have to do with anything? You see, naively, I hadn’t properly bargained for this, nor the continued intrusion into my private life. What on Earth made me think that it should come without a price? And talking of stark realities, I was still only a novelty entrant in a superficial and musically vacuous contest which traditionally left a bloodied trail of failure and terminal obscurity. My credibility was already compromised. There I was thinking I might forge a serious musical career, knowing all along that any future, beyond Eurovision, was an inchoate concept at best. For all of Ben’s bluster, was he really interested in developing me as a singer/songwriter? He was all about seizing opportunities, jumping on bandwagons, short-termism. And if Ben couldn’t use me, who else would?
And of course there was Faye. I hadn’t stopped thinking about her for a single agonising millisecond since our final sad parting. It was gnawing me to death from the inside out. I’d wrapped myself in emotional bubble wrap to insulate myself from the pain of her probable rejection somewhere down the line, but surely this pain, this open sore, was infinitely worse. What had I done? Was there a part of me, I wondered, that rejected her because I thought the door might still be open with Lisa, the door back to being plain old Dad again? Or was I just too shit-scared to grasp the opportunity to take a fantasy and try and make it real?
I was exhausted from another interminable PR Saturday and my diary was almost solid until Wednesday when we were due to travel to Paris, so I asked Mary to clear Sunday afternoon and evening so I could spend some time with the kids before the mayhem really kicked off. After a couple of horrible local radio slots, I picked them up at twelve thirty and took them for lunch at a bustling Italian restaurant in Camden. Both had Spaghetti Carbonara, Millie fastidiously removing every last lump of bacon and depositing it on the side of her plate. From there, we walked to Regents Park to go rowing (tantrums, a lost oar, deliberate splashings, several ‘shits’) after which we chucked the Frisbee around for half an hour until they’d each caught it once. But I couldn’t relax, couldn’t help feeling irritable, manfully though I tried to hide it. Not manfully enough, as it turns out. That old saw about kids? It’s true. They pick up on nearly everything, although mine didn’t have to dig too deep on this occasion. There’s something wonderfully grounding about being told to chill out by two under-tens. In unison. I laughed and chilled as instructed, but I still didn’t feel like me, like Mike, like Dad. Everything was teetering, about to spin out of control and the only counter-balance, the only certainty in my world was my children, whose unquestioning, uncomplicated love was the one thing I could be sure about.
We got back around eight-thirty and the girls draped me in warm, exhausted hugs before dragging themselves up the stairs with exaggerated, comic floppiness. Lisa was in the living room reading Living Etc, with Property Ladder or possibly Grand Designs on in the background to make sure she didn’t miss anything. We smiled at each other briefly but I wasn’t in the mood to talk and followed the girls upstairs instead. Millie brushed her teeth in under twelve seconds, a record, while Kattie changed into her pyjamas before cutting Millie’s time on the Braun in half. Millie, now wearing her little pink nightdress, clambered into bed and I sat beside her. She smiled, sleepy-eyed, and wrapped her arms around my neck. I kissed her plump, velvet cheek and laid her down on the pillow. She was asleep before I switched the light off. It was the same routine with Kattie, who smelt of toothpaste and the fabulously expensive strawberries she’d half-eaten at the restaurant. As we cuddled, I felt her arms go loose and heavy around my neck and I knew she was already in dreamland, too exhausted for the usual rough and tumble. There’s nothing, simply nothing, to touch the simple joy of hugging your own child, especially when she’s rag-doll tired. It was something I’d taken for granted but now yearned for every night.
Downstairs, Lisa was in the kitchen filling two glasses with red wine. She tilted her head, her signal for me to follow her into the living room. The rustic table lamp we’d bought - at her insistence - at a flea market in Dorset a lifetime ago glowed pleasingly in the corner. I settled beside her on the lumpy leather sofa we’d bought - at my insistence - at DFS last year.
’How are they?’ she said.
’They’re going to give me a bad report, I think. Maybe ‘G’ for effort, but definitely ‘U’ for achievement. I was a bit uptight.’
’Well you’ve got a lot on. They’ll understand. They were thrilled to get to see you at all with all this madness going on.’
Lisa sipped her wine. She was edging towards something, I could always tell. ‘So, when are you going to Paris?’
’That’s a bit early isn’t it?’ I nodded wearily. We had three days of nonsense to endure before the big night. ‘Excited? You must be. Course you are.’
’I’m just bloody exhausted.’
’The adrenaline will get you through. Don’t worry, you’ll be brilliant.’ She patted my thigh. This was her version of a bowler’s run-up. ‘Anyway, I was thinking…’ here it came, ‘...why don’t I come over with the kids?’
I stared into my glass. This was no time to catch her eye.
’I’m not…I mean,’ Lisa had rehearsed this but even she, with all her polish, all her guile, was finding it difficult. ‘I mean, it’d just be nice to have your family there, wouldn’t it?’
’Are we a family?’
’We’ll always be a family.’
’But,’ I laughed incredulously, ‘we’re not, though, are we? We’re family. There’s a difference.’
Lisa placed her glass on the coffee table and edged closer to me. ’We could be. A family, I mean. If you wanted us to be.’
Why do all these decisions fall to me? I don’t do decisions, not the important ones that require maturity and intelligence. ‘God, Leese.’
’Yeah, I know. Bit of a bombshell.’
’I mean, we’ve gone through a lot of shit, haven’t we? It’s not easy to pretend it never happened.’
’I know. I’m sorry.’
She never apologised. ‘I don’t just mean you and...whassisname. It’s everything, isn’t it? The last ten years.’
’We’ve got a lot of talking to do, and a lot of forgiving.’
Lisa’s eyes reddened. The last time I’d seen her cry was when I put a thumb through a painting she’d just bought. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried over me. She slotted her cool hand into mine. ‘Look Leese,’ I said, ‘I need to…let me just get this week out of the way, ok?’
’Sure. Of course. Absolutely,’ she whispered.
’So...I’m gonna go, ok?’
I stood up and Lisa, still holding my hand, pulled herself to her feet. I started for the hallway, but she tugged me towards her and nuzzled her head into my shoulder, her full weight now pushing into me as her hands locked behind my back. I didn’t feel like wrapping my arms around her, but didn’t want to reject her either. She looked up at me, her eyes now spilling bulbous tears.
’Stay. Just tonight. I want to be with you.’
She pushed herself up onto her toes, opened her mouth and clamped her beautiful, succulent lips onto mine. She thrust her tongue into my mouth flushing a familiar, zingy warmth through my veins, simultaneously draining the fight from me. I stroked her back, then slid my hands down to her pert bottom and pulled her into my groin where my penis jutted out like a tempered steel bar, only harder. Penises, eh? No subtlety. I cradled her head in both hands and dragged her into me, into my mouth, into my heart. The bedroom was but a few urgent steps away.
But then, somehow, I pulled back from the brink and pushed her gently away, a feat of superhuman fortitude. ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this,’ I rasped.
’Oh yes you are,’ she said, cradling the ludicrous tent in my trousers.
’He’s ready, but I’m not,’ I said.
Lisa pouted and let me go. ‘Ok. No. I understand. I’m sorry. We’ll talk next week? After the...’
’We’ll definitely talk.’