Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 23

Paris in the springtime. People love it, apparently. Not me though. It was pissing hard, it was cold and I was utterly drained. I don’t think the Eurovision rule book is prescriptive as to mind-set, but I’m pretty sure mine fell some way short of ideal for the purpose of appearing live in front of two hundred million people in three days’ time. Eurovision is all about beaming, carefree smiles and glittery outfits, not gloomy old geezers with intractable personal issues.

If I hadn’t been inundated with wall-to-wall media commitments in the days following Lisa’s astonishing proposal, I’d probably have hidden out in my Mum’s shed, spiders and all, until it was all over. It took an enormous effort - and a little tough love from Elaine and Ben - to maintain a patina of geniality, but at every personal appearance in every nondescript town, at every vacuous, repetitive press call, I felt I was a but hair’s breadth from running out in front of the first available bendy bus. I couldn’t escape that insidious, nagging voice: what are you going to do when this is all over, eh? You’re a no-one who got lucky, and we all know what happens to them - Steve Brookstein anyone? He can’t get a job serving in a pub where they have live music. I know, I know! And what about Faye? it whispered malevolently, screwed that one up, haven’t you? Tit. Shut up! You still want that divorce? Really? She wants you back. Say no and your kids will become strangers, forget who you are - and you can kiss goodbye to every penny you ever had. It had more: how the hell are you going to serenade Europe with all this shit swilling round your head? Eh? Eh? I couldn’t afford to let the voice gain a stranglehold. I tried throwing myself into my commitments, keeping myself occupied, praying that fatigue would take me during the lonely hours, sparing me the tossing-turning torment, allowing me to replenish my diminishing resources.

We travelled to Paris by Eurostar on the Wednesday morning, following a shamelessly staged, flag-waving send-off at St Pancras. We were doing it for Britain and, by the way, check out this spanking station and this fantastic service all the way into the heart of Paris and these amazing cappuccinos we’re holding in these liveried paper cups. Mary had organised the appropriate product placement, extracting the due reward of corporate backing - Coffee Xpress were right behind their man - and extensive press coverage. I forced a plastic smile for the rented crowd and snappers, but ached to climb aboard and stow away in a luggage compartment. Anonymity, though, wasn’t part of the package. This was a public parade all the way to Paris. Well-wishers, autograph hunters and even the stewards - ostensibly selling overpriced, undrinkable beverages - were all involved in this photo opp. What curiosity they’d satisfy when they got home. What did he really look like close up then? Was he nice? Is that a bald patch on his head? Is he just the middle-aged, nothing-special, boring fart he appears to be?

Elaine, Ben, Mary and the cocooned, be-earphoned Gilbert were my immediate travelling companions, but ourentourage also included a bunch of mostly camp, colourful oddballs whose precise individual roles were unclear to me. Mercifully, they were booked into the next carriage, but each took turns bending my ear with fabulous ideas and complex instructions, all of which I resolutely failed to absorb. Clothes, shoes, hairstyles, things to say in French to the French, things not to say, places to eat, places to be seen. Did any of this matter?

I’d hoped to have some time to myself in my room at the rather stately Hotel de Vigny in Rue Balzac, right next to the Arc de Triomphe, but as soon as I’d unpacked I was set upon by the entourage, like ants around a buttery breadcrumb, and whisked off to Le Zenith, the 6000-seat concert hall where the final was due to kick off in three days’ time. After a short and terrifying journey through the frantic Parisian maelstrom, we were escorted into a gaping auditorium which was, I felt, a shade more salubrious than the venue for my last ‘arena’ gig - the students’ union at Brunel University twenty-one years ago, a sticky-floored, under-lit cave which accommodated 300, although we attracted 28. Gilbert scuttled off to talk to (mumble at?) the musical director, a moustachioed man with uncompromisingly dyed-black hair called Jean-Claude (naturellement), a scary-looking rake who was at least seven feet tall. Meanwhile, Elaine, Ben and I, plus a handful of nameless entourage, were given a brief tour of the venue by a tiny, charming woman called Emilie, whom Jean-Claude could comfortably have packed away in his suit bag. Scores of French Sarah-clones, TV execs and technical staff darted to and fro taking instructions through headphones or barking frantically into walkie talkies, while a team of essentially pot-bellied blokes shifted cables and equipment hither and yon. We were led into a cavernous backstage area decked out with white leather sofas, tables and easy chairs, a glorified, televisual green room where we, the performers, would sit with our coteries as the scores came in and where, inevitably, I and every other western European hopeful would be beaming defiant smiles as the Balkan/Baltic axis crushed all hope. With hundreds of performers and musicians taking part, there simply wasn’t the room backstage to accommodate us all in our own dressing rooms. Instead, everyone was allocated a toilet-sized cubicle squirrelled away amongst a warren of Portacabins in the car park to the rear, an area which also housed a village of marquees and Winnebagoes. How the hell was I going to find the stage unassisted?

I waited for most of the day to do my walk-through, a complex feat which demanded that I stroll onto the stage, find my mark and stand around for ten minutes while the cameramen were given their instructions. I was asked to demonstrate how and where I planned to move during my performance (I’d made no plans) before being shunted off and replaced by three Lithuanian people (men, I think) in grotesque masks and silver Lurex tights who, I hope to God, were labouring under the misapprehension that this was a dress rehearsal. Either way, I gave them a wide berth. After stapling a disingenuous smile to my face for some photos - I was inured to all forms of frippery by now - we left and I managed to snatch a brief nap in my cubicle in a standing up position. At 7.30, I did a live link-up from the venue with Radio 5 and dealt wittily (well I thought so) with some thoroughly otiose questions submitted by listeners who all needed to get a life. But this was essentially a day of waiting, watching, yawning and occasionally marvelling at the breath-taking scale of the operation; I felt like a rather tiny and, in the great scheme of things, insignificant part of this giant, useless mechanism.

Around eight, a courtesy car dropped us back at the hotel where I showered and changed before accompanying Elaine, Ben and Mary to a dubious Thai restaurant (well, you know, when in Paris) chosen by the enthusiastic Ben who, having sampled several bottles of wine, mercifully lost consciousness thus curtailing a hitherto unabridged anecdotal review of his eighties escapades with various nonentity bands. Sadly, he’d already covered the sixties and seventies in forensic detail by then. Mary who, off duty, was surprisingly light and frothy company, hauled Ben to his feet around midnight and dragged him outside and into a cab. Elaine and I were still torturing ourselves with some hellish espressos and decided we’d follow on later. A couple of months earlier, I mused, I’d been singing to a handful of people in a Crouch End dive. Elaine had been there then and she was still here now, by my side, our insane journey having reached a point neither of us could have imagined. She was my rock, someone I could lean on, complain to and joke with as the madness raged all about me.

I leaned back, eyes clenched, as another agonising slug of lava burned its way into my stomach where it co-mingled and conspired with myriad just-digested mystery meats and spices to return a sizzling spurt of acid up my gullet.

’You ok?’ said Elaine, touching my elbow.

’Fuck!’ I rasped. ‘Got any Rennies? Shit! Fuck!’

Elaine laughed. It was only Ben’s swearing she couldn’t abide. ‘I meant, are you ok?’

’As in, generally?’

’Yes’

’Fine...course...absolutely fine.’

But Elaine knew what I was going through and raised her intuitive eyebrows.

’That obvious, is it?’ I said, scratching at the candle wax on the table cloth. ‘Well, you know, it’s all so...bloody stressful.’

’Divorce? Still going through?’

’Yeah. Well. No. I dunno.’

’Right. Got it.’

And then I told Elaine about my last conversation with Lisa. ‘So, now you’re the most famous man in England,’ she said, ‘she wants to get back with you. Or am I missing something?’

’I thought she’d be completely appalled by me doing Eurovision - I mean, it is shit and trivial and she’s, you know, substantial and cultured - but all this adulation and fame, it seems to have turned her on. I’m not that useless lump who used to take up too much space in the house any more.’

’You can’t go back to her, Mike. That’s not a basis for a relationship.’

’But she said…’

’Fame? It doesn’t mean anything. None of this is real, but you’re still Michael Kenton. You’ll always be that useless lump.’

’Well, thanks.’

’In her eyes, Mike. Doesn’t matter what happens to you or your career. When you go home, that’s who you’ll be, once she gets over herself.’

’Maybe I can change. I’ve got to. It’s my last chance.’

Elaine shook her head, glugged the cold gritty dregs at the bottom of her thimble-cup and grimaced.

’I’ve never stopped loving her,’ I said, ‘not really. I don’t know if I like her all that much any more, but I can’t help how I feel.’ Where the hell did that lot come from?

’Oh bullshit! I don’t buy that,’ snapped Elaine. ‘Jesus, Mike.’

’What do you know...?’

’It’s not love, Mike. It’s familiarity, it’s the Devil you know, it’s safe and convenient, but it’s not enough. You go back to her and That’s just you admitting you’re scared of the future.’

I opened my mouth to protest, but Elaine was irresistible.

’And you’re right to be scared. But you’ve got to decide; is this when you make that change? Or do you hang onto something broken in the vain hope you can fix it? Because, ultimately, you can’t.’

’She’ll have to change too...’

’Oh come on! It’s not about her. It’s about you being Dad again, isn’t it? Doesn’t take a genius to see that. And, yeah, I get that. But going back to her isn’t the answer. Maybe for a while it’ll seem ok, but in the long run? Look, you can still be Dad, but on your terms, not hers. That’s the real change you’ve got to make.’

I blew the air from my lungs. ‘Fuck.’

’That mean I’m right?’

’I don’t know. I don’t know anything.’

And then, unbidden but not unusual given my recent predisposition to tears, I started to weep, the alcohol having tipped me beyond the point where men are abashed. Elaine shuffled around the table and put her arm around my shoulders.

’You can’t go back to her,’ she whispered. ‘You must know that.’

’If it’s the only way I can be with my girls...how much have I got to miss them before I...jump off something high?’ I whimpered between staccato, blubbering sobs.

’You’ve got to make sure they’re always part of your life. You’ve just got to work it out.’

I fumbled in my pockets for a tissue before Elaine thrust a napkin into my hand. I sat up, wiped my face dry and waited for my juddering chest to settle. ‘Do you think you can stop being right for five minutes?’

Elaine pulled me into the crook of neck and shoulder and laughed into my ear. ‘Sorry, don’t think so. It’s what I do.’

I took a deep, deep breath. This needed a steady nerve. ‘Ok, listen, there’s something else.’

Elaine leaned back and considered me with such gravity, such intense concern, I suddenly felt like telling her it was only a genital wart and I was getting some cream for it.

’Oh God. You’re gay?’

Her gravity had been a piss-take, an attempt to lighten the mood. I snorted a bubble into the snot dribbling from my nose and grabbed another napkin to blot it. ‘That would be too easy.’

Elaine was laughing too. ‘Well go on then, surprise me.’

’Ok. Brace yourself.’ I cleared my throat. ‘I am in love. Proper love. Just...with somebody else.’

Elaine placed a hand on my shoulder and pushed me gently away. ‘Listen to me, Michael, ok? You’re not.’

’Oh, fuck! Not you. Sorry. I mean, don’t get me wrong, in another universe, if things were...’ No, different tack required. ‘What I mean is, you’re already my joint best friend and that’s not to be sniffed at, bearing in mind how important I am in a pan-European context. But, no, I thought we…?’

Elaine’s spluttered and broke into a broad grin. ‘Your face!’

’What?’

’Oh for Gawd’s sake, Mike. We’re way past this, aren’t we?’

’Oh. Yeah, course. Just mucking about. I’m drunk. Ha!’ Idiot. Now for the attempted save. ‘Although, actually, I’d have given it a go. You know, just for the sex.’

’Ahh, how romantic.’

We both laughed, but Elaine was itching for the lowdown. ‘So come on, I’m all ears?’

’Well...actually, she’s called...’

’Faye.’

’How do you do that?!’

’You’re easy, Mike. That night at the gig; she was the only person in the room. It was obvious then. And when I told you I knew her? God, I mean, you nearly blew a fuse. That thing you had for her never went away, did it? Ahh.’ Elaine patted my head like a slightly dim child. ‘But I thought she was getting married?’

’Thanks for pointing that out.’

’To, whassisname?’

’That’s him.’

’Nice bloke, streak of piss though. Might be a good idea if you stopped worrying about your unfaithful wife and started thinking about Faye.’

’Ach, it’s all too complicated.’

’No it’s not. It’s simple. Tell me, does Faye know?’

’She’s always known,’ I said, shrugging the resigned, isn’t-it-just-bloody-typical shrug I’d perfected. ‘And...you know, here’s the funny thing? It turns out she feels the same way.’

’Why’s that funny? Stop putting yourself down.’

’Well, you know, all those unrequited years...’

’But she’s still getting married.’

’Yeah.’

’Did you try and stop her?’

’She gave me a chance...but...I made a complete Horlicks of it.’

’You complete and utter moron. How?’ said Elaine, incredulous. I think my stupidity was beginning to wear her out.

’She wanted me to tell her not to marry him. But I couldn’t do that, could I? Wasn’t my call.’

Elaine shook her head. It was time for her to make things simple for me. ’You. Absolute. Fucking. Moron. Course it was your call. She was desperate for you to say it.’

’I was being...chivalrous?’

’You were being shit scared.’

How did she know everything? ‘Maybe.’

’Well That’s you all over,’ said Elaine. ‘See, at some point, you’ve got to take a chance. You can’t have everything mapped out.’

I smiled oafishly. ‘So what the hell do I do now?’

Another numbing, draining day at the coalface. If Wednesday was Eurovision lite, a gentle introduction to its peculiar charms, Thursday was full fat. It was all about getting the song and, more particularly, the choreography right, and my entourage was growing increasingly vexed at my inability to put one foot in front of the other with anything even approaching co-ordination. My choreographer, an impatient, mid-forties wraith called Jo, just wouldn’t let up as we battled nature - alongside a hundred other contestants - in a small rehearsal room above the auditorium. I did my best to evade her, but she was canny, tracking me down to my three inch by two inch box in the morning and, later, the car park where she found me cowering behind some dustbins like a fugitive. Jo specialised in shouting and clicking her fingers; I specialised in tripping over my own shadow. You see, my vision was that of a dignified, middle-aged but nonetheless youthful looking man, standing stock-still behind the mike stand and singing a song, my choreography stretching, at a push, to an occasional smile. Jo, however, wanted me to take the mike in hand and wander. Her vision included grisly mugs to camera, sly winks, hand-claps and a couple of showy shuffles, all of which I was wilfully incapable of carrying out. Desperate, I asked Elaine to get her off my back and, following a series of fractious negotiations, a compromise was agreed - Jo would take the next train home and I would stand there like a stone and sing on Saturday night. Star power.

With Jo out of the way, I had little else to do but eat, drink, test my French on the sweet Ukrainian contestant (she didn’t understand a word, bloody nitwit) but mostly get seriously agitated, partly through boredom, mostly because I was thinking about what Elaine had said. Here I was, stuck in Paris with this idiotic contest to get through, when I needed to be at home sorting out my life one way or the other. The impotence was maddening.

I finally got the call to go on for my technical rehearsal at five, by which time my energy level was as low as my tension was high. I sang badly, distractedly, off tune, off the pace. Even Gilbert gave me a bit of a look. That bad. But I got through it, somehow. I still had to hang around afterwards in case any technical glitches needed un-glitching, but we were eventually released around seven. Ben took everyone (including the Jo-less entourage) to a thrashing, garish bar in Montmartre where we drank unspeakably vile cocktails and ate grease. I was in no mood for it - my voice was already creaking under the strain and could take no more shouting - so I left early and took a cab back to the hotel before I lost it altogether. Back in my soundless room, my ears were ringing, so I flicked on the TV to see if my hearing was still intact - it was, just - and took a shower. Feeling cleaner but no more refreshed, I ordered a tea to make me feel more at home. With milk. Oui, Monsieur, milk. No, not hot milk. Jesus wept. It arrived in a huge pot with a yellow label sticking out, indicating one small, overworked Liptons teabag that would’ve struggled to infuse an egg cup. I left it to brew for twenty minutes to no great effect, drank the tepid piss anyway, then lay on the bed to check through my texts and voicemail messages. The kids had sent me a raft of sweet, misspelt good luck messages and a photo of them blowing kisses; Chaz had rung to say he and his ‘posse’ were getting the 11.27 train on Saturday and wondered if I was going to have a spare minute to meet up beforehand (no); Lisa left a short, shuddering message to say she was thinking of me and was looking forward to talking next week. I flicked the light out and lay there watching Sky News for a while, feeling tired but not sleepy. I channel-hopped until I alighted, quite by chance, on some soft porn. Lo and behold, wasn’t that Jasmine, one of my internet acquaintances? Hard to tell, but she had a very similar anus. Maybe they were related? I smiled, recalling that patch of dead, wasted time when all I could do was sit staring at my computer, day after soulless, jobless, aimless day. It seemed like yesterday, yet a lifetime away. I toyed with the idea of re-acquainting myself with Jasmine - or her sister - in a private way but, on further consideration, decided she just wasn’t doing it for me. I was empty. I turned the TV off, hoping the darkness, warmth and airlessness would transport me to some calm and pleasant dreamland. But even as I drifted off, Lisa, Faye, the kids, Eurovision and my whole cocked-up life butted in and conspired to give me another sleepless night. Cheers.

Friday was like Thursday, only with chips and a heavy pudding on top. Things were getting noticeably serious now (Eurovision, serious - yeah, I see the irony). In the morning, I linked live to Breakfast on BBC1 and, with my eyes puffy and red-rimmed, tried to feign the requisite chirpy enthusiasm about the following night’s jamboree. Wow, gee, can’t wait, we’re gonna do it for Britain! Then we (me, Elaine, Ben, remaining entourage) trudged into Le Zenith, less alluring by the minute, and sat around getting nervous as I waited for my morning call. The stakes felt tangibly higher and the conversation was distinctly reverential. Even the cheeky little Latvian duo, dressed from head to toe in yellow satin, looked a bit edgy. One of them even stopped smiling or maybe it was wind. We were running the show once in the morning, when we’d just be going through the songs, and again in the afternoon, this time in full regalia, replete with dance moves, looks to camera and the comperes churning out their laborious pigeon-English schtick.

So, imagine this, if you will; you’re trapped in a large, cold, featureless building surrounded by tortured, terrified, self-absorbed foreigners and a frantic production crew, with nothing decent to eat and nothing to do...and you’rebeing forced to sit through the fucking Eurovision Song Contest. Twice. Sadly, there were enough technical hitches to write a manual on what not to do if you’re thinking of staging a pan-European television event. By three, there was no sign of the morning rehearsal coming to any kind of conclusion and tempers were fraying to breaking point. What little notice I took of the opposition heartened me to the extent that I was going to be one of three people who could actually sing on tune. What I lacked in glamour, charisma, looks and manic costumery, I made up for in relative musical competence, not that previous Eurovisions suggested anything but a direct correlation between talentlessness and success. The main opposition appeared to be the panties-and-not-much-else female singers from Greece, Serbia and Belgium, a sad little balalaika-based combo from Belarus (sympathy vote), a ludicrous heavy rock band from Norway and a couple of third division boy bands singing in fabulously fractured English.

I’d hit it off with the Irish entrant over the previous couple of days. Annette O’Leary was a rather beautiful and refreshingly mature woman who had enjoyed a long and successful career in Ireland but nowhere else. She was a class act with a pure, trilling voice and her song was a ballad of genuine quality. She had no chance. I’d also developed a bit of an understanding with the Dutch entrants, two relaxed, long-haired loafers in their mid-twenties who liked to talk football, something I can do all day and most of the night. Johann Cruyff is always a good starting point in any conversation with the Dutch, I’ve found. And, in fairness, most of the other entrants were pleasant enough, but it was difficult to forge anything other than the odd passing acquaintance. The consensus, though, was that the contest was a bit of fun which might garner some useful exposure. The winner might gain substantially, but everyone was going to go home with their credibility enhanced or shattered depending on where they came from - unless they came from Britain, in which case they should simply surrender themselves to the tabloids and pray that the ride back to nowhere is relatively painless.

In the evening, after a couple of brief radio interviews from Le Zenith, we made our way back to the hotel where Elaine and I had a snack in her room. I should have been buzzing. A couple of months ago I was Jo Schmo known only to his family and friends, and they didn’t give much of a shit. My own kids could barely stand the sound of my singing voice. Yet tomorrow I was going to appear on TV screens all around Europe, singing a song conceived and composed by me. Buzzing? Not especially.

Saturday. The Contest. Oh shit.

Chaz called just after I’d come off stage around four, having completed my final, worryingly jumpy dress rehearsal. He was staying in the George V, a five star hotel on the Champs Elysees. He couldn’t find a six star. He’d come over with Louise and a couple of his Eurovision cronies, having blagged a bunch of tickets from his contacts. Chaz had contacts. We talked about meeting up at some point, but I was walled in now until it was over, so we made a vague arrangement to try and find each other afterwards. Chaz didn’t seem overly bothered. He was fulfilling a boyhood dream, one he’d harboured since Cliff and Lulu flew the flag with such distinction.

Rehearsals never feel like the real thing. That’s why they’re called rehearsals. You can afford to slip up, take it easy, have a laugh, no matter how many people are yelling at you, no matter how high the stakes. But now, mere hours from the off, my nerves were beginning to jangle. The next one was for real. I remember looking into the gaping auditorium at the end of my final run-through and surveying the 6000 empty seats in front of me. I couldn’t imagine them full. Nor could I take in the fact that the fifteen cameras I’d learned to ignore would be beaming me live to an entire continent just waiting for me to fuck up. It took a bit of getting my head round.

I showered in a flimsy backstage cubicle (slightly larger than my dressing room but a swinging cat wouldn’t have got out of there alive) and emerged shivering, nose dripping incessantly, hands ice cold. And I couldn’t stop yawning. This was my body having its say and it wasn’t at all happy with all this stress. With rigid fingers and a little help from Marta, my delightfully insouciant Romanian dresser, I changed into my battle costume - black, regular fit jeans with a slate grey tee shirt beneath a tailored black jacket. Very Miami Vice c 1986 (though I resisted rolling up the sleeves and revealing the red silk lining). Eurovision fashion exists just outside the mainstream, in the way that the Sun is positioned just a couple of miles from Earth. I looked tragically MOR, like a junior employee of a large company told to dress smart/casual to join the boss in a corporate box at Wembley.

We were now confined to the holding area backstage where most of the acts were jumping about excitedly, particularly the boy/girl bands and anyone in a stupid costume. The German entrant, a balding man of about thirty-five with a Zapata moustache and too-tight Lederhosen, was typical of the breed. He was going round giving everyone hugs and kisses, while everyone, in turn, was trying to duck out of his way. The excess jocularity was understandable; we were all shitting it and it helped let off steam, but it was no less irritating for that. Annette and I were among a small minority of acts too mature (ok, old) to indulge in anything too flamboyant, preferring to observe and smile with the indulgent tolerance of parents watching their kids fall over at Tumble Tots. The Dutch boys, all whoops! and whoas! whizzed past shouting: ‘Frank Lampard. Shit, eh?’ to which I could only nod in firm agreement.

Ben was hyper, dashing from one entourage member to another to check on the kind of minutiae over which neither he nor they had any further influence. Elaine tried to restrain him without notable success, although she did manage, at my request, to keep him out of my face. He settled for the odd thumbs-up and across-the-room exhortation of ’you the man’ which I could just about tolerate. Elaine flitted back and forth, a butterfly, bestowing calm wherever she landed. Me? I was now entering ‘the zone’ something I’d always been able to do before going on stage. It didn’t block the tension, but it channelled my energies, allowing me to zoom in on what needed to be done. This was not the time to be thinking about home, Lisa, Faye, even the kids. I had to go up there and give it a proper go. It might be my first, last and only hurrah, and I was determined to make the most of my two and a half lousy minutes in the sun.

I wasn’t due on until near the end and had an hour and a half’s wait for my judgement day. I’d rather have got it over with, but this wasn’t my party. Too much time gave the nerves room to manoeuvre, to grab me by the throat and make the very idea of singing seem futile, no matter how focused I might be. The last thing I needed was a dose of Ben, but he finally broke through Elaine’s protective cordon and gave me a manly pat on the shoulder. At least he avoided showering me in bullshit. I made a couple of little circuits around the waiting area, exchanging the odd wordless shrug with the other artistes, but most of them, though smiling and waving vainly at the cameras - we hadn’t bloody started yet - were equally petrified. Even the Dutch boys, hitherto stereotypically laid back, could only manage a mock salute as I passed them. Not even a vicious word or two about Ashley Cole. Annette was talking to the Serbian entrant, a shaven-headed man in a waistcoat who I knew had no English, and I’m pretty sure Annette had no Serbian but, as I discovered when she beckoned me over, they were talking in Drug, a language I didn’t understand. He’d slipped her something to help her get through the ordeal and was now winking at me, holding out a cupped hand, urging me to take the proffered gift. I declined and left them to it. Annette - motherly, sisterly, Irish heroine Annette, of all people, taking an upper, or downer, or something. As a one-drag spliff-smoker (nineteen, vomited, couldn’t see for two days), this was hard to condone.

A female assistant producer with a megaphone got up on a chair and bellowed at us in severely, possibly deliberately, broken English to shut up and settle down. In retrospect only, the time had flown by and the show was suddenly bearing down upon us. The room fell eerily silent, the tension ratcheting up to breaking point, before the familiar Eurovision theme music thundered through two huge columns of speakers at either end of the room. Several large screens around the holding area came to life, displaying the glitzy opening credits which went on for a couple of days before finally ceding to a shot of the rather beautiful blonde presenter and her less beautiful (but still rather gorgeous) male co-presenter. Exaggerated and elongated applause, of the type commonly generated by floor managers rather than enthusiasm, forced the pair to smile until their teeth dried. Finally, they launched into a painfully over-rehearsed bit of banter, conspicuous for its deathly witlessness. Intended jokes whistled into the air like damp rockets, landing low and harmlessly in some humour-free abyss. I suppose it’s pretty difficult to try and be funny in fifty different countries, so they compromised by being funny in none. We waited like coiled springs for the camera to go live and invite our opening salvo of mugging and waving at Europe. Smiles were nailed on, hands were readied above the shoulder line, last minute sweat was dabbed away. The assistant producer gave us a signal, red lights flashed on cameras and we were away, like greyhounds out of the traps. All hell broke loose, nerves finding some release in this display of hysteria. The attention-seeking German started another ‘impromptu’ round of hugs and kisses, while the first act, an orange-skinned Spanish songstress in a one-piece thong-type thing which had been stretched without mercy to provide Band Aid-level nipple cover, waited anxiously, desperately trying to moisten her tinder-dry mouth, beside the stage. She was hopping up and down, looking into the ravenous black void of the auditorium and then back at the rest of us for support, but we were all busy thanking God she was on first. She ran on like a foal as the music played under her, missed her first note by at least three tones and visibly lost confidence. The rest of us cringed, in part because of her shrill tunelessness, but mostly because, there but for the grace of God went we. Car crash; I couldn’t bear to watch. She never got within spitting distance of the melody and her swarthy, flamboyant musical director lost a little dash, a little confidence, as the song progressed to its awful climax. Maybe he’d set the orchestra off in the wrong key? Elaine, standing fifty feet away among the various entourages and well out of shot, caught my eye seeking out a reciprocal snigger, but I didn’t dare take pleasure in the sheer tragedy of the Spaniard’s demise. I was going out there to face the Euro-firing squad myself, wasn’t I?

We were off to a stinker. Juanita, for that was her name, had pushed the anxiety level of every performer - cocky German included – into heart attack territory. I was not immune; far from it. Every muscle felt like stone, my chest tight, my throat parched, and I still had that interminable wait. My symptoms could only worsen. As the torture continued, I attempted to return to my cubicle, just to escape the rising lunacy in the holding area, but was prevented from leaving by a burly man in a dinner suit who’d had garlic for tea. I protested in vain and slumped back to my appointed seat, weaving past the hysterical yet-to-performers and the enervated thank-fuck-it’s-overs. It was supposed to look like a party back there, but it was a fucking asylum.

The tough-looking Israeli trio, rising above the nerves and bullshit, went on to belt out a jaunty sing-along, giving Elaine a brief moment to rush over and pass me my mobile phone. On the screen was a message which I struggled to read without my glasses. I blinked, stretching out my arm to accommodate my failing forty-two year old eyes:

Hi. I’m in the audience. Kids here too. Good luck. Go for it. Love Lisa’

Elaine gave me one of her looks. You know the one. ‘That’s just so you know your kids are here.’

I raised my hands defensively. ‘Ok, ok,’ I said, but felt oddly lifted. It wasn’t just the kids being there. Maybe things were coming full circle for me. I’d hit rock bottom, scraped along for a bit, but had now begun the slow climb back towards respectability. Maybe Lisa had been on her own journey of self-discovery, learning, ultimately, that she needed to be with me to square her own circle. Ok, it was a convenient analysis but, at that moment, when detailed introspection was a bit beyond me, I was rather drawn to the notion. Lisa didn’t want me back just because of my new status; she was many things, but never shallow. Hadn’t she called things off with the infinitely more famous Don Ellwood? Didn’t that prove the point? Sometimes you have to go looking for love and maybe she’d found it where she least expected, back down that old familiar road.

I re-read the message.

’Well?’ said Elaine, already intuiting my wavering emotions.

’Well nothing. Lisa’s out there with the kids and…That’s really great.’

’Shit. Shouldn’t have shown it to you. I thought your children being here would lift you, but now you’re just thinking about her.’

’I’m not. Stop it.’

’Listen. Just go out there and make those girls proud,’ said Elaine. I’m sure ‘girls’ didn’t include Lisa.

The show plodded on, like the great, unstoppable dinosaur it was. Acts came and went; notes were missed by spectacular margins; tears were shed in abundance (by some of the girls, too); multi-lingual invective abounded as flawed vocalists sought to blame everyone but themselves. Some acts scored heavily with the audience, others garnered sympathy. In typically French fashion, the home audience gave their own entrant the bird just because she couldn’t sing or dance. And my slot was looming ever closer. With fifteen minutes until my slot, I was bundled out of the holding area by a group of earphoned assistants in official orange bibs, and whisked off to the dark little passageway which led to the stage. Peering round a fake plaster column, I could just make out a tiny triangle of audience, a nonetheless forbidding sight. I was on after the Italians, four slim boys in Freddie Mercury white vests who were pirouetting and gyrating like the great man himself, only without moustaches or any discernible charisma. They were making do with honest endeavour accompanied by a thumping drum and bass cacophony. They finished with a concerted, echoey, hey!, right arms aloft, heads down, chests heaving. The audience loved them. The champions elect. How the fuck was I going to follow that? A middle-aged man singing a mid-tempo song which, ok, had wowed the discerning punters of Crouch End, but was manifestly lacking the requisite boom-boom-oomph to appeal to the taste-free zone that was Eurovisonland; a man who, despite the sterling work of a professional choreographer, possessed no moves whatsoever? 400,000,000 eyes, give or take, were about to focus on that loser in a few short minutes. I felt very, very sick.

I looked behind me into the holding area, hoping someone was going to call the whole thing off; if only France could rustle up another revolution and get it started smartish. But I was alone, facing the most terrifying moment of my life. No way out. A short piece of film played in (a pointless, touristy sequence showing humdrum London landmarks, followed by me mugging cretinously at the camera) while I took up my position on the stage. The audience seemed distracted, fidgety and deeply bored during this kerfuffle, but I was more concerned with the fact that I couldn’t remember the first fucking line. Again. I started fishing for it, playing the intro over and over in my head, hoping to find the trigger, failing. And then someone said something about the UK and there was some applause and cheering and the intro proper started up. Oh shit! Oh fuck! I looked out into the audience and saw that they were already swaying, waving flags, expectant. It was coming up...the moment when I’d have to sing.

Got it! Got the fucker! Remembered it in the nick of time.

I was away, on cue and, miraculously, on tune. You never know how your voice is going to sound until it actually leaves your throat even when you’re singing in the bath but, fuck me if mine wasn’t as solid as it’s ever been. No tremor, no croak, running on rails. I concentrated on the sound emanating from the feedback monitors and it was clear, crisp and proximate. Beyond that, floating on a disembodied echo, I could hear my voice booming into the vastness of the auditorium and wondered if it sounded just as good to the audience. I was on autopilot, all negative thoughts now pummelled to dust, the nerves helping, not hindering my performance. Confidence coursed through me, so much so that I even tried - and failed - to pick out the girls, Lisa and Chaz from the vast sea of faces in front of me. I was thinking clearly, fully aware, registering every element of this extraordinary experience so I’d be able to mentally replay it on cold November nights. The audience was with me, going for it, moving as one, smiling, trying to latch onto the chorus. I breezed into the last change up and then the final chorus. I’d only just started, surely. Where had the last two and a half minutes gone? I hit the last note, threw an arm into the air, closed my eyes, tilted my head back and totally lost myself in the moment.

And then it was over.

The music stopped and there was silence - Oh God! - followed by a deafening cheer and tumultuous applause. I lowered my head slowly and peered out into the auditorium, chest heaving à la The Freddies. Everyone was standing; arms were waving, air punches being thrown; balloons and streamers crowded the vast space above the audience. Across in the ‘orchestra pit’, Gilbert let slip a coy smile - he had teeth! - and he nodded at me with something approaching a human expression. The cheering continued into the next piece of film which covered the orange bib men as they hustled me off stage and wheeled on a six-strong group of Danish girls wearing skin and not a lot else.

Elaine threw her arms around me and kissed my sopping face as soon as I re-entered the holding area. She squealed something joyful and unintelligible into my ear, then led me back towards my seat. Some of the other acts clapped as I floated by, mentally factoring me into their equations. Maybe the old fella in his steady-Eddy jeans was a genuine threat. I was shaking, sweating like a geyser, adrenaline pumping through and seemingly out of me. Then something heavy and clammy crunched into me from behind and clamped itself to my torso. Ben.

’Fucking hell, man! Fuck! You fucking did it!’ he bellowed, his hot, whisky breath coating my face.

’Was I ok, then?’ I said, manoeuvring myself out of the line of fire.

’Ok? Ok? Fucking ‘A’ man!’

I got the gist.

’Let me get you a drink! You want a drink? What do you want?’ he screamed, fit to explode.

What I wanted was for him to fuck the hell off. I needed to sit for a minute, recover my senses. ‘Just a Coke, something sugary. Anything.’

Ben bounded off towards the performers’ bar, slapping any back within a five yard radius. Elaine watched him go, her smile a mixture of affection, indulgence and disgust.

’Well?’ I said, like I didn’t know. ‘Come on. You can tell me the truth.’

Elaine pointed at Ben, now all but engulfed by glitter-clad Euro-bodies around the bar. ‘Like the man said.’

I smiled, the tension finally lifting, though it would be a while before my heart regained its natural rhythm. It was over, done, dusted. All that anticipation and preparation. I didn’t think for a minute that I’d have to go back out there and sing the song again. I was thinking about tomorrow, Lisa, the kids, and what the hell was going to happen now.

A frantic, raven-haired presenter in a pink babydoll nightdress was leaping around the holding area with a bored-looking camera crew in tow. Her role, it seemed, was to gauge reaction as the scores came in, wackily interview the participants in pigeon-Euro-bollocks and maintain continuity as the wheels of this lumpen vehicle ground on towards their final, who-gave-a-fuck destination. We watched on the giant screens as the presenters, still chirpy but all out of scripted quips, introduced the first set of results, delivered by a shiny-faced man from somewhere in Athens. The female presenter explained – for the ninth time - that the first 1-8 points would be added automatically shortly after each panellist hove into view, the vital 9-12 points being given one by one to make it feel like something important was afoot. We scoured the scoreboard to see where Greece’s minor points had gone. Norway had one, Belgium two, Estonia three, Belarus...who cared about the small points, especially if you didn’t get any?

’Ok, now for the big ones,’ said the Greek man with a fluorescent grin. ‘Estonia, nine points.’

Huge cheer.

’Estonia, nine points,’ echoed the female presenter.

’Turkey, ten points,’

Huger cheer.

’Turkey, ten points.’

’France, eleven points.’

Pandemonium.

But hang on. That was the eleven, right? Oh my God! I was going to get the twelve. This was unbelievable!

’And twelve points goes to….’

The room fell quiet. Everyone hoped against hope.

’…Italy!’

The Freddie Mercurys leapt, as one, into the air, punching it wildly, screaming, hugging, barely holding back the tears, their damp, hairy armpits seemingly everywhere. Elsewhere, rictus grins prevailed atop drooped shoulders. Come on, it was only the first set of results - there were about fifty more to come. But we knew, all of us pointless ones, that it was a doomy omen.

I didn’t get a point until Norway, the fourth country to deliver its verdict, generously made me their least favourite of their favourites. One point. Germany, surprisingly, gave me eight, France, even more surprisingly, ten, but the writing was on the wall long before the end. The Italians and the Latvians were skating away with it. It was going to be nip and tuck all the way and as for who would nick it, only those two gave a fuck.

Elaine, having escaped the bouncers, stroked my arm as the results continued to limp in, while Ben slunk away to get comprehensively pissed. No more whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ from him. But I was fine, honestly. Once I knew I wasn’t going to win, or even come close, I accepted the fact and let it go. It was out of my hands. The points that came my way were still welcome, still appreciated, but no-one was going to remember the losers. I was going home tomorrow, back to reality. There would be some minor press coverage, a day or two of post-match analysis, but my story - ‘stand-in stands out’ - was already old hat and would buy me no additional goodwill in the public consciousness. Anything I achieved from here on in I would have to earn. If I got the chance.

Gilbert sloped over to pat me on the shoulder and mumble incomprehensibly in my ear before ghosting off into the ether again. The holding area had grown rowdier as the final few results lumbered in, the stir-crazy throng itching for it to end so they could start pumping epic quantities of alcohol into their systems. But Elaine and I were oblivious, cocooned in our own little world, chatting as though we were in some half-full cafe in Hornsey. She confided that she was thinking of taking up a role in America with her brother’s advertising company. I was still in a fairly delicate, post-show emotional state - I was an artistic person now, so it was allowed - and felt my eyes sting at this news. She gave me a cuddle and said that nothing was settled yet. I made a mental note to speak to Ben to try and persuade him - if I had any clout left with the big buffoon - to give her some executive responsibility and double her money or risk losing her. Utterly selfish, of course, but you don’t make many true friends in adulthood I’ve discovered (none, in my case), so I felt blessed to have what I had with Elaine. She got me, and me her. What price?

I came a respectable eleventh, placing me well above the majority of recent British contestants, a feather in the cap of the utterly fatuous variety. The Freddies had seen off the Baltic/Balkan threat quadruple-handed. They leapt onto the stage in their sodden, now transparent vests to receive their award and give an even more frenetic and tuneless rendition of their song to close the show. Balloons and streamers flew, people swayed, faces beamed. The other acts were invited to stand at the back of the stage to join this amazing celebration of Euro-joy and one-ness, but most of us declined. One of the Dutch guys walked past me, slapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Wayne Rooney, eh? Fucking nutter, but what a player. Hey, come to Holland when we play England next time, uh? We’ll look after you, man.’ I smiled, shook his hand, and then he was gone.

Finally, at long last, the show finished, the music stopped and the audience started filing out. Backstage, an army of caterers was busy re-stocking the bar and several tables with drink and a sumptuous array of finger food, while a gang of hefty roadies shifted furniture to the sides of the holding area to clear a space to party. The acts and their entourages, free at last, were exuberant, over-excited and way too loud, at least for an old fella like me. Annette wobbled past, drink in one hand, something small and orange in the other, slurring and barely able to stand, and we hadn’t even got started yet. She joined the equally dissolute Ben at the bar and they were soon deep in conversation, no doubt shouting disjunctive codswallop at each other.

I slumped in a small armchair pressed against a wall and closed my eyes, trying to shut everything out. Elaine had said I should do my duty, stay for half an hour tops, then go find my kids and take them for a burger somewhere in Paris. And then I felt a tap on my shoulder. If that was bloody Ben again, or the Dutch bores, or slobbering Annette, I’d...

I hauled my head forward and opened my grudging eyes. In front of me stood two little girls dressed like teenagers, their smiling faces and rosy cheeks the most gratifying, thrilling shock to my system. They jumped onto my lap, Kattie’s plump knee only just avoiding fatal contact with my testicles, and we cuddled fiercely, the twisted rope of tension running through my core suddenly unravelling. They nuzzled into my neck, their squeaky voices piping excitedly into my ears, and immediately, and yet again, hot tears breeched my defences and cascaded down my cheeks. I hugged them to the point of asphyxiation, only loosening my grip when Millie yelped: ‘Shit, dad, you’re killing me.’

Blinking into the mayhem, I made out a figure a few yards in front of me standing, legs apart, arms to the side, like a gunslinger. Lisa smiled gloriously, my flooded eyes making her teeth twinkle like stars. She looked fabulous in a shimmering black dress which somehow made more perfect her already perfect curves. Her head was cocked to one side as she witnessed the scene, a look of delight etched within the flawless geometry of her face. The Hobbit-like Bea cowered behind her, dressed in regulation brown cords and a chunky, zip-up sweater.

’You were really good, Dad,’ shouted Millie into my ear.

Was I?’

’Yeah. You were, like, the best? The others were, like, absolute sh...’

’Millie!’

’You were easily the best, Dad. You should’ve won,’ chimed Kattie, rather more gravely.

’But it doesn’t matter,’ said Millie, ‘’cos we still love you, like, soooo much?’

’Sooo much,’ said Kattie.

Lisa took a couple of majestic strides towards us and gently tugged at the girls’ shoulders. ‘Come on, give Daddy some air.’ I waved my hand. They could stay there all night and right through the next day as far as I was concerned, but slowly they shuffled off my lap to be replaced by the rather more cumbersome Lisa. She looped a silk-skinned arm around my neck and kissed my damp cheek, then nestled into me, her fabulous mane cascading down my chest to my waist. She smelled edible.

’You were brilliant,’ she purred.

’Ach, come on. It’s only the bloody Eurovision. And I came nowhere.’

’Not the point. You did it, you got up there and you did it.’

Lisa manoeuvred herself off my lap and leaned down to give me another kiss on the cheek before unfurling her wondrous frame to its full height. She studied me for a moment, her face wearing a look I hadn’t seen in years - pride? - then said to the girls, ‘Come on, we’d better get you two back to the hotel. It’s very, very late.’

The kids moaned, but not too vociferously. They’d obviously had an exciting day and were now beginning to droop. Lisa beckoned Bea over. The girls took turns planting sweet, wet kisses on my face, before Bea, who was barely capable of looking me in the eye, so overwhelmed was she by my fleeting elevation to Euro-superstar, took them by their plump little hands and led them away, both of them waving over their shoulders as they disappeared into the crowd.

’So, where you staying?’ I said.

’Hotel George V.’

’Oh, so’s Chaz.’ On another day, I’d have jumped to the wrong conclusion.

’I need a drink. I’m gasping,’ she said.

’Me too.’

’Diet Coke, or are you into the hard stuff now you’re a rock and roll hero?’

’Sod it, what the hell. Ordinary Coke. With sugar and caffeine.’

Lisa smiled. ‘It’s a bit of a scrum over there,’ she said, glancing at the bar. ‘You stay there. You deserve a rest.’

Her lips brushed mine, then she was off, gliding as if on casters towards the bar. On the opposite side of the room, vaguely nibbling on something covered in puff pastry, stood Elaine, gimlet eyes fixed on me, brows arrowed judgementally towards the bridge of her nose. She’d done all she could, she seemed to be saying. Now it was up to me to follow my heart, to make the right choices. I acknowledged her with a nod, hands splayed, shrugging hopelessly.

Was there really any other decision?

I sat, alone, away from all the noise, staring wistfully into the empty auditorium down the now gloomy passageway leading to the stage where, a couple of hours earlier, I’d stood like a condemned man. It already felt like a dream. Then I saw them, a short, bald man alongside a strapping blonde woman with Amazonian shoulders. To anyone else, they might have been mother and son, but I knew instantly it was Chaz and Louise. He’d wangled after-show party passes, the sly bastard. Chaz really knew a lot of people. I stood up, caught his eye and waved him over. He beamed, danced his way daintily between the throng and flew into me like a child taking a running jump at his dad after school. It was, I’m ashamed to say, a proper man-hug which, under any other circumstances, I’d have resisted but, tonight, I let slide. Louise kissed both of my cheeks and muttered something congratulatory in my ear.

’Fuck me,’ enthused Chaz. ‘What a night! I’m never watching this on telly again. Ever. You’ve got to be here to really experience it.’

’So you enjoyed it?’

’Yeah!’ he said. ‘Why the fuck didn’t you win, you useless bastard?’

’Well, at this level of competition, it’s all about the vests.’

’Next time, mate, next time.’

We battled our way over to the bar where Lisa was in animated conversation with Harry and Verity Dawson, the Posh and Becks of celebrity cooking. What the hell were they doing here? Others in her immediate coterie included Graeme Jarman, the newly announced Bond (Don Ellwood had just missed out, which was a shame) and Enzo Matterazi who, apparently, is to fashion what God is to pretty much everything. Lisa was in her element, beguiled and beguiling. I caught her eye briefly to check that she was ok; she responded with a cursory, distracted nod before flashing another of her dazzling smiles at her new best friends.

I grabbed three glasses of wine from the bar and, with Chaz and Louise in tow, negotiated a path back towards the passageway through which we made our way onto the stage. We sat on the gleaming floor, staring out into the vast, echoing chasm where a fleet of theatre and technical staff was already making serious inroads into the tidying-up operation. Glittery streamers, flags and burst balloons were bundled into black bags; cables disconnected and rolled onto massive coils; scaffolding unscrewed and dismantled. So much effort and care had gone into putting everything together; it would all be torn down in a matter of hours.

Chaz was grinning like a kid who’d been given Hamleys for his birthday. ‘What’s up with you?’ I said.

’Can I tell him?’ he asked Louise. She looked doubtful, but smiled and decided to let him have his moment. I think, beneath that tough Aussie veneer, lived a softie who wanted to hear how it sounded. Chaz patted her tummy. ‘We’re with baby!’

’Fuck!’ I yelled, ‘we’re not!’

’We fucking are! With. Baby!’

Chaz cuddled the giggling Louise and, Lord knows I’m not a physical or demonstrative man, but I crawled over and embraced them both, tipping the three of us over. ‘I am…so fucking thrilled for you two,’ I said. ‘Now that...that is the best news I’ve heard this year. You finally cracked the code!’

And I honestly couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment. ‘No more of this for you, Bush Girl,’ I said, playfully removing the wine glass from her hand, though I noticed she hadn’t drunk any.

We talked for a while longer until Chaz and I had drained our glasses. He jumped up, the monkey finally off his back, and headed back into the melée for refills. Louise, feeling awkward, decided to follow him on the flimsy premise that she’d changed her mind about having an orange juice and now wanted a Coke. I leaned onto my elbows to watch her go. Through the passageway, I could see the party still going at full blast. And there, holding court at the centre of a group of famous faces, household names and global stars, stood a dazzlingly beautiful woman. She was thrilled to be in their company, as were they were to be in hers, peas in a pod. I sighed. Tomorrow night, we’d be at home in our pleasant Chiswick semi wondering what to have for dinner. And on Monday, I’d ferry the kids to the school bus stop in the piss, while Lisa would slog her way into town on the tube. And then...and then I’d probably spend the day sitting in my study wondering what to do with the rest of my life. Probably. Was all of that enough for her? Or me?

At the back of the stalls, a door opened, sending a dim shaft of light a couple of yards into the centre aisle. In the doorway, I could just make out the silhouettes of two women. They talked for a moment, then one of them turned and left. The other started to make her way down the aisle. Her gait struck me as familiar. I got to my feet and walked to the front of the stage, peering under my hand, then took the four steps down onto the floor of the auditorium and walked up the aisle to meet her.

’You ok?’ I said.

’I’m fine,” said Elaine, ‘you?’

’Yeah.’

’Where’s the wife?’

’Oh, she’s back there,’ I said, pointing a thumb over my shoulder. ‘Likes a party, does Lisa.’

’I noticed.’

’Elaine.’

’Sorry. Not my business.’

I stroked her cheek, loving her - like a friend - for caring so much. ‘So? What you doing now?’

’Back to the hotel if I can rustle up a car. Not my cup of tea, this.’

’Mine neither, but I’m a bit lumbered.’

’Well you try and enjoy it. You’ve earned it. Call me when you get back, yeah?’ I nodded. ‘Whatever else happens, I promise I’m going to make sure Ben doesn’t waste all that talent.’

’Aw shucks,” I said, embarrassed. ‘Thanks.’

Elaine had something else to say but, as soon as she started to speak, silenced herself.

’What?’ I said.

’Nothing. It’s nothing. Look, I’d better go.’

Elaine kissed me on the cheek and left through the same door through which she’d entered. A cool, sweet swish of fresh air wafted over me as the door settled against the jamb. I turned and headed slowly back down the aisle. A few steps on and another swish caressed the back of my neck.

’Michael?’

What was it Elaine had come back to tell me?

’You were really great tonight,’ said Faye.

’Oh my...God,’ I spluttered.

’Well, I had to come, didn’t I? I was there when you were a nobody.’

I walked towards her, my legs suddenly boneless. ‘Faye,’ I said, my voice reedy, tremulous. ‘How?...’

’Elaine got me a ticket. Bit of a last minute thing in the end.’

’You were out there?’

Faye placed a soft hand on my shoulder. ‘Hey, you’re a star. I’m really proud of you.’

I cupped my hand over hers and smiled, my heart thudding like a mad thing. ‘You were going to leave without letting on you were here, weren’t you?’

’Yeah. But Elaine made me change my mind out there, so...she’s very persuasive.’

’You could say that.’

’Well, it would’ve been a bit churlish to come all this way and just disappear without saying hi. And goodbye.’

An ache settled heavily in my chest. I could hardly breathe. Faye smiled with joyless eyes. ‘Elaine tells me you’re getting back with your wife. Which is great.’

’And you and Louis?’

’Well, we’re…getting married, as you know.’

’Yes, I do. Equally great, by the way.’

Lisa slumped into an aisle seat. ‘No it isn’t.’

’It isn’t?’

’I can’t marry Louis, can I?’

I shrugged, still, inexplicably, unable to give her the right answer. I sat in the seat in front of her and swivelled to stare into her beautiful, soulful, doleful eyes. ‘Have you got somewhere to stay tonight?’ I said.

’I’m going to catch the next train back tonight. No big deal.’

’I’ve got somewhere to stay.’

’Lucky you.’

’So now you have. It’s too late to go back now.’

’Can’t do that.’

’Lisa’s staying somewhere else. And, look...we’re not definitely getting back together. We’ve just, you know, talked about it.’

’Ok.’

’And…’ My next words spilled out, the most natural and heartfelt I’d ever uttered, the absolute truth. ‘I know we can’t.’

’Why?’

‘’Cos I don’t want to.’

’What do you want?’

’Knowing what you don’t want is always easier, isn’t it?’

Faye nodded. We were in more or less the same boat. ‘So…when are you going to tell her?’

I hadn’t yet considered the mechanics, but the certainty that ending it was absolutely right, that it was what I wanted, buoyed me. ‘Soon…tomorrow. You?’

’Oh sod it. I’ve already told him, haven’t I? Before I came out here.’

I puffed a shaft of air from my cheeks. ‘Wow. How did he take it?’

’Louis? How do you think? Stoically. British-ly…is that a word?’

’No. Don’t know.’

’He shook my hand…shook my hand!’ Faye snorted. ‘You believe that? Wished me all the very best.’

We laughed and Faye stroked my arm draped over the seat back. ’Surprised he didn’t send you a memo. Dear Madam, an honour knowing you, yours faithfully...

Faye’s smile crumpled and sadness filled her limpid eyes. We sat there, in silence, looking at each other, hoping the right words would come. ‘So, anyway, suppose I’d better go…’ she said at last.

Words, but not the right ones. My throat started filling as I blinked back the tears. ‘Thing is,’ I said, my voice thick with emotion, ‘I could never go back to Lisa. So much shit has happened that...’ I gathered myself. Say it. ‘Actually, that’s not why.’

A syrupy tear serpentined slowly down Faye’s cheek.

’I do know what I want,’ I said, ‘That’s the thing. I’ve known for a while. I’ve just been a bit too stupid to admit it to myself. I mean, there aren’t many times in your life when you know what you…’

’Shut up, Mike, just shut up,’ said Faye, half-crying, half-laughing. I stood up, stepped into the aisle and knelt down beside her. ‘Ok. So let me summarise. See, I could never go back to Lisa because…well because…’

Faye gulped and stroked my face, prompting the right words this time. I smiled and squeezed her hand.

’Because of you.’


c. Simon Lipson

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